I’ll never forget that big oversized Bible. He held it fearlessly in one hand, while he pointed and gestured with the other. He was not on a podium, he was standing across the road under a street lamp. It was after hours about two AM and his congregation, the ones he was castigating, were punkers sitting opposite on the street outside of a downtown bar. The “Sex Pigs” were busy playing there, and the partiers inside were still in a lather, slam dancing in the mosh pit with their shirts ripped off, raving to the punk music and trying not to get booted in the head with Doc Martin’s every time some drunk fool tried to crowd surf.
He was not leaving anything to the imagination, carrying out the edict of a prophet… not comforting the afflicted, but afflicting the comfortable. “You with the earrings and all those piercings. You with the tattoos and the women, the drugs, the crime. Jesus Christ can save you. Tonight is your night of decision…”
And then one of them decided. It was inevitable. He walked across the street to the preacher, and threw the first punch. That was all it took. The entire sector of after-hour partiers descended into mayhem, one big street brawl. What was not worn off in the mosh pit, worked it out with a fist on someone else’s teeth.
I heard sirens. The cops were coming. They had the street closed off from both sides like they were just waiting for something to happen. They descended on the crowd with billy clubs drawn. I ran, forgetting all about my friends inside… Rod the brick layer who was immersing us in punk culture, and Bert and Ernie. Bert and Ernie, despite the name, was only one guy. We never knew his real name. He was only sixteen but no one was asking for ID. He had run away from home and was working as a nail boy for a construction crew. After work he would smoke pot and while away the wee hours of the night skateboarding up and down Yonge Street. Sometimes I accompanied him. We called him Bert and Ernie because his punker cut made him look like the two Muppets from Sesame Street, we just couldn’t decide which one.
Dial ahead about ten years. They say art imitates life. Let’s just say you could psycho-analyze a lot of people by what they draw and paint. I did a big drawing of the epicentre of my own world, Yonge and Dundas. It no longer looks like that, but I tried to throw in all the players. I don’t know exactly what I was depicting, but I guess I was just bouncing off the diversity to be had in such a concentrated hub of activity. It fed you somehow, just watching all the characters in motion. You either were like them, or unlike them, or maybe you were a combination of all melded into one, on the move and constantly changing. Moving to downtown Toronto had somehow also erased the naive kid I once was, and rendered me a more urbane version of myself. Or so I thought.
They say that every painter puts himself at the centre of a painting. Henri Toulouse Lautrec, the midget who depicted the Paris night life of the nineteenth century, used to actually put himself in the background somewhere in his paintings. But art imitates life. You tip your hand without ever intending to.
Unconsciously, in the centre of my drawing midst all the other characters, I put one of those religious quacks, the extreme guy who stands on a podium and preaches just like Saint Paul did at the Areopagus in Athens when he first arrived there. It wouldn’t be most people’s choice in a huge cosmopolitan centre, to stand on a soap box and castigate the crowd, to bring them to repentance for their sins. You would have to be crazy. Just like the guy I was depicting in my drawing. I dismissed him as just another nut job on the scene.
They say what is bred in the bone will out in the flesh, and I suppose that is true. You can immerse yourself in many lifestyles and still end up asking questions. The answers you may arrive at, may be the ones you started with in the beginning.
And so it was that I realized after enough years passed, that the weirdo at the centre of the drawing, calling out the crowd on the kind of life they were living - that was me, finally asking some of the bigger questions.
You get older and wiser. Things change. The mosh pit will not last forever. But it might be most true that the Word of God endures. Especially when those seeds are planted young. The guy in the picture was me, and the person I was calling out, was myself.
That might be the very definition of weird. But like they say, art imitates life. The kids have sometimes asked me, Dad did you ever have an earring? They are looking at the vacant hole on one ear. When they ask me, I just laugh.
And God laughs at me because life imitates art too. I have the picture to prove it.