There comes a time when a man has to settle down. That’s what Cain the farmer told Abel the roamer, and when Abel did not listen, well, we all know what happened.
A few years ago, I found a job downtown in a heavily secured office with locks so fancy the young cat-burglar I once was would not have known how to break in.
I was shoveling words for pennies a bushel, and when the shoveling was done, there was still more to shovel, and I was told to shovel faster so I could make more money.
We all know that what everybody wants in life is more money, right?
My place of work was a few blocks away from the Federal Bank, the Treasury Board, and the Department of Finance high-rise buildings; all money-handling organizations in good standing.
At street-level it was a different story.
Some shops peddled dirt-cheap obsolete computer equipment, others were selling end-of-line clothing at rock-bottom prices.
There were a number of places where you could get an advance on your next pay cheque; the alternative to the established banking system when it failed to lend you money.
Vietnamese people were selling hot dogs out of little trucks. They would also do your nails, give you a soothing massage or sell used audio or video recordings and equipment for next to nothing. For a pittance they cooked a delicious soup called phô served in huge bowls.
I’ve always had problems with soup: I’m never quite sure if I should eat it or drink it.
They probably learned these useful skills on the tiny overcrowded boats they sailed over pirate-infested seas, escaping a country where life had just become too rough.
If you went south you’d hit the gay village, and if you went further south you would find rooming houses, crack houses, shooting galleries, dark alleys where anything could happen at any time of day or night.
All that within less than a mile from the country’s seat of power.
I went to work in a suit and a tie. For me, wearing a suit at work drew a line between my private life and my professional life. It was a statement reminding me that I am a complex dignified individual with many levels.
The first week a co-worker asked me: “Why do you dress like that?” The following week an administrator said to me: “You shouldn't dress like that.” On the third week the General Manager told me: “Stop dressing like that.”
From then on I went to work wearing jeans and a T-shirt. I did not need a statement of individuality anymore: it had been deeply and permanently engraved in my soul.
I also did not have a private life and a professional life either: I just had a life, which is already plenty.
One cold fall morning, I fell on the slippery sidewalk and ripped my pants. In the elevator at the office a co-worker asked me what happened. When I told her, she said: “You should learn to watch your step.”
I soon found out that in that work environment it was inappropriate to say “Good morning”, “Goodbye”, “Please” or “Thank you”. Smiling or joking was frowned upon.
For some of the people I worked with, the biggest treat in life was slowly chewing on pickled herring, washing it down with a glass of cheap white wine while staring into nothingness.
During all the years I worked there I was reminded regularly not to smoke in the restrooms.
As if I would ever do such a thing when there was a perfectly good sidewalk outside where I could indulge in one of my few talents.
It was while smoking on the street, leaning against a wall, that I met the most interesting characters.
There was that little Asian woman who would stand in doorways never saying a word. She had long tangled hair and was always dressed in a heavy winter coat that became mangier as the year went by. She was afraid of everybody and would start screaming anytime somebody offered her money or food.
There was one exception. From time to time, a Jamaican woman who ran a cheap clothing store would take the Asian lady inside and let her choose a new set of clothes... on the house. The Asian lady would always pick clothes of the brightest and cheeriest colors and inevitably, a few weeks later, when they had turned dirty and brown and black, the Jamaican lady would renew her wardrobe.
That’s when I was reminded that kindness still existed in this world.
An old lanky vagrant quickly learned that he could get a cigarette and some change whenever he saw me. He told me he was a former actor. In his youth the man had played Shakespeare on the greatest stages of the world. Then everything went wrong. He was enlisted to fight in the Greater Toronto Battle, driving tanks up Yonge Street alongside General Patton where his heroics made him rise to the rank of colonel but robbed him of his health.
Mental illness terrifies me.
If an event like the Greater Toronto Battle ever occurred outside the mind of a schizophrenic, tanks such as this Sherman M4A3E8 might have been used to cruise up Yonge Street. But exactly why anybody would want to take over Richmond Hill is a mystery to me. Maybe to play a nice round of golf?
Susan, a crack addict I befriended, told me that, one cold winter night, as she was sleeping on the floor in the lobby of an apartment building, a tenant woke her up and kicked her, shouting: “This is not your home!”
Later Susan found she could sleep in peace in the stairway on the tenth floor of a condo building under construction where the night watchman was lax in his rounds.
Do I have problems? I have no problems. Neither do you. Probably.