The Bell Man's Mission

A gong, a balaclava, and a Sarah Palin puppet. The makings of a true Christmas caper.

By Steve Burgess 23 Dec 2011 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week on The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

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Adventures in a frosty West End. Photo by PiscesDreamer in Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

No snow on Haro Street, which is just fine with me. There's enough Christmas lights and frippery about to make the walk home festive enough without that seasonal nonsense. As I reach my building and turn down the steps, I find a visitor. Under the overhang that fronts the building, a man in a hooded parka sits beside a shopping cart. Without preamble, the man addresses me. "What do you call those hats?" he asks. "The ones that come down over your face?"

It's the Bell Man. I know him. You probably do too, if you live in the neighbourhood. A young Asian man with a gentle disposition, he calls himself Tom. Unlike others who push carts, he does not appear to traffic in bottles and cans. His cart is filled with junk and, notably, festooned with bells. One gong mounted at the front of the cart gives off a deep, sonorous tone. Tom strikes it after accepting a coin but also, it seems, after any friendly interaction. It's like a solemn little coda to acknowledge human connection.

Tom's latest question to me is typical. When you meet him, he frequently speaks as though continuing a long rambling conversation you've been having while walking along the street together. He offers advice too. One summer day when I gave him some food he told me: "Cool beverages will cool the blood. Your stomach will be at peace."

Today the topic du jour is winter headgear. "They're called balaclavas," I reply.

"If you find me one," Tom says, "I will repay you."


My upstairs neighbours know Tom. "Once he asked if we could get him a bicycle helmet," my neighbour tells me. "We asked why. Tom said, 'Sometimes I play my flute and people throw things from their windows. So I'd like to have a helmet.'"

The balaclava request is probably inspired by a practical concern as well -- maybe an attempt to hide from music critics. But where to find a balaclava? Eventually I do, at Mark's Work Wearhouse on West 4th. It's an awkward thing to buy -- shouldn't I be fingerprinted and photographed first? "Want to wear it out?" the clerk asks.

"I'll put it on myself," I say. "See you in a minute."

Now I have Tom's Christmas present. But no Tom. His appearances are sporadic, and I am leaving town in a few days. One crisp evening a week before Christmas, I set out to track him down. Down by Lost Lagoon, I bump into a friend. He's seen no one fitting Tom's description, and I head along the path through the underpass, coming up on the Coal Harbour side. Carol ships bob at anchor and, on the seawall path, another holiday sight that seems defiantly local -- a man in a reindeer-studded suit, topped with a reindeer hat. He introduces himself as Arty. He's towing a little trailer, from which he produces a Sarah Palin puppet with a moose on top. "She moosed her hair," Arty explains. He -- that is, Sarah -- sings a little Tea Party song for me. I applaud, and ask if he's seen Tom. "He hangs out at the community centre on Denman a lot," Arty says, "by the ice rink."

No luck at the community centre. Walking down a West End street, I think I hear bells and hustle down to the next corner to look around. No signs of Tom or his cart. And it's Christmas -- bells jingle from decorative displays, from speakers, from cell phones, and the radios of passing cars. This may be the worst time of year to look for Tom. It's like searching for a time bomb in a clock factory. Plus, walking around holding a balaclava is making me self-conscious. I'm trying to stay off busy streets.

I ask our caretaker if she's seen him. She purses her lips -- she does not like Tom. "Someone was letting him into the lobby," she tells me. "And he attacked one of the tenants."

That does not sound like Tom. I get another version from the upstairs neighbour: "Apparently Tom reached out and touched this woman's face. He said, 'It helps me to know you better.' She got frightened. We used to give him money sometimes, you know, but we stopped -- he would often wait for us to come home. Always had these new requests. "

The pre-Christmas days pass. I never do locate Tom. I leave the balaclava with the upstairs neighbours, who promise to hand it over if they see him over the holidays.

By the time I see Tom again, nearly a year has gone by. It is late fall and I am walking along Denman when I spot him by the window of a bike shop. He is looking intently at the welded bicycle frames. "Can you get me a welding torch?" Tom asks as I pass. "I can pay you for it."  [Tyee]

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