By Alex Consiglio
The Toronto Star
David Zancai would not sit down and continued doing squats, grunting and grunting until his mother, Lorna, finally persuaded him to leave his apartment and go to the hospital.
Once she had him in the car, safely in the back seat, she felt some relief, some control.
“I just heard a bang and I looked back, and he wasn’t there, ” Lorna said last week, shaking her head on the porch of her Etobicoke home with David by her side, recalling that day in 2008. “He’d jumped out of the moving car.”
Lorna rushed to her son’s aid, forcing him to wait for an ambulance. She then accompanied him to Toronto General Hospital, after which psychiatrists treated him at St. Joseph’s Health Centre.
That day was the beginning of the end for Zancai’s notorious public persona: Zanta, a shirtless Santa hat-wearing character who roamed Toronto doing pushups from 2004 to 2008.
Now 44, Zancai is back living with his mother. She gives him four pills a day to treat his schizophrenia and takes him to see a psychiatrist at St. Joseph’s once every three months. Zanta is deadened.
Zanta was born after Zancai fell eight metres onto a staircase while working as a painter in 2000. He suffered a brain injury and spent 23 days in a coma.
Once he recovered, Zancai, unemployed and receiving a monthly disability cheque, began roaming the TTC, muttering at people as he formed his Zanta persona.
In 2003, Zancai says, police checked him into the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health after many run-ins with the TTC. Doctors told him he was bipolar, schizophrenic and a danger to himself.
Near Christmas 2004, he says, bringing a cigarette to his mouth, he attended a custody hearing regarding his 2-year-old daughter wearing a Santa hat in her honour.
When he lost custody, Zancai began running around Toronto yelling, “Yes, yes, yes, ” and grunting, rolling his tongue, “Drrrrr, ” over and over. “Merry Christmess, ” he’d yell, wearing only boots, shorts and a Santa hat, while doing thousands of pushups on his knuckles. He wanted to make it known he’d unfairly lost his daughter.
Zanta had fans – Facebook pages, a website with 100,000 hits – but also enemies. Police would routinely arrest him during these performances, hold him for a few hours and then let him go, Zancai says, adding he was charged with numerous TTC bylaw infractions, disturbing the peace and trespassing.
By 2008, he’d been banned from the TTC, around the CHUM building, from Dundas Square and Exhibition Place, due to probation orders, bail conditions and warnings he’d be charged with trespassing.
When he broke his probation orders, he’d be dumped in the Toronto (Don) Jail, he says, recalling he spent two birthdays there.
“I was a prisoner in my own city, ” says Zancai, who has a large cyst under his ring finger from doing so many pushups. “The more they were after me, the more I thought: ‘You’re not going to stop me.’ ”
Zancai, who just wanted to make his fans laugh, brightens as he remembers his three months on TV – in the background of television shows at the CHUM building.
“If (my mom) wouldn’t have interrupted me, this character would have been massive, ” he says, grinning. He adds he appeared on an episode of Kenny vs. Spenny.
“It was just getting bigger and bigger, ” he says, holding his newest claim to fame, a graphic novel by Toronto cartoonist Jason Kieffer. “He calls me a living legend.”
Zancai laughs, patting a rounded belly where he once had a six-pack as Zanta. “If I had kept going, Zanta would’ve been huge – I wouldn’t have a gut on me now, either, ” he says. Zancai is a father of four, the oldest of them 22, with three mothers. “I miss it a lot.”
His mother shakes her head; now that Zancai is taking medication, she says, he won’t be doing his Zanta act again. They look at each other, his smile disappears, and they nod.
Lorna doesn’t like the way police handled her son, but officers aren’t doctors, she says; they were just doing their job. She just wishes it hadn’t taken leaping from a moving car to get him the help he needed.
Lorna rubs his shoulder and goes back inside to fetch him another cigarette. A playful grin returns to Zancai’s face, the graphic novel still in his hands.
“I wasn’t hurting a fly and people were loving it. It sucks – all I do is sit here now, ” he says, adding the meds “knock” him out.
“I’m taking these medications – I don’t even need them. I just take them to keep my mom quiet.”