Cowboy-Coffee-Confidential

Lions DenWhile I waited in an all-day brunch cafe for my play’s director to saunter over from yoga, a reed-thin urban cowboy sat across from me, putting away a tall cup of black Columbian while he scowled and stared at his laptop screen. Eventually, as the other diners evaporated into the afternoon air, he migrated to a table closer to the window, jacked in a pair of headphones and started up a Skype call with (from what I could deduce) was a once and, just maybe, future lover.

His voice rasped and rattled like tin cans on a gravel road as he spoke; he couldn’t have been more than thirty-five but he carried more weight on his shoulders and in his throat than folks I’ve met at fifty or sixty. The conversation veered sharp right away as he railed against the “scene” he found himself in, a session musician surrounded by all the vices he was railing so hard against after five solid years of subservience to them. The mention of a friend’s girlfriend bringing blow to a party set off the unseen second party to this conversation and he spent the better part of ten minutes calming her down and laying out promise after promise that no, goddamnit, he didn’t touch the stuff cause it just wore him out and never gave him that rise anymore. He needed an out, a solid start, and at times his rough-hewn tones almost cracked when past mistakes rolled into the spotlight of their debate. Shoulda been you, he kept repeating, long after the coffee had dried up and his battery decided to give up the ghost, leaving him with nothing but hurried goodbyes, hasty promises and a moment of silence, something shared onscreen for only him to see and the rest of us to guess at. Then the battery kicked out and that was that, story over. My director friend had long since showed up and we were well into our bacon and eggs, but one of my ears had been locked onto the cowboy whenever possible as he growled and limped his way through a laundry list of struggle, perseverance and temptations nipping at his heels.

I didn’t want him to go, because he was one of the few people in Vancouver that actually spoke. People-watching in Edmonton was easy enough, street scenes popped up more often than potholes there, a constant push and pull between concrete and chrome and the snippets of humanity playing out against them without paying rent on the performance space. The simple act alone of asking for a cigarette can trigger a three-act autobiography, complete with funny voices for the different characters… if you ask the right smoker.

Out here, though, the stories are the same but the audience feels diminished. Everyone’s passion plays are muted, secretive affairs, as if they’re sworn to secrecy on the subway and in shopping malls. This ragged cowboy’s computer confessional was probably the most honest, earnest thing I’ve seen since I’ve arrived in Vancouver proper… and it made me miss home.

Just a little.

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On Train Travel

 

She was a bluegrass princess with chaotic curls, eating a green pepper the size of a softball in the seat across from me on the overnight train through the Rocky Mountains. I thought it was odd that someone would eat a green pepper like it was an apple, but I didn’t want to say anything for fear of coming across as odd myself. While she was unburdened save for the traveling pack and the guitar stowed in it’s battered case in the luggage train, I was weighted down with laptops, suitcases, boxes bound with packing tape; all the trappings of a life in relocation. I was film-school slick with an ear for dialogue but lacking the stomach to stand in front of the camera, and so I chose to linger behind the scenes, furnishing the pretty people with words that didn’t sound like they were pulled from a hatful of cinematic cliches. I was bound for the Coast to take an empty room in my uncles apartment while I chased after agents or producers or whomever saw potential in my pages. She was headed that way to play a show, record with friends, surf from couch to couch and take a few shifts working with her brother laying ventilation ducts in new buildings because money was tight those days and tighter still for a traveling musician like herself.

We broke the ice with cross-aisle banter when the train shuddered to a halt shortly after leaving the Jasper snack stop. “Do you suppose the train is lost?” I asked, met in return with a wry smile and a chuckle. The back and forth continued on through the afternoon as the train resumed it’s plodding trek through the mountains. Her name was exotic and she had wisdom written in sanskrit across her right wrist, my name was ordinary though my middle name was Scottish thanks to my grandfather, but I had nothing in the way of tattoos because needles always bothered me. She was a tumbleweed from the East, blown about for years with a keyboard strapped to her back, formerly engaged to a fella right out of highschool but That’s All In The Past Now. We decided since the train trip would be long and contact with the outside world limited that a murder would inevitably occur during the night, thrusting us into the spotlight as detectives of exceptional ability who would solve the case before the train arrived in Vancouver. From there on, I was known to her as Sherlock Holmes, and she to me as Miss Marple.

As the afternoon wore on the banter turned to facts and details, old stories crackling like weathered records back and forth as the sun slowly dipped into the mountain valleys. I came from the stark suburbs in Oil County, and had resisted the pull to flock north like many young men I’d known that had joined the Black Gold Rush and sunken neckdeep in easy money and bad habits. In the place of hockey and trucks and country music I’d found theatre and bicycles and dusty vinyl records belonging to my father, and opted for four years in a prairie college learning how to speak and move and which way the camera ought to be pointed. This amused her, as she had never considered the classroom past highschool, having been on the piano bench since the age of three and learning her trade without having an old hand grade her accordingly in exchange for hefty tuition fees; she simply was, and it was enough.

We took dinner together in the meal car; lamb shank with gravy and wild rice and greens, far better than I had expected train fare to be, but then again I was used to the prepackaged plasticky meals found on airplanes, force-fed to captive diners because it’s not like they have much choice in the matter. We stayed long after the other guests had cleared away back to their seats and bunks and we ordered coffee while she recounted her days on the road, sweeping across the United States playing every roadhouse that would have them. I had never undertaken any such journeys, only limited sorties with family to Disneyland and a brief expedition out to Montreal to apply for a school that would not have me. To me, the road was an uncertain place, a limbo I had been brought up to disdain, but she was unafraid to hitchhike across the miles and rely on the kindness of strangers and her own fortitude, and she said there was nothing to fear; the world might be up in arms and petrified of what cannot be mapped by a travel broker, but there was no reason the wilderness should be seen as malignant and foreboding. She said she dreamed of owning a ranch, an unruly piece of land she could reign over with a horse, a dog and a gun, making manifest all the desires that lay heavy in the songs she wrote and sang in pub shows and at festivals and fairs and on the sidewalks of The Coast, where she had lived for many years until it just wore her out and the glass towers had to give way once again to prairie plains.

By this time it was well into the dark hours and the majesty of the passing mountains outside was hidden from our eyes, so we returned to the economy coach and said goodnight, and while she slept in comfort thanks to the foresight she had to bring pillows and blankets I tossed and turned across the aisle, wrestling with the unyielding seat trying to find some way to arrange my gangly form in a position comfortable enough to fall asleep in, bundling spare clothes into an impromptu pillow and covering myself in my heavy peacoat to keep warm. It was nearly impossible, only a few hours of sleep were to be had, and when I thought to text my friends back home in the hopes they might still be awake I found nothing but a “Searching For Signal,” on the screen; for the first time in years, maybe even a decade, I was completely cut off, isolated on all sides, in perfect solitude save for the constant drumming of the train wheels. The outside world was, for that brief moment, hushed, and it was good.

The next morning we took an early breakfast and went up to the observation car, taking in the passing rocky vistas as dawn spilled over the crags and into the wooded valleys the train tracks cut across. The valleys gave way to farmers fields, and farmers fields to suburbs, and soon the sprawl of civilization was upon us, highways swooping overhead, commuter trains surging past, a skyline of crystal towers jutting out like teeth sinking into the flesh of the Pacific, and then we were there.

As we collected ourselves and prepared to depart she tossed me a CD across the aisle, an assembly of raw highway tales and outlaw odysseys wrapped in clarion chords and ivory keys, and I had nothing to give her in return but that was alright, I could make it up to her someday. And then we were off the train hauling our lives on our backs, collecting the scraps from the baggage carousel and out into the world where she stood to savour a long-delayed smoke while I threw everything into the back of my uncles waiting truck.

And there was a smile and an au revoir, an inside joke and a notion to meet up again when things were more settled. And then she was gone, and that was that, wouldn’t see her again for the better part of a couple of years. But if there was one thing she did do for me, it’d be that she set the tone for the adventure that would follow, my first few tentative steps in new shoes in a new city. It was going to be odd, it was going to be unexpected… but when you got to the heart of the matter, there was never anything to fear.

Tokens, Talismans, Train Tickets

Photo on 2013-02-13 at 2.37 AM #4

I am a notorious packrat; my pockets leak first drafts, bus stubs and receipts whenever I stand up in the subway, my moving boxes are always cluttered with theatre tickets and programs and memorabilia from places I barely recall, and my bookshelves are lined with half-finished tomes, borrowed books that opted to run away from home after all and overstuffed notebooks bleeding ink all over the place. If I don’t have to throw it away, I won’t. This leads to some rather difficult moves from place to place when a simple suitcase simply can’t suffice and my overnight bag becomes laden with half a library because “the bus ride might be longer than expected.”

Then again, I’ve never known a Greyhound to arrive exactly on time. When it did, I had to check my ticket to make sure I wasn’t on the Red Arrow line instead.

Turns out I was.

The mass of mess shrinks and swells depending on where I am and how long I’m staying there. School dormitories compact and split the herd, siphoning the lions share off into boxes and bins that hibernate in my parents basement until I purge them one by one during holiday visits. The bits that survive and tag along tend to reproduce; one playbill spawns another, a first draft begets a little from a table read I pull together with my more theatrical friends. It’s primarily disposable, but there are a few gems within that, no matter where I’ve gone, I find impossible to discard.

The keys for whatever apartment I happen to be rented have lived, for the past decade, on a red lanyard I acquired during my first stint in the ArtsTrek summer camp for burgeoning thespians. I received it at camp when I was a mere sixteen years old, barely able to hold down a job let alone a steady girlfriend, and this lanyard somehow survives a decade of attrition, multiple moves and a touring show. Time and the elements have worn away any lettering on it and it has broken a dozen times, only to be knotted up again into a cohesive loop (or a facsimile thereof.)

Some of my best friends haven’t lasted that long. Time can turn the most dependable rabble-rouser and roaring hearts into quiet, tamped-down pacemakers, marking the days between vacations to Vegas with silent nods and solitary acceptance of having lost something along the way, but not having the werewithal to turn the car back around to peel it off the highway. Priorities shift with the wind; there are houses to be bought, children to rear, plans to make for The Future… and The Future isn’t big enough for all your boxes of first drafts and playbills, so something has to give.

When I thought I’d lost the lanyard once, I tore my room to pieces trying to find it, scouring every last square foot in my search. It was in my jacket pockets, of course, and had the keys themselves only been lost somehow I wouldn’t have minded as much; keys can be re-cut. But the lanyard, nowadays barely still resembling anything like it once was before, would’ve been gone. And I don’t think I’m quite ready to let that one go. Not yet.

Scrappy Upstarts

Alex and Richard

It’s a Monday night and none of us have to be here.

The warehouse is borrowed, one of us works there. The tables have been cleared and restocked with meat and cheese trays, a boiling kettle and a packet of black breakfast tea for the actors, who shuffle to and fro to keep warm while the gaffer and the camera op tweak and tweak and tweak the lights until the shadows fall just right on the jawline of the leading man, who swaps barbed insults (in a goodnatured way) with the first AD, a man perpetually checking his watch and scribbling notes and asking Are We Good? Can We Move On?

And really, none of us can. And that’s alright.

The cast and crew are predominantly college alumni, who bonded in the hall of my alma mater over late night paint calls and chorus lines and student films and a steady diet of Tim Hortons, overpriced sandwiches, brutal winters and tuition debt. One by one, we loped across the mountains to settle in Vancouver, a rogues gallery of shooters, soundmen, pretty faces and mousy scribes. I reckon I fall into the last category.

We’re paying too much rent and living in a city that doesn’t see the sun half the year just for the pleasure of PERHAPS working in a film industry they say is perishing by the minute as the larger movies pack it in and head south or east or overseas. In return, all we get is cheap radioactive sushi, lovely beaches flush with naked hippies, skin free of frostbite and sharp prairie winds, and the intermittently aligning schedules so we can all convene behind a warehouse to shoot a vampiric romcom that I cooked up. Nine times out of ten, when we shoot our own projects, we are the first ones we call to ask to hold the lights and aim the lenses and add the dialogue to the idea. There’s no money, the budget only runs as deep as our own pockets. It’s a long shot on an empty plain.

It’s a Monday night in Vancouver and none of us had to be here.

And yet, here we are.

Home Button

Because I’m simply no good at starting these things, I’ll just start at the now and go backwards.

Like a stylish thriller.

Except it’s not.Image

Home is the ground level of a Vancouver special with strange rattles in the ventilation, oddly-colored walls, a fireplace that doesn’t work but affords a mantle that doubles as a stand-in bookshelf, a hot water tank two sizes too small. Judging solely from the dialogue that seeps in through the walls, you would assume we lived next door to a Chekov play. The house is on a hilly East Van side street close to a skytrain, a Superstore and swathes of trees that I’m sure will be prettier to look at once the fog and the rain and the general greyness passes through and the city is granted it’s Two Months of Paradise. It’s underheated and overpriced but the location, central to all prominent friends and loved ones in the general vicinity, makes it priceless.

Before that, home was a shutaway apartment in Coquitlam, a fortress of solitude only occasionally invaded by welcome friends who brave the highways or train lines to reach us, a high-class looking kind of place only afforded thanks to a friend of a family who felt inclined to support a young upstart by cutting the rent and not asking A) Many questions and B) for a security deposit. Despite the protestations of friends and roommates, the Fortress of Solitude worked quite well as a safe haven of silence and peace until it was undermined by a plague of motherfucking bedbugs. 

Home was a four studios and a mainstage in Central Alberta, a Pride Rock for a pack of theatrical lions whose roars drowned out everyone else at Kareoke nights at the campus pub. For twenty-four months, that pack was as thick as thieves and close as cousins, treading the well-worn boards, speaking in Shakespeare and Mamet and Tennessee Williams and sharpening our fangs for the waiting world we sized up as if they wouldn’t kick back. It was, as the speaker at the convocation would later say, “A womb with a view.”

Home was a suburban monolith surrounded by other suburban monoliths, an Edmonton satellite spinning lazily about ringed by growing refineries and shrinking farmers fields, with a father whose furrowed brow could summon a encyclopaedia of Prairie wisdom, a mother who could decipher the indecipherable for the blind, and a sister who shredded cars before she found a bird in her throat and started singing, and I mean really singing. The streets, the trees, the flowerbeds, the families all perfect, perfectly arranged.

Even the grow op down the street had a well-tended topiary.

Home was a ramshackle country house near the Saskatchewan border, surrounded by endless oceans of grain and canola sliced throughout with dirt roads. It was a patchwork of skinned knees and woodpiles, shooting practices and cattle barraging unintentionally through our backyard. It was an old Mitsubishi, it’s white rusting away week by week, a model that still worms it’s way through my subconscious and into the latest draft of whatever screenplay I’m writing. It usually doesn’t survive the first or second round of edits, but it’s there. Same with the suburban sprawl, the theatrical lions, and bits and pieces from every other split-level, rented room, dorm complex and basement suite I’ve holed up in to stay and scribble awhile.

I’m putting together a home, better than any of those bozos on the Home and Garden channel, a piece at a time.

And this is my damage deposit.