The Street Philosopher

Jeff Mitchell, Staff Writer
June 10, 2003

Picture: Bill Roberts
Still pursued by The Hat People, the one constant over decades of riches and poverty, employment and idleness, Ivan Prokopchuk stooped suddenly and plucked a book from the floor of his third-floor apartment.

He was in the midst of explaining how he piddled away $60,000, en route to taking up residence in a broken-down car.

The book is Light Over Newmarket, published by his own Island Grove Press in 1991.

"You had to fail at something when you had that kind of money," he said, continuing to stalk around the metal kitchen table, upon which instant coffee steamed in a mug festooned with tiny Santa Clauses.

"All of a sudden I found myself with $60,000 in my pocket," he said and the butts in the crowded ashtray were forced to make room for one more spent Rothmans.

"And I like to drink."

This episode, of course, was the second go-round involving a large chunk of money in the life of Mr. Prokopchuk -- refugee, soldier, pilot, professor, lounge singer, failed politician, philanderer, writer.

It ended rather like the first, a marriage to a woman from a wealthy family, which is to say badly, but largely without regrets.

In fact, during the course of three hours of reminiscence, Mr. Prokopchuk, 64, hinted at just one moment of genuine remorse. It was for a crime committed in the line of duty as a journalist.

It was in the '70s, when the now-defunct Topic magazine was making an impact on local issues.

Hired by editor Jerry Barker, Mr. Prokopchuk was tasked with a role he was, despite years in the news racket, unprepared for: "We want somebody to raise a lot of hackles around here. We want to bring it to the edge of libel and make people choke on their breakfast" is how he remembers his marching orders being dispatched.

So Mr. Prokopchuk commenced to pillory a local activist, a member of an education advocacy group, which had been taking on the school board over administrative issues.

Siding with administration, he wrote a piece that brought threats of legal action from his target and promises of physical harm from her husband. Even as the piece was being written, "I wasn't 100-per-cent sure I was doing the right thing," he says. In retrospect, "I was probably a little harder on her than I should have been."

So ended his career as a hard-bitten columnist, but certainly not his affiliation with The Topic. Or, for that matter, any of the other local papers. He is a tireless producer of letters to the editor. He has opinions. He has opinions about his opinions. He has a personal anecdote relating to virtually every topic.

And most involve conflict, which is fitting, as tumult has been an ongoing state for Mr. Prokopchuk.

It began in his Ukrainian village, a battleground haggled over violently by the Germans and the Russians; it continued after the Second World War with several years internment in a displaced persons camp, where young Ivan embraced the literature of his culture.

In Canada, the family found peace. Ivan arrived with his mother, the beautiful but tempestuous Paraskeva, to join his father Dmytro, the rock upon which the family rested.

Dmytro had been toiling for a year on a hydro-electric dam near Deep River, saving money. He was on his way to becoming a master carpenter and house builder, the trade that would set him up comfortably and create the $60,000 legacy that would eventually come his son's way.

In "God's country", young Ivan flourished.

"The only thing I worried about was the war coming back," he said.

It did not, of course. Unless you count the Cold War, in which Mr. Prokopchuk nearly had an inadvertent -- yet potentially cataclysmic -- role.

After a less than stellar experience in high school, the drop-out enlisted with the air force, which turned out not to be that bad a gig: "Basic training was hard. You were a maggot. But after you got through it, everybody was nice."

Assigned to a radar post in the Maritimes from 1957 to 1962, Mr. Prokopchuk was on duty the day a blip appeared on the screens, coming in from the east and heading toward Newfoundland.

Following protocol -- "It was never a drill. It was always the real thing" -- several fighters were scrambled to investigate the anomaly. Then came the message from the lead fighter pilot: "Holy f---! It's Russian!"

Needless to say, tense moments ensued. But no shots were fired, which turned out to be a good thing.

"It was (Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev, on his way to New York," Mr. Prokopchuk said.

"So we couldn't shoot him down." His career trajectory after the military was no less adventurous. After graduating from Ryerson, Mr. Prokopchuk secured and lost a succession of jobs with Toronto newspapers. One of those departures, however, was voluntary -- and it is a watershed moment, one that defined him as a writer rather than a reporter.It was in the late '60s when the gainfully employed Mr. Prokopchuk began to be troubled by a recurring dream in which he was pursued, relentlessly, by shadowy figures wearing cop-like hats. They became, in his mind, The Hat People. They represent "officialdom ... phantom, all-controlling people."

They haunt him to this day.

Mr. Prokopchuk convinced his wife, whose father had struck it rich in the retail chain business, that he must leave his job to write a book -- The Hat People.

It was, he admits now, a move that would be questioned by the average guy, who seeks comfort and security above all.

After all, "I was propelled out of the potato field in which I was born to the upper middle class in a very short time," Mr. Prokopchuk said.

Months went by. The writer struggled. He produced, perhaps without realizing it, what one editor described as an intriguing but flawed "absurdist surreal masterpiece".

When no one would publish it, Mr. Prokopchuk eventually did so himself. His marriage is long over and his journalistic tenure a distant memory, but he is still working on the book, to this day. It was one of several novels, including The Black Icon and Light Over Newmarket, he would publish independently.

Life led Mr. Prokopchuk in the early '70s to Newmarket, which, upon first sampling, he hated.

But he quickly established himself, through his writing and music, as something of a local character. His reputation was cemented during a number of failed political campaigns, which included a futile bid to unseat the pugnacious Ray Twinney and another effort, a run at regional council. Mr. Prokopchuk recalls that campaign, against Mayor Tom Taylor, as an outstanding debacle.

"He beat the crap out of me. But at least we got Bob Scott out of there."

Although his reminiscence is whimsical -- even memories of campaign offices being razed by fire -- Mr. Prokopchuk insists his political motivation was sincere.

"You're supposed to have a council of elders," he said of municipal government.

"This is not a council of elders. It's a council of developers. We're nothing but lines on a developer's map."

It was during a run for mayor -- and after a prolonged period of dissipation, fueled by that $60,000 from his dad's estate -- that Mr. Prokopchuk found himself living in his 1981 Dodge Omni, which, one day, died in a plaza parking lot and refused to move. He was broke and homeless.

He remembers bedding down in the vehicle and being struck by the novelty of it.

"I saw the seagulls come down. Saw them fishing for scraps in the parking lot. And I thought, this is good. This is an adventure."

But as the months dragged on, the novelty wore off. He spent two years living in the car.

"It got to be winter, 10 or 20 below," he recalled.

"Holy Christ, you've got two sleeping bags on and you're freezing."

The kindness of others -- who fed him, saw to it that he was surviving -- and then finally being approved for subsidized housing -- saw him through.

Now he lives in an apartment, small and sparsely furnished, sure, but a big improvement on the Dodge.

There are books on the arm of the sofa. He's got tomatoes growing on the balcony, which provides a view of downtown Newmarket.

Mr. Prokopchuk works diligently these days on the latest rewrite of The Hat People, 35 years in the making. He'd like to revive the WhizzBang, his newsletter.

He wants to help out with the upcoming Canada Day celebration, take part in the life of the town that has become his home.

Mr. Prokopchuk's face, which is a testament to six-and-a-half decades of living, smoking, drinking, fighting and writing, took on an almost wistful look as he gazed out the window and exhaled cigarette smoke.

"If this is the way to go, it's not bad," he said, then stubbed out another Rothmans.