The Day After

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While the smoke was clearing at the Boston Marathon and the media was scrambling to figure out the who and the why and how many and what now, I buried myself in my housecoat and slippers and poured tall boozy coffees at three in the afternoon and tried to resist the pull of clicking over to CNN or any news site at all, really. The word had come over the airwaves via a single tweet from a friend praying for Boston, and from there my curiosity got the better of me and really did kill the cat, and once that clip of the first detonation had wormed its way onto my monitor there was no way in hell I was going to make it past the front door today, not even to go around the side of the house to the laundry shed (our laundry machines live in a shed because, you know, Vancouver.)

When the Twin Towers went down on my fourteenth (or was it fifteenth?) birthday, I remember going to a school that was as quiet as the grave save for the televisions in every classroom locked on the news channels, all piping in the same footage and baffled commentary, the How Could This Be Happening’s blending with teenage confusion and the stuttering words of our school chaplain who was struggling to find something comforting from Corinthians or somesuch. There wasn’t a general assembly, not from what I remember, but after school my parents hugged me closer than usual and insisted we still go out to dinner because it was my birthday after all, no matter what else might be happening in the world. Though even when we got to the Tony Romas that night for a platter of ribs and some respite the clips were still playing on a loop long after the blow had been struck, on televisions above the lounge where you’d normally only find hockey games and beer commercials. The day after, a half-baked grade-twelve kid was running around everywhere telling any stoner who’d listen that we’d be next because Canada had the oil and was easy to attack until a stern-faced Spanish social-studies prof pulled him aside for a Very Serious Discussion.

In the days after, blood always rushes to the wound. There are Jehova’s Witnesses on my street going door to door, pressing tracts in through the cracks and asking if we’d thought at all about why God let this happen to the poor marathoners who just wanted to finish their trek and grab a bottle of Gatorade before heading home. They smile and talk pretty and promise a whole host of answers and free coffee if I’d only just show up to staunch the bleeding, wrap myself in the balm of This Is Simply Part Of A Bigger Plan and leave content. Part of me, the angry teenage atheist who saw cutting knives in the smiles of the oh-so-polite Catholic classmates, wanted to lash out, to get righteous and indignant and ask how dare they try to capitalize on a tragedy by trying to worm their way into people’s hearts and minds when they’re at their most vulnerable.

But then again, maybe they’re just as vulnerable as the scared soul on the other side of the door who’d rather not leave the house today, only they mustered the guts to pull on some pants and go outside.

On Selling

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Have you ever seen a salesman work, and I mean really work? The way they slouch over banks of telephones wiping sleep and self-doubt from their eyes while they wheedle and deal and cajole and caress a passing interest into a scrawl on a dotted line? I’ve got a weak cup of coffee and thirty minutes before my shift so I’ll make this quick; it’s all in the voice. The way they phrase, proposition, negotiate and deal and scrabble to maintain the upper hand over the consumer, the one with the cash in hand who isn’t quite sure which salesman to get into bed with just yet. They polish their shoes so hard you can’t tell their soles are coming off. They call their families and lovers to acknowledge, yes yes, they’ll be late at the office again tonight, and then they actually stay late at the office instead of fleeing to their mistresses and martinis and sports bars, they stay late and pick up more phones and call more numbers reaching desperately for that solitary spark that will pull them through until next paycheck. And when that spark catches fire you know it, salesmen are hard-pressed to keep their relief in check, they go to lunch, they go to dinner, they go out and order steak and potatoes and a glass of beer and they sit alone in the corner booth and just soak it all in, the madness that they have, for this brief epoch, mastered whole in their minds and hearts.

And when they can’t make it spark, when the engine just won’t turn over and one bad month turns to two and turns to three and the mortgage goes underpaid, that’s when you see the true soul of a salesman wriggling like an insect under a microscope as the weight of the numbers board and the expectations from all sides come crashing crushing down and all he wants is a cup of coffee and fives minutes alone to reflect on how things used to be back in the Glory Days, doesn’t anyone remember That Time He Closed That Big Account and the boss came out and shook his hand?

Doesn’t anyone remember that?

 

On the Subject of Prairie Storms

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Thing about a prairie storm is that you can see it coming for miles away, billowing blues bearing down on you like a freight train right when your leg’s stuck in the metal of the tracks and you don’t particularly have the means or inclination to chew your own leg off. The air picks up the scent and carries warning shouts into your nostrils, you can even go so far as to say you can taste it, a lingering metallic tinge on your tongue that mutters “I can’t believe I left my umbrella in the goddamn car.” The birds pick up their paces like flustered students who just know they’re going to be late for class, and the plastic bags and scraps of paper in the street start that sweeping dance as the trees lean just a little lower, the leaves picking up pre-show jitters like an ingenue on opening night.

Thing about a prairie storm is that you can’t get away from them. Even if you’re safe inside under a thick slab of concrete ensconced deep in the U of A or the monolithic Mall, you can feel that torrent blasting away, slicing through the parking lots and parks and side streets like a scythe through the grass. Newspapers graduate into one-shot hats, textbooks to shields and everyones best hair to a soggy, windblown morning-after throwback. And no matter how many layers you have between yourself and the torrent you can still feel the pressure changes, the sudden ecstatic release and shift as the lightning jousts with power lines and any trees that dared to grow particularly high.

Thing about a prairie storm is that it’s that one thing that’s completely out of your control; you can throw an infinite geyser of oil money at any problem save for this. Buy off tracts of guilt, bigscreen TV’s broken by coke habits and alimony payments and pave your way over the voice of any bearded, hempwearing naysayer chaining himself to a tree, you can drown ducks and pour decades of dollars down to tame the tarry soul underneath your feet but you can’t do a damn thing about his angry older brother who rolls into town with no notice, no patience and no apologies.

Thing about a prairie storm is that despite the calamity it brings it’s just as natural as drawing a breath of dusty August air, a shouldercheck to rattle your heart that comes around in the height of summer not because we deserve it, but because we need it. When a prairie storm bears down on a small town somewhere in the gut of Alberta and you’re stuck at a red light near a half-forgotten strip mall watching the giant lope in overhead, it draws out that fearful, primal edge in every human being that realizes the car and the day job and the split-level and the next contestant voted off the island are all vignettes and shorts compared to a colossus like this.

On Safari: Part 1

ImageSTUDY A

Best-Buy District Managers talking shop, balancing books and settling squabbles over holiday hours, April promotions and the search for the last good ham on the mainland. Everyone carries a notepad or laptop and vague sense of unease. Talk circulates about “restructuring,” a lethal disease that sweeps through the retail herd and leaves no-one untouched. It happened to their bretheren in fine electronics, the Future Shop, just across the way; here’s hoping it’s not catching or anything. The Alpha Male pounds back his venti something-or-other and remains silent throughout most of the discussion, likely comforted by some scrap of hidden knowledge that, should the plague come to his establishment, he’ll still be around once the bodies have been carted out of Home Theatre, Audio and Video Games.

STUDY B

Meanwhile, at the long oak table in the centre of the cafe, Barry the Beader strings a blue after a red after a purple, utterly unaffected by all the talk of the coming retail apocalypse, unfocused eyes swivelling like squeaky office chairs under thick museum glass as he threads another after another. His hands butterfly over his plastic palette, searching for the next link in his chromatic chain, settles on a return to red. Barry drinks a simple hot chocolate, remnants dotting his lily-white beard; when he stops beading, small earthquakes return to his fingertips like unwelcome houseguests and the trembling cup in his hands can’t seem to keep it together. He occupies nearly a quarter of the table with his tireless dedications, a half-unfolded newspaper laid underneath his tray of beads. The International section.

STUDY C

Everybody and their mother seems to be rocking a Macbook in this establishment (myself included.) A near third of the cafe’s tables and nooks are occupied by students slaving over textbooks, mochas and lattes sitting defeated beside their whirring laptops as they ingest months worth of knowledge in a manner of minutes, cue cards for fingers and highlighter breath. Everything is annotated, cross-referenced and indexed for future callback, rehearsing for a final performance that will net them something greater; a shinier piece of paper, a larger desk with a longer title stapled to it, or maybe just something as simple as a rare smile of acknowledgement and appreciation from the stone walls they call mother and father. The one closest to me devours data, expression unchanging as the sun dips and the baristas segue into the pre-close mambo, eyes flittering like hummingbirds, an act as simple as breathing, focused as a monk–

No, wait.

He’s just faffing around on facebook. 

Guess we’re not so different after all.

Getting Mugged on Memory Lane

ImageIt’s far too freaking early for sailing; the ferry is packed with a half-dozen school trips in matching jackets and matching pitches of shrill, shriller and shrillest, the lineup forms promptly as soon as their feet touches the decks and then the notion of grabbing a bite in the Coastal Cafe becomes a faraway notion; by the time that queue goes through we’ll be three-quarters of the way to Victoria, and from what I can recall of living there, there are far better places to dine that are well worth holding out for. So I tromp about the top deck watching the gulls tango as Vancouver disappears in our rearview and the ferry horn cuts loose and we’re away.

As charming as Victoria might be, with it’s wax museums and miniature worlds and old stone streets and prolific patios, the city always holds a sucker punch of nostalgia and regret in it’s back pocket for me, a sting of “You came, you saw, you tried to conquer and this quiet little town kicked your ass so hard when you came to you were stacking sixpacks of Pilsner into pyramids in the middle of a prairie suburbia.” And it wasn’t exactly your fault, per se, but you did lend a hand in engineering the perfect storm of anxiety, debt and academic uncertainty, compounded by the strange new territory and a lack of a proper safety net.

So… there was that. Nobody tends to be a fan of getting mugged on memory lane. You step off the ferry and into the waiting car of an old friend who bore witness to your epic flameout, the one who bought you McDonalds ice cream on one of the last nights you were there before you dropped out because both of you were broke as all hell and it seemed like a good way to provide both dinner and comfort.  And she takes you downtown to her spacious flat with flowers made from magazine pages on the walls and bongs in the bathroom, and shortly after you’re on the road to the poetry gathering in front of the local library, a small smattering of a crowd coalescing around Art Napoleon as he strummed away in the cavernous glass dome in front of the main entrance while homeless drifters, young children and scowling geriatrics shuffled past on their way to drop off their borrowed tomes.

And then the poets take to the stage, my friend among them, and the words open up trails down wintry British Columbian forests, surviving with just a knife and an axe and some matches for days as a woman reconnects with the Earth, a ritual she undertakes once a year for a span of time to fully appreciate what she has and what she has lost. And there are tales of lost family members, of struggles with diets and the demands of the body, and then my friend takes the microphone and after delivering a few solid poetic blows of her own opts to close out with a shot aimed right at me in the audience, a piece about our time together and my sudden, abrupt departure from her life. And I’m not sure anyone has ever written a piece about me before that was as honest as this; I felt exposed, under the microscope, my vanities and sins and faults laid out like an artful buffet for the crowd to pick over.

But at the same time, it ended well. It ended with a smile, with a nod towards forgiveness and an inside joke, a welcome-back that lifted weights and purged me of more than a few years of Why-why-why-ing my head against the brick walls of the past tense. And then there was strolls down Wharf Street and Korean Barbecue and excellent wine and then the long, winding lanes back to catch the nine-o-clock ferry, away from the archives and back to the present. And I felt lighter, stepping onto the boat for the last time that day, like a cumbersome suitcase had been set down in a passenger lounge somewhere and the traveller had just decided “You know what? I think I’m good.”

That shedding of burden happens rarely, so if you want to really make someone’s day, give them an ounce of forgiveness three or more years after the fact. Trust me; they’ll appreciate it, even if the wounds are closed.

Chins Up, Coffee Breath, and Giving A Damn in Public

ImageThe man’s got five days worth of trouble on his face and his eyes but it’s leftovers, he’s been clean for some time now, though how long I cannot glean because he darts and dashes over that fact on the phone to another soul from his halfway home who just took a hard fall off the wagon after six shining months.

The skytrain cars are packed with the morning crush with their eyes down into their smartphones and their Daily Extra’s and I’m no better but the guy on the phone doesn’t have an inside voice or a filter as he goes on about the influence of this girl and that dude and the trouble they bring to their tables, schooling the voice on the other end of the line about the company he keeps, a constant push and pull, the I-told-you-so’s springing out alongside the admission that yeah, he wasn’t much better that long ago. 

And as the conversation pulls up to a close as we hit Lougheed Station, the scolding yields to sincerity as he rounds it all off with a simple, elegant “Just keep your chin up, man. I love you. We’ll meet up for java soon, you know, coffee.” And then the doors roll open and we all pour out in a solid uncaring drove towards the escalators and the busses and then back to our cellphones and bad daily rags and bad science fiction and huddling as low as we can possibly huddle. Even couples stay as silent as they can, fingers entwined, walls up, sentries out for any intruders that might breach their sanctuary until they get back to their tenth-floor condo that blocks out the clamour and the grime. 

But hearing that phone conversation makes me wish people gave a damn a lot more in public.