When tall, lean Bernard Smith walks down Spring Garden Road, pitched forwards slightly from the hips, younger men in suits breeze by. “How ya doin’ Bernie?” they ask.
Teenagers nod, storeowners wave. The panhandlers acknowledge him, too. Some say hello: One complains someone is panhandling on his turf, another that the private security guards hired to walk the street are hassling him. A few ask Smith how he’s doing. Some follow along for a step or two in hopes of a chat. Smith smiles briskly, business-like. “Morning, Dave, how are you?”
Some of the people he says hello to are top dogs in the government. Some are millionaires and others are school kids. Some are homeless, some crack addicts. Some are both. He knows them all.
On a dull morning in November, Smith—as he refers to himself when he answers the phone and signs off emails—bounds into an office on the sixth floor of a tall building on the corner of Spring Garden and Brenton.
“Hel-low,” he sings, beaming among rolls of Christmas wrapping paper, a handful of fancy paper bags from local shops, tissue paper, ribbons, a plastic Superstore bag full of other plastic bags and large gift boxes tucked under his arm. His hands are cracked and the cracks are full of black grease.
“How’s this?” asks Smith, brandishing the wrapping paper.
“It’s too foil-y,” operations coordinator Krista MacDonald answers. Smith was out collecting the stuff for props for a Spring Garden Road TV commercial. Krista says the paper will create glare when they film it, but Smith’s moved on. He checks that everyone has got a cup of tea, “real” tea he brings back from Britain, and shortbread biscuits to dip in the tea when it’s too hot to drink.
“Did you see Eddie?” asks Jim, a 66-year-old volunteer who helps Smith work with the street people on Spring Garden. (The names of all street people mentioned in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.)
Eddie is in his late teens. He lives on the street and panhandles. He suffers some sort of attention disorder and sometimes uses drugs. But the kid is getting better, Smith tells me. They’re working on getting him into a computer training program. Jim, who worked in maintenance at Dalhousie for 29 years, has told Eddie to bring in a resume and that he’ll buy him a suit and take him up to Dalhousie to see about getting him a job.
“I’ll talk to him,” Smith says.
With that, Smith gathers up the too-foil-y paper and heads back out with strict instructions from Krista to go to the Dollar Store for stuff that doesn’t shine.
A moment after the door closes behind him, his bald head pops back in. “Krista, have we heard back on whether it’s going to be one night or two for the tax-free thing? Maybe we ought to add a page to Out and About on that.”
There’s a “ding” from the hallway. He looks behind him down the hall. “Oh blast, that’s the problem with this bloody building, the elevators are so slow. I always think of things in the hallway and have to come back in and by then I’ve missed it. Right-O, Krista, will you type that up? Gotta go!”
He disappears out of the door again. A moment later, he’s back, wearing a sheepish grin. “Blast it, I missed it again.”
Bernie Smith has been many things in his life—a poor boy in rural England, a bright young scholar with a ticket to a university education, meat cutter, delivery driver, aspiring uranium miner (for four days), accountant, consultant, saviour of a city, the mind behind a soundstage, deputy minister. He will tell you he has made three big mistakes in his life and now, at what is likely 71 years of age—he isn’t telling—he has three regrets. Maybe four, if you count the car.
As manager of the Spring Garden Area Business Association, Smith is a man of many tasks: One moment, you’ll find him taking orders from store owners for Christmas wreaths to hang from the street-light poles; the next, he’s meeting with the mayor to discuss solutions to violent crime; the next he’s bending down to pick up a napkin blowing down the sidewalk; the next he’s picking up the phone to talk about plans for a vacant lot.
He says he’s sometimes frustrated the “sort of menial” stuff—such as hauling four-foot wreaths down the street in a $200 suit now covered in sparkles—takes up so much time when he’d rather be coming up with ideas. He’s an ideas man, a guy who keeps a notebook by his bed so he can jot down ideas in the middle of the night. But if there is one thing that Bernie Smith can’t stand, it’s arrogance. So he happily hauls Christmas wreaths, too.
Kurt Bulger, the chair of the SGABA, says Smith earns less than $40,000 a year and turns that into less than minimum wage by working 10- and 12-hour days. But even though running the SGABA doesn’t carry the clout—or the pay cheque—of previous jobs such as city treasurer, and deputy minister of finance, Smith says it’s a hoot. Besides, he wasn’t ready to pack it in and retire when things got bad a few years back.
And maybe, he says, this job is a little bit about healing. For him. And for others.
When Smith came on board a little more than three years ago, there was almost open warfare on Spring Garden Road between some of the merchants and the panhandlers who flock to the street.
There was virtually no police presence: After Halifax amalgamated in 1996, Spring Garden, where as many as 40,000 pedestrians walk each day, lost its beat cops.
Merchants hired private security guards to control panhandlers. Some were so frustrated they even instructed the guards to provoke street people to violence so they could have them arrested and removed, at least temporarily. Tensions were about to explode.
It wasn’t just the panhandlers, of course. Spring Garden was under pressure from every direction. The mostly independent shops on Spring Garden are competing with huge malls and box stores, all chock full of private security guards to make sure customers won’t be hassled for change while they shop.
A lot of people on Spring Garden Road, panhandlers and merchants alike, are barely getting by.
While Bulger is telling me about how important Smith has been, he’s looking out the window at Mike, a young man who used to fish for his living. Now he’s a panhandler and an addict who sometimes yells at people who don’t give him money. He’s going to blow one of these days, Bulger says, and it’s going to be a shit storm. Someone is going to get hurt.
But until that happens, there’s not a damn thing the police can do and there’s not much out there for guys like Mike, who needs treatment, supervision and mentoring.
Ten minutes later, Mike is stomping angrily down the street in front of the Shoppers Drug Mart yelling at a short, bald man in a teal bomber jacket and blue jeans. The man turns around screaming at Mike and waving his fists. They seem about to come to blows when the man turns away and begins to walk. Mike follows him, yelling, “You motherfucker. Mother. Fucker. All I did is ask for some change. Fuck you.”
The man turns around again and says words that can’t be heard from across the street while gesturing wildly. Sparks are fairly flying off him. It goes on like this, stopping and starting, for about two blocks before Mike stops and returns to his post in front of the drugstore.
A man passing on the other side of the street grins wryly. “Pedestrian rage.”
After sorting out the wrapping paper for the commercial, Smith brings it back down to the street to load in his Jaguar, which, he says with a laugh, “might” be parked illegally on the corner.
The Jag is a 1983, though he says his “lady friend” thinks it’s a 2003. She’d never get in a car that old because she’d be scared it would break down—especially since Smith does the work on the car himself.
He has five Jaguars, but this is the only one that runs. He buys them in bits and pieces and spends weekends putting together parts until eventually they turn into cars—a project that may take him the rest of his life to get sorted out, he says. One is called the “wedding car,” which he was fixing up for his 28-year-old daughter. She’s been married about a year now, so it’s been renamed the “christening car.”
He was in England with her a few weeks ago. His older brother had died, leaving behind 100 bottles of rum Smith has no idea what to do with. He and Jim are joking about having a rip-roaring party at the house in Purcell’s Cove. But when Smith leaves, Jim and Krista say it hasn’t sunk in yet that his brother is dead.
In England, Smith drove fast doing the same in miles as you would in kilometres here—50 or 60 on the little country lanes. Smith likes to drive fast: He used to race Jaguars in Toronto in the 1960s.
“But you shouldn’t write much about that,” he says. “I really wasn’t very good. I didn’t have the killer instinct for it.” You’ve got to be a killer to race cars and he’s just too polite—“But it’s nice to be polite, isn’t it?”
He pulls up outside the CTV studios in the north end of the city to drop off the commercial props. There are no parking spaces, save for a section of concrete covered in yellow stripes overshadowed by a sign that says “Loading Zone Only.”
“Well, we’re making a delivery aren’t we,” he says, smiling impishly and backing in.
From there, it’s on to the Parker Street Food Bank.
Smith drives up to the food bank in his Jaguar a lot. It’s one of many things he does that you wouldn’t expect—or find in his job description.
Jim and Smith aren’t trained to work with street people, of course. And it’s only a small part of what Smith does every day—his job is really about putting Spring Garden in a good position to compete with all the other shopping areas in Halifax. But when he joined the SGABA, he decided warfare between the store owners and the poor outside their doors wasn’t good for anyone. They needed a kinder, more understanding way of dealing with the problems.
So he got to know the street people. He hired them to clean the sidewalks and water plants. He tried to find work for those who were able and treatment for those who needed it. These days, he knows when someone new shows up and he goes down from his office to meet them “straightaway” to find out why they’re there.
His approach seems to be working. With some funding from the SGABA, matched by a church organization—a total of $12,000—Smith targeted 20 Spring Garden Road street people, trying to get them off drugs and into appropriate housing and employment. Less than a year later, eight are living in a fixed abode and are clean and working. With more time, more people and more money, Smith knows some of the other 12 could be turned around, too.
The first time Smith went to the food bank, it was for a man he’d found on Spring Garden Road in hospital-issue pyjamas, with an IV in his hand. The man said he’d just been released from hospital and had no money for food. So Smith sent him home, zipped up to the food bank in the Jag and brought food to the man’s home, an apartment in a boarded-up building in Dartmouth.
Today Smith is picking up food for Jake and Alice, who are, he explains, just about clean and just about employable. The couple have a funny relationship. They love each other and they can’t be apart, but they fight all the time. It’s kind of cute, Smith thinks. To qualify for social assistance, they have to live apart. But they can’t bear to and often get caught co-habiting, and then their assistance is cut off. Which is bad, he says, but still, kind of cute.
Smith knows he has put more effort into helping them than he should, even lending them $270 out of his own pocket, which is a no-no. But they’re just so close, so close, he explains, and he just doesn’t want to give up on them. Not yet.
He doesn’t like to give up on anyone, he says. Kurt says he would wash his hands of some of the people SGABA has tried to help, because it just never works: Jim says he’s got no time for some of them anymore, after some of the things they’ve done. But they both say Smith’s capacity for kindness is such that he won’t give up on anyone.
Smith’s got a plan for Jake and Alice to pay him back. Jake is an upholsterer, so Smith wants to get him to re-upholster the Jag to pay off the debt. Smith lined him up with a job once, too, but Jake got scared and didn’t show.
Inside the food bank, Smith asks for eggs, bread, maybe a little cheese—Jake and Alice cook, he tells the man. Something with protein would be good. The man fills a Chiquita banana box with cantaloupe, eggs, rice pudding, canned milk, bagels, roast turkey, bananas and canned fish.
“Will this be OK until seven o’clock if it’s not in the fridge?” Smith wants to know.
“Oh yeah, it’ll be fine.”
Smith thanks him and heaves the banana box up and out into the lobby area. Everyone smiles at him and says good-bye.
A young man sitting on one of the lobby’s plastic chairs in a jean jacket and torn trousers holds the door for the man in the navy pinstripe suit driving the Jag. The young man does not look or say, “You’re welcome.” He just goes back inside. Smith parks the Jag in a lot SGABA operates on Brenton Street. A metal box, which encases the bar that lifts to let his car in, was wrecked a little while ago. It would have cost thousands to fix, so Smith bought some sheet metal and welded it back together himself for less than $200.
Smith doesn’t have to pay for his parking so he doesn’t like to take up a space, he says as he pulls in and parks the Jag on a lumpy sunken section of pavement in the corner of the lot, two of the tires a couple of inches down in the mud. Smith pops out of the car and leaps over a puddle on his way to chat with the parking attendant.
There are only a handful of photos on the wall behind Smith’s desk. They’re all on letter paper, printed off a computer in black and white. All but one are Jaguars. The other is a seagull. Printed in black marker at the bottom of that photo are the words “Claude Smith.”
Every Friday, Smith eats lunch at the Peel Pub with Jim and Krista. Today, after everyone finishes eating, Smith asks for all the scraps in a doggy bag. “I’ll bring it home for Claude,” he says. The waiter laughs, asks how is Claude these days? “Oh, he’s doing well.”
If you ask Smith who Claude is, he might tell you he’s his son. He’s not. Claude is a seagull. They save the remnants of all their lunches for him.
Smith can’t stand seeing food go to waste. He may own 10 or so cars and now live in what is almost a mansion, but he remembers when there wasn’t enough to eat: in England during the war, where his mother raised chickens to feed the family while his father worked as a butcher. Meat-cutting was his family’s traditional occupation for 260 years.
When he won a scholarship to grammar school at the age of 10, finding the money to buy the cap and blazer he needed was a family crisis. But they scrimped and pinched and when he boarded the bus to an education, he was wearing his blazer and a cap.
He hated grammar school, but he turned out to be quite a bright boy, doing well enough to win two scholarships, one for engineering and one for agriculture.
Smith decided to take agriculture at Redding College, which required him to work at a farm for a year first. He spent his year milking cows, shovelling manure and packing 140-pound sacks of meal that weighed more than he did.
He was about to go off to university when the owner of the farm fell ill. Smith stuck around for a few weeks to keep the farm going and then bounded off for Redding.
But since he was three weeks late getting to campus and hadn’t thought to call or write, his scholarship had been revoked.
He returned to the farm, where there were a lot of foreigners around—it was wartime, after all—and met some Canadian girls, who talked about how great Canada was. So he bought a plane ticket to Canada, where he figured he could work his way through university before eventually returning to England.
When he went home to tell his parents, his father said he’d be back in six months. His mother told him to get his car out of the garage. And what happened then might have been his first mistake.
His mother didn’t like Bernie leaving his car there because it was long and the garage door wouldn’t close with the 1921 Bentley inside. It was the 25th or 26th one ever made—the chassis says it’s the 25th, the motor the 26th.
If only he’d taken the spare wheel off the back, the door might have closed. If he’d hacked out the work bench in front of the car, the door definitely would have closed. But he did neither. He sold the car, and so when he boarded a Star Constellation plane for the first plane ride of his life, he had $400 in his pocket.
But the Bentley was gone.
When Smith arrived at the immigration line up at Malton Airport—now Pearson—in Toronto, a Scottish floor-sweeper passed by Smith and the crowd of lost-looking Englishmen waiting to enter Canada.
You bloody fools, get the next plane back, the floor-sweeper said. Fantastic recommendation, Bernie says now. “But I didn’t listen. I didn’t have the money to go back.”
He soon ran out of money, living on a meal a day or less until he managed to lie his way into a job as a delivery driver. He told them he knew every street in Toronto. And that he could drive a truck.
But he taught himself to drive on the job, and got a second, and then a third job, delivering groceries in the evenings and cutting meat on weekends. After four years, he had $10,000 saved up. He marched up to the University of Toronto.
The registrar told him he could get into engineering as he wanted, but they couldn’t guarantee he’d pass. And he didn’t want to spend his $10,000 if he wasn’t going to pass, so he asked to be sent to the university’s “industrial psychologist,” who would assess his talents.
The psychologist told him he should be a reporter, lawyer or accountant, but that he would end up a consultant. Smith went back to driving his truck.
But he had chilblains on his feet from the slushy Toronto winters. And so one day, when he was driving past the Institute of Chartered Accountants, he stopped, went in and got a list of accounting firms. He went to the first one on the list and was accepted to begin articling for his CA.
His first official big mistake came several years later when he went to Ottawa to work at a start-up firm a friend was managing. He hated it. The firm was a mess and he’d left one of the country’s best firms and his favourite girlfriend behind in Toronto. But he managed to impress enough people that, a couple of years later, he was recruited to a consulting firm and moved back to Toronto. So really, maybe it wasn’t that big a mistake after all.
His consulting projects took him further and further east, eventually landing him in Halifax in 1969 where he was hired to set up Metro Transit for the city. He never meant to stay in Halifax. But he kept getting work reorganizing various government departments. And then he had a row with the partner of the firm back in Toronto and was fired. Smith stayed on to finish a job in Halifax.
A short time later, Halifax officials invited him for lunch with the city manager who offered him a job as treasurer. He said no—he’d had a good career so far and cities were “grubby things.” A few days later they asked again. No again. The third time he said yes.
The city had gone through city treasurers “like Henry the Eighth went through wives”—six in eight years.
Smith lasted 23 years as city treasurer. During that time, he launched the first ever GoTime transit information system on the city’s buses by putting magnets on the wheels to count the revolutions. Everyone told him it couldn’t be done, but it was. He implemented the pay-as-you-go system of funding for capital projects and pulled Halifax out of debt. A few people said that couldn’t be done either but, by amalgamation in 1996, Halifax had more in the bank than it owed.
No one has ever told Smith why he wasn’t offered a position in the newly minted Halifax Regional Municipality. He applied for jobs as treasurer and as city manager, but all he was offered was an early-retirement package.
Instead, Smith joined Salter Street Films and helped set up Electropolis, the enormous soundstage on the Halifax waterfront, before returning to private consulting.
In 1998, the province offered him a two-year contract as deputy minister of finance. Accepting the job, he says now, was his second big mistake.
Smith, whose friends call him the most positive person on the planet, will say only that it was horrible. His voice drops and he says sardonically, “No, it did not go well at the province.”
When his contract was up, he was out in a hurry. And the years that followed were perhaps the darkest days that Bernard Smith has ever known.
He did some work in Jamaica and tried to get a consulting company off the ground, but it didn’t work out.
And then he made the last of his big mistakes. He got involved with a film company only to find out it was verging on bankruptcy. He stayed because he’d given his word, and he lost a lot of money in the process.
He suffered from ulcers and shingles, his marriage fell apart, and he worried that he would lose the house by the sea he had built himself, on two acres of property that was so steep everyone told him it could never be done.
It was probably the most down he’s ever been.
When the job at SGABA came up, he decided it was time to give up on private consulting, join the merchant’s group and take some time to heal.
Before his current job, Smith was never an advocate for the homeless and addicted. He wouldn’t call himself one now—he says part of his job is to clean up the street, and helping these people is the way to do it. The job is far from done—a stabbing outside a nightclub downtown in November has added another layer to the question of safety on the streets of Halifax. And there are still people who get asked for money seven times on their way to buy shoes on Spring Garden Road. Still, Smith will laugh as he tells stories about the merchants and the beggars and those in between, all of whom he calls Spring Garden Road’s “great, dysfunctional family.”
He says he might have been foolish to think his plan would work. “But fools rush in where angels fear to tread and we’re getting results,” he says. “Eight out of 20 for 12 grand isn’t bad at all. Is it?”
But funding from the church group ran out during the fall. Smith kept spending at the previous rate while waiting for more, even though, he says a little impishly, he could have been fired if the money didn’t arrive. But it did.
And this might be his last job anyway. He wants to buy a farm with a barn where he can work on his cars and he wants to do some good before he goes. He doesn’t think he’s done quite enough yet—he should have done more in his life, could have if he didn’t make those mistakes, and he’s kind of angry with himself.
He’s really learned over the last bit, he says, lugging a four-foot wreath down the street on the shoulder of his $200 suit, that most people aren’t really very interested in helping other people out. Most people are really just looking out for themselves.
Smith and Jim, the volunteer who helps out with the street people, meet for tea at the Daily Grind. Jim, who arrives first, asks the guy behind the counter if he’s seen Eddie anywhere. The guy shakes his head. Eddie’s missing. He never showed up with his resume and Jim hasn’t bought him that suit.
Smith arrives late. The skin on his bald head is pulled tight at the temples and he looks wearily at his tea, stirring it for a long time.
There were a lot of new panhandlers on the street today, he says. Tons of them. One of the things he wants to do before he goes is really shake up the provincial government and make them do something. Their programming is failing, obviously, and they have to act now. There are kids on Spring Garden today who tomorrow will be deciding whether to try crack cocaine.
Jake and Alice? Well, Smith got a call from Alice in the hospital Saturday morning. She stabbed herself, stuck a knife right in her leg, because if she hadn’t stabbed herself, she would have stabbed her boyfriend. Smith picked her up from the hospital and took her to Bryony House.
He used to think they were kind of cute, he says, but they are addicted and dysfunctional and he is not equipped to deal with it. Maybe all he’s done is postpone the disaster.
But then again, there are young women who were “quite literally” saved from pimps by Smith and Jim. There are those eight who are now back on their feet and even more who didn’t get that funding but were still pulled up by Smith’s helping hand. But they need social workers, mentors, programs. There has to be more help, he says.
On a recent Sunday, he was driving down Barrington Street. The sidewalks were crammed with hundreds of people from the Global Microcredit Summit who were in the city talking about how to extend microcredit to the world’s poorest people. Right in the middle of the crowd, he saw Mike begging for money, hassling and swearing at those who declined. They’ve tried everything with him, says Smith. But he needs more help than they can give.
Jess McDiarmid is a journalism student who nearly put her back out helping to haul the Christmas wreaths on Spring Garden Road.
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