Volume 94, Issue 52

Thursday, November 30, 2000


A Conversation With...Roy McDonald

Swedish punk band sure isn't ABBA

Canadian hip hop on the ropes with new releases

A Conversation With...Roy McDonald

Photo by Casey Lessard

By Matt Pearson
Gazette Staff

It's Saturday night on the Richmond strip. Troops of young people march down this catwalk of a street in their thigh-high boots, halter tops, pleather pants and puffy vests. And as they march, they pass by a gentle man with a scruffy white beard and a story to tell.

Roy McDonald was born at Victoria Hospital on June 4, 1937. He spent his childhood and adolescence in London, where he attended, but never graduated from South Secondary School. Since then, Roy has done it all, but it's always brought him back to the Forest City.

"I've lived in Montreal and Toronto, but I always come back to London. It has everything I need, from a university to libraries, art galleries and people. You don't feel lost in London like you do in Toronto," Roy says, fidgeting in his seat inside a University Community Centre eatery, far removed from his former days on the protest block.

Roy first became politically and socially active during his high school days. "I was always a nonconformist," he explains, adding he was active in protests against the nuclear bomb and the Vietnam War, as well as a number of environmental causes.

In 1963, he marched with Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in New York City. Roy was drawn to these causes because he felt they needed his voice as a poet, much like Allen Ginsberg, whom he met once in Toronto, and whom he has been mistaken for on a number of occasions. Incidentally, he's also been mistaken for Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Yet it was Ginsberg who had a special effect on Roy and his thinking. "I had been influenced strongly by the Beats and the Beat Movement. I never met Jack Kerouac, unfortunately, but I met a lot of people involved with that movement. I never called myself a 'Beat' or a 'Beatnik' because of certain connotations."

A perfect segue into a more interesting debate – what is Roy McDonald? A poet? A street philosopher? A bum? "I'm just an individual who tries to do his own thing in his own way," McDonald says, matter-of-factly. Contrary to what one may have heard, he's not homeless. And he's not begging for money either.

"We live in a very surface culture. If people look at me and say, 'You look like a bum,' I say, 'If that's your perception, maybe you need to look deeper into things.' I've met some bums who are incredibly interesting people and I'd rather meet them than I would successful business people. You can listen to bums' stories and find out what they've done, where they've been and you can learn more, in many cases, from failure than you can success," he confesses.

Roy McDonald is a proud man. He's been drug and alcohol-free for 25 years, this month. "I quit because I realized that if I kept drinking, I'd be dead," he admits earnestly.

Nevertheless, his life story is certainly not one without a few memories of past escapades. "I've done my fair share of smoking up. I went to Woodstock and I was a part of that generation. I had the longest beard of anyone I could see, but I was also wearing a suit," he laughs.

On Friday and Saturday nights, McDonald has an exciting nightlife. At his post, in front of Joe Kool's, he stands rain or shine. This is street theatre in its purest form and for McDonald, the sidewalk is the stage. "I love singing," he reveals. "Singing on the street is a fascinating experience. I also recite poetry, do storytelling and stand-up comedy; that's all part of the thing I do as an entertainer, a showman and a performer."

In addition to the entertainment, Roy feels a small measure of social responsibility which inherently exists in his job. "Sometimes, what it works out to is social work. There are so many lonely and miserable people on the streets – I'm interested in their stories."

On an average night, one can learn more about people from their reactions to Roy than about Roy himself. Some laugh in his face, some are curious, some walk by and act as if he doesn't exist, some spit at his feet or call him names. Roy takes people's reactions in stride. "Sometimes it's really nasty. I've been hit and I've had people come up and scream in my face, 'Get a job, you lazy bastard! Cut your beard off!'" he says. But none of these negative experiences phase him in the least, for everyone who passes receives the same good wishes.

Roy especially enjoys the many young women whom he's gotten to know since he first hit the pavement in 1997. "The most beautiful women in the world walk down Richmond Road. I get hugs and kisses from them," he gloats. "I'm 63 – I love it!"

Health has always been an issue for Roy. In 1999, he came close to dying from an asthma attack. "I thought I was going, I really did," he recalls. Since then, he's followed an herbal supplement and vitamin regimen, some days taking up to 50 vitamins. The supplements cost him between $200 and $300 a month, a steep tab for someone who lives on very little.

"I don't have much money. I live on peanuts really. My only copious luxury is books. I have a library of somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 books. Every room in the house has piles and stacks," Roy says, confessing he's heard the rumours about him and his supposed wealth. "There isn't truth to that," he begins. "I do own my own house so that means I've got some money in the bank. On the other hand, people think just the opposite – that I'm a bum living on the streets."

Roy's life and times have captured the eye of many Londoners, including well-known playwright, Jason Rip, who finds Roy so engrossing, he's written a play about him. Beard: A Few Moments in the Life of Roy McDonald opened last night at the Grand Theatre's McManus Stage and will run through Saturday night. Roy couldn't be more thrilled.

"I feel great about it. How many people are fortunate enough to get a play written about them?" Since the play first workshopped last fall, he's been actively involved in every step along the way, from his interviews with Rip, to his suggestions for additional material and his unending plugging of it on the streets.

Roy's zest for life and unwillingness to follow society's dictates are refreshing to say the least. Although he's much older, the university environment attracts him partly because of its vibrance and youth. He scoffs at people his own age who say this generation is off-track. He also scoffs at his own death, knowing he's lived a good life. "If I die today, I would die fulfilled," he says, after a short pause.

Soon after our conversation ended, Roy sauntered into The Gazette office to donate a copy of his book. He autographed it on the first page, and in his legendary scrawl, wrote out his thanks for being interested in hearing the incredible story of his life.

I can't recall if I thanked him for telling it.

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Copyright The Gazette 2000