I bought a wagon from Home Hardware when I moved into this neighbourhood and have come to depend on it as much as any suburbanite depends on his minivan. I use it to go grocery shopping, I use it to get Nola to her dance classes, I use it to return my empties . . . but when one of those proverbial squeaky wheels finally gave out last month, the wheels were literally off my wagon for weeks, and I was grounded until I could figure a way to detach the parts that had rusted together, and then find my bearings . . . again, literally.
Those drifts of sand along the streetcar tracks? They’re from an ocean that covers Toronto in an alternate dimension. The sand sidles over, fine enough to reach us; the more you dwell on it, the more you’ll fathom the signs. Shell stations. Mhm. A suburban drywalled street named “Water”. An unaccountable odor of washed-up, long-popped seaweed.
Lately that ocean’s been welling up again, resurging. Grinding memory into longing, then – and there – into here-and-now, and soon enough you'll find yourself scanning the shelves of Loblaws for a can of sardines that still opens with a key, salt slipping down your cheek.
Puff the Magic Dragon frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee, says the song. Good thing little Jackie Paper mostly brought him strings and sealing wax instead of cottage cheese. The low-fat no salt added pressed kind that lurks in squashy packages. Even with the munchies, Puff would’ve turned his snout up at the sight of this cheese smeared sadly into pumice-like Finn Crisp Caraway Ryes. Maybe he’d have liked my cauliflower cottage cheese mock frittata though. If you kinda squint looking at it, I’d whisper to Puff, it’s almost shiny. And the purple is onions.
Sociology’s forays into affirmative action have succeeded well enough that our hallways are peopled mostly with women. Our washroom, however, is exclusively male. The carpet leading toward it – past my door – has been beaten flat by the purposeful men of nearby Anthro. Each negotiates the twice- or thrice-daily greetings this affords in his own fashion. One nods abstractedly. Another pretends we’ve never met. It makes me miss “Edward”, now retired, who used to exchange Latin tags with me on his tos and fros. “Sic transit gloria mundi,” I might say, and he’d return with a random, gleeful “Ecce homo!”
Deep in the garden, I was well-hidden. That’s when I overheard Joyce. Boy, did she hate dogs. It was only through a thin guise of familial rectitude that she tolerated Snickers, her great-aunt’s moribund poodle. With auntie freshly dead and the pooch dispatched she spoke with impunity. “I don’t miss those little turds, that’s for sure!” She didn’t specify whose turds but rather turned the conversation to me. “My neighbour goes and takes all these dogs away from Indians and finds homes for them here . . .”
I bit my trowel.
“Really, I’ll take my hat off to her . . .” she demurred, bare-headed.
August’s sand has snuck under the door and settled itself in the corner. The stove’s sticky from September’s chicken, and pots of unexpired goods keep naively fresh. She’s gone, but only just, so the rooms still vibrate with the newly-empty. Clacking puzzle pieces, an iced and boozy tipple melting in a highball glass and a charm bracelet’s silvery scrape on wood, like a handful of tight-fisted but tumbling coins, all betray the ghostly remains of happier days. It is such an odd time of life; not dead but not really alive. A still life, waiting. And everybody else waits, too.
NHL Commissioner Patrick Bateman today upped the ante in the league’s lockout of hockey fans, calling their demands “unrealistic and naïve.” The NHL is demanding that fans accept a long-term expectations cap, and is pushing hard for acquiescence to the owners’ agenda: an overpriced, overlong regular season of largely meaningless games, the embrace of the neutral zone trap, and playoffs that last until the start of hurricane season. Observers expect fans to roll over and capitulate quickly. A fan spokesman confirmed this, saying he does not envision strike action. “The only fight we want,” he said, “is on the ice.”
My Dell Latitude E6510 laptop, I am convinced, was 99% cat in an earlier life. Calculating, passive aggressive, needy, needling, and fuck-you indifferent. Which makes me, in an earlier life, a would-be animal abuser. (“Would-be” because, even in my ire, I realize that slamming 6.6 pounds of “durability, security, and performance” into the wall won't help.)
The other 1% is pure heart-melting dog, showing up right when I hit “Turn off computer." The screen starts fading hopefully to grey, like a dog with its leash in its mouth, asking if I really mean it. And each time, yes, I do.
Malala Yousafzai is a fourteen year old schoolgirl. For this, she was yesterday shot twice by the Taliban in Pakistan. As I write, she is in critical condition. Whichever God you pray to, pray for her.
How has it come to this – that attending school can mark a child for execution? A spokesman for the Taliban (“the students”) says “Let this be a lesson.” Yes, a lesson, but not the hateful one he draws. “Malala is my daughter,” says Pakistani Prime Minister Ashraf. “She is Pakistan’s daughter.” And she is my daughter, too – and yours, if you believe in humanity.
In Kindergarten we were told we could use the paints anytime we wanted for our craft projects, provided we cleaned everything up afterwards: the brushes, the paint pots, the water jar, and any other mess that we made.
My solution was to not make a mess in the first place.
I stopped using paint and fell back on crayons for everything. Crayons were neater; and we each had our own set, so I would never be saddled with anyone’s mess but my own.
The question is: did school make me this way or did I have these hang-ups going in?
The recliner faces the flickering SONY. At its left a waste-paper basket and
arm caddy holding a TV Guide, Kleenex and a back-scratcher. At the right
a side table with more Kleenex, a glass containing manicuring tools, gum, a pen
for the crossword, clown-button remotes and the phone. A dish supporting a
cemented lump of peppermints promises a taste somewhere between sidewalk chalk
and the Eucharist. This is the command centre for the elderly. We may progress from highchair to school desk, Poäng to Eames, but we end up here, camouflaged in an acrylic afghan and battling our own mortality.
In the twenty years that we knew him, Dusty Rusty changed neither
his clothes nor his habits. He was
always a little sour dishrag of a man who sat bolt-upright watching television
in his Cinema Noir fish bowl of stained
wallpaper and cigarette smoke. Everything about him was tidy-filthy, like the
perfectly folded Elliot Lake Standard he
used for cannibalized butts waiting to be rerolled into damp but serviceable
smokes. Age and loneliness had
made Russ a shower, and his uncanny ability to simultaneously entertain and
repulse never disappointed. Particularly so on the day he showed us his
From Sharp’s Q&A column, a pressing man-issue: bushy eyebrows – pluck or wax?
Let me take this one. First – grow a pair. Then slip into the chair for a haircut at Joe’s in Little Italy. Joe has been clipping my remnants these many years. He decides, unbidden, if my eyebrows are too bushy. Scissors flashing, he’ll suddenly freeze, blades hovering and open before my eyeballs, to study the evidence, then carefully reach forward to snip one briar, then (for balance) the other. He’ll even clip an errant nostril hair, or something suspicious inside my ear. Disconcerting, manly, effective – and pain free.
Of course any nutritionist worth their salt substitute could tell you a grapefruit is more healthful than Häagen-Dazs and blah blah blah. But what if it’s your charted destiny to consume coffee icecream blanketed in cinnamon, ideally having liberated it from Kitchen Table at 11:30 pm? (The walk there being exercise. Ish.)
Then, the pressing question for nutritionists is actually:
If, in a feat of extraordinary restraint, you’ve kept a quarter of the pint to scrape out of the container next morning for breakfast, wouldn’t mounding on 47 extra calories worth of grapefruit be somehow injudicious?
Saturday mornings are up at 8:15, dress, and drag my daughter to dance . . . except for the Saturday I awake to the realization that, although I took the wagon to school yesterday, I never did bring it home . . . it’s been out all day and all night, and I have no other way to get Nola to class in time. So today, it’s get dressed, rush to the schoolyard, and worry until . . . it’s still there! Five feet from where I left it—a rail is missing, but I find that nearby—like someone took my wagon out for a very short joyride.
Dapper fashionisto poses on Italian scooter, sockless, helmetless. Obviously, he lives life on the edge (helmetless – in the city!). A beautiful woman gazes quizzically upon him (thinking, “Is this it? I should have scarfed that tub of Häagen-Dazs last night after all.”). Another ad features a kohl-eyed boy in a frilly tux; most of his face is obscured by a whopper bang. He’s shilling for some chichi scent, but selling lifestyle.
Fashion slaves unite! Why seek inspiration from glossy manvertisements? Take my free advice. Forget the über-bang, and never, ever, smell like a girl. (I realize I’m becoming my Dad.)
What’s up with the Man Hats? Any knob can’t just enter Sherway Mall, buy a trilby and emerge a hipster. In fact, my friend Stephen who rocks a master-class wardrobe wouldn’t be caught dead in any of these lids. Sadder still, these heinous things can be spotted perched like plaid pixies on hairy toadstools while their douchie owners peruse a menu. Given my own wonky stylings, I shouldn’t cast sartorial stones, so I’ll just put this down to the priggishness of age: By all means Dude, wear your stupid hat, but take it off when you’re eating that fish taco.
This week, another glossy men’s magazine thumped onto my porch, concealed discretely between sections of my newspaper. Yes, a newspaper – how retro! And no, not that kind of men’s magazine. This one’s full of beauty tips and lifestyle advice for the modern man. On the cover, a banner announcing thirty-seven pages of power suits. (Wassa matter, pretty boy, yo’ momma don’t dress you no mo’?) Inside, man recipes, and a saccharine review of whisky, calculated not to offend any potential advertiser or region. Read up, and you too can namedrop.
What is a man without his own opinion? A market.
Citizens of the world! Before boarding any vehicle, look to your left. Look to your right. If you spot even one maple leaf patch in the queue, step aside. Studies have found Canadians on board in nearly every calamity in recorded history. When a twin-engine plane crashes in Sitka, there are six Canadians on board. When a cruise ship sinks in the Antarctic, six again. When the Jamaican tarmac is overshot, a Colombian bus veers from the road, or lightning smites an Air France jet: Canadians on board. In threes, in twos, in humble ones. It takes just one Canadian.
Last time I saw Rob, he’d just finished a course in legal ethics. He was studying to become a lawyer and had been taught, for instance, that it is wrong to take on a divorce case and use information you receive from the husband to seduce his wife.
Remarkably, he told me this one week after I’d broken up with my first girlfriend, one week before I learned he’d taken all I’d told him of that relationship and decided to ask her out.
He, at least, knew what he was getting himself into, but I wonder if she ever did.
And so it was, years later, that one of my many spies encountered my first girlfriend’s next boyfriend downtown and reported back that he had gone to fat. Forget that she and I were last together a lifetime ago, and ignore the fact that she and her fat lawyer had by then lived together longer than she and I had ever dated, even now these furtive sightings help pass the time over beer with my high-school friends as they tease out the small lingering pleasure I can still enjoy hearing the details of the poor choices she made after me.
Recently dear friends took us to a wine tasting, a treat for Rich’s birthday and a chance to leave our neighbourhood. Although Roncesvalles is fast becoming a Mecca for every brunching douchebag from Mississauga, at least for the moment, it’s familiar. But in crossing the pristine threshold of the Summerhill LCBO we stepped out of the wardrobe: So many clean, white people in one room. A veritable casting-call for Williams Sonoma. I caught Rich eyeing a man beetling around in tight denim and red gingham.
“Wear socks, you prat,” he breathed; hoping a cheeky rioja would wash the image away.
It’s September soon and I’m longing to turn back time. Not to when Dan was little—I still shudder when I cross through our local park with its elephantine graveyard of extruded plastic toys and loathsome Strollertariat.I don’t want to relive his babyhood or be a new mom again, but rather, I want to be the one finishing high school and courting universities.I’m jealous of his youth. Middle age certainly has its perks: financial solvency, unconditional love and better stuff, but being blasé over the new IKEA catalogue is cold comfort for the phantom pain of imagined regret.
Again I saw That Woman with one of my rez dogs. She’s with That Man, the one who had a cable access show on Toronto architecture; the one who crawled up his own arse to retrieve his triangular scale and got lost. She won’t let her dog play with other dogs. In a First World quandary, I spend the afternoon wondering why her behavior bothers me. Is it because it’s antisocial and cruel to the dog? Or is her snub proof that she senses, and is repulsed by, my debilitating need to be liked? Either way, she’s an epic twat.
Have your ever wanted someone so badly you grew at the merest thought of them?
Whereby, your daily bike route has you cycle past a row of brownstones not knowing, yet innately aware of where they live?
Not obsessed yet comfortably possessed by them. Their air, their smiling nod from across the room. Their musing ways falling suddenly silent, focussed, gathering thoughts before delivering a beguiling reply bringing the house down in bubbling laughter.
Azure blue eyes, hair like a wheat field that crowns an effervescent spirit.
Have you ever had a parched heart quenched by the memory of another?
See Girl run. Run, Girl, run. Don’t look back.
Don’t see Charles run. Seeing Charles will put a Girl right off her pace. Scary scary Charles.
Charles is married to Camiller. Camiller wears scary scary hats. You have to wear scary hats if Charles catches up with you. That’s what happens to a Girl if a Royal gets too close.
Or she gets like Dianer. The first wife. Thin, then dead.
So, run, Girl, run. Get a gold medal at London 2012. Gold medals are better than glitter. Gold gets Girls lots of shiny endorsements! No scary hats! No dead!
I found him crying by the phone moments after his brother had refused to lend him more money, so of course he asked me. “I’ll walk you to the bank,” he said in that anything-to-help tone they get when they’re beginning to worry their last chance might just back out the door. And don’t kid yourself, normally I would have, except that now I was his very best friend—at least as long as it took us to get there—and by then I figured it was well worth the money just to be rid of him for a while.
. . . nor a lender be.
But it wasn’t enough that I’d loaned him the money, he wanted me with him as he spent it, as if to let me know just how much he now valued our time together. And here I was feeling pretty good about myself anyway, having just saved him from an angry landlady, perhaps, or a week without food, and so I tagged along if only to learn that the very first thing one buys in such desperate circumstances are cassette tapes to mix the music for the big party you’re planning and that, second, it’s probably best not to know.
Cathie and Patty were neighbours and best friends. Childless Patty helped with Halloween costumes and car rides to soccer; she even dressed her Lawn Goose in a Fern Falcons T-shirt in an avuncular show of school spirit. In return, Cathie flew a novelty flag emblazoned with a Golden Labrador that bore a striking resemblance to Wasilla, Patty’s dog. Then suddenly a painful falling out involving a candy-stuck Mary Maxim catalogue. Now they are just neighbours. The banner came down and was replaced by silkscreened Sunflowers. The bird reverted back to his yellow Sou’wester, perennially braced for the stormy weather ahead.
Early morning a friend calls announcing he’s leaving NYC. Self preservation made the decision. Taking a lung filled breath, I sigh selfishly, quietly. The town taking more than it once gave, The Big Apple’s now sauce. His flight is set South to regroup, reenergize, replace woes with renewed vision that the pavement beat out of him. As my day started on this path, the avalanche continued its ominous stretch, like a train wreck, broiling blue skies into tar with Murphy’s Law as an ally. Evening settling into night, heavy eyed, wrung out, thinking of him, I smile, “Phoenix.”
Image: Detail of a painting by David Cunningham, oil on wood panel, private collection.
Robert Jeffrey’s career as a subway operator ended abruptly during the late evening rush hour of August 11, 1995, when he sped through three red signals and plowed into a train waiting to enter Dupont station
with such force that the two trains integrated themselves with each other for 18 feet. Three passengers died and dozens were injured, but Mr. Jeffrey survived to appear on the news that night where we’d eventually learn that he’d only been on the job two days but had already learned how to override the safety systems and turn a hot summer night into hell.
The string of people grows pinker as you drive up the 400, peaking at the 69/17 turnoff. Sure there’s baited areas, like the Tim’s at Espanola, but the French-Métis-’Nish factor kicks in around Lively, and I for one, always breathed a little easier. Until Elliot Lake, then it was not only pink again, but old. To break the weather channel tedium we spent Saturdays at the mall conducting our strangely satisfying Zellers-Library-Foodland routine, something we did for twenty years. This is dad’s birthday week, and had he lived to be 87, we’d have been there when the roof caved in.
This heat, is the hot that is all encompassing, forever touching and licking you salty to saltier. It’s pore awakening, lung breaking, dripping, sticking, shrilling things like: “Don’t even look at me” sort of scorch. “Even your balls call it getting too close.” Ceiling fan spinning overhead mixing tepid air hot, just whirling the atmosphere dizzy. Sexy barely there outfits on bikes, shinny reflective surfaces wet your vision. Walkers, snail through the city streets being slowed by the gum stretching along relentlessly a pink string growing blacker with every slumbrous step, collecting all manner of memories with them.
Image: Cec LePage photo of a planet documentary as seen on PBS.
Believe it or not, but when you grow up in New Jersey, there comes a point when New York City loses its allure and becomes just another place for school trips, birthday parties, or maybe a family outing to the Museum of Natural History in your father’s nicotine-stained Oldsmobile.
“I think you better let me out, now!” says the boy and quickly crosses the sidewalk to Central Park. He leans over the wall, looks down at the snow, and waits . . .
“Maybe if I walked a bit,” says the boy, on the streets of New York, shadowed by a brown sedan.
It was a bright Saturday morning and there I was, a corduroyed butterball, warbling away in the back seat, my lazy eye lost in the middle distance of incipient stardom. Dad and I drove along Tecumseh Road to Ajax Lumber, parking next to the totem pole. Then it dawned on me: I was being kidnapped, sold into slavery or worse, sent to Mémé’s house in Vanier. That pole was the port-key, one touch of its bogus eagle-beak and a life of incessant embroidery, rosary recitations and unilingual servitude awaited me. Hell’s demons had nothing on grandma and Peanut, her Chihuahua.
Sunday sings a sleepy song. Southern exposure shoots shards of hot white flood-like brightness, blinding the portraits hung on Victorian plum walls. No dark shadows lurking, pure crisp lines dancing undisturbed over last night’s array of tossed lingerie and slightly sipped flutes of champagne whose sparkles fizzled their final pop hours ago. Dormant pools in finely cut crystal becomes alive. Refractions set ablaze a spectrum of color on a skin-toned landscape. It’s a tango, imprisoning a prism of color over flesh barely covered by slippery satin sheets. We ponder the method of this muse that shakes us awake, squinting.
Death passed me by that morning, sped right past the Market knocking the generator into my wheel and tossing me into the traffic on Front Street. Or so I was told, because all I recall was the unearthly clatter, then nothing—no darkness, no light, just nothing at all till I found myself coming back to my senses and already walking around. And so I doubt now I’ll even notice death when it finally does come, just the last thing that happens before, like the last thing you remember before falling asleep, except this time you won’t be waking up.
The humidifier burbled away in the corner and I stamped the sticky February slush off my desert boots and onto her Chat Noir doormat. It was the oddest place for a reading, an albino’s dorm room. I met her in Anthro and rumour had it that this enormous blancmange of a woman had the power, a peaked seventh daughter of a seventh daughter. She settled back onto her tiny bed and peeled bits of skin off her cankle. I handed her $20 and cut the cards. Holding them nose-distance from her eyes she told me that I would die young.
Times were getting tough, honing wit and innovation. Sighting the NYC food truck invasion coupled with peoples blind faith, lotto and their relentless quest for answers through air, inspired. The lady rode around town with a bicycle basket full of fortune cookies.
She sold them for a buck a piece . It was her way of making a living in a world gone mad with taking chances, chancing a glimpse to see their future.
Let’s face it, it's a lot cheaper than calling one’s own personal professional psychic as seen on TV and a hell of lot more accurate.
That was the year I baked her a batch of gingerbread men, each with a cinnamon heart where their real hearts would be, back when I had yet to run out of ideas for Valentine’s Day and too often had way more time than money. That was my excuse, but I can’t remember hers.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I didn’t have the time to get you anything, but I did think about buying a box of kid’s valentines and addressing them all to you.”
That’s a cute idea, I thought.
Maybe I can use it for my next girlfriend.
We were poor undergraduates so our gifts were always handmade. Once I substituted Harrison Ford’s face for his in a pastel version of the Raiders of the Lost Ark poster. He liked the Lescaux cave paintings so I created huge canvases for him. In return he crafted me some lovely things. Plaster figurines, jewelry, carvings. When we broke up I packed up all his efforts in a Zellers bag and returned them. He kept all my drawings. It was a wrench because his work was beautiful. Gil may have been a psychopath, but he was also an artist. Like Hitler.
I stopped inhaling your kind words long ago. Those spoken, written in gifted books or greeting cards. But every very so often the evidence resurfaces. Now numb to their loving messages. Once beautiful, to merely black ink incisions on cream colored parchment leaving only indentations. Scars, really. As though written in a foreign language, this script was given to another who no longer exists. Erased, by the violent sweep of your lacerating tongue.
I’ve scrubbed clean most traces of you. Sometimes wearing the bestowed jewels, loosing the elaborate story of your generosity when admired. A quick “thanks” replaced that illusion.
My dad was okay, I guess; but I never really did see him much. He went in on the train every morning before I got up and usually came home after bedtime. He did tell me once about his office building and promised to take me there and buy me lunch in the fancy restaurant at the top for my birthday, but he never did. And you know what? I thought those explosions were really cool, but one of the big kids at recess said to shut up, and I told him to shut up because my father was dead.
Frame grab from this forbidden trailer.