Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Barry Bojarski aka ‘The Care Bear’
Meet Bear. Many of you know him. He’s a fixture on Gerrard, just east of Greenwood. If you’ve wondered where he got the name … it all started when a stuffed teddy was put into his incubator on the day he was born.
I first met Bear walking along Gerrard one morning with Sunshine during our ‘Day in the Life…’ project. He was sitting on his chair just east of Greenwood with that iconic pork pie hat on. He yelled out ‘Good Morning!’ as we passed by, so we stopped and had a short conversation. Some of you might remember this pic on the left. I knew when I started this project that I wanted to profile Bear. I didn’t know him from Adam, but I felt, intuitively, he’d have a few stories to share. I was right, but admit I was (emotionally) ill-prepared for what was to come.
I arrived at his small basement apartment on Gerrard to be given the ‘grand tour’. His little home resembles something out of The Hobbit: a small, secret-like entrance, with 3 tiny rooms, stuffed bears here & there, clothes, baby carriages, things hanging on racks, chachkies, ornaments, you name it, he has it! We sat in his yard, similarly Hobbit-like: the chairs adorned with ornaments and keepsakes, and just tucked in the background, some food laid out for his pals, the squirrels. He’s named them, but I can’t remember them all! He calls for his cat, Blackie, but she’s not around. “She’ll be back”, he sighs.
I learned quickly that behind the happy face and big heart of Bear, lives a man with a torrid history. Barry is the 2nd oldest of four. He’s a twin with his sister Tina (deceased) and has (had) 2 other sisters, Sharon & Heather. Born in the Camp Borden compound (his father was a ‘Batman’ – a personal chaffeur/assistant to one of the colonels in the military) they moved around a lot. “We were never in one place for more than a few years. I had fun, got into mischief with the friends I met, but my childhood memories are mostly of my father beating me every day of my life, it seemed.” When he was 14, they moved to Manitoba, on the outskirts of Winnipeg. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I knew he wouldn’t touch the girls or Mom, so one day I just up and left. I didn’t tell anyone.” He left with a friend for Brandon, Manitoba and they worked for a few years as cleaners/garbage collectors around military camps. When he was 16, he went to visit his mother and ‘confront’ his father. “They’d moved to BC. I was bigger & stronger than him by then, so wasn’t afraid. I really wanted to see my Mom.”
In 1969, Bear was 17 and went off to Woodstock. “Oh yeah, I was a hippie all right. If you see any pictures of that festival, I was right up front!” He laughs his crazy, infectious laugh. The following year, he went down to Florida (where his parents retired to) to visit his mother and was drafted into the Vietnam War. “What?!” I was shocked. He told me that Canadians who owned property and lived there were eligible to be drafted. I was stunned. He went off to war. “I was only 18 but they ‘programmed’ us and I learned to kill.” Bear did 2 tours there and during the 2nd tour was shot by a 14 year old female VC (Viet Cong). He showed me the scars. In 1972, he was MIA for 3 years. He and 6 other soldiers were taken as prisoners of war.
The US had no jurisdiction over Cambodia so they were taken across the Mekhong and spent 3 years in hell. “We lived in a hole. 17 guys altogether. We were pissed on, shat on, tied together with chains and hauled out to work in the rice fields for 14 hours a day. We weren’t fed properly and ended up eating rats, cockroaches and anything we could get our hands on.” I was agog. “How did you get out?” Bear leans in. “One night I looked up and prayed to a god I didn’t believe in. I said, ‘you get me out of here and I’ll believe you exist’.” He claims he saw an angel in a white light and decided that was a sign. The next day he took himself and 6 guys, killed the guards and escaped across the river. They made it to one of their camps on the Vietnam side. “We were in black pajama-type POW clothes. They were stunned to see us alive.” The 7 of them were put in a rehabilitation programme for about 8 months to recover. After that, he was sent home with an honourable discharge.
In his 20s at this stage, he came back to Toronto to study massage and reflexology. He took his skills to dance clubs, strip clubs, bars, you name it. He got to know all the gals working in these establishments, and about a year into it, six of them had propositioned him to be their manager and take to the road. He accepted. They toured Quebec mostly. It was on this tour that he met his wife, Diane Millette. “She was a dancer, not a stripper. Make sure you write that!” He smiles. A smile laden with meloncholy. We sit quietly for a minute. Then he perks up. “After a year of touring, it started getting a bit ugly with some of the girls. Bad men, money issues, drugs etc. I quit managing and returned to Vancouver.” He called Diane and said if she wanted to be together to come out to BC. She did. They married and had 2 children; Karl and Samantha. Like his own growing up years, they moved around a fair bit. After Vancouver, they came back to Ontario to work on a horse ranch near Nobleton – “I love to learn new things!” – and then left for Florida. His parents had passed by then and left him (the boy) the spoils. “I took care of the sisters, don’t you worry” he laughs.
After they moved to Florida, he and Diane had gone out to a 4th of July party and the neighbour was babysitting the kids. “When we got home, I found her dead on the living room floor and the kids were there, looking & watching. She’d been raped and murdered. It was horrifying. I still had some friends from my biker days and got them to ‘find this guy’. When they did, I jumped on my Harley and rode straight to the Zanzibar Tavern in Toronto from Florida. I walked in, shot him in the head & chest 6 times. I got 20 years, but only served 14. Seven in Joyceville and 7 in Millhaven.” I had to put my pen down and take a breather. Then I saw Bear’s eyes begin to water. “Where was your family at this point?” I asked him. “They were back in Florida. I did it for the kids. They were only 5 and 3 years old and saw something horrible. I needed retribution.” He hangs his head. “A few years after I started my prison sentence, I was visited one day by some military personnel. They tied my hands together and took me to a solitary place. Then they told me that Diane had swerved off the road to avoid a croc (who commonly sunbathe on roads in Florida) and that she and the kids had drowned in the river. They did it to protect me. They knew I would go crazy. Maybe kill someone.” We both went silent. Then he looked up and said, “That’s why I’m here. I’ve been a recluse ever since I got out of prison in 1997. I didn’t leave my apartment for 6 months. Then one day, I decided to sit out in the sun on the street. A few kids walked by from the daycare and I said ‘Hello’. Other people greeted me with ‘Good Morning’. It made me feel happy for the first time in years. I started to do it more and more. But that’s it. I don’t leave this spot too often. I go to Tea ‘N Bannock for breakfast every morning (oh god, I love that Tina and the girls!) see the kids & Kerry at SkyBlue and to Mom & Pop’s on the corner for smokes. That’s it really. I can’t handle much more.”
How do you survive? I asked him. “On my pension. This place is cheap and I do odd jobs here and there. I was a ‘cleaner’ for the bikers way back when and still clean bikes, cars, sell things, help an old lady down the street with her garden, collect and give things to people in need, that sort of thing.” He calls out to Richie, his neighbour, the cat comes home and then Bear rushes into his apartment to show me something. “The kids made this for me today.” His eyes glaze over again. Happy tears this time. “It just made my day! My week!” I read it. It’s beautiful. A ‘thank you for being you’ card from the kids at SkyBlue Studio and their teacher Kerry. I wanted to burst into tears. Instead, I turn the tone and ask him where his teeth are. “They’re like the stars my dear, they only come out at night.” We both laughed. A much needed moment of levity.
Bear suffers from MPD (Multiple Personality Disorder). There are five: Barry: his real self, who he says died at 14, Care Bear: who we meet on the street, Badger: mouthy, talk-tough guy, Big Bear: The Vietnam killer ie; the violent one and MainTain: who keeps everyone under control. My eyes grew big at this news. I ask if he sought help/a therapist after all he’d been through, including finding his twin sister, Tina, dead from an overdose. “Yep. At first they put me on 20+ meds. You name it – diazepam, lorazepam, prozac, lithium, etc. After a few years, I told the doctors I’m done. I was a vegetable. I need my mind! I need to think! Once a year I see a panel of psychiatrists at CAMH and they do an assessment.” He’s been off the drugs for 12 years now and maintains ‘MainTain’ keeps everything and everyone in order. “I’m in my 60s and I’m as tough and strong as I was when I was 25. Maybe more so. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?” If anyone knows that proverb to be true, it’s Bear. Before I could leave he takes me over to meet Tina at Tea ‘N Bannock, then Mom & Pops and Kerry from SkyBlue Studio. On our short journey, he’s said ‘hello’ to at least 4 people and a dog he knows. While I left with a heavy heart after our time together, the one thing I learned is that it’s the simple joys that keep him going. He loves the kids who pass him by every day and anyone who offers a smile and a kind word. If you’re passing his chair one day, shout out a ‘hello’ or give him a smile. You’ll be sure to make a quick friend.
Older photos supplied by Bear