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Character Toronto: Neon Dean lives his big city dream

Last Updated Dec 22, 2015 at 6:49 pm EDT

Dean Northcott slinks down the stairs, swipes his keys off the foyer table and saunters out into the street.

His 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme is parked across from the inconspicuous home he rents with his wife, Linda, in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood.

The car has seen better days. Like wrinkles invading an aging starlet’s face, the once pristine paint job is beginning to show signs of wear and tear. It doesn’t quite shine the way it used to and a patch of rust has settled over the front left tire.

But Northcott still stares at it with reverence.

To him, it’s much more than just a car or an audacious urban curiosity. It’s a celebration of self, warts and rust be damned. It’s a splash of colour and eccentricity, an aberration in a world too often choked by spirit-crushing conformity.

The fit 55-year-old eases into the driver’s seat and insists he’s just a “regular guy.”

The humble facade quickly fades when he turns the key and over 100 feet of pink neon starts flickering to life. Long tubes adorn the hood and trunk. He’s even strapped strips to the underside of the vehicle, giving it the appearance of a hovering UFO poised for take off.

A smile creeps onto his face as what he refers to as the ‘Pinkmobile’ begins to purr, casting the grey December street with an otherworldly glow.

He peeks through the rear-view, hits the gas, and he’s off, burning psychedelic streaks into the night.

Dean Northcott, the unassuming house painter and handyman, has been left behind.

It’s Neon Dean’s time to shine.

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Documenting Neon Dean sightings has become something of a sport on social media, with his quirky car akin to an elusive, day-glo Sasquatch.

Punch the #NeonDean hashtag into Twitter or Instagram and it becomes clear that many motorists will sacrifice safety and risk a heavy fine just to capture evidence of the Pinkmobile creeping through Parkdale or snarled among the mundane masses on the Don Valley Parkway.

Northcott is accustomed to seeing people snapping pictures while he’s out driving, but he seems oblivious to the quasi cult-celebrity status he’s earned online.

“I’m not on any social media.” he says. “But people say that I’m on Instagram and Facebook and I think you can even Google me now.”

He seems at times both enamoured and dismissive of his own curious renown.

“I’m indifferent to it,” he insists. “I’m not trying to be famous. I’m just trying to bring a smile to peoples’ faces with a little light.”

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Twitter photos using the #neondean hashtag
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Instagram posts using the #NeonDean hashtag

The Pinkmobile is barreling east towards Scarborough, where Northcott has a small neon workshop in a storage unit.

He regales us with stories, including the time he was pulled over by a bemused cop.

“A woman officer comes up to the door and says ‘I’m really sorry for pulling you over but I just had to see this car. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ “

“I came home and I was floored. ‘The cops pulled me over! And they apologized!’ ”

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In many ways, Northcott’s story is that of a young man not only seduced by the sparkles of the big city, but intent on adding his own wattage to the collective buzz.

He came to Toronto from Nova Scotia in 1981. Just 21, he was quickly captivated.

“I just wanted to move to the big city. I loved Yonge Street and the Sam The Record Man sign, loved it. I was just fascinated with the glitz.”

“I saw a neon sign and it was gorgeous and from there on in, I was just in love with neon.”

One day he cold-called a sign company and promptly ditched his managerial job in the restaurant industry.

“I looked at who made the sign and I phoned that company and said, ‘Can I come work for you?’ I didn’t know anything about it, I just knew I loved neon signs. He said sure, so I went from making $25 an hour to $6 an hour, voluntarily.”

Over the years he learned how to make his own signs and started his own hobby-business after purchasing $7,000 worth of equipment. “I took out a loan, bought it, and found a shop to put it in.”

It may not have been a lucrative decision, but it paid off in other, more substantial ways.

If it wasn’t for neon, he explains, he never would have met his wife a decade ago.

“I saw an ad in the paper for the largest singles dance in Ontario,” he says with a boyish smile. “I went and wore my neon name-tag and she was with her friend and she said ‘I’m going to have a dance with Dean before this night is over.’ The rest is history and we’ve been together ever since.”

“The Neon Dean persona came about because of my wife,” he elaborates. “She bought me the (Neon Dean) custom licence plate.”

“She loves that side of me. I couldn’t have met anybody better.”

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Northcott is considering selling his neon equipment. He doesn’t make as many signs as he used to, and the rent on his workshop can quickly add up.

He shows us how the machines work, gently cradling glass tubes under brilliant blue flames.

The prospect of closing up shop is admittedly a sad one, but it won’t spell the death of his Neon Dean persona.

“I do like the attention,” he concedes, as if the evidence wasn’t already overwhelming. “There’s no doubt about it, I like to stand out. Everywhere I go I always try to capture some attention some way.”

He turns off the machines and flicks off the lights. The neon fades to black.

We walk towards the Pinkmobile in silence.

“When I’m driving my wife’s car, I don’t feel the same,” he suddenly confesses. “Like wow, there’s nobody looking at me.”

“It’s who I am. I’ll always be this way.”

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