When I sat down with former full patch Hells Angel Joe Calendino earlier this month, it was on the heels of a deadly week of gang shootings across Metro Vancouver.
It started with one dead in Surrey on August 30, followed by another shooting that killed an 18-year-old and wounded another teen in Abbotsford August 31. A man and a woman were then found with fatal gunshot wounds in Langley in the early hours of September 1. And two days later, on September 3, a 35-year-old man was shot to death further east in Chilliwack, BC.
As a man who now runs gang prevention programs in schools, Calendino is emotionally stirred by news of these shootings. "I don't think there's a day that went by that we haven't had a shooting last month," he told VICE. (While not technically true, a mid-August wave of violence related to an apparent drug turf war did feel pretty constant.)
Calendino is the first to point out that the gang activity he sees on the streets today bears very little resemblance to what he lived through. "A lot of these guys now are dial-a-doping," he said. The groups are more splintered than they used to be, with younger kids fighting over shrinking territory.
Calendino also knows that his experience with addiction over a decade ago doesn't compare to the scale of suffering users face because of Vancouver's relentless opioid crisis. "This is a different beast now. The New York Times has called this current wave that we're up against the modern day plague," he said. "You have to think: where are we at? How did we get here?"
Sitting in a small non-profit office with Calendino and co-author Gary Little, it's clear they both want to help answer the "how did we get here" question, but that's not their central mission. With so many overlapping forces at play, they've turned their focus to an anti-gang organization called Yo Bro Yo Girl, a mentorship program that recently expanded to Surrey elementary schools.
Though this new and deadly reality is admittedly unrecognizable, Calendino's new memoir does illustrate the kinds of mountains you need to move to actually beat an addiction—how unlikely it is in even the best of circumstances. Ultimately Calendino hopes To Hell and Back will help young kids plug into healthy communities before they're swept up in organized crime drama like he was. Pages include photos of his early days as a Rocky Balboa lookalike, and mug shots that wouldn't be out of place in a D.A.R.E. cautionary tale.
Calendino's own story begins on the streets of East Vancouver, where he learned to fight as a young kid. After getting into trouble in school, he launched a business career outside the gang, but says he was always drawn back to the rock and roll lifestyle that went with the Hells. "I began hanging out with the guys in the club more often," he writes. "No matter what age, young or old, people always take notice when a member walks into a room."
Calendino bristles at questions about his day-to-day time working for the club, not wanting to reveal too much. But he admits he enjoyed traveling the world and feeling invincible, until he started dipping into drugs himself. GHB and crack were his substances of choice, and they weren't easy to manage.
"So you go from this absolute high when you receive your patch and then you get more invested," Calendino told VICE. "Once you start to get involved with drugs it starts to consume you."
Attacks on September 11 brought on heightened border security, which slowed Calendino's jet-setting lifestyle. At home he recalls growing paranoid, and landing his first weapons conviction in 2003. With two kids, Calendino remembers ducking behind walls and avoiding doorways when saying goodbye to his son as he left for school. "Anybody that lives that lifestyle knows there's a reason why they carry a gun around with them or wear a bulletproof vest," he said.
Calendino's deteriorating state got noticed by the gang when he started a fight in a Kelowna casino in full colours, causing a "media circus." He says he was kicked out of the Hells Angels long before his addiction bottomed out. "You're continually ODing, you're losing weight," Calendino said of the following years. He says he became "a full-on drug addict, 138 pounds, you know, arrested for selling $10 worth of crack cocaine."
He was disowned by the club, but Calendino wasn't abandoned by his family. His siblings staged many interventions, often searching for him on the streets of Surrey, making sure he was fed. His mom was his "prison guard" when he decided to go clean. Even in jail he found allies—one classmate from his high school, VPD Sergeant Kevin Torvik, knew about his reputation and would later help with his recovery.
I asked Calendino a couple questions about the ways poverty, drugs and organized crime go hand in hand, particularly in Vancouver. But it was actually Sergeant Torvik, who stopped by nearing the end of our interview, who agreed gangs are woven into the fabric of Metro Vancouver's addiction and poverty industries—with visible connections to low-income housing in the Downtown Eastside, recovery homes in Surrey, and of course the region's growing pot industry, which is cautiously being embraced as an alternative to opioids.
"BC's always been one of the crime capitals of North America as far back as you want to go. It's a major port, and that's what happens when you're a port city," Calendino jumps in. "Going back to the 80s and 90s we had something called BC bud, it was world renowned." As a way of emphasizing how much BC's drug and crime landscapes have changed, he adds BC's former health minister is now breaking into the weed business. What that says about BC's future gang conflicts, none of us are sure.
So, with change being the only constant in Vancouver's shifting drug market, Calendino doesn't want to wade into the systemic problems faced by people with addictions today. Instead, he's focusing on keeping his own kids—and more than 1,000 of his neighbours' kids—from ever getting to that point.
To Hell and Back: A Former Hells Angel's Story of Recovery and Redemption by Joe Calendino and Gary Little is out today.
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