Death of an Enigma

Ken Djingheuzian passed away this week.  If the name doesn’t ring familiar, one can be forgiven since even among those of us who regularly encountered him for upwards of the past thirty years, very few actually knew his full name.

“Tootsie”, as I knew him, was every bit the classic “vest-pocket” dealer.  He plied his trade in the Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal corridor, regularly taking up residence in one city for a month or two before moving on to the next.  He dealt in most collectibles, including coins, banknotes, medallions, classic sports cards, and just about everything in between. He would attend most trade-shows on his circuit, haunt antique and coin shops, and by his own account, spend countless hours in used book shops, actually looking through the pages of books for possible overlooked paper money or postcards, etc.

Ken didn’t have a shop, never owned a computer, and I never saw him cut a cheque in the 25 or so years I can recall dealing with him. He was strictly cash, and likely the most off-the-grid person I have ever met.  He also never drove, and on more than one occasion would ask me, when the subject of getting around came up, “why would I need a car?”. Ironically, such brief exchanges would usually have been precipitated by his lamenting about being unable to visit my shop, due to the absence of bus service between Ottawa and Almonte.

Ken Djingheuzian counting twenties
Ken Djingheuzian

How I first starting calling him “Tootsie” is somewhat unclear to me.  It was not especially intended to be derogatory, but rather seemed to suit his distinct and remarkably consistent visual persona.  For as long as I can remember, he was bookmarked by a beret on his head and a large pair of white running shoes on his feet (no doubt a very practical choice, given the high mileage he must have traversed).  For most of the first couple decades I knew him, his wardrobe would be completed by a low-cut sweater (always white or beige), and a sports jacket whose every pocket would be filled with bags of carefully-wrapped coins and medals.  In later years he seems to have migrated to darker sweaters, thought always with the trademark beret and sneakers. Curiously, I found myself earlier last year describing a particular encounter with Ken to a young local collector, who didn’t know who I was talking about until I mentioned the Beret. “Oh, you mean Bobo!”, he said matter-of-factly.  And thus I came to learn that “Tootsie”, to my circle of friends, was “Bobo” to another, and who knows what other handles depending on who you were speaking with.

A couple colleagues and I have long speculated how Ken could have survived in this industry, living what is (was) essentially a peddler’s lifestyle.  Certainly it took both tenacity and perseverance, though he showed no sign of slowing down or tiring of the lifestyle as the years went by.  Ken’s memory was surprisingly sharp, and he regularly liked to recall transactions he and I had done in the past in order to make an argument for a better deal, etc.  In fact, he would often pull some recollection out of his hat that bordered on the bizarre in terms of context, and this – unknown to himself, of course – resulted years ago in the coining of the term “a Tootsie”, in reference to his seemingly unique use of logic.  For example, a classic “Tootsie” would go something like this:

“Thirty Dollars?  I bought one from Bromberg and only paid Twenty.

Of course that was eleven years ago”.

Or, to quote one of my favorite exchanges:

“I didn’t see you at the Nuphilex last week”

“That’s right, I had a conflict – how was the show?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t go”.

On a somewhat darker note, Ken was the most neurotic individual I have ever known; perhaps the cumulative affects of a solitary lifetime on or among the streets, or rather a pre-requisite for surviving this chosen world of his. Transactions between us had to be evenly-paced and methodical; if dealing with several items on the table before us, if my pricing notes weren’t clear enough for a grade-school child to read, or for any reason the order of anything was disturbed, it would cause Ken visible stress and we’d have to revisit the calculation on the deal multiple times.  And, finally, after painstakingly counting out each banknote paid to either of us at least twice,  every meeting would be concluded by a five or ten-minute ritual of looking on, around, and under the table to ensure he hadn’t inadvertently dropped something.  It could and often did drive me nuts, however I had long come to understand Ken, appreciated the futility of trying to rush through these processes, and was happy to oblige.

Unfortunately, however, I believe it was due in large part to these eccentricities that Ken saw more than a few bridges burned in the industry over the years, resulting in his being banned from a number of coin and antique shops, as well as the unfortunate ejection from trade-shows on occasion, often citing the legitimacy of his intentions. To my mind, however, I never felt that his honestly was in question. We met regularly during my Wednesday appraisal days at Chris Green’s in the Glebe, and on occasions where he tempted me to purchase something I hadn’t anticipated, and was short of cash, a simple handshake was all it took to defer our settlement until the follow week’s visit. On my part, I was always happy to be straight with him in filling the occasional gap in his knowledge on a particular coin or medal (paradoxically, in spite of his broad knowledge of collectibles, he would often be missing key details on current pricing trends, etc., due to his complete lack of exposure to the internet).  Not to say Ken wouldn’t take every cent he could get out of a deal, if you weren’t paying attention, but I always found that with hard patience and rationality, reaching a reasonable middle-ground with him was achievable more often than not.

Will the real Ken O’Brien Please Step Forward…

Learning about Tootsie and his background was like peeling back the layers of a petrified onion.  Even with those he would come to trust, he seldom shared personal details of his life, and one of the “buttons” that could quickly put him into defensive mode included asking him about his family or past. As mentioned earlier, even among the many that were aware of him and his activities, I doubt that half actually knew his name was Ken. 

I think it was just a few years ago that he startled me by actually handing me a business-card. In addition to the name “Ken O’Brien” – which I came to realize was an alias he used in the trade – the card contained only a phone number and a peculiar photograph in black-and-white.

Coin dealer Graham Neale with a head-shot of Ken Djingheuzian
Graham Neale with the antiqued head-shot of Ken

A head-shot, wearing his trade-mark beret, it had been deliberately “antiqued” in appearance which temptingly resembled an old post office mug-shot.  At the time, I couldn’t resist “repurposing” the image for sharing among my small inner circle of friends in the hobby.  Looking back, I suspect that was the only existing photograph of Ken at the time, and his crafting of a business-card was a marked departure from his usual practice of exercising extreme discretion in sharing his identify (fake name, notwithstanding!).

The real moment of enlightenment in our working relationship came a further couple years down the road, when he actually told me his real surname – Djingheuzian. That was enough to begin filling in a few pieces in the otherwise blank puzzle that was Ken, supplemented by the excellent detective work of my colleague Graham Neale, who seemed to maintain as functional a relationship with him as anyone likely could, without going entirely insane.

Ken, as it turns out, was the son of Caucasus immigrants who came to Canada in 1924, via England where his father paused long enough to graduate from the Royal School of Mines engineering department.   The elder Djingheuzian became a renowned metallurgical engineer and researcher in the mining industry, receiving in 1965 the Selwyn G. Blaylock Medal for distinguished service to Canada.  He seems to have had some involvement in the stamp hobby, as evidenced by a reference to his name in the 1951 yearbook of the Canadian Philatelic Society.  Although only 3 or 4 at the time, perhaps this was Ken’s initial exposure to the hobby, and served as the gateway to his future professional dealings.

Sadly, both of his parents died in the late 1960s, leaving teenage Ken and both a younger and older sister to survive on their own (both sisters ended up residing in the United States, where his older sibling appears to have died in 1999 in Texas). 

As my esteemed colleague Graham correctly reflects, it was Ken’s evasiveness and secrecy about his housing status that – perhaps unfairly – lead many of us to conclude he likely stayed at the YMCA or other such temporary shelters during his migrations from city-to-city. In actuality, only in his passing did we learn that he had a permanent apartment here in Ottawa, where the police sadly found his remains after responding to a request from his neighbors for a wellness check.  Ken was scheduled to see me at the Ottawa Westboro show on December 12th to offer a couple silver cigarette cases which he hunted down for me. When he didn’t show, I found that surprising, but fully-expected he had decided to defer to my office hours at Chris Green’s three days later.  When he again failed to visit, I found that alarming given his tenaciousness in never missing an appointment, especially when he knew he had something I would have to buy.  Reaching only his voice-mail on a couple attempts, I finally emailed Graham on the 29th to see if he had heard from Ken. Later that same morning, Graham responded with the news that he had just received a telephone call from the Ottawa Police Service, informing him of Ken’s passing. To his credit, Ken had recorded Graham as an emergency contact among the contents of his wallet. I’m sure we both reflected on the “what if’s” of the preceding days, however with no known address and nil social-media footprint (which the investigating police later commented on as being fairly unprecedented), there was little either of us could have done that would have offered him the dignity of being promptly found.

It is always easy to contemplate in retrospect, and yet both Graham and I felt an unexpected weight in Ken’s passing. Speaking for myself, I reflect on all the times I was so keen to see Ken out the door as quickly as possible after our dealings, and wonder whether if I had just taken 10 minutes on any of those occasions to ask him about himself – beyond the couple minutes of typical banter we usually enjoyed between us – would I have contributed more to his life experience, and he to mine?  Thinking about our hobby and our industry, I am now reminded how genuinely rare it is to encounter a character who so distinctly embodies both the past and the present as did Ken.

I don’t lose sleep over it, but I have to wonder if we all did right by him over the years. Either way – and as odd as it may sound – I can’t think of a more appropriate “farewell” than by celebrating that venerable Al Jolson lyric,

“Goodbye Tootsie, Goodbye”!

Sean Isaacs

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