Friday, December 29, 2006

The Tardo

The responses to my last post reminded me of an anecdote I haven't thought about in a while. It's also one of the first things I ever commited to print. If you know the story, bear with me. If you don't, I hope you make the connection...

During the 1970's, I was an actor performing in a lot of new Canadian plays. Frequently, those plays went on tour, giving me the opportunity to live and work in some of the great cities of the world. In the winter of 1973, I was in London, performing in a theatre that, like all the best British theatres, had a comfortable Pub tucked next to the stage door.

British Pubs at the time closed at 11:00 pm, early by North American standards, but the rules were still civilized enough that while the Publican couldn't serve drinks after last call, the customer was allowed to sit and enjoy whatever was on his table until well after "Time, Gentlemen" had been called.

The show I was doing was a long three act play with a tragic ending that was allowed to linger in the audiences' mind by not tacking on a curtain call at the end. My character was done at the end of Act II and since the curtain fell at 11:00, it was my job to take drink orders from the cast and crew and comandeer a back booth for us to enjoy them after the show.

My huge last call order was always a hit with the Pub regulars, who also introduced me to a game called "Shove Ha'Penny". It was a compact version of shuffleboard that involved shooting pennies for distance and accuracy.

For some reason that I'm sure made sense to the English, the penny was a huge and heavy coin about the size of a fifty cent piece, while their smallest coin (smaller than a dime) was a sixpence -- worth six times as much, and treasured among us actors because you had to plug them into a box in your hotel room to get heat or hot water.

Among the Pub's regulars was a young man who had an obvious mental disability. In that era it was called a "retardation" shortened by the Publican into his nickname, "The Tardo".

The Tardo had a menial job somewhere down the street and would come in every evening for a pint. Invariably, his drink was paid for by one of the regulars after they'd played a little game with him. The regular would hold up a big shiny Penny and a drab little sixpence and ask the Tardo which one was worth more. The young man would hem and haw, straining to decide and pick the penny. The others would laugh, make jokes about what an idiot he was and buy him his pint.

To my eyes, it was kind of cruel and insensitive, but everybody seemed to have fun and the poor guy never paid for a drink so who was I to criticize.

One night, the city was hit by a major downpour. Hardly anybody came to the show and when I took the drink order into the pub, it was completely deserted. As the Publican pulled the pints, the Tardo walked in, soaking wet and looking for his nightcap. He realized I was the only customer and approached, waiting for me to play the game. I couldn't and the Publican told him to either pay for his own drink or leave.

Before I could say I was buying, the young man took out a change purse and carefully counted out the required combination of shillings, sixpences and pennies to cover the exact cost. Pre-decimal system Math, I have to admit, I was still struggling with.

"You know how to count", I said. He nodded. Continuing to state the obvious, I said, "You know what all those coins are worth." He nodded again. I picked up a penny from the game board and asked him why he always chose it from the regulars instead of the much more valuable sixpence.

He studied me for a long moment and said, "If I don't, they'll stop playing the game."

That night, that young man taught me one of the most important things I've learned in life. We all hunger to be accepted, to be part of the world and share in the warmth of being involved in what those around us are doing. Sometimes that means that we hide who we are and the truths we know to be included.

Hiding who you are sometimes has obvious advantages. But as a lifestyle, it prevents you from realizing your talents to the fullest and becoming all you can be to both yourself and others. Those of us with fully functioning minds and bodies always have a choice.


wcdixon said... win.

DMc said...


DAMN, son.


Caroline said...

Wow. Good stuff, Jim. I think there may be a book in you, fella.