© Rhonda Hayward photo
By Wendy Rose
Special to The Telegram
The kindness of strangers. It doesn’t seem like a very dependable way to make a living, but for Kenny Parsons, it is his main source of income.
You may have already seen Parsons busking downtown St. John’s, strumming away on his guitar while his coat lies on the sidewalk, catching the coins thrown by the busy passersby.
Why does he do it every day, rain or shine? “All in the efforts of having fun and trying to make a bit of money,” Parsons said. “I know a lot of songs. I got a repertoire.”
Parsons started busking on a dare from a friend, Kim.
“Kim said to grab a guitar sometime and go downtown and busk. I said no, but then she said I was chicken. But I’m not a chicken.”
Dressed in a pilot’s uniform, Parsons has become well-known around the downtown area for his eccentricity and his friendliness. Friends and locals call him The Captain. Many have asked Parsons if he was in the RCMP or if he worked for a Canadian airline.
“I was never in the air with the RCMP or as an officer. I was in the uniform once, just trying it on. That was my goal. Now, the reason we’re doing this interview is because of the busking. I came downtown with those duds on and a guy asked if I was a cop. I said no. Then he asked, ‘Are you a pilot?’ I said yes. The Captain. And that’s the name I have now.”
It must be a long road that leads to a busker’s patch on Water Street, and every familiar downtown face has its own story. Here is The Captain’s, as he tells it.
Kenny Parsons was born in Harbour Grace. He passed Grade 11 with flying colours and began working at the local fish plant for 55 cents an hour in the mid-late ’60s. While working at the fish plant, Parsons saw an ad in a local newspaper looking for iron ore workers for $2.59 an hour. He travelled to St. John’s to take the test, and passed.
At this point, Parsons had already enrolled in the local RCMP unit and was accepted to go to Regina for horse training.
“I went down to the RCMP barracks and filled out an application to become a police officer. That was going to be my career, that or a pilot or both. A rewarding career in the RCMP: on land in the car, on water in the boat or in the air. The RCMP has pilots. I was going to be a pilot in the RCMP. This was about 1964, or ’65,” Parsons said.
“I was accepted, made out all the papers. I had passed all of the education needed. Now, here comes the juncture in my life. I went to the Staff Sergeant and said I was going to Labrador City.”
“I started in September of 1967,” Parsons said. “I started off as a labourer, $2.59 an hour in a giant mill. Compared to working at the fish plant, it was nothing. There was nothing to it.
The flight to Lab City was the first time The Captain had been on a plane.
“I love flying. It’s in me. When I got off, I asked the flight attendant if I could speak to the captain,” Parsons said, with a smile sweeping across his face. “He was getting up and taking off his headphones and cold shivers were going down through me, thinking ‘I actually spoke to the pilot.’”
This experience has been permanently imprinted in Parsons’ mind.
After experiencing his first drink the night before, Parsons was experiencing his first hangover. It took every ounce of determination Parsons had to get on that flight to start his new job in a new land, he said.
“When I went up there, I didn’t drink, except for one night at my Uncle Ches’s. I was there for a year before I touched alcohol. I’ll never forget how I started drinking. Ted the Greek used to cut my hair and he would ask if I wanted a beer,” Parsons recalled.
“I drank it and I said oh, my. Here I was, making all kinds of money, sending it home to Mom back home and the girl I was engaged to in Carbonear, keeping enough for myself. I used to look forward to the haircuts ’cause he would offer me that beer. And then all of a sudden, it was like the devil hit me. You could go to the clubs yourself b’y! I was 20-odd years old. Then one of the b’ys asked me to go down to the club. I had a blast playing darts, playing pool and when I drank alcohol, I was, well ... I was actually shy. I was a shy person. But when I got alcohol in me, oh boy. ‘Now we got Kenny coming up here to sing a song’. Yes, no sweat.”
Parsons quit drinking alcohol more than 11 years ago. He will be celebrating his 12th year of sobriety in October. He quit alcohol when he received his pilot’s license.
The story started to get a little muddled at this point. We’d been chatting for more than an hour. I could tell he was trying his best to answer my questions, but trying to tell your life’s story in chronological order is undoubtedly a hectic and nerve-racking experience. We decided to skip ahead to The Captain’s return to Newfoundland.
“I could have gone anywhere in the world when I left Labrador,” Parsons said.
Now, more than two years later, his Chevy Avalanche is a distant memory, his bank account shows no evidence of 30-plus years of hard work and his pilot’s uniform has seen better days.
“I went to Wiseman’s Centre. I spent 22 days there. Then I was homeless for well over a month. I slept in Bowring Park. I slept in Bannerman Park. I slept at the RNC headquarters,” Parsons said.
“I might be homeless again myself now in a bit, because I just can’t stop myself from helping people,” he said in a sombre tone. “I give away money. If you’re my friend and you’ve got nowhere to stay tonight, I’ll help you.”
His easy-going manner and willingness to help others are what helped him land a place to stay in a laundry room for seven months at a friend’s house. His happy aura also helped him move from sleeping in Victoria Park to staying with another new friend for a few weeks.
Right now, Parsons has his own apartment, but due to unfavourable financial circumstances, he may be back on the streets soon. What is he going to do? Don’t worry, he has a plan.
“I’m soon gonna go back on stage. I do standup comedy!” Parsons said. He assured me he could be the new Snook or a new member of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, if given the chance.
Parsons said he has not had any bad experiences while busking. If anything, he said he has been able to experience the kindness of strangers first hand, a kindness that he has never taken for granted.
“I was out one morning, not long ago. It was a rainy, misty morning. I was out on Water Street, about to open my guitar case, and I decided to have a cigarette, wondering if I was going to play it. Out comes two business men, dressed in trench coats. One man took out his wallet, I could see into it and it was all hundreds, 50s and 20s. He took out a $20 bill and said ‘Here, anyone who’s got the guts to be doing what you’re doing here today in this weather deserves this.’”
Parsons has many humorous tales that have stemmed from his busking adventures. One particular night at The Stetson sticks out in his mind.
“This woman came down and she looked at me, probably feeling pretty good, and she says, ‘Where’s your effing thing for putting money in?’ And I said ‘It’s just over there my love,’ I had a little cup there. She went with her purse and dumped everything in, even her little powder puff. Quarters, nickels, loonies and toonies. Then she took a $5 bill and stuck it in my pocket. I tried to give her back her powder puff and this is what she said; ‘Aw, take that powder puff and stick it, buddy, then call me a cab.” Parsons recalled, letting loose a loud, booming laugh, followed by a heartwarming smile.
He said he has “too many stories to tell and not one of is them bad, either.”
“One night by George and Gower, I’m there busking away. And it’s a lovely weekend, lovely weather last summer. This woman and a few other ones gets out of a taxi. I get a few coin, $10, $12, whatever. She comes over and she’s drunk. She says ‘Buddy, I’ll pay you $10 to move.’ I said ‘Ma’am, you don’t have to pay me anything, I’ll move.’ ‘I lives up over there,’ she said, ‘and I just wants to go to bed.’ I told her to forget the $10, I’d move for her. And she said ‘Nah, nah, hang on.” She comes up with the $10 and I moved.
“I moved down by Subway. It’s about 2 a.m. now, and I hear something flying out from up over me. The feller up top wanted to get to sleep. ‘Shut up down there!’ he’s bawling out to me. ‘I’ll pay you to move!’ and out comes a toonie and a loonie. ‘Sorry about that buddy!’ I yell, then I moved.
“I thought to myself, if I could keep this up, I’d be rich!”
His loud laughter filled Atlantic Place on Water Street. Everyone was looking at us, but The Captain didn’t care and neither did I. His infectious smile had already spread to my face and I couldn’t help but laugh along with him.
Parsons truly believes that Newfoundlanders are “the most wonderful people on the face of the earth.”
“I make people laugh and they pitch a toonie. People have tucked fives and tens down my shirt pocket. Outside the Stetson one night I made $180. The more Newfoundlanders drink, the kinder they get; 98 out of 100 are real good people. The rest may be having a bad day, or might just need to go fly a kite,” he said with a snicker. “And I just say ‘God bless ya, b’y.’ Like ya would.”