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GiveLife.ca

    
The Outsiders
Winter: 3

Intro
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

It is a breathlessly cold morning, corn snow and ice patches covering the road, and Jerry is late for work again. He jogs along the path from his spot under the bridge, tumbling out of the ravine with a brand-new bicycle balanced on his shoulder. His mother lent him a few hundred dollars to buy the bike after a truck rolled over the last one.

He looks exhausted, his eyes puffy and red. His mouth is dry. He was drinking last night at the warm spot -- he guesses he guzzled about 16 beers -- and he slept two hours longer this morning than he should have.

Jerry and Harriet used to talk about leaving the ravine, finding a place and living as ordinary people do. But since her death, with only himself to look after, it seems like too much trouble.

"Even if I had a place," he says, "I'd still come out here and sleep because it's so peaceful. I get a kick out of listening to the trees. I've seen woodpeckers doing their mating dance. It's amazing.

"It's a very peaceful place. I hate it, but I like it."

Several blocks away is a bridge where Simon sometimes parks the street patrol van, far below the crisscross of metal rafters and beams where a chained bicycle and dangling winter scarf betray the unlikely signs of human life.

Simon leaves sandwiches for an elusive man he has nicknamed Batman, living as he has for three years in the rafters of the bridge like a bat hanging from the roof of a barn.

Once Batman corrected him, pointing out that he was more like Spiderman clambering across the lofty span of the bridge. But most of the time, silence greets Simon as he cups his mouth and hollers to its hidden heights.

One day, a man with a red beard is sitting high in the girders of a bridge a few storeys above the rocky ground, his legs dangle jauntily, his back to the rush-hour traffic. He holds a litre bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other. This is Batman.

Hanging from a concrete pillar is a Venetian blind fluttering in the icy wind, behind it layers of cardboard and blankets. Across from it, leaning against an opposite pillar, is Batman's home, a sheet of cardboard held in place with a broken chair.

The pillars holding up the bridge are U-shaped, their deep indents providing three solid walls and plenty of room for a man to sleep in glorious privacy, safe from the whistling wind and rain.

Behind the blinds is Batman's neighbour, a clean-shaven native man who dashes around the city on a bicycle he locks to the bridge rafters. He is neat, sweeping his patch of concrete with an old broom, shaving his whiskers in the washroom of a nearby gas station. He claims to have lived under the bridge off and on for the past eight years, drawn to the ravine, which he considers "sacred."

Batman deftly manoeuvres through the rafters, ducking his head to miss beams without breaking stride. But in a drunken stupor, he has already missed a step, crashing down about 30 feet to the loose dirt and rock halfway down the ravine, by luck suffering only cuts and bruises.

He sees people coming. From his perch, he waves them away frantically, his limbs jerking uncontrollably. As they approach, he bolts like a skittish animal, throwing his sleeping bag over a shoulder and almost running along the length of the rafter before jumping down and disappearing over the crest of the ravine.

Several kilometres to the north, where the Don splits into two branches, another fugitive creature is at home.

Peter's tent looks forlorn in the snow, a rustic sight but for the glint of cars in the backdrop tearing down the Don Valley Parkway.

He lifts the flap of his tent, releasing a gust of putrid air reeking of feces. The tent is riddled with gaping holes. In a few places, the rips are sewn closed with strips of plastic tarp in even stitches.

He stares out of the tent, his eyes wide and uncomprehending like a deer in the headlights. He is caked in filth, wearing the same shredded jacket sewn together with pieces of string as two months ago. Does he need anything? Food? Clothes? He whispers something inaudible. Pardon? "Change," he breathes. "Do you have any change?"

Inside the tent is a bed streaked with grime and coated with food crumbs. There is a blanket and thin sleeping bag, and three pillows turned the colour of a tea stain. The cover of the top pillow is worn away to the synthetic fill. Scattered on the floor are empty milk cartons and tetra-pak boxes of juice, a box of matches, a small pile of coins.

Peter holds his stubbled chin in his hands. The entire back of one hand is the mottled red of a healed burn. Suddenly, he dissolves into giggles, hiding his face in his hand, then stopping as abruptly as he started.

How old is he? Twenty-one, he replies. Where is he from? He answers with a blank stare. Is he from Toronto? "Yes," he nods. Another burst of giggles, then silence. He lowers the tent flap a notch. Does he want to be left alone? "Yes."

Left alone to sleep amid his own urine and defecation, to drink from the polluted Don River, to wear thin, tattered clothes in the dead of winter.

Only when he is handed a bag of groceries one day does his guard drop, his face shining with raw pleasure. Does he like this food? "Oh yes," he chirps like a child tearing into a gift. "I like it."
 

Intro
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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