Friday, March 23, 2012

Been There

Was tuning my guitar (for another song), had Al Tuck's singin' in my head, and improvised this. Don't usually jot down songs. So this is a first. No structure other than it's got 2 sides.

DD Em7 Em7 GG DD

Must have been
Must have been things you didn’t hear
Must have been
Must have been the way I turned my head
Must have been
Must have been easier said than dead
Must have been
Must have been the words I didn’t say

I hope one day to see a bridge along that river
I hope one day to still see you on the other side

We’re still going the same way again
Just on the other side
Where it must have been

Must have been
Must have been things I didn’t hear
Must have been
Must have been the way you turned your head
Must have been
Must have been easier said than dead
Must have been
Must have been the words you didn’t say

Oh the things the head will play
Oh the things your wallet will say
Oh what should have been
If only we had been 2x

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Time Piece

These notes trace time spent by Nicole Vienneau who disappeared within 48 hours of arriving in a city for the first time. Narrowing down the window of time, narrows down the perimeter of possibilities. The top half strips out proper names and details to focus only on window of time. The bottom half shows the details.
Window of Time
Within 44 hours of arriving in a city where she’d never been, (Jacqueline) Nicole Vienneau vanished.
She’d spent a day trip 61 km outside this city (spotted for hours reading a book), leaving only a 36-38 hour window in the city where she was last seen.
In this city, she likely slept 13-16 hours at her hotel (2 nights), assuming she made it through the second night. That left only a 20-25 hour window for her to vanish, in a place she’d never been, among people she’d only just met.
In that 20-25 hour window, her family and her fiancé accounted for 8 activities inside/outside the hotel in public view.
That left only a 9-16 hour window for her disappear outside her hotel bed away from the public.
Within that 9-16 hour window, it's likely much of it was in public view at a tourist hotel or on busy public streets. That left only a tiny sliver of time not in public view for her to disappear.
* * *
The Details
These were the assumptions to narrow the window of time.
44 hour Window
To peg the 44-hour window, Nicole’s handwritten diary reported she’d arrived in Hama, Syria, Thursday “early afternoon” on March 29, 2007, at Cairo Hotel.
A graveyard shift hotel clerk was last to report seeing her 8:30 am, Saturday, March 31, in the Cairo Hotel lobby.
There's no more than 1pm Thursday to 9am Saturday in this window which equals 44 hours.
No one reported seeing her outside the hotel after this window. Her email was never used again since the night before. Her bank accounts were never used again.
36-38 hour Window
Her last corroborated activities were on Friday when Nicole spent a day trip in Apamea (61 km away) later returning to Hama by sunset (her last diary entry), where she was last seen.
Her return trip to Apamea probably took 2-3 hours (if by bus and walking). She spent a few hours in Apamea, spotted reading a book and exploring. In total (including travel), I estimate she spent 6-8 hrs outside of Hama (her last known location).
The directionality of her Friday trip to Apamea likely meant she was not heading that way again on Saturday.
That left only 36-38 hours she spent in Hama where she wrote by hand of a planned trip (see red) to go to Beehive Houses in Sarouj and a castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan. The hotel clerk said she was heading there on Saturday. She also wrote of the Dead Cities, another trip that could only be done same day by car.
20-25 hour Window
Nicole is officially registered for two nights at Cairo Hotel (March 29, March 30). If she made it through the 2nd night, she likely slept 13-16 hours in her bed.
That left up to only 20-25 hours outside of her Cairo Hotel bed for a disappearance in Hama.
9-16 hour Window
The perimeter for those 20-25 hours left for her disappearance outside of her hotel bed can be divided between: 1) Inside Cairo Hotel and 2) Outside Cairo Hotel.
In that window of time, her family and fiancé accounted for 8 activities in public view.
Inside Cairo Hotel (8hrs):
1) Her diary noted she spent time checking in Thursday afternoon and got settled.
2) She hung out in the lobby at night with American tourists named Meredith Fox, Barbara Law and Catherine Lu (registered Friday March 30, 2007) who recommended Beehive Houses in Sarouj. Graveyard shift hotel clerk working Friday-Saturday said he saw her hang out with "Americans" just before 11:30 pm on Friday.
3) Hotel clerk said she spent time Saturday morning in the lobby getting instructions to Hama bus stop for Al Hamra to get to Beehive Houses in Sarouj and castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan. It's a 15-20 minute walk to the bus stop from the hotel. The instructions were for some reason left in her hotel room. There's been no other Saturday morning sighting. The clerk's report (uncorroborated) is the only sighting that day.
4) She spent time tediously copying by hand instructions to Beehive Houses at Sarouj and to castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan. These were for some reason left behind her in room.
5) She was okay Friday Morning in hotel before going to Apamea and until sunset in her return to Hama. There are no signs of duress in her diary which ends at sunset on Friday (around 8pm). She would vanish within 13 hours.
6) Graveyard shift hotel clerk said he saw her 830 am on Saturday heading to bus stop. He also said she declined hotel car service to her destination (due to cost). No one else said they saw her that day.
Outside Cairo Hotel (2-3 hours)
1) She wrote in her diary she sawsunset on Friday night.
2) She had failed hotmail login session on Friday at 8:30pm
That left only a window of 9-14 hours when she was not in view of someone else. Given both inside/outside the hotel was very public, very little time in that window would be private.
That window of time is so small for a first time encounter for any kind of abduction. Likewise for the window of time in her bed. This narrowed down the possibilities.
This is how much the timeline perimeter has been narrowed.
The Elusive "Outside Cairo Hotel" Witness
Elusive Swiss witness Amine Benyahia (yet to surface after 5 years) would significantly help narrow down what happened outside. He used a car service next door to Nicole's hotel at Riad Hotel (but was not registered there). He was the only tourist heading to Qasr Ibn Wardan on March 31, 2007. He was the only tourist registered there. He paid for a hotel car service shared by Nicole's hotel. He wrote he was born 1984 in Algeria to Abbas Benyahia and Monica. The gatekeeper said he was Swiss and had 2007 passport no. 01939205. Nicole wrote in her diary that she had dinner March 14, 2007, with a Swiss man in Damascus (90 minutes away). It's unknown if Amine Benyahia is the "Swiss" man she wrote of. But neither has surfaced after 5 years. Amine Benyahia's name in Arabic and English are both very Google-able with this story.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Search of Amine Benyahia

Typical of a cold case closed, puzzle pieces were already there, when you look back in hindsight.

It was just hard early on to piece it together. So many possibilities, so many hopeful leads and so many questions misdirect you.

Today marks the 5th anniversary of (Jacqueline) Nicole Vienneau’s disappearance.

Canadian Prime Ministers & party leaders once lauded her late father David Vienneau's courage in The Toronto Star. While battling cancer, he moderated the national elections debate. Nicole Vienneau worked for a Blackberry email provider, an international school & a major real estate firm where she was well-loved and stood out in life. She's been a painter, athlete and seasoned traveller.

A blog featured in Wired by her brother Matthew Vienneau generated several hundred volunteer detectives who found 80% of hotel guests staying near Nicole—and even passengers of a bus she took.

Within the first 24 hours , blog readers tracked down her last whereabouts. Her luggage, handwritten plans, diaries and recent photos were all still at the hotel. Her photos and diary entries drew the perimeter and timeline of her last known activities and her next plans.

She tediously copied a map to her next destinations mysteriously left behind in her hotel room. She'd been to ruins at Apamea (yellow). Highlighted in red is where a hotel clerk said she was headed next: Beehive Houses (Sarouj) and a castle (Qasr Ibn Wardan). But no one en route reported seeing her--not even just outside her hotel. She had been seen daily before this.

Somehow in a 44-hour window she disappeared after arriving in a city where no one knew her. The area was too freshly foreign to her to make any plans on her own. She relied on others for immediate activities--guidance from English-speaking strangers travelling or working at the hotel. She made an itinerary only after meeting new people there. Only so much time was left in this 44-hour window to actually do things. Her activities and plans identified so far by her family readily fills out this timeline.

Her bank/email accounts were never used again after this timeline. Somehow she vanished fast after meeting only a few people in a place she'd never been. Likely anyone who caused a disappearance needed more than one hour of time with her away from public view. That's not a lot of possibilities in 44 hours.

She spent a day trip outside the city where she stayed overnight, leaving about 36 hours to disappear in a city where she spent 2 nights inside a hotel. This further narrowed down the possibilities to no more than a 20-hour window outside her room. In that 20-hour window, her family confirmed 8 of her activities (6 inside the hotel, 2 outside).

Nicole Vienneau was seen Friday, March 30, 2007, on a day trip at Apamea, Syria, reading a book there for hours. She later returned to her base at Cairo Hotel in Hama, Syria. It's unclear where she ate but at sunset (~ 8pm) she wrote in her diary, that she was "content." From that point, proof of life get less definitive. The FBI, RCMP and Microsoft helped track there was a failed Hotmail session in her email account at 8:30pm. There was a login and disconnection, likely from a web cafe near her hotel (its card left among Nicole's belongings there). One month after Nicole disappeared, the graveyard shift hotel clerk claimed he saw her Friday in the lobby at 11:30pm and then Saturday morning around 8:30am asking for a map to the bus stop. No one else reported seeing her in that window of time or after. The bus stop map was left in her hotel room. Six months after Nicole disappeared, American tourists registered Friday night, recalled seeing Nicole that night suggesting she see the Beehive Houses (Sarouj) for which she hand-drew a map. That map too was left behind.

Missing from her hotel belongings, a red cap and red shirt with white sleeves were likely worn by her. She was as visible as Santa Claus from a football field away. Her passport, hotel key, camera, blue windbreaker, and day pack (blue) were also gone. She likely wore khaki pants, missing from her hotel luggage.

None of her day-trip possessions were found since. Everything else was left behind. Private diaries would not have been willingly left behind. But more puzzling, why was a map to the bus stop (which the hotel clerk said she needed that morning) left behind?

Interpol, which has Nicole Vienneau's DNA and dental records, has so far not reported finding her.

* * *

For July 15, 2008, publication release, Lonely Planet referenced her for awareness on her planned route and in a section on tips for women. A blog summarizing case facts was tweeted daily for two years, reaching 122+ nations.

Nicole’s family even offered a reward.

But still, the most important witness, a Swiss traveller, whose name can readily be found by Google with Nicole’s story--in 2 languages he knows—has not surfaced after five years.

That elusive witness, who turned 23 in 2007, when Nicole disappeared, was the only tourist headed to where Nicole was headed. He was the only tourist registered in writing at that remote ancient castle Qasr Ibn Wardan near where Bedouin tribes roam.

He commissioned a car in a hotel (where he was not registered) next door to Nicole’s hotel.

He was driven by a private hotel tour car – a service shared with Nicole’s hotel.

Nicole was offered this car service by her hotel clerk but allegedly declined it, due to cost. However, it is very plausible she was offered a free ride by someone going there anyways. If she had taken the bus, she would have had to instead hitch-hike as a solo female traveller from the last bus stop to get to a remote castle (on a road with a 20-minute wait for a car sighting).

No mini-bus driver en route reported seeing Nicole. Her passport was not registered anywhere outside the hotel. No merchant has come forward to report seeing her that day anywhere en route.

Personal info of this Swiss witness going to the castle was found early on, and detailed enough to find him in the age of Internet profile pages.

The “Swiss” guy reported that he was born 1984 امين بن يحيى. (translated Amine Benyahia), son of Abbas Benyahia and Monica in Algeria. He had a 2007 (Swiss?) passport 01939205.

The gatekeeper said he was “Swiss.”

He was driven from Riad Hotel next door to Cairo Hotel (where Nicole stayed) by a car with license plate 028265. The driver's name Mohamed Khodr (an independent contractor) in Hama, Syria, was found by Nicole’s fiancé Gary Schweitzer who flew there many times to search for her, weeks at a time, along paths she mapped. The driver reported he did not see Nicole. Gary also went to the castle whose gatekeeper did not recall Nicole.

The tricky thing, however, about a disappearance, is that anyone could also be paid off or choosing to falsify/conceal facts when a possible serious crime is involved. You can’t fully tell who is telling the truth. Anyone, anywhere - between a hotel clerk (last to report seeing her Saturday morning) to a driver (of a ride the clerk says she never took in spite of offers) to a tourist site gatekeeper (who didn't recall seeing her) – could be offering a flawed witness report one month later. They were also not interviewed until more than 30 days after the disappearance. Who accurately remembers what they saw more than 30 days before? I wondered if a crystal clear account was valid or made up. Only Nicole's own images and handwriting were carved in stone.

Did she walk from Cairo Hotel to mini-bus stop spotted by no one?

Was she offered a free ride by car?
Hotel clerk reported spotting her 8:30 Saturday morning, March 31, 2007, and offered her a hotel car ride to her destination, but claimed she didn't like the cost and took a map to the bus stop instead. Even though the bus stop map was left behind, the hotel clerk claimed she left the hotel safe and sound that Saturday morning. No one but the clerk reported seeing her that day.

Dubiously, the hotel clerk had a history of taking money from a foreign woman who claimed he deceived her to get her money. He quit his job soon after Nicole's disappearance to open a juice business with this money. He was not exactly an upstanding citizen, who along with local political police, didn’t contact Canadian officials after Nicole's belongings were left at the hotel—for more than a month. Somehow in a few days, the “political police” also cleared Nicole of being a threat in the country (her visa expiring in days). A security clearance in any country usually takes more than a couple days. Did they know something immediately or was this just sloppy police work? No forensics were done on the hotel room. There's no such thing as CSI work here.

The web cafe whose card Nicole had also closed soon after her disappearance

* * *
Mysteriously, Nicole also wrote in her diary she had dinner with a nameless “Swiss” guy in Damascus (90 minutes away from Hama) on March 14, 2007, two weeks before she was last seen. That “Swiss” man mentioned in her journal has yet to surface even though he probably knows more about Nicole locally than any other witness found beyond the hotel clerk. It is not known if Amine Benyahia and the nameless “Swiss” guy are the same person. But they do share one thing in common besides being Swiss: Neither has surfaced to contact Nicole’s family after five years. Is it possible that you never look up someone again after having dinner? Or even look someone up online? The "Swiss man" or Amine Benyahia would be an invaluable witness to offer evidence and help relieve the burden of Nicole’s mother who continues to search for her daughter.

The most obscure witnesses have been found to date. Yet the most prominent witness who’s name and details were more in depth and searchable (online) than any other witness has yet to contact the family. Nor has any of his peers or acquaintances to help clear up this case.

There are men with this name and birth year that have been found on YouTube, LinkedIn, Skype and Facebook – even one who had classmates who travelled to Syria where Nicole was when she disappeared. But none have contacted the family. A French-speaking Abbas Benyahia in Algeria – same name and location as father of the Swiss witness Amine Benyahia--has even been found in an old genealogy discussion online but has not posted since.

Given Swiss witness Amine Benyahia travelling alone at age 23 was local to Nicole at an international hostel-like hotel next door, the following would be plausible for his profile:

Likely speaks English if he hung out with Nicole or even as a Swiss national whose mother is “Monica” (English name)

Likely speaks other languages – writes Arabic, may speak French too with roots in Algeria (and possibly Morocco where the Benyahia name is popular).

Likely a 23-year-old student in 2007 (or recent grad)

Financial means to travel

Solo traveler which means he is also fairly independent and adventurous

Likely, as a Swiss national, he travelled to career opportunities outside of Algeria (or Morocco where the Benyahia name is popular) to a more Western nation for financial gain.

Finding him would significantly reduce the burden of this search for Nicole Vienneau. It would be like filling a crossword puzzle of difficult clues. This is the most known clue to fill out the spaces and reduce the possibilities, to see this puzzle much better.

Circumstantial evidence such as Nicole leaving her tediously freshly handwritten instructions to her destinations in her hotel room made us question if she did indeed accept a guided car ride. Additionally, she did not take a map to the bus stop from the hotel which she needed that morning for any bus ride. It's hard to fathom why these written directions were left behind if she traveled by foot and bus in a foreign area for the first time where many people don't speak English to offer verbal directions. A free guided hotel car ride offer by someone going there anyways seemed plausible. Or did she not even make it that far? Was she kidnapped at her hotel room & transported by car? She had to disappear somehow invisible to public witnesses.

How else was she not seen outside the hotel walking around town? She wore colours as visible as Santa Claus in a city where many women are veiled. In any interaction with a merchant, she would memorably not be able to speak the local language. No witness reported seeing her walking outside the hotel that day, yet she was seen everyday beforehand in witness reports. During her family and fiance's search, you could easily randomly bump into someone who knew about her disappearance. Missing Person posters were plastered along her route.

Amine Benyahia is the biggest known key to close to many unanswered questions and will likely reduce search possibilities by more than half.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What I Saw

Of course it would be one of my closest friends this week who would ask. A question no one else would ask.

What did I see just before my brother died?

Although it was only one day -- in my memory, I remember it as 21 days in one.

He was only 29, and I never thought he would deserve this, or leave this life before me. Four years have passed, and maybe, right now I can actually write about it. I have tried many times before, even in metaphors. But no matter what, it felt self-indulgent. Why am I writing this? For me? For him? For you? I didn't know. He is gone and he won't come back.

I recently read Neil Peart's Ghost Rider about a 55,000 mile journey to just keep going (just to stay alive). Motion, he wrote, was healing. He had lost his wife to cancer. Ten months earlier, they had lost their only child, a daughter, 19 (in a car accident on Highway 401).

I'd lost my brother, 29, to cancer, and watched him pass away in front of me. A year before (same month), I had also lost a friend, 32, who was very close to me in my history (we'd traveled 6 months together). She just vanished off the face of the earth in a distant land we can't easily get to...whose language doesn't even have an alphabet.

It was comforting to know someone else out there knew what I was experiencing. Not that I'd ever wish this upon anyone. It just helped you refrain from self-pity. There are always people out there who have gone through far worse.

Admittedly, the Kennedys entered my head. We all shared something only we knew.

* * *

I didn't ask if there was a God? But I've always known there were sporting gods.

My friend Tony at Toronto's Il Gatto Nero agreed to bring my New York Yankees shirt with Andy Pettitte's name (to be donated to a stranger) and my late brother's NY hat to Yankee Stadium -- to Monument Park to honor my brother. It was a New York vs New York Subway Series in May. Mets vs Yankees. I picked Pettitte because he needed some superstitious help, after being embroiled in a scandal with Roger Clemens. And this is a true story: after Tony dropped off the hat and shirt, the New York Yankees later won the 2009 World Series and Andy Pettitte, a 3rd starter with an unlikely chance to get 2 World Series wins, won 2 games! The second win, won it all.

I went to New York City right after. This was the first New York Yankees World Series Championship team after 9/11. A weight had been lifted. The players had felt it too.

My friend Kim called me long distance nearly everyday for 3 months after my brother died to make sure I was okay. She once worked for me briefly before and actually returned her last pay cheque because she felt she didn't do a good enough job. Who does that?! Only someone special. Once I gave her a $60 shoe store credit I couldn't use in August, 2007, because I was leaving town. She kept it for 6 months and gave it back in February 2008! In January, 2009, at her home, she made snacks, as we watched the Superbowl. I was the only Pittsburgh Steelers fan in the house. I had even brought my terrible yellow towel, waving it in ecstacy, shouting in a silent room. The Steelers had won the Superbowl!

That was so good.

As if I were not spoiled enough, the Los Angeles Lakers won NBA Championships in 2009 and 2010 (beating the Boston Celtics in a hair-raising series). These were all my childhood teams, since before my brother was born.

who da man!

The kicker was when the Montreal Canadiens barely made the 2010 playoffs. I was tweeting with my hockey hero Bob Gainey's daughter that year. She had lost her mother to cancer and her sister at sea. Miraculously, Montreal beat the Washington Capitals in Game 7. They somehow next made it to a final Game 7 facing the Pittsburgh Penguins. These two teams had the best two NHL players - Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Even the minds of the greatest believers with the strongest faith know it is unthinkable for the lowest ranking team to beat the top two teams with the best 2 players in the NHL. The ghosts of the old Montreal Forum were definitely in the house helping out.

Bob Gainey's kid told us all to do something for good karma that day. It had to be immediate too! I immediately gave my car to a friend so she could make her job interview. Miraculously, Montreal won a second Game 7 (do or die)! Even though they didn't win the Stanley Cup, what they did already was much harder, strange as that is to say.

My friend who borrowed my car got the job flying around the world.

Bob Gainey's kid notified us she got accepted on a trip to Antarctica. I wrote to her to bring the Habs flag and plant it there and she did!

I had not experienced so much joy.

Yet it didn't change how I felt about my brother leaving this planet too soon or the angst I felt about what happened to my friend who disappeared. Or my fear, of losing someone else.

People who are living truly become casualties when a loved one dies or disappears. My mother and her husband (second marriage) were never the same, losing their only child. I help my missing friend's mom look for her daughter everyday. As a kid, I knew my friend's mom before my friend was even born. As a journalist, I had worked with my friend's late dad who moderated Canada's national elections debate on television.

After these great personal losses, it was very hard to listen to the pettier problems of life. The bullshit meter goes up. And it was not until after these tragedies, did I truly see how petty many things are. That's coming from someone who has always made an effort think bigger than petty.

So many people made their small problems way bigger than the great loss I secretly felt inside. And yet I couldn't say a word about my problems. My problems truly couldn't be fixed.

It was particularly hard to listen to someone complain (3 nights) about not getting 10 cents back for wine bottles because another friend took them. Sorry friend, it was hard for me to hear that. It was hard also to hear about people complaining about people for no good reason.

I have a photographic memory, memories linger often, and it was hard to have these thoughts embedded in my head continuously.

At least people you complain about are alive. You should be grateful. I thought. I then hated myself for being that judgmental (truth be told). This is not who I was. I was once bigger than that. That person was gone.

I was living in the shadows of my past with no future foreseen.

How could I function in a world that didn't see or care as much? I think that's why many people who lose loved ones stay in hibernation.

* * *

It was my first experience seeing a baby I had held, later pass away in life. But death is ultimately a rite of life. No one gets to choose when.


On February 27, 2008, my late brother emailed his last words to me. "Happy Birthday." We were in two cities. I was in New York City. He was north of Toronto.

On February 29, 2008, it was as leap year, I saw Kate Sland sing at Caffe Vivaldi. I would not return here again until fall of 2009. In the summer of 2009, I remember writing to Kate who reached out, and telling her, "my heart is on crutches." I truly didn't feel good about myself or life. But art still kept me going. That felt good.

I was still building things that mattered and supporting things that meant a lot.

I remember humming one of Kate's songs Sell Out while walking alone in the forest the day she wrote. She gave me the chords later.

* * *

Earlier on February 29, 2008, I got invited to visit the Tenement Museum and I remember walking by Eldridge in East Village and feelin' something bad had happened to my brother suddenly. Stolen Car was the last song I sung to him. There's a line in it that says: "I'm driving a stolen car, down on Eldridge Avenue. Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do."

I remember singing that song while he was battling cancer, thinking living life is like cheating death. On March 1, 2008, in my room at Cosmopolitan Hotel, I got the news that something horrible was about to happen at the hospital with my brother.

I took a picture of that moment, tried to write.
But couldn't finish.

I took a picture of the clock. I was told this was the moment between hope and despair. Simultaneously, I had to prepare for a meeting with the Grammy Awards and my brother's death.

I walked around bewildered at night from Tribeca to Ground Zero and photographed people standing on snow about to disappear, staring into a hole in the heart of New York City, bigger than anyone could comprehend.

The last TV show I saw with my brother was the Grammy Awards. Kanye West was singing to his late mother. The last movie I saw with him was Pursuit of Happyness. A re-run, I hadn't noticed Happyness was spelled wrong until my brother pointed it out.

Later in February, 2008, I was in New York meeting someone from the Grammy Awards for a photo project - a project to photograph the meaning of music grassroots. I had flown from Vancouver where I gave a fundraising speech for this project.

Above was the most recent 2008 vision. People would upload what inspired them in music - moments, messages, and dedications. Below was an earlier concept drafted in fall, 2007.

I showed this 4 years later to Tracy Thorne who works at Caffe Vivaldi today. I still take pictures of her:

Tracy Thorne, May 9, 2011, Caffe Vivaldi.

Originally, the Grammy meet up was suppose to be at Caffe Vivaldi for Kate Sland's show February 29, 2008. I had storyboarded the Grammy demo during one of my famous talking-to-myself sessions in front of Kate. But my Grammy friend was under the weather and we had to postpone.

We'd have our Grammy meeting ultimately at The Coffee Shop a few days later in Union Square instead. While I was there Jason Darling's Systems was playing. I literally had just seen him sing it at Caffe Vivaldi:

"We happy few, we band of brothers."

It was like some strange force had traveled with me from Caffe Vivaldi in Greenwich Village to The Coffee Shop in Union Square to inspire this meet up. Music has a way of getting around in special ways.

I had already found out my brother had only a little time left in life. And I think the song helped me focus.

My Grammy Awards friend visiting from LA told me she was moving to New York. We had discussed the Grammy Awards technology partnership with Apple and Google already in place, and how we could be placed next. I was humbled we were being considered. Live Earth which reached 2 billion music fans spoke highly of our photo project which powered Live Earth photos. She asked if I could meet her in Los Angeles on March 19, 2008, to be introduced to all the management there face to face before she moved to New York soon after.

I didn't know when my brother would die, so I told her I would have to get back to her. I didn't even know when I could get back to her. She didn't know then what I had known about my brother. Who tells the Grammy Awards you will have to get back?! I knew I had to go to LA. I had written so many notes to people there whom I had never met who really loved the stories of Artists I saw who sang/played their hearts out in New York. This was what music was about.

After the Grammy meet up in New York City, I drove through a blizzard (zero visibility before Buffalo) to make it back on time in Toronto.

It was March 6, 2008. I went to Il Gatto Nero, my sports hangout, and sat next to Leo. Leo had seen the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1967, when TV was black/white. I told him my brother would not have much longer to live and I wanted to give him his last Toronto Maple Leafs play-by-play and was here to watch the game to do so.

Been sitting next to Leo and the boys for years.

Miraculously, the Toronto Maple Leafs pummelled the Boston Bruins 8-2. The Leafs have never played that well ever since. That was the longest play by play I would have to give him in my life.

Knowing the purpose of my night, Leo and I jumped up and down as if The Toronto Maple Leafs had won the Stanley Cup. Brian McCabe scored and had an assist!

I drove to the hospital. It was a cold but visible winter night. Princess Margaret hospital is practically synonymous with cancer patients. I remember the waiting room had a lot of paperback books on murder and true crime. I wondered if that was therapeutic somehow.

My brother was in and out of morphine, in and out of consciousness. I gave him his last play by play. I still remember his words as he came to sometimes. "The Leafs won?!" "8-2?!" "Bryan McCabe scored?!" He had a look of disbelief. I know. Who would believe that game summary. It never happened again since. Uniquely, he left life a winner as a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. The score was so incredible I wondered if he thought I was making it up. But I never make sports up.

After midnight came, March 7, arrived. It was our mother's birthday. He said, "Happy Birthday, mom." Those were the last words I heard come out of his mouth.

On March 7, he couldn't talk anymore. His followers and friends came to visit. He was a championship swimmer in Ontario, an award-winning performance car owner, a night club promoter (1500-3000 people weekly), and President of a charity (10,000 members).

November 18, 2006...some of his people.

He didn't have a real job ever aside from helping my second cousin launch two hotels in Beijing for the Olympics. It seemed he was in school, forever. I never remember him complaining once in his life, not even until his last breath.

And as I told my friend (who asked the question), it never looked like he was even going to die, until he finally died.

* * *

Earlier, I was waiting at Gladstone Hotel trying to chillout for the moment of death. It was hard. Sandra Oh was actually at the next table rehearsing around 3pm on March 7, 2008. A friend we sponsored to bike 1000 miles to interview and photograph people in rural communities accompanied me. She took pictures for us at Live Earth. She later worked for Obama's digital agency (same person I lent my car to go to job interview). We had partnered with the team at Live Earth. They asked people at 11,000 locations to take pictures using our service around the world. At the Gladstone Hotel, I finally got the call. I remember telling my friend, "I have to go, my brother's about to die." Sandra Oh overheard.

She might have even recognized me. She followed me to the bathroom (coincidentally or not I don't know) and we gave each other looks, but i couldn't say hi. I was focused on what was happening next. I first met Sandra in 1994 when she was working on Mina Shum's film Double Happiness. I then randomly saw her - i think new year's eve 1997-1998. That was 10 years before.

I calmly drove to the hospital not knowing what to think. A friend of Tom Morello and my Live Earth friend told me they would take me out for a happy dinner on Spadina Avenue later. It made sense. Who wanted to feel crushed later?

That March 7, I saw my brother shake 100-200 hands, unable to speak, and die. That was the last thing I saw. Wordless, but so classy.

When the funeral was booked March 15, 2008, I was able to tell folks at the Grammy Awards that I could arrive for a March 18/19, meeting, in Santa Monica. The funeral overflowed into the parking lot where attendees had to listen on outdoor PA. I had no idea what state I would be in, in LA, but music mattered most to my brother. His last text message to me explained lyrics of Talib Kweli while I saw him sing live at the Highline December 30, 2007, in New York City.

Driver asks me when Talib Kweli is coming out after the show.

After the funeral, I had to prepare a speech and presentation about what photos meant in music and what music meant today in photos. In the Grammy board room, I remember surveying how many people had read Eat Pray Love. I forget why I referenced it, but i know it was to feel a pulse during the speech. Many in the room had "just" read it. Things like that time stamp a year or even a month. I remember there being grand piano behind me and I imagined Eric Lewis and Kate Sland playing piano behind me to give me strength to speak about what made music matter. Speech-makers always search for strength.

Grammy Awards (NARAS) board room

I had written about shows performed by Eric Lewis at old Zinc bar and by Kate Sland at Caffe Vivaldi to Grammy team, which inspired them. One November 16, 2007, email was written at 6:06 am after a very late set by Eric Lewis at Zinc. He played a 12-15 minute riff that put everyone in a trance. I wrote a speech on why music is the hardest job in the world after watching his upright player walk home with upright on back & 2 speakers in each hand. I remember asking him, after 4 am, "you're going to walk home like that?" When I arrived into the Grammy board room, after emailing all these stories, the first words the boss said to me to break the ice were: "I feel I already know you."


Life changed after my brother died. I buried my head in creativity and just let it take me where it would. We launched an Arts Patronage movement before Kickstarter was known. When I did return to New York in the Fall of 2009. Kate Sland sang for me, Lake Erie.

Kate's character has been tested many times. And like my brother, I've never seen her complain when many do. She helped me heal so much.

In January, 2011, suddenly Kate lost her sister at age 34 in her sleep. I couldn't believe it. How could this happen to us! Knowing what I had gone through, I told her to get back on the horse immediately and start singing and quoted one of her songs. "There's enough time to sleep in the grave." It was too easy to sink in life otherwise.

Our family at Caffe Vivaldi has been so amazing. When you see life and death flash before your eyes, you start to see which people really stand out in life. And that is all you can see at Caffe Vivaldi. Thank you so much, good people.

The special friends and kindness of strangers who keep faith in the human race make life so worth living.

P.S. This is only covers Part I of II. Part II would probably ask what happened to that company I launched from scratch that partnered with Live Earth, an event inspiring 2 billion people. I take music photos to this day because of that project. I found out I had raised $250,000 in Vancouver, the day my brother died, to do more, but life had other plans.