“I am Pauly from Whalley and this is my life. Welcome to my nightmare.”
Paul Douglas is just shy of his 64th birthday, has a long, grey beard and has lived in the streets of Surrey’s skid row for a couple of years.
He usually sits on a metal bench next to a busy corner from where he can greet his friends coming from here and there.
“I am quite happy,” he says. “This is the Surrey, and this is the safest spot I feel on the whole planet; right here, this chair, the safest place in the whole planet! And this is a big planet, man.”
Paul is from Ontario and has been an alcoholic for decades.
“I had my wife, my family, the whole bullshit going on. I used to be the very sharpest knife in the drawer.”
He worked for Costco and says he felt like God in that shop. But the whole thing started to fall apart with his marriage on top of the expensive rent and excessive bills.
“I used to make $60,000 dollars a year. Now, I am in the streets drinking a six-dollar bottle of Sherry,” he says, giggling.
“I am tired of picking cigarette butts out here and search around for beer cans so I can get loaded for my alcohol problem.
“I am a waste of ink. I get up every morning to ride the SkyTrain for freaking two hours just to stay warm. I’ve never been like this before in my life.”
Paul’s parents weren’t alcoholics and he still has his mom, in Toronto, with two siblings: one is a graphic artist and the other one works for a news organization.
He says he does not have a drug problem. “I like a little bit sometimes, if I get triggered by alcohol.”
Paul used everything but heroin. He and some gangsters once burglarized an animal hospital in Toronto for phencyclidine, which is a powerful animal sedative. “This dope was the best dope I’ve ever did in my life.”
Pauly from Whalley shares his metal bench with Johnny O.
Johnny says his friend Paul is a beautiful person. “He just gave me gloves.”
Both met years ago over a beer. “I had a six-pack and he said: ‘I am Pauly from Whalley!’ That’s how we’ve met and we’ve been friends ever since.”
Johnny is 64 years old and worked in mining throughout Canada for 52 years.
He still has family in Saskatchewan, where he was born and used to farm. “My mother is 97 and her name is Lucy. She is my ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ I am getting a gut feeling from her right now. She is a beauty and I love her so much.”
Johnny says he wants to go see the remaining part of his family for Christmas, but he can’t afford it.
He came to Richmond in 1983 and owned a successful roofing company, but he started doing and selling cocaine. “Now I just mingle around. I don’t sell it, but I still do it a little bit. But my personality is more alcohol.”
He used to get a disability benefit due to back problems that left him in the hospital many times. Last year, he was in a wheelchair but decided to walk off. Now, he walks 10 miles a day and is feeling much better.
He makes his living by collecting cans and, last month, started to get his old age pension. “I am looking for a place to live; I want a place to live. That’s all.”
Both often rely on community centres like Surrey Urban Mission for shelter, food and warmth. Johnny’s definition of happiness is hanging out with Paul, staying warm and watching a nice hockey game.
Pauly from Whalley’s favorite bench starts to get busy when a few more of his friends gather.
They are Chrissy “Blunt,” Mr. “Puddles” and Chris “Nuffie.”
“We are all known by our nicknames. Everyone watches everyone’s backs,” says Chrissy.
Rusty, or Mr. “Puddles,” is her husband and has the unusual habit of jumping in puddles. “If he’s got good boots on he’ll jump in every freaking puddle he can find.”
Chrissy is the street name for Christine. She was born in Vancouver, but moved to Surrey when was 10.
Christine says she knows everyone in the area and they all know her. “When I walk in the shelter on the strip [alley where all drug deals go on], I feel like Norm on Cheers [TV show].”
She claims she doesn’t do drugs, but smokes pot once in a while.
“I stay here every day. These are my best friends and I love them to death. When you love somebody so much you can’t be apart from them.
“To go there to be all by yourself and not having all your dearest friends near you is scary. When you are alone in a place you don’t want to be sometimes. My safe haven is having my friends and my family, and they are all here.”
They all also share a bottle of sherry. “It is very cheap and gets you very drunk. We are all alcoholics,” Chrissy says. But Chris “Nuffie” replies saying he isn’t. According to him, alcoholics go to meeting and he doesn’t go to meetings.
Johnny says, “Look at the moon!” It was unusually large, in clear skies, and the wind is freezing.
His hopes rely on his faith. “Life is my God, my guide in the sky that looks after me everyday. He will look after me.”