Tent City: A Quick Explanation
Tent City is not a city and we don’t live in tents. We live in shacks and shanties on the edge of Canada’s largest metropolis where the river meets the lake. There’s a fence dividing these 27 acres from the rest of Toronto, and on this side we’ve built what dwellings we can with the rubble of a scrapyard, a no-man’s landfill caught in confusion between the city and private business. Sometimes it seems like a community and sometimes like chaos. Junk Town would be a better name.
Picture a dump, littered with the cast-outs of the last millennium. Refrigerators, stuffed animals, shoes, original paintings on torn canvasses, photo albums, three hundred broken bicycles and toboggans and hockey sticks, TVs and microwaves, lamps and cash registers, headless Cabbage Patch Kids and enough books to start a library or a bookstore or your own education.
Now picture dozens of the country’s thieves and drug addicts, vagabonds and ex-cons. They’re drunk, hungry and tired of running. It’s getting old and getting cold, and one night they find themselves in this place, with the rest of the discards, on the edge of the world but smack in the middle of it all.
They look around and realize that everything they’ve been hustling for is right here: stereos and VCRs, room to move, a perfect hideout and waterfront property. They aren’t way out in the lonesome countryside or the goddamn suburbs or trapped in the same old city. In fact, the city looks perfect from here — the lake, the downtown high-rises, the sun setting beneath the tallest free-standing structure in the world — it’s like a picture postcard. And best of all, there are no laws and no cops — as long as they stay this side of the fence. It’s all private property. No one can tell them what to do, no one but Home Depot, the company that owns this land.
So they dig into a corner of the rubble for something they can use to build. There’s so much, they could make anything. But for now they just throw together a few shelters using tarps and old office furniture. They buy some beer, light a fire, call it Tent City and decide to stay. The smoke rises for everyone to see, like a warning or an invitation. They drink and wait.
For almost four years people have been squatting here, and now some days the population reaches sixty or so. The singularity of this place has drawn media attention from all over the world, as well as a flood of well-meaning, but mostly redundant, donations — if only salvation could be bought with wool hats and toothbrushes. This remains, as much as such a thing is possible, a society of anarchy.
The rules are made up nightly. Repercussions are rarely considered in advance, or recorded for future reference. It is a useful, using and sometimes useless place. The castoffs of the megacity are snatched up, played with, eaten, worn, painted over and tossed into the mud. China plates are disposable, pillowcases never washed. If this place has a credo, it is: Grab what you can, stay drunk and mind your own damn business.
The protocol for moving into Tent City is one of invitation or recommendation. I unknowingly broke protocol. I came without a clue and nothing to lose, to learn about this place, write a book and live rent free. During the month I’ve spent so far, I’ve realized there is no one way to live here and a hundred possible stories to be written. Some people beg, some squeegee windows, some steal, some work jobs, some sell themselves, sell others, sell drugs. Most do drugs, some do nothing at all. I don’t yet know what I’m going to do.
The rules I’ve set for myself are simple: no money or friends, except those I might find from here on in. I’ll do what others do to get by, be whatever bum I choose: vagrant, beggar, wino, criminal, busker, con man or tramp, on any given day.
What follows is a record of my time in Tent City.November: The Invisible Streetcar
I’d hoped to start writing yesterday, but then the soldiers were coming at us across the field, I couldn’t find a pen or paper, and I started to shake.
It was my first night in Toronto and I stayed at the Salvation Army shelter down on Sherbourne Street on the east side of Moss Park. On the west side of the park is the Department of National Defence Military Academy. Across from that is an army surplus store where I plan to get my supplies.
The DND trains teenage militia on the turf of Moss Park. Being the Canadian army, they practise strategic advance without even blanks in their rifles. Late at night they charge across the football field toward the homeless shelter, giggling as they shoot each other, yelling, “Bang! Bang! Bang!”
This span of Queen Street, running along the south edge of the park, is covered with junkies, dealers, hookers and cops. And last night I sat among them, smoking and shaking on the Salvation Army steps — trying to alert the others to the attacking soldiers. In no condition to fight, I gave out as many cigarettes as I could and wedged myself in between the toughest and craziest — to my right, 300 pounds of muscle just released from prison, to my left, some guy trying to think of every B word he could and yelling them out in bursts of triumph: “Beer! Beaver! Bread! Bobby Brown!” The soldiers were firing. As if shot, an old man with a nicotine Santa beard lay on his back on the sidewalk singing demonic opera in a dozen voices from falsetto to basso profundo. “O solo frio
. Me loony! Me loony! Old man shiver!”
“Barbecue! Blister! Baby brother! Banana!”
“I’m going to kill you, you bitch!”
“Bang! Bang! I got you, dude.”
I dropped my head and stared into the dark space between my knees, shivering and shaking.
Later it got worse. I was lying on a cot and it was as if there were small quakes inside me, my right arm jumping all over, my hand like an electrocuted squid. Even if I could find a pen
, I thought, I couldn’t hold one long enough to write
. And I couldn’t sleep either, with the sweats and the sound of the guy on the cot next to me alternating all night between violent snoring and savage masturbation, like a man trying to tear himself apart.
I left there as soon as the sun came up, and now I’ve got myself a room at Filmores — a cheap hotel and strip club on Dundas Street. I kind of like the place. It’s an old brick building with a streetcar track out front, so that every seven minutes or so my room shakes, and then for a moment it’s as if I’m at peace and I belong here, shaking in a shaking room.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Down to This by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. Copyright © 2004 by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.