The Life of Hobo Bill
As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, Downhome is pleased to present this article from our magazine archives. The following is an excerpt from a story written by Stephanie Darby, which first appeared in the April 1995 issue of the Downhomer.
"Spare a quarter for a coffee, Buddy?" says the grey-haired man with the Santa Claus beard.
"Haven't got any change," says the first passer-by.
"How are ya today, Skipper?" says the second, placing a loonie in the man's pudgy hand.
"Not bad, not bad," says the man with the beard. "Thank you," he adds, waving happily good-bye.
Recognize these lines? Recognize this man? For most people living or working in downtown St. John's, his picture needs no explanation.
His name is Bill Cherniwchan, but people know him here as Hobo Bill, the friendly old man who lives on the street, carting his belongings along in a bag on his shoulder. Well, not anymore. Technically, Hobo Bill is no longer living "on the street."
He still spends an hour or two down on George Street every day, but now his takings are only supplementary income, used to pay for his daily Telegram and Globe. After a heart attack in 1991, and a gallbladder operation a year ago, social services has finally taken him out of the cold and given him his own apartment just minutes from downtown.
"The hospital doesn't want me to go back on the street so they arranged for my welfare," he said. "They were worried about me." Now having a fixed address and a warm bed to sleep in, he feels there is "a great change in lifestyle."
But that doesn't alter his image in people's minds. In the six years that Mr. Cherniwchan has been in Newfoundland, he has become almost a celebrity.
What makes this man such an intriguing subject? When I interviewed Albert Pope over coffee at his Water Street restaurant, Subconscious, he said Hobo Bill was not like any of the other street people that come into his shop. "He's a character," he said. Yes, indeed.
In Mr. Cherniwchan's 62 years, his life has taken many turns. He was born in Alberta and as a teen he worked with a pick and shovel for the Canadian National Railway, his father's place of work for 36 years. After eight months, though, Mr. Cherniwchan returned to school to complete his Grade 11, the highest level of education he ever obtained. At 18, he joined the army.
After a year studying radar and maps, he became a bombardier instructor in the army. In 1953, after three years in the forces, he took on married life. But in 1957 everything changed for him. His army days ended and his dissatisfaction with the Canadian government began. He believes he was kicked out of the army because of his political views, in particular, his inclination towards communism.
In the eight or nine months that followed, he continued to work for the army but at the civilian level, as a gunsmith. Then for a few months he even tried his own gunsmithing business, but he "didn't make any money out of it," he said, politely asking me if I minded him smoking.
For a long time after, he worked various labour jobs in Alberta, but none of them lasted very long and he began to question why. He labelled himself a communist and believed he was being penalized for voicing his opinion. So he decided to "get the heck out." In 1971, he became a hobo, leaving Edmonton, and his wife and only daughter, behind.
From hitching car rides to freight trains, Mr. Cherniwchan made his way through the provinces until he finally decided he wanted "to leave the country for good."
The Ukraine, his parents' birthplace, was the only feasible answer for him, and it still is. But getting there is another story. For 20 years he has been trying to obtain a visa from the Ukrainian government, but so far with no success.
"They checked me out," he said, removing the tobacco from his cigarette butt for recycling, "and I'm a fine fellow as far as they're concerned."
So why the interminable wait?
He assumes his file has just been sitting on hold. After all, he's just "a hobo from Canada" wanting to go back there, right? But he's not too worried and he accepts the fact that they have other more important matters to deal with. "It's coming," he said.
Wanting to go to the Ukraine is what brought him to Halifax and then to St. John's in 1989, after spending the previous 10 years in Montreal. He left Montreal when his 4' x 7' wooden shack, located inside the security fence of the waterfront, collapsed on him in a windstorm. Coming to the east coast, he hoped to catch a ride to the Ukraine on a Soviet vessel when it visited the port.
In St. John's he found that the people are "friendlier than most." Perhaps that's partly why he's still here. And now that he is finally receiving welfare, things aren't looking too bad for him.
When his mother died in 1987, he was supposed to acquire a sum of $10,000, which, for one reason or another, he hasn't received. He said if he did ever get the money, he would probably give some to the Salvation Army, the Grace Hospital and maybe even welfare. But "this is not charity," he said, "this is reciprocity: You help me, I'll help you."
That's just one example of Mr. Cherniwchan's sense of respect towards others. But during my talk with him I saw many others. When I offered to buy him a second coffee when his first became cold, he wouldn't let me, telling me to "save my money." And afterwards, when I sat with him awhile on George Street, I learned another interesting fact: he doesn't bum from women.
When one young lady, who thought he was speaking to her, began looking for a quarter, he quickly shook his head, refusing. When she finally found one, though, he reluctantly accepted it, saying with a chuckle, "Okay, but I'm not bumming off ya."
Surprisingly, Mr. Cherniwchan appears content about the lifestyle he has chosen. "I decided to travel and I did," he said. He doesn't trouble himself with regrets about the way his life could have been or choices he could have made. And although he does not socialize, or even drink, he says he is not lonely.
"This is a temporary phase of a man's life...it's like being in the trenches...you know you're not going to be there forever...so you might as well make the best of what you've got right now,' he explained.
He keeps himself busy reading magazines like Scientific American, listening to classical music on VOWR or the Metropolitan Opera on CBC, and delving into his own mathematical and astronomical "projects," like his theories on weather forecasting and his design of a three-scope telescope he calls Troika.
He is a man of many ideas, that's for sure. One of his ideas earned him an honourable mention and $50 in Montreal. It was a contest given by the former Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation; his entry was a renovation plan for the old port. But endless ideas are only one facet of this man's charm; he is also a man of many opinions, which he freely shares.
Finance Minister Paul Martin's budget is one topic about which Mr. Cherniwchan fumes.
"Martin has really screwed up," he said. "That budget is a Mulroney budget, not a Chrétien budget, and if Chrétien starts thinking like Mulroney, he'll suffer the same fate as Mulroney did the last election."
The biggest tragedy of this budget, he believes, is the termination of 45,000 public service jobs. Besides being "a traumatic experience" for long-term employees, Mr. Cherniwchan said it implies something about stability in our government and country.
"When a civil service person doesn't figure he's got any future, then nobody has a future."
According to him "nothing's permanent anymore," and that applies especially to his new living conditions. Although he is presently enjoying a roof over his head, fresh tobacco in his pocket and a dinner from Meals on Wheels every day, he is not sure how long this luxury will last. "Who knows where I'll be in six months from now?...Will they ever cut me off?"
Hopefully not, Bill.
For now, he says he is enjoying his stay in St. John's and he expects that for the time he is here, he will be all right. But he knows one thing for sure. If he ever does make it to the Ukraine, he'll "never forget Newfoundland."
Editor's update: Hobo Bill never made it to the Ukraine. He remained a fixture in downtown St. John's until his death in 2006 at the age of 74.