Location location, location. You can’t get much better than epicentre of Kensington Market Toronto. It’s within walking distance to Yonge Street, the bars, Chinatown, and the business district. It was also the headquarters for Fort Goof, a fantastical place few have set foot in. It was hidden down the alleyway alongside the coffee shop on Kensington Avenue. I don’t think it sported a frontage at all. When you went down the alleyway, the hidden courtyard came into view. You saw only the back of a building which was accessed via a rickety fire escape running up the side like a black spider. The brick was decaying under many layers of paint and rust stains telegraphed through the paint job like hardened tears. On the bottom level within arm’s reach, sprayed graffiti messages covered the entire wall alongside of an enormous pile of garbage. Perched up above by the metal door was a lone sentinel with spiked hair eyeballing your aproach.
Fort Goof was a squat house and the headquarters for a self-styled punk gang who lived on the fringe, outcasts whose lifestyle choices made it impossible for them to co-exist with the mainstream. They drank, partied, did drugs, fought a lot, and embodied the antisocial core of the Toronto hardcore punk scene. Their main spokesperson was a guy they called Crazy Steve, who I imagine had earned his nom du guerre. He was the friend of a friend who was going to let me in. I was there to shoot a black and white photo essay as a project for school. I was also there because I grudgingly admired the punkers. They seemed to avoid the exigencies which framed my own existence. I was a poor art student, trying to fight my way up from the bottom of the heap. It seemed like a lot of hard slogging for little return.
The punkers, not so much. They lived by personal choice alone, and they embodied radical freedom. They did exactly as they liked without fear of consequences. Primarily, they chose to be angry, and did not have any game plan outside of excessive brawling and partying. They also ran a 24-hour booze can from their squat. I wondered about the guy whose house had been taken over by such people. The punkers liked Kensington market because it largely shut down after five o’clock when all the shops closed and the crowds vanished. The streets became their own turf and that is exactly how they liked it.
People who live in a squat house, don’t care. Really. They don’t care and that is what makes them different from you and me. What you imagine when you say you don’t care, is a world away from what a punker means when he says he doesn’t care. People whose lives are circumscribed by antisocial and out-of-control behaviour, don’t care in ways you can’t even dream of.
What a squat house embodies is the footprint of somebody’s existence. It shows what they do, and what they like, and what they believe in. The thing with punkers, is that they do not believe in anything. Hence, a squat is a pretty stark living space. When I went inside it was dark. There were a few pieces of broken down furniture strewn about. Holes had been punched and kicked in the walls, which were otherwise covered in graffiti. The floor was littered with debris like fast food containers and the whole place smelled like stale booze and urine. Dark figures also littered the floor, sleeping wherever they had passed out from last night’s partying.
A few people roused and came out to smoke a morning cigarette and hork off the fire escape. With them was a very large aboriginal woman named Edie, and her daughter who was pretty and quiet. Edie laughed, and told me they had tag-teamed the same guy the night before. A few more punkers were coming awake, but they all seemed to be in a very bad mood and they were not talkative. A few of them wandered off to smoke a reefer. I wondered if it would lift their mood a bit. I eventually got a really bad vibe that told me things would not go so well if I hung around longer, so I excused myself, and said I would shoot the photos another day.
When I walked away from Fort Goof, my romantic picture of them faded. They no longer seemed like some kind of counter culture heroes in my mind. They were a bunch of addicts with a pretty scary lifestyle. I understood that choices matter. What you say you believe in, bears fruit.
A few years down the road I did the court sketches for a first-degree murder trial. A sixteen year old girl from the country, had come into town to hang out with the punkers. She imagined they had a romantic lifestyle, and were a real family who operated within some kind of honour code the rest of society lacked. They lived outside of the dumb kind of rules she hated as a teenager. Like me, she envied the fact that they did as they liked, every single day.
She stayed overnight at a boarded up squat house with two of her punker friends, which proved to be fatal. For a bit of light entertainment, they tortured her with burning cigarettes, then raped and strangled her with her own bra. They stole the Doc Martins from her corpse and ten dollars from her pocket, set the house ablaze and left for MacDonald’s. Part of the trial focused on having the judge understand just what the punker movement was all about, the strange and twisted ethos that drove their existence. It was nihilism taken to the extreme. It’s what happens to life when you don’t believe in anything. There is nothing romantic about it.
Believing in something is important because it frames what you do. It is embodied by caring, which shows up in the work that flows out of your life. A lot of that work may seem pointless. It may take a long time to bear fruit. But what you end up doing in a lifetime is for you, and for all the others who will come your way. It’s the parameters necessary to live amongst other people. If you are lucky enough to find some love in the world and make a family, you will understand what real riches are about. Your family is the footprint of your own caring, and work in the world.
I think about the squalid squat house, and then I look around me. I am living in a comfortable home that is tidy and clean. The rooms upstairs are filled with wonderful kids who feel safe here, and like being home. I think about what Khalil Gibran said, that work is love made visible. The reality I see around me, is a world away from a squat house. It’s what choices do, they eventually become your reality. I understand that I am blessed in ways I never understood back in the days when I used to envy the punkers and their radical freedom.
You might say, that punk rock taught me some of my most valuable life lessons. There is a small list of things that you can do every single day, to make your world a little bit better than the day before. It requires a bit of faith to play the long game but it eventually adds up. As they say, all roads lead somewhere. Those tiny and inconsequential choices we make over a lifetime might end up at a squat, or somewhere entirely different of your own choosing. You might say a squat is a picture of what radical freedom looks like, when you choose not to care.