Leslieville Lives: Stories from the ‘Ville – Andrew Antonio
Meet Andrew Antonio. ‘Call me Antonio’. When I ask why he uses his last name as his first he tells me the story. Not an unfamiliar one when you’re young. Several friends back in school had/have the same first name so nicknames or surnames became the norm. ‘Everyone around here knows me as Antonio’. We meet at the Remarkable Bean and sit at the window. It’s a cold, rainy day but he’s in his trademark gear; shorts, thongs and a hoodie. I laugh and say, ‘Well, it’s warm enough in here for shorts. Am I having a hotflash?’ He looks around and says, ‘There is a good degree of warmth and compassion in here’. That beautiful statement makes me smile and sums up his personality perfectly.
The barista brings over his usual. A large black coffee. When I offer to pay she shakes her head and says, ‘It’s on the house’. They nod to each other knowingly. I make the assumption he is known around here as a good guy and gets free coffee often. Antonio originally came to my attention when I photographed him while I was waiting at a streetcar stop one day a few months back. It was blizzarding and it was hard to miss the guy in shorts as we all shivered under our parkas. I posted the photo on the I Am A Leslievillian Facebook page, and one or two comments on the photo post lead me to him. A few people knew him/of him, his name and wrote in their comments that he dresses like that to make the homeless feel better. When I ask him that he shrugs a bit. ‘Well, it didn’t start out like that, but yeah, it’s kind of evolved into a means of getting through to them’. His unusual seasonal gear – shorts in winter, bare feet at times in summer – started out as a combination of comfort and necessity. Back in 2005/6, despite the great pay and prestige, Antonio left working in the finance sector after only a few years, tired of complaining about ‘betraying his authentic self’. He took time off after his stint in a suit, and one day had decided to go running but had no running shoes. ‘When you aren’t working and allot your money to certain things, some luxuries have to be foregone – like running shoes’. He decided to go barefoot. Much to his surprise, people were really kind to him; warning him about some glass up ahead or some old metal that was thrown into the street. He saw a side of people he hadn’t known. He said some offered him money, thinking he was homeless, poor or otherwise, and that experience propelled him to study something more in line with his ‘true’ self ie; helping others, and he enrolled at George Brown in 2007 in a Community & Social Work Program.
His father fell ill shortly thereafter and he left the programme after 2 years. About a year after his father’s illness left him in a coma, Antonio returned to university (York) to study microbiology. More than anything it was to understand his father’s illness, who never came out of his coma and passed away in late 2010. During that time he started thinking more about his future/choices and spent a week on the streets, living in/experiencing a world that would eventually lead him to his current position as Coordinator of the Riverdale Food Working Group, The Good Food Markets (Ralph Thornton) and Eastview Community Centre (Blake), whose main aim is helping/feeding the homeless. He points to his shorts and hoodie and reminds me that the ‘uniform’ he wears, the sameness and simplicity of it, has become the template to bridge populations that would otherwise not engage with him. Complaining from a ‘wardrobe of wealth’ had limited authenticity. As well as the uniform, he dons a longish thin beard and always has his ball cap, stitched with ‘HAT’ in a variety of colours, and headphones on/nearby. If he hadn’t told me he was from Filipino parents, I would’ve sworn he was a relative of David Suzuki. His looks and long thin beard are strikingly similar. The older of two sons, Antonio has always lived in the east end, currently sharing a house with his cousin, just a stone’s throw from the Bean. His point of entry into Leslieville and the South Riverdale markets was meeting Alex (RIP) at Tango Palace. He was asked if he could ‘help out’ one day back in 2011 and says, ‘I’m always available when someone reaches out and asks for help’. The rest is history. I ask him about winter work. When he replies, ‘It’s not accessible’, I’m a bit puzzled. He explains in detail when working with vulnerable populations you need to have access to their world, which is an outside world. He tugs at his beard. ‘This is part of the accessibility as well. It makes me look a bit like them and they accept me more easily. The markets are a real hub. They’re like polling booths. Next time look around and you’ll see the mix of people there. These are the people that live in our community. They don’t come to the Bean or the pub that’s just opened, but you’ll see them there’.
When winter does set in, he heads for the Phillippines to help out on his family’s farm and enjoy some R&R in the sun for a few months. Antonio’s involvement with the homeless and vulnerable populations doesn’t stop at the summer markets. His dress code gives him access to many parts of the city you or I would not be allowed entry. Unlikely locations where people gather, back alleys, small tent cities. He might bring food, drink, conversation. He’s not always welcome and has felt threatened before; but only a few times. When I ask about articles I’ve read regarding empty shelter beds and inquire why so many people prefer/choose/end up on the street, he makes sense of it for me in a way I hadn’t thought/known. ‘Isolation keeps them alive. The reality of being in a room with people who might steal from you, urinate on you, kick/hurt you is not an option for some. We all learn survival skills at various ages. Kids have teddy bears as their security blankets, often taking them into adulthood, some people use religion, some of the homeless and more vulnerable populations use hate and isolation. It keeps them alive and even in better/improving circumstances it’s hard to let go’. On that note, I can see him getting fidgety. He wants to go, move on. He does say he’s on a mission after he leaves me. He’s making his way to a number of places that might or might not give him day old food or food that might otherwise end up in the bin and hopes that he can gather a few meals for some needy people. He puts on his mega headphones (music is his #1 love), takes the risk, and walks away with purpose.