Newspaper clipping of Barry Dickie and his cab, circa 1973
I met Jim in 1973 in a Toronto rooming house on Howland Avenue, where I happened to be sharing a kitchen with Jim's friend Marcel Horne, the fire breather. I was a cab driver of no great distinction with limited social skills and no girlfriend. But life was still a pleasure, and meeting Marcel and Jim added another dimension to my world. They were both appealing souls, travellers and adventurers full of wit and stories. Jim also had a love for literature and encouraged me in my own writing. But it was more his celebration of the everyday parade, the cast of local characters, the oddballs and weirdos and just plain people he was so good at knowing and talking about that I most appreciated. The ordinary would take on a new glow when Jim got talking. It was a grand time to be alive.
We had a caveman living in the basement of that rooming house. Not paying rent like a tenant, just crashing down there, sleeping on a mattress by the furnace. I think Marcel knew him from his carny days. Marcel got to choose, more or less, who lived in the house because he collected the rent for the landlord, and he chose some doozies. We had a mystical Korean poet on the top floor who'd start chanting at three in the morning, this loud mournful wail of a chant echoing through the house, intruding into your dreams. Once he came to my door—Bong his name was—and he handed me this poem he'd written—in Korean of course because he spoke no English. And he stood in the doorway waiting while I looked at the piece of paper, trying to make sense of the Korean symbols and not having a clue. So I just smiled and nodded and Bong seemed happy that I liked his poem. Poor guy, he must've been so lonely. The whole house was like that, a mix of crazies and misfits. It was a duplex and Jim lived next-door, doing the same thing as Marcel, collecting the rent and managing the place for the landlord. But our half wasn't as nuts as Jim's side—he had the heavies over there—one tenant kept five or six dobermans in her room, huge bloody things, plus she was a Jehovah's witness—a good catch for some lucky guy.
A now renovated 54 & 56 Howland Avenue
I found out about the caveman a few days after moving in. We were sitting in the kitchen, Marcel and I, having a coffee when his friend Jim Christy from next-door strolls in. So we're introduced and I'm telling Jim how I came to rent the room, about the ad I'd read in the paper—"furnished room, cheap rent, artistically inclined person preferred"—and how when I came to the house Marcel answered the door and showed me the room, which was fine, and when I asked him about the "artistically inclined" part he said, Do you smoke dope? I said yes and he said that's artistic enough. So we're chuckling over this when I hear a woman shrieking and moaning, crying out the name HANS...HANS...HANS...her voice blasting through the ventilation grill on the floor. It sounded like she was being murdered or something, but nobody seemed too worried. Then Marcel told me it was just Hans the caveman down in the furnace room making love to his girlfriend Maria. It still sounded a little scary, their passion pulsating so loudly through the heating ducts. I guess Hans should've moved his mattress further from the furnace, but nobody had the heart to tell him. Anyway, that's how it was in that old house on Howland Avenue.