At the age of 12, I met Hank at a soccer camp in Vernon, British Columbia. Hank was a tubby, poorly dressed, pre-teen soccer wannabe with a hillbilly dialect. Whether it was picking grass or making tasteless fart jokes, he had a serious interest in the mundane. Hank was a good kid, though. He had a big, stupid grin that stretched up to his low-hanging earlobes, a facial contortion that often revealed itself when he harmlessly booted the ball in the wrong direction.
Recently, I decided to give Hank a Google. It’s often the goofiest kids, who, after growing into their jangly limbs and shedding their childish impulses, go on to live successful, well-adjusted lives. But when I found Hank Jones (not his real name) on Twitter, my playful nostalgia turned to dark despair. My mom remembers Hank from those days, too, so I told her to check out his latest tweets.
“Oh, that is sad,” she wrote. “Is he still alive?”
Vernon is a charming, decent-enough place, with a functioning school system, a ferocious minor hockey team, and a population of more than 40,000 people. It has a casino, two movie theatres, and several chain grocery stores. Most importantly, Lake Okanagan, a world-class body of water, is a 10-minute shot from downtown. The Okanagan is prime for fishing, boating, and swimming, which means the bordering real estate is mostly scooped up by wealthy out-of-towners looking to diversify their portfolio with lake-side property. This creates, of course, a stark contrast between the residents of Vernon and the fat checkbooks that summer in expensive cabins on the lake.
I’m from Calgary, AB, which is about a six-hour drive from Vernon. Calgary has the reputation of a laid-back rural town, but in reality, it’s a bustling hub for oil companies. The Texas of Canada, some say. Back in ’05, before the latest recession, my father had a thriving marketing business, and my family had the financial means to drive a BMW X5 and purchase cabins on lakes. I would spend the summer with my mother at the cabin, tooling around on the beach, taking revved-up rides on the boat, and playing cards in the evening. That particular summer, I attended a two-week soccer camp.
The camp was at a nearby field, about a 15-minute drive from our cabin, just off Okanagan Landing Road, wedged between the town of Vernon and the northern tip of the lake. That’s where I met Hank, the first person I felt genuinely sorry for. He would bring a stained lunchbox for the day, whereas I had $20 to spend on lunch at a nearby grocery store. His outfit looked cobbled together from a second-hand store, while I had an all-black matching soccer uniform with the latest Nike cleats. Unlike me, he wouldn’t have noticed the difference, since he was blithely unaware of his socioeconomic reality, which I suppose was a good thing.
After that first day, I hopped into our X5, where my mom had snacks and Gatorade bottles waiting in the front seat. A few minutes before, Hank’s parents had wheeled out of the parking lot in a dirty, maroon pickup truck, with a shock of noxious smoke billowing out of the gaudy tailpipe. I told my mom about Hank, and about how sorry I felt. But instead of having empathy for Hank, I think I was merely feeling guilty about my privilege for the first time. I didn’t have friends like him back in Calgary, where the school teachers are young and attractive, and the mummies and daddies have memberships to expensive social clubs.
That night, back at the cabin, my mom and I chatted on our balcony that overlooks the lake, which is cocooned by the tall B.C. foliage. We had a CD player that echoed out into the darkness. Coldplay was in the afterglow of a few brilliant, breakout albums (Parachutes, XY, A Rush of Blood to the Head), and we would play them on repeat. Wafting the dull lemony scent of citronella candles, I drank root beer in the chair next to my mother, who preferred Gin & Tonic in those years. Through a break in the trees, I spotted a star and decided to name it ‘Hank.’ I think the tribute made me feel a bit better, as if I was somehow honoring my less-fortunate peer. Really, it was a hollow cop-out, an attempt to mitigate my guilt without actually doing anything for Hank – like offering to be his friend, for instance.
These days, when I hear Coldplay or see that shimmering gold sticker in the sky, which I’ve come to learn is the North Star, I’m reminded of those still nights on that patio, and, of course, Hank. So, what happened to him? In real life it’s unclear, but his slightly disturbing behavior on Twitter offers some insight. He’s Tweeted more than 5,000 times, but from 2016-2017, it’s just a string of depressive vitriol aimed at the outside world.
“Think ill just leave this world with no gravestone, no funeral and no acknowledgement. Ppl can just find out on their own”
“I don’t want friends and i don’t want ppl. Ill be happy when we all kill ourselves and ppls are gone. Fuck you world and fuck all ppl.”
“If youre reading this: fuck you”
His Tweets go unacknowledged, at least in the way of ‘likes’ and ‘retweets,’ though he has 111 followers. Clearly, he’s crying out for help. It’s understandable that people take to social media for a bit of a self-esteem boost, a few likes on a photo to claim some self-assurance. But it’s jarring to see someone post such desperate cries for attention, with absolutely no response from his network. I’m assuming that only compounds the sadness. After my mom scrolled through his account, she checked the Vernon obituaries and found nothing, thankfully.
On Facebook, he’s got a profile picture from March 25, 2016. He’s smiling that grand, signature smile, though his eyes are eerily looking away from the camera. His ears are still big, though his face is narrower than I remember. He’s slimmer now, too. It’s unclear whether this is his most recent Facebook account, especially since there hasn’t been activity on his wall since 2003.
Although we momentarily crossed paths, at that soccer camp between Lake Okanagan and Vernon, our lives couldn’t have been more different. I suppose I knew this back then, but couldn’t quite articulate it. Years later, we can see how these differences manifest. Now, while he’s slinging hatred into the void, I’m doing a graduate degree in New York. If I’d been born into Hank’s situation, I can’t imagine faring much better. As much as we think we’re in control of our destiny, which, we are to a certain degree, we can only have an impact within certain parameters. Money provides the resources and opportunities to adjust these boundaries.
I could reach out to Hank. I could use my newly (and expensively) acquired journalism skills to track him down, see if he’s doing alright, make sure he hasn’t done anything irrational since his last Tweet, on June 27, 2017.
“Im not in anybodys life anymore yet nobody notices. So there wouldn’t be a difference at all,” he wrote.
Would I only be doing it to absolve myself of guilt, like before? Then again, I’m sure he wouldn’t remember me.