hidden hit counter Late Harvest: Ignatius J. Reilly

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Ignatius J. Reilly

One cool morning in mid October, I stood, waiting for my streetcar to arrive at the disreputable Toronto corner of Jameson and King.

It was early morning, often the time when the most seemingly respectable characters in the neighbourhood are out doing their thing, generally on their way to or from somewhere. On this morning a large crowd had gathered in wait for the always infrequent King streetcar, and when it pulled up to Jameson and stopped with a clang, the crowd, chilly on a cool winter morning, melded itself into a bunch around the door and slowly squeezed in. As I stood in the middle of that bunch, waiting for my turn, I heard him.

"Parkdale used to be the Rooosedale of Toronto, you know. Then the rich people took it all away. They put up the highway and the rich people went away, you know."

This was a bit of Toronto lore I had just been reading about, having recently moved from picturesque Cowan Avenue to the lively, but disreputable Jameson. I was interested to hear what this orator had to say, so I turned as I got on the streetcar and saw a very large man, yes, in a hunting cap, a billowing cream-coloured down coat, with a perfectly trimmed beard, recently scrubbed rosy cheeks, and a pair of resin-rimmed far-sighted glasses. His little lips pinched together as he related the sad story of the downfall of one of Toronto's most liveable neighbourhoods, lost when the Gardiner turned Parkdale from a picturesque lakeside community to a place sandwiched between the freeway and the northbound train tracks. He said all this as he was getting on the streetcar.

Annoyance was clear on the face of many who received this man's message, so I was naturally interested to hear what else he might say. I settled into a seat just far enough back from him to hear what he was saying without putting myself at risk of being talked to directly.

However, rather than explain anything new, my new friend simply reiterated, in a less and less sensible fashion, the story of Parkdale's downfall.

Finally, after twenty minutes of his nonsensical diatribe (which I was nevertheless enjoying), one of the young women standing closeby told him what she thought of his opinions.

"Shut up. Shut UP! You don't know what you're talking about!" She railed on at him for a good minute, and while she spoke, his cheeks got redder, his lips pressed ever tighter together. A storm was brewing within. Then she finished. Her friend looked on.

"Noooo, YOU shut up," he said, firmly but calmly. "You don't know what YOU'RE talking about." Then he shut up.

The girl who had given him a piece of her mind stood on the steps of the streetcar, about to get off. Her friend, the witness, was standing with her back to the man, who was seated in the frontmost seats of the rear section. The friend's backpack dangled, swinging dangerously close to the man's face. I could see his cheeks reddening again, and he pursed his lips. Just as the girl was about to get off the streetcar, he spoke, again with perfect enunciation, just loud enough for her to hear.

"Yooooour backpack." He paused, then spat every word with the venom of true "Look at it. It's filthy. I hate it."

Then, not a word until I reached the bank.

Something about this strange, bloated man appealed to me. Perhaps it was his love of cleanliness, long words and perfect enunciation. Whatever it was, I relayed the story to friends and family over and over and it almost always ended in laughter. "Your backpack" became a popular refrain in conversation. As with all such stories, after a while I began to feel guilty about using his misfortune for humour. All the same, I desperately wanted to see him again, but hadn't. Usually you see eccentric characters in the same place, at the same time, but on no other morning on my way to work did I see this man again.

Three months later, I was shopping with my business partner in the natty No-Frills at the end of Jameson. I was rolling my two-wheeled cart along the produce as we discussed the disappearance this mystery man. She, along with several others, had the idea that this man was Ignatius J. Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces. I was almost ready to accept that he had been a morning hallucination caused by lack of sleep, when I turned the corner from avocados to the pickle shelves and lo, I wheeled my cart in front of a bilious, ambling man. I looked up from the heavy boots to the down coat and hunting cap, and there he was. I had nearly run over his feet and had stopped him mid-stride, and worse, I had done so while we were laughing about him. I was sorely concerned that the lips would purse, and the cheeks would redden, and I would be the victim of a sour diatribe.

Instead, he cocked his head to the side and said, "Hulloo," in a singsong voice, with that perfect enunciation, then pranced lightly around my cart.

I never saw him again.


Blogger shellz said...

Yoooour BACK-PACK! It's FILLLLTHY! I HATTTTE IT! Hissssssssss....

8:28 PM, April 03, 2006  

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