Got a '69 Chevy
By Terry Watada
time I spent any significant amount of time with one of my best
friends was back in the summer of '06. I ran into him at the Obon
Odori and we decided to spend an afternoon shooting pool, something
we had done ever since we became friends in 1977, the Japanese
Canadian Centennial year. I was on sabbatical and he had lost
his job so it seemed right. We spent the day reminiscing, catching
up, eating noodles or "soba" as Nisei call it and playing
a few games at some Danforth pool hall. We were both pretty rusty,
laughing heartily about our game or lack of it. Just like the
old days, except I noticed a few changes in him. His speech was
a lot slower, and the conversation he initiated was limited to
only two topics: his father's passing and the wealth of some of
our common acquaintances. He walked extraordinarily slowly as
well. I was concerned but put it off to depression and stress.
There was a lot on the man's plate after all.
Just recently I received the following e-mail from his wife, which
was written as a general message for the public (I've left out
names in the interest of privacy):
I am the mother of three children ages 14, 11 and 7. I am also
the wife and caregiver of a 48 year old who has a neurodegenerative
condition called Frontotemporal Degeneration also known as FTD.
He was diagnosed with FTD in late 2006 after several years of
trying to determine what was going on. In 2003, his dad died (we
had cared for him at home for 1½ years) and shortly after,
he lost his job of 20 years as a manager of a manufacturing company.
I started noticing changes in my husband at this time but attributed
them to mild depression. I encouraged him to take the opportunity
and time to re-evaluate his career and perhaps start something
new. Well, that period of time has become over 2 years and we
now know that he will never be able to work again. My once caring,
happy, confident and loving husband has become a stranger to me
and the kids. My children are overwhelmed by this disease and
what it has done to our once happy and closely knit family. He
has a severe lack of insight that doesn't allow him to see or
care that he has changed. To this day, he maintains that he is
the same person although everyone else can attest to the fact
that he is not.
My husband also started having minor car accidents. The first
was when he backed into a car on several occasions and did some
minor damage. Then he backed up down a major street because he
passed by the driveway he was looking for. The last incident was
when he drove into a parked car on our street. He told me it was
minor damage. Our car needed over $8000 in repairs and the other
car was totaled. Thank goodness no one was hurt but I vowed he
would not drive again. There are so many other behaviours that
were totally out of character. I felt I could have written a book
but what I needed to do for my whole family was to dig deeper
into this and I needed to find answers.
cannot navigate the normal everyday functions because this disease
has chewed holes in the pathways needed to make the brain "connect"
properly. This disease has robbed us of the man that we loved
and left us with a shell of a person. He no longer converses with
us, laughs with us or cares about us. This disease strikes people
in their 40s, 50s and early 60s who are often at the peaks of
their careers and parenting responsibilities. There is no treatment
and no cure. This is more common than we realize and many families
are devastated by FTD. Although the genetics of FTD are not completely
understood, I hope that the knowledge of this disease increases
every year until there is a cure. A cure in time so that my kids
will never have to face this disease again.
The news was devastating. Over the months since that summer day,
I had heard rumours from various friends and acquaintances of
his deterioration, but I had no idea it was so severe. The hell
of it is he is unlikely to recover. Like his wife, I remember
him as "caring, happy and confident", always ready to
lend a helping hand.
We first became friends, as I said, during the Japanese Canadian
Centennial celebrations. We were both embedded in the working
class landscape of Toronto and in fact grew up and still lived
in the same neighbourhood. During adolescence, he became the epitome
of "cool", which carried over to young adulthood. Whenever
I saw him, he stood doing his best Steve McQueen, wearing shades
and a short leather jacket even indoors or in sub-zero weather.
His characteristic cigarette hung precariously from his lips as
he drove with skill and grace any car he could get his hands on
- first his parents' Oldsmobile and then his pride and joy, a
Chevy Nova. Bruce Springsteen played on his Blaupunkt cassette
player, feeding his dreams of flying down highways wrapped in
the joyful release from a conventional life, all in a tricked-out
muscle car with his best girl by his side - she eventually becoming
his wife. And for the most part, his dreams did come true.
I admired his audacity, style and his sense of loyalty. Anything
I did, from concerts to producing or writing plays, he backed
all the way. No questions asked. He also brought along his girlfriend,
another good and fast friend of mine, and many others who supported
me just on his say-so.
Because we both sought the freedom teasing our rebel natures,
we hung out on weekends when work and study was over for the time
being. Summer was the best. Pool halls, from the refined establishments
of the Beach area with white wine and blue chalk to the sad, decrepit
holes in a Spadina basement, we played them all. Sometimes we
ran into trouble with drunken men swinging pool cues at each other,
ending in a bloody mess. Other times we just spent the clock brushing
off seedy hustlers with a quick smile and a stolen watch to sell.
Most times we just caromed the cue ball off a bank to avoid losing
points on a hook behind the pink while talking about family, friends
and futures. And always we ended the evening in a Chinatown noodle
house like Swatow or King's. Often his girl came along until she
got sick of the food. "Too greasy. I should just drink a
bottle of Mazola and be done with it!"
When gas was measured in gallons and well under a dollar, we cruised
Yonge Street for kicks. There was quite a collection of night
crawlers out there. Frat boys getting drunk for the first time,
hookers and screamers, tough guys and losers playing a part in
a Tom Waits movie and observers like us. Once, we were stopped
at a light, my window open, when a drunken bigot walked right
up to the car, looked inside and called us Chinks because he knew
he could. When he stood up to brag, I automatically punched him
in the stomach. More shocked at reprisal than hurt, he reeled
back to his posse and took a defensive stand. I foolishly got
out of the car not really knowing what I was going to do. They
Although astonished, I laughed, but then turned around to see
my best friend, out of the car, with the blunt end of his two-piece
custom pool cue in hand ready to strike. He smiled and said, "I
got your back."
After those days, real life impinged - careers, wife, kids, suburban
mortgages and family vacations took over. And that was good. Nothing
was more fun than having him as one of my best men in my Honolulu
wedding and then returning the favour as one of his massive wedding
party in Toronto. His was the best wedding celebration I had ever
But it all seems over now. Much too soon. I keep thinking of a
Springsteen song, when the singer/songwriter was more concerned
with the romance of the road than being Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie.
I put it on shortly after reading the news and heard the strains
of Brian Wilson and Phil Spector underpinning the forlorn sentiments
of disaffected youth looking for redemption.
I got a '69 Chevy with a 396
Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor
She's waiting tonight down in the parking lot
Outside the Seven-Eleven store
Me and my partner Sonny built her straight out of scratch
And he rides with me from town to town
We only run for the money, got no strings attached
We shut 'em up and then we shut 'em down
the strip's just right
I wanna blow 'em off in my first heat
Summer's here and the time is right
For racin' in the street
in the Street" © 1978 Bruce Springsteen
of his condition for me is contained in that song. His wife, his
children, his friends and I no longer have him backing us, supporting
us with his sense of loyalty, his sense of duty, his steady presence.
I feel the emptiness. I can only hope that somewhere within himself,
he has found the freedom we so desperately sought in his Chevy
back on the highways of our endless summers.