He left home for the West Coast when he was 16 to make a name for himself in music.
But fame was always just out of reach for Bruce Sauer. His hopes crumbled into a life of eking out a meagre existence playing music on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and carving soapstone pipes.
As Sauer’s dreams of stardom faded, so did the frequency of his calls and visits to his family back in Alberta.
“He was pretty much following his musical dream,” said Sauer’s brother, Bill Olsen. “Through the seventies and eighties, Vancouver was the place to be if you were in the entertainment industry and he’d kind of hang with that sort of business.
“He would fall in and out of home. He’d show up with no place to live and Mom would take him in for a while and he’d do some things.
“He had big dreams that never materialized.”
It had been nearly 12 years since Olsen, 60, had seen Sauer, who is 11 months his junior. He didn’t know if his brother was alive or dead until a Canadian Press photo feature on the Downtown Eastside last year.
A photo booth was set up for residents to pose for pictures. The project aimed to look beyond the gritty appearances of the people who inhabit the hardscrabble neighbourhood. Some who stopped said they hoped friends and relatives would see the photos and know they were still around.
Olsen did just that, recognizing a grey-haired man with a beard and a patch over one eye.
“My sister was watching TV and all of a sudden she caught a glimpse of him. And thank God for the Internet … I spotted it there,” Olsen said. “I haven’t heard from my brother and there he is. I miss having him in my life. I just turned 60 and he will be 60 in December so here it is — two ageing gentlemen not having contact, and that’s sad.”
Olsen said he and his siblings were born in Calgary and then moved to Edmonton, where they grew up.
He said Sauer didn’t react well to their father, who was a “very strict and harsh disciplinarian.”
“I do remember one day when Bruce came in high and Dad had been out working construction and Bruce got the worst of it. It wasn’t like he got scolded. Dad was very physical,” Olsen recalled. “I think that memory resonated with Bruce a lot because with Dad, if you stepped out of line, you got it.”
Olsen said he last saw his brother at Edmonton’s Fringe Festival in 2002, where Bruce set up his booth on Whyte Avenue to sell pipes.
Olsen said Sauer wears an eye patch because he has Bell’s palsy, a facial nerve condition.
Sauer is listed as a renter in a Downtown Eastside hotel, but couldn’t be reached for comment.
Olsen is teaching in Nunavut, but hopes to travel to Vancouver to meet with his brother when he returns to his home to Hanna, Alta., in June.
He is desperate to reconnect. He lost touch with his sister Sharon years ago and the family didn’t learn of her death until she had been buried in a pauper’s grave.
“He could die without a next of kin and he would be buried in a pauper’s grave without anybody at the funeral,” Olsen said. “It was bad enough having a sister go that way – I don’t want my brother going that way either.”