By Claudia De Simone
As he sits on layers of wet, multicoloured sleeping bags facing The World’s Biggest Bookstore, Steve McGuire makes passersby smile.
“You put your left foot in, you take your left foot out. You do the homeless hokeypokey,” he sings, shuffling his brown hiking boots.
With an empty Coffee Time cup-in hand and freezing rain blowing in his face, McGuire shouts to the women walking along Edward Street: “Take me home—I do dishes!”
The 31-year-old’s sharp blue eyes peer out from under his Toronto Maple Leafs cap. McGuire has been on and off these streets for 16 years. Ryerson students walk past him every day, though none of them know why he’s here. If they stopped to ask, they might be surprised to find that his suburban, middle-class roots are much the same as theirs.
Born to Métis parents and adopted into an Irish-Catholic household, McGuire spent his childhood on the move. He was never at any school for more than a year because his family—his mother Lorette, his dad Larry and his brother Doug, two years older—kept moving to accommodate his dad’s job as a tanker driver with Shell Canada.
McGuire started taking the drug Ritalin when he was eight to treat his attention deficit disorder. He says he couldn’t sit still in school and often felt an urge to slip into “shit disturber mode.” He would think, “I wonder, what would happen if I did this?”
After moving to North York at age 14, one of his favourite pranks was calling in bomb threats from a pay phone when he didn’t feel like attending his new high school, Regina Pacis Catholic Secondary School.
McGuire found it difficult to make friends. His dad describes him as a proud guy who doesn’t like when people tell him what to do. As McGuire explains it, there’s just “a chip on my shoulder.”
At age 15, McGuire refused to attend school. His father gave him three options: go to school, work, or get out. As Larry McGuire remembers is, “He took his mattress and bag and walked out the door.” Steve bounced from friends’ houses to the street and ended up at Covenant House on Gerrard Street. He was kicked out of the shelter eights months later and tried to go home, but discovered that his parents had moved to Vancouver. So he returned downtown and started panhandling in front of the bookstore.
Things started to get better for McGuire in 1991. His parents tracked him down by asking his friends where he was. His dad offered him a job at his newly established transport company. He worked as a yardman, moving freight for a few months. In the same year, he married a woman named Colleen who he had met infront of the bookstore. But he often couldn’t leave work on time because the trucks would arrive late. He got upset and quit.
Since then, McGuire has rarely been able to escape his spot on the sidewalk. He briefly found work at another freight yard in 1994, but soon left again. He took a freight salesperson position in 1997 but got fired after five months for missing shifts. In the same year, his marriage fell apart and his parents separated.
McGuire moved to Vancouver to get away from his troubles. He found a job doing ductwork. It lasted for three years. Then he fell into debt, couldn’t pay rent and returned to the streets of Toronto. At first he camped outside Osgoode Hall, until security guards tried to staple and eviction notice to his sleeping bag and he moved back to his nook by the bookstore on Edward Street.
McGuire’s father blames his son’s troubles on his temperament.
“He’d get angry, he says. “If he had put in an effort, he could have been trained to be a mechanic.”
Now, McGuire’s days start at 8:30 a.m., when he’s greeted with a “Hey, you, wake up!” from the bookstore’s security guard. He has breakfast at McDonald’s and starts panhandling around 10 a.m. On a recent day, he had $13 in his hot chocolate cup by 11:30 a.m. He spent some of it playing Virtual Fighter 2 at the nearby Funland Arcade on Yonge Street before returning to his patch of sidewalk outside the bookstore for the lunch hour rush. About $45 drops into his cup each day, though he can get around $100 during the Christmas season.
“It’s not like I expect them to give,” he says. “I’m the one sitting here. I can basically get up and start walking.”
About once a month, McGuire’s dad comes down to have a coffee and shoot the breeze with his son. “It seems he doesn’t need my company too often,” Larry McGuire says. “He likes to stay in his environment, with no commitments, no schedule, doing his own thing.
“I don’t know if he’s ever going to get off the streets. I realized that he must want to do it. I realized that he must want to do it. I look at him and I feel sad.”
McGuire talks to his mother less regularly, usually calling her at her Caledon home on his pay-as-you-go cellphone. His mom still asks if he has enough clean underwear and reminds him that Jesus loves him. McGuire says his mom wants him to live with her, in the crowded family home of his brother, a minister.
“They dumped me on the street when I was 15 and they expected me to change now,” he says, shaking his head. “We don’t know each other.”
McGuire says he’s living day by day now, trying to be a considerate person. “This is what I know,” he says.
Around 1:30 p.m. his friend, Spider, arrives waving his arms and singing the Scooby Doo cartoon theme song. It’s Tuesday—cheap movie day—and Spider needs a warm place to drink his sherry. McGuire gulps down the last bit of Spider’s morning supply.
Just then, the echo of bagpipes fills the air. It’s the local street musician who plays the same three songs endlessly.
“Maybe I should start drinking now,” McGuire says, admitting that Colt 45 is his weakness. He cajoles passersby with the same old line:
“Spare $100, Visa, gold platinum, Scooby snacks?”