Updated: Apr 15
They say it’s better to be lucky than to be good, and I would argue that’s true, with an example from my own life of a turning point where every single thing that has happened since, a long chain of fortunate events, could have failed to happen, if I hadn’t caught a lucky break first.
Murray and I were out for a ride, looking at properties. We’d driven past Tiger Gas on half a dozen occasions, and could never figure out how the Husky across the street managed to do any business, when Tiger Gas was selling unleaded fuel 25¢-a-litre cheaper. Then Murray and I pulled into Tiger Gas, and met the owner of the business, who stood angrily guarding the pump, before I could even step out of my truck, and get the cap off my gas tank.
“Fill it up?” the owner asked, vaguely hostile: she had what they call a 1000-yard stare.
“Nah. Just $20, thank you,” I tried to keep the transaction friendly.
I went over and dropped a scrap of paper in the garbage.
As I reached for my wallet, the lady asked me “Did you check the needle?”
I’d had about half a tank of gas when Murray and I pulled into the station, but only $20 in my wallet, so I replied: “Yeah, I’m good. I’ve got enough to get home. Just $20, please.”
She repeated herself, suddenly furious: “You chucked a needle, in MY GARBAGE?”
“What? No! Jesus: do I look like a junkie? Give me a break.”
As Murray and I drove away from Tiger Gas, we understood why there was a line-up at the Husky, but tumbleweeds blowing between the pumps, just across the road. “Well, that’s what I get, buying off-brand gasoline. I figured there was a reason why the place looked abandoned...”
“…that reminds me: did I tell you about my parking ticket?”
Despite my best efforts to avoid the subject, Murray had been talking about his goddamn parking ticket all morning, telling everyone in earshot (except me!) his tale of woe.
“Yeah...what happened? Who gave you a parking ticket? Don’t you have a handicapped sticker?”
“…last week, in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I parked on the sidewalk. They ticketed me…”
By the time I got to Southern Ontario, my grandfather’s business contacts I met through the hunt camp he organized each fall, when I was twelve years old, had either moved to Arizona, or died off. The one or two old boys still in Toronto were more than happy to help me out, all the way to the end of the driveway. Nobody actually said “Oops! I missed the toilet,” when they sent me away, but it felt like that, getting patted on the head on the way out the door.
Then I met Murray Wheeler, and within six months, got my first big break.
I met Murray Wheeler through his son, not my grandfather, even though Murray was the same age as my grandfather would have been in 1991. Murray’s son was the same age as my dad that year, but I had much more in common with Murray tempermentally. Even if tempermentally isn’t the correct word, that was the basis of our friendship: being of the same mindset.
Murray was a thoughtful guy, but didn’t take life too seriously. He would spend hours, driving around looking for a free parking spot, rather than pay the meter. His default stance was to avoid committing to any position, making decisions only at the last possible moment. Murray could act decisively: he just liked to keep his options open, fishing for the best deal.
Murray had stakes in a number of small businesses. He owned or partially owned a deli, two bowling alleys, a second-hand bookshop, and a chain of drive-in movie theatres, outside the city. With that background, even 25 years ago, I’m surprised he hadn’t picked up a strip club, or a comic book shop for his portfolio. Today, he’d probably own a travel agency, or a video rental store, or a taxi stand, if he was still buying distressed properties for redevelopment.
Murray didn’t worry about money, because he was naturally frugal, in that way only the truly wealthy are, with their assets. I was friends with the guy for ten years, before he ever let me sit in his car. Even at that, he made me put down a plastic sheet, and take off my shoes.
I never saw Murray pay for a meal in my life: he had restaurant friends all around town.
Despite that, Murray’s favourite restaurant in downtown Toronto was a Chinese joint at Dundas and University Avenue, the type of place with roast ducks hanging in the window. Don’t go looking for it, the Yummy Kitchen is gone now, but the first few years I lived in Toronto, we used to meet at that restaurant at least twice a month to talk business, over lunch.
The first painting I ever sold in Toronto was purchased by Murray’s son, and I’ll never forget that, but that wasn’t my lucky break: that’s just how I met the old man.
When Murray’s son told him that I was in the art business, Murray became fascinated by Norval Morrisseau, and set me up with an abandoned waterfront building (the Cherry Street train station hut, to be exact, along the GO Transit corridor: it was a short-term lease, but at least it got my inventory off the street) for my first gallery, at $1-a-year rent to the city. How Murray pulled that off, I don’t really know, but that wasn’t my first big break, either: the old man just wanted a quiet place to enjoy my paintings while I scouted the city, searching for a more permanent home (I ended up on West-West Queen Street West, after riding the Cherry Beach Express for thirteen months, but that’s another story: this is the story of how a parking ticket changed my life.)
“…I parked in the same spot as last month, beside the water fountain, but this time, the city gave me a ticket! What the hell is this world coming to, when a veteran can’t park his car on the sidewalk in downtown Toronto? You know, I fought for this country…”
It’s true: Murray was on Juno Beach, D-Day. I looked up his regiment, at the library.
Murray made me laugh. He had a hearing aid in each ear, wore glasses, and put his teeth in a cup of water each night. Basically, he was an android who took apart his head and put it on a shelf before sleeping like a baby for ten hours at the end of each day, but that gave him the brass balls to complain about not being allowed to park his car in the front courtyard of the Art Gallery of Ontario, whenever he came downtown for Chinese buffet. The old man was a little soft behind the steering wheel, taking red lights more as advisories than directives, but he knew exactly how to get a parking ticket thrown out, in traffic court: just pin on the old medals, and wear your beret to the witness stand, before pleading ignorance of the city’s parking by-laws.
Murray had been a cabinet minister in the 1950s, during the Diefenbaker era, Minister of Ethnic Affairs, which was kind of a big deal back then, before Canada had any ethnic people. We never talked about politics during our meals, just money, and how to connect with people around you, building a network of business contacts: Murray was a hustler, but straight as an arrow, and I loved him for it, learning a lot while watching him work a room.
After the war, Murray made a small fortune in real estate. Then he ploughed everything he had into more real estate. Most people buy properties to flip them. Murray bought property to hold on to it, tucking buildings into his pocket like a deck of cards.
“First off, it’s not a water fountain, it’s a statue of a nude lady. Second off, you can’t just park on the sidewalk outside the AGO, because you served your country; they’ve got a cop shop less than 100 yards away, and I’m surprised you didn’t get towed. Anyone else, they would have towed you out to the impound lot in Mississauga, and charged you $75 for an overnight visit.”
“…I left a note on the windshield…”
“Let me get this straight: you parked at the AGO, and then walked over to the Yummy Kitchen? Why didn’t you just park at the restaurant? It’s not like anybody else goes there, other than you and me. It would be a good place to do a lunch-time murder.”
“…very funny. Hilarious…I couldn’t find a spot on the street…I don’t mind walking…”
“Jesus Murphy, Murray! What did the note say? ‘Have a nice day’? ‘Be back soon’? ‘See you tomorrow’?”
Murray smiled: “…I gave them your name and address…in case they needed to find me.”
My first month in Toronto, I slept in the cab of my truck. I had gallery space in Toronto before I could find an apartment, that’s how tight the low-end rental market was, back then. You couldn’t even sublet half a room in the student village without scraping together the first-and-last month’s rent, plus an $800 security deposit, which was more money than I had paid for my truck, believe it or not. But I couldn’t just sleep at the public library; not even in the basement.
“You used the name ‘Emmett Grogan’ with the police? Good luck with that! I recently found out Emmett Grogan was a famous con artist, back in 1960s San Francisco. They have his book at the library.”
“…who are you? José Greco? ‘Hello, peoples. My name is José. I speak hot dog, I speak hamburger, but I no speak apple pie! I like to eat ba-na-nas.’ C’mon, my man. How many fingers am I holding up? Can you still count to four? Or do you see three fingers, this afternoon?”
I always thought José Greco was a made-up person, an alias, like Curtis Maynard back in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Murray blamed José Greco when things went pear-shaped, and he needed a fake name to give someone the brush-off. But then I found out José Greco was real. We used to tell knock-knock jokes about José Greco, making each other laugh on the phone.
“Murray, I need you to be serious for a moment. I’ve got a big fish on the hook. If a guy from the Art Gallery of Ontario, or the Royal Ontario Museum, or the McMaster Art Gallery, up in Kleinburg, Ontario, should call you, please give me a good reference. I need to get my foot in the door with an artist named Wolford Borg. So I promised him a museum show.”
Murray stared at me with blank eyes, committing to nothing; but that was just the dangle.
“…who’s Wolford Borg? Friend of yours? Sounds like a made-up name…”
“Nah. He’s real. Lives off-reserve, in Sioux Lookout. I think he’s got the potential to be as significant an artist as Norval Morrisseau. I went to high school with his son. Wolford’s what we used to call FBI, built like a hockey goon, but he spends his days drinking pop, and painting.”
Murray played it safe, played it smart, playing dumb.
“If I don’t get Wolford a show in Toronto, then I’m fucked – pardon my French. Selling off my Morrisseau collection to open an art gallery is like shaving my skull to buy a comb. But if I can make a deal with Wolford Borg, he’ll bring in the Odawwa Brothers, and Adam Hardy, just to start. Half the big names in Northwestern Ontario. Otherwise, I’m out of this city by the end of April. I’ll be living with my grandmother in Port Elgin, working at Mac’s Milk. And there aren’t a lot of girls coming through the Mac’s Milk in Port Elgin, looking for a boyfriend.”
I was a 19-year-old drop-out, on the edge of turning twenty: it was February, 1991. Time to get big, or go home. And there was no fucking way I could live with my grandmother. I loved my grandmother, but leaving the city with my tail between my legs would have been the death of me: moving to Port Elgin, Ontario, would have been worse than returning to Thunder Bay.
Murray never said a word about that, keeping his own counsel.
Murray and I spent the rest of the day driving around, meeting people, before I dropped the old man off downtown, outside Old City Hall. (Murray had parked on the traffic island at the corner of Queen and Bay.) We talked with students; business owners; a lawyer; housewives, and politicians. We talked with a washroom attendant; a nurse; tourists, and the homeless. We talked with millionaires and charity workers; coffee shop cashiers; tennis moms; and even a black dude who tried to sell us a metal detector, right on Yonge Street. And every person we spoke with, we (Murray, that is!) told them his story about getting a parking ticket, in front of the AGO.
Murray must have told fifty people about his parking ticket that day, what I can now see as networking. It was mortifying at the time, but everyone he talked with remembered Murray as the older gentleman who received the unfair parking ticket: if you want to stick in the memory of a new acquaintance, give them something to grab their attention: a hook, in other words.
About a week later, I received a phone call from the Art Gallery of Ontario, a fellow by the name of Ben McNally: Ben McNally was in charge of programming new shows at the AGO back then. An old hippie out of New Mexico, he made his reputation selling turquoise jewellery to tourists out in the desert along Route 66, before coming to Toronto.
“Hey Groggie, how ya doing? This is Ben McNally. I’ve got an open wall for my next exhibition of ‘woodland’ art here at the AGO, and I understand you’re holding several canvasses by Norval Morrisseau. Can you lend me a few pieces? Just until August? Help a brother out? We should meet for coffee, and talk about whoever else you might be representing.”
“Mr. McNally, no offense, but I’ve been trying to get you on the phone since Christmas, so I’m a little surprised to finally hear back from you.”
“Right on, man. My cousin Ross is a dentist in Hamilton. Last Friday one of his patients was telling him about a parking ticket he received in Toronto. When Ross heard the ticket was in front of the AGO, he said, Oh, my cousin works at the AGO; he’s in charge of programming. So your friend Murray Wheeler told Ross, Hey, I’ve got something I need you to do for me…”
I don’t even know why Murray would have been visiting a dentist: he wore dentures.
But that was my lucky break. Without that phone call of introduction, I never would have met Ben McNally; never got Wolford Borg his museum show; never been able to stay in Toronto as an art dealer; never met Coco at my gallery; so, never been happily married for the last fifteen years. Without Murray’s parking ticket, the entire course of my life would have been different. It unsettles me to think I never would have met my wife, except for a parking ticket.
Growing old is not for wimps: after my grandfather died, my grandmother sold her house and moved south, to Port Elgin, to live alone for the next 30 years; Murray went back and bought Tiger Gas, turning it into a parking lot, until his grandson built condos on the site in 2011.