We are happy to share the winning entries from this year’s MyToronto photo contest.
Here is a list of the winners:
The Peacock Lady
Hostages and Musings of a Dignified Lady
Larger Than Life
Park after dark
Home in the Park
Diary of an opportunist (if only for a minute)
The Peacock Lady – Tanya Adele Koehnke
The Peacock Lady needs no map
to get where she’s going.
Her pink-flamingo hat
covers her wise head.
She struts along the sidewalk
pushing her trolley in mukluks.
On magnificent display
is her fantail of shopping-bag feathers.
The city is dazzled by her plumage
spread out for all to take notice.
The Peacock Lady is a magpie.
She is freer than a bird if you listen to her song.
Hostages and Musings of a Dignified Lady – Heather Jasmine
I was transported several hours after the clock struck a new day. Thereafter, THEY were ambushed, kidnapped, held hostage. THEY each had different valuations. It was nerve-wracking being separated from such established friends and acquaintances.
DAY ONE: TAKING OF THE HOSTAGES
The war’s destruction and annihilation began. Would THEY end up memorialized like Picasso’s Guernica, the cover of grade eleven history texts? This school bus-sized monochromatic mural highlighted the Spanish Civil War’s sufferings and atrocities. Embedded into this anti-war protest are a white poppy, dove and light bulb beside an oil-lamp symbolizing hope amidst the horrors.
We can’t always pick our battles or wars. Some are thrust upon us. Negotiations must begin once contact is made
Devastated, I found solace in the fact that 80% of hostages do indeed survive their harrowing ordeal, a long captivity of years.
Hostage One, a female was appraised at ten Most Wanted fugitives.
Hostage One was like my fastidious mother warning me to wear clean underwear in case I was hit by a bus and needed medical attention. Unmentionable unmentionables.
Marilyn Monroe popped into my head. During filming of The Seven Year Itch, she stood on the subway grate, her white dress parachute-billowing to reveal her underwear.
Unmentionable unmentionables, but Marilyn is equally famous for singing “Happy Birthday” to President John F. Kennedy not wearing any underwear underneath a sheer body-hugging gown. Unmentionable unmentionables – so important to one’s look and reputation yet unmentionable.
Hostage Two, a female was appraised at nine Most Wanted.
Hostage Two was Mona Lisa’s penetrating eyes looking straight at you no matter your stance because SHE looked straight ahead. At a stratospheric 860 million dollars, the Mona Lisa is the world’s most valuable painting. Italian polymath Leonardo Da Vinci’s optical illusion created her enigmatic smile. Closeup Mona Lisa’s mouth has an unhappy downward slant while from farther away she appears to be smiling.
American Andy Warhol’s first Self-Portrait featured him in crystal sunglasses; with greater fame he wore dark-lensed tortoiseshells. Considered the window to the soul, the eyes should be protected, as hostages must be kept safe until their rescue or negotiated release. I hope hostages adapt to a dark, dank dungeon, maintaining eye contact and communication with their captors.
Hostage Three, a female-to-male was appraised at eight Most Wanted.
Hostage Three, like Brit Fiona Rae’s Untitled abstract, represents technology components such as USB sticks, WiFi sticks, cables etc. Modern art portrays our dependency on technological devices such as our cellphones. Having no media access, the hostages will find confinement hours long.
Hostage Four, a female was appraised at seven Most Wanted.
Hostage Four was dressed to the nines. What was the occasion?
Hostage Four reminds me of retail merchandizing and department store shopping. Collaborating with many, American Ralph Pucci’s fame as mannequin-designer extraordinaire was evident in his 2015 runway exhibition, The Art of the Mannequin, at the New York Museum of Art and Design. Manifesting action, athletics, dance, celebrity, jewelry, historical abstractions, Pucci’s fibreglass mannequins reflected cultural changes and attitudes about body image and fashion.
My clothes, conservative classics and comfies, bought at second-hand stores or on sale, also include higher-quality textiles more suitable to my texture-sensitive body, casual comfort.
The ubiquity and design of over 2 billion white tee-shirts, sold globally every year, motivates some to make the world better. Tee slogans – Just Do it!; ‘Give Peace a Chance”; “Keep calm and carry on” – fit our present circumstances.
Hostage Five, a male was appraised at six Most Wanted.
Hostage Five is like Canadian Timothy Schmalz’s global Homeless Jesus statues. Bronze Jesus lying on a bench wrapped in a blanket is often joined by a real-life homeless person sleeping in a light jacket, money left beside in a cup or hat by passersby.
Hostage Six, gender non-specific was valued as a Special hostage.
Hostage Six makes me think of American Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover, Freedom From Want inspired by President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech listing the four universal human rights – freedom of speech; worship; from fear; and of want. An ordinary multigenerational family sits around a Thanksgiving dinner feast of turkey, casserole, celery, cranberry sauce and drinking water. Enough, but not a dinner of excess. Takeaway: be grateful for what we have.
Not comprised of dinner foods, Hostage Six still captures the social aspect of eating, breaking bread with loved ones. Animals also comfort us and feature in many food idioms — ‘make a pig of ourselves’ or ‘eat like a horse’; ‘wolf it down’ or ‘pack it away’ all mean to eat a large amount or very quickly whereas if you consume very little you ‘eat like a bird’. ‘Eating like a horse’ reminds me of childhood gallery trips to see Brit George Stubbs’ anatomically-correct portrayals of this majestic animal’s strength and capacity in Whistlejacket and others. I worry that hostages will be deprived and hunger.
Freedom from want is evident in 16th century Italian Guiseppe Archimboldo’s portrait of Vertumnus. The Roman God is formed from plants, fruits and vegetables to symbolize the Earth’s abundance where no one goes hungry. Even the least in society – the poor, sick, homeless – should have access to all food groups and NEVER leave the table or go to bed hungry.
Everyday comestibles are featured in Canadian Ashley Smallwood’s snack paintings of Cheezies, cans of Crush pop, Hickory Sticks and Doritos. Likewise, my mouth waters at American Walter Robinson’s renditions of the beloved burger and fries or salads even though fast food is not my favourite indulgence, sweets are.
I’m praying that the special hostage won’t be treated as a criminal carrying contraband. Common goods and behaviour on the outside are often characterized as offenses on the inside. Too bad insiders can’t perform miracle illusions like British chef Ben Churchill who recreates tasty desserts into everyday objects – an orange parfait magically looks like a mouldy orange; an olive oil sponge cake becomes a kitchen sponge; a lemon sponge cake with whipped cream is a piece of toast with an egg. Feasts for the eyes and taste-buds.
Obsessed with food due to extreme food consumption and deprivation issues, I could go on, dreaming of food. But I must not digress.
Hostage Seven, gender neutral, was appraised at five Most Wanted.
Hostage Seven reminds me of happy times lost in a story as in French impressionist Renoir’s Girl Reading. I hope that the hostages follow instructions for survival’s sake but not blindly like group choral readings. I’d feel safe with a good read under the covers of Columbian sculptor, Miler Lagos’ Home installation. Carefully stacked and aligned old books formed a dome igloo with the outer frame neutral-coloured pages and colourful bindings inside.
Before Y2K, predictions dominated that prints would become extinct with the “paperless” computer age. Hard copies didn’t disappear: instead, books became more popular to while away the hours in homeless shelters and everywhere during COVID lockdown. I hope the hostages are given books to read.
Hostage Eight, gender-neutral, was appraised at four Most Wanted.
Hostage Eight’s miscellany are mashups like British artist, Marija Tiurina’s watercolour, Lockdown Project, created from publicly solicited ideas about quarantine. Real and bizarre fantastical characters appear in different scenes similar to English Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo illustrations with Waldo hidden amidst a hive of others doing umpteen things in one location.
Our bathroom and kitchen junk drawers are filled with random objects without a set place but valued in certain circumstances. Hopefully, this hostage isn’t considered disposable.
Hostage Nine, gender-neutral, taken by mistake.
Found to be a nobody, homeless on the streets, Hostage nine was not valued. Actually, worth all the rest, this hostage embodied dignity, self-esteem, humanity and survival.
DAY TWO: ABDUCTORS MAKE RANSOM DEMANDS
The abductors made their demands clear. TWO BAGS AND ONLY TWO BAGS REGARDLESS OF NEEDS.
Policy dictates ‘NO NEGOTIATION WITH TERRORISTS.” Loophole found: Unsure if the kidnappers were terrorists or sadly untrained misguided employees.
Hostages would be safe until the ultimatum timed out. Then threats of physical harm or disposal could be carried out.
DAY THREE AND FOUR: NEGOTIATIONS RE ULTIMATUM
Negotiations fell on the deaf ears of different parties within the same organization. Abductors wanted TWO BAGS regardless of my anguish. Grudging compromise: extension for the ransom to five days versus three.
I worried for the hostages. Were THEY scared, cold, starved or lonely? What was their physical condition?
DAY FIVE: ULTIMATUM EXPIRES
Would the abductors harm the hostages the minute the hourglass emptied at midnight?
Negotiations continued to no avail. I must bide my time for best rescue results.
DAY SEVEN: PROOF OF LIFE
My requests for show-of-goodwill proof-of-life, prisoner exchange or release of a few hostages were NOT forthcoming.
DAY THIRTEEN: ATTEMPTED RESCUE
Too many guards for a feasible rescue attempt without risking collateral damage or hostages caught in the crossfire.
Despondent, separated from the hostages with no reunification in sight. The Scream’s androgynous figure stands on a bridge surrounded by turbulent blue-aqua waters and high-octane yellow-orange-blood-red sky swirling. Like Norwegian Edvard Munch’s tormented, I clutch my face in utter anguish and despair over the uncertainties of new world life and to block out all the noise around I emit a blood-curdling primal scream.
DAY FIFTEEN: PROOF-OF-LIFE REQUEST ANSWERED
The abductors agreed to escorted, blindfolded negotiators confirming the hostages’ status. The captured were dusty, moldy and in desperate need of exercise and fresh air.
DAY SEVENTEEN: RESCUE ATTEMPT
Abductors milled about searching for misplaced prison keys. Too many guards to overpower. An attempted rescue would be sheer folly
DAY EIGHTEEN: HOSTAGES RELEASED
Held in a dark, dank dungeon THEY rarely had social contact. As the shelter’s doors banged shut behind me, I tenderly loaded my precious cargo – objets d’arts (THEY) – into the shopping cart. Once again, I have my dignity but not a bed.
I had to leave to be reunited with my confiscated belongings – my unmentionables, sunglasses, clothing, technology accessories, books, contraband snacks, miscellaneous items. I also took my TWO garbage bags of bedding/towels needed to elevate swollen legs and combat pneumonia-causing drafts. Under extreme duress, I didn’t bow down to ridiculous policies maintaining my self-esteem. Fancy having to upsize to downsize. Regular folk don’t realize how vital clean underwear is to a healthy psyche.
Glancing at her long-time friend, Rowena found Callista oddly serene although back on the street again. Long-winded musings relayed Callista’s knowledge as a renowned art historian/appraiser and art history teacher. Deteriorating health forced Callista on the street when she could no longer work. Art in her blood, Callista spent her days treasure-troving antique shops. Whenever highly stressed, Callista’s grounded conversation morphed into stream-of-consciousness rants. Rowena met Callista as an adult in her art history continuing-education course. They bonded over a love of the arts and food.
“Callista, you look worn-out. Why don’t you come and stay with me for a few nights?”
“I don’t want to put you out.”
“You won’t. I enjoy your company. While we’re together, I think we should go through your collection and get acquisitions appraised. Who knows, you might be lugging around a masterpiece that could buy you a home. Not inconceivable. You’ve got fabulous instincts informed by experience and a great eye, which have turned your circumstances around before.”
Tranquility like Monet’s Giverny water garden. Horticulturalist and French impressionist, Monet used pastel purples, blues, pinks and greens in his Waterlilies series.
Social niceties like a British mid-afternoon low tea with a cuppa Earl Grey bolstered by three-tiered pastry stands of assorted finger sandwiches including crab-cucumber, salmon and chicken salad and an array of three-bite scones, squares, and pastries. Or a heavier British high tea of comfort foods – meat pies, fish, casseroles, bread. Regardless, Rowena and Callista would share teas while Callista prepared for the next frame of her life.
Sunny days ahead. Callista would not bow to any ruling force but that of God. Like Dutch Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers who follow the light.
Park after dark – Jackie Irvine
You could hear the rustling of the bushes
All through the night
Around the perimeter of this once glorified mausoleum for horticulture
Most of the noise came from homosexual males – strangers to each other grabbing some quick action
Once in a while I also used these bushes to perform sex acts with strange heterosexual men
That was a very long time ago
I’m now as weathered as the building
Home in the Park – Christina Walsh
I, coming from a dysfunctional family had learned at a young age, to fend for myself as I had no choice. I left home at the tender age of 17. I spent a lot of my time hanging out in drop-in centers for marginalized, homeless people to find and create community as I am a believer in community. I knew poverty too well. I adapted to the rules of the drop-in and mental health system. I often ate in these places with folks. I craved warm connection, not just a meal. I have noticed a lot of the social workers and staff appeared to be rushed, burnt out, while some were attentive and kind to me. I was looking for home where I could receive it.
I remember the friends I met who lived on the streets and when I was in shelters, then my own apartment. I continued to attend drop-ins and meal programs for a number of years as I had become attached emotionally, finding family of choice.
One particular older fellow, Kai stands out for me. He had the biggest blue eyes, the brightest smile and was a gentle giant, with a heart bigger than an ocean. Though his appearance was not up to par, I enjoyed hanging out with him for a number of years. We would walk to Allen Gardens, talk & joke around at the local Second Cup located at Gerrard & Yonge in the 1990s. Kai often would treat me to coffee though he barely had enough for himself. We enjoyed the scenery as we walked & talked. Over time, Kai trusted me with a few of his horror stories he had experienced in the mental health system, which drew us closer. “I can confide in you Christina as you had always been there for me when the world shut me out”, Kai added. I was floored. I could not help but to notice Kai when he’d show up at the drop-in. I would hug & welcome him. Nobody else hugged him. I didn’t smoke, yet I hung out in the smoking room just to spend time with him. We had fun going to Black Creek Pioneer Village too in December 2000 when the drop-in treated all of us. Kai was the life of the party at the drop-in and when we went places.
I had other friends: Jeannette, Brad, Randy, Gerry and some others, from the same drop-in centre, called “Our Place” at the corner of Elm Street & Yonge Street. We would hang out at the drop-in, eat, participating in different programs. We looked forward to hanging out at Allen Gardens the most, as it was our favorite park, in the heart of downtown, Toronto. We enjoyed looking at the flowers, the plants, while sometimes, having our coffee there sharing stories of joy & frustrations of daily life, being marginalized, poor and alone as many of us had nobody but each other.
“You know, Christina, you were the first person to invite us all for coffee after the drop-in closed at 10 pm and to high five us. Brad & I had been attending for years and did not experience this before we met you.” Jeannette said. “You also care about Jeannette and I, accepting us for who we are. We shall keep all the drawings you made for us.” Brad added. Brad would often compliment me on my dresses, hair accessories and joke with me, though his anxiety was often causing him distress. “You are a light in a dark place”, Brad added. I would visit their bachelor apartment regularly & noticed my drawings they had taped to their walls, re-taping them when they would fall. I was moved as nobody has appreciated me that much before. I was 30 at that time. I enjoyed our times at their home. “Not many come visit us Christina. You are the only one we have come by as we don’t trust many people”, Jeannette added. I knew I was at home by the ways they treated me, how we treated one another.
Gerry, another buddy at the drop-in would often vent. I listened to him. He had a tough exterior, yet he was good to me. We laughed a lot when we’d go to Allen Gardens and to the McDonalds just north of College Street & Yonge Street. He would talk to me about music, guitar playing & slumlords. He managed to always have a smile for me & I would for him when we’d meet up. “I’m happy you don’t tell anyone what I tell you”, Gerry confided. “My own family didn’t accept me. My sister puts me down, you don’t. I like our laughs”, Gerry continued.
In 2002, when I lost my psychiatrist to suicide, these friends were there for me, not judging me. Some of the staff at “Our Place” drop-in was caring too: Debbie & Larry especially. They met me where I was at, ready to receive me & make space for me. I have not forgotten that. Debbie also got gifts for children I knew, who were marginalized from the CHUM City Christmas Wish Foundation for a few years, so they could have a Christmas. I will never forget her kindness. Larry would listen to me cry & vent, not judging me. I can tell, he wanted to take away the pain I was feeling. He did, by being there. “I like talking to you Larry”, I said. “I like talking to you too, Christina. Coming to work is rewarding because of people like you and many of the members as I enjoy being able to listen and be helpful”, Larry said with a twinkle in his eye.
Angel, another dear friend of mine from “Our Place” drop-in would make Christmas’s there delightful and fun with her warm, embracing energy. She would wear a Santa’s hat decorated with flashing lights, along with her Christmas sweaters with bells. Her smile lit up the room! She had her share of challenges yet managed to make myself & others around her feel loved as if she was our mother. She was my surrogate mother for years, even when we went a long time not being in touch. She was there for me when she returned to Toronto, as if no time has passed. We went camping together a couple of times with the drop-ins, sharing in both good times & bad. Many times she moved me with her kindness when I cried and felt alone. Her presence was a silent, yet powerful, beautiful motherly presence. She made trips fun. She & I would share a room, talk all night and we could be ourselves.
As we all didn’t have the best holidays growing up, we did enjoy Thanksgiving traditions too, at “Our Place” as well as Christmas Dinner. We’d sit together for a number of years. We also went to the Gerstein Centre Christmas Day open house too. Again, we were a family. We chose to be present & there for each other. I’m grateful for the wonderful holidays we did share, for the long hours at Allen Gardens afterward on Christmas Day. I’m grateful it was not all about gifts, family etc. as we made things our own. These agencies did give us gifts, yet our friendship is what stood out the most. I was blessed to have them when I had them. I had to create family in my own way. The memories I have of them will remain alive forever.
Two Giants – Roberta Taylor
Two giants flank me on each side
Pushing my already cramped space
The cobblestones lead up to the front door
I feel smothered
I feel squished in
I feel I don’t get enough sky
Inside I’m dark
Inside I’m abandoned
I wish someone would come inside
But the two giants stop them.
Like malevolent monarchs
The two giants loom over my tiny self
I am sinking into oblivion
I wish I was lived in like I once was
I wish I was part of a family
And not slowly
I was beautiful a long time ago
And with love
I could be again
The Bed – Tobi Pritchard
Phil at 65 years of age was content living in a rooming house in Toronto. Retired and being alone gave him limited pleasure. He did not yearn for extravagance. His needs were few. That matched his need for friends – he didn’t have any.
A flyer that came in the mail caught his attention right away. Photo of a plush beige king bed stopped him cold.
Phil walked to the furniture outlet “a beauty isn’t it” remarked the salesman. With no reply Phil asked about the cost. He realized he could afford it with monthly payments. $1,110 for this bed meant he would own something worth having.
Phil signed the contract. The delivery happened the next day. The bed took up a tremendous amount of space. Other tenants remarked how dear. This appealed to Phil. The percale sheets, the pillows, and its lush fullness, relaxed Phil. Until the next day morning came rolling in at 6am. Phil made tea sat on a chair looking at his purchase.
Bed bugs are an interesting species. The ones that have not bitten a host are opaque white. Once bitten this insect are blood red. Opaque white and blood red swarmed the bed. A bitter scream from Phil alarmed many of the tenants. Lighter fluid seemed like a positive half answer. A lighter was next. The flames engulfed the bed. Phil decided at this point to sleep on three upright chairs. He thought this would be good for his back.
Larger Than Life – Heather Jasmine
I met my mysterious next-door neighbour by chance. My tiny, detached, irregular-pentagon-shaped, 400-square-foot home is a sixth of the size of average houses. It is dwarfed, wedged between his home and my other neighbours’. The original owner wouldn’t sell to either homeowner believing they’d tear down the house for a monster home.
With a loft, small basement and larger kitchen, my home was customized to maximize space-saving efficiency, aesthetics and my love of cooking. Usually, I entertain outside so don’t mind a smaller living/dining-room space. My favourite writing nook is an added winterized back veranda with sunny southern exposure. It overlooks a large patio with a barbecue, deck chairs, and picnic table. An adult swing is nestled in a lush wildflower-butterfly garden oasis banked by a trickling waterfall. My back-lawn’s trees shade out the houses adjacent and beyond creating a secluded sanctuary. Minimalist, compact yet larger-than-life.
My life changed with COVID-19. Since the subsequent lockdown, I’ve been working as an editor and writer from home. It’s a simple, simpler life now separated from loved ones. An even quieter life until … I met the mysterious neighbour on my East.
COVID restrictions changed my routines. Extended writing and editing sessions last all night when I’m in the zone working on a first draft or chapter edit. I now venture out for walks in the dead of night when few are about.
Late at night, I hear snippets of familiar tunes sung by next door’s unseen.
“It’s now or never …/Who knows when we’ll meet together…
“Are you lonesome tonight? … the world’s a stage/And each must play a part…/Act one was when we met…/act two, you… acted strange/… bring the curtain down…”
The music stopped. Going for my nightly walk, I heard a chuckle behind me. “Evenin’. Yoowah up late too. Yore lights are on when Aah’m roaming at night.”
“You must be my next-door neighbour. You’re a ghost by day, but I hear you singing at night. You sound like the Elvis you sing.”
“Thank you…thank you very much.”
I laugh at his Elvis response to acclamation. “My name’s Wilma.”
“Nice to finally meet yoowah. Aah’m Erik.” Pointing to his house, “Dis is me”. Perhaps weel meet again one night soon.”
“If serendipitous. I go for walks in the wee hours when it’s safer. Good night.”
Entering my cozy home, I thought about the curious crooner. ‘Standing six feet, he was a sandy-grey-haired gentleman with a southern accent and stentorian deep bass voice despite being in his late seventies or older.’ I climbed up the ladder to my loft with its double plush-poofy-pillowy pit. ‘Yes, I feel lonesome tonight, longing for the companionship of my fiancé who’s stuck in the United States. Travel restrictions will lift soon, surely, so we can reunite.’
I met up with Erik a few times by accident. We had great talks so decided to meet for nightly walks. Double blinking my veranda lights when I was about to leave, we’d meet at the end of our driveways. Sometimes, we’d meet earlier for late-night barbecues of fish, meat and grilled veggies. Erik showed up with wine and a homemade salad or southern dessert such as banana cream pies, Lane cake, peach pie or cobbler and Tennessee’s state dessert of banana pudding.
The tunes I heard those August nights included more gospel and melancholic choices.
“cry myself to sleep …/… so empty…/It keeps right on a hurting …/… since you’re gone.
“crying in the chapel/… happy in the chapel/Where people are of one accord/… your troubles to the chapel/… burdens will be lighter/… find the way.
“…walk down Lonely Street/To Heartbreak Hotel…
“Lord, help me…/…Remove the chains of darkness/… let me see…/… fit into your master plan…
I asked Erik about his music choices: he was remembering Elvis’ too-early divine departure. Erik invited me over for a late dinner August 16 to commemorate his idol’s passing.
For the anniversary dinner, I brought over Pepsi and Elvis ice-cream sandwich fixins’ – sliced banana bread, peanut butter ice-cream filling and crispy bacon strips. The special menu featured Elvis’ favourites — deep fried pickles, bacon-topped meat loaf, pepper steak, fried chicken, fried catfish with brown-sugar lime glaze, mashed potatoes, my dessert, coconut cake and Mississippi mud pie, the official dessert of Elvis’ birth-state. Erik was an excellent cook, so I left the table satiated. Retiring into a home-theatre room complete with recliners and comfie couches, we watched Elvis starring in Jailhouse Rock (1957). At earlier barbecues in the week, we had watched Elvis in King Creole (1958) and Viva Las Vegas (1964) replayed on television.
“Did you ever meet Elvis?”
Erik chuckled, “Yoowah bet aah have. He awlaways bin larger-than-life in maan.”
Then Erik gave me a personal concert.
“… dream of a better land/Where all my brothers walk hand in hand/…Where hope keeps shining …/… redeem his soul to fly…”
After singing If I Can Dream, Erik repeated what Gladys always told Elvis: his twin died in her but gave Elvis his strength so he’d have the energy of two and could do anything he wanted. Elvis became larger than life. Coming from humble beginnings and perpetual loneliness missing something as a twin-less twin, Elvis had many hard knocks in life, including a drug addiction despite President Nixon having awarded him a Special Badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He was the comeback kid except that 1977 August afternoon.
“…fear and doubt/… lonely, heavy cross …/… Known only to Him…/…what the future holds…”
According to Erik, Known Only to Him was recorded when Elvis was twenty-five, sung at his beloved mother’s funeral and one of his favourite gospel songs along with How Great Thou Art and Crying in the Chapel.
“… we’re in the Lord’s hands/… gonna wash away all our misery … fear/I got a feelin’ in my body … / releasing all our sorrow/…along the way.”
This song reminded Erik of Elvis’ on-stage performances with his stage-fright jitters and famous body gyrations.
Strumming his fancy Elvis-like guitar, Erik sang my favourite Elvis billboard hits –Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, Suspicious Minds, In the Ghetto and Memories. Like at Elvis’ concerts, Can’t Help Falling in Love, the final song.
Erik bowed to my clapping with a “Thank you… thank you very much.”
“Erik, you’re like the King, better than any Elvis impersonator I’ve ever seen!
Growing up in Collingwood, Ontario, I screamed, sang and danced at the world’s largest Elvis Fest in my hometown every summer. I saw tons of impersonators perform tributes in 20 years. If I didn’t know better, then I’d say you’re his twin.”
“Well, Ida Claire, if dat don’t beat all! Reckon, Aahaam. Jesse Garon Presley bah birth, Erik Slander bah fate.”
I almost fell off the chair. “How’s that possible? Elvis’ twin was stillborn.”
“My ‘second’ mother was Gladys Presley’s midwife. She thawt aah was stillborn. To save dem burial costs, she took mah lifeless body with her. She brawt screamin’ Elvis into the world 35minutes afta me. En rawt to the hospital morgue, she huhd a faint cry and relized aah was alive. Withoud a second thawt, she took me home and raised me lac her ohn in Boonville. Aah grew up just 30 minutes away from Elvis’ childhood home but aah never met hem until aah served in da same tank squadron overseas. Aah moved air afta Trump took over. How’s dat fowah fate?”
“Wow! Life’s stranger than fiction.”
Erik nodded, continuing: “Elvis hadda gut feelin’ dat aah was his real long-lost twin. Both aarh beluved mothers were dead. DNA tests didden exist ‘til long afta Elvis bin. Tuned out justa lacin Elvis’ head.”
“Charismatic, yoowah cain’t say ‘noh’ to hem. Elvis convinced me to sell mah successful staardup, move nearby and work as his body double. We kept aarh biological relationship secret so that aah wouldn’t be hounded.
“Elvis, larger-than-life in mah life. As Elvis’ body double, aah haddajust to his schedule and whims. He longed fowah privacy. Loner, lac me. Aah wrote songs but didden finish dat album with Elvis as he done gone. He cain’t read music and didden write a single published lyric. A flambohand performer; he was larger-than-life.
“As first-born, aah developed Fabry disease with painful legs and arms. Afta aah’da small stroke revealin’ mah flaw, Elvis hired a personal doctor, terrified that aah’d stroke or develop kidney or heart disease. Funny, mah name means ‘ruler’, yet Elvis was da King nod justa Rock ‘n Roll. Elvis was impulsive banning mah allergy foods in his home – noh shellfish, wheat or soybeans. Aah was more of a thinker, ‘all wise’ likesis name.
“Now that yoowah know mah secret, can aah ask something of yoowah? Refuse if yoowah lac. Be mah ghost writer for a memoir of mah years with Elvis. But first aah wanna visit Mississippi and Tennessee one more time. Could weeah go when travel restrictions are lifted?”
I couldn’t say ‘no’ to Erik, now a buddy and grandfather figure.
I took a leave of absence to write Erik’s story while we waited. We photographed tons of memorabilia for the book including his extensive body-double body-snug two-piece stretchy suits and onesie jumpsuit collection, which evolved after Elvis ripped his pants from his legs jittering nervously before and body gyrations during shows. We ticked off Erik’s local bucket list items road-tripping in a Cadillac, one of his dearest possessions given to him by Elvis.
Finally, we hopped into the Cadillac heading for the southern states. Our destinations were Tupelo, Mississippi where the twins had been born and Tennessee where they spent time together in adulthood.
Their birthplace was a shotgun shack, so named because a shotgun could shoot through the house. Common in Mississippi during ‘the Depression’, these tiny cheap-to-build homes allowed stifling southern-state air to flow through the house. The front door opened onto a bedroom; the backdoor opened onto the adjoining kitchen. No bathroom, electricity or running water. The museum even had their outhouse out back.
Repossessed for failure to repay the $180 building materials’ loan, the Presleys moved out and about when Elvis was three. Erik’s life seemingly had come full circle, tiny shack to grandeur to a likely end near my tiny house.
Erik regaled me and onlookers with Elvis’ most popular gospel tunes in the repositioned Assembly of God Pentecostal Church on the museum’s lot.
The contrast with Graceland was night and day – humble beginnings to opulent extravagance. We rode horses from Elvis’ stables. Unfortunately, Elvis’ passion contributed to his untimely demise – his opiate addiction, a result of doctor-prescribed treatment for sickening, soul-slaving saddle pain. My fiancé, who joined us in Tennessee, loved the raceway trip: years before, Elvis had rented out mechanics and paramedics while he and Erik raced Formula One cars around the track. Down South, Erik felt connected, at peace.
Erik, born Jesse Garon Presley, died a year later. On the market for months, my tiny house suddenly sold for a tidy sum of over 1.5 million dollars, many times my purchase price. The estate lawyer noted that Erik bought it for me as a writing retreat and Canadian residence. Erik bequeathed me all-rights to the just-published memoir and his original songs for an uncompleted Elvis album; his house with contents; memorabilia including a glittery guitar collection, his home movies with Elvis and his precious Cadillac. Erik’s last words to me were “Thank you … thank you very much.”
I knew what I had to do. The inherited house would become the Erik-Elvis Museum for the years Gladys’ two boys spent together. Both Presleys were larger-than-life.
Concentrated Suffering – Christina Walsh
I am on the subway platform at Pape Station one morning, on my way to a therapy appointment. The train is taking too long. I don’t want to be late. I feel anxiety choking my throat. I feel stiffness and pain in my shoulders & tightness in my chest. I feel as if I had been punched in the stomach and kicked in the heart. I feel the urge to scream!
It’s getting a bit crowded, so I move further down the platform to swear under my breath. I start to silently cry as I can’t stand waiting and the pain it symbolizes. The loneliness I experience when I am in public, when I am on transit as I travel alone is often unbearable. I barely knowing or seeing anyone. There is nobody I feel close to. I have no family or close friends. The walls of emotional deprivation are closing in on me as I see people laughing, bonding, hugging and talking with each other. I am alone. Nobody cares about me. Nobody travelled with me before on transit. I am an adult in my late twenties during this time. I can’t stand the pain of not being loved by anyone, not having anyone accompany me anywhere and having to do everything by myself. All of this happiness around me reminds me of never being allowed to have my childhood: friends, closeness, family, opportunity or playfulness. My Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is taking over me as a whole by this point as the crying gets louder & I start to shout obscenities to release the pain I am feeling swallowed up in. Some people start to notice, yet say nothing and look away. Some act nervous, moving away from me. I want them out of my way so I can cry! At the same time, I want someone to come along to be my friend & be there for me. The deep longing is strangling my vocal cords as the crying is uncontrollable. I am having a difficult time in this moment being an adult in control of my emotions. I am used to be squashed by society to “grow up” and act as if I had not been hurt. It’s hard to contain these strong feelings. I know the subway ride is going to be long. “Will this pain last too long? Will I be too unsettled by the time I get to my appointment?” I am seething with rage as I continue to cry on the subway platform and when the train arrives & through part of my journey. Other passengers notice me crying, saying nothing, offering me nothing. I am not surprised. I am used to being ignored, alone in pain. “Is it true that I am nobody because nobody loves me?” I ask myself.
A passenger gets on at a particular stop & says “it can’t be that bad, cheer up.” I want to swear at him. I start unloading about my lonely life and painful childhood loudly, through the tears, as the desperation to talk to someone in person was still overpowering me. He didn’t say anything. Again, I am not surprised I was not supported in what I had said, unless it was a therapist who knows me well.
I took a sip of water, doing all I can to get settled as I was approaching my subway stop. I am still crying, but not as loudly. My heart is still racing. I won’t be late like I thought I would be. Thankfully, my therapist is very understanding. I arrive and cry again, telling her what I just described. I receive the comfort and validation I needed, as well as vented my frustrations to her. I was relieved to have someone to talk to in person, though only for an hour once a week. I was glad that day I received an extra fifteen minutes with her, as she had the time and saw my urgent need to connect, as she had been on vacation for two weeks. She is the only one I can talk to and always has a way of making me feel better.
On the way back, I decided to go to the Dufferin Mall before heading home. I got myself a few T-shirts & a couple of pairs of pants on sale. I was enjoying taking my time. I still felt lonely and sad, but I was able to listen to some music on my journey home, taking in the beats of the songs, smiling a tad.
Mannequins – Patricia Reid
They put us in long lines and shoved us up against
Each other with no regard to how we felt
Still we stood upright with pride as they quickly stripped us of our shoes and clothes
We didn’t know how to stop them as there were too many of them
Still we stood tall like the cold mannequins – refusing to bow to them
They did not change for the better but leaned towards the worst
I was married. For over thirty years. And each year he would tighten the noose around my neck until I could
Hardly breathe – let alone think
By that time, I could hardly put up a fight as the coarse mannequins became harder and harder to live with
And slowly like the mannequins
When I was still able to think clearly, he came one day and loped off my head
Happened so gradually that I never ever knew it was happening
Still my feet seemed unaware of what we were experiencing
They still remembered
The happy dance steps long
After I had forgotten
My hands remembered
How good it felt to reach into the rich
Black soil in my vegetable garden and to make it
Easier for the vegetables to grow by pulling out the unwelcome weeds
My heart continued to beat a joyous song when I walked
To the vegetables to
Encourage them to be happy and grow
And too my fingers remembered the great joy of holding a piece of wet clay in their hands knowing that
They could fashion the clay
Into whatever shape they desired to do
As my hands molded the wet clay I began to think that I could also mold myself into
whatever I wanted to be
And as the
Clay clung to
My hands in a loving way,
I became aware of
Being deaf to what those others were saying to me
Closing myself to their prodding
The clay started defining
And as I watched it changing, one day I stared at me and said out loud
“My God. I’m a great woman.”
And I fell deeply in love with myself
When I uttered those words, I became deaf to what those
Others were saying
Rain – Patricia Reid
The rain pounding on the pavement and with each drop looking like a fancy nail standing on its end
She races to a store entrance to avoid getting wet
The rain takes her back Along the years when she was only 16 at the time
She was feeling the sharpness of the August wind
Blowing and biting her skin
The sound was dealing as each gust grew in strength
She felt the coldness of the
Rain as it tunneled into her clothes scratching at her bare skin
She looked across the street seeing the hard drops of rain hitting the surface of a river
She sure knew it intimately
So many years ago
Very river where each day she had drawn daily drinking water for her family
She stared down into the water remembering the hours of fishing with her daddy’s fishing rod to catch a fish for supper
And as she watched the rain churning the river into fast flowing rapids she felt again the mosquitos biting and heard the constant buzzing sound
She again felt the great joy of finally hooking a large jack fish and hauling him in to shore
He would make a lively supper
But first he would have to be prepared for cooking
It was all she could do to hold the fish as he jerked this way and that trying his hardest to get back into the rushing river
She took her hunting knife and using all her strength cut through the backbone and walloped his head off
She was thinking that she needed to sharpen her knife for future use
It seemed too dull to cut much
Suddenly the decapitated fish jumped into the river and started swimming
She grabbed him and in so doing fell into the river herself
Once back on land she quickly scaled her fish and gutted him
Then one swish in the fast running and it washed away the scales that clung to
A car driving quickly past her on the road and right through a deep puddle spraying her from head to toe
She was back on the street huddled in the store entrance with water dripping off her clothes
She hurried home to put dry clothes on
Diary of an opportunist (if only for a minute) – Grant Ellis
As I sit perched on the sidewalk
Looking down an empty street
I ponder on yesterday’s events
As was and is every day in this big ass city
It was another very unique day
I awoke headed down the street
To see what adventurous opportunity waited
I picked up a butt off the sidewalk and the butt was a Cadillac
I spotted my first mark of the day
And this fat cat was my first score of the day
A few hours later I sat with my pipe in hand
Happy again for a minute