In my line of work, it’s not often that you can arrest somebody on multiple occasions and end up being friends with them. But such was the case with Alvin. Many of us officers, especially those who’ve worked in Central Division and the downtown area, have become like an extended family to Alvin over the years.
I have yet to meet a tougher and hardier individual than Alvin. The many years of alcohol abuse and hard street living had definitely taken a toll on him, but block in and block out I would always find him somewhere in the downtown area. In recent years, the bank lobbies became his place to sleep and hang out. I spent many a time stopping in to chat with him. He was usually reading the newspaper, playing solitaire, or just killin’ time.
Other times while walking the beat downtown, I would see him sleeping in a bank and tap on the glass just to make sure he was all right. It usually took a few taps, but he’d pop his head up, see it was me, let out a slight chuckle and a wink, and go back to sleep. Alvin was an interesting and unique person to say the least!
I remember the first time that I met Alvin. It was in the winter of 2009 and I was a newly minted police officer. Dennis, my FTO (field training officer) at the time, and I were dispatched to a call of an older man with long hair and a beard that was yelling at people in the area of 24th and Idylwyld Drive.
Dennis, who later became my central beat partner, figured it would be Alvin, and having never met him before I was excited to finally meet the legendary, wild, old fighter that all the cops talked about. As we drove up to the old train station, we saw Alvin sitting on a bench. We stopped and exited our car, and the minute he saw us he started to scream and yell at Dennis, “I hate that guy, I hate you”. He yelled and pointed his finger at Dennis and motioned for me to “get him out of here”. So, Dennis stopped in his tracks, turned right back around, got into the car and drove away. I walked up to Alvin and asked what all the fuss was about. His response was to let out a guttural growl, and told me again that he “hates that guy” and that he (Alvin) “is a fighter.”
I said, “That’s ok, but you don’t hate me, I’ve never met you before.” He looked wildly at me with his long scraggly beard and walrus teeth, and in attempts to calm him down, I asked if he was any relation to Chief Gabriel Cote. He made a fist and began to pound his chest like an angry, yet proud, gorilla and yelled, “That is my family! How do you know about him?”
Having spent some time in the east central part of Saskatchewan, I was familiar with the Saulteaux people and the Cote First Nation just north of Kamsack, SK, where Alvin hails from. Alvin’s ancestor, Chief Gabriel Cote, was a prominent Saulteaux Chief who was a noted hunter and trader that signed Treaty Four in 1874.
I helped Alvin up and walked him down the stairs to Dennis who had pulled up in our car after circling the block. Alvin was pretty drunk that day and he kept flexing his biceps and repeatedly telling me that he was a fighter. I told him that I had heard he was a lover, not a fighter. He started to laugh and said, “Well, I’m that to you now.”
As we drove him back to the station, he started tapping on the silent patrolman (the divider between the front and rear seats) in the back of the car and held up a $5 bill. He said he was hungry and he wanted some hamburgers. We parked in the alley down 2nd Avenue and I ran into the McDonald’s and got him two double cheeseburgers which he happily ate on the rest of the way into detention.
Funny enough, Alvin was brought in a few days later and Dennis just happened to be in detention when Alvin started to yell at him again. This time he called him a “fat guy.” We never could figure out why Alvin had such a dislike of Dennis.
This was my first of many, many encounters with Alvin, but when I started to walk the Central beat a few years later I ended up spending quite a bit of time with him.
In later years, most of our chats revolved around the same topics. He would always tell me in the early summer months when it was getting too hot, that he was “heading up north” as he didn’t like the heat. He told me that he would travel to the Yukon or the Northwest Territories and work in a mine to get out of the heat.
I’d always ask when he was leaving and he always replied, “Friday.” But when the next week rolled around I would still find him walking around downtown and he’d repeat the same story of his mining adventure.
There were times, I wouldn’t see Alvin for weeks on end and then he would reappear. When I asked where he had been, he would tell me that he was in either in Toronto, Vancouver or L.A. He would always say that he didn’t like it there and that’s why he always came back home.
I remember him telling me one time that he just returned from LA and he liked it there because there was “lots of fighting, and I like fighting.” On another occasion, he told me he had just gotten back from Vancouver. When I asked him if he liked it there, he told me it was “too big”.
I told him that the Vancouver Police seem like a pretty good bunch of guys, but he told me that he didn’t like them. It was at this time that I asked him if he liked the Saskatoon Police. To my bewilderment, he said that he didn’t like those guys either. Shocked, I responded by saying, “What about me?” He laughed and replied, “Well, if I didn’t like you, I wouldn’t be talking to you, would I?”
To this day I am not sure where Alvin went during those times of absence. I knew he was in Corrections part of the time, but where he went the other times is but a mystery to me. Maybe he did actually venture to those cities, who knows?
Alvin talked little about his childhood, merely that he had many brothers and sisters, and that his dad worked in a bush camp up by Hudson Bay, SK. There were times we would chat and he didn’t have much to say. But on many other occasions, I had a hard time getting away. Every time I would get up to leave, he would ask me some other question. I knew he really didn’t care to hear the answer, he just didn’t want the conversation to end, or want me to go.
Many other officers kept an eye on Alvin over the years and would usually end up giving him parts of their lunch, cigarettes, toques or mittens (which he would always lose), and usually whatever spare pocket change we had. I knew Alvin was continually counting his money as he would ask for some random denomination such as 63 cents. Funny enough, one day he asked my former partner Cst. Robbie Taylor for 63 cents and when Robbie reached in his pocket, he had exactly that amount and graciously gave it to Alvin.
Alvin was famous for losing his glasses. Quite often we would see him in the downtown area with no glasses on and he would usually tell me that he got into a fight. I knew better, knowing that he likely either just lost them or that they broke when he took a fall. I usually told him to come to the station and I would see if I could find him a new pair.
There are boxes of donated glasses at the station and whenever Alvin ‘lost’ his, I would go grab a few pairs, a newspaper and then do a reading test with him till he could find a pair that worked. If possible, I would set him up with an old pair of sunglasses as well. He was always pretty excited about those.
I found out today that Alvin passed away a few days ago and, I admit, I feel an emptiness. It will be different as I walk my downtown beat knowing that he will not be in one of the banks and I won’t have to make a special trip to go check on him. As an officer, you encounter many individuals, but you remember certain people because they are special, and Alvin was one such special person. Alvin was not a rich or well accomplished man. He drank daily and chose to make the street his home, but he was tough, he was a fighter, and he was a survivor.
It brings a tear to my eye to think of the bad things that happened to Alvin in his past to push him to lead the life that he led, but in that, I do hope that he will find peace wherever he now may be.
Farewell my friend, you will be missed by many.
For a more in-depth look at Alvin, check out The StarPhoenix’s article, The Trouble with Alvin. Written by Charles Hamilton and David Hutton, this story has been nominated under the Long Features category for a 2013 National Newspaper Award.