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Saturday, 7 January 2012



I was headed downtown one morning on one of those brilliant winter days when the city was like a polished gem. It was mid-January and we were rebounding from a thaw. Only yesterday the streets and sidewalks had been overflowing with slush but overnight an Arctic front had moved in on the heels of a snowstorm that left the city glittering under a thin layer of snow. Underneath here and there, lurked treacherous patches of ice.

I was well bundled up against the brain-buckling, nostril-pinching cold. Tiny icicles had formed on my nose hairs and the few tendrils poking out of my woolen hat. I had just turned onto Milton Street at the corner of Park Avenue, in the neighbourhood known as the McGill Ghetto. It was my usual route downtown, but due to the sub-zero temperature, very few people seemed to be out walking it with me. Only a lone, speed-walking Chinese man in a short red jacket overtook me at the corner of Milton and Hutchison. Arms and legs pumping briskly, soon he was half a block ahead, hugging the brick wall of a three-storey building that backed on an alley. As he crossed the entrance to the alley, he seemed to encounter an invisible force that yanked his feet out from under him. Before my very eyes, the red jacketed figure flipped into the air and made a spectacular somersaulting fall, the sort of thing you see in televised ski-jump competitions. Landing sideways, he rebounded like a pro. I caught up with him at the next traffic light as he was brushing snow from his sleeve. I asked him if he was okay and when he nodded I smiled, waved a mitten-covered hand, and continued on my way.

All day I retained that image of the red jacketed man, and the gravity-defying way he seemed to lose contact with the earth as he cartwheeled in space. Witnessing his casual feat lifted my spirits and reminded me that daily life and its gravity are illusions, behind which lies a vast universe of strange possibilities. I felt that Chinese man understood those secret laws, which was why he was able to turn an ordinary spill on a slippery sidewalk into a tango with the cosmos.
The next day, I woke up in my draughty apartment and went out to buy bread. It was the second day of Arctic weather, with temperatures in the minus twenties. At the bakery as I waited to pay, I glanced at the front page of the Gazette. There on page one was a full-colour photo of the red-jacketed Chinese man executing his amazing leap on a patch of black ice on Milton Street the day before. Exactly the same man, same location, same impromptu flip I had witnessed yesterday.

I leaned closer to stare at the picture. How was this possible? Who had taken the photo? There had been no one on the street apart from the Chinese man and me. How could his tumble on black ice, which had happened in the blink of an eye, be appearing on the front page of the paper?
It made no sense that yesterday's private epiphany would become today's headlines.

Different scenarios flashed through my mind. Had the Chinese man and a photographer teamed up to engineer this shot, which I just happened to witness? My next theory: some visiting acrobatic team was roaming around in red jackets, slipping on ice patches, and I had happened across a photo-op. But no -- I was sure the Chinese man had come, like me, out of nowhere.The Chinese man and I were unique, innocent pedestrians out on one of the coldest days of the year, when he somehow slipped into the cross-hairs of a camera lens.

I leaned down and read the caption, and the magic faded: Gazette photographer assigned to photograph weather conditions, stations himself in an alley near McGill, a few steps from a dangerous ice patch, and waits for unwitting passersby to slip on it. The most remarkable fall of the day is the one that makes it to the front page. Nothing strange about that. No point phoning my story in to the talk shows. 

It was like seeing a photo of myself on Page One. Although I was not in the picture, I was subtly a part of it. I was the invisible factor, a few meters outside the frame, viewing it from the rear, silently applauding that unique event in physics when the Chinese man’s feet left the sidewalk, and his body twirled like a boomerang before hitting the pavement and rebounding upward again, with the elegance of something planned in the stars but choreographed on earth.

It was now my turn in line at the bakery. As I stepped up to the counter, I kept glancing down at the newsstand. In a city of two million people, only I had seen that Chinese man’s fall, which today was front page news. I felt all alone in an absurd universe. This moment demanded some special gesture. So, in defiance of my policy of never buying the Gazette, I reached for one and laid it on the counter beside my loaf of bread, carton of milk, almond croissant. As I fumbled for change,
I started to tell the cashier how I had personally witnessed today's lead news item but the story died on my lips, its meaning lost on this girl with her dark eye makeup and heavy curls who rang up the bill which came to $5.40. All I had on me was a $5. 

It was the newspaper or the croissant. I decided I’d rather eat it than savour this coincidence. Feeling lighter without the hated Gazette, I exited the bakery and got hit in the face with a blast of icy wind.

On the frost-bitten street that morning, there was no one around to talk to about the feeling that engulfed me. I seemed to spend my whole life just out of the picture, a spectator of strange events that I could do nothing to change. Who cared if I was looming presence behind the front page photo?  Only I, the Invisible Witnessing Woman, knew the whole truth. I felt a ticklish urge to talk about all this to someone who would understand. Maybe I needed therapy. Maybe there was something really weird about me after all.

In deserted Parc du Portugal, not even a frozen pigeon crossed my path as I strolled by Leonard Cohen’s house, reminding myself again that I dwelt next door to fame. I looked up and noticed the curtains in the second floor window were slightly ajar -- a sign that could only mean he was back in town.

Maybe I could tell my story to him…


I turned the corner onto St. Dominique Street and unlocked the door to my ground floor flat. In the kitchen I made myself a coffee and drank it thoughtfully. I waited till 10 am to pick up the phone and dial his number. It rang twice before he answered.

“Hi Leonard.”

“I’m busy now,” he said. “I’m in a meeting.”

“Okay,” I said. “Never mind. It's not important. Welcome back.”

So much for that silly idea. I went back to my computer but found it hard to concentrate. Was there no one with whom I could share my story?

I called up my friend Louise, a professional Tarot reader, chronically unemployed, always ready to chat for hours. I asked her if she had a copy of the Gazette on hand. I knew she often bought it for the job classifieds and the astrology column. I told her to have a look at the photo on the front page. I had just started to tell her the story of yesterday’s fateful walk, when my front door suddenly flew open with a bang and another freezing gust hit me between the shoulder blades.

There in our shared entrance stood my upstairs neighbour, Rosalie, 85 years old, permanently bent into the shape of a bicycle wrench from all the field work she had done through two world wars in Poland. Bundled up in her winter clothing, head covered with a ragged shawl, she was clutching five grocery bags in her naked, frozen fingers.

"Bonjour, Madame!" she greeted me, fumbling with her keys. My own front door must not have been properly shut, causing it to blow open when she came in from the street.

I asked Louise to stay on the line while I helped my elderly neighbour carry her groceries up to her place on the second floor. This only took half a minute, a small ritual I liked to perform. I grabbed her grocery bags and climbed the stairs. Reaching the top I suddenly heard my own door downstairs slam shut. Rosalie stood at the bottom of her flight of stairs, grinning up at me like Frosty the Snowman.

"Rosalie, you shouldn't have done that. I don't have my key!"

She was pointing at my door which she had closed to seal in the heat. She nodded, smiled as the reality dawned on her slowly. 

"Pas clef, Madame?"

“Pas de clef, Rosalie.” 

"Ohhhhh, Madame! Pas bon! Pas bon!" 

"Non, pas bon du tout, Rosalie."

My keys were beside the computer, safely locked in my apartment now. Once I helped her up the stairs and deposited the shopping bags on her kitchen table, I would have to find a neighbour and some tools to break back in. Outside in the shivering air I went from door to door. Dressed in only jeans and a sweater, I knocked on one door after another. I crossed the street and knocked on more doors. No one was home. I had nearly run out of neighbours’ doors to knock on. 

Leonard had the kind of doorbell that makes a noise like a bicycle bell when you twist the metal knob. I waited, shivering, until I heard footsteps. There stood Hazel, who normally lived in the building next door. Now I understood why she hadn't answered when I rang her bell a moment ago, as she looked me up and down and I explained that Rosalie had locked me out of my place and none of the neighbours were home.
I could see she felt like slamming the door in my face, but that would have shattered the unwritten Code of the North by which we all lived. So I slid into the entrance and came quickly to the point.“I need to borrow a screwdriver."
She stepped back and looked down the hall to the kitchen where Leonard was sitting at the kitchen table with his 14-year-old daughter Lorca and two of her friends. “What is it?” he called.

I stood in the hallway awkwardly trying to think of something to say.

"Could I use your phone for a second?"
Next to the telephone lay a copy of today’s Gazette, with the Chinese man still somersaulting in the air on Milton Street yesterday. I had suddenly remembered Louise was still on the line, expecting me to come back and pick up my story where I had left off.

Phoning my friend back seemed like the normal, polite thing to do, and would demonstrate that I was telling the truth, which was that these events were purely accidental and I was an innocent bystander at a series of unlikely mishaps that started yesterday when I walked over to McGill. I dialled her number by heart. Luckily she had call waiting, because she was still on the line.

"Hello?” she answered, surprised. “Oh, it’s you!” She had been sitting there all this time, patiently wondering why I was taking so long. “I thought you must be unpacking all her groceries and putting them away in the cupboards or something."

I spoke clearly just so Leonard and Hazel would hear the breathless sincerity in my voice: "My neighbour is a bit forgetful and locked me out of my place by mistake. Now I'm next door trying to get back in."

"Next door, you mean, at Leonard Cohen's?" She spoke in a thrilled whisper.

Leonard had got up from the table and was next to the phone, listening in. "I can’t really talk right now. Let me call you back in a few minutes."

"Okay, I'll be waiting. Bye!"

Leonard was looking inscrutable so I showed him the photo of the red-jacketed man.

You wouldn't believe what a weird day I’m having. Getting locked out is only the second bizarre thing that's happened." I jabbed a finger at the photo. “Yesterday I was on Milton Street when this Chinese man suddenly flew up in the air and landed on the sidewalk right in front of me, and today he’s on the front page of the Gazette! What do you think of that?"

It was never fun to be on the receiving end of one of Leonard’s blank stares. Now i was slipping on black ice. My story sounded like an absurd alibi pulled out of thin air so I could come over and crash his private meeting.

In the kitchen, the three teenage girls were whispering and giggling as Hazel bustled in, armed with a screwdriver. Taking charge, she told me the easiest access to my apartment was from the back, not the front as I had supposed. Leonard pulled an old brown overcoat from one of the closets and draped it over my shoulders. I slipped my arms into the sleeves and followed Hazel out the back door and around through the alley where we scrambled up a snowdrift and over the frost fence.

We were knee deep in the snow of my back yard, thrashing a path to my back entrance. I watched in mild alarm as Hazel handled the screwdriver and jimmied my bathroom window open in no time. "Have you been doing B and E’s all your life!" She just laughed ironically, as if it was normal for the woman next door to possess the skill-set of the professional burglar.

Before squeezing through the gap, I handed her the famous overcoat. Wouldn't want to rip it. I unlocked the kitchen door and let her in so she wouldn't have to climb over my fence again to get back to Leonard's.

"Thanks again! Thanks so much!"  My voice trailed off in the empty flat where I slouched on my futon, lost in thought. I remembered the summer before, when my place had been broken into, my laptop stolen. The thieves had come in through that same bathroom window. Strange that Hazel knew, almost better than I, that this was the easiest way of forcing entry...

I was back in my cold apartment, just as if none of this had happened. Then I remembered Louise was still anxiously waiting for my call.