A few years ago, Zanta was the unofficial push-up king of Toronto. Photo via.
In December of last year, I walked into Jet Fuel Coffee and found it decorated from top to bottom with drawings of a shirtless, smoking Santa—pumping his fists and shouting “Merry Christmess!” The art was from a graphic novel by Jason Kieffer called Zanta: The Living Legend that came out in 2012, but is receiving some new attention from Jet Fuel’s art show. I’d somehow never heard of Zanta, because apparently I spent the better part of the 2000s living under a rock. That said, I can’t tell you how excited I was to discover that Zanta is a real, living character.
For those of you who also hadn’t discovered Zanta when he was at his peak, the man is known for shirtless, furious knuckle-pushups that he once performed all over Toronto—while wearing a Santa hat, and smoking. As recounted in Kieffer’s graphic novel, Zanta was arrested on multiple occasions, spent a bit of time in jail, and was eventually banned from most of the downtown core, along with Toronto’s public transit system. That was back in 2006, and as a result of his banishment, Zanta effectively vanished from Toronto.
I wanted to find out what happened to everyone’s favourite Christmas-loving, cigarette smoking, push-up guru, so I got in touch with him at his mother’s house where he currently resides, and he told me all about the legend of Zanta in his own words.
In the spring of 2000, David “Zanta” Zancai was doing some construction work with his father when he fell from a height of 25 feet, while painting a ceiling, and landed on a staircase. David fell into a coma for 23 days, and was on life support for 17. For a brief period, no one knew if he was going to make it. “I remember cutting into the ceiling, and then I don’t remember anything else,” said Zanta.
When he woke from his coma, he was in a body brace for a month, and doctors told him he was never going to be able to work again. But after that fall, something had started brewing inside David (soon to be Zanta) and he was beginning to experience bouts of mania. According to his friends and family, the fall caused brain damage that triggered schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. He grew restless at home and couldn’t just sit on the couch—so he started doing pushups anywhere he could. Pushups were the only exercise he could do without hurting his back, and he wanted to get in shape. During this time his then girlfriend left with their daughter, and he soon started doing thousands of pushups a day, all over the city and on the subway. His goal soon became: “get famous and let everyone know what happened with my daughter.”
In 2003, police took him to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) after they found him doing his pushups while making strange noises in public—which Zanta says are modeled after car hydraulics. From there, Zanta told me he was sent to a CAMH facility located in downtown Toronto for 30 days, because he was talking too fast. He hated it there (he referred to it as “a nuthouse”) and claims no one tried to help him; they just put him onto prescription meds. “They give you medication to go back to sleep and if you don’t take your medication, they jump you and give you an injection,” he said. He told me one nurse asked him to act like he was OK and that the meds were working so that they could release him. David claims that he didn’t actually take the meds—he was spitting them out because they knocked him out cold. One month later he was let out, and says he kept pushing on; or rather, pushing up.
By December 2004 his mania continued, and while he was at a Santa Claus parade he realized that if he put on a Santa hat, more people would pay attention to his antics. Zanta was born. “I took my shirt off in the middle of winter and I thought more people would watch me then, too… and then I thought Zanta would be a way to make it!”
A short time later, he lost custody of his two-year-old daughter (he wore a Santa hat to the custody hearing) and then became Zanta 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “I never stopped being the character for two years, every hour, every day. I wanted to be famous and I wanted people to know what had happened with my daughter and at the nuthouse.”
His campaign of awareness worked. Thanks to his nearly omnipresent status in the downtown core—doing pushups in fountains, flexing and screaming in front of the CHUM building, working out on top of police cars, and showing off in the TTC—by 2005 Zanta had become a phenomenon in the city. You could sit on Zanta’s back while he did push-ups, and he was constantly giving money to the homeless. Such an animated and extroverted character was so rare for “Toronto the Good” that Zanta soon became a local celebrity. There were several independent documentaries made about him (like this one), a fairly detailed Wikipedia page, and an appearance on Kenny vs. Spenny.
In the previously mentioned short doc, there’s a scene where Zanta is relaxing on a bench while fans approach him. One guy shakes his hand and calls him “Toronto’s finest,” then a retired mall Santa comes up and and says Zanta’s look is “right on.” Later, a woman approached him on the sidewalk and announced proudly they were Facebook friends while hugging him. One guy recalls working at a Korean BBQ restaurant, when Zanta walked in and started flexing while saying. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Mr. Korean BBQ thought that was hilarious: “I was working a long shift and it was exactly what I needed to see: something funny.”
His fans loved him, no question. The authorities, however, did not.
“I was out there everyday making people smile, doing something no one else has done before. I’ve never bummed a penny off anyone for two years,” said Zanta. “But every time I went down to the corner, I was getting hassled. They’d give me tickets for things like interfering with traffic.” Zanta recalls once running and jumping into a garbage can to hide. “I wasn’t hurting anybody.”
Photo of a page in the "Zanta: The Living Legend" graphic novel, via Angela Hennessy.
Regular street performers are allowed to perform with a proper license, and there are by-laws that protect them, but Zanta isn’t a regular performer. He’s never collected any money—nor is there any City Hall paperwork that could legalize his specific brand of performance art, if you can call it that.
According to Zanta, the “aggressiveness” or “mischief” he was charged with by police was simply a way to bring some energy into the city: “So many people are stressed out. Working their asses off for nothing. Everyone is depressed, walking around like zombies. Nobody is smiling. No one is talking. When I do Zanta I leave an impression, and I guarantee that they are going to see me and tell someone else. And in that moment when they see me they are not thinking about anything else. And they don’t think about anything bad, like lost loved ones or other problems.”
But these run-ins with the law further underline the growing trend to push people like Zanta, or to use Jason’s term, “eccentrics,” out of Toronto’s downtown and how quickly people with mental health issues are being shunted into the criminal justice system instead of getting the help they need.
“Jail isn’t the right place for Zanta or for anyone like that. But the criminal justice system is flooded with these kinds of people and only a small amount of the problem is being addressed,” said Paul Druxerman, a lawyer who offered to help Zanta pro-bono after seeing him walking into court with “Vote Zanta” written in marker on his chest and back. He recalls another time in court where Zanta showed up in pajamas (and a Santa hat, of course) and started doing handstand pushups at the courtroom door, which prevented anyone from entering. “I told him he couldn’t do that kind of thing because the guards would be only too happy to take him away.”
It has been roughly seven years since Zanta has performed, but he’s now talking about making a comeback. After seeing the show Jason had done at Jet Fuel, he became inspired to see his fans again. “It was incredible to see. It’s unbelievable how famous I am.” He recently had a Santa hat delivered to his mother’s house and has started working out again. His Zanta hiatus caused him to gain some weight and now he’s got a bit of a gut—but he’s on the Jenny Craig program, and says he wants to get fit for his fans. He’s also talked about possibly opening a Zanta museum inside of a pub in Mimico where his fans could come to him. He’s not sure he’d come back downtown to perform, but he’d like to walk around with his hat and see what happens.
Zanta is still in close contact with his three other children. One of them, 21-year old Nathan Zancai, reached out to me when he heard I was writing this story to share his thoughts on the Zanta issue: “It’s just not that crazy. We even have the Brampton Batman out there. If they aren’t harming anyone, leave them alone… If there’s a naked cowboy in New York, why can’t Toronto have Zanta?” @angelamaries