Carlos Guedes is a study in contrasts.
And though that is a bit cliché, how else would you describe a small, soft-spoken, 91-year-old man, who is currently wearing leather pants?
A man who describes his career and business humbly as “body work,” but also just donated $400,000 to the Maison McCulloch Hospice, because they had treated his friends well, and the hospice needed help.
A man who has a leopard print blanket on his spare bed, versus a man who came to Canada from Lisbon, Portugal as a stowaway, with only $25 to his name, in order to make his way in Canada before bringing his wife and children.
Also, he totally forgot about the interview, and so before changing into his leather – to be specific, his ensemble is entirely leather: shoes, pants, jacket, and topped off with a flat cap – he was wearing the most wry t-shirt imaginable on an elderly man. Grey jersey with red writing, it reads “Not Yet.”
It’s that same dry, almost matter-of-fact sense of humour that comes through in all of his stories.
And does this man have stories.
Usually, when you try to tell someone’s life story from past to present, one needs to cover every aspect. Every memory, story, achievement and tribulation makes a person who they are, and is important to any narrative you try to put together about them.
But with Guedes – who insists you call him Carlos – it would be almost impossible. Every time you reach a moment in one of his stories that you think he has topped himself, he hits you with another twist – delivered as if he were ordering breakfast.
So settle in, kids; it’s time for the tales of Carlos Guedes, the man in the leather pants.
Let’s begin at the beginning, so they say. The story begins in Lisbon, Portugal, where an approximately 30-year-old Guedes is looking to move to Canada “for a fresh start.” This is the only reason he will offer.
While planning his clandestine voyage, he is given the name and address of a Portuguese stranger in Toronto, and told to get on a boat that has shipping containers going to the port of Montreal. He spoke neither French nor English. A man secreted him on the ship with no papers, no luggage, and only crackers and water for the journey.
No matter how he rationed them, he ran out of food and water on day five of what turned out to be an 11-day journey.
He dared not leave his hiding place though. He knew the punishment that awaited him were he found out: he would either be shipped back to Portugal and imprisoned, or worse, thrown to the sea. Like, actual, walk the plank, Captain throwing you out to sea.
Guedes must have been previously disbelieved when it comes to this part of the story; he stops to reinforce: “I read in the paper, not three days later, that five men were thrown overboard a ship when they were found hidden.” He finishes speaking, then nods his head and gives a look like: ‘Well that got you didn’t it.’
He returns to his story, describing how he had to escape the ship once he arrived in Montreal,
trying desperately to make his malnourished and atrophied body take him up the rickety ladder to the main deck – past the Captain and the entire crew – and then down the ladder from ship to shore.
How he ran to the first taxi he found, and gestured as best he could for the driver to take him to food and water. (This is the part where he mentions that the driver didn’t understand him, and so asked a police officer to come and help the man with no papers.) They got it figured out.
Like any good Montrealer, the driver dropped him off at a tavern. So the very first thing that Guedes consumed after starving for five days – and after nothing but crackers and water for the five days previous – was a .25 draft beer. You can imagine how that went down.
He slept rough that night, and in the morning walked to the bus station with his limited funds and the Toronto address. But the bus was $11. Too much for him.
And so Guedes walked for two days trying to reach Toronto. And when he could go no further, on the brink of collapse, he saw a bus he could get on. Desperate, he asked for a ticket to Toronto, sure he has at least lessened some of the cost. Driver said “That will be $11.”
He finally arrives in Toronto – but the address isn’t good anymore. The man has moved away.
But a neighbour there knows another Portuguese man, and maybe he can help.
The man he knew? Turns out to be Guedes’ former neighbour in Lisbon.
He helps Guedes the way neighbours do. He gave him a place to stay, bought him some clothes and tools at a second hand store, and found him a job in Elliot Lake, where he got his first look at winter ice. “I saw a dog running across the lake, and I couldn’t believe my eyes!”
He also got a good look at how jealous people can be. There were many men from other countries trying to make it in Elliot Lake, and here was Guedes doing so well that he was able to take his testing for licensing and also fix up a Volkswagen beetle for himself. Soon someone reported him to Immigration – he was without papers at the time – and he left town pretty quickly, driving his Volkswagen Beetle, “With my tools, and ten gallons of wine I had just made, in the back.”
He made a stop in Espanola, and was offered a job, plus room and board. But he declined. “I asked him, ‘what’s that smell?’ and he said ‘don’t worry, you’ll get used to it in a month’.” Guedes emphatically shakes his head at the retelling.
He did body work for Gardner Motors, then Mazzuca Motors in Capreol, where he finally settled.
He bought a home, opened his own shop – Carlos’ Body Shop – and then sent for his wife and three children. (Two boys and a girl, their youngest daughter born in Sudbury).
If you can believe it, all of this happened in under two years. If you don’t believe it, or even seem like you don’t, he’s going to give you that look.
And now in his apartment, you can tell that Guedes is a very happy man. Though he lost his wife in 1998, he has two sons who live with their families in Ottawa, and his two daughters are in Sudbury with theirs.
He also has a girlfriend. He has had many girlfriends since he lost his wife. Many girlfriends. He is a great dancer, after all.
He also has plenty of friends whom he cares deeply for, and some he has lost at the hospice – part of what drove his decision to make the generous donation.
He still drives, he still wears his leather suit, and he still works hard. In fact, the master bedroom of his apartment has “his” and “hers” closets that have been converted. Now it’s “his” clothes closet – one side lined in jeans and t-shirts, the other with some of the flashiest clothes ever seen. “For dancing,” he says.
The other bedroom is now for “his” tools. It is fully set up like a shed with a work bench, tools and random gadgets in need of repair.
For Carlos Guedes is a study in contrasts, in generosity, and in the many different looks that can still be served by nonagenarians.