What do an actor, a hired-gun drummer, an amateur wrestler, a former premier's son, an aspiring poet, a man who dreamed of being a stand-up comedian and a freelance writer/broadcaster/substitute teacher have in common?
This was the eclectic bunch that manned the controls of Toukie the Toucan and Domingo the Spanish Conquistador, the showpieces of the animatronics department at the tropically themed Club Regent Casino in Winnipeg.
A friend of mine was a higher-up, and they had an opening for an animatronics operator. Animatronics operator? But I had to have a Caribbean accent. Caribbean accent?
Grand to 'ave you down, great to see you out and about on dis fine Satcherday, de best day of de week, you know. Remember to scan dat club card. Dere's plenty of great prizes to be 'ad. And come say 'ello to Toukie and maybe I'll tell you a joke or someting! Toukie was a little black-and-white guy with a fowl attitude. His rotating roost was adorned with a thatched roof to thwart that relentless tropical sun. There was a scenic waterfall behind him and a little pond below into which people tossed hopefully lucky coins.
Beside him was Soca Sue, one of his feathered friends, who sang with Toukie on occasion, joining the flock across the way in a chorus of island tunes. This was Toukie's hangout, the foyer of the casino, where he kibitzed with patrons. It was a rather comfortable existence.
Alter ego His alter ego (i.e., me) was not as fortunate. Tucked away in a corner of the casino, away from prying eyes and sensitive ears, was The Cubicle. Apartments in downtown Tokyo are like country manors compared to this glorified closet I had to be in for eight hours.
A typical shift would see me with three different rumpled newspapers in a pile in the corner and a Sports Illustrated open on my lap, my finger on the place in the story where I'd left off.
In my hands was what I called Toukie's Bible, where I scripted out some pat dialogue and kept an archive of jokes and puns.
Why did de raisin go out wit de prune?
I don't know -- tell us Toukie. I don't know -- tell us Toukie.
'Cause he couldn't find a date. 'Cause he couldn't find a date.
So ensconced, I'd sit with four video screens showing various angles of the foyer, observing some people who seemed to be enjoying themselves and others with sunken shoulders who knew they'd lost far too much. I'd slip on the headset, snap my microphone into place, hit power and... showtime.
Dis' wasn't my first job, you know.
Where did you used to work, Toukie? Where did you used to work, Toukie?
I used to work in an orange juice factory, but I was fired. I used to work in an orange juice factory, but I was fired.
Why was that? Why was that?
I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't concentrate.
Saturday nights were the best time to be Toukie. People were exploring the new addition to the casino, having something to eat and tossing a few quarters into the machines. They would always talk to Toukie.
Is everyone 'aving a grand time?
Yeah, we're having a good time. But where are you? Yeah, we're having a good time. But where are you?
Right in front of you, mon -- can't you see me? I'm de black-and-white bird wit de big yellow beak. Better see de doctor about some glasses. Right in front of you, mon -- can't you see me? I'm de black-and-white bird wit de big yellow beak. Better see de doctor about some glasses.
Smart guy! I m going to climb up there and pluck you, Toukie. Smart guy! I m going to climb up there and pluck you, Toukie.
Pluck me? Well... pluck you! Pluck me? Well... pluck you!
Weekday shifts were very different. Then you would see the regulars, the same expressionless faces every day. It was our job to turn a blind eye to their desperation and obsession.
Toukie, these machines aren't paying out.
Yes, sistah, I 'ear dey are a bit coinstipated. Yes, sistah, I 'ear dey are a bit coinstipated.
The toughest times were late at night, when most people had gone, my eyelids heavy from staring at a screen all night and my throat a little tender from the constant talking.
Usually, I'd talk with the security guard stationed across from my perch to pass the remaining time. It would sound funny to passersby -- an inanimate object debating current events with a live human being.
I know, mon, but dey are still bombin' a sovereign country, and NATO is not de UN!
But eventually the night would end and I'd gather up my stuff, say goodbye to the other operator in the room above and turn off the equipment. On my way out, I'd pass the late-night gamblers and the cleaners sweeping up casually discarded cigarette butts, the dinging of the slots ringing in my ears.
Come back again, folks, and visit Toukie. I don't go anywhere -- dey keep me tied to dis perch... it's a terrible ting.