VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Remembered for her sparkling
personality, even during
By Alison Auld
Patricia Johnson had the effervescence of a child that neither the pull of the needle nor the grind of the street could dull or diminish.
Whether riding the bus, walking the seedy alleys of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, or simply getting ready for a party with a childhood friend, the green-eyed beauty would brim with excited energy that spilled over to everyone.
``She was really bubbly and an absolute delight to be around,'' says Lincoln Clarkes, a photographer who came to know Johnson after taking her picture in 1997 when she was about 20.
``I ran into her on the bus once. Everybody was aware of her, it was as though she was on stage. When she was talking to me, everybody was listening to every word.
``She had this stunning aura about her that was noticeable.''
When she stepped off the bus and back into a world of pain and loss, Clarkes says it was like she was performing in front of thousands of people, so theatrical that she appeared ``ready to bow or curtsy.''
It was typical Johnson, a petite waif with flowing blond hair who rarely let the realities of living in what one friend called ``a 24-hour, Saturday night, 3 o'clock in the morning kind of circus'' get her down.
``I remember her as being a person who would light up the room when she entered it,'' a close relative who didn't want to be named says in Vancouver.
``She had a really good, strong energy. I always say she was like a butterfly, she was very beautiful and very fragile at the same time.''
Clarkes recalls Johnson leaving a message for him one morning when she was trying to get some money he had for her. The photographer had sold a picture of her posing with two friends on the Downtown Eastside and wanted to hand over her share.
``Hey, it's Tricia, Lincoln. Trying to get a holda ya, trying to find what's up,'' her perky voice sings out in a message Clarkes kept on his machine for months.
``So I wish I had a number you could call me back at, but I don't. So all's I can do is keep trying. Thanks, bye.''
Clarkes, whose picture of the three women set him on a five-year photographic mission to chronicle the lives of street workers and addicts, eventually met up with Johnson and gave her the cash.
To him, it was a pittance. But to the young mother who was feeding a drug addiction and working the streets, it was a windfall.
``I met her at this little place on Hastings Street and when I gave her the dough she just exploded in joy,'' he says in his Vancouver home, surrounded by filing cabinets filled with hundreds of pictures of Downtown Eastside women that ended up in his book `Heroines'.
``She had a real hopefulness. All the women I photographed had a right to complain and bitch about their situation, but I never heard it from her.
``You know, she shone, that woman.''
Even as a child growing up with her sister in the same neighbourhood where she ended up, Johnson had an exuberance she found hard to subdue. One friend says her father came up with a nickname for Johnson when she was a kid and heading to a birthday party.
``(My Dad) used to call Patty `Shaky,''' Lana W. said in an online memorial about her school pal who she met in Grade 8 at Templeton Secondary School in Vancouver.
Secondary school in Vancouver
``He started calling her Shaky after a time he picked her up to come to one of my birthday parties and she was vibrating she was soooo excited. He thought she was going to go through the roof.''
Johnson, who preferred English class and liked to write poetry, dropped out of school in Grade 9 at age 16 because she had to support herself, according to the relative. She got a job at a small newsstand in a mall, moved out of her parents' home and began living with her boyfriend.
Soon after, she became pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy when she was 17.
``That was the biggest thing in her life, that's what she cared about, her family,'' says her relative. ``And we always encouraged her to become well again so that she would be able to be with her kids.''
It was there that she found her greatest joy _ a son and daughter whose names she had tattooed in a rose on her back. Johnson often talked about them to Clarkes, who would sometimes take her out for lunch when he was passing through the downtown area.
Her former boyfriend is raising them, but friends say Johnson, who kept some tattered pictures of her kids in her meagre possessions, dreamed of getting them back and moving into a house with a swing set in the backyard.
``She'd brighten up and be like a 100-watt bulb whenever I mentioned her children,'' Clarkes says. ``I think thoughts, and the love, of her children kept her going and gave her hope.''
It's not clear what led Johnson to the Downtown Eastside when she was in her early 20s. One relative would only say there wasn't one event or misstep, but rather ``it was through an unfortunate set of circumstances that she ended up where she did.''
In an interview in 2002, her mother Marion Bryce held a baby picture of Johnson in a pink dress sitting on her mom's lap as her dad looked on, and said her daughter was deeply affected by the sudden death of her father in the late 1990s.
Johnson's mother-in-law, Laura Tompkins, says Johnson became trapped on the street, doing what she had to to support a destructive habit.
``She was not proud of what she was doing,'' she said at a peace forum in Vancouver last summer. ``But she was a person with a lot of dignity and inner strength.''
Family members say Johnson, who last spoke to Bryce on her mom's birthday before she disappeared at age 24, was easygoing and happy to sit around in sneakers and blue jeans, listening to Guns N' Roses or going for rides at a local amusement park.
Somehow she managed to maintain an optimism and child-like curiosity that friends say helped keep her head up in the toughest of times and fuelled her dreams of turning her life around.
``She had something a lot of people down there don't. She had a lot of energy,'' says Clarkes, who last saw Johnson in 2000.
``She kind of looked like a little ray of sunshine was following her.''
© 2006 The Canadian Press
Updated: January 01, 2007