Downtown Fredericton was quieter this week without Andrew Spencer, known for reciting his own poetry to pedestrians on Queen Street in exchange for a penny.
Last Friday, Spencer vanished. He was last seen heading into the St. John River, according to Fredericton police. A police spokesperson would not elaborate but said Spencer’s disappearance is being treated as a missing persons case.
The 38-year-old Spencer could often be seen standing outside Endeavours & ThinkPlay.
“He was always saying, ‘Poem for a penny,’ as people were walking by,” said Luke Randall, co-owner of the art supply store on Queen Street.
That led to endless conversations about politics, current events and local housing, he said.
“He did his typical, ‘I know you’re in a hurry but …”
In the mornings, Spencer could be found bringing recycling bins back inside Randall’s shop or monitoring the doorway for shoplifters.
Randall said he really got to know Spencer — also known as Muppet — when he started reading and reciting poems outside the store in 2017. His poems are humorous and often drawn from his own experience.
Spencer once lived on the streets of Victoria, but he eventually moved back to his hometown of Fredericton, where he did not have a permanent home and often couch-surfed.
The father of two also took a few courses at the University of New Brunswick and St. Thomas University but never completed a degree.
“He was always trying to get people to engage and hear his poem or hear a joke,” Randall said. “That was his livelihood, that was his job.”
Spencer received jewelry for his work, a cup of coffee or change, which added up to $100 on a good day. The money went into the cap that sat beside him on the concrete.
The Fredericton High School graduate started writing poetry more than 20 years ago and had at least two books published by Broken Jaw Press that he sold to local residents.
Randall doesn’t remember any one poem in particular but said Spencer wrote from the heart.
Not everyone wanted to listen, however. Many people scurried by, looking in the opposite direction.
Randall said he saw Spencer last Friday. He appeared to be in good spirits and was inquiring about screen printing for his daughter.
“If he really is gone, we’ll really miss him here downtown.”
Every Saturday morning, Spencer could also be seen standing in the parking lot of the Boyce Farmers Market. To many visitors, Spencer was known as Mr. Penny or Mr. Poem.
At the perimeter of the parking lot, he would twirl a set of sticks like a baton, tell jokes or recite poetry to shoppers. Then, he would always head inside for his morning coffee.
“He always tipped his hat when he was done with you,” said Leslie Morrell, manager of the market. “Tipped the hat and then moved on.”
At times, Morrell had to tell Spencer to leave some of the guests alone.
And this past weekend, Spencer never showed up.
“This was his spot,” Morrell said, standing on the sidewalk along George Street.
“Everyone expected him to be there.”
When Diana Lynn Smith learned Spencer was missing, she cried.
Then, on a crumpled piece of lined paper, she wrote him a poem about his “big heart” and “sense of humour.”
“I knew there was another human being in this world who loved to make jokes,” she said. “Who loved to laugh and overcame pain with writing and words.”
Together, the duo would share poetry over a cup of tea and cigarettes downtown.
“He told the world like it was, but always saw the beauty, always saw the joy,” said Smith, who is homeless. “He could make you laugh even when you wanted to cry.”
When she was hungry, he would head to Tim Hortons and buy her a cup of tea and a doughnut. And he’d always make sure to share a few pennies when she was panhandling downtown.
“In the whole world, there was only one Andrew and all of Fredericton needs to grieve,” she said.
Alycia Bartlett, a spokesperson for the Fredericton Police Force, said police are still investigating Spencer’s disappearance
Police posted photos of Spencer on social media after he disappeared, bringing an outpouring of responses from residents, many of whom are his supporters.