I spent the morning checking out some of my favorite spots: Place Des Arts, Phillips Square, Bishop Ave., Campus of McGill and Atwater metro station, each one bringing back sweet and sometimes sad memories. After lunch at Pasha, I called a friend to get together for coffee and rehash even more memories. Somewhere between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, I made my way to the sidewalk in front of this large hotel across from my room to wait for her to pick me up.
The winter wind that must start somewhere near the North Pole and often flies straight into the streets of Montreal, unobstructed and direct, had already started its annual visit to the city and the weak afternoon sun was no match for the cold air. I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck, tucking the ends under my overcoat and prepared for my friend to be unfashionably late. Iranians are always late.
I remember somewhere on an overseas flight reading an article about how to conduct business internationally and under Iran it said if you have a meeting with an executive or upper manager personnel and they show up on time, you can be sure he/she is not that important and is definitely not the decision maker. How sad, our secret is out for the world to know. I digressed.
As I’m waiting and watching the street for her familiar car, I notice somebody approaching from right. He gets my attention as he is talking to himself, sometimes quietly and then suddenly very loud. He is clothed in what you’d recognize as typical attire for a street or homeless person, or whatever the current PC term is. Old stained coat, several scarves, pants that haven’t been washed in a while and worn dirty shoes. He is probably in his late thirties or early forties, but looks many years older.
I try not to stare and look the other way, aimlessly searching for her car again without much success. Suddenly I feel the homeless man standing very close to me. As I turn my face, the man (I later find his name is “Bob”) has stopped beside me and with a calm but deliberate voice says “Pepsi or Coke?” Without waiting for a reply, he continues to walk away.
I’m puzzled and a bit taken back. Before I get a chance to process what just happened, I see him turn around and again as he walks slowly by me, he turns ever so subtly saying “Pepsi or Coke?”, then walks away again. This was repeated twice more with Bob asking the same question then walking away chatting with himself, as if he was replying to his own query.
Curiosity was killing me and despite knowing what had happened to the cat, I decided that I needed to find out more. So, the next time Bob turned around and got near me, I stepped forward almost blocking his path.
Bob stopped, looked up into my eyes and said “Pepsi or Coke?” As I asked what he meant, Bob found someone who’d listen to his story and we spent the next half hour or so chatting away. Well, in reality it was more like he talked and I occasionally mumbled a noise in agreement or even amazement, then he continued his stories unfazed by my interruptions.
It turns out Bob was an American and an ex-professor from a respected east coast university. He had “snapped” at some point, spending time in a hospital and then exiled by the community to the streets. Bob wasn’t sure how he had ended up in Montreal, just that he had come on a train hitching rides all over the continent as a Hobo . But he had enjoyed Canada and stayed for the past few years. He was articulate and had a large vocabulary. Yet he had difficulty concentrating on a topic and would often wonder off branching into other subjects and issues. It took him going through 15 other topics before he could tell me about his question.
I find out that without realizing it, I was standing right under a gigantic U.S. flag flying in front of the hotel along with about 10 or 12 other flags. Bob’s question wasn’t really for me; he would ask the same question whenever he came across the Star – Spangled Banner. He had probably done it for years and for all I know is still doing it someplace.
“Pepsi or Coke?” was in reality his statement about the state of democracy in his homeland. Bob believed the only political choices left for Americans are like choosing between Coke and Pepsi. Both look the same, similar color and general feel, some subtle differences in taste and ingredients, but essentially the same. He’d say “but what if I’d want a cold beer, ginger ale or even a glass of water? Nope, sorry, not available!”
“Coke or Pepsi, Democrat or Republican, what’s the difference? Really, what’s the difference?” he said. Of course he would then wonder off, talking about the environment, the economy or corruption of the justice system, but he’d end up asking the same question; “Pepsi or Coke?”
The sound of my friend’s automobile horn interrupted our conversation. I look over and she is half way out of her car, waving her arms and trying to get my attention. I guess she had arrived several minutes earlier and was tired of waiting while I chatted with “some bum”. I look back and Bob had already left, walking fast several feet away, once again chatting with himself. He entered and left my life the same way; inconspicuous, understated and very quietly. However, looking back at something so brief and so long ago, he obviously left an impression.
As I read the statements by some of the Democratic Party’s presidential hopefuls, I thought about the amount of money pledged already to George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign, the mess surrounding the 2000 “election”, and the many different hurdles that make it impossible for any credible third or fourth party candidates to seriously challenge any elected office. I thought about the good-old-boys network of who you know versus what you stand for and the biased and controlled media needed to get any message out to the average voter.
Then I couldn’t help but think of Bob and wonder if there are any real choices left in America. Real choices besides Pepsi or Coke, besides Democrats or Republicans, besides bad and worse.
Next time a server asks if you’d like anything to drink, think of Bob and order ginger ale, anything but Pepsi or Coke. And be assured, as promised by fellow Canadian Leonard Cohen, Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.