helen.jpgphoto by Skyla
It took me a million miles to get here and half the time I was doing it in high heels.
When I started working here at the Potluck Café people yelled at me. I was too old and slow and some of the residents were angry that I was there and not the girl before. Then one day I came in and thought, Oh there’s flowers here, I’m going to wear them. I asked Johnny my boss if I could wear flowers in my ears, he said sure so I started wearing them to cut the ice. I wore them for every person. They’d say, I like your flowers. I’d say I’m wearing them for you. One guy swore at me one day and I says Look, can’t you see I’m wearing flowers, they’re for you, now don’t swear at me any more. To this day I don’t think he ever has.
I don’t like the c-word or the b-word. Some guys will call you that and I said Oh don’t call me that, I says, I’ve been through hell already and I was called that so you’ve got nothing left for me. Call me honey.
Now people here call me mom because they need someone to be affectionate with and it lets them know I’m like home—like I should be baking bread every day and pumpkin pies on Sunday. We feed the residents upstairs from the Portland Hotel. They can come down and have a meal every day. We also have the café open to the public.
I grew up in Cranbrook and Kimberley and in Burnaby. I had dyslexia. I have dyslexia, I say I have it but you learn to live with it. I couldn’t write until I was thirteen and I couldn’t read until I was forty. Everyone always says if you write you can read but that’s not true.
Pardon me for swearing but I came from a shitty life. Half of my life was shit. My father and mother hated me. The only two people that love me in my life are my boys, my two sons, but they have to love me because they’re my kids.
My mother told me to my face when I was old that she hated me and that I never had value to her. She said this in front of my youngest son. It upset him so bad that he said, Well if she doesn’t like you I’m half of you, what does she think of the half that’s you in me? It took me fifty years to finally understand that she hated me because your mind says Don’t think that way, sure your parents love you, they have to love you, you’re their child. She should’ve told me she hated me years before, because I think I would be a different person. I wouldn’t be a stick in the mud, being criticized all the time.
My father missed the best of me. He missed not knowing me as a person. He saw me as some crappy piece of lump on the floor that knew nothing.
School was a nightmare. I went to elementary school in Cranbrook. I’m going to say my piece because I’m sixty now. The teachers would beat me up. I got beat up by the teachers so many times for not knowing one and one or three and three or the like. One teacher said I’ll show you stars and she punched me in the head. I had a headache for five days but she said If you tell your mom I’ll do it again. I always remembered that. So you never told that you were beaten up at school by a teacher, but teachers were always beating me up and saying I was stupid.
The only thing I could do was play baseball. I was a hero because we had a dress code and we had to wear skirts, and one day I slid into second base and I think the second-base umpire saw my panties and I thought No more—I was going to hit a home run from then on because I didn’t want anybody to see my panties. I always made a home run, I swear. If the bases were loaded and I was up they were always happy ’cause I’d bring everybody in.
I learned to write when I was thirteen. I had a teacher that was so beautiful. She played Chopin on the record player all the time in her class. When the record ran out the person closest flipped to the other side and then you went on with your work. What I remember is how she went up to the blackboard and wrote her name, Mrs. Powell. There was nothing in my brain that told me to write until I saw Mrs. Powell and her handwriting. I went My God, I can do that, and do you know what? I wrote like Mrs. Powell, right there just like that. The three of us were in that room, Chopin, Mrs. Powell and me.
At seventeen I wanted to run away to Paris to live with Coco Chanel. She was a designer I admired. I should’ve just ran off but my dad says No you can’t go, you’ve only got seven dollars in the bank. I says Yeah but that seven dollars is going to get me to Paris and I’m going to go knock on Coco Chanel’s door. I should’ve pursued that. I was selling clothes at that time in a clothing store, and if I’d talked to the right people they’d have gotten me to Paris. I found out years later I should’ve made every effort because Coco Chanel was an insomniac. I was an insomniac and we both liked fashion. We both had black hair and were short and skinny. We looked alike. I wore big glasses so what the heck? We could’ve been up all night drawing and sleeping during the day. The things you pass up. That’s one of my regrets, not trying harder to connect with Coco Chanel. But I always bought her perfume.
When I came to Vancouver in 1972 I worked at the fisheries when it was the hopping place to be. I rented an apartment over on Triumph. Then I got married but I’ve always been in the Eastside. So I’ve been here since 1972, which was a good year for everything, particularly the arts. There was a man named David Y.H. Lui and he brought everybody into town. Harry Belafonte I saw twice because I just loved him, and I saw Liberace in one of his last performances in Canada. I’ve seen Maria Callas. For ten years I seized on everything I could with the arts. Back then they were affordable—for a hundred dollars I could buy a new gown, shoes, purse, my ticket and have a meal afterwards. I can’t afford to go now because you pretty well need a suitable outfit to go. It’s like Don’t ask me to go out because I don’t have the clothes.
In ’72 you didn’t stay downtown after the stores closed because of the people on the streets who at the time were called winos. Thursday and Friday you could shop until nine o’clock but you pretty well were out of the neighbourhood and home on the nine o’clock bus. The streets changed when Woodward’s closed up and things got bad when the drug use came. In 1984 my son went to pick up a dandelion one day and I says Wait, I think I see a needle and there was a needle beside the dandelion he wanted me to have.
I learned to read when I was forty at my son’s daycare. Like I said, most people think that if you can write you can read but that’s not true. I faked it for all those years. I’d hear stories on the news and I’d say Did you read about this in the paper? Or I’d have somebody read it to me, someone who I could trust not to tell people that I couldn’t read. I was at the daycare and a little girl hurt herself and the daycare teacher asked me to watch the kids for an hour while they went to the hospital. I said sure. So I’ve got these seven little kids and I said What do you want to do? I was hoping in my head they wanted to play playdough but they wanted me to read to them. I didn’t want to tell them I couldn’t read so I took my time. I said okay, I need a good comfy chair. Then two kids sit here on my lap, two kids here and now I’ve got to make six kids fit. One leaned over and then one says Where am I going to sit? I says Well sit on my head and put your feet on my shoulders. So he gets up there and I’m helping him and he sits on the top of my head. I asked him if he was comfy because I’ve never had anybody sit on my head before. Then I opened the book, which was The Cat in the Hat, and just like that I was able to read. I said I can read and they says Yeah I know. I learned how to read by all these kids sitting around me and one on my head.
It was a fantastic read. I went home and I cried my eyes out because I could read. I bought a newspaper that very day and I’ve read one every day since.
Learning to read was a new life for me. I had a really bad marriage. My husband would say She was adorable. She was wonderful. She cooked. She cleaned. She did everything for us. I loved her very much and I don’t know why we got a divorce. He was like a bully. I was not happy for a long time. I’ll tell you this. My divorce arrived in the post. It was printed on such beautiful paper and do you know what I did? I proceeded to tear it to bits. I said to myself Oh let’s have a marriage burning. Then I realized I didn’t read the date so I didn’t know what day I got divorced. I started to put it back together but there were seven pages and I said Oh forget it. I still don’t know the day I got divorced but I was very happy.
A while later somebody said that they wanted to take me out. I said No, I’m too fat and he says You made yourself fat but your eyes are beautiful, I’ve always loved your eyes. I says Too bad, I can’t go out with you because I’m fat. You see, I’m half of my former self as I am sitting here today. I was 316 pounds. I ate everything because I didn’t want a man to see me but I didn’t count on my eyes—somebody loving me for my eyes. That’s almost like loving you for your heart. But I can’t take that leap of faith.
I struggled with my weight so I decided to eat sensibly. I dropped to 287 pounds and I stayed there for about ten years. Then I went to UBC and I met men there that really thought I had a brain. I enrolled in the Humanities 101 program and they liked my ideas and I liked theirs.
During the week of graduation we were in the gym and my friend says to me I can’t get this scale to work and I says I can get it to work because my weight hasn’t changed in ten years. It’s 287. So I locked the steel on 287 and it went click down like that. It didn’t balance so I says Well let’s move it this way because I thought I’d gained weight, so when it still didn’t move I said I’ve got to go this way. It kept sliding across. I lost eighty- seven pounds during the six months that I went to school. I had to eat right because they give you a meal ticket and God forbid you don’t want to waste a meal ticket. So I would eat at a regular time and then I’d have to walk to class.
Going to Humanities 101 meant a lot to me. I told my sons I have to go there and what I do there will help me prosper and they said Go Mom, go. So I went two nights a week for a year. I made people cry in my graduation speech because I always say it took me a million miles to get here and half the time I was doing it in high heels marching backwards through fear and with two babies on my hips.
The first time I was on campus getting my meal I ordered a salmon and spinach wrap. I put my order in, gave them my meal ticket, went to sit outside and the next thing I hear is Helen. This was on the UBC campus. I hear my name on the campus and I think My God, I’m supposed to be here.
I put that in my speech and all these people are crying and I’m crying. Afterwards one professor comes up to me and says, Humanities 101 is for people like you—you should’ve had a chance the first time and we can only give you a little bit but we’re here for you. Then I cried because it was like having my dream fulfilled at things I could do while not worrying about someone calling me stupid.
When I was young I would hear about how I was stupid and how I was going to hell and then I’d go Sure I’m going to hell, my first name starts with Hel and then if you take my last name and make the “i” an “e” you get Hel Hell.
So one day after my divorce I’m sitting and thinking Oh my God what’s going to happen if I go to hell because nobody loves me? So I made a wish. I said Please let me be somewhere where a hundred people will say I love you. And it was here.
Every day somebody says I love you or people on the street blow me kisses or touch their heart, you know, from across the street and these are signs that mean I love you. I don’t know what I did to my parents for them to hate me but let me tell you this: being here, around people that love me is everything. I’m probably going to die alone but I know one hundred men and women love me for me. I tell you this is the place I got my wish.
Helen Hill’s story is part of a collection of photographs and oral histories of Downtown Eastside residents that will appear in Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, by Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome, published by Arsenal Pulp Press and the Pivot Legal Society in April 2008. The photographer, Skyla, was a participant in the same project.