A writer writes. A novel, a poem, a song, even a newspaper column,
is an attempt to share with the reader a part of the writer's experience
or imagination. The ones I like best have the courage to open wide their
hearts, to be generous, and fearless and funny, and clever.
The good ones are allergic to trite expression and pompous posturing.
Craftsmanship, integrity, simplicity and vision carry the good writer
along the precarious road that winds through the truth and shadow.
At worst, the writer hopes the reader will be entertained.
That sounds almost archaic in an age of home-theater, virtual-reality,
surround-sound, multi-media, non-participatory bombardment of the senses.
But a "good read" is still entertainment for a lot of folk.
So... Enter you, my quite wonderful Taxi News readers. Our monthly
visits in these pages have come to mean much more to me than I first
envisioned. And tonight, as I sit down to remember the last days of
my best friend Syd, I realize it's with you, my loyal friends, with
whom I'd like to spend this time of reminiscence.
You, the drivers who wave to me as you drive by, while I'm busking
in Kew Beach. You, the cabbies who stop, and roll down a window and
yell, "Hey Hack, I don't get it either!!" after I've just
written a column titled, "I Don't Get It." There's the guy
in the bar who slaps my back and loudly growls, "Don't ever kill
off Fat Phil! He's my favorite. Don't you ever kill him off!" Or
the drivers who race to the rescue and surround a house when it suddenly
appears that my young son Ben has been abducted.
There's the older cabby's immigrant wife, who hugs me, and in a heavy
accent says, "Thank you. I learn to read English from your column.
It makes it fun because you make me laugh!"
You're the drivers who ask about my son, or my Mom, or the Beautiful
Mary T. while we're driving, and, then, put a hand over the meter when
I try to pay. "Race Track Hack doesn't pay in my cab!" insists
a stern voice from the front seat, from a driver who probably hasn't
made enough yet to pay for the car, let alone actually make a little
I'm very lucky to have this chance to visit with you every month.
So, I trust you'll not mind if I pour a Jack Daniels, light up a Players,
and sit down with you to share a few last stories about my best friend
Syd, the orange street cat who adopted me nearly 20 years ago in Cabbagetown.
Some of you may remember a March 1995 Taxi News column titled,
"Top Cat." It was about Syd, a cat I then described as having,
"a steely-eyed Clint Eastwood gaze, and a John Wayne swagger."
Syd was the "boss" of all the Cabbagetown street cats back
then. I lived in an apartment above the Parkway Tavern circa 1978 on.
Syd lived across the road in a semi-abandoned apartment, with no heat,
first with punk rockers (who named him after Syd Vicious) and afterwards,
with one Randall McCorriston, and his large unmanageable friend Tall
Tom (a giant earthquake of a man immersed in bourbon, and a love of
literature, larceny and crash landings, who co-incidentally bears some
odd resemblance to the editor of this publication).
Syd moved in with me due to the precarious nature of the food chain
at his previous residence.
Not only were these guys usually too broke to buy cat food, but once
Syd snuck next door and ate Arnold, the neighbors' goldfish, he surmised
that any rules about who could eat who, had pretty well gone out the
So Syd joined me, at a time when the world was crazy, and wild and
full of possibilities.
Music, and all night parties, friends coming and going - Syd shared
this life with me. He was a fixed point, like the Northern star in my
He always slept with me. Therefore, he slept with many fine and lovely
strangers. I welcomed their company and comfort, but they always fell
in love with Syd instead.
Then, before I could blink, there was only one bed mate for Syd and
I. And, soon, there was a child. And Syd became the young boy's guardian
angel. As we moved from place to place, Syd learned new sights and sounds
and pathways back home to his family.
He got a raging fever, and almost died from a battle wound, he fell
out a second story window on to concrete, he survived abscessed teeth
and operations, and all life's indignities and ironies - and still the
world's loudest and most unusual purr never ceased to be there when
I needed a friend. He sat beside me through the tears of lost loves,
and lost lives, and diminishing possibilities.
Stoic, and strong and wise, I looked into his eyes and saw the history
of the universe.
He was the oldest soul I've ever met.
In these last 6 months my best friend fell off the end of the bed,
and lay limp, as if dead. I cradled him in my arms sobbing. I asked
him what happened, and a soft telepathic voice answered me, "We
For two weeks I slept in a chair beside a cat bed I made up for him
by the radiator. When he lifted his head, I'd put food and water under
it, and he'd have a lick.
Then, one glorious day I awoke, and the old warrior, looking 10 years
younger, stood at my feet saying, "Well, what do you want to do
For a couple of months he was young again, and I had a chance to pamper
him, and love him, and enjoy his wonderful company.
Then, there was a new problem. It required a surgical procedure under
general anesthetic. Odds of survival for a 20-some year-old cat - roughly
the same as the Leafs winning the cup.
I took him to the best vet I know, in Mount Albert. The Beautiful Mary
T. drove me up. There, we added yet another page to the "Legend
"Norm," said Dr. Willett, "I'd like you to meet Dr.
Winnmill from Chicago - he's a small animal specialist."
Mary T. and I looked at each other and said in unison, "They flew
in a specialist from Chicago for Syd."
Actually, it was a coincidental visit, but Dr. Winnmill did sit in
on the surgery.
At 11:30 p.m. that night, the phone rang. It was the vet. "This
is one tough old bugger!" said the Doctor's voice. "He's up
in his cage yelling at me to phone you to come and take him home!"
And at this point, I come back to you, my extended Taxi News
Family. I had no ride home for Syd. I was in a cab the next day delivering
my column copy to the publisher, and the driver and I were chatting.
When she heard of Syd's need for conveyance, she said, "I'll drive
I couldn't believe her kindness. I told her I'd checked and it was
a $75 quote each way, and I didn't have the money. She insisted she'd
call the next day, and if I had not found a ride, it was a done deal.
"I feel like I know Syd," she said. "I read your column."
Although I found another ride, I talked to her again, and thanked her
for her quite astonishing kindness. But, then, I should know by now,
that magic often happened when Syd was involved.
His last months were bittersweet. We spent many an evening sitting
out on the front porch, smoking at twilight. Talking in silence. Two
old friends not wanting to say goodbye.
But as he got weaker, and things started shutting down, I promised
him that he lived with such dignity, and grace, and I would make sure
he would not lose that at the end.
So, as we sat on the porch one last time, the veterinarian's car pulled
up in the drive.
Syd was in my arms purring, as first the sedative took effect, and
then the second lethal injection was administered
he never stopped
purring! The vet looked puzzled, as he listened with his stethoscope,
but there was still a last purr.
The next day, as I was busking, a bug landed on my guitar. I was playing
Syd's cat song for some very young children.
I was startled by the strange insect, the like of which I'd never seen
before, nor will likely see again. It was like a huge mosquito, and
it was orange in color, same shade as Syd. I looked closer, and was
amazed to see the orange part was furry!
It stared intently at me, as I played the cat song. A wind blew up
out of nowhere, knocking the guitar case over, and sending my hat flying
off, but the bug held on to the guitar face for dear life.
When I finished, it let me pat it with my baby finger, over and over.
Then, when we both felt it was the right moment, it flew away...
P.S. Thanks for listening.