John Summers

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The Rag Parade

An extract from Part Three - Stuart Hannan is stranded penniless in Toronto, unable to proceed north as planned following the theft of his bags...

The weather broke in Toronto that weekend. A wind harsh through the streets and a freezing policeman flapping his arms on the corner of Bay and Front Sts and then the first few flurries of snow in the air.

Morning and the scent from the maples was sugar, sun sparkling off the rime frost on the ground. Leaving the Buick they were sleeping in where it was parked down on Lakeshore, they ran across the frozen snow for a streetcar and in fifty seconds or so clapped their hands to their ears, then their noses, then their ears again, and finally covered their fingers over their faces and howled through them. The cold, the ice-cold.

And with the first flurry of snow all the open-air jobs in Toronto stopped. Stuart and the cowboy were out of work. Elwood snapped, ‘Preacher, we’re out of a job! Now we’ll never get that goddam car on the road. Jesus Christ, we’ll never get up north this way. I want to get out of this goddam city with their mad streetcars and drugstores and look at the size of this paper!’ Elwood held up a Toronto daily paper. ‘About nine hundred million goddam pages to it and nuthin’ in it –’

Before they could realise it they had become a couple of the ‘bums’ out of work. ‘BUM!’ What’s a bum? Sounds better if you say it with a fat cigar popping in your mouth. ‘Bum!’ What’s a bum? Stuart Hannan soon learned. Standing on streetcorners with their feet in the slush, some of them big handsome men; and something about the slack of the mouth, the scramble of hair behind the ears perhaps, sometimes with a few grey hairs in it.

Downtown Toronto, the banks were temples to Mammon, marble and white-domed; the belted bankguards snapping their fingers on their guns behind the doors and walking right behind you right up to the bank counter.

On Bloor St, poodles rode past in Cadillacs while young men strode the sidewalks looking for a job or a buck, ‘Mack, c’n you spare a dime? Mack, you got a dime for a cuppa coffee. Mack?’

‘You got ten cents for a cuppa coffee?’ And the black banner being carried by the man patrolling in the gutter said – AND THE MEEK SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.

Those first days of that terrible winter in Canada there were 500,000 unemployed out of a total population of about 13,000,000. Thousands of bums slept on the stone floor of the St. Lawrence Market while vans scraped Toronto for bread and vegetables to boil up into soup for them. Stuart and the Canadian cowboy shared a place in the soupline with a bum, an old one. The old bum chawed at them. ‘Australia, that’s the place to go to, son. Australia! that’s a colony that is. Not a bloody lean-to like this!’ While Communist speakers harangued the crowds down on King St. West, and hold-ups and shootings went on in the cigar-stores downtown, the 50-page newspapers were full of it.

‘I’m so hungry!’ Stuart Hannan complained.

‘Don’t buy a meal now, man. Don’t spend a cent more than you must!’ Elwood threw a hand up and slashed it quickly through his hair. ‘Wait till tonight, we’ll buy tomatoes and a loaf tonight.’

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