At the top of Church Street, two pairs of 20-foot-tall inflatable men danced for two days and nights as I considered them from the vantage point of my passing taxi. It was Burlington's Festival of Fools weekend, and, at some point during the second day, the inflatables' ceaseless, frenetic bobbing and weaving began to freak me out. It's been decades since I experimented (teenage scientist that I was) with LSD, but a flashback was not out of the question. Those giant wavy guys were a bad trip!
But I recovered. A steady flow of customers has a way of curing all ills, and the Festival of Fools provided that in spades. A tall young man hailed me from the curb, and I pulled over. He was gorgeous.
"Could you take me to Northgate Road, I think it is? I'm staying there with friends."
"Sure thing," I replied, and we took off, escaping the crowds.
Though I have never been sexually attracted to men, I know a legit hunk when I see one, and this guy was leading-man material. His brown hair, just brushing his shoulders, was parted in the middle. A snug black T-shirt revealed a lean, muscular torso, while a rope belt held up his blue, well-worn Levi's dungarees. His green eyes sparkled with vitality as he relaxed beside me in the shotgun seat. Hot damn, dude was handsome.
I wondered what life was like for this person, whose beauty was one in 10,000. Hopefully, he was using the power of his looks for good. I had a feeling he was; he struck me as open, friendly and humble.
"Are you visiting town for the Festival of Fools?" I asked as we hooked around Battery Park and onto North Avenue.
"No, we actually had no idea. We were here for a weekend of busking, heading up to Montréal tomorrow. I think we're flying to Europe next. That's the plan, anyway. We did pretty well in Burlington, so I'm sure the festival helped."
"Oh, that's cool. So, you're a street musician?"
"I am, but this summer I'm just assisting a good mate of mine. He's like a reggae-dub one-man band. I help with the crowds, selling CDs while he does his thing."
"Could you do, say, $500 on a good day?"
"We took in close to $1,500 this weekend. But I should tell you that Ricky — that's my mate — is an exceptional artist. He really is."
"You know, I've got to tell you — if you were magically transported back to, like, 1967, you would fit in seamlessly with the original hippies of that era. I mean, the way you look, your approach to life. I'm sure no one would realize you're a visitor from the future."
My customer laughed and grinned at me. "Well, thanks, mate. I feel like I don't really belong in this time, so I take that as a compliment. I've played festivals all over Australia that are filled with, like, make-believe hippies, playing the part for the weekend. My parents were the real deal, both of them artists. My sister and I grew up on a desolate island with maybe 850 people, no electricity. Real back-to-nature stuff. I loved it."
"This is off the coast of Australia?" I asked.
"Oh, no — I'm a Kiwi, mate. New Zealand."
"Wow — now that's just extra cool," I said, chuckling. "Your ancestors must have been, like, prisoners from England, right? Booted off the old island and banished to the New World. Oh, the bloody English."
"No, mate," he corrected me with a laugh. "You're confusing us with Australia. That's not to say I'm not descended from a long line of scoundrels, though."
"Now, I understand that New Zealand has treated the indigenous people with a good degree of fairness and justice. Do you interact much with the native folks — the Maori, right?"
"Oh, yes. The island we grew up on is filled with Maori families. My sister recently married a Maori man, and my niece, their daughter, became a Maori princess. It was quite an amazing ceremony. Her name is Blossom. She really is a little princess, let me tell you."
As we approached the Northgate development, "Pressure Drop" by Toots & the Maytals came on the radio. "Do you know who this is?" I asked my customer.
"Of course I do, mate. That's Toots, one of the original reggae performers. We love Toots."
"Well, many years ago, he was performing in Burlington and I got to drive him around for a full day. Him and his lady friend, who I think might have been his manager, too. We went shopping and picked up his dry cleaning, and he treated me to dinner at an Indian restaurant. He was such a beautiful guy, kind and generous to the many fans who approached him in public. He just somehow radiated this powerful, loving energy. My only regret was that I declined his offer to come back to their room at the end of the day. Though he didn't quite say it directly, it was clear that ganja was going to happen."
"Wow, you could have smoked weed with Toots. Why'd you say no?"
"I'd stopped doing all drugs years before then. It's just one of my things, and I stick to it. But, as I said, there is a tinge of regret there. I would have had a great story for my grandchildren." I paused to reconsider that last thought. "Well, maybe not the grandkids," I revised.
"You know what, mate? The next time you tell the story, it could end with a night of sparking it up with Toots. I mean, what's the harm? But it's a good story even without it."
As my customer paid me the fare, he said, "I wish you could come up to Montréal to see Ricky play. It's very reggae influenced. I'm sure you would love it."
"I'm sure I would, too, but it'll have to wait 'til your next visit to Burlington, brother." I pulled out one of my cards and handed it to him, adding, "Call me when you pass through again."
I didn't think that would happen, but I genuinely enjoyed being part of his life for 15 minutes. Vicariously, by osmosis, I'd rekindled that long-ago feeling of being young and footloose. On good days like this one, I feel like J.D. Salinger once described himself: paranoid in reverse. I think folks are plotting behind my back to make me happy.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.