Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Max

The last time that I saw him was about a year ago, maybe longer. He walked into Mill Street, with his grandson, and sat on the other side of the main bar from me, facing me but not noticing me at all. He looked smaller than when I had last seen him make a public appearance, his hair much thinner and greyer than the days when I knew him, when he was a regular customer at the camera store.

In those days, he would often come in just after the lunch hour, dressed in a suit, ready for work. He didn't drive himself there: he had a driver. He liked a lunchtime drink, and I could usually smell a bit of it, but that didn't matter. He was always kind, always friendly, always had a smile.

There were some people who dropped film off, regularly, for processing. Often, out of curiosity, we would look at the printed products in the envelopes, curious as to what sort of subjects filled their camera viewfinders, what sort of images they had composed.

Never his. He was a big name. He was a pillar of the community. And we respected his privacy.

At Mill Street, the bartender, Pete, served the man a half-pint of pale, yellow ale. An Organic Lager, I guessed. I drew Pete's attention after he delivered the glass. "Make sure his beer goes on my tab," I said. "His money is no good, here." Pete nodded, smiled. I went back to my tablet, continued the writing that I was doing before I noticed this man enter.

From an early age, I remembered seeing him in my neighbourhood, which wasn't far from where he worked. My family and I would see him, like us, pushing a shopping cart through the aisles of Robinson's IGA, in the City View Plaza. When I was in my late teens, partying at the night clubs in Hull, my friends and I would see him every once and a while, walking along the strip or getting out of a car. You knew that wherever he was going, there was going to be a good time.

I watched him on TV almost every night. And while my decision to go into journalism school is not attributed to him, I think my lifelong interest in the news is due, in a large part, thanks to him.

"I understand that you are to thank for my drink," he said, having come up to where I was sitting. His grandson was still sitting across the bar, smiling.

"It was an honour, Max," I said. "You won't remember me, but for years I served you at Black's Cameras in the Merivale Mall. But I do think you'll remember my mom." I said her name and he smiled.

"Yes, of course. How is she? Is she still in the flower business?"

If anyone has ever seen a broadcast of CJOH News, with Max Keeping, you will remember the colourful boutonnières that he wore, almost every night. My mom made those for him, back when she owned a flower store on Baseline Road, near Greenbank. Personal Petals was its name, and Max was a loyal and longtime customer.

"She's been retired for some time," I said. "She'll be glad that I saw you."

"Please give her my best," said Max, "she's a lovely lady."

We chatted a little longer before he returned to his grandson, and they left Mill Street.

Max was a big part of the Ottawa community, known mostly as a champion for the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, but his community service touched practically every facet of this city. He was bigger than his on-screen personality as the anchor of the dinnertime news.

He gave so much for this city. Buying him a beer seemed like such a small act. But when he came to thank me, when he talked to me and gave me his undivided attention, when he smiled a truly genuine smile, it didn't matter that he didn't remember me. He made me feel as though, from that time forward, he wouldn't forget.

Rest well, Max. And thank you.

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