Neill Wycik has three elevators but the Covid-19 pandemic makes it near impossible for fifth floor residents to ride them. Social distancing means that only two people can ride together now and the carriage is always full by the time it gets to us. We don’t even try anymore; we just take the stairs without thinking about it now. In consequence, because of the pandemic, the poorly ventilated stairwells are often filled with people huffing and puffing as they climb to and from their apartments.
Amelia covers her face with her mask when we enter the stairwell and I notice how she’s hand-painted a beach scene on the front. Does the paint diminishes its efficacy? Probably. But the art is cute. She’s made the mask’s folds look like 3D waves at the beach and she has added a pink umbrella and it’s really lovely and it’s why I like her, in microcosm.
Pedestrians and evening smokers mingle on the sidewalk in front of Neill Wycik. Almost nobody wears masks when outside, and I pull mine down too so I don’t appear ridiculous. Amelia trails behind and watches me scan the rows of parked cars on Gerrard. There. I see it. A Cadillac Escalade lurks among the other automobiles like a predator. The vehicle resembles a black panther, its chrome grill, a toothy smile. A shiver runs down my spine which is how I always feel when I enter into danger and some part of me shrinks in fear.
“Ames, you have your phone?” I ask.
“Sure,” Amelia retrieves her Samsung Galaxy S-7. An unique design, the camera lens protrudes a little bit on the back.
“You have enough memory for video?”
“Yep,” she presses button and confirms. “Plenty of room.”
“Okay can you please fire it up and keep it on me. I’m going to talk to the guys in the Caddy.”
“What?!” Amelia looks scared for me, ”Why?!"
“Networking.” I say and watch with amusement as her eyes get even wider. “If I don’t come back... You call the police ya?” It’s cruel of me to enjoy her terror. I don’t expect to be abducted and so I act casual. “Give ’em the license plate. Show ’em your video.” Then I wink at her to calm her down.
“...Tell you later.”
I walk to the black Cadillac and Amelia trails behind. The passenger door opens and Blue steps out. He waves at me with a huge smile on his face and I relax in his mirth. I take his hand, but he lets go to open the back door. He struggles to be a gentleman. I look inside at the driver through the open passenger door and I see an aged Trinidadian. I know this because I see the red square with the black diagonal bar that is the Flag of Trinidad on the custom floor mats and on his keychain. Blue’s family is also from Trinidad and so I reckon these two are well connected despite their age difference.
Blue opens the rear passenger door for me and introduces the driver, “Toni dis er is Chantwell. Reespect."
Chantwell is an aged black man with no hair and droopy eyelids and thick meaty jowls. He looks like an old catfish, like that dead US congressman Elijah Cummings, but someone who’s obviously very wealthy. He has black jeans and wears a white cotton shirt with gusset ties at the front. His ears, neck, wrists and fingers are bejeweled with spectacular gem encrusted gold and silver bands.
Blue closes my door and then returns to the front passenger seat. The black leather upholstery smells like fresh-chopped mint. It’s ten degrees cooler in here and the seats feel chilly on my bare lags. Another shiver.
“Supremely trilled to meet you Toni” the aged Trinidadian bows his bald head and rolls his right hand like he’s unfurling a carpet in the air. It’s an odd gesture that I’ve never understood, but when he does it all the gems on his fingers sparkle in the late afternoon sunlight through the windshield.
Chantwell checks me out and then winks at Blue, “das your burd?”
“Nah.” Blue sits in the front passenger seat ahead of me and closes the door. I close my door too but more gently so it doesn’t lock.
Chantwell reaches up and adjusts the rearview mirror. He finds my face and holds my eyes in the glass. “A scandal monger,” he says.
“Hah. I toll ya.” Blue giggles at their inside joke.
“What’s on your mind guys?”
Blue sits cross-legged and faces me with his back to the dash. “Airybody luvs yur vidyo,” he says. I blush.
“Toni, I tink yawa ritechush pro-tector of lib-ertee an justice...” Chantwell says in his thick Trini accent. “But are yah rael? Da ya wanta make a diff-rence? For rael?”
“Yes. My videos showcase the struggle for equality.” I say, “Blue knows.” I blink away any self-doubt and how Darnella Foster would disagree.
“Ten years back,” Chantwell waves his hand around the buildings on Gerrard street. “Crips rrrooll trew ere wit murderous rage. Da Rastas were cappin Somalis back den you know...”
“Oh?” My teeth chatter as I contemplate the history.
“Da police were frus-trrated. Pub lick confadeence been atun all time low. De oldun metuds of police’n wern workin ya see.”
“Are you some kind of watch dog?”
“Aye yeas and doh.” Chantwell produces a leather billfold. He opens it and reveals lots of red and brown paper currency. These are Canadian $50′s and $100 bills and it looks like he’s carrying thousands of dollars. He picks out a white business card and passes it back to me.
His card reads, TCBA - Trinidadian Canadian Business Association. Chantwell Thomas - Chairperson / Afro-Caribbean Council, 1200 Yonge St., PO box 223 Toronto Ontario and a phone number and email address. I tuck it into my back pocket. “How can I help?”
“I need ya whyte gyrl camra.” Chantwell says and Blue giggles like a child but doesn’t interrupt. “I nee yur rightush eyes.” He looks back at me and smiles, “Ihav seen your vidyo and gah ta pondrin wha woul appen if ya knew jus where to look.”
“And you know where I should look?” I’m still trying to determine what he wants. Blue’s giggling is making me nervous. “So you’re giving me a tip?”
“Right here,” Chantwell holds up a page torn from a map book. It’s the same Fodor’s Travel Guide that Marcy’s dad sells in their gas station. Fodor’s Travel Guide to Toronto. It’s Page 7, entitled The Garden District to Regent Park East. Both neighbourhoods are close to Gerrard and Mutual, our present location. In the center of the page there’s a single coffee stain, a brown drop that has been allowed to dry and discolor two small streets.
“Koffee stains yur beat,” the old catfish points at the tiny brown blemish. It's very close to here, less than two blocks away.
“But iss timing. 'tis aul abou da timing,” Blue says softly.
“And what is the best time?”
“Between nine and midnight,” Chantwell states. “Tonight.”
“Oh come on. I can’t just walk around two small streets for three hours. What’s there?”
“I’ll forwr ya hundrah dollars now, and two hunreh more afta yu poss. Tomorrah.” Chantwell pulls out a single hundred dollar bill. Canada’s eighth Prime Minister stares at me, waiting for my decision.
“Why do you care?” I ask, suspicious.
“I pay yu afer you poss. Buh yawal ave to pos all tree hours.”
“Three hours? That’s not enough cash... Sorry.”
“Don yu wanna see whas dere?” Chantwell turns in his seat to face me directly.
My face sours and I shiver no. I look for the door handle. I can see Amelia outside holding her phone in front of her masked face.
“Hookay, ooh kay. I give you two hundre nah and four hundrah later.” Chantwell sits back and smiles at me in the rearview again. He holds up two hundred dollars. Now there are two Sir Robert Bordens staring back at me.
I shake my head no.
“Okay, all give ya tree hundrah now an six hundrah later.”
Now I’m beyond suspicious; I’m nervous. What is his angle?
“Still nah? Whas if yawals ta ave four hundrah nah, an ate undred later. Final offa.”
“Twelve hundred dollars?” I confirm, and he nods. I look at Blue who grins at me encouragingly. “But to get footage of what? Some people? Some houses? Their cars?” I don’t get it. Why? “There’s only ten little shops on Carlyle right there. They’re closed.” I check the coffee stain on the map. “Two tiny little streets?”
“Drummond’s got all dem rael tall town ouses on both sides,” Blue says rather mysteriously and I wonder why that matters.
“Evre ting yu see. Evre one you meet for tree hours, between nine and midnih tonigh. Twill make ya famous.”
“Tonighs a big nigh in da koffee stain.”
“What will I see?” I ask, “why will it make me famous?”
“Tis har ta say.. At furs twall seem purrfeklee normull. Dass why jawa muss pos ur vids so we all ken see. Da ole communitee. Jawal becum our eyes.”
“And you’ll give me another eight hundred dollars? Right?” I ask again to clarify. I want there to be no doubt.
“Yes Toni. Twelve undra. Poss in da morn and I pay first ting. Yawal git paid.”
“But for what though? What do you want to see?”
“Jawall shoot live?”
“Not for three hours.”
“Yawal see wha appens.”
“And why do I have to post it at all?” This is what bothers me. Only the very best of what I shoot ever gets published to my YouTube channel. “Why don’t I just give the chips and Blue can...”
“Noh. Eet mus be publick. Dere mus be a rrecord. Jawall oldem to accoun.”
Hold who to account? I know if I ask again he’ll just repeat the same non-answers. I want the money. But how will I explain to my audience why there’s suddenly a brutally long and boring night video on my channel? Three hours! It’s hard to shoot good videos at night and the idea of making my subscribers suffer through three hours of directionless surveillance footage, squinting under streetlamps and suffering car headlights did not appeal. Of course, low quality uploads could always be deleted later. I could do whatever’s required now, and then remove it after I got paid. The money appealed, that’s for sure. But alarm bells ring in my brain.
“Forgive me Chantwell, but community chair people.. Non profit directors like yourself...” I don’t want to call him a liar, but, “well, they usually don’t drive Cadillacs. I have to wonder if there’s not more to this... Assignment?”
“U’d rather I’s poor?” He stares at me in the rearview, “Aywas born ena shippin contayner and raise ena tiny shed made o ruffle-steel.”
“Corrugated,” Blue adds.
“Aywa claw may way ere trew da U.S.A back in nine-teen eight-ee-eight. I di nay ave no fam-lee ere. I’s a reffugee fleen persecyushun in Port o Spain.” he says.. “Not all watch-dogs, as yu say, are poor. Doh Scoobie-doo bad man poor, such as Blue is ere, nor poor as yu. I’na hav avass munny reserves and minny resoorces dat I kin focuss. Jawa manajezes a trivin londree, a carpeh clean. I care fur builduns and I give back to da commune it ee in sa many way.” His bejeweled ears, wrists and fingers are alive in the sunlight as he gestures and speaks. He’s charismatic to be sure, but my good judgement tells me to stay clear of this opportunity. His overpayment makes me suspicious.
“Why don’t you do it?” I ask, “why not just drive to the coffee stain yourself and watch? Maybe rent a van and sit in the back?”
“Nah. When I go dere nuthin happens.”
“Send Blue. Buy him a camera and...”
“Blue’s da rrong kollor. Snot safe for em.” Chantwell rubs Paul’s light blue hair and the twenty-year old man fights away his hand. “But you know he wants to do it.” The catfish gazes at him and then back at me.
“Hell yah. Fur twelve undred dollas!” Blue says.
“How will I get the other eight?” I ask, “After I post...?” I hear myself asking and wonder why do I even care? Am I even considering doing this?
“A bisicull curyer ya appen ta know’ll bring it by, speshall delivray.” Chantwell looks back at me. “But only after you poss all da footage. All tree hours.” He holds up three fingers.
“Bah... It’ll take me twelve hours to upload three hours on YouTube. That’s a long time..” I ponder the ordeal ahead and still can't believe I'mn even considering it. “It’ll have to be three separate videos... Could do it in six parts.” I think about what’s necessary and how I’ll need my extra batteries and memory cards for my camera. The coffee stain is only two streets, Drummond and Carlyle and they’re tiny. I can picture the nearest intersection; Carleton and Church, but I’ve never been on those side streets. “People will notice me if I hang around for three hours.”
“Non’ll care. White gyrl.”
“Guys. I’m not stupid. There’s some danger here... Something you’re not telling me.”
Chantwell blinks and speaks slowly, his eyes on me in the rearview mirror. “Yuh cannay play mass an fraid powder,” he shakes his bald head with disappointment.
“Toni, dis area safe fo why gyrls,” my blue-haired friend reassures; he calms me although I know it’s not true.
“Yawal nee content.” Chantwell says, ”Tonee Pettee LIVE is ungry. Yawal be appreshee aten me. Whas dere is nitroglisran.”
Decision time. If I really do want to be Charter Rights auditor, then I will need more videos. If my channel is going to succeed, it needs good content. I also need money. Both of them watch me ponder this momentous decision. The only thing holding me back is that I know there’s something they’re not telling me...
I nod yes, reluctantly, and Blue grins. There must be something in this for him to have procured me. I hope he doesn’t expect me to tip him afterwards.
“Toni will do it. She’ll tear it up.” Blue’s eyes are on Chantwell’s leather wallet which overflows with paper currency in large denomination bills.
“Okay. I’ll go there tonight. I’ll post tomorrow and Paul will bring me eight hundred when its up.” I open my hand to receive the four hundred in advance. Some part of me knows this is foolish but I can’t think of any good reason to decline. I’m not breaking the law by accepting this money or by doing the job. There’s no law against standing out on the street for three hours recording whatever I can see; that’s all perfectly legal. I even understand why they cannot do it, and why they need me. They have the wrong skin colour and even though the same laws make it legal for them too, their presence in an upscale neighbourhood would cause a disturbance which would alter the reality they want to record. But what’s the real reason for their surveillance? That’s the only thing I can’t fathom. What is it this old catfish wants to see? And why is it worth so much to him?
Chantwell puts four crisp brown hundred dollar bills in my palm and I instantly feel happier. I want to give this to Yian Dahlo right now, but I can’t because Neill Wycik rental office won’t accept cash payments.
“Know this scandal monger. Doh krross me. I kin be jus as kruel as I am kine.”
“Okay. Good to know.” I pocket the bills and nudge the door open with my shoulder. I step out onto the sidewalk and Amelia comes in for a close-up.
“See ya rown gyrl.” Blue salutes me and makes a funny sound. Chantwell shouts at me from the driver’s seat.
“Good lahck. Muney in da bank,” the old Trinidadian pulls his Cadillac out into traffic. Blue rolls up the window to conserve the frigid atmosphere inside.