On Thursday, I came from cosmopolitan Toronto—where I have lived restlessly for the past decade—back to my quiet east coast hometown, Rothesay, east of Saint John, New Brunswick, which I fled in the 90s in search of adventure. Now, as we flip the great Mayan calendar to the next 5,000+ years, is this the place I want to live?
I have lived, for brief and extended periods, in Asia, Latin America, and even on a fly-in reserve in Manitoba. And all over the world, when you ask someone, “What makes you like this place so much?” the cliché response is always, “Mostly, it’s the people.” But, as I recall, that was part of why I left New Brunswick. Old-fashioned, conservative attitudes, something about this place always made me feel like I had to hold my oddball self back so as not to agitate everyone around me. But isn’t that what I just said about Toronto?
OK, so maybe it’s me. But, for a change, I don’t want to talk about me. I want to talk about the people of my hometown. Not the ones I know and love; I’m talking about the ones I’ve never met. A strange concept, for a place where it always seems everyone knows everyone, but I’ve been away a long time.
Saturday morning was the first time I’d heard the name Johnny Montes. I was asked to fill in at the last minute to work the door at KV Billiards which was holding a fundraiser that night for Johnny and his family. Last month, Johnny’s car hit some ice and he went off the road. Over recent years, I have been involved in the slow, costly, nerve-wracking process of recuperation of a family member who suffered similar injuries in a similar accident. It is, to say the least, not easy.
I soon found out Johnny’s a bit of a celebrity in the motocross world, and a very popular guy around here. A few years younger than I am, he grew up in the trailer park near my high school, where he was likely a neighbour to some of my childhood friends. Who knows; I may even have seen him as a toddler when I was visiting friends there three decades ago.
Just before 7:00pm, I met the owner and she sat me down at the door with the donations jar and a stack of pamphlets which explained what the event was about. Some people picked up a pamphlet, but it was obvious that pretty much every one of the hundreds of people who came in that door from 7:00pm to 1:00am knew Johnny. And they don’t just know him; they really care about him. People were stuffing big bills into that jar, more than a few people surely put in more than they earn in a day, a few pausing to confirm, “This is for Johnny?”
It was assumed I knew Johnny and everyone connected with him. “Is Juan here yet?” That’s Johnny’s father. No one made me feel like I was out of the loop. Johnny’s mother introduced herself to me—why? Because she didn’t know me. One stranger after another was quick to fill me in on who everyone was—“That’s his sister”—and it often turned out I did have connections with people. And people with whom I had no connection fell into easy conversation with me. Doesn’t take much to make a connection around here.
Three damn fine local bands donated their time and talents: Bigg Medicine, Chasing Dragons, and Penalty Box, with a DJ in between acts. The song that summed it up for me was a satisfying cover of “I Love Rock’n’Roll”. The place was packed but no one was pushy. Some people came back again and again to drop more money into the donations jar (which had to be emptied frequently to make room for more) or just to see how the doorman was doing. People from ages 19 to 69, a few guys in suits, a lot of guys in baseball caps, several wearing number “Montes” jerseys, and lots of attractive women but none looked like they had gone out of their way to get their outfit and makeup just right. It was, without a doubt, the most human bunch of people I have been around for a long time.
But the most New Brunswick moment I’ve ever had was just before 1:00am when a 30ish guy in a baseball cap came over and offered me a beer. I thanked him but said no. I was still working, after all. “C’mon. You’ve been standin’ at the door here for like five hours. You should have a beer.” He wasn’t on his first, and why would he be. What he said next proved him to be a true New Brunswick gentleman. “Look, I’m not gay or nothin’; I’m not hittin’ on ya. I just figure you could really use a beer.”
You’ll just have to take my word for it; there was not a drop of homophobia in that remark. His tone said, ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with that’, more sincerely than Seinfeld. This guy was just clarifying the parameters of the offer. They say Canadians are ‘nice’. Well you can’t get much nicer than New Brunswick. And I had to drink to that.
I don’t know Johnny Montes but, the way everyone speaks of him, I want to know him. In the New Year, there is to be an auction in support of Johnny. In the meantime, donations are still being accepted.
Now, someone sing us The Ballad of Johnny Montes. What, nobody’s written it yet? He deserves a song. Someone’s gotta write it. Come on, I’ll race ya!