by Nic Olson
A slightly shorter piece on Darren Sanguais can be found at the Carmichael Outreach blog.
“I’m no fan of Justin Bieber, but–uh, haha!” If there is anyone I know that could be described as jazzy, it would be Darren Sanguais.
Darren is a shortish man of forty-eight years, but looking at him you would think he may be ten years younger than that. This is likely due to his laugh, his work ethic, and his hair. His hair is jet black and always well-groomed—short and styled on top with a long strip that rolls down his back—usually loose, occasionally in a braid. His sharp hairstyle is undoubtedly inspired from his days studying at Richard’s Beauty College in Regina, where he learned dyeing, cutting, and all other men’s and women’s esthetics. When it isn’t too cold, Darren will wear his hand-beaded leather jacket with tassels. When the temperature dips, he wears his fur coat and fur hat. Darren is a sharp-dressed man.
Two months ago, Darren was living in the back of a truck. From January to September he curled up in what he called ‘Hotel Darren’, the cab of an old pickup, heated only by two tea-light candles, with only a few old blankets and the clothes on his body. The first time I met Darren was one of my first days at Carmichael, and was one of his first days out of Detox. He and I were commissioned to clean out the Carmichael Community Garden. It was late September and frost had already set in, but the red fruits were covered up by the bowed stalks and the fallen leaves, thus untouched by the cold. We took a few boxes of tomatoes back to the office, pulled several bundles of hand-painted garden signs and closed up the garden for the year, which Darren had helped tend throughout the growing season. From the first time we talked, walking down the alley from the garden next to Souls Harbour on Halifax to Carmichael on Osler, he told me that the hardest part about changing, about sobering up, was the people around trying to bring you down. Friends, family, acquaintances drinking everything, everywhere. Giving him shit for thinking he is better than them. Wanting to fight if he doesn’t join in with their drinking. And even two months down the road while we sat down for a burger and fries he said:
“I’m like a kettle, man. I just throw it in the back, throw it in the back, but it’s gonna boil sometime. It hurts, man. The people, talking shit. It’s hard.”
“But in the back of my mind I keep thinking, I’m a survivor, man. I’m a survivor.”
When he says things like this, I cannot offer any advice—he is twice my age. He has seen more than I ever will. He is tougher than I will ever know how to be. When he tells me about people giving him shit, I can only tell him what I know for certain: that I am always around to hang out, and that even if the doors are closed for the day, there is always someone to talk to from Carmichael. And that Carmichael always has work to keep him busy. He is twice my age but has seen far more than twice the things I have, and is twice as wise as I expect to be at forty-eight. I asked him if it was ok if I wrote a bit about him for the Carmichael site. He often uses the word ‘jazzy,’ and he might’ve in this case.
“Really? For sure, for sure, that’s cool. I’m not ashamed of where I come from. I’m not. I want people to know where I come from. I’ve got lots of stories.” And he told me a few thereafter.
Darren was born in Grenfell, Saskatchewan. Most of his family was born on the reserve in Sakimay First Nation, but being maybe his mother’s eighth child they went to town for his birth. One winter night on the reserve as a child, his step-father kicked him out of the house for being a nuisance. He wandered outside during a blizzard and nearly froze to death until a pair of dogs found him, he told me. A few of his fingers still show the damage from the relentless bite of a Saskatchewan winter.
He has lived in and around Regina most of his life, spent five years in Edmonton, part of that time incarcerated. He figures he has had over one-hundred convictions on his record, one of attempted murder—he was jumped one night when he was drunk, fought back, stabbed a guy, all while he was blacked out. This got him three and a half years in federal prison—the last sentence of a fifteen-year stretch where he wasn’t out of jail for more than three months at a time. If they picked him up for anything now, he’d have no chance because of his previous record, he says.
After listening to a half-dozen of his stories, I felt like I needed to create a balance and tell him something of myself. So I told him of my recent legal battles, childish and non-serious, but a story nonetheless.
“That’s stupid. Don’t they have bigger fish to fry? I mean, come on. They’ve got bigger fish to fry here, and they’re frying me, haha.”
Instead of walking the streets or hanging out at home alone, Darren comes to Carmichael. He makes sandwiches. He shovels the seemingly endless Carmichael parking lot. We bond over the breaking down of cardboard boxes. (Whenever I go out back to start on cardboard, he joins in without hesitation. I always make sure to say “thanks,” and he says, “Shit yeah, man.”) He can often be found at the back food-window, taking orders for burgers and fries when we are serving macaroni, singing choruses of old rock ballads. And he is almost always laughing. He now has casual employment with a local construction company, and when he is not there, he is at Carmichael. He has an apartment of his own, a bank account for the first time in a decade. He gets to see his grandkids. He has a support group of peers and staff at Carmichael.
Darren is the reason that Carmichael exists—friendship and accountability, food security and assistance with daily necessities, housing help and employment opportunities—an open door with available programs and services to help, no matter a person’s living arrangements, family situations, financial circumstances, health issues, or addiction battles. Darren is also why Carmichael is a joy to go to on a daily basis. His commitment and determination is inspiring. His joy of life is contagious. The reason that Darren seems like the fountain of youth, is because his heart is young. And because he is a self-proclaimed jazzy man.