There’s a method to the madness of 473 Clinton St.
Old toys and unwanted knick-knacks decorate the lawn, forming a pathway to the front door. Small coins and wooden plates are arranged in a series of patterns along the exterior walls. A van covered in tiny plastic bugs sits parked outside.
For most people, the semi-detached home is a two-second stop on a walk through Seaton Village. For Albino Carreira, however, it’s a life’s work.
The 74-year-old Portuguese immigrant has been building out his “Eccentric Garden” ever since a workplace injury left him permanently disabled and jobless 26 years ago.
He’s become, over those years, something of a neighbourhood enigma: that guy who drives around Koreatown in the Bug Van. That guy who schoolchildren whisper about as they pass his home after class.
But for passersby brave enough to ring the doorbell, Carreira provides a brief walking tour and thorough explanation. The garden, he says, is more than just a garden. It’s an antidote to a devastating injury. A much-needed distraction during years of intense physical discomfort.
“It’s what I do now to pass the time,” he says.
Carreira was born and raised in Ourem, Portugal, north of Lisbon, in 1945. He’s the fourth of six siblings, most of whom entered the workforce as stonecutters and craftsmen in the mid-1960s.
A young man growing up in a period of political turbulence and economic stagnation, Carreira discovered the limits to prosperity in Portugal after a brief stint as the head salesman of a department store in the late ’60s and moved to Toronto with his wife, Maria, in 1972. He assumed they’d return to Ourem eventually, but within two years the couple had developed a routine that neither wanted to abandon.
He began work in construction for a company contracted to help build the CN Tower. They bought a semi-detached home in a relatively Portuguese neighbourhood and had their first child, Steven, in 1982.
The Portuguese diaspora in Toronto was fairly established by this time, says Gilberto Fernandes, a York University historian and director of the Portuguese Canadian History Project. Hundreds of thousands of people left Portugal in the early 1960s — consisting particularly of draft dodgers and families with young boys of military age avoiding the Portuguese colonial wars in Africa. Between 1958 and 1967, nearly 50,000 Portuguese immigrants settled in Canada, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Carreira “would have arrived to a community that was quite lively and growing, with lots of clubs, associations, Portuguese media and businesses,” says Fernandes. “He wouldn’t have been one of the pioneers, but he certainly would have arrived at a point when there’s a lot of community formation going on.”
Carreira remembers settling in nicely: “The job was good. The money was good. So we thought, forget about Portugal! We’re in Canada now.”
But the Carreiras’ routine came to an end on June 16, 1993, while Albino was working on a major addition and refurbishment of St. Helen Catholic School on College St., near Dufferin.
He remembers coming to work early that Monday morning. His boss, he recalls, wanted him to help take down the scaffolding, so he scaled the side of the building until he was about eight metres above ground and began the dismantlement process. It was there that he lost his balance on a wobbly wooden platform inside the scaffolding rig, tipped sideways, and fell off the edge of the structure toward the concrete below.
In his research, Fernandes said he found records of more than 241 construction-related deaths in Toronto between 1960 and 1990 — a “very conservative estimate,” he notes. The human cost of building Toronto was tremendous.
Carreira awoke from his injury-induced coma in a hospital bed several days later, his skull fractured, his neck broken and his spine shattered into bits. The doctors performed extensive surgery to reconstruct his mutilated torso and gave him a neck brace and head cast to wear for the next few years. They inserted six screws and two metal plates in his back. He could walk, but he’d need a cane, at least for a while.
He was provided with a permanent disability pension through his union and told never to work again.
Carreira “became really agitated because of the injury,” remembers Steven, now 37, a gardener working in Toronto. “He had to take meds all the time. I remember him always in pain, always up in the middle of the night … He needed something to take his mind off everything.”
His symptoms seemed endless. A brutal concussion left him dazed and confused. An inability to sleep longer than three hours and an inability to stay awake throughout the day turned his life into a cycle of intermittent naps.
The garden, he explained, became a way to keep busy in the hours he felt healthy enough to work.
He began with a few decorations to his mailbox and then some creative touches to the inner walls of the front porch. He completed a few puzzles, about 5,000 pieces each, and framed them outside. Before long he had decked out the porch with hundreds of small wooden plates — he calls them “woodcakes” — each screwed into place as a rather sobering metaphor for the screws put into his back to uphold the structural integrity of his upper half.
Maria thought the newfound project was obsessive, says Steven. “It’s his business. I don’t get involved,” she told the Star when asked, and declined to comment further.
Others on the street — notably those who didn’t live inside the house — found the project entertaining, if a little strange.
In the absence of any discernible artistic genre, Helen Lasthiotakis, a longtime neighbour, labelled the garden’s style “Baroque-o-loco.” She regularly donates the trimmed branches of her cherry trees to his garden.
“It’s kind of crazy, but I’ve never had a problem with it, personally,” she says, standing across the street. “I think it’s fantastic. I could never do something like that.”
Peter Wong, who lives a few houses north, offers to help with the garden from time to time. Carreira is popular among the neighbours, he says. His inability to sleep for long periods of time means he’s usually up early in the morning, salting the sidewalks in the winter and clearing leaves in the fall.
“He’s kind of the guardian of the neighbourhood,” says Lasthiotakis. “He’s always out doing things on the street. He’ll knock on your door (to warn you) if you’re parked illegally.”
The project expanded in small increments in the years following the injury. The porch was done by 1994, and a layer of toys covered the front garden by 1996.
The injury also prevented him from driving a vehicle for a few years after the accident. When he finally became healthy enough to get back in his van, he decorated it in plastic insects he bought from the dollar store — much to the surprise of his family, who, at the time of the vehicle’s makeover, was visiting relatives in Portugal.
Steven says he thought it was “weird art” at first, but adjusted over time. He and his friends, then attending middle school, loved riding in the Bug Van with his father as pedestrians stared and pointed.
“This was his therapy,” he says. “It took his mind off his pain and suffering from the accident, and as long as he didn’t steal my toys for his projects, it was fine.”
Then came publicity.
A film crew arrived at Carreira’s house in 1997 to shoot an episode of Weird Homes. A local Chinese-language newspaper profiled Carreira and put his face on the front page. Members of the broader community and local businesses picked up on the project, and soon Carreira became the treasurer to their trash as well.
Some of Steven’s friends offered their old toy figurines. A billiards company donated their excess pool cues to the cause. In 1998, then-Mayor Barbara Hall dubbed it the city’s Best Eccentric Garden and wrote the Carreira family a letter to say as much.
“It is a pleasure to congratulate you on your front garden being judged as one of the loveliest in the city,” she wrote in a letter of recognition. “Our community is truly fortunate to have people like you whose hard work and dedication enhance our surroundings.”
The garden now extends to the backyard, where an old church bell sits atop the back porch. (He doesn’t ring it, to “keep the neighbours happy.”) He estimates there are about 220,000 screws and 5,000 pool cues in the garden.
“I’ve stopped doing as much now,” he says, speaking of recent years. “I need to be careful, because if I fall again, I’m finished.”
The family has grown used to strangers stopping in front of the house. Carreira regularly offers informal tours of the home to passersby, which he says happens on a weekly basis. He walks them around the house, recites the backstory, and then returns inside for a nap.
In recent years, Carreira has limited his garden work to minor decorations, and has turned his attention to making wooden pens out of the remaining pool cues in his garage.
What will happen to the house when he’s no longer there?
“Who knows,” sighs Steven, contemplating his father’s legacy. “Maybe someone will turn it into a tiny museum. Or maybe it’ll all be taken down. I have no idea what I would do with it, to be honest. But it’s not up to me.”
Albino says he doesn’t know either — but until he decides, the garden will continue to grow.
Jacob Lorinc is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jacoblorinc