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Three Mondays ago, I met a man who made me want to run home and hug my son. A smothery mother hug, the kind that said: Fuck off world: he’s safe with me.
This decent man I just met had me thinking: David vs Goliath and Meek and Mild and Mouse not Man – a bundle of clichés shocking in their sudden relevance. Who’d ever really thought that before? Not me.
And so I hated myself for it. Base, lazy, shallow. Who was I to judge? I was just there to shadow him, to report.
So there was all of that, all that mental hand-wringing, yet how fast I was through my own front door that night, how violent my arms were around my little boy.
This man’s name is Paul. I’ll tell you a bit more about him.
He was on the campaign trail. Not an American kind of campaign, with all its cash and cameras. No. This campaign was running further north, in Toronto, Canada’s biggest city, a gigantic grid of concrete given to ice storms and freezing rain and subtropical humidity.
Paul was running in the local council elections. His desired wedge? A flat and windswept and seriously salted chunk of land they call Etobicoke. Mispronunciation was common with a name like that. Locals corrected such missteps with a certain tacit, pissed off air: It’s E-TOE-BEE-COE, they’d say, like you were hard of hearing. Don’t say it wrong, was the subtext, and don’t you dare underestimate us.
Paul’s words disappeared into a once-white door, liberally chipped and marked. The hallway light shone on a dent in the cheap wood. Foot sized?
There was a movement at the door.
Paul leaned closer. Hello?
What do you want? The door stayed shut.
I stepped away from Paul, lowering my phone though my camera was still rolling.
Paul pressed his face against the wood and spoke at the crack. My name is Paul. I want to talk to you about the upcoming council elections. My platform is rent freeze. We the tenants need to stand up to council and to landlords.
I can’t vote, someone on the other side said. My husband’s not back, come back when my husband’s back.
Etobicoke [E-TOE-BEE-COE]: Home to many and so much more than a collection of front doors propping up the crumbling sprawl of northern Toronto. If you ask a local, they’ll tell you as much. If you don’t ask and just let them speak, they tell you something different. Less pride, more anger.
Paul huddled in toward another closed door. Hello my name is Paul and I’d like to ask you to vote for me.
The door opened a fraction.
I want to talk to you about my platform.
If you can get them to fix all of this great I’ll vote for you.
The door clicked shut.
Paul dropped his pile of pamphlets on the floor in front of the lift. He said something to himself as I reached down to help him gather them up. HIs words floated into the long stench-ridden hallway. He wore his crushed trousers belted tight and too high on his waist. His shirt was creased. Stained on the collar.
He looked around the liftwell and pointed at a hole in the wall. A fist punch surely, but of origin completely unknown.
This is what I mean, he said. We can fix this.
The girl at the Tim Horton’s counter had to get Paul to repeat his coffee order.
Single, cream, he said, craning his neck closer to be heard.
His pamphlet pile was still thick.
You going to try another building? I asked. I already had what I needed on camera.
He nodded and showed no expression.
I wondered, if it was me, how many closed doors I’d survive.
I followed Paul to the next building. Two blocks from the 401, the biggest, widest, stinkiest freeway in all of North America. Home to great industry.
I switched my camera off.
My name’s Paul. Hello? Have you heard about the upcoming elections?
Hello my name’s Paul.
Are you here to fix the heating?
Hello my name’s Paul.
A door opened. Hello my name is P—
I offered Paul some of my sandwich. There was nothing to him. His clothes swam around his limbs.
No thanks, he said. Focused, looking somewhere else. Intent, so intent.
Do you really think you’ll be able to get a rent freeze? I asked him.
If we get the support and the votes, yes.
We stood at the beginning of yet another corridor. At least twenty closed white, once-white doors lay ahead.
With a week till election day, Paul needed more support. He had to inspire.
At the town hall, in front of council-commissioned murals that mixed indigenous with new community art with something modern on cheap red brick, Paul took his place beside the other candidates in the all-candidate debate. Locals sat on foldable plastic chairs, facing them.
When Paul’s turn came, he spoke into a microphone that was switched off.
The following Monday, the votes came in. 120 to Paul. 3,400 to the incumbent, Etobicoke’s equivalent to royalty.
I wondered who those 120 were.
After the election, I googled Paul. Google, click, Facebook, click.
Paul had been arrested. He’d posted about it. He’d been taken away in handcuffs for assaulting a police officer.
Paul denied it in his post. Said he had witnesses.
I wondered who Paul had pissed off.
I waited a few days, then I googled him again.
There he was, on the front webpage of the local paper, protesting by the side of one of those high rise monstrosities no one had ever thought was a good idea, surrounded by four others, a thin crowd, railing against the alleged corruption and the neglect and the leaking toilets.
I studied that scant crowd – his voters maybe?
I marveled at the tenacity of the whisper voice that didn’t seem to need company. Four was the crowd.
There was something noble in the straight line of his back in those photos. He looked louder in the photo than he sounded when he stood with you.
Here was an example, I told myself, if nothing else, of tenacity – the good, worthy part of the human condition. The example you used to show a child. You stand up for your beliefs! you’d tell your child. Even if no one listens.
But there was that other mother in me too, the one hovering lower on the altruistic scale. The real one who took over at 3am or 4am or 5am or while watching the news, the inescapable one, the anxious one, the world-weary type who bit her lips as she pondered what was around that corner, guessed at who was beside the apartment block office just waiting for Paul the annoyance to fuck up, so they could pounce, so they could corner, so they could call the cops to deal with this low-voiced irritation.
I was the mother who had swept through the door with a wild and huge bearhug. The one who now found herself ceaselessly wondering: if that was my son, what would I tell him, in that moment or any other moment, in order to survive?
I am an Australian media producer and writer, freshly returned from two years in Toronto. My production work includes various crew roles on feature films such as Moulin Rouge and The Matrix and tv series for the BBC and Channel4. My writing has been published most recently at MonkeyBicycle, Tiny Essays, XRAY Lit Mag, Tiny Molecules and is forthcoming at Emerge Literary Journal.