Walking, waving guy lucky to be alive

The blue rubber ball bounced twice before it rolled into the northbound lane on Main Street. Cars were on the way.

“Hold on, hold on,” said a tall guy with a small Canada Flag poking out of his satchel.

Before the nearest camp counsellor from Community Centre 55 could get a word out, the tall guy had stepped off the sidewalk and into the road with one hand up to stop traffic.

“Saved the day – thank you sir,” said the counsellor as the tall guy handed him the ball.

“Back in your bag,” said the counsellor to the young camper who dropped it. “Why’s that out anyway?”

Such small-time heroics seem to crop up every block or two when you’re walking with Chris Heywood.

Chris Heywood walked 23 km a day in June. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Chris Heywood walked 23 km a day in June.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Ever since a major back surgery put him back on his feet in 2003, Heywood spends nearly every afternoon walking across Birch Cliff and the Upper Beaches.

His pedometer logged an average 23 km in June, and his record is 37 km. Somewhere in all that walking he dropped about 70 lbs.

“I’m the walking, waving guy,” Heywood says. “That’s how everybody knows me.”

Heywood said on his walks he knows few people by name, but plenty by sight.

“Hey boss, how are you?” asked an older man after Heywood stepped aside for his electric scooter.

“Better than average,” he said. It’s Heywood’s go-to reply.

Later, a man painting a Kingston Road storefront stopped to chat and size up the weather. They didn’t trade names, but Heywood shared a joke.

He keeps a bunch at the ready, he says, some for adults, others more PG-13.

“Why was the broom late for school?” is one of the kid-friendly favourites. “Swept in,” is the groan-inducing punchline.

Besides family and friends, some of whom still call him ‘Chevy’ from his school days at Birchmount, there is one select group of people who do know Heywood by name – the operators who work Toronto’s 3-1-1 phone line.

“I call 3-1-1 pretty well every day with at least two or three things,” Heywood said, smiling.

The day before it was a bus-swallowing pothole on Kingston Road.

A while ago, he reported that a stretch of two year-old sidewalk on Kingston was already crumbling on top. Councillor Gary Crawford’s office got involved.

Heywood follows up on his calls, too. He is still trying to get the west-side stairs at the Danforth GO station re-opened. He’d also like to see the engraved “Birch Cliff Village” sign painted so that people actually notice it.

“It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it,” he joked.

Now 47, Heywood is lucky to be alive, let alone working as the one-man street patrol for the Beach and Birch Cliff.

He was born with an arteriovenous malformation – basically a tangled, abnormal connection between an artery and a vein.

Many people live with them without any trouble, but in Heywood’s case that tangle caused a blood vessel to swell and then burst.

He was 25, and he had no symptoms before it happened. And the vessel that burst was in his brain.

“Luckily I was going to my mom’s that night for dinner,” he said. “When I didn’t show up, she got worried.”

A friend found Heywood passed out in the bathroom with a fat lip and a black eye. Thinking he had been drinking, his friend put him to bed and slept on the floor.

But the next morning, Heywood didn’t wake up.

“Nine’s my number,” Heywood said. “Nine hours on the operating table, nine days in a coma, nine weeks unconscious, nine months of hospital.”

“And five months of physio-terrorists after that,” he added, laughing.

Heywood likes to point out that it was the U of T’s head of neurology who handled his brain surgery, and the head of neurology of Trillium Health who later did his back.

“I have good luck in hospitals, what can I say.”

But until he got walking, Heywood had some very bad luck around cars.

Heywood returned to work 14 months after the brain aneurysm. Things went well until the day he was helping to move a Cadillac down a ramp at U-Haul, where he was handling all the trailer rentals.

He tripped on a tool someone had left on the ground, then felt a big ‘pop’ in his back as he fell forward carrying a lot of the Cadillac’s weight.

A trip to the hospital ended with painkillers and instructions to take it easy. But the next day, Heywood was driving to the vet when a mini-bus rear-ended him. His car was flung across three lanes of Kingston Road.

“It just plowed me,” he said. “Beautiful car, too. A ’72 Cutlass Supreme, ’78 Corvette blue with a padded vinyl roof, 250 rocket.”

Recovering from the car accident proved hardest of all. Until his back surgery, any attempt to walk sent pain like a pair of ice picks to the small of Heywood’s back. And lack of exercise made it hard to keep in shape.

“The doctor said he could help, but he didn’t know he could help this much,” Heywood said.

After his surgery, Heywood was surprised just to find that he could scooch off a gurney and onto a hospital bed.

“That night I was walking around the ward, no pain, with my IV in and the whole thing,” he said. “It was just phenomenal.”

Eleven years later, Heywood rarely lets a day go by without walking four hours or more, and in all weather.

Besides phoning in tripping hazards and other issues to 3-1-1, he keeps a keen eye on traffic. He directed traffic at Warden and Kingston for hours with a chair and a flashlight during last winter’s black out, and anyone who speeds past Heywood now is likely to get a finger wag.

But for everyone else on the road, Heywood has a friendly invitation.

“Give me a honk, I’ll give you wave.”

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