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The Rickshaw Retrospective: The Story of Bouthong

The Rickshaw Retrospective: The Story of Bouthong


by: Adam Slight

Every city has its poverty, and while Ottawa is a smaller city, its homeless population can be seen prominently anytime you walk down Rideau St. and through certain parts of the ByWard Market. Since the Market is our primary place of operation, we are often in direct interaction with the homeless. These interactions can be friendly, or worth a laugh later (Watch this news reporter react to one such incident).

But sometimes our encounters with the homeless are very real. Two summers ago our storage facility was robbed of $3000-worth of property by a band of homeless people. For the rest of the summer we’d see homeless people outside of shelters wearing our stolen clothing.

At the end of the day though, working downtown reminds you of how lucky you have it, and that people never choose to live on the streets–there’s always a reason. One night we talked to another guy who revealed that he was the last of his family to survive the Rwanda Genocide– So you never know.

Some notable homeless people you may encounter in the Market include:

“Warrior”:Given his name for his fierce attitude, Warrior is an alcoholic man known for his toplessness, the guitar that he carries on his back, and his stocky build. While Warrior is intimidating, often threatening buskers during their shows with his shirt off, I’ve gotten to know him throughout the years. One night I gave him a free rickshaw ride because he seemed a bit down. As I was pulling him, he told me that he came to Ottawa from BC looking for his missing daughter. I guess this explains how one person can end up drunk on the streets.

“Star Wars”: This individual is called “Star Wars” because of his true and sincere belief that Star Wars is real. During my first encounter with “Star Wars”, he told me that he was an alien ambassador, late for his meeting with aliens. He was going to show them Earth food, “…like chocolate and fudge and candy.” Star Wars is also obsessed with Hitler, the Dark Side, and Jesus. He is also an amazing dancer, as seen on our Facebook page.

Simon doing his mime act

Simon: You may have seen Simon if you have visited the Byward Market in the summer. He is the old mime with the grey dreadlocks who can be seen balancing tennis rackets on William St. Simon is very friendly with rickshaw runners. Sometimes he shouts comments to passers-by which embarrass them, or gets mad at tourists who take a photo of him without a tip.

Surfer: Some love him, some hate him. This Newfoundlander is characterized by his “surfer” haircut and his failed attempts to perform tricks with his cigarettes. If you’ve ever gone out at night in the Market, you’ve probably met this guy.

The Architect: This homeless man is tall and lanky, and lately has grown a massive tangled beard. You may have encountered him late at night telling dirty jokes to bar patrons for money. His name, The Architect, comes from a project that he embarked on in 2009. For the entire summer he carried around “blueprints” of a home he designed on a scrap of cardboard. The home included four bathrooms, four bedrooms, sleeping bags, and a staircase to the basement.

Today however I’m going to talk about Bouthong.

During my first year as a rickshaw runner I was very wary of homeless people who approached us. I quickly learned that a fist-pound was a much better way to greet a stranger than an open-palmed handshake (who knows where those hands have been?)

Bouthong began approaching our group late May, always with silly things to say to us. One day he told rickshaw runners Chris and Brian that they were like children to him. Once Bouthong told rickshaw Omar that he dreamed that he was eating chocolate pudding out of his butt. He also carried a strange assortment of raw vegetables in his backpack.One day Bouthong asked me for a $50 rickshaw ride. I thought it was a joke at first. Bouthong had outlined to me where he would like me to pull him. Before we departed, he ran into the market to buy some provisions for his journey. He bought two ears of raw corn and a basket of blueberries.

As instructed, I took Bouthong past the majority of homeless shelters around the Market. The guys smoking outside would cheer for Bouthong as he rode by smiling, eating raw corn off the cob. Kernels fell from his mouth into my rickshaw as he chomped away.

As I pulled Bouthong around the Market for a bit, an emergency struck. Bouthong had to pee, really, really badly. He commanded that I pull over to the sidewalk on busy Rideau Street. Bouthong leapt out of the rickshaw and peed on the front door of a bank in broad daylight. It was like an endless waterfall. Urine began to stream onto the streets, and I took note to myself not to shake his hand or even bump his fist. Bouthong had lost that right!

Bouthong jumped back into the rickshaw and instructed me to pull him to his sister’s convenience store, which was on the other side of downtown. We began our long journey, and Bouthong resumed his corn-chomping, telling me more personal information about himself.

Apparently Bouthong was native to Cambodia. He was fluent in 5 languages (English, Mandarin, Cantonese, French, and Cambodian – he demonstrated each to me). He also explained that he had a few siblings in Ottawa watching out for him. I’m not too sure why he was on the streets, but it relieved me to know that my new friend was somewhat taken care of.  Bouthong was happy to talk to me, and he became pretty gracious about my rickshaw ride and my company. In fact, his repetitive expressions of gratitude drew the smiling attention of many pedestrians walking by as I navigated Sparks St.

Eventually we arrived at Bouthong’s sister’s store (after getting lost for a little bit). I let Bouthong out, and he wanted to hug me. I remembered the peeing incident and politely dodged the hug.

While other runners have seen Bouthong since, I have not—and this remains one of my most pleasant rickshaw encounters during my time as a runner.  Working in the Market for three summers helped me to appreciate that homeless people are in fact people. It humanized those guys that you would just ignore on the street, and speaking with them allowed me see into a whole other way of life.