REPORT A PROBLEM
An old lady, possibly Portuguese, looks after the tame swans in the pond at the park. She puts out food in white buckets, fawns over them by name, runs greedy ones off with her cane, complains at parkgoers who want to get too close. I went to see the swans the other night, late, hoping she wouldn't be there. One was preening just on shore and two more soon glided up, ghostly white against the dark water. I half-expected the old lady to appear the same way, waving her cane and shouting at me to leave them alone.
A book of sharp-witted essays and a box of gourmet jellybeans beat the hell out of the 800 pages of bureaucratic snowjob I was expecting in my mail slot today. I'm alarmed by what might make a jellybean taste like buttered popcorn (though it's probably no more alarming than faux-blueberry or orange flavours), but I'm sitting at my desk, the only guy on shift, consuming them in a complex and guilt-ridden routine that involves unpacking and repacking the box inside the tissue paper and the envelope between nibbles. The snowjob hasn't arrived yet.
She's moving to Winnipeg now, her fifth city in fewer years, because that's the only place they're hiring. Her dreams are bigger than mine; I'm on the brink of returning to technical writing and I haven't been through half as much. She was home, she was happy, but she couldn't find the work she's sacrificed so much for so she's leaving. Eighteen months in one place, a year in another, but now only five months and she has to move again. I keep thinking it can't get worse ... then it does.
Roy unwittingly started a small contest a few years ago, one I hold myself, without telling the competitors. It was a little before Easter.
"I've given up caring," he said.
Say something like that and you implicitly challenge everyone there to come up with something darker. I've done it most years since, to see what my friends would come up with.
Susan won last year, when she declared she'd given up her youthful idealism.
This year, I had nobody to play with. So I won, by giving up hope.
As soon as I decide to move, I develop the same relationship to my home as I might to a girlfriend I'm going to have to break up with. Whenever something catches my eye in a store, no matter how good a buy it might be, I think about how much it weighs, how difficult it'll be to pack. The window that doesn't lock properly is something I decide to let annoy me for the next four months rather than fix it. It's living in limbo, mentally inhabiting some other apartment I haven't even seen.
A pair of horses ? great shaggy-legged things, with a poncy high-stepping walk ? haul a tram around Stanley Park all day. Around and around the seawall, again and again, countless times. They won't even ever be put out to stud. The police sometimes use mounted officers to patrol the pathways through the park, the hills being too taxing for bicyclists. I wonder whether, among the horses, the sleek, highly trained steeds the police use turn their noses up at the draught-horses that pull the tram, or the tram-pullers smirk that they're getting away with something.
The owner's wife is always mopping the floor when I stop in for a two-dollar dinner at the cheap pizzeria on the right, after my evening shift. Indian music on the speakers. The slices at the shop on the left, right next door, are superior: hotter, moister, fresher. It's as close to a perfect market as you get in street-level retail.
I should buy from the shop on the left. Better pizza, same price. But whenever I do, I think of her sadly mopping the forty square feet of floor space, day after day.
A particular smell pervaded the hockey arena, filling its hallways and blowing out its exhausts into the fresh air around it. Something organic and slightly spoiled, like the almost-bread scent of a Subway store or the almost-coffee of a Starbucks.
Hot pretzels and sausage-inna-bun, yes, but more. Old beer. Garbage not taken out. Sweat and refrigeration. All rolled together.
Like the smell of a Starbucks, you stopped noticing, except in occasional little nauseating hits.
Only after the third game did he notice he was taking it home on his clothes.
The way I got to sleep, those nights, was to imagine that as I passed out of consciousness, I'd also pass out of existence.
The fan would keep turning above the empty room. The sheets would settle slowly down to fill the me-shaped hole.
In the morning, two silent and efficient men, dressed in white, would arrive and let themselves in to take my belongings away.
The apartment would sit empty for a short time and then someone new -- a student, say -- would move in, noisily showing off that energy I used to have.
I knew, within an hour of meeting Lisa, that things with Emily weren't going to work. By that time, Lisa and I were arguing over how much the Second World War had had to do with the civil rights movement -- of which Emily, despite her affinity for granola and sandals, had only vague awareness.
Lisa and I never went anywhere but I owe her a debt she doesn't even know about. I fooled myself for six more months, but really, it ended on a January morning by the campus library, while I talked to another girl.
I went to pester the swans again, following one of them around in an ambling sort of chase in the light from the full moon. Its feet flapped on the muck by the pond as we went back and forth, about fifty feet either way, the creature never quite agitated enough to take to the water.
Alone in the night, chasing a bird around. It doesn't take much to feel twenty years younger.
And then a match flared, someone lighting a cigarette on a bench the swan and I had passed twice. Grownup again. Embarrassed.
There's something corrosive to the soul about shift work and having weekends out of sync with the "normal" schedule. The world isn't designed for you. Radio DJs talk about traffic and weather in irrelevant ways. It's not just difficult, but actually temporally impossible to talk to your landlord. Over time, you forget what it's like to live the same schedule everybody else seems to.
But they don't, of course. Somebody's staffing the late-night pizza joints you pass on the way home from work, after all. The normal schedule is a fiction.
A West-Coast image: Men, two dozen of them easily, gathering to admire one another's motorcycles. They're big guys, mostly, in that Ballistic-fibre gear, with shaven heads. Except the bikes are Japanese rice-burners, sporty little numbers with fancy paint jobs, not growling Harleys in all black and chrome. And rather than sitting around on the deck of a roadhouse in the sticks, they're sipping lattes on the patio of a downtown Starbucks.
One thing the stereotype and the real guys have in common: When they take off, they rev their engines like thunder.
I bought three cigars almost two years ago, at twelve dollars apiece, when the future looked seriously bleak and I wanted a little luxury for myself. I don't even like cigars -- I just liked the idea. I smoked two of them that summer, on my fire escape, but didn't get around to the third by the time my girlfriend came back and it was time to stop being repulsive.
This evening, I took the third cigar out and sniffed it. Probably too vile for an aficionado by now. But for me, this particular week, just fine.
Jack Daniel's was the stuff I first seriously got drunk on, in the period of youth when you keep the empties like trophies. Far too much of it, I drank, five forty-ouncers in something like a month and a half. Not ruinous by itself, but you can't keep that up unless you start building your lifestyle around it.
It'd been years when the urge seized me, and before I knew it five rounds were gone. If the bar's early last call hadn't come along, I'd have started a new trophy case.
The pattern only made sense when we looked back: the series of boyfriends-as-reclamation-projects, the feigned pregnancy, the remarks that got so cutting nobody would share a table with her anymore.
It came apart for her at the prom. Like a child who finally sets fire to the house, she disappeared with a guy who didn't belong to her. We spent half the night holding back her own psychotic boyfriend.
But still, on Monday, when we found the note, we fanned out. We knew we wouldn't forgive ourselves if it was real.
We found out they weren't reading their own newspaper when six of them sat around a table and came up with a story for a reporter to do, about a big new infrastructure project, that had been in the paper a month before, in all its details.
The reporter didn't find out till 6:30 that night. Checking a detail in the database, she finally entered the right search terms and there it was.
"So what are you going to do with it?" the boss asked. The space was already blocked in on A1.
Getting ready to go in to quit was nearly as nerve-wracking as going in for the interview to get the job. His breathing was shallow, he had to pee. His legs were tingling. He kept rehearsing just what he'd say, even though he knew everything would go unpredictable after the first two or three sentences and none of his preparation would be worth a damn.
In the end, it went smoothly. Much better than he'd expected. The boss called him "brave," not in an angry way. Almost, but not quite, enough to make him reconsider.
He called the police when the junkies were actually shooting up right outside his back window. Two of them: a man and a woman. He was somehow wearing nothing but a pair of old boxer shorts; she had on a nylon warmup suit, was wielding one crutch, and had an arm jammed hard behind her back as though something was wrong with her spine.
Clearly they both needed help more than they needed to be arrested. The cops, when they eventually came, just rousted the pair and told them to go back to the nasty part of town.
Calling the police is, after all, what you're supposed to do when you see a crime, right? That's the right thing.
"Do you see needles?" the dispatcher had asked him. Yes, he did. Right there in front of him, and a length of blue rubber to tie around their arms.
Through angled blinds, watching the police do their jobs. He was comfortable and employed and he phoned the police because the pair made him a little afraid. The police didn't solve the problem: they just moved it out of his line of sight.
The police started enforcing the drug laws on the Downtown Eastside about a month ago, ignoring warnings that they were mostly just going to move the dealers and users around. Three blocks from me, there's a corner with everything right there: a 24-hour supermarket, a liquor store that takes bottle returns, a payday-loan shop that's open very late, an expanse of sidewalk without storefronts. And a park. And the dumpsters behind several streets' worth of nice apartments.
And now, people doing the deals they used to do about 25 blocks in the other direction.
They're starting to celebrate Bob Hope's 100th birthday, dragging out all the old footage and interviews and doing in-depth biographical pieces on the great entertainer. The man is very old and he's not well enough to appear in public: it won't be long before they're going to be covering all the same ground for a less happy reason. Will people still be as interested? Probably not -- you can't watch two loving-tribute documentaries to the same guy in three months. This "celebration" is really just laying the groundwork for a quiet send-off.
My neighbourhood, they say, is the most dense in North America after Manhattan. That might be an urban legend, so to speak -- "Manhattan" seems like too big and vague a place to call a neighbourhood -- but the point is a lot of people live very close together here. Most of them, for some reason, without drapes.
You quickly learn the value of discretion. It's almost impossible not to glance into people's windows, especially in the evening, but if you do, it'll only be a matter of minutes before you find someone glaring back at you.
I've frightened people twice, that I know of. Once, late at night in a mall parking lot, when I'm positive a woman thought I was stalking her. I was wearing a leather jacket with padded shoulders and I'm a big guy anyway. I didn't realize what had happened until I thought about it the following day.
And then today, when I knocked on a door looking for the father of a dead teenager. The old Asian lady misunderstood, said "no," and closed the door. Fast. And peered through the drapes till I went away.
Hardly any conversations at work that aren't strictly about getting a particular task done are now about how neither the owners nor the managers have any idea what they're doing. The gallows humour has broken into the open. The business isn't going bankrupt -- far from it -- but we're making money by abandoning the goals most of us are there to pursue. I can't imagine how morale could be pulled out of a dive like this. You'd have to fire everyone and start over. Which is just the kind of thing the owners would do.
They went to a lot of trouble making the place look like some sort of apothecary specializing in tobacco. Lots of rosewood and leather and brass fittings. In the front window, at the right time of day, you can see a guy hand-rolling cigars. A wiry middle-aged black guy wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a green meshback cap, which is probably much closer to authenticity than all the mock Victorianism. In the Dominican, he's probably one of a thousand guys just like him. Here, people peer at him through glass like he's a museum diorama.
I was excited when this job came with those electronic ID cards that you wave over a sensor to unlock doors. One for the building, one for our office, with my picture. I'd had keys, and a security code, but never the proximity cards. Very cool stuff.
I got a cord to hang them around my neck, with a little clip. I wore them that way for about two months, when I noticed that taking them off at night gave me a feeling of relief, like a weight being lifted.
Like taking off a leash.
I love travelling, the actual act of getting from place to place, not of farting around looking at ruins. I'm alone, I'm unreachable, nobody expects anything of my four or five hours other than that I'll arrive where I'm headed. It's some of the last truly free time there is. No e-mail, no phone calls, no more efficient way of doing what I'm doing, nobody to tell me I'm doing it wrong. And unlike sitting around the house reading a book, say, I don't feel guilty about not doing chores instead.
I had occasion to call the RCMP detachment. While I waited for the desk sergeant, I listened to the hold music, which happened to be Tom Jones singing "You Can Leave Your Hat On." I'd have expected plinky-plink bland muzak, but they went with the '70s revival.
Mounties. Hats. You know. It made me wonder what the Mounties get up to in that office, it being after hours and all.
The desk sergeant, when I got him, acknowledged the humour of it in the abstract but didn't seem to find it funny himself.
Oprah spent the first 20 minutes of the show worshipping Travolta's abs. Pictures of him in a towel for his new movie, Oprah pulling up his shirt to rub his belly, him doing crunches. He works out two hours a day, six days a week, all with his trainer. He likes to go to the gym after midnight.
In addition to having two spare hours a day, this is a man who can afford a 24-hour gym and a personal trainer who's willing to organize his own life around John Travolta's nocturnal schedule. Asshole.
There was once a truly monstrous roach that fell out of the suspended ceiling onto (and then immediately off of, thank God) my mom's shoulder. She thought my dad had come up and tapped her. The thing really was the size of a mouse. It took all three of us to corner it and beat it with sneakers until it died, and then the mess had to be mopped up, literally mopped up, no mere kleenex or even paper towel being sufficient for the task. We only stayed there twice, and I was never sure why the second time.
The Tip Jar