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Life

A Little Romance

You never know when it might waltz into your life.

By Marylee Stephenson 14 Feb 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Marylee Stephenson, Ph.D., is the head of a small national research and program evaluation company in Vancouver.

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'People stop and stare...'

He is a druggie and a dealer. I've known him, and known about him for 18 years now. My office is on the Drive, the old Italian area of Vancouver, replete with cappuccino bars, up-and-coming residents in renovated homes, and beggars and pit bulls on every block. The office was below his flat, and secretive characters would slink up the stairs now and then. He must have been the main supplier to his wife, who seemed to move in slow motion, eyes glazed, permanently guilt-ridden and cringing look on her face. He was wiry to the point of gaunt, with un-braced canine teeth that made him look more cunning and rapacious than he was. But of the latter I can't be sure, because once we heard crashes and then a thump from above that actually shook our ceiling that was their floor. I called the police, thinking of his wife, alone with just him.

The police came, quickly. When they left, he arrived at our door, screaming in outrage that we had dared to invade his privacy and call the police. Somehow holding my voice steady I returned a yell that said if I ever know there is a woman alone and I hear noises like that I will call the police no matter what. He is a bully but I was brave and he backed away and from then on he was somehow supplicating when our paths crossed. I went back to my usual explanation for such behaviour, that he must have been terribly abused and bullied as a child and when someone showed some strength he would turn to trying to please them. Oddly enough, he turned out to have almost courtly manners, perhaps drawing on the formality of his Italian forebears, a kind of gallant courtesy that I receive from the older men in shops and cafes, as we greet each other after my working in the neighbourhood for 18 years now.

Man about town

He works for the city, driving a half-ton truck, for repair work or gardening I can't tell exactly, but it takes him from place to place and I suspect from buyer to buyer. And he has an old, no-name American car, cheap in its day and surely worthless now. But not to him. He cares for it meticulously, washing it in the shared parking lot for all the apartment and office tenants. He even waxes it, surely an effort approaching the delusional for any effect it may have.

It was one of those long Vancouver evenings -- the rare sun blasting down still, and full daylight at 8 p.m. or so. I came out the back of my building to get to my car. He was stripped down to shorts, his body lean but not conditioned. There's no hose, so he had buckets scattered here and there, and he was singing. Rough voice, not strong, but certainly audible. From My Fair Lady, it was "On the Street Where You Live." He finished a few words and saw me smiling. It was one of those few days when I was dressed up for meetings, wearing high heels even, a great contrast from my usual cargo pants and t-shirt. I felt very "up" myself and rather tuneful.

He stopped swabbing the car and called out, "Is that Tony Bennett that I hear? Could that be Tony Bennett?" No, I said, searching back for other Italian singers of by gone days, "I think I hear Vic Damone!" Laughing, he went on with the song, quickly running out of the words, but humming loudly.

Joining in

By then I was well away, near my car -- but I know all the words to the song. I thought, "What the hell, you're a performer!" So I turned and singing at a near yell, so he could hear from a distance, began..."But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before."

I walked closer, keeping up with the song, so he would hear the words, and see I was joining him.

"All at once am I / several stories high / knowing I'm on the street where you live." Amazement came across his face, along with a huge smile. He tried to join in when he could, mostly humming and clearly delighted. "People stop and stare / They don't bother me / Cause there's no place else on earth that I would RAHTHER be. Let the time go by / (BIG note now): I-I-I-I-I don't care if I / can be here / on the street / where you live. And OH the towering feeling / just to KNOW somehow you are near / the ohver powering feeling / that any second you may suddenly appear..."

By then I was running out of words and he had come near to me, beaming. Suddenly, he reached out, took me in a very formal waltz position, arms outstretched, no contact except hand to hand and a light guiding pressure on my back. With that he began twirling me round and round in that filthy, needle-strewn parking lot. His hand and shoulders sweaty from his work, me going back to the first verse and still singing, only a little softer this time, as we were face to face, hand to hand. Round and round and round -- the blur of beat up cars, dying weeks, garbage bins flashing past my eyes as we whirled.

A few more turns and then our laughter broke up the song and the dance. With a slight, gentlemanly bow, in his raspy almost shouting voice he said, "Thank you for being romantic." The dance ending, I went to my car, he went back to sloshing his.

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