photo by Bruce Paton

By Stephen Weir The first crime of the day was the sweetest. Black paint spray cans at the ready; Bruce and I had our way with the road sign that had stuck in our craw for years … “Renfrew, a beautiful town to live in, population 9,800.”
It was 1970. We weren’t very literate back then, so we made it short and to the point. “Renfrew a beautiful town to die in, population 9,798.”
Littering was our second misdemeanor that hot dusty August morning. We tossed the evidence – two spent spray cans - into the weed filled ditch just before we threw our knapsacks into the back of the pickup truck that had stopped to give us a ride.
Squeezed into the cab, left knee getting pummeled by the vibrating four-on-the-floor gearshift, Bruce and I once again left town forever. We were too young to understand that hitchhiking through life is an inexact science.
“Windsor. Windsor University,” we both chimed in, when the driver, a T-shirt wearing 20-something guy asked where we going. He seemed much older than us, and, with some weird respect-for-our-elders-thing taking place we told him way too much, way too fast.
“Wait a minute, didn’t I see you losers standin’ out here last month?” he asked, lighting a Player’s Plain with one hand, gearing down with the other and knees upholding the wheel sorta straight. We’d been in the ancient pickup for barely five-minutes, and he was already slowing down to toss us ‘cause we weren’t passing muster.
“Yup. We were on our way to Woodstock. We were half a million strong,” grunted Bruce. “ Trouble was, we found out that when you go to Yasker’s Farm, you need more than a library card to please Uncle Sam’s fascist border guards. We’ve been bored and in town ever since.”
“ ‘Mericans. Hate ‘em. And their fuckin’ war too,” said our now accelerating driver as he spit bits of tobacco out the window. He spat as good as he talked – the back window was covered in brown slime, blow back from an errant aim. “I’ll take you to Kaladar, you should be able to land a ride on 17."
I was all aglow as Renfrew disappeared in the cracked side mirror. Not Bruce. He huddled with his face pressed flat again the right-hand window. For over an hour he squirmed, grabbed his crotch, and moaned softly. He didn’t want to let me, or our Sir Galahad know that he had considerable pain in his “man” area.
I didn’t find out what was wrong ‘till we rolled out of the cab of that rusty Ford flatbed. “Shoulda worn underwear” were the first words out of Bruce’s mouth.
Gotta backtrack here because it turns out the real first crime of the day had been just after breakfast. We’d ambled into the Briscoe IGA (dubbed the I Give Ass store) to buy a day’s worth of thumbing supplies. I paid for two cokes, a bunch of Crispy Crunch chocolate bars and a deck of smelly Gitanes.
Meanwhile unbeknownst to me, Bruce was in the meat section stuffing two frozen steaks and a pound of ground down his pants. He brazenly walked out of the IGA with his frayed jeans bulging, rightly figuring that Renfrew’s only two hippies wouldn’t merit a look in THAT region from the God-fearing church-going checkout girl.
We’d been walking alongside Hwy 17 for an hour, our thumbs aching, our stomachs grumbling, and Bruce in dire pain when we committed Crime Number 4. It was a berry bad transgression indeed.
You see Kaladar is blueberry country, every home along this stretch of the Trans Canada has a purple stand at the end of the driveway where the day’s pickings are sold. One trustworthy soul had left her stall unattended, there was a sign asking customers to leave $2 on a plate for each basket purchased.
We took two boxes, one of which went immediately down George’s pants – a 60’s back-to-nature approach to freezer burn. We also took six two-dollar bills and a coupla knuckle full of nickels.
Basking in the afterglow that comes from a successful theft, we musta exuded an angelic aura that drivers couldn’t resist. We had a succession of rides from Kaladar to Toronto to a 401 rest stop near Tilbury town.
I guess social crime don’t count. Besides, the only tiny sin we committed on that stretch of our adventure was purely by accident. Exiting a long, low limited edition LTD I couldn’t help but notice a big blue stain on the white upholstered backseat where Bruce had been sprawled out on.
Crime Number 5 wasn’t my fault. I swear it. Hanging out in the washroom of the 1867 Restaurant on 401, we meet a short little guy with hair longer that Jesus. He sported a crushed velvet blue tuxedo, had a garland of flowers around his neck and was barefoot. Never met the James Gang or been to Burma, but I guessed he was Joe Walsh and he smelled like he’d been married in a Fu Manchu opium den.
“ ‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” he yelled, as he did a pirouette behind a line of occupied urinals. “I got married today. I am the happiest man on this mortal coil.”
“Congratulations. Have a Crispy Crunch and some blubes,” I said, sticking out a bar and box of berries. We bonded. I told him our story and our pressing need for a ride to Windsor.
He took us out to the parking lot to meet “Still Waters” his new partner for life, or maybe just this week. She was sitting cross-legged in the back of a flower covered Volkswagen van, singing softly to a tune none of us could hear.
Still Waters and her husband were real hitchhikers. They had been hitched in the morning and wandered out to the 401 to begin their honeymoon on the cheap. Sticking out their thumbs, they had decided to hike wherever kind people wanted to take them.
As Bruce slid the Volk’s side door shut and my eyes got accustomed to the gloom, I decided that “kind” was not an apt description for who else was in that van.
The young couple, so blissed out on each other, had missed telling us that Che Guevara was at the wheel, and Josef Stalin was riding shotgun. They also skipped over those two guys who blasted Peter Fonda at the end of Easy Rider, and were now in the back with us, still carrying their guns as they sat guard over a pound of dope.
As the van headed onto the 401 one of the gunmen glared at us and said, “Time you got wasted”. It was said like a bored judge delivering, yet again, a ten-year sentence to a habitual criminal.
But we didn’t have to imbibe. The air was so filled with narcotic laced smoke that just the simple act of breathing was enough to render even Cheech and Chong unconscious. Bruce and I stared, red eyed at each other. Still Waters sang about free love, the other pair talked about loving to kill somebody. Today.
I am sure it was a crime simply to look at that van. He and I musta broke a dozen other heavy-duty laws just sitting in there. Bruce was writing his will on the back of the Gitanes pack. I figured the Supreme Being was punishing me for Crimes 1 through 5.
I now know there is power in prayer; at least for me. Even though the sky was devoid of clouds, there was a crash; a blaze of light beamed down at us from the heavens above. The Doors had been on the 8-track but suddenly the music was indeed over. Bang. Crash. Kaboom. The van was on its side at the edge of an Essex Township cornfield.
We climbed up through the sliding door. There were drugs, bodies, and guns below us. I helped Still Waters and her soulmate out. Bruce decided to let the other sleeping dogs lie.
On solid ground Still Waters and her husband hugged each other and yelled “Far Out”. They kissed. They danced. It was an Electric Ladyland moment!
Yes indeed. We had been hit by lighting. The door handle was a fused hunk of smoking metal. There was a zigzag burn marking the height of the van. I thanked God and said I was reformed and reborn. My pal told me to shut up and dragged me into the cornfield.
“Either those guys are going to wake up and blame us for having magnetic personalities or the cops will arrive and find the drugs’n’guns or both. Trust me, we don’t want to be here.”
He was right. We staggered through the corn crop, worried about police and the Mafia. Together we walked to Windsor. It took all night.
We reached downtown just as the welfare office opened; Bruce talked me through what to say to get an emergency cheque (or two). We got an apartment on Sandwich St. with the funds -- fittingly it was in a converted women’s jail -- the Chateau Blanc.
Those first few days were without furniture. Bruce fixed that. I don’t know how, I just hope he wore long johns as he liberated chairs, a table, two desks, a coffee machine, dishes, and more steak from Vanier, all during Frosh Week.
It wasn’t working out, he was always mad at me for taking that vow of crime celibacy and making him carry all the freight. I refused to help with Crime Number 6 - the decoration of our apartment and fridge. I didn’t take part but I ate his steak, at his table, sitting in his chair, so I figured I was in a gray area when it came to my promise on the Great Mandala.
One morning I got up and Bruce was gone. So was most of the furniture and all my beer. He had learned his lesson and left the frozen meat in the freezer.
No note. No good-bye. No regrets. I didn’t see him ever again. But, Renfrew, like most Ontario towns, is, a state-of-mind. Parents and chance encounters with casual acquaintances kept me in the loop.
A few years later Bruce resurfaced in Ottawa. He picked up (literally?) a Pentax camera and became a photographer. In the beginning his pictures were unmarketable. I suspect that a lot more five fingered discounting was required to keep steak on the table.
He went to Africa and was one of the first white photographers to record the start of what has become the planet’s worst nightmare. Upon his return his photographs toured the continent. They helped, albeit lightly, to awaken the world’s conscious to the looming AIDS crisis.
It awoke his own conscious. He began to drink, maybe to forget what he had photographed, or what he’d done or shoulda done with his life.
It was only a coupla years ago that he committed Crime Number 7. He broke our carved-in-stone promise and did what we both vowed never to do. He went home to Renfrew.
Then he drank. And drank. And drank some more. He fell down. Often. One day he didn’t get up. End of story. We had written his fate thirty years before with Crime Number 1 – Renfrew a Beautiful Town to Die In. 


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