Sunday 7 February 2010

Renfrew, Ontario days - 20 minutes of fame for a dead man. The late photographer, Bruce Paton


Title: We promised each other we would never go back to Renfrew again.
Sub-Title: Bruce Paton. He should never have returned home

In November 2006 I wrote a short piece for the Toronto Star short story contest. I wrote the story in secret, only showing my wife after I had submited it. Thought it would be an easy way to make $5,000. I didn't win. I didn't even place. Sigh.

The story is nominally about Bruce Paton, a fellow I went to high school with and briefly shared a bachelor apartment with at Windsor University back in 1970. The facts are basically true, although I have taken tremendous liberties in the telling of the story. I guess because the story is suppose to be a work of fiction, I renamed Bruce - he appears in the story as George. And, no not George Heath. George, like me, left Renfrew and never went back again.

The picture above was taken by Bruce when he was taking pictures in Africa in 1980. He described the photograph as: Women and girls in Angola collect water in a desert outside their town by digging down through the sand to the water table.

Here is the story about the late Bruce Paton.


The first crime of the day was the sweetest. Black paint spray cans at the ready; George and I had our way with the sign that had stuck in our craw for years … “Renfrew, a beautiful town to live in, population 9,800.”

We weren’t very literate back then, so we made it short and to the point. “Renfrew a beautiful town to die in, population 9,798.”

Littering was our second misdemeanor that hot dusty August morning. We tossed the evidence – two spent spray cans - into the weed filled ditch just before we threw our knapsacks into the back of the pickup truck that had stopped to give us a ride.

Squeezed into the cab, left knee getting pummeled by the vibrating four-on-the-floor gearshift, George and I once again left town forever. We were too young to understand that hitchhiking through life is an inexact science.

“Windsor. Windsor University,” we both chimed in, when the driver, a T-shirt wearing 20-something guy asked where we going. He seemed much older than us, and, with some weird respect-for-our-elders-thing taking place we told him way too much, way too fast.

“Wait a minute, didn’t I see you losers standin’ out here last month?” he asked, lighting a Player’s Plain with one hand, gearing down with the other and knees up holding the wheel sorta straight. We’d been in the ancient pickup for barely five minutes and he was already slowing down to toss us ‘cause we weren’t passing muster.

“Yup. We were on our way to Woodstock. We were half a million strong,” grunted George. “ Trouble was, we found out that when you go to Yasker’s Farm, you need more than a library card to please Uncle Sam’s fascist border guards. We’ve been bored and in town ever since.”

“ ‘Mericans. Hate ‘em. And their fuckin’ war too,” said our now accelerating driver as he spit bits of tobacco out the window. He spat as good as he talked – the back window was covered in brown slime, blow back from an errant aim. “I’ll take you to Kaladar, you should be able to land a ride on 17."

I was all aglow as Renfrew disappeared in the cracked side mirror. Not George. He huddled with his face pressed flat again the right-hand window. For over an hour he squirmed, grabbed his crotch and moaned softly. He didn’t want to let me, or our Sir Galahad know that he had considerable pain in his “man” area.

I didn’t find out what was wrong ‘till we rolled out of the cab of that rusty Ford flatbed. “Shoulda worn underwear” were the first words out of George’s mouth.

Gotta backtrack here because it turns out the real first crime of the day had been just after breakfast. We’d ambled into the Briscoe IGA (dubbed the I Give Ass store) to buy a day’s worth of thumbing supplies. I paid for two cokes, a bunch of Crispy Crunch chocolate bars and a deck of smelly Gitanes.

Meanwhile unbeknownst to me, George was in the meat section stuffing two frozen steaks and a pound of ground down his pants. He brazenly walked out of the IGA with his frayed jeans bulging, rightly figuring that Renfrew’s only two hippies wouldn’t merit a look in THAT region from the God-fearing church-going checkout girl.

We’d been walking alongside 17 for an hour, our thumbs aching, our stomachs grumbling, and George in dire pain when we committed Crime Number 4. It was a berry bad transgression indeed.

You see Kaladar is blueberry country, every home along this stretch of the Trans Canada has a purple stand at the end of the driveway where the day’s pickings are sold. One trustworthy soul had left her stall unattended, there was a sign asking customers to leave $2 on a plate for each basket purchased.

We took two boxes, one of which went immediately down George’s pants – a 60’s back-to-nature approach to freezer burn. We also took six two-dollar bills and a coupla knuckle full of nickels.

Basking in the afterglow that comes from a successful theft, we musta exuded an angelic aura that drivers couldn’t resist. We had a succession of rides from Kaladar to Toronto to a 401 rest stop near Tilbury town.

I guess social crime don’t count. Besides, the only tiny sin we committed on that stretch of our adventure was purely by accident. Exiting a long, low limited edition LTD I couldn’t help but notice a big blue stain on the white upholstered backseat where George had been sprawled out on.

Crime Number 5 wasn’t my fault. I swear it. Hanging out in the washroom of the 1867 Restaurant on 401, we meet a short little guy with hair longer that Jesus. He sported a crushed velvet blue tuxedo, had a garland of flowers around his neck and was barefoot. Never met the James Gang or been to Burma, but, I guessed he was Joe Walsh and he smelled like he’d been married in Fu Manchu’s opium den.

“ ‘Scuse me as I kiss the sky,” he yelled, as he did a pirouette in front of a line of occupied urinals. “ I got married today and I am the happiest man on this mortal coil.”

“Congratulations. Have a Crispy Crunch and some blubes,” I said, sticking out a bar and box of berries. We bonded. I told him our story and our pressing need for a ride to Windsor.

He took us out to the parking lot to meet “Still Waters” his new partner for life, this week. She was sitting cross-legged in the back of a flower covered Volkswagen van, singing softly to a tune none of us could hear.

Still Waters and her husband were real hitchhikers. They had been hitched in the morning and wandered out to the 401 to begin their honeymoon on the cheap. Sticking out their thumbs, they had decided to hike wherever kind people wanted to take them.

As George slid the Volk’s side door shut and my eyes got accustomed to the gloom, I decided that “kind” was not an apt description for who else was in that van.

The young couple, so blissed out on each other, had missed telling us that Che Guevara was at the wheel, and Josef Stalin was riding shotgun. They also skipped over those two guys who blasted Peter Fonda at the end of Easy Rider, and were now in the back with us, still carrying their guns as they sat guard over a pound of dope.

As the van headed onto the 401 one of the gunmen glared at us and said, “Time you got wasted”. It was said like a bored judge delivering, yet again, a ten-year sentence to an habitual criminal.

But we didn’t have to imbibe. The air was so filled with narcotic laced smoke that just the simple act of breathing was enough to render even Cheech and Chong unconscious. George and I stared, red eyed at each other. Still Waters sang about free love, the other pair talked about loving to kill somebody. Today.

I am sure it was a crime simply to look at that van. George and I musta broke a dozen other heavy-duty laws just sitting in there. George was writing his will on the back of the Gitanes. I figured the Supreme Being was punishing me for Crimes 1 through 5.

I now know there is power in prayer; at least for me. Even though the sky was devoid of clouds, there was a crash; a blaze of light beamed down at us from the heavens above. The Doors had been on the 8-track but suddenly the music was indeed over. Bang. Crash. Kaboom. The van was on its side at the edge of an Essex Township cornfield.

We climbed up through the sliding door. There were drugs, bodies and guns below us. I helped Still Waters and her soulmate out. George decided to let the sleeping dogs lie.

On solid ground Still Waters and her husband hugged each other and yelled “Far Out”. They kissed. They danced. They said it was an electric moment!

Yes indeed. We had been hit by lighting. The door handle was a fused hunk of smoking metal. There was a zigzag burn mark the height of the van. I thanked God and said I was reformed and reborn. George told me to shut up and dragged me into the cornfield.

“Either those guys are going to wake up and blame us for having magnetic personalities or the cops will arrive and find the drugs’n’guns or both. Trust me, we don’t want to be here.”

He was right. We staggered through the corn crop, worried about police and the Mafia. Together we walked to Windsor. It took all night.

We reached downtown just as the welfare office opened; George talked me through what to say to get an emergency cheque (or two). We got an apartment -- fittingly it was in a converted women’s jail -- the Chateau Blanc.

Those first few days were without furniture. George fixed that. I don’t know how, I just hope he wore long johns as he liberated chairs, a table, two desks, a coffee machine, dishes, wine and more steak, all during Frosh Week.

It wasn’t working out, he was always mad at me for taking that vow of crime celibacy and making him carry all the freight. I refused to help with Crime Number 6 - the decoration of our apartment and fridge. I didn’t take part but I ate his steak, at his table, sitting in his chair, so I figured I was in a gray area when it came to my promise to the Great Mandala.

One morning I got up and George was gone. So was most of the furniture and all my beer. He had learned his lesson and left the frozen meat in the freezer.

No note. No good-bye. No regrets. I didn’t see him ever again. But, Renfrew, like most Ontario towns, is, a state-of-mind. Parents and chance encounters with casual acquaintances kept me in the loop.

A few years later George resurfaced in Ottawa. He picked up (literally?) a Pentax camera and became a photographer. In the beginning his pictures were earnest but unmarketable. I suspect that a lot more five fingered discounting was required to keep steak on the table.

He went to Africa and was one of the first white photographers to record the start of what has become the planet’s worst nightmare. Upon his return his photographs toured the continent. They helped, albeit lightly, to awaken the world’s conscious to the looming AIDS crisis.

It awoke his own conscious. He began to drink, maybe to forget what he had photographed, or what he done or shoulda done with his life.

It was only a coupla years ago that he committed Crime Number 7. He broke our carved-in-stone promise and did what we both vowed never to do. He went home to Renfrew.

Then he drank. And drank. And drank some more. He fell down. Often. One day he didn’t get up. End of story. We had written his fate thirty years before with Crime Number 2 – Renfrew a Beautiful Town to Die In.
CUTLINE: This story was written two years ago (2008). In February 2010 I received a photo from Robin Burgess, printed above that shows us in Renfrew circa 1968. I am at the left, Robin is in the middle and Bruce Paton is at the right. Don't know who is standing on the roof.