SideWalk Ghosts / Interview 20: “Canadians are a lot like Americans”

“How did you get out,” I ask.

“Simply,” he says, “with a gun and not a passport.”

20 days in, I’m on a high. There is a reason greater than myself propelling me through this self-challenge. It’s taking hold of me.

I leave my house at 6:30pm, carrying the usual 30 pounds of gear: lenses, flash, iPad and all the accessories needed to be completely mobile. The bag is heavy and gets heavier with extended walks, but after tonight’s experience, it will forever be lighter than air.

My path begins on Sherman Way once again. At first I feel it is a cop out; questioning, “will this get boring with too much time in my area?” Not 5 minutes away, encouragement presents itself.  I pass a very interesting Pilipino chap. Beautiful tats on arms and body. We hit it off.

Quickly I find out he is a tattoo artist… explains the amazing artwork on his body. All looks good to go, he is the man for tonight.

Thinking I’ve found a golden interview, disappointment strikes hard when my new friend is literally swept off by his impatient ride. Total down turn, I am right in the middle of prepping the camera and off he goes.

Best thing to do is just take the hit and move on. No harm done. There is a philosophy that moves me forward tonight, “if it is meant to be, it will be.”

You’ll see how real this perspective becomes in tonight’s entry.

I pack my gear, lift the 30 pounds onto my back and it’s happy trails again. 30 minutes pass and the cyber cafe strikes my attention. I even pass it, but a bit of self-nagging reverses my stride, challenging me to re-examine the joint.

I stroll through the cafe. The second I enter a feeling of isolation sets in. All around were people intensely focused on displays of vibrant color, action and sound (I have to assume sound, for everyone is wearing headsets). The whole vibe turns me off, and no one can peel they’re eyes off the screens. I move on.

With a rapid exit I continue my journey. 45 minutes down, Canoga High School to the right of me, I remember a good friend of mine is coaching his son’s football team there.

Feels like a good place to prospect. Photograph a parent or something? 10 more minute and I’m standing on the field next to my good friend coach Troy.

I rest my shoulder of my camera load and scan the field for faces of interest. No, not the dude with the goofy hat. Pass on the high-shorted cheer coach. No way to the businessman buried in the cell phone. Wow! I thought this place would be full of people.

My decision; “settle in, don’t wander and let whoever you will be meeting come into focus.” 20 minutes… gone, nothing; 30 minutes… still dry waters, and hope not gone, I keep lookout.

40 yards down field I see John, 79 years of Croatian wisdom.

He comes right out of the gates telling me he is a Pancreatic Cancer survivor. My knees buckle. This is now very personal, the reason I’m supposed to be hear with John, you see, is my father died in just 6 weeks after being diagnosed with the disease. And every since then, I view the sickness as hopeless.

That’s a whole topic in itself. One that I am still dealing with in my lack of respect for many of the health care options available to our senior citizens: Another blog, another story.

John heals part of me, the faith that others can survive Pancreatic Cancer. And, due to family history, I’m in the high percentile at risk.

John, Croatian name, Ivica Vukovic, credits a miraculous healing to a special tea, not to modern medicine ( After a very aggressive 6½-hour procedure to remove the affected tissue around his Pancreas, the doctors gave him 2 months max. He lifts his shirt to show me his 12inch scar to prove it.

All options off the table, except one, this special tea, known for its healing properties is recommended by his son. Ignoring the doctor’s predictions, John promptly began drinking it. 13 years later, he is still here to watch his grandson practice football.

This heavy accented glowing human being has pulled at my heartstrings. His positive energy is duly noted by the line of passer by’s who harass him and share friendly gestures while we are taking photos. “Hey John, have him photograph me, I’m much more handsome,” “So now your famous?”  “Looking good John!” Seems everyone on the field knows him.

We talk of his escape from Croatia during the Yugoslavian occupation. “What a blemish in human history.” He does not even break a sweat, and I know he has seen things too dark for many to discuss. John just keeps smiling and gives me advise on making my wife happy.

I can’t let go of wanting to know more about his exit of Croatia. “How did you get out,” I ask. “Simply,” he says, “with a gun and not a passport.” I pause to reflect on that one.

He describes his path: Trains to a few stops within the boarders of Austria and Germany, then footpaths over the boarders (what he doesn’t share is how heavily they are patrolled). Credit to our German friends; they accepted John, his wife and 6-year-old son into the country.

Once in Germany, he is screened for one year and finally gets his papers to exit the country. It takes that much time to confirm that he has no criminal background or other unsavory past. I’m sure he’s lost his gun by this time.

With papers in hand, he moves his family to Toronto Canada, 13 years later to California. Here’s his claim, “best place on earth to live, anywhere between Santa Barbara and San Diego, I’m a California Boy!”

He returns to his suggestions for good husbandry. Catches me by surprise when he shares little bedroom council. Hey, he has been successfully married for 58 years, survived a terrible war, and is still in love with his sweetheart. Got to listen to everything he has to say. John, much appreciated.

In closing, I ask him our two standing questions.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years (he look great, he’ll be here)?

The tone shifts to humble concern for his grandson, “I fear we are in store for another World War.” Very dark, I know. But it would be unfair of me not to share his concern.

What words would you like to share with those who read this blog?

He has quite a few, I’ll list them.
• He Quotes Mark [12:31] – “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
• “Everybody can run, only one can be first, but the last across the finish really is the one who wins the greatest prize.”
• “Canadians are a lot like Americans”
• “Pray often for yourself, your family and your country.”
• “I love Sports.” He shares a couple things on this topic (Sub-listed below).
• “Go to events to have fun, not to go crazy for your team to win.”
• “Enjoy the people and the excitement of the big stadiums and places.”
• “My Favorite Teams: Football – Manchester, Hockey – Philadelphia Fliers, American Football – New England Patriots.”

Detective Update:
Tonight I had dinner at Lemon Grass. Looks like Otto may be the delivery driver. I’ll keep you posted. Hey it’s LA, everyone is an actor?! (365 Day 11 / I’ll Take the Lab – Otto Style).