Story by MK Keown

He reminds me of the archetypical grandfather. You know the type – sitting (perhaps in a rocking chair), surrounded by grand kids and their curious, if shy, friends, and keen to share the wisdom acquired over a lifetime. But when we meet, there are neither children nor rocking chairs, but Louie – no last name, just Louie – is candid and eager to share his stories. His life, he says, is a cautionary tale for young people, but he suspects, wistfully, that few will listen. He knows, the way most grandfathers do, that the wisdom of age falls on the deaf ears of the young.

We meet outside the mission, in the garden, after lunch on a warm March afternoon. Louie, affable patriarch that he is at 55 years of age, wears a green golf shirt and faded jeans. He looks like he could be headed home after the night shift at one of the car plants or mines peppering the city. His hair and beard, more salt than pepper these days, and his chipped front teeth betray a life of some hardship. This is a man who has been on a journey and has a story to tell about it.

Louie considers many of the other mission members to be friends (some he has known since childhood) and he is quick to point out the Downtown Mission is much more than a soup kitchen or food bank.

“One of the most important things about the mission is the camaraderie,” he says. “They come here for the pleasure of speaking with friends.”

The dining hall is comfortable – spacious, light-filled and airy – and before lunch there is much chit-chatting amongst members. I approach a group of women and ask if I may photograph them. They are eager to participate, but I feel like I have just interrupted a ladies luncheon, so animated and gregarious they are as they wait to join the queue.

The mission is definitely a water cooler of sorts – a place for friends to share a meal while catching up on each other’s news.

Louie
Photo: MK Keown

Louie receives a monthly income from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and says cooking at home is difficult, since he cannot stand for long periods of time. By providing prepared meals, the mission offers a means of relieving his leg pain – a result of drug-induced spinal stenosis – and the walk from home is an opportunity to exercise. He is quick to point out, however, the mission is not simply a means to socialization. He has been using the services of the Downtown Mission since the early 80s and Louie explains he relies on the mid-day meal, as well as the food bank, for survival.

Louie considers many of the other Mission members to be friends, and he is quick to point out the Downtown Mission is much more than a soup kitchen or food bank.

“It supplements my low income,” he says. “I don’t receive a whole lot of money and with the money I do receive, I need to pay my other living expenses.”

An injection drug user for several decades – cocaine was his preferred drug – Louie believes at one point he injected a bad batch of cocaine (he thinks it may have been tainted with bacterial and/or viral contagions), which led to the spinal stenosis and back surgery. But Louie no longer uses drugs – he is very clear about that. He is now under medical supervision and part of a methadone treatment program.

He is a man of acquired wisdom and he says he would like to share that with other members of the mission community, as his way of preventing harm in younger people.

“One injection of cocaine is like the seed of addiction – as soon as they’ve had that rush, they can’t wait to get the next one” Louie says wistfully. I suspect he is reminiscing about his own struggles with drug addiction. “I’ve experienced a lot when it comes to drugs and all I can say is it’s damaged so many people, it’s killed so many of my friends. I’ve lost hundreds – literally hundreds – of friends to narcotics and drug use. … I hope and pray that when they listen to some of the things that have happened to me – it’s horrifying: being shot is not a pretty thing. Being stabbed is not a pretty thing.”

Louie seems to be a man content with his journey and far along the road towards a healed spirit. He credits the mission in part and would like to give back to the community in which he has become an intimate fixture.

He began drawing on scrap paper the mission staff provided to him. He practiced often in the dining hall and eventually Louie’s talent was unveiled. Now regarded by staff as a talented artist, Louie sees a lot of creativity amongst the members – many of whom he says would like to work professionally as tattoo artists – which he would like to encourage.

“I tutored this other girl and now she’s quite an artist,” he explains. “I’ve started to collect artwork from as many patrons to the mission as possible and I’m making a scrapbook, and filling in the work with information about each individual that drew.

“I’m in the process of gathering it; it’ll take some time, probably another year or two before I get that completed. What I’d like to do is to put on an art show.”

I see immediately the importance of the visual arts in Louie’s life. He shows me his tattoo collection – he has ink running up and down the length of both arms, as well as across his back. Many are faded now by age, but he still takes pride in these well-worn battle scars. He even shows me how doctors painstakingly aligned the edges of the tattoo on his back after a stabbing incident many years ago. The wound required about 800 stitches.

“They took time to line up the lines,” he explains with a laugh. “The doctors were told, ‘don’t mess up his tattoos, because if he wakes up you’ll likely have to do some more stitching, because he’ll get very upset.’ I love my tattoos. I didn’t want any damage done to them.”

Louie seems to be a man far along the road towards a healed spirit. He would like to give back to the community in which he has become an intimate fixture.

All joking aside, Louie is grateful for the Downtown Mission, its staff and its volunteers. His warmth and fondness for the place, for the members, are born of experience and of hard times. He does not believe he would still be alive without the services and support of the Downtown Mission.

“It’s been there for me,” Louie says.

Yes, the Downtown Mission is, indeed, much more than a soup kitchen.



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He does not believe he would still be alive without the services and support of the Downtown Mission. “It’s been there for me,” Louie says.