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A DAY IN THE LIFE: Bob O'Hara hates the cold

Today is as good a day as any to let life happen, one deal at a time BY SAMUEL PICCOLO Special to the VOICE Bob O’Hara had just returned from his winter break and was in, for him, a bad mood.
Bob O’Hara is the master of his Ridgeville domain. ART VANDELAY PHOTO

Today is as good a day as any to let life happen, one deal at a time


Bob O’Hara had just returned from his winter break and was in, for him, a bad mood. During his two-month absence, his friend Bev had taken good care of his junk shop, but her efforts to keep the interior tidy had led her to leave the larger items outside, covered by tarps and sheets. O’Hara was worried that the multi-coloured plastic patchwork would lead to complaints to the Town, and the Town would complain to his landlord, and his landlord would complain to him, and, maybe, not lease him the adjacent warehouse into which O’Hara wanted to expand.

“I’d hate to lose this corner. It’s a good spot. And I’d like to get that warehouse.”

Having spent two months in the Dominican Republic, where satellite television was cheap, Tennis Channel included, O’Hara had upgraded his cable package when he returned home and was dismayed to learn that it would run him $40 a month. He said, “How is it that a third-world country has better and cheaper television than us?”

And it was snowing.

He was bent at the waist, shovelling with a shovel far too short. The spidered blood vessels of his face were accentuated by the cold, and his eyes, blue and aqueous on the driest of days, had acquired in the weather an advanced degree of liquidity that made them seem almost artificial.

After depositing each load of snow onto an enlarging bank, he stood upright and shook his hands to send blood to his arthritic fingers. “It was supposed to be warm when I got back. I guess I shouldn’t have run out of money so fast. It doesn’t feel good to be broke.”

Still, he didn’t dwell on the negative. Instead of talking about the Tennis Channel’s expense, he talked about tennis. Instead of complaining about the cold, he promoted snow’s advantages. “The cowboys are going to be out in their cars today. It’s a good snow for doughnuts and drifting. I used to be a cowboy—until I sold that cowboy car, my ’66 Camaro convertible, so I could travel. You don’t need anything when you’re travelling.”

O’Hara has had his junk shop in Ridgeville’s downtown—if five stores can be really called a downtown—for a year and a half, but he has been, in his words, “a junker,” since he was a kid. His “junking” began when he started buying and selling odds and ends in the schoolyard, and has persisted ever since—across three jobs, six decades, and three continents. O’Hara’s shop, a long disused filling station whose basement still carries the hint of petroleum, is crammed with everything that anyone has ever wanted or not wanted at a yard sale: old lamps and yellowed Playboys, sports jerseys of players long-retired, ladies’ jewelry, machetes, and pellet guns. Posters are stuck to the walls and hang from strings strung across the room; there are bins of dollar watches and rows of ten dollar watches.

The shop’s frontage, with its tarps and sheets, is no less chaotic. It’s at the eastern end of Ridgeville’s five-store strip, a flat-roofed, utilitarian structure that seems to buckling in upon itself. It’s next to a cafe that sends over wafts of fresh baking fragrance in the morning, and, on good days, customers in the afternoon.

During the day the pavement in front of his shop is covered with claw-footed bathtubs of chipped enamel, with watering cans and petrol cans, with industrial signs and street signs and signs of caution, with dressers and drawers, with antique ladders only the devout would climb. The disorientation felt by visitors entering for the first time makes it all the more surprising that O’Hara likes this pandemonium. He loves all of his things; he is attached to none of them.

He was not upset that most of what was in the shop when he left for the Dominican had been sold and replaced with things Bev had brought in. He was annoyed, however, that she hadn’t put price tags on most of the new stock. When it came time to haggle with customers—which is O’Hara’s preferred way to do business—he didn’t know whether his price matched what Bev had in mind. O’Hara will almost always reduce a price, even if an item is tagged, and always concludes his concessions by telling the buyer to, “Get out of here,” before he changes his mind, and not to tell anyone or else, “The whole town will come here looking for a deal.”

He likes to move things fast, and keeps his objectives short-term. Spencer Burton, who co-owns another vintage store down the road in Fenwick, once wanted to buy a hat from O’Hara, but the price was too high. Burton returned a week later, saw the hat still there, and then bought it for half of what O’Hara had wanted the week before. O’Hara explained that the rent had been paid and so prices, at least until the next cheque was due, were going down. As baffled as Burton is by O’Hara’s business practice, O’Hara is confused by Burton’s. “I go down to his store and try and buy things from him, and he won’t sell it!” he said. O’Hara will proudly tell customers who inquire about a particular object that he will sell them anything in the store, including the store itself. “If someone wants to buy the whole thing, I’d do it. I’d just move right along and start again.”

Bob O’Hara is used to starting again. When he was 16, in the early ‘60s, he was bored of school and so he dropped out. Lying about his age, he joined the army. After three years in West Germany, he left the army and came home to Welland, starting work at Fleet Steel. Four years later, in 1966, after he had “met a girl and had a kid—the best thing that ever happened to me,” he went to General Motors in St. Catharines, assembling transmissions. O’Hara hated it there. The vibrations of the machines stayed with him, even at home, and he says that a coolant used in the production of transmissions would get all over him and his coworkers, making them lose their hair. He is convinced that this coolant, which they called “dope,” is what caused the cancer and deaths of coworkers on the line, of whom only two remain. After 22 years, he quit.

“I just couldn’t take it any more. I felt trapped. I still have nightmares where I wake up feeling like I need to escape. I wouldn’t even have made it that long if it wasn’t for the marijuana. None of us would’ve.”

As O’Hara completed an inspection pass around his exterior stock, a delivery van pulled into the driveway. A man, greying and dishevelled, but clean-shaven, bounded down from the cab and shook O’Hara’s hand, effusively welcoming him home. “My buddy Reno!” exclaimed O’Hara.

Reno’s arrival—for no purpose other than to hang out—was more than reason enough to stop shovelling, since, as Reno noted, the snow was falling so quickly that by the time the shovelling was finished the ground where it had begun was covered again.

The two went inside, stomping snow from their boots, and sat down behind the counter. O’Hara typically tries to air the shop of its antique must, but the day’s weather meant that the doors had been closed, and the earthy odour of decay was stronger than usual. The radio was on, playing tracks from the ‘70s, and O’Hara hummed along, out-of-key, as he crouched down to pick up two cans of Bud near his feet.

“11:30 for a beer?” Taking off his gloves and rubbing his hands together, Reno said,“That’s too early for me!”

O’Hara was insistent: “Look at it outside! No one’s going to be coming in here today.” Finally, Reno took the can, and, cracking it open, asked O’Hara how his vacation had been.

“It was perfect. Look at my tan. There was all the sun you could want. You know, Canadian women don’t like you so much when you’re 73. But down there they don’t mind.”

Reno said something in reply and O’Hara asked him to repeat it. “You don’t have your hearing aids in,” Reno said.

“Yeah, my daughter took them,” O’Hara said. “We had a big fight about it when I came home. Those are twenty-five-hundred bucks, I wanted to sell them. She said that she’d take care of them until until I really needed them.”

Reno disagreed. “You need them, Bob. All that time in the factories did your ears in. How you going to make deals with people if you can’t hear them?”

Reno had a point. Making deals is the core of O’Hara’s business. The real reason he was willing to sell the whole shop is that he knows that his true business is not the stuff he has but the people he knows––if he were to sell the whole shop he would only have to make a few phone calls before he found another estate or two to clear out, and the people would follow. O’Hara’s name is so well-known in the Niagara junk scene that people come searching for him to unload their things. Soon after he returned from vacation, he was in his shop when an aged woman, white-haired and stooped, entered and said, “You’re Bob, I presume? I’ve been looking all over for you. I’ve got some stuff to sell.” O’Hara introduced himself, explained his prolonged absence, asked for her name—he is a man of impeccable etiquette—and then followed her out to her truck.

Tina, one of O’Hara’s friends who sells at his shop, and who has known him from the flea market scene for close to a decade, pulled on a cigarette and watched sadly as O'Hara looked at what was in the woman’s truck.

“We just finished getting rid of all the big stuff he buys before he came back. Now he’s going to pick up more beds and furniture that takes up space. We try to talk him out of it. But you know that expression, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ That’s Bob.”

She had pointed out a subtle contradiction in his character. O’Hara is always willing to start again—in new places, without things—but his philosophy of junking has stayed the same since his days on the playground: Buy what you like, and sell it fast.

O’Hara left General Motors in 1988 after those 22 years and started selling his junk full-time at flea markets around Niagara. And then his wife died, suddenly. He sold all his things, including his Camaro, and moved to Florida, where he lived illegally, selling junk and cleaning out estates in the state where so many Americans go to retire—and to die. O’Hara liked it in Florida; it was warm, the tennis was outdoors, and business was good, but after 10 years he was arrested for driving a “hot” truck (which he had rented, and says he didn’t know was stolen) and was deported back to Canada. The immigration officers drove him right to the airplane. Canada was still cold, so through his tennis connections O’Hara found work with the Niagara Academy of Tennis, a private school in Vineland, which dispatched him to South America to find students. He spent five years recruiting in Chile, where he found few who could afford to move to Vineland and pay the Academy’s tuition. The weather was nice there, though. And there was lots of junk.

Reno and O’Hara finished their beers and crushed the cans. They stood up. “You let me know if you find anyone who wants to go in on the warehouse here with me,” O’Hara said to him.

“Will do, Bob,” Reno said. When he opened the door to leave, a sudden gust belched a sheet of snow inside.

“Yeah, I gotta get home too,” O’Hara mumbled to himself. “Nobody’s going to be going by here today. I’ll go see if the Tennis Channel is coming in.”

O’Hara turned off the radio and hit the lights. He opened up the ledger book behind the counter, flipped to the day, and paused for a minute. “I’ll write here, ‘Tuesday, snowstorm.’” He closed the book and put it back on the shelf, flipped the sign in the window to “Closed.” He pulled on his coat and hat and walked out the door, letting a little more snow inside, seeming to the world a man who had inadvertently aspired to, and accidentally achieved a peculiar luxury: that of an existence independent of, and utterly unaffected by, the specifics of the future. ♦