God's Front-line Surgeon

KENNETH BAGNELL September 17 1966

God's Front-line Surgeon

KENNETH BAGNELL September 17 1966


They’re pint-sized hustlers in a neon jungle, plying their Alger trade untel the next cop comes along

THE KID'S VOICE is high-pitched and his eyes are big and appealing. "Shine, mister?” he asks, as though his next meal depended on the answer.

Several hard hearts pass him by and feel guilty for it. They don t really need shines but they feel guilty just the same.

Finally the boy lands a customer. Quickly he’s down on his haunches beside the homemade shoeshine box with the kid-letters on the side reading CLASS SHOESHINE. He works furiously and finishes the way he started — with a flourish.

“How much?" the customer asks. Now he’s trapped.

The kid lowers his head innocently. “Name your own price, he says. The man digs out 50 cents and walks off, convinced he s done something to give a poor boy a hand.

And. in a way, he has. For that’s how you work the shoeshine business if you happen to be one of a dozen kids who ply their trade in Toronto, in front of hotels and bars and railway stations, hustling through long evenings to average about $1.15 an hour. 1 he boys seen here work the Yonge-and-Dundas corner, and to them night in a big city is hamburger joints and cut-rate record shops and rockand-roll music that spews, along with the drunks, from cheap bars.

They go to school in the daytime, these kids, but they learn just

It's shine, move along, count it up, and doze

Their nights are filled with people, the noises and smells of downtown streets, and with weariness. They hustle their trade on Toronto street corners, outside bars and hotels — innocent-shrewd and watchful for shabby shoes and soft hearts. The price? They cunningly leave it to you, and if you’re in an amiable mood, you overpay. The friendly but firm cop says, “Time to take a walk, boys," and they move on — till he's out of sight. And at night's end there's a pocketful of silver to count and feel proud of — their own money, they earned it.

as much at night, and maybe more. Like how to cadge two bucks from a drunk. Or what to do when a cop comes by and says, “Time to take a walk, boys.” You never argue with a cop. “We just pretend we're leaving,” one kid explains, “and as soon as the cop's a little way down the street, we sneak back.”

Do these kids have to live this way? Leonard says he does. He has 13 brothers and sisters, and he claims he can remember coming home nights and having to sleep next door because the front door was locked and his parents were still at the racetrack. He started on the street two years ago. Now he's 10 and in grade three. His mother and father, he says, take all his earnings.

Mike is 13 and he has something to save for. He wants a trip to Newfoundland, where his parents were born. He'll go by plane, he says, but he'll go alone. There's not much money at home.

Howie and Frankie, both 13, have a more modest ambition: they want to get a civic permit to shine shoes. But they’re unlikely to achieve it: such street-corner capitalism is illegal in Toronto. Frankie’s been shining for seven years, ignoring the law for so long that it seems like a needless technicality.

Does he really like working the streets? "It’s good to earn your own money because it gives you — it gives you a feeling,” he says, ir