Updated: Oct 7, 2020
By Jim Withers
Friendships can begin in the most unlikely ways.
At least mine did with Peter LeClair, who died at 3 a.m. on April 1 in the Verdun long-care residence that had been his home for the last 3½ years.
And no, Peter didn’t succumb to coronavirus – at least according to his nurse.
Given all his afflictions – two strokes, failing kidneys, diabetes, Parkinson’s, etc. – Peter didn’t need COVID-19 to finish him off.
Just shy of his 77th birthday, it was amazing that he survived as long as he did.
I first got to know Peter in April 2012, a year after my wife and I moved to the working-class Montréal neighbourhood of Verdun. He was a fixture on rue de Verdun – a bespectacled old guy with a full, white beard who always seemed to be perched on the wooden box outside Mr. Wong’s dépanneur. He looked like a garden gnome, and I walked past him many times without acknowledging his existence, even when he was reading The Gazette (where I’d worked as a copy editor until I retired in 2010). Occasionally, people would stop and engage him in conversation, but mostly he’d spend his time just silently observing life on the street.
I didn’t know anything about him until one day, while on my way to the neighbourhood gym, I heard him teasing two little girls who were being towed in a green plastic wagon by their mother.
“Look! Over there!” the old guy with the Santa Claus beard said as he pointed to a tree. “Flutterbys! See the flutterbys?”
The girls’ mother parked the wagon and said to her confused-looking girls, “Peter means butterflies.”
A great debate ensued between the bearded old guy and the little girls as to what the colourful flying creatures should be called. Once that was settled and the girls and their mother were gone, Peter turned to me and said, “Hey, could you loan me 55,000 bucks?”
He’d asked me that before and I hadn’t taken the bait, instead just smiling and walking away. This time, though, I decided to find out why he always asked for such a specific – not to mention extravagant – amount.
I can’t recall what his answer was, except to say that it was his idea of a joke, and that it had a certain originality to it, as would much of what I would later learn from him. Let’s just say it was a Pete-ism. One of many.
Pointing to his ever-present cane beside him, Peter told me about how crippled up he was (bad knees and missing a toe as a result of diabetes), how he bought all his groceries at Mr. Wong’s convenience store and lived next door in a second-floor, 1½-room apartment, where he spent his time listening to classical music and doing crossword puzzles. I noticed with horror that his grocery bag contained only canned soup, beer and cookies – certainly not recommended for a diabetic.
Over the next 4½ years I would regularly join Peter, plunking down beside him on the wooden box in front of Mr. Wong’s dépanneur, and there we would sit – two old geezers watching the world go by, discussing politics or sports, or reminiscing. He loved to reminisce, and I was a more-than willing audience.
I learned that
* despite being known as Pete or Peter, my new friend’s real name was Pietro;
* his late French-Canadian father was a hardware-store owner, an atheist who was kind and generous;
* his deceased Italian-Canadian mother was a pious Christian;
* his motley job résumé included selling type to advertising agencies, working as a porter on the train between British Columbia and Manitoba, running an antiques shop in Vancouver, driving Loomis trucks, driving cabs in Montréal and labouring in a B.C. lumber camp, where he attached cables to felled trees so they could be hauled out of the forest.
He told me about his carefree ’60s life, how he failed in his quest to meet beat-generation icon Jack Kerouac in New York, and how he stumbled into a Greenwich Village coffee house, where he saw a scrawny kid on a bar stool, singing, strumming guitar and blowing on a harmonica. The kid's name was Bob Dylan.
Peter loved recounting his time in B.C. where, when he wasn’t playing tennis with a couple of sisters of Margaret Sinclair (who’d eventually marry Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau), he was hanging out with disreputable compadres lovingly nicknamed Fuzzy Fat Head (for his big, hairy head), The Rodent (for his beady eyes), Botch (because he was forever screwing up), Googly (for his “googly” eyes, a reference to the 1920s comic strip and 1923 hit tune Barney Google) and V.I. (for Village Idiot).
“And was V.I. really an idiot?” I asked.
“And what was your nickname?”
“Le Frog,” he said, explaining that it was a reference to his French surname (LeClair) and the fact that he was from Québec.
I would learn about his epic 1965 road trip down the Pacific coast to California and Baja California in a red Ford Galaxie 500 convertible with the son of a well-off B.C. saw-mill owner. They ended up in a Mexican fishing village just south of Tijuana, where they spent their time surfing, drinking cheap tequila, smoking weed and bedding señoritas. Until, that is, a couple of blonde UCLA students showed up in a red Ford Mustang convertible, and the four of them embarked on a week-long, two-convertible Jack Kerouac on-the-road adventure. Mushrooms and acid might have been involved.
Peter did eventually try to settle down after he met a woman named Judy. It was a hippie marriage – “We argued about Dylan going electric; she thought he sold out” – and it produced a son. But the marriage didn’t last long.
After about nine years on the West Coast, Peter returned to Montréal, where helped open what was billed as North America’s first sex boutique in 1971 on rue Crescent. It was called The Garden and owned by Ivor Sargent, whom Peter said got the idea while travelling in Europe and observing how relaxed Scandinavians were about sex.
“The Garden sold porn, dildos, sex toys and the like, but everything was very tasteful,” Peter said.
Peter was then involved in the setting up of a second Garden, in Quebec City, and then worked at the counter of a third one, in Toronto. He abandoned that after six months because he got tired of customers asking questions about sexual dysfunctions.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know; go see a doctor.’ ”
Peter was never robbed while driving cab in Montréal, but he did get involved in a couple of physical dustups with separatists during the 1995 Quebec referendum over his insistence on displaying a pair of Canadian flags in the back window.
He drove for Batshaw, a youth-protection service, for about 14 years, getting to know the troubled teens who were his passengers, many of whom went from foster home to foster home, were up for adoption and/or had been taken from homes after being abused.
“I loved that job,” he said. “Before that, I was dead inside. I learned so much from the kids. I love kids in general; I love their honesty.”
He recalled taking his five-year-old nephew to a cemetery to visit Peter’s father’s grave.
He tried to answer as truthfully as possible the boy’s questions about death, and its universality.
“Yes,” he told his nephew, “we’re all going to die.”
When Peter wasn’t looking, the boy snatched a long red ribbon from a freshly dug grave nearby, and put it around the headstone on Peter’s father’s grave.
“That’s for grandfather,” the boy explained.
“Well, that’s a nice thing to do,” Peter said.
“I’ll do that for you, too, Peter,” the boy said.
Peter chuckled as he remembered the boy’s words. “Yep. Kids are honest.”
While Peter did have girlfriends after getting divorced, he never wanted to marry again.
“I like being on my own. People say, ‘But don’t you get lonely?’ Sure, I do. But you can be married and feel lonely. Sometimes, when I see a beautiful sunset, I think it would be nice to share the moment with someone. But most of the time I like peace and quiet. Now, I’m just content to watch the world go by.”
Sadly, Peter’s already poor health deteriorated, and in September 2016 his little world got even smaller when he was relocated to a room in Verdun’s Centre d’hébergement Réal-Morel. He’d never again sit on the wooden box outside Mr. Wong’s dépanneur, nor ask passersby for 55,000 bucks. It would turn out to be a long, lonely goodbye.
Estranged from his siblings and his son – Peter wasn’t a saint, but then, who is? – his final 3½ years were spent in bed, when often the only company he had was TV, or visits by his very dear old friends John and Linda; and me, his relatively new friend. His legs were dead, he was often in pain, and then there were all the indignities that came from loss of control over body functions and his inability to feed himself.
And yet, despite everything, Peter remained upbeat. Even when grimacing in pain he’d say, “It’s bad but, as I always say, it could be worse.”
And when I’d get up to leave and sign off with my customary, “See you next time, Peter,” he’d reply with his sing-songy “I’ll be here.”
Sometimes I felt like Mitch Albom, whose 1999 memoir Tuesdays With Morrie details his visits to his dying former sociology prof, except that, unlike Mitch and Morrie, Peter and I never tackled issues like the meaning of life or death (the elephant in the room). We avoided such talk, falling back on that old sports-fan standby – jock talk. (“And how about those Bears?”) Or even better, I’d get Peter to regale me once again about the antics of Fuzzy Fat Head, The Rodent, Botch, Googly, V.I. and Le Frog.
My respect for the people who work in places like this grew with each visit. Day after day, these underpaid and under-appreciated orderlies are there doing the dirty jobs while trying to wear a smile and comfort sad, lonely, helpless souls, who are often cranky and/or demented.
And never let it be said that immigrants don’t contribute to Canada, especially those who work in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
I think of the cheerful Haitian female orderlies emptying urine bags and having to clean up soiled residents, or the multilingual, blonde Polish auxiliary nurse who teased and charmed Peter in his first language (English), or the soft-spoken, scarf-wearing Muslim woman with the gentle smile who patiently spoon-fed him (causing me to wonder how Quebec could find it necessary to enact such a xenophobic law as Bill 21, prohibiting government employees from wearing religious symbols).
The last eight or nine months were especially difficult for Peter, when he began having hallucinations about – among other things, being chased by cops – and yet, on my last visit, as I got up to leave and said, “See you next time, Peter,” he replied with his usual sing-songy, “I’ll be here.”
That was March 5, before coronavirus shut down long-term-care facilities across the land. And because he couldn’t use a phone (his hands shook too much), I had no way to communicate with Peter other than to call up the nursing station and ask someone to relay a message for me: “Tell Peter that Jim called and that he’s thinking of him.”
I hope he got the message.