Oh Life, What a Tweet!

Ottawa XPress – Shotgun – January 27, 2005

The guy who put the “Tony” in Tony’s Smoke and Roma Barber Shop at 233 Elgin Street passed away suddenly last week. A hand-written note on the door announced the sad news.

It’s a tiny shop where you can buy bus tickets, scan dusty old National Geographic magazines or get a barber cut while a TV buzzes overhead and a few old men chat about the daily news.

Thinking about what it means for a community to lose one of its local shopkeepers is like trying to imagine a movie without the main actors. Many characters in our communities play a part in our own personal histories. From the restaurant owners who already know your take-out order, to the doorman at your favourite club, the Rose Lady, the buskers in the Byward Market or the usual homeless faces, all these people make Ottawa feel like home. They give our lives context and things just don’t feel right when they’re missing. Do we take it for granted that these people will always be here?

Take my dentist for example. I’ve been going to him for 20 years. He’s older now and on leave, traveling the world, and it’s not certain he’ll be back. The new dentist is nice but the turnover dates me and that’s depressing. In fact, my entire dentist appointment got me down. With enlarged photographs of healthy white teeth everywhere, it’s easy to feel your own don’t match up. Crest whitening strips I saw advertised on TV could help. They would make my teeth whiter and everything would be OK. But too quickly after finding a solution to that problem, relief was displaced by discomfort.

It suddenly came to me, while forking over $194 for a cleaning, that it was inevitable: My teeth will someday be so beyond Whitestrips, they’ll turn yellow and it’ll be game over. I’ll have to get dentures. We’ll all come face-to-face with our mirrors and with a whole lot of gums.

One day your hair will turn grey and grow coarse and start growing out your ears and nose. Skin will lose its elasticity. Breasts will sag and a big rounded belly will be larger than your flattened ass. Next, you’ll walk slower and you’ll complain about aches and pains. Goodbye toenails, hello orthopedics. Incontinence next, then it’s Alzheimer’s and BAM! – we die.

But hold up. What about Freedom 55? My mom’s 60 and she isn’t gallivanting all over the golf course or jetsetting to a condo in Florida with a silver-haired hottie. Instead, she’s been checking out more funeral parlours than bingo halls these days. She lost her sister to breast cancer, her cousin to muscular dystrophy, and an admirer as well as a lifelong suitor, both to heart attacks. The other day her pipes burst and flooded her living room. Then an injured pigeon seeking refuge on her high rise balcony abandoned mom’s makeshift towel nest, and packed it in by jumping to its death, splattering bird brain on the street below.

Most people faced with a string of tragedies might jump off the balcony too! But mom always told me things are never so bad “if you can wake up and hear the birds singing.” That’s turned into my own adaptations, like “at least you have your legs” or your hearing or your bowels.

But some people have less and are still gleeful. Take the limbless man I saw propped up against a fence on Yonge Street in Toronto. A mere stump of a man chirping incessantly: “Happy Spring! Happy Spring!” to passersby. People dropped coins and bills into a ball cap next to him. With what hands and into what pockets he’d put the money, who knows?

I suppose associating misfortune and mortality with the corner shop or the dentist’s office is a bit of a stretch, about as bizarre as feeling really alive because of a trip to the gynecologist. The idea being that your enamel decay foreshadows the body’s overall deterioration but poking around in the womb suggests life-giving potential.

As for philosophizing about the cycle of life and death in our community, a tiny sparrow flittering overhead in the new neighbourhood Hartman’s store got me thinking – while in one Ottawa shop a little birdie is spared its death from the bitter cold, another creature just down the street will fly away from us suddenly.

In all cases, their appearance or disappearance inspire a story to be shared. And those stories remind us we’re alive, and how lucky we are to have known the departed, and how even on our wintry, darkest days a happy spring is always just around the corner.


Yeti Sightings! What you get when you cross Ottawa’s friendliest building superintendents with sensible winter clothing. Picture the fuzzy, white abominable snowman from the Rudolph cartoon and you’ve nailed the spectacular hand-made costumes that uber-sociable community personalities Rick and Jan Loveless of the popular Elphin Apartments complex, created to greet – and likely freak – Winterlude visitors. Last spotted at the Mayflower Pub. Is your camera ready?

– Sylvie Hill