Mikey MoQuin was a homeless man who hung out in parks in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood. I first met him when the Leslieville Farmer’s market started 5 years ago. I had never known any homeless people before Mikey and my early reaction towards him was one of discomfort – I did not like making eye contact with him. As time passed, I got comfortable with him being around us. We had set up shop in his “home”, he was helpful to vendors, volunteered his services and he became a staple sight at the market each week during the summer.
Mikey was an alcoholic. He had lived with this condition most of his life but to his credit this did not define him. He only went to a shelter when the weather was extremely cold. Otherwise, he would sleep on park benches. He said this was because shelters were full of mentally ill people and physical violence was a constant threat. He feared the pain of broken bones more than anything else, suggesting THAT was what made cold nights on a park bench unbearable.
The market vendors will remember Mikey to be a very respectful person. On cold and rainy days at the market, when toes and fingers got blue and the body aches set in as we stood around to conduct our business, Mikey was a reminder that things were not so bad for the rest of us who would return to our warm homes after a few hours outdoors. On those days, Mikey would hobble over to my tent to accept a bowl of my curry, not to eat, but to hold in his hands to warm them up.
My South Asian food was generally too spicy for him but he enjoyed my fries – they were soft enough for him to chew. He had lost most of his teeth over the years and in exchange for a cone of fries each week, he’d help me lift a heavy box or two into my car at the end of the market.
During our chats, he had expressed how difficult the last winter had been on him. Against his better judgement, he had gone to a shelter, been beaten up and spent a few nights at a hospital emergency ward. To him, all of this was an affront to the freedom and peace he felt outdoors.
The last conversation I had with him was at the end of October 2014. It was the last day of the market and I gave Mikey $25.00. I pleaded with him to go buy a warm meal. He gave me a cheeky smile and said, “…you know I won’t.” I fully understood that the money was going to be used to buy alcohol so I insisted he take a bowl of curry for his cold hands. I wished him well and as I drove away in my warm car, my heart was heavy and I wondered what would become of him. Over the winter I kept an eye out for him when I drove by the park but I did not see him at all.
When we returned to the park to set up for the 2015 market season this May, Mikey was uncharacteristically absent. Sarah Hood, one of our market volunteers did some digging and broke the news to us last weekend. Mikey had passed away last November, shortly after the market season had ended last year. I cried. It was heartbreaking to know he would not be back at the market but a relief that he had not faced another cold winter in the outdoors, homeless.
Mikey was the first homeless man I knew. And this is who he was: A happy and content man who enjoyed the tranquility of the outdoors. Alcoholism was a disease which resulted in him becoming homeless. He was a gentle spirit who embraced the values of humility and gratitude better than anyone I know. He was an inspiration and for this I am honoured to have known him.
RIP Mikey – I say a prayer for you and hope you are in a warm and peaceful place; I hope the stars you loved so much are shining brightly down on you. Thank you for your friendship.