Crowd scene Taste of the Danforth with cellphone in foreground

Photography compilation by June Anderson / photography by istockphoto

How I found community in the city

Sometimes it’s those small, daily interactions that make all the difference—on both sides

I admit I moved to the city partly for the anonymity, the coldness that I was told harboured here. I was raised in a town where on Tuesday nights the Tim Hortons was a gay bar, if that gives you some idea of its size. My town was small and I wanted, in the self-consciousness of adolescence, to be where nobody knew my name. I liked the idea of being somewhere people didn’t notice each other quite so much. I was hoping for a less caring place when I came to Toronto—and I must say, I have only been disappointed. 

The sheer largeness of the city was something that had been impressed upon me so much growing up that, for my first six weeks in town, I took the subway for just two or three stops. It was only when I ran out of money one day that I realized I’d been taking the train instead of taking a 25-minute walk. 

The myth of the great big city was shattered that afternoon—and in some ways, this mirrors how I came to feel about the city’s population as well. I soon learned that the emotional distances are often not so vast, either. It’s true that people are less likely to know one another’s names, but there are so many other ways of knowing one another.  

Just about everyone I’m close to does something, gives something back to some community, and many do some tiny, personal thing as well.

Sometimes I see people in the centre of town and recognize them as old friends who I can’t place, whose names I can’t quite recall. Then I realize that I know them from the dog park where I saw them only this morning, where, in fact, I see them almost every day. These are people I would miss if they weren’t there, people I have come to care about. I don’t recognize them out of context (context being a sheltie-retriever cross named Molson), and yet they’re people I’d give a kidney to if the call ever came out.  

People pool into small “towns” within urban centres. You can’t stop them. They find ways to break the city down into a manageable unit, and then they care for it. Just about everyone I’m close to does something, gives something back to some community, and many do some tiny, personal thing as well.  

My friend David gives $2 a day to a homeless man. It’s not much, as David says, but the man knows he’ll get it every day. David works at the amazing St Michael’s Hospital, which is right downtown. 

“Many sick and destitute people congregate around hospitals, and those of us who work in them try not to develop dependant relationships,” David says. “But there is one man who is unfailingly kind, whether or not I have money for him. I’ve seen him stop people and ask if they’re okay. He asks me frequently how my day is. I feel he looks out for me. So, when I cut my two-coffee-a-day habit in favour of making my own tea, I decided to save a toonie for him. If he’s not there, someone else gets it. I would say that most people in this hospital have someone special they look out for.” 

At my house, we give money to a man named Joe, some people around here call him “Sweepy Joe” because he carries a broom and offers to sweep front porches and walkways. For this I pay him $10. More if he does the snow. 

Joe likes to bring us presents, a bottle of shampoo, a large ceramic cat…a few weeks back it was a giant, framed poster for the soundtrack to Spiderman II. Not the movie, the soundtrack and of course I had to convince him to take $20 for that, it being a collectors’ item.  

“Is that a ‘collectors item’?” one of my kids will ask when an usually foreign object lands in the house, “thanks, Joe.” 

Joe tells us what’s going on in his life and he asks after all of us. We have our inside jokes, Joe and I, and while he’s hardly the only person who comes to the door, he feels like a neighbour. Like David, I know these gestures many of us make, these small sums we give, are not the solution to the very large problems the homeless face. We understand that we take more than we give from these exchanges. But, like actual volunteer work, they can stitch a person into the fabric of their town. 

In the coming months, I’ll be looking at some of the people giving back in Toronto, sharing who does what and how and why, in all the city’s corners. I will write about what they bring and what they leave with. Please check back.