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Memoir: I was once a high-powered TV producer. Now, I live below the poverty line in a 50-square-foot apartment

Memoir: I was once a high-powered TV producer. Now, I live below the poverty line in a 50 square feet apartment

In the early ’90s, at the height of my career in sports journalism, I produced television coverage for Formula One motor racing in London, England. I lived with my wife and our three daughters on a country estate once owned by Henry VIII. We had private tennis courts and a gardener to maintain the grounds.

My career took me to the biggest events in the world. The Olympics in Lillehammer and Atlanta. The FIFA World Cup in Mexico and Italy. I earned a six-figure salary and dined with Mick Jagger in Portugal, Simon Le Bon in Monaco and Paul Simon in Australia. Two of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher, called me a friend.

Now, at age 56, I live in a 50-square-foot room at the Evangel Hall Mission, a subsidized housing project at Bathurst and Adelaide, run by the Presbyterian Church.

How did I get from there to here? A combination of bad decisions and bad luck. Back in the ’90s, when I was travelling the world and partying with celebrities, I was drinking a litre of vodka and snorting a gram and a half of cocaine every day. I never did drugs in front of my kids, but each night, after they went to sleep, I’d go out and get wasted.

In 1995, shortly after my family moved back to Toronto, my wife divorced me. I didn’t blame her; I was out of control. Desperate to repair our relationship, I sobered up and signed over our savings, RRSPs and house to my wife in the hope that she’d take me back—but she’d made up her mind. My daughters stayed with their mother.

I spent the next decade struggling with severe arthritis and depression, jumping on and off the wagon, landing jobs and losing them. By 2006, I was broke and homeless. I lived in shelters and rooming houses for a year before finding a spot at Evangel Hall. The building is rent-geared-to-income, which means I only have to pay 30 per cent of my earnings on housing. In the past few years, I’ve scored a few freelance TV gigs, but my main source of income is a disability pension. The space is bare-bones: three strides across, five to get from my bed to the door, with one small window that looks out over a parking lot. I have a stove, a mini-fridge and my own bathroom.

Unfortunately, I also have bedbugs, which relentlessly return no matter how often Evangel Hall sprays my unit. Once in a while, I spot one in my peripheral vision as I pull back my bedsheet. For the rest of the night, I’m consumed by the thought of the bloodsuckers crawling on my skin. It’s a kind of psychological torture. I lie awake, scratching until I bleed.

Every morning when I wake up, my knees and ankles are so wracked with pain from the arthritis that I have to hold on to the walls to get to the bathroom. The dark cloud of depression paralyzes me. I often struggle to get out the door.

Most of my neighbours are worse off. One tenant was evicted because he brought hookers to his place and beat them up. Another is a schizophrenic who loses control when he’s off his meds; once he tried to stab me with a butter knife. Yet another dropped dead a few weeks ago. He’d spent all his time collecting empty bottles, buying beer with the proceeds and drinking in the laneways behind local restaurants.

Right now, a unit just down the hall is sealed with police tape. The tenant had Lou Gehrig’s disease and drank himself to death with a mixture of rubbing alcohol and grape juice—“purple Jesus,” he called it.

On the ground floor of Evangel Hall is the drop-in, where the poor and homeless can stop by for a free meal. Each day, the room fills with drifters, ex-cons, people who can’t hold down a job. The staff do the best they can with their meagre donations. Sometimes the food is good, depending on who’s cooking. Most days we get turnips, zucchini, potatoes and mystery meat. But the price is right.

Last year, TVO asked me to make a short film about my community for the international Why Poverty? campaign. The movie was well received. It played at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (you can watch it online here). I saw my work onscreen again and travelled on a publicity tour. But despite all the positive feedback, I haven’t been able to land any work. I’ve knocked on dozens of doors. I’ve received encouragement from many influential people, but none of them know what to do with me. Old acquaintances still see me as the degenerate drug addict I was back in the ’90s. It’s taken a long time to get people to trust me again. Some of them never will.

The thing that scares me the most is going to bed one night and not waking up. In the past year, 24 people in and around my building have died. Some from cancer. Some from heart attacks or diabetes. Many of them just gave up.

These days, my priorities are simple: get a decent job and reunite with my kids; only my youngest speaks to me now. I want to believe I’ll get back on my feet, but most days I’m plagued by the fear that there’s nothing left for me. That I’m like Sisyphus, forced to repeat my penance forever. If that’s what it takes, that’s what I’ll do.

Vac Verikaitis is a Toronto writer and filmmaker.

Email submissions to memoir@torontolife.com

  • Christopher

    welcome to Toronto…what the bedbugs don’t suck out of you the women will…I have been there bro…and you will get back…man up.. work out…do the 12 Steps…work will find you and you will rise to where you belong…work it, don’t let it work you

  • Debsee

    Great artical. I am writting/living one VERY simuliar. Seems to be a thing for alot of people. I feel your pain. But I can’t get affordable housing so I have to pay full rental price for this SPOT on the map. Nor do I get free meals, even a mystery meat would be great some days. But I try to keep looking up. Always know that if you think you have it bad, someone else has it worse. A lot of people in Toronto could unfortunitly have written this artical. At least you have fond memories of richer times. A lot of us don’t even have that. Sorry buddy, your story is not newsworthy. I have you beat. But I stopped feeling sorry for myself along time ago, it doesn’t get you anywhere.

  • Char

    Welcome to Toronto? Dont diss the city when this happens EVERYWHERE its called making bad decisions….Good luck though Vic I do hope everything gets better for you. Dont give up.

  • Regan Ashby

    Oh man. That’s a shame, but you know, things can turn around. There’s no magic formula, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. Even if that sounds insulting to you at this point, it is a saying because it’s true.

    You’ve got a knack for writing. Why not write an auto-biography and title it: “Learn From My Mistakes”? Could be a best-seller.

    I’ve also read and had experience with friends who used to be addicted to “rush” drugs. Underneath, they are quite useful humans, they just have some serious personal problems that they self-medicate with street drugs. There are other medications that you can take, prescribed from a doctor, that can help.

  • LH

    alcohol ruins lives.. seldom appreciated enough

  • Peter

    If you haven’t heard of him check out the NY Times reporter David Carr. Quite an inspiration. Best of luck.

  • Christopher

    I appreciate your civic pride Char but this city is a brutal environment for recovering addicts – a horrendous situation with waitlists for affordable housing (slum standard is no exaggeration when you consider things at TCHC), extremely limited support programs for men over 29 years of age, an explosive situation with lack of resources to deal with the mentally ill. Yes Toronto has CAMH and it does have (one) small program to help addicts reintegrate back into the workforce, but that’s about where it ends in a city of 5 million. No I would not want to live on Vancouver’s Downtown East side, but have you been to Sherbourne and Dundas recently? Oh, and while you are there, drop by Evangel Hall for lunch, even better, check out Seaton House. There but for the grace of God, Char…

  • Shirley Hutchison

    Think a lesson from Vic, you could be at the top one day and slide down the slope. Circumstances in peoples lives change. Hope your girls being talking to you, that would be the best gift you could get. Someone may read this and give you work, don’t look back. best of wishes for 2014

  • Rex

    At the end of this piece, I was relieved to read that Mr. Verikaitis is willing to repeat his penance forever if that’s what it takes, because, frankly, that’s exactly what all former and present “degenerate drug addicts” deserve to do. He and those who share his entirely self-induced tale of woe invariably destroy more lives and careers than just their own because of their warped sense of entitlement and inability to control their urges. From those they’ve hurt there should be no forgiveness, and little pity, because once these types are back on their feet — and duly enabled — the risk only increases that they’ll succumb once again and waste everyone’s time. Once weak, always weak. The writer’s older daughters have the right idea, even if deep down it kills them a little more inside every time they think about how their lives could have been. Column inches in the likes of Toronto Life (where Rob Ford was rightfully vilified for essentially the same kind of reprehensible behaviour) seem like so much veiled networking (particularly in this case — ex-media using media to bait other media), but there are simply too many qualified and talented (and younger) people eager to do everything Mr. Verikaitis once did, only with less risk of infesting an office or job site with bedbugs. And they’ll probably do the job better because time and technology left Verikaitis behind while he enjoyed his haze with celebrities who no doubt indulged in the same behaviour but with the financial means to survive consequences which surely wiped out many a hanger-on like him. Should the same weaknesses befall those who replace him then they, too, deserve everything coming to them. Good memoir — after all, who doesn’t read about falls from “glory” with interest? — but not one that particularly engenders a lot of sympathy. You made your bed with the bedbugs. Now you have to lie in it.

  • Rex

    So? Move somewhere else! Do you people REALLY need to be in the city? Is the anonymity worth it? Or is it just the ability to re-offend on the sly should the need arise? There are plenty of smaller towns throughout this province, this country with resources for the recovering addicts, and better, quieter environments for that recovery than Toronto can ever offer, and yes, even jobs and a chance at reintegration into a community that isn’t a metropolis designed to overwhelm an already-weak personality. But noooo, they always have to stay in the big city, like that’s somehow better . . .

  • Christopher

    who made you the arbiter of who gets to stay in the city? it certainly sounds like you come from some small town somewhere…

  • allthingsconsumed
  • Rex

    Right here in Toronto, baby. So you can take your assumptions and shove ‘em. If people can’t afford to live here — ESPECIALLY if they’ve put themselves into the dire straits the author has — they should get the fuck out. They’d be a lot better off. Pride keeps them here, even though they lost that years ago. Some prefer the anonymity offered by the Big City, but really that does them NO favours, and only keeps the temptations squarely in their faces. Nope, it’s time for this author to get out while he still can, but instead he’s clinging to the DREAM that his skills will still be in demand despite the massive hole he dug for himself. I’m sure there are plenty of other talented people living in that hovel right along with him, and they’ll fare no better. It’s over. Leave. Start a new life. From the bottom. Anything’s better than clinging to a blown dream.

  • 5Michelle

    Wow. I finished this article and realized that I know Vac, or at least knew him once. He was a producer of a show on Omni that I was a guest on a few times. I don’t remember the show (does Omni channel even still exist?), but we stayed in touch after my appearance. He was exceedingly smart and funny, charming and knew the media biz well. I enjoyed his company. You deserve to climb out of that dark hole you’re in Vac – your talent is unique. I wish you the very best.

  • Male victim of fenminst sexism

    another male victim of domestic abuse

 

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