I have been doing this for a long time and have acquired a few stories and opinions since I started my business in 1980. I thought that for those interested, I would offer up some of the sad, funny, scary, rude, stupid, that takes the cake, unbelievable stories about life working in a Downtown Vancouver Aquarium Store. I will be adding to my collection as I remember them. WARNING some of the stories may not be appropriate for all to read. It will be hard to believe at times but EVERYTHING IS TRUE.
A homeless man who sometimes camps out under the Georgia Viaduct (and who we have suspected was a shop lifter but have never been able to catch) came into my store the other day frantically demanding my help. He interrupted me in the middle of helping a customer who consequently slid out of the store. He had stringy greasy hair, crazy eyes, and was surrounded by a visible cloud of stench capable of instantly gagging anyone within 10 feet. This fellow is often seen out the back of the store crawling around the garbage dumpster, or riding a rickety stolen bicycle clutching “found” paraphernalia on both handlebars or mingling amongst the crowds of people attending some function at BC Place, looking for some kind of unsuspecting mark to hit. He is part of a posse of usually three just like him that come into the store and run off in all sorts of directions eager to fill their pockets with something they can sell for drugs and they are pretty good at this. It is very difficult to round them up and kick them out of the store. Many of the street people are kind and sweet, but this one is pure evil. This particular visit, he was alone and bursting to relay his story as I was still trying to find a breath of fresh air. Every time he came forward I would retreat a few steps backwards until I had no where left to go but inside one of my aquariums. I was completely trapped. He shouted “You have to help me now!” His movements were twisted and spastic and he was rattling off to me like a machine gun about how I had to help him with some sort of emergency.
And so the story goes…apparently, he had been hanging out by a pond near Chinatown all afternoon, in a drug induced state, feeding the ducks, of all things, rocks. I have often wondered what some of these people do all day. He thought that it was so funny that a duck would eat rocks and laughed out loud revealing the few black rotting teeth he had left! His face had a permanent scowl deeply etched into it and even though he was laughing, he still looked angry. He had no remorse whatsoever for his choice of bird food. The ducks were probably expecting the final crumbs of a doughnut from the Tim Horton’s down the street. After a while one of the ducks came out of the water, waddled up to him and laid an egg. He believed that the duck was so grateful for the rocks that she bestowed upon him her egg. She was probably so impacted with rocks that the weight had forced her to lay an egg. He took the egg off the grass and decided that the best place for it was under his armpit. Realizing that he was in no position to hatch an egg, he assumed that Aquariums West would jump at the chance to help him.
So there he stood, in my personal space, with a duck egg under his armpit. I was trying to figure out where I fit into all of this while still gasping for some fresh air. He said all he needed was a few days to find a suitable home for himself and his duck. He wanted me to incubate the egg until then. The thing that surprised me the most was that somewhere deep inside of him, there were tiny remnants of paternal instincts still left intact. I suppose he thought that my armpit was better than his or I had an egg hatching department in my store. He reached under his stinky coat and started to pull the egg out from under his armpit. I nearly fell over trying to get away from him. I said “I don’t want an egg that has been under your armpit! Go away!” At this point he became quite volatile and his jerky twisted movements were as if I was going to end up with egg on my face. I told him that I couldn’t incubate his duck egg and he would have to leave my store. He began yelling and flailing his one arm in my face while the other arm held the egg safely inside his warm armpit shouting that he was going to contact the newspapers, the television news reporters and the police to report me for not incubating his duck egg! He screamed and continued mouthing off vulgarities all the way through the store up the stairs and finally out the door. That particular street smell lingers and lingers and my apologies for the customers who had the misfortune of being the next person through the door. Honestly, the store doesn’t usually smell like that.
A twenty something man, 6’2″ , 200+ lbs., all pumped up from working out at the gym, spent a long time looking at the spiders, scorpions and snakes in our reptile room. He was wearing a long coat and carrying a gym bag. When he came out of the reptile room, he began browsing at the small animals and started screaming and then frantically threw his gym bag on the floor, ripped off his long coat and most of his clothes. It turned out that his cell phone was on vibrate and rang in his pocket and he thought that a spider had crawled into his pants. Luckily for us the surveillance camera had taped it all and we could play it over and over again for anyone who wanted a good laugh.
I was helping a man in his early 50’s pick out some Sword tail Fish. His hair had that Grecian Formula look to it and he was wearing a white suit jacket with a flowered shirt unbuttoned too far, grey chest hair and multiple gold chains dangling from his neck. This was back in the eighties and the fashion for some middle aged men was exactly what he was wearing. He reminded me of one of Steve Martin’s characters in “the Wild and Crazy Guys” skit from Saturday Night Live. While I was up the ladder and catching him his fish I asked him if he wanted to have any babies. In other words, would you like male and female fish. He looked at me straight in the eye and said “I am so sorry but I have made a conscious decision not to have any children.” He actually thought I was asking him to father my children!
A lady was told that her Siamese Fighting Fish would eat any kind of flake food. She tried Corn Flakes and Bran Flakes and even Special “K” and her Betta would still not eat. She was very upset that she had been given bad advice. When she called Aquariums West for yet again more advice, her poor Betta was hanging on by a thread and living in a stinking, murky mess of breakfast cereal. It was incredible that it was still alive at this point.
Another Siamese Fighting Fish Story….Gloria, was determined to have a Siamese Fighting Fish. For 5 days in a row she came to my store complaining that her newly purchased betta had immediately died upon putting it in her betta bowl. She would bring me a water sample, which always tested perfect, and as my policy states,” If your water is O. K. We’ll replace the fish within 3 days of purchase”. I kept replacing her fish thinking that she was having extremely bad luck because it wasn’t often that any Siamese Fighting Fish died in the store. I would go through everything over and over again trying to make sure that she was setting up her bowl properly. After the fifth fish had died, she admitted that she wasn’t using room temperature water but water the same temperature as her bath. She thought that the fish would prefer hot bath water because that was what she preferred. I explained that the fish cannot live in hot bath water and that she was actually cooking her fish. She began sobbing realizing that she had murdered 5 fish. Eventually, she got it right and the next Siamese Fighting Fish lived for 3 months. She enjoyed it so much that she thought she would buy a small tank. I sold her a 5 gallon aquarium with a corner filter, a pump, light, gravel and plants and went through everything step by step. She set it up and her fish died almost immediately. What I discovered was that she put the air pump in the water with the corner filter, plugged it in and electrocuted her fish. Lets hope she didn’t have children!!
A man was waiting outside of the store for hours until the doors opened at 10:00am. He desperately wanted a canary to feed the snake that was living in and on his body. He thought that the only way he could get it out of his body was to offer it a canary to eat. For some reason he believed that this particular snake only ate canaries. We soon realized that there was no snake and he was suffering from a delusion. He insisted and insisted and became more and more panicked that this snake was living on his body and he wanted it off. He couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t help him. He began crying and screaming and waving his arms around. It got to the point that we had to call the police to have him removed from the store because he wouldn’t leave. When the police caught him, they discovered that he was carrying a machete in the back of his pants and a hand gun.
Lulu worked as a nurse at a Hospital right around the corner from my store. She never married, never had any children and lived alone. She began frequenting my very first store on Davie Street during her lunch hours. At that time I used to breed all the budgies for my store in the back room. Lulu was quite intrigued with my breeding operation and I would take her back to look at the newly laid eggs or the just hatched chicks every few days. She was fascinated by how quickly they grew and how cute they became. She really wanted a baby budgie for herself but it was a very big decision for her to buy a pet, one that took her a very, very, very, long time to make. It was sooooo painful for me because she could not make a decision. She had never owned a pet before and she wasn’t sure if she could handle the “responsibility”. Somehow I mustered up the patience for her frequent visits. Her voice would change when she opened up the nest box to take a peek at a clutch of chicks. “Oh, they are so cute” she would say in a high pitched squeaky voice, the kind that new parents have when they talk to their new babies. Finally, after weeks and weeks she decided on one of the babies. I was to keep that one for her until it was old enough to go home which was approximately six weeks. She would visit every day, holding it and playing with it and each time would buy little toys, perches and mirrors to add to the cage that she had already purchased.
The day finally arrived when Lulu could take her new baby home. She was so excited, and I was very happy that the bird turned out as beautiful as it did. All the extra attention that it received in the weeks prior had paid off. She named him “Baby”.
For many years, Lulu came in to the store to buy her bird seed, a new toy, perch or treat at least once a week. “Baby” was extremely spoiled. She taught the bird to talk, do many tricks and would report all of “Baby’s” accomplishments to me every week or so. She was always buying something small for the bird. A .99c toy here and there. After about 10 years, Lulu retired from the Hospital. She was ecstatic that she could now spend all of her time with her bird. I seem to remember that she received a large payout from the hospital and decided to upgrade Baby’s cage. She chose the biggest, best, fanciest, and most expensive cage that I had to import from Italy. The decision to buy the cage was almost as painful as her decision to purchase a pet in the first place. The cage was the equivalent of a mansion in Vancouver’s wealthiest neighborhood. I delivered her the cage and stand after work. This was the first time in all the years of knowing Lulu that I visited her home as I had never delivered anything to her before. The moment I stepped into her apartment was the moment I stepped into the Twilight Zone.
The apartment was like a giant bird cage. All the toys, perches and ladders that she had been purchasing all these years were everywhere. There was little in the apartment that wasn’t for her budgie. No nick knacks, memorabilia or artwork anywhere. She had two foot, three foot and five foot wooden ladders that I had sold to her hanging from her ceiling all of which she had bought from me over the space of many, many years. I had thought that her bird was an aggressive chewer and had destroyed the ones she had bought before. I had never really paid any attention to the quantity of toys that she was accumulating. I knew that she was excessive, and obsessive with her bird but until I saw for myself I hadn’t realized to what extent. The ladders created walk ways which covered the entire ceiling in her living and dining room. She had suspended them from hooks and chains creating a second floor beneath her ceiling made up of ladders and perches. The bird could fly, walk, or climb to any place in the apartment and where ever it landed there was a little budgie shrine that she had created. Each one was unique containing a treat cup full of “Oats and Groats”, or plastic Ferris wheels that held “Moulting Treat”, or “Veggie Treat”, multi coloured ladders, bells, mirrors, etc. etc. etc. and there would be a ladder which would then take “Baby” back to the maze in the ceiling. Covering the entire window sill approximately 10 – 12 feet were more toys which she had either glued or nailed down. On her fire place mantle were sterling silver framed photographs of Baby taken on every birthday as well as every Christmas. She knew every age of “Baby” in every photograph. “That was when he turned eight”, she would say. There was not one picture of a person or of herself amongst the collection of photographs. I was speechless. I placed the new cage and stand in the already designated spot and sat down. She began whistling different pitches which would instruct her bird to do different tricks. It would fly to the window sill and push a little ball down a slide or run across one of the ladders on the ceiling and ring a bell. After each trick it would fly to her, land on her finger and kiss her on the lips, and then off it would go to do something else. When it flew to one of the many mirrors that were dangling from everywhere it would look at it’s reflection and say “Hello Baby, Hello Baby, wanna kiss?” Lulu was so proud of her bird. The apartment was spotless as was the cage. Every day she would clean everything, replacing the gravel paper, throwing out any uneaten seed and replacing it with fresh seeds. The bird had fresh veggies that she would prepare a few times a day. I guess having been a nurse she was very particular about cleanliness. She was terrified that “Baby” would get sick. She would say “I would just die if anything ever happened to Baby”. Baby was her child, her friend, her everything.
About 5 more years went by and Lulu developed a malignant tumor in her abdomen. She needed surgery to have it removed but she would not leave her bird. I offered many times to look after it while she went in for surgery but she wouldn’t have it. She had made up her mind and there was no changing it. She was becoming more and more weird and obsessed with the budgie as the years went by.
Lulu was living with this tumor all the while which was now bigger than a basketball. Her belly was the size of a full term soon to be mother. She had trouble walking and was always out of breath and flushed. Her face had white and red blotches all over it, like someone who had just completed a marathon. She had acquired an electric scooter to make it all the easier to get her budgie supplies. She was loosing her kind demeanor and was becoming belligerent and rude. If I was out of a particular type of seed she would yell at me. Obviously the woman was very, very sick.
“Baby” the budgie lived for another 3 years. He was 18 when he died. Lulu was devastated. She got up in the morning to let him out of his cage and there he lay on the bottom of it. She called me at the store hysterically crying and I tried my best to comfort her. Although I had long since given up breeding birds I offered to find her a new baby from a breeder that I knew. She said that “Baby” was irreplaceable. About 3 months later, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, Lulu died.
During the 18+ years that I knew Lulu I had formulated many opinions about her that weren’t always nice. It had been a challenge for me to keep up my interest every time she would walk into the store and start talking about Baby. I would secretly roll my eyes in my head and then act as polite as was possible. As a retailer it was imperative that I have respect for her relationship with this bird, however tough it may be. After she died, I realized that she had had a very happy life with this bird. Baby was her reason to keep going and she received much pleasure and joy from spoiling him and caring for him.
There are many different types of families in this world and hers consisted of herself and a Budgie named “Baby”. She was a happy woman that got just as much joy from a tiny little bird as some would have had with a real person. I am very sure that because of Baby she lived longer then was expected.
Terry, a slight and fragile teenager who said he was 22 (probably only 16 or 17) was very keen in his new hobby of keeping tropical fish so much so that he came in the store almost every day to talk about his breeding guppies or his newly hatched catfish fry. He was kind and sweet and troubled. He had found a 5 Gallon Aquarium that someone had tossed out by a dumpster in the alley behind the apartment he was staying in. He had very little money and would place his dirty money from his dirty hands in mine to pay for whatever small thing he could afford for that day. I gave him some used aquarium pumps and filters that I had kicking around in the store so that he could get it up and running. I spent lots of time with him because first of all he loved tropical fish, was really good at keeping an aquarium, listened and learned well and to be very honest, I felt really sorry for him. His life was extremely hard. This I could tell from his beaten down posture, his broken out skin, and his dark sad eyes. He dressed in female clothing that hadn’t seen a washing machine before and wore nylon stockings with runs in them. His hair was long and died that colour of blonde that almost looks orange. In spite of his appearance, he was very smart. Eventually Terry began to talk a little bit about his life. He had been kicked out of his parent’s home in Southern California when he was 13 and had been living on the streets from L.A to Vancouver ever since. He desperately wanted a sex change operation and was working very hard in the sex trade to pay for all the surgeries that he was going to need. Sometimes when he came in the store he would have bruises on his face and arms and his excuse was that he had fallen down the stairs or walked into a door.
One day he came in with a new dress, new stockings and shoes. His hair was clean and styled, his makeup was done well and he was very excited. Somehow he had saved enough money to buy a 33 Gallon Aquarium with stand, canopy, filters etc. All the things he would need for a complete set up. He had lots of cash on him and asked if I could deliver the aquarium. I told him that I would need some help. He met me at the end of the day and we loaded up my Toyota Van and drove to his apartment. Together we carried the aquarium and all the stuff up three flights of stairs. When we got to his front door we dumped everything outside. He said he could manage from there and tried to get me to leave. I insisted on helping him carry everything in to the apartment. I couldn’t leave him with 50 pounds of gravel, a 36 inch aquarium and stand to carry in by himself. He was a small young man and it would be very hard for him. Reluctantly he let me help him. Once we got through the front door the smell hit instantly. “Oh my God Terry, what’s that horrible smell?” I asked him. The apartment was freshly painted, with new carpets on the floor and barely any furniture. Obviously he had just moved in. It looked clean but the smell almost knocked me out. “I just had the carpets cleaned.” he said. “Well you should get your money back from the carpet cleaners. How can you stand it?” I said. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a man sitting on the kitchen counter. He was dressed in leather chaps and blue jeans, a red short sleeved shirt rolled up to his shoulders with a leather vest, mirrored sunglasses and a bandana around his balding forehead. He was missing his front teeth and just stared at me. “What the hell is that?” referring to the aquarium. “Oh….just an aquarium, I thought it would be nice for the apartment” Terry replied. “Get her out of here” he barked. I looked at Terry who was shocked and surprised to see this guy there. He obviously wasn’t expecting him to be home. “This is my room mate, you better go” whispered Terry. I couldn’t wait to leave the apartment not only because the guy scared me half to death but because the smell was intolerable. I felt like I was going to throw up. I couldn’t wait to get outside. I had never smelled anything quite like that before.
The next day I was driving to work listening to the radio and on the news it was reported that a dead woman was found wrapped up in carpet in the exact same apartment that I had delivered the aquarium. They even gave the address which was still scotch-taped onto the dashboard of my car from the previous days delivery. One of the neighbors in the building had reported the smell to the building manager who later called the police. There they found a 19 year old young girl wrapped up in a carpet placed on the bed. She had been decomposing for 4 days. She apparently was working on Hastings Street as a prostitute and had been reported missing. The scary leather guy was arrested for the murder.
I didn’t see Terry for about 6 months after that. Eventually he wandered into my store when he had been released from jail. It took me quite a while to recognize him. He was no longer dressed as a female. He had short cropped dirty blonde hair and was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. His complexion was still bad and his eyes were still sad. He told me that he had been implicated in the murder and spent some time in jail but after the trial the charges were dropped. He assured me that he had nothing to do with the murder. He was heading home to California where he was going to go back to school to get his high school diploma. There was no mention of the sex change.
I never understood how it was possible that Terry could go out and buy an aquarium, have it delivered all the while a dead body lay wrapped in a carpet on his bed.
A regular customer named Bob came into the store on a rainy December night sporting a rum and coke in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He was obviously celebrating something and was feeling no pain. He told me that his father was lying on his death bed and he was going to inherit a few million dollars upon his father’s death which was to occur any day, minute or hour. The only catch was that Bob was gay and his father wanted him to marry a woman before he died. He had never accepted the fact that his son was gay and consequently the two had been estranged for many years. The only way he would inherit the millions of dollars was by marrying a woman ….tonight.
Now, you must remember that this fellow was a regular customer. He bought lots of fish and a large aquarium from me. Always paid cash. I saw him at least once a week and he was never a problem. A little on the quiet side but we always had fun when he was picking out fish and supplies. He then proceeded to ask me to marry him for a million dollars ….tonight!!!!! Bob said we could get a divorce as soon as his father died. I have to admit that I actually thought about it for a few seconds as a million dollars could definitely make my life easier. I decided that it sounded too good to be true, so I turned him down. He was disappointed but headed off to the designated “hooker” streets of the West End to try to find a prostitute to marry him, or so he said. He came back just before closing and handed me a fresh rum and coke and said he had found a prostitute to marry him but wanted to give her a wedding present. I had a parrot at the time worth $700.00 for sale in a $300.00 cage. He was a lovely bird that I had taught to say “I love you”. He wanted to give the woman the bird as a wedding present and pay me the next day because he didn’t have any cash on him. In exchange he gave me his address and his keys to his apartment as collateral. I foolishly let him walk out of the store, with a parrot and a cage worth $1000.00 in the rain on a December night. I did wrap the cage up in a blanket. What was I thinking!
The next day I waited and waited and of course, Bob never showed up. I thought that I would give him the benefit of the doubt and wait another day before doing anything, whatever that was going to be. After all he had just gotten married and his father was dying, how could I expect him to take the time to pay me the $1000.00. Well, the next day no show Bob again. I did have the keys to his apartment and his address so I left my store in search for his apartment and figured I would take back the bird or something else of value to compensate for the loss of $1000. When I got there I tried the key to the front door of his building on Beach Avenue, it fit! I made my way up in the elevator to the 7th floor where his apartment was. There I was greeted with yellow police tape across his front door and a notice of Arrest for Bob by the Vancouver City Police. Across the tape it said “Do Not Enter, Police Investigation Under Way” or something like that. My stomach and heart turned into a mass of knots. I felt so stupid and duped. I decided to cross the yellow tape and see what was inside the apartment. I used my key and opened the door. The apartment was trashed. The couch had been sliced and stuffing was all over the place, the aquarium was smashed, the floor covered in dead fish, and broken dishes pots and pans and electronic equipment spread all over the place. I got very scared and ran out of the apartment bumping into a very large burly man.
The burly man was Ed the building manager, who just so happened to be a customer of mine and even though the apartment had a “No Pets Allowed” clause, Ed had snuck a kitten which he had purchased from me, into the building. After I told him why I was there, he shook his head in total amazement at how stupid and gullible I was and said he wouldn’t report my entry into the apartment. He told me that Bob was messed up in drugs and owed some people a bunch of money. My impression of Bob was that of a scrawny, kind of odd, but harmless, dweeby guy, certainly not a drug dealer. I copied the name and phone number of the detective whose business card was taped to Bob’s door.
When I returned to my store I immediately called the detective on the Vancouver Police business card. Within 10 minutes he showed up at the store with his partner . I reluctantly told them my story and they shook their heads in disbelief. I was only 24 years old running my business on my own, in a part of Vancouver that in the early eighties was quite shady. At 4:00pm every afternoon the hookers would line up along Davie Street in front of my store flagging down business. Some of them would buy dog collars from my store and wear them as jewelry, or whatever. The neighborhood has since changed and the hookers have long moved along. In any case they didn’t think it was safe for me to be alone. The detectives said that they would try to locate my bird but were not hopeful. They thought that Bob was long gone. No one had heard or seen from him since the last time I saw him in my store.
Two days later, the detectives popped their heads in the store to tell me that they had located my bird. The guy who bought it from Bob didn’t want to give it back because, after all, the bird had told him “I love you”. He told the detectives that he would purchase the parrot from me. The guy was nicknamed something like “Tiny” and was a bouncer at the “Black Stone Hotel” at the corner of Davie and Granville. All I had to do was go there and talk to Tiny and arrange for some kind of payment plan.
The Black Stone Hotel beer parlour was not a place that I ever frequented and hardly a place I wanted to go. It was full of down and out alcoholics and strippers and prostitutes. It smelled of cigarettes and red terry cloth table covers that were sticky and wet with stale beer. As you entered a place like this you would often be side swiped by a drunk trying to stay upright. Still, $1000.00 was a lot of money and I was not going to give it up without at least trying to get it back. Bob had obviously walked out of my store that night with the bird and cage and headed straight for the Black Stone Hotel which was only 4 blocks away. He was definitely a grifter who had concocted up this crazy story about his dying father and a million dollars to rip me off of my bird and sell it for a few hundred bucks.
The detectives informed “Tiny” that I would be by to discuss the purchase of the parrot. When I got there “Tiny” who turned out to be a 400 lb. bouncer, was waiting for me. He was extremely large, with biceps the size of my waist, but had a soft sweet voice and a kind demeanor. His face lit up when he talked about the bird. He told me that the bird had said “I love you” to him. He seemed like a guy who needed to hear “I love you” a few times a day. I’m sure the bird had worked its way into his heart and he was in no way going to give him up. After all the bird loved him.
We agreed on a purchase price of $700.00 because he had already paid Bob $300.00. I was more than happy with that and let him take 6 months to pay for the bird.
I have never seen or heard anything from Bob. The apartment manager thought that he had ended up in jail. All I know is that the bird found a really good home and I sort of learned not to believe everything people tell you…..almost.