— Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
If your morning drive takes you through the west end of St. John’s, you’ve probably seen Leo Horlick climbing the hill.
He’s hard to miss.
Short in stature, a worn, black cane tight in his grip and wearing loose-fitting jeans, his thin legs and hips wobble broadly as he walks.
His long, stringy hair gets beaten about his face if the wind whips through the Waterford Valley, which it usually does, and he has a lengthy, greying beard seemingly not trimmed in quite some time.
To those driving by in the early morning rush to work, it looks like he’s struggling to make it. If he’s caught in the weather, sometimes someone will make the effort in heavy traffic to turn around to pick him up.
At the base of the hill where Bay Bulls Road runs into Columbus Drive, the hill is a long, curving ascent where the road divides as it runs toward Topsail Road at the top.
It’s a stretch where drivers tend to hit the gas a little harder, taking only seconds to summit in a vehicle.
For Horlick, 46, it’s a nearly 2.5-kilometre morning trek from his apartment in Kilbride to the Village Shopping Centre.
Depending on his energy level, it could take him from half an hour to 45 minutes, he says. It could take longer, depending on if he feels he has to stop for a breather, or when he takes a tumble the odd time.
He’s determined to conquer the hill through rain or shine or snow, even when the sidewalk is blocked with snow and ice in winter.
Because of his disability, he could put in a call to Go Bus to get a ride to the mall. But that would mean adhering to a schedule and waiting for the bus to arrive. He’s not one for waiting.
“With those services, you have to call a day ahead of time. I don’t like telling people when I’m going,” Horlick said, sipping a coffee at a table in the mall’s food court.
“I got two good legs. I can walk.”
Two good legs, albeit stunted and weakened by spina bifida.
Horlick says he’s one of the fortunate ones. The birth defect leaves many needing a wheelchair, or with other health effects.
“My mother was told I’d never walk, so I’m pretty lucky,” he says.
In fact, he was able to get by without the aid of a cane until, years ago in Ontario, he slipped on an icy sidewalk and broke his foot in two places.
The healing took months and, after, his balance just wasn’t the same.
“I tried to get by without the cane. If I don’t need something, I don’t use it,” he said, nudging the cane with his hand. “I can walk a very short distance without it, if it’s flat and clear.”
The west-end hill is not the only obstacle Horlick has ever had to face. Life placed a number of hurdles in front of him that he’s struggled to overcome.
Born in St. John’s, his mother took him and his siblings to Toronto when he was only two years of age. He doesn’t look back on his childhood favourably.
Fiddling with a small stack of coins on the table — two toonies, a loonie and a couple of quarters, the money he has allotted himself for the day — he says his home wasn’t a happy place. At age 15, he was removed from it and spent the next few years in foster homes and group homes in the Toronto area and, sometimes, juvenile detention.
“I dropped out of school. I was a kid, and people who you were supposed to trust, people who were your friends, let you down,” he said.
As a young adult out on his own, things didn’t get any better. There were many dark days.
He spent years in Toronto, moved to small-town Norwood for awhile, then to Ottawa, and back to Toronto sometimes. He tried crack cocaine, got into situations he’d rather not talk about, he said.
He spent some time living on the street, slept on park benches, in bus shelters and once in front of a police station a few blocks from his old neighbourhood in Toronto, to which he found himself returning.
“Don’t know why, but I just headed back there,” he said. “A police officer came out and asked me if he could help me. I said no.”
Vulnerability preyed upon
He recalled one time a roommate started to become bossy and that made for an uncomfortable living arrangement. Then the roommate left without warning, leaving him with a bunch of bills.
“I was often taken advantage of. (Some people) see someone vulnerable … I had no chance in hell of fighting back. You do what they tell you to do or else,” he said.
“I finally had enough of it. On every street corner someone either wanted something from you or wanted to sell you something.
“I wanted to get away from it, so I decided to come home to Newfoundland. I discovered the government owed me some money, as they hadn’t given me the right amount, so I got this cheque … about $1,000, and I got on the bus, then the ferry and came here. That was in the early 2000s.”
Horlick has two older brothers, a younger sister and a younger brother. At first, they kept in contact occasionally, but that faded as time passed.
“I haven’t seen any of the family in years,” he said. “I visited my father when I came back here, before he died.”
A quieter, simpler life
Horlick says he’s found some form of peace since he moved back. The pace is slower, it’s quiet and there are more friendly people, he said.
“It was always in the back of my mind to come home,” he said. “I knew I had to get here to start a new life, to see a new light.”
Still, Horlick’s life would still be seen as a struggle to most people.
He spends much of his day in the mall, sitting at the food court alone and shopping at Dollarama — a store that suits his budget.
While his rent and bills are paid by social services, there’s not much money left for food, clothing and other essentials.
Sitting across from him in the food court, you notice an area of swelling on his head. It’s from hydrocephalus, he says, a fluid buildup in the brain that happens to children born with a severe form of spina bifida.
He wraps the plastic dollar store bag lying on the table around his finger as he talks. In it, he says, are two cans of cheap luncheon meat he’s taking home with him on his walk back down the hill.
“I’ve only gone to the food bank a couple of times,” he said. His hand moves from the bag to smooth his moustache which has grown long and hides his lips. Still, his smile can be seen through it.
“I don’t know what I will do with them,” he laughed, pointing at the tinned meat.
“I suppose I’ll eat one of them and put the other in the cupboard.”
Sometimes during his hours at the food court, someone will buy him a coffee. Most people though, shy away.
His eyes brighten as he recalls that he was in a newspaper once before. It was when he was living in a group home in Toronto and was invited to a Christmas party at the Royal York Hotel, now the Fairmont Royal York. A group photo appeared in the paper.
He’s not sure now who organized the party, but said he looked forward to it every year.
“They’d invite everyone and give you a good meal,” he recalled. “It was a good time and then they’d give you a bag of goodies to take home.”
Horlick says he doesn’t think of the past much, though, preferring to keep it there “in the past.”
He finds sleep hard to come by, describing himself as a bit of a night owl. He says he’ll watch movies — some of them he’s seen a number of times — or listen to the radio late into the night.
When morning comes, it’s time to tackle the hill again.
“If the sidewalks are snow-covered, I have to walk on the road, and I get honked at sometimes,” Horlick said.
“I walk as close to the curb as I can. The cops will stop sometimes and say, ‘We got reports of you walking on the road.’ I’ll point to the snowbanks. Depending on where I am, they’ll give me a ride or tell me to be careful. I say, ‘I always am, that’s why I’m still breathing and still kicking.’”
Most days, the Village mall food court is his destination. But if he feels like it, he’ll do something different.
“I’ll ride the buses or occasionally I go to the Avalon Mall. It’s not a fun life — a boring routine,” he said.
“I’ll keep going as long as I can do it. There’s always someone a lot worse.”