I am deeply saddened to learn that Bob Bagnell died during an incident with Police at the Continental Hotel on June 23rd, 2004.
I met Bob a number of years ago at my corner 7-11 store, here at Broadway and Nanaimo in East Vancouver. When I saw Bob, I decided to begin talking to him and give him a little cash if he asked for it. It's quite common (maybe almost human nature?) for people to ignore beggars or street people, at least in my experience. Although he was usually stoned back in the beginning, I saw that he had a laid back personality and a sense of humour.
When I first met Bob, he was already sick with AIDS and was still a regular drug user. What stood out to me was that he wasn't just bumming change from people, but would usually be sitting and drawing or painting pictures with a variety of pens and inks. A number of times we would talk about the places where he would sell them (or try to). He was heavily into tattoo art. I browsed through and bought some of his dark, densely-coloured images of dragons and other creatures.
Bob told me that he had been a heroin addict since he was like, 14 years old. He said he was known as "Riff Raff", and that he had been in San Quentin at one time. I don't know how much of what he told me is true, but it looked obvious to me that the man had one hell of a hard life as a drug addict, and must have spent a lot of time either on the street or in various low-rent housing.
Over the next year or two, my wife and I ran into Bob in our neighbourhood, and usually at our little 7-11. It seemed like each time I saw Bob, he slowly became a little healthier in some ways, while continuing to struggle in other ways. By his own account, he had AIDS and was addicted to Heroin when I first met him. Slowly, he got off Heroin and onto Methadone.
Later, he told me he had developed cancer, and had managed to get off Methadone. I could really see a difference in his eyes and facial expressions: his eyes were clearer and brighter as he slowly regained his health. Sometimes when I visited with him, we just said "hi" and chatted a little. Another time, we ended up talking about Stompin' Tom Conners. Bob told me his family was from PEI, and that he like Stompin' Tom.
During my last couple of visits with him in front of the 7-11, Bob told me he had been visiting the Broadway Church and that the people there had been so welcoming and supportive of him in spite of his past, his health and his appearance. In fact, as we chatted, a man from the church walked past and greeted Bob cheerfully and warmly, like a friend. I was so happy for Bob.
The last time I saw Bob, it was very brief: he had large bandages on his shins and said he had some blot clots taken out of the veins in his legs, and he was afraid that he could suffer a stroke some time. He said "Hang onto those drawings, 'cause there gonna be worth something after I'm gone." I didn't buy anything that time, but gave him a buck or two and wished him to take care.
I didn't think Bob would live for very long, really. My impression was that once he was relatively clean and had met some of the people in the local church, he started to believe that each day was a blessing. He was also grateful to the people at the Dr. Peter Centre at St. Paul's Hospital, who were letting him paint some of his art on the walls. He looked like someone who was making connections with others, and was becoming happier.
I'm very sad to hear that Bob died, and quite stunned to hear that he was on a coke bender when it happened. An article in the Globe and Mail said that it was Bob's birthday when he died. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to live with addiction and health problems such as his, self-afflicted or otherwise. By what he told me, he had a difficult childhood and a shitty, drug addicted life. Sobriety and more self-worth came to him pretty late in his life.
I don't want the story of this person to be lost inside the whole "Taser" issue. I feel that the issues of drug addiction, healthcare and basic human compassion are even more important. I hope information about Bob's life and his death provides some inspiration and education to others with similar problems, or to those who care for them.
At some point in the future, I may post the drawings I bought from Bob on a special web page too. That's about all I know how to do to pay my belated respects to Bob Bagnell.
Other links related to this:
Vancouver Police apologize to Island woman
VPD Media Liaison Unit: "In-Custody Death", June 23, 2004
Man's death after Taser jolt fuels growing safety debate