Toronto Islanders are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their showdown with the sheriff, who was unsuccessful in his attempt to evict them from their homes. Their victory was possible only because they acted within a strong network of community support that is practically inconceivable to those who live the modern, efficient, isolated way.
The crowd overflowing Ward's Island clubhouse poured along a re-enactment route lit with homemade lanterns. The whole thing culminated in a bonfire where they burned a bulldozer in effigy.
Quite the contrast to the impromptu fire I attended earlier in the week. It took place on land that was cleared by real bulldozers within the last month. A woods that was home to birds and an encampment of tent dwellers was razed by the machines. The only thing on the property they couldn't tear up was the old man in the van who found himself inside a construction zone.
He lives sheltered only by his van customized with planks and plastic. He used to have a school bus, too, before he got moved to this patch south of the Drake, north of the tracks. He lives this way all year, every year. And made it through another long hard winter. Lloyd, as I learned he's called, is an indomitable survivor. His only weakness is that he's a community of one.
It's late on a weekday afternoon. I'm out getting supplies when I see a thick black column of smoke and skip across the ripped-up streetcar tracks to see the source. Idle curiosity gives way to panic as I run toward the old man's van, which is already engulfed in flames.
"Stay back," a woman tells me. Would've been nice if she'd told me she'd already checked for Lloyd - I sear my face plunging past the burning plastic. I have to see, even if it's too late. The old man is my people. I would have stopped to think had anywhere else been on fire. But this is the home of a cranky independent old cuss. To save him is to save myself.
Propane tanks are popping as I escape the raging fire. Everything now is like you're on TV all the time. There I am in my housedress surrounded by a crowd of lounge lizards and passersby who've seen me crying and running into a burning van. It feel like some awful show.
Firefighters say they found no one inside. Sure enough, a while later little old Lloyd comes ambling up with his groceries. Of course, he doesn't cry. He sets to figuring out the cause. The memory of his brother who was burned and scarred by a fire from a wood stove, he says, has made him always extremely careful.
He implicates someone who, he says, recently tried to smother and rob him. An officer says firefighters told him boys were seen in the area playing with matches. There was at least one other suspicious blaze up the tracks recently.
"Where is he going to stay tonight?" asks the property manager of the studio building next door. She's very concerned. She wants him off the property. "We've been bugging the city to get rid of him for ages!"
I say, "The Drake should give you a room."
"I'd drop a bomb on the Drake!" he answers in disgust. He used to have a room at the old Drake before the ugly people moved in.
Police half-heartedly ask if he has a social worker. He doesn't have the name or number. He just lost everything in a fire. A slimy opportunist surreptitiously snaps photos of Lloyd and me talking. We'll both drop a bomb on his next "installation."
It's getting dark. Lloyd wants to poke around the charred wreckage with his cane. I know he doesn't wish to accompany me, but I can't just leave him. I talk him into coming with me. He's smoking and pausing to rest, cranky as I always knew he'd be.
"You don't know me," I reassure him in case he thinks he should. I get him all the way to my kitchen, but he turns right around, still toting his groceries. He believes, not unreasonably, that the culprits will return to the scene of the crime.
The culprits are everywhere! Dramatic, but true. However the fire started, the old man is a casualty of this development-mad boomtown.
"If I was in Kentucky with the Mennonites or out in the country," says Lloyd, "I'd have all kinds of help." He is alone, in good spirits, feeding the birds and working on a new set-up as greed consumes the city around him.