Making the Business of Life Easier

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The Outsiders
Summer: 3

Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

By Margaret Philp with photographs by Patti Gower

Not long after, Fred Dunn appears, in one hand a grimy plastic bag of empty beer bottles he has scavenged, in the other, a freezer bag of clippings of newspaper articles with his scrawled notes in the margins.

He is wearing skimpy track shorts, revealing scrawny legs that are nothing but rock-hard muscle. The skin sags on his pencil-thin arms. Wisps of red hair spill out from the sides of his Danforth Lumber baseball cap.

He is an old man, his eyes sad and watery, his voice wavering.

Fred eyes Kurt suspiciously. He thinks him a nice enough fellow, always courteous and friendly, but a young man like that panhandling for his daily bread is a colossal waste.

He will mumble a polite hello as he trudges by on his regular walk downtown to The Good Shepherd soup kitchen for coffee and a stale pastry. Clutching his little plastic tray in the food line, the smell of antiseptic competing with the stench of unwashed bodies, he regards himself as somehow distinct from the homeless men who depend on the soup-kitchen's charity.

Fred is carting the bottles he found to the beer store for a refund of 10 cents apiece. He collects no old-age pension, though in his life he has held all manner of jobs, including lab technician, carpenter and bowling-pin setter. His principles, stubbornly held, forbid it:

  • No resourceful, able-bodied man like himself should rely on the government for his livelihood. "I get by," he says. "Not luxuriously, but things are going my way. Money isn't everything."
  • Women are still being oppressed in a society dominated by men subconsciously envious of their ability to give birth.
  • The number of homeless people on Toronto's streets is being exaggerated by self-serving antipoverty advocates.
Fred lives next to a running track used by students at Rosedale Heights Secondary School. He moved to this spot 12 years ago when he reached retirement age, wanting nothing more than to run.

At 77, he is convinced that through perseverance and hard work he can break the world record for the 100-metre dash and humiliate cocky, muscle-bound sprinters one-third his age.

He wears a red plastic stopwatch around his neck at all times, a gift from the high-school gym teacher who marches students down to the field.

And he trains. He runs with a huge length of timber balanced on his bony shoulder, sprinting along the track or bounding up the sides of the ravine.

The 80-pound log he calls his Ode to Joy, the title of a poem he composed years ago. His steel-trap mind rewinds to decades-old poetry in a heartbeat, and he launches into verse mid-sentence like a performer in a musical breaking into song.

 All life is precious
 Seek not to destroy
 We should to respect, protect, not neglect
 Planet Earth and its inhabitants.
 It's our home.

At the mouth of the woods leading to Fred's camp is a curious miscellany of artifacts scavenged from garbage cans and building dumpsters over the years.

Thirteen pairs of running shoes are lined up in a row at the forest doorstep with a collection of soccer balls. Beside them is a peace monument, a bunch of plastic flowers surrounded by paving stones painted lime green with the words "In This World Peace."

Up the slope to his hermitage are shovels and old brooms painted green, a slab of wood with the words "Camp Goodwill" scrawled in marker, a rusted rollerskate, metres of rolled-up snow fence, hockey sticks and ski poles suspended in trees, sports bags, plastic buckets for food wedged one inside the other to outwit hungry raccoons, mountains of yellowing books covered by tarps, a broken garden statue of a little man in a top hat that for a split second looks alive.

In this ordered chaos, everything has its place.

Fred sleeps on a piece of raised plywood on a slab of foam beneath layers of sleeping bags and blankets, a blue tarp draped over him the only protection from the wind and rain.

He slept in a tent years ago, but was attacked one night by a stranger whom he fended off with a baseball bat and he no longer feels safe confined by four nylon walls. He still lies with a bat at his side.

To Fred, this is home. He is no more homeless than his Rosedale neighbours atop the hill. "This is my training camp," he says. "If I wanted a room, I'd have it. I'm doing it my way. I don't want to stay here forever, but it's serving my purposes right now."

For a lifetime, he has soldiered alone. Fred was born out of wedlock in 1923, the son of a wealthy livestock merchant named Frederick William Dunn, who refused to risk his upstanding name and the reputation of his business, Dunn and Levack, by confessing to be his father.

Fred's mother was from a working-class family who was institutionalized with tuberculosis when he was a toddler of 2 and died in a Hamilton sanatorium when he was 6.

His only memories of his mother come from the stories of an uncle and from an old photograph he inherited after his father's death. In it, she is wearing a white dress with a dove in her hand and a banner bearing the word "peace" draped across her chest.

His obsession with world peace dates back to that cherished image, as if his mother were commanding him from the grave to bear the message.

But invested in the photograph is a lifetime of yearning for his mother, of wishing for the life that would have been. "She was a stranger to me," he says sadly.

 I never knew my mother
 But I have a lock of her hair.
 I never knew my mother
 It was curly and fair.
 Long years ago I lost it
 In my travels I know not where.
 I never knew my mother
 But I had a lock of her hair.

He was raised as Fred Watt by strict foster parents who seldom spared the rod. The husband was a tinsmith, and the family lived in a working-class neighbourhood near Toronto's stockyards in the west end.

He knew his real father, who would pay fleeting visits under an assumed name, bearing a chocolate bar or a pocketful of change to assuage his guilt.

The Dunns lived in a grand house with a turret on a leafy downtown street near Trinity-Bellwoods Park. Only at 16, when his real father died, did Fred discover his true lineage from an uncle and change his name to Dunn.

For years, he worked as a carpenter. When he was 29, he served a six-month jail sentence in Guelph for writing bad cheques. "I'm not proud of it," he says. "I was there for a reason. To learn something.

"Since then, I realized what I did was small in comparison to the cigarette companies. Screw the other guy. Screw the other guy. You learn from life. You learn from life."

Shortly after his release, in a foreshadowing of life in the ravine, he moved outdoors to a park near the stockyards in the area he was raised. But in an era when authorities were bent on locking up people betraying hints of mental illness, he was strapped into a straitjacket and whisked away to the psychiatric hospital. He still angrily recalls the indignity of shock treatments.

This was when Fred started to run and, in a conversation with a clergyman one day, concocted the idea of founding the Goodwill Athletic Club, an organization for children of all colours and creeds that would blend his twin obsessions for sprinting and world peace. It remains a figment of his imagination.

He started to write poetry, scribbling down lines of verse on the margins of books, in the blank space of newspapers.

And he harboured political aspirations. In middle age, he twice ran for mayor of Toronto. In his first bid in 1982, he garnered 1,000 votes even after refusing to answer telephone calls from confounded journalists covering the campaign. In his second race two years later, he was described by one reporter as the "farthest-out fringer of all."

Now, he is truly on the fringe, living in a ravine as a refugee from society, writing earnest poetry in the woods.

Fred recites one of his compositions, a poem inspired by a street nurse who sometimes visits his training camp. He has fallen madly, hopelessly in love with her, to the point that the mere thought of her can provoke tears.

 Despite the fact my sight
 Isn't what it used to be
 I see many, many things
 Dark, dark is the night.

 He breaks off, hanging his head and stifling sobs.

 I'll hold my candle up high
 Shedding some light.

He stops again. Silence. "Oh why does a person have to be so emotional?" he cries, plainly disgusted with himself.

One night, when the nurse was on holidays, Fred awakened in the dead of the night, sat on the edge of his bed and wept. "I was thinking about all the kindness and gentleness and warmth that I've missed out on all my life."

Summer Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Autumn Part 1  Part 2  Part 3
Winter Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4
Full Photo GalleryBehind the Story

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