Dan Hicks, Known by all as Sailor Dan.
Dan Hicks, known by many as Sailor Dan, sits at a booth in the back corner of a McDonald’s, where he comes almost every day.
His red shoes, green socks and yellow corduroy pants are complemented by a shiny dollar sign belt buckle. A worn-down mermaid tattoo is visible below his rolled up sleeves. His coffee sits on the table to his left — no cream, two scoops of sugar. Directly in front of him is a clean white bristol board. He takes out one of the six black sharpie pens hooked to his shirt collar, lifts off his fluorescent orange Mickey Mouse hat, slicks back his silver and black hair and begins to draw, one line at a time.
“It’s like x’s and o’s,” said Hicks, his voice grizzled.
His right hand draws quickly while his left manoeuvres the white board. When he glances up to chat or answer a question his hands keep moving, like clockwork, the work slowly coming in to view, as if he’s drawn it a million times, as if the end result was never in question.
Hicks finishes the body, then the sails, then, for good measure, an anchor in the bottom left corner.
Voila, a Sailor Dan original — a sail boat, the same drawing you’ve seen a hundred times in Saskatoon, in kitchens, bedrooms, basements and living rooms, behind shop counters and being held up by Dan as he panhandles in front of this store and that.
Everybody knows Sailor Dan. At least that’s what everybody tells you. There’s even a group on Facebook, the social networking website, dedicated to him called Friends of Sailor Dan, which has more than 900 members trading stories, memories and sailboat sightings.
“I’ll never forget seeing Sailor Dan running across Broadway in leather chaps and a leather vest and then the next day he was in full sailor garb . . . he’s such an awesome guy!” says one post. “We picked him up once and took him to a party. He ate all of our raw hot dogs and then left,” says another.
When Hicks sees the site for the first time, his bad vision forcing him to squint at the screen, he’s astonished.
“A guy like me has all these friends,” he said, smiling in disbelief. “It’s like waking up and it’s your birthday.”
At a concert at Lydia’s pub earlier this month, the frontman for the Apostles of Hustle started describing a guy he’d seen outside before the show. Before he could finish the anecdote, the crowd yelled out, in unison, “Sailor Dan.”
In Saskatoon, “there really isn’t anybody that does what he does,” says “Kiwi,” Dan’s close friend, Kerwin Hein. “In Toronto or Vancouver, lots of guys are doing what he does. In Saskatoon, he’s a novelty, he sticks out like a sore thumb.”
Along his regular route, down Eighth Street to Broadway Avenue and back, he receives nods and hellos from the workers of almost every store. At the PetroCan gas station, one of his more frequent stops, some of the staff consider him a good friend.
“If I went somewhere else,” Dan says, “nobody would know me.”
The 53-year-old Hicks lives in a duplex just off Seventh Street in the unfinished basement of his friend, Judy Porter, and her son, Darrell, who took him in 10 years ago to help them pay the rent. Before landing at the Porters’, Hicks jumped from place to place around the Broadway area.
The Porters’ house is full of Sailor Dan originals and other navy and sailboat paintings and paraphernalia. He calls the basement his “treasure hold.” A large cast iron ship stands out among the random assortment of sombrero hats and Mickey Mouse lamps and a clothing line strung directly above his bed.
“He’s awful messy,” Porter said, laughing. “He’s given me a few drawings . . . but you get kind’ve sick of looking at them after awhile, they’re all the same ship!”
Hicks says he’s been drawing since he was a young child or, in his words, a “bathtub admiral.”
He focused on shop in high school, was always good with his hands, and joined the navy when he was 18, he says. His stint only lasted two years, but the memories are ingrained in his psyche.
“I don’t like the water,” he said sternly with a pirate accent. “I like the boats in ’em.”
His influences are Walt Disney and Norman Rockwell, he says. He began selling the sailboat drawings on napkins until a friend recommended the bristol board. The most he’s ever received is $20 for one that he motions was “almost life size.” He once sold a drawing to Brent Butt, his only famous customer, and looks for it on the show whenever he watches. Hicks isn’t getting rich on the drawing and on a good day he’ll sell one, maybe two, but the meagre income helps him survive.
“If he’s doing good,” Kiwi said, “he helps out people in the neighbourhood that aren’t doing as good. He’s the most kind man I know.”
His family, with whom he rarely speaks, is scattered throughout Saskatchewan and Alberta.
“I’m the black sheep,” he says. “But this whole town is my family. I’m like Saskatoon’s orphan son.”
Sailor Dan is a town icon, a part of the landscape, but he isn’t everyone’s best friend. Street artists and part-time panhandlers like him rarely are. Some people are uncomfortable, annoyed, or, at least, don’t know what to make of him.
He shaves his beard at New Year’s, but shaving takes up too much time, so he’s growing it back. In front of PetroCan, many of the customers look right through him, unwilling to make eye contact. Business owners and store managers, who have to abide by city bylaws, often boot him off their premises.
“Sometimes he gets a little rowdy,” said Jay Weiland, one of Dan’s friends from PetroCan. “He fits into the saying, ‘Give a mouse a crumb, and he’ll demand a muffin.’ But he always makes you feel like you’re somebody.”
Hicks has learned how to avoid the manager’s shifts at many places, though, and his rapport with staff means he’s always welcome at most businesses on his route.
“He’s pretty friendly for a guy who talks like a sailor,” says Chuck Hamilton, who spent three days with Hicks for a high-school documentary. “It’s an aspect of society people aren’t confronted with a lot. It’s great that he can making living hanging out on social assistance, selling his sailboats.”
He’s not an aggressive salesman, either. Most businesses have embraced him as a part of doing business here, a familiar face, and a minor celebrity in a city without major celebrities. Toronto has squeegie kids, Saskatoon has Sailor Dan.
“Every day’s a holiday,” Dan said. “That’s why I never leave town.”