Excerpt

KIND HEARTS AND CRACKHEADS

A writer gets down and dirty in a Toronto shantytown

Brian Bethune May 3 2004
Excerpt

KIND HEARTS AND CRACKHEADS

A writer gets down and dirty in a Toronto shantytown

Brian Bethune May 3 2004

KIND HEARTS AND CRACKHEADS

Excerpt

A writer gets down and dirty in a Toronto shantytown

BRIAN BETHUNE

BY HIS OWN admission, Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, 29, has a mile-wide streak of recklessness. It’s frequently on display in Down to This (Random House), his memoir of 10 months spent in Tent City, the lawless shantytown that flourished for four years in the shadow of Toronto’s bank towers. It doesn’t take long for a reader to realize that Bishop-Stall was not on a straightforward journalistic mission. Even before he came to

Tent City in November 2001, the Montreal freelance writer was living on the edge himself— “semi-homeless” and drinking too much in the wake of a failed relationship, he says in an interview. So he took the germ of an idea “from my mother, who’s still kicking herself today”— spending a few days in Tent City and turning out a magazine article—and decided to move there long enough to write a book and, perhaps, repair his life.

The author built a cabin, drank whisky and cough syrup, used hard drugs

In short, a mix of motives not that very different from his fellow squatters. Like pioneer settlers who knew prime territory when they saw it, they came to Tent City—where almost no one actually lived in a tent—for the decidedly unjudgmental company, for a place to call their own, for the usable junk of the megacity scattered over its 27 acres, for its closeness to urban amenities (beer stores and soup kitchens), and the blessed freedom from cops that’s provided by squatting on private land.

After an uncertain start, Bishop-Stall soon fit right in with his new neighbours: crackheads, alcoholics, prostitutes, fugitives, excons, and other lost souls. He built a cabin, drank everything from whisky to cough syrup, smoked crack, boosted minivans, and noticed everything. The place was a deliberate anarchy, Bishop-Stall says, but an accidental community. In some ways Tent City was a bizarre suburb, where babies were born and gardens tended, from which the inhabitants commuted daily to Toronto to work, beg or steal. When the owner of the land moved to close it down in September 2002, Bishop-Stall was as lost as the other 130-odd inhabitants. “I kept telling myself that this was a good thing, that I could get on with my life. But there’s something deeply damaging to your psyche to be forcibly removed from a place you built yourself. I was traumatized.” And bereft of a community he’d grown to care about.

But Bishop-Stall has come out the other side now, partly through the redemptive power of writing. (He never went more than 48 hours without at least jotting a note: “I realized quickly that if I didn’t write almost daily, I’d go insane.”) But Down to This is far more than a therapeutic exercise. Finely written and bitterly honest, it’s also a moving depiction of the contradictions embedded in our common humanity. “When people feel like a gaping wound,” Bishop-Stall says of Tent City’s damaged souls, “they often develop a hyper-awareness of others’ pain.” And he did find unexpected friends and surprising “acts of drastic kindness,” often when he needed them the most, like the intervention that rescued him from a savage—and pointless—beating on Christmas Eve. BRIAN BETHUNE