A few weekends ago I was asked to offer some words at the memorial of a most beloved, long-time member of the Carnegie Centre – Sam Snobelen. It was an honour. This is not exactly a normal duty of a Librarian, but Sam was different and the Carnegie Library is not the norm. I was happy to speak on behalf of the Library considering that Sam was probably the sweetest, most kind and gentle man in the Downtown Eastside. And that’s saying a lot, because there are some real lovely folks in the neighbourhood. He was also an avid fan of the library and committed to the Carnegie.
The Carnegie Centre has a bulletin board that has a section dedicated to those In Memoriam. Apparently it used to be right at the entrance, but staff at the Welcome Desk found it a bit demoralizing having to face it throughout their shift. Now it’s just round the corner, towards the theatre. There’s also a Missing Persons board tucked behind the partition of the Welcome Desk, and many boards featuring Community news for events, activism, workshops, etc. It was a shock to many to learn of Sam’s passing. He was only about to turn 65.
The “In Memoriam” board can be jarring. There are faces of some whose life was snuffed out too young, from drug overdose and suicide and violence, and there are others who may have died of “natural causes.” And yet, considering the quality of life that some of the older individuals have endured, often living in poverty for a long time, it always feels sad and unfair.
Fortunately, the Carnegie Centre staff aims to provide an opportunity to Celebrate Life, for people to come together and share stories, support each other, and grieve. While some of the individuals may have been alienated by their blood family due to addiction and mental illness, at least at the Carnegie they are remembered with love and their soul is offered peace by an adopted family.
Sam Snobelen’s Celebration of Life drew a crowd. He had had a stroke in his late twenties which rendered half of his body paralyzed, so he walked with a cane and a limp, but never complained. Sam was a dedicated member of the Carnegie Centre, with various stints on the Board. I got to know him during my first week at the Carnegie, since he was part of the Education & Library committee.
I remember being early to my first committee meeting and walking into the classroom. I was startled because in the corner sat a wizard – smiling at me! It was Sam rocking his classic tweed jacket, patiently waiting for others to join him. He had a long white beard and the best smile! I actually thought he was pretty cute for an old timer. After that I would have lunch with him in the cafeteria whenever I saw him (he was safe and pleasant company), or he would stop by to say “hello” at the library. It was always so nice having him in the library because he exuded calm and warmth in a place that can often be a bit chaotic. He was also incredibly knowledgeable of the community and well-connected.
My one co-worker knew him for 30 years since she was working at the branch right from the beginning when the space was re-incarnated as a VPL branch (considering that it was once the original Vancouver library in 1903). There were some tears when the news was shared that he had passed late November. It was hard to hear because he had died alone in his room and it took some days before it registered that he was not about town. One woman explained that it was heart-breaking because he was weeks away from qualifying for Old Age cheques, and he was excited to “be rich.”
I think my favourite memory of him was early November 2015, when he came to an author reading that I had organized. The event was for the “Heart of the City Festival,” which showcases talent from the Downtown Eastside from dance, theatre, vocalists, bands, poets, artists, and more. With the help of a Canada Council grant we had Michael Christie come back to Vancouver (he’s living on Gabriola Island now) to read from his latest book, If I Fall, If I Die. I had known Mike for many years, since we both were going to Simon Fraser University in the late 1990s, and were both avid skateboarders.
He had done well, receiving accolades for his first collection of short stories called The Beggar’s Garden, which was set in the Downtown Eastside. Mike had worked in the neighbourhood and had became familiar with some of the characters and the vibe. It was a really lovely piece of writing… not pandering or lecturing, but mostly witty, observant and even raw. I was really excited to have him join us for the event.
With the help of the organizer, Teresa Vandertuin, we reserved the SBC Restaurant on Hastings street – the former Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, renowned for its 80s punk shows, and is now host to a pretty gnarly skateboard ramp. It was a great fit. Christie as a former competitive skateboarder, his protagonist being a young skateboarder, the mini-ramp, and the festival!
I was really happy to see Sam show up for the reading, and it turned out he used to play music at SBC many decades ago! It was an eclectic audience with young skaters, parents, locals, festival goers, friends of the author, fans of the author, even professional skater Rick McCrank! My husband was there and found Sam a seat, as a fellow bearded fellow and it was cool that Scott got to meet one of my regulars.
The author read a part of the book where the young protagonist named Will makes reference to Igor Stravinski’s “Rite of Spring” – one of his mother’s favourites. The boy claimed the music sounded like “a heinous multi-car accident, except the cars are made out of musical instruments.” It was a clever comparison, and the only person who burst out laughing for that particular reference was Sam! He got it, and it delighted him.
Sam’s laugh was joyous and natural. He just seemed to enjoy life and not get too stressed out or bothered even though he could’ve found reason. He contributed to social justice in his own way.
I’m really going to miss him and his mild mannered ways. He was like a wizard… he resonated an inner power of kindness and radiated wisdom.
RIP Sam : Born Feb. 28, 1951 – Died Nov. 27, 2015