Mercedes sent me an article this week, about that famous inside-the-box building set, Lego. It seems that the ubiquitous toy maker has added a few non-linear blocks to the line up. Ladyfigs is their new series of femme figures – pretty things pressure-molded in complimentary colours (the pink-skinned lass gets blond hair with Paris Hilton bangs, the mocha-skinned one has tresses brown and wavy), and with all the right gender cues. Tight tops, tiny waists, and short skirts, it’s all there – just the way we Lego boys like them. One even has boobs. Which makes me wonder what my life would have been if that big box of plastic rectangles under my bed had sprouted a day spa instead of a life-sized Thompson machine gun.
But apparently I’m not the only weirdo who overthinks these things. Since the lovely polymer ladies strolled onto toy store shelves this year, they have attracted the sort of criticism usually reserved for Playboy magazine. Promoting gender stereotypes, limiting creativity, and forcing young girls to focus on appearance and the obsession of thinness are only a few of the complaints. I guess it’s that old ‘girls who play with Barbies end up with plastic boobies’ school of thought. And who know? Maybe one day they will find a correlation between those who played cops and robbers and those who vote Conservative. But I also know that the best thing about being human is our ability to decide for ourselves – no matter what Lady Gaga says. A great example of that was a con I knew named Kenny.
The first time I met Kenny was in Millhaven maximum security. He was like one of those stray dogs that are always hanging around your car after work – mangy and needy. But there was something about this one that grew on me. It could have been the way his tongue hung out like an overheated Labrador Retriever, or even the twenty inches of red clay afro that exploded vertically from his skull – like an electrical accident. Then again, it was probably the way that his lay-down-and-die eyes found a new reason to get up every time I came around. How do you kick a stray dog whose raison d’etre is that you just might throw him a bone?
And one day I did. It was more of an accident than anything. I was walking the big yard, when my Walkman batteries breathed their last. Kenny happened to be sitting there alone, on a half-flat soccer ball as weathered as he was.
“C’mon let’s do some laps,” I said. You would think that Madonna had just walked into in a Malawian orphanage. It was all I could do to keep the lost lunatic from licking me.
Kenny and I spent the rest of that summer dogging laps. I learned that he had been in and out of institutions most of his adult life. When he was twelve, a near drowning had left him with brain damage. He woke up in the hospital, and learned that his older brother hadn’t gotten off so easy – losing his life while trying to save Kenny’s. Sometimes the lines between cause and effect aren’t as hard to read as we think they are.
As the end of Kenny’s prison sentence came closer, I asked him about his plans.
“Oh, I’m just going to wash windows,” Kenny said.
“Wash… windows? You mean, like a squeegee kid?” I remember feeling something like a cross between disbelief and ire. Kenny and I had been yard dogs for the past eight months, and in that time I had given him a decent haircut and introduced daily showering. He was now wearing clean clothes, exercising regularly, and even reading books. The conversations had evolved from why all prison guards should be killed, to how a man might make the world a better place. Kenny had transformed form the local nut job to my friend, and my future plans for him were much bigger than cleaning car windows on the corner of Main and Hastings.
“No – no – no. Not cars. Houses. All I need is a good bucket, a few rags, and a squeegee. Everybody needs their windows washed.”
I had heard enough. “Listen up Kenny, and listen good. It’s a bloody snake pit out there these days, and you better start taking it seriously.” Now I was the barking dog. “You’re going to be an ex-con on parole, you idiot. You know what that means? It means you better start thinking seriously – or you’ll be back here faster than you can spell Windex. Wash windows. Give me a break.”
There are a hundred things I have done in this life, and one of which merit eternal damnation. But few stick with me as strongly as the day I called a childlike man who trusted me, an idiot. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes. Thankfully, this yard dog didn’t come with the memory of an elephant, and was about to teach me a life lesson I’ve never forgotten – about not letting anyone squeeze you into their mold.
A few months after his release, a letter from Kenny appeared under my cell door. The return address was a transition house in Vernon, B.C. Like most prisoners, Kenny had been released with almost no money, but had found a place to lay his head, and in his stray dog way had even made friends with the house manager. The rest of the letter read like Snoopy on a spring day.
In his second morning on the street (after ten years behind bars) Kenny had offered his new patron a deal. In exchange for a four-foot ladder, a bottle of ammonia, and a squeegee, Kenny would clean all the shelter’s windows for the rest of the summer. When the fellow took him up on it, it set off a chain reaction that only Kenny could have dreamed up. After a week of cleaning neighbourhood windows, Kenny’s squeegee and four-foot ladder had sprouted a second-hand man-sized tricycle with a basket big enough to carry his gear. A spare piece of plywood and some paint filched out of the garbage even gave him a sign – “Silver Cloud Window Services” – that he tied to the back of his bike. Week three brought some business cards from a grocer’s vending machine, and a pager. By the time I got his letter he had an apartment, a phone, and had even taken a “good Christian girl” out to dinner. His new phone number was at the bottom of the page, with an invitation to call collect.
Though we spoke on the phone a few times after that, I never saw Kenny again. After a year of hard work, and turning his celebrated purple tricycle into a fully equipped truck and two men to run it, it was time for a well-deserved weekend away. They were headed for a bed and breakfast in southern B.C., he and the good Christian girl, when their car lost control and Kenny felt the wind in his hair one last time. Death. It’s the one stereotype that no one escapes – no matter how free your will. But I’ll always remember that Kenny loped into the darkness with his eyes wide open, proudly wearing the life he chose. I wish he was still with us. I would have sent him a set of Ladyfigs.