What makes someone a “character?” Is it the green hair? The fact that he or she is always the loudest one in the room? I don’t think so. In fact, the more someone conspicuously tries to be a character the less interested I am in that person as a character.
But I love those naturally occurring characters we see all around us if we take the time to look. The distinguishing factor may be very subtle, or it may be quite obvious, but whatever it is, it doesn’t have a patent and it’s not part of the person’s brand. It’s just good old fashioned quirkiness.
Here are a few such characters lifted from the living novel that is my life:
S- was a guy I worked with a long time ago, when I was a tech writer at a very cool company (check my CV and see if you can guess). He was an intern and I was his professional mentor (read: boss). S- was a cool cat in every respect – very laid back, well read, easy-going, and intellectual in a “street” kind of way. Very Jack Kerouac, minus the Jack Kerouac poseur pretensions.
He was a non-conformist, but not in a card-carrying annoying way. In other words he didn’t brand himself as a non-conformist, he just questioned things – almost everything – and if he didn’t like the answers he came up with then he didn’t buy into whatever it was that had fallen under his scrutiny.
One of the things he questioned was his need for a corporate job. He couldn’t come up with a satisfactory answer so he quit the program he was in at university and decided to try living hand-to-mouth for a while. He also wanted to travel, so he packed his dog into his beater of a car drove west. When the car broke down somewhere in Manitoba he abandoned it and stuck out his thumb. By the time he got back to Montreal several months later he was grizzled and worn but happy and full of stories about sleeping under trees, gnarly truck drivers, and hob-nobbing with the severely unwashed.
Over the next few years he took to bicycle couriering, as it afforded him some ready cash without any serious commitments along with work experience that is very portable. He bounced back and forth between the west coast and here for a few years, couriering in Montreal during the summer and in Vancouver or Victoria over the winter.
I haven’t seen him for a few years now, as I haven’t worked downtown since mid-2008. One of the last times I saw him was on rue McGill-College, just below Ste-Catherine, where he was taking a coffee break. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, so we chatted for a bit to catch up. Then I noticed that he was standing in front of a Cafe Depot while drinking a coffee from a Tim Horton’s cup – and not a paper one; a ceramic Tim Horton’s cup (the nearest Tim Horton’s is several blocks away). He seemed oblivious to this when I pointed it out, but to me that was a classic S- moment. Just a bit out of place, a tad discordant, but fully owning it even if he wasn’t even aware of it.
O- is a software engineer from one of those former Soviet republics that is always on the edge of some kind of revolution or civil war. He’s been living in Quebec for many years, but his English, French, and Russian are still spiked with a strong accent from his native ethnic language. He’s loud and humourous and assertive, and you’ll never lose him in a parking lot. But that alone doesn’t make him a character.
To look at him – especially when he’s wearing his black watchman’s cap and aviator sunglasses – your first thought is either “KGB strong-arm” or “Eastern-bloc mafia gun runner.” Yet, he’s funny and has a loud but gentle demeanor. He seems fierce enough to bite your face off if he wanted to but I’ve never seen him behave in an even remotely aggressive manner. When we’ve been in bars or restaurants together he treats the staff – particularly the female ones – with respect and a kind of old world chivalry. One of his favorite pass-times is salsa dancing. He drives a Smart car.
One day at the office I went into the men’s room to take a whiz. After I peed I went over to wash my hands and I saw him standing at a sink, in the middle of the afternoon, shaving. The best part was that despite the mounds of shaving cream on his face and the Mach III razor in his right hand, he was happily blabbing away on the mobile phone that he held in his left. That was a classic O- moment, and I’m not talking about Oprah.
Those are just a couple of the oddball characters that have made an appearance so far. I hope there are plenty of chapters left, because there is no shortage of people to fill them.