Sunday, August 29, 2004

Reading the Toronto Dailies on a Montreal Afternoon

A Short Story by Onyango Oloo

Inspired by the following real life incident:

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Twenty seven minutes past twelve on a sweltering Quebec summer week day.

A mild panic hits as he realizes that he has to be at President-Kennedy & University in less than half an hour.

Over here on the third floor of a McGill office building it is muted bedlam.

All day, indeed all week, fresh faces, mostly Caucasian, from Boston, Calgary, White Plains, New Haven, Toronto, Windsor, Vancouver, Winnipeg and elsewhere have been floating in and out of the office.

Dozens of new university students, it would appear, are those who want to give the mainstream Frosh a wide berth- it is heartening to find out each year that not all first year McGill students are driven to distraction by alcohol fueled fantasies of sexual bacchanals and cheap beer orgies in the Ghetto, the Plateau, Mile End, Cotes des Neiges, Place St. Henri, the NDG and other enclaves that students in this four campus town (McGill’s cousins are Concordia, UQAM, Universite de Montreal and Sherbrooke) roost in during their undergraduate domicile in Montreal.

The mainstream Frosh organized the main students society, like other orientations/rite of passages in campuses all over North America is rife with disturbing and persistent anecdotes of date rapes and similar unsavoury nocturnal happenings…

He works for an organization that has been on this campus for at least 15 years; a group that is a network of campus based social justice and environmental action organizations that were first inspired by a Ralph Nader speech in Waterloo (home of Research in Motion and a thousand other techie whiz kids) way back in the mid 1980s.

For the last two years they have been calling their Frosh, “Radical Frosh”. For years they dubbed it “Alternative” Frosh until that term was co-opted by everyone from weed addled fiendish rock DJs to neo-conservative Ayn Rand junkies. The “radical” in the Frosh denotes a conscious political attempt to orient incoming students to a militant social justice consciousness.

A glance at this weekend’s program says it all:

Organizing against police brutality; rethinking globalization; walking tours of working class neighbourhoods; Indigenous Rights 101; Food Security and Veganism as a Lifestyle Option; Power and Privilege for Student Activists…

He is the facilitator for the last named workshop and in fact right now he is tapping out the last paragraph of a scenario he wants to use in the role play after the power flower exercise for his session with the “froshers” happening on Sunday.

Another glance at his watch tells him he has to abandon the scenario right there. Dashing down the stairs(ironically his employer is not wheelchair accessible, in spite of railing for disability rights) he remembers what Manjit Singh, the coordinator of the action group fighting a Canadian mining multinational in India told him: just walk down University up to Sherbrooke, turn right on Aylmer and you should see the Delta right there. Try the Sherbrooke entrance, but you may have to go down to President-Kennedy because that is where the lobby is.

On his way, he passes more faces that ruefully remind him that summer is indeed over and the new school year is lurking around the corner ready to pounce forward next week.

Here he is already inside the Delta and it takes him a few minutes to find out that he is not only looking for the floor above him but that there is more than one trade union function taking place. A couple of burly but friendly labour organizer types tell him politely that he is hovering around the wrong room- Manjit Singh is presenting the video to the union’s international solidarity committee over on the other side of the building, just past the restaurant.

He finally locates the room, and Manjit is almost half-way into his presentation.

But he has not come for the presentation.

Instead, he has come to meet Ben Richards, a veteran Canadian socialist who has been with this union for over thirty years and is somewhat famous for having written a classic history of the South African trade union movement way back in the 1970s.

For almost half a year they have been playing telephone and email tag between Montreal and Toronto over the possibilities of a joint labour research project in one of the east African countries. As soon as Manjit’s video ends, he sidles over to Ben’s side who tells him to leave a message at his Delta hotel room number so that they can hook up later to discuss the proposal before Ben flies back to Ontario.

Mission accomplished, he bids bye to Ben and exits from the room. Since he is looking for Sherbrooke, he walks north down the corridor past the lobby instead of going up one flight and onto the street. He soon discovers that there is no real exit that way and so he turns around heading for the main entrance and lobby again. On his way, he notices a newspaper rack on his left with some complimentary National Post copies for hotel guests. He helps himself to a free copy-even though he is neither a guest nor a particular fan of the rightwing broadsheet that was unloaded by the Lord formerly known as Conrad Black to the media mogul no longer living called Izzy Asper.

The headline immediately grabs him.

A 45 year old Black man in Toronto, holding a 20 year old Black woman as a hostage was shot dead the previous day after a dramatic stand off which saw the Black man try to murder his wife with a sawn off shotgun and later a brutal beating in public in the middle of Canada’s busiest subway and railway hub.

He is reading that newspaper on the street and he does not even realize, until he is walking up Parc that he turned EAST on Sherbrooke, instead of left and that he was walking up Parc rather than University. Past the Provigo supermarket he decides he may as well take his lunch break now so he strolls over to the food court just below Cinema Avenue du Parc, just north of Milton.

Plopping down on a seat directly in front of a television showing 3 Black men in US attire take the 1-2-3 in the 400 metres at Athens, he requests the kindly looking lady to give him both a glass of water and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice plus a menu. He orders something to eat and even by the time it comes, his mind is no longer on Parc, on the food, or even Montreal.

He is on a mental flight across the Atlantic, traversing thousands of miles and going back years into time past.

He is thinking of the two Black women who were almost killed by the Black man and he is also thinking of his own sister, Black like him, who was killed by another Black man in Kenya- a man she happened to be married to at that time. And the immediate thought is that even he, a Black Man in Montreal, would NOT have hesitated to pull a trigger on that Black Man from Ajax who wanted to kill those two Black women in Toronto yesterday.

The paper in front of him is all blurry, because his eyes are welling up. He does not realize until she speaks that the kindly lady has been standing next to him trying to find out whether he is enjoying his meal. He nods, or rather shrugs, because the food is virtually untouched. She takes one look at the headline and gently snatches the paper away from him, pushing it to the side.

Eat, she says, come on, eat; do not let it bother you; read the paper later; right now, just eat, the food is very good, I made it myself…

Something in her- she looks like a southern European but she could be easily Lebanese or Moroccan Jewish, for all he knows-maybe it is those soft, almost sad eyes-something about her makes him blurt out that the incident triggered painful memories of how his own sister was killed by her abusive husband before her 33rd back day back in his “home country” of Kenya about five years ago.

She nods sympathetically, but does not utter a word.

He stabs absently at his food with his fork, eating an isolated morsel every few minutes. He actually decides to dash over to the Metro grocery store and buy a copy of the Globe and Mail even though it is getting on in the day. He comes back to his seat and apart from the stuff he had already seen in the Post he notices for the first time details that bring the dead Black man to life: he had worked at the Bay for almost 25 years before being laid off and becoming a carrier delivering the Globe to homes; the man had just been released from jail after spending a month there following a domestic incident when he threw his wife down the stairs and held a knife to the neck of his daughter; on the day he was released his wife filed for divorce, citing a long history of battery including repeated death threats….

Today the abuser was a dead man, executed by a sniper in Toronto police uniform.

In the papers they described a teary eyed old man shaking with sorrow as he relayed how he had watched his son being gunned down on national television.

Back in the restaurant below Cinema Avenue du Parc, a flurry of questions floating around the head of a Black man whose sister had been killed by another Black man:

Would the Hostage Taker in Toronto be a dead man today if he had been a White Man instead of a Black Man?

If the police sniper could aim at the Black man’s head why couldn’t he aim at his hands and disarm him?

Does a police bullet between the eyes prevent another man, Black, White, Brown,Yellow,young, old from assaulting another woman of any race in Toronto?

He thinks of the woman in Montreal who suffered so much from a stalking ex partner who the police ignored because he was one of them.; he thinks back to the late 1980s when the Toronto police caught and released the Scarborough Rapist twice- released him because, with his blue eyes and blond hair he was too much the boy next door to be the monster in the media- until Paul Bernado graduated into a grisly killer who raped, taunted and tortured his teenage female victims before killing them. If Paul Bernado had been of Jamaican or Haitian extraction, would he have met a different fate?

True, Toronto felt safer this afternoon with the Black man transformed by a police gun shot into a dead man; but was this not just another episode in the open hunting season against men of colour in this city where the police have a long history of shooting Black men?

For a very long time he just sits there, with all these conflicting emotions and thoughts shaking him up.

Finally he pays his bill, tips the kindly lady handsomely and walks over to the pay phone to make one long distance call using his phone card before going back to work.

He is calling Kristina Mwasi, a Kenyan woman he has known for many years. Kristina works in a shelter for battered women.

After the pleasantries he asks her about the story on everyone’s mind.

To which she simply says:

“May he rest in PIECES. The only reason why his wife is alive today is because his gun JAMMED and he MISSED when he FIRED DIRECTLY at her. All I know is that today that woman and her daughter are glad that THEY ARE NOT the bodies in cold storage. Last night a woman walked in here all bloodied and bruised. That woman is convinced that her husband will find her and kill her.”