Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits
by Tanja Rabe
by Mat Del Papa
by Tom LeDuc
Poetry & Musings
by John Jantunen
by Rebecca Kramer
Can of Worms
by Tanja Rabe
Poetry & Musings
by Uli Edel
by John Jantunen
Can of Worms
The Day I Decided...
by Jenny Bingham
Poetry & Musings
by Tanja Rabe
by Rebecca Kramer
Poetry & Musings
by Rebecca Kramer
by Tom LeDuc
Poetry & Musings
by Pamela Palmater
Born in Kingston - Made in Canada
Confessions of a Technophobe
by Tanja Rabe
Greetings and welcome to our first issue of Cannery Row Magazine, your friendly, grassroots literary journal.
If you would like to familiarize yourself with the purpose of this publication, I invite you to peruse our website or simply explore this initial edition. We ask you to keep in mind that this is an emerging work in progress and we strive to be more varied and inclusive as we engage a wider range of contributors.
Being a self-professed technophobe who used to approach anything computer-related with trepidation and was convinced that the proverbial 'ghost in the machine' had it in for me every time I dared navigate the web, it is nothing short of a minor miracle that this magazine has glimpsed the light of day.
Creating a website from scratch, as many of us have endeavoured over the Time-Out that is Covid 19, has been an adventure both exhilarating and exasperating and I want to apologize in advance for any insufficiencies you might encounter. Our Journal is, to a large degree, about compassion and understanding which I shall invoke on the parts of our readers and writers concerning my limited expertise as a self-taught amateur. Until the Virus shut down our precious public institutions, our home was an intentionally internet-free zone, much to the dismay of our two teenage sons who were forced to leave the house (and the couch) for a gruelling 10 minute walk to the library to get their fix, or siphon our neighbour's scant guest WiFi signal with their phones glued to the southern-most wall of our domicile. I'm aware this constitutes tough love in this day and age and supposedly borders on child abuse, as our younger son frequently argued in futile rebellion against such parental tyranny.
To compound the technophobe's struggle, website editing algorithms are notoriously fickle and tend to invite mischievous gremlins into the system that wreak creative havoc overnight, leaving poor schmucks like me cursing over our morning cup o' java and questioning what's left of our sanity. So I ask you to bear with us on this precarious journey into the netherworld of internet publishing.
Gratitude to the good folks who have contributed in getting Cannery Row off the ground with their unique voices and backgrounds. We're hoping to engage 'in-house' writers to provide content on a regular basis so as to create a sense of community for everyone involved. We have also created a Forum for input, exchange of ideas and rants about matters of discontent, of which there appears to be no shortage as civilization is on the verge of passing its expiration date.
True change won't come from the top, as millennia have shown, and 'trickle-down' is but the wool over our eyes. Maybe nothing ever truly changes and the fact that John Steinbeck's books are as relevant today as they were close to a century ago seems to illustrate that point in a glaring and devastating fashion. But we shall not go quietly into that cold night and intend to raise a little hell along the way.
Canada has the true potential to become an equitable place for all who live here with its abundance of resources and space, sadly out of reach for most due to the narcissistic greed of a few. We need to get our collective heads out of the sand, confront our country's human rights, socio-economic and environmental issues - past and present - and stop being so damn polite about it. The lingering subterfuge of Victorian colonialism is still killing people, directly, collaterally, in ever-increasing numbers, and our Elites keep singing its praises whilst someone's child is dying alone from exposure or an overdose huddled within the sparse shelter of a tent or doorway this winter.
Yet the band merrily plays on . . .
Thank you for taking an interest in our quixotic band of mutineers and helping to spread the word throughout this land we all call home. We hope you will find these creative offerings informative, captivating and inspiring. If you feel inclined to share of yourself, the door is wide open, drop us a line or a story. We'd love to hear from you.
Stay safe, keep engaged and enjoy the Journal.
by Matthew Del Papa
I was a worldly-wise seventeen (and three-quarters) when I brought down my first biker gang. It happened at Pizza Hut of all places and came about because of a poorly timed dick joke.
My brother’s sixteenth birthday fell on a Wednesday that year so the opportunity to really ‘celebrate’ was limited by the fact we had school the next morning. Still, a group of us, his friends and mine, loaded into our parents’ big van and headed into the 'City’.
If you didn’t grow up in small town Canada, you’re unfamiliar with the importance of those two words. The envy and disdain with which we spoke them. Or the trouble a group of naïve, rural teens could get into when away from home. To us the City, a forty-three-minute drive away, was the future - they had buildings over three stories, sidewalks on every street and world-famous restaurant chains like Pizza Hut. Not to mention the strangest and most interesting people.
We could cut loose when in the City. Anonymity, something unimaginable in a small town, meant freedom. Freedom from nosy neighbours, freedom from eagle-eyed relatives and freedom from that dreaded anchor chain . . . rumour.
I’m not going to get into all of the night’s gory details.[*] You don’t need to hear about our failed attempt to bribe our way into the local strip club or our more successful effort to purchase a keg of off-brand beer at the local LCBO. None of that compares to the day’s real excitement at the greasy pizzeria franchise.
We arrived and ordered early, well before the after-work rush, with most of us trying not to visibly ogle the gorgeous young waitress as she stood, stained notepad in hand and well-chewed pencil tapping, waiting for us to make up our minds. The fact that she wore a tight company t-shirt and a white skirt, so clingy and thin it left little to the imagination regarding her black underwear, did nothing to help me focus on the menu.
In desperation I said, “I’ll have the same,” hoping that whoever ordered previously hadn’t chosen anything spicy. The waitress popped a gum bubble, gave us a tired but knowing smile and headed off to pass on our orders to the kitchen. All our gazes were locked firmly on her glorious behind when a rumbling thunder echoed down the road. Pizza Hut’s big plate-glass windows set to shaking and every head turned.
A dozen custom-fitted Harleys roared into the restaurant’s parking lot and, riding in line like a conquering army on parade, filled all the available handicapped spaces. Leather-clad riders dismounted with casual arrogance. Big beards and bigger sunglasses dominated their faces. None bothered with helmets as disdaining potential brain trauma seemed a point of pride for the gang. Shaven headed, with every exposed bit of skin bearing pockmarks, scars, or tattoos (several had even inked parts of their faces), they seemed the epitome of bad-assdom. Or they did to us teens as we watched in slack-jawed awe.
Broad biker backs were slapped, sending up clouds of road dust, and I got a good look at the name stitched in faded orange arcs across their shoulders. Large, dagger-like letters spelled out 'SKIPJACKS'. Wilder than a pack of rabid, mangy wolves they congregated around one of their own, the biggest and meanest-looking. At well over six-feet tall, with several missing teeth in his lopsided smirk, he was definitely the leader and everyone knew it. The other bikers deferred to him in a hundred subtle and not so subtle ways - moping worse than jilted schoolgirls whenever he wasn’t paying them attention.
The restaurant buzzed with whispered condemnations and every pizza-loving patron watched in muted horror as the gang boisterously crowded inside like they owned the place. Our waitress squealed with laughter as first the leader then the other Skipjacks picked her up in turn - most taking ‘liberties’ that I, as a shy teen, could only dream of.
No one at our table dared even more than glance at the bikers, our eyes wide with amazement and envy. The attractive, young waitress obviously knew the gang. Knew them quite intimately judging by the places their big, grubby hands explored. She purred like a kitten at all the groping attention, calling each by name in turn (‘Rook’ was the leader, with the rest having monikers like ‘Butch’, ‘Squeak’ or ‘Mucus’) while the respectable diners averted their eyes.
Not me, though. I watched with no fear. Tough guys, and bikers pride themselves on their toughness, liked me. Being in a wheelchair, I was labeled ‘non-threatening’.
“This way, boys,” the waitress announced, adding, “I saved the best spot for you,” as she led them past us.
The twelve bikers settled noisily around the tables next to ours and I immediately noticed they were in dire need of a bath. Even the overwhelming stench of gasoline and burnt motor oil couldn’t cover their rank, sour-sweat odour.
People avoided looking at the gang and pretended, with varying degrees of success, that this was just another uneventful meal at their favourite family restaurant. No one dared attract the bikers’ notice and reacting to their loud, unsavoury arrival in even the slightest way would have been enough to provoke unpleasant attention.
As a preppy Catholic School kid, I was probably at the top of the gang’s shit-list.[†] Disabled or not, wrinkling my nose or commenting on their raucousness would have been seen as an insult and demand retribution. Looking around at my companions, Public School rednecks wearing ripped jeans and an array of sports-logoed shirts and hats, I could tell from their faces that they'd noticed the odious pungency in the air. They too knew better than to show their displeasure.
Merchandising shaped my mates' lives, from their beverage of choice (Coke, Pepsi, or 7 Up) to their wardrobe (Levi’s and Nike), and they were shaping up into good little consumers. All destined to become productive, obedient, and apathetic cogs in the corporate machine.
Not me though. Advertisers ignored my special niche. Dietary restrictions and practicality dictated my habits, not marketing. No peer pressure could touch me. That, even more than my wheelchair, made me an outcast. Which might explain my foolish interest in this gang of hoodlums. They too flaunted the rules - dressed, ate and behaved as they pleased. More importantly, not one of them worried about fitting into the mainstream. No, the Skipjacks were a wrench in the proverbial works. They disrupted society with their mere presence. Loud, pungent and unpredictable, like a troop of alcoholic monkeys let loose in a brewery, not one spared a thought to consequences. Life, for these motorcycle enthusiasts, was lived wholly in the moment; without concern for tomorrow beyond finding enough money to fill their gas tanks.[‡]
Open admiration must have shown on my face because a Nike-clad foot kicked me under the table and my brother, who’d instigated the not-so-subtle corrective gesture, asked, voice loud enough to penetrate my growing obsession and dripping with meaning, “What do you think, MAT?”
“Uh? Yeah, you’re right I guess,” was my half-hearted answer.
Then, before I could even discover what I was agreeing with, Rook took off his leather jacket, revealing arms bigger around than my thighs, and hung it off the back of my wheelchair with a perfunctory, “Do you mind?”
I did indeed mind, but the swath of Swastikas and other tattooed Nazi symbols marching across his mountains of steroid-fuelled muscle persuaded me to merely shake my head.
“Good man,” he said before turning back to his table and putting me from his mind. Wearing a dirty, red T-shirt that someone had ripped the sleeves from, the gang leader banged the table with two massive fists to make his point, sending cutlery bouncing for the ceiling.
The early evening sun shone off the studs accenting his leather vambrace. It wrapped his left forearm and looked ridiculous but I wasn’t about to tell him. The word ‘SNOJOB’ was tooled in giant, impossible-to-miss letters across the affectation’s top. All the bikers wore something with that same word; a ring or a bandana. I wanted to ask what it meant but worried they might tell me.
Things probably should have stood there but, as the biker conversation grew heated, Rook leapt across the table to grab one of the Skipjacks by the collar and no one could tear their eyes away. Not a sound was made in the entire restaurant, not even chewing, as the clearly terrified gang member found himself dragged nose to nose with his outraged leader.
Rook’s voice never rose above a whisper but everyone in the dining area heard him clearly and swallowed, choking down their mediocre pizza, at the promise of mayhem and murder in his three words: “Say. That. Again.”
The excitement didn’t hold my attention . . . at least not for long. The promise of casual violence might be enough to put every other guest on the edge of their seat but not me. My focus was entirely on the weapon strapped to the big biker’s hip.
The leader’s twisting motion had lifted his T-shirt and I remarked, without thinking, “Nice knife.”
Hanging from his wide, woven leather belt, the nearly two-foot-long blade more resembled a machete than what even the broadest-minded dictionary would label a ‘knife’.
“What?” he growled, dropping the reprieved gang member and turning. Seeing it was merely a disabled teen, he grinned and drew the weapon. Waving it around with sure hands, he cut the air with seeming wild abandon before adding, “You mean this old thing?”
I nodded and casually reached into the bag attached to my electric wheelchair. Feeling around its royal blue polyester depths until my hand closed on the knife that I always carried.[§] I pulled it free and unfolded my blade with a surge of pride.
The little, red Swiss Army knife, a long-ago gift from my grandfather in celebration of my making the leap from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, didn’t exactly intimidate. In truth, it barely cut. The ‘blade’, all its inch and a quarter of thin stainless steel, bent if pushed too hard. More a glorified letter opener than a weapon, it featured five separate attachments - the ridiculous knife, a nail file, tiny scissors, a pair of tweezers and a long-lost plastic toothpick. But still, it was mine. And I felt carrying it told the world something about me.
He laughed and said, “Nice toy. Did it come with a Barbie doll?”
Unfortunately for me, my abbreviated Boy Scout training (I was ‘asked’ to leave after a too-successful fire-bow experiment nearly burned down the church basement) failed to prepare me for a knife-measuring contest. ‘Always Be Prepared’ meant I had matches, medicines, and even some fish hooks at hand but not a ready comeback. Or at least not one suitable for an ill-tempered and probably psychotic leader of a biker gang.
At seventeen, sanity fought with raging and badly repressed hormones in an hourly struggle for dominance. Which might explain why his little joke at my knife’s expense rankled so much. The fact that all the bikers and my friends laughed at my expense pushed me past reason.
“At least I’m not compensating for any . . . shortcomings!”
Dead silence. Every biker looked to the leader. The rest of the diners followed suit, breath held in horrified anticipation.
Nothing happened for a moment. Rook seemed stunned, as if he had no experience dealing with insults - probably, given his size and appearance, he hadn’t. Then, not taking his eyes off me, the biggest, meanest biker in the place stood and, moving with the slow menace of a glacier, advanced toward me like he would soon scrape me off the face of the earth.
The man . . . loomed. Not just over me in my wheelchair but over the entire restaurant. No one even tried to stop him or help me. I was on my own. I saw my brother swallow. Beside him, the rest of my so-called friends were already inching under the table.
It wasn’t until Rook stood over me and the tension couldn’t grow any more unbearable that the big man broke the silence with a chortle. Gunshots of his booming laughter soon echoed loudly throughout the restaurant. Moments later, his buddies joined in. They chuckled, albeit nervously, and kept their ever-wary eyes on their Alpha.
“I like you, kid,” came his surprisingly affable words, accompanied by a friendly punch to my shoulder - one that rocked both me and my wheelchair (I weighed 200+ pounds at the time and the chair was well over 300) and would leave a large purple-black bruise. “You got balls. Shame the same can’t be said for some others I know.” He glanced at his fellow bikers but not a-one dared to meet his contemptuous gaze.
After that precarious exchange, Rook returned to his table and both groups enjoyed their meal in companionable privacy. The gang continued their conversation while talk at the teen table turned to girls, sports, school, and Saturday’s upcoming Pit Party.[**] Over the next two hours, I picked up the odd word from the bikers as they never bothered to keep their voices low and couldn’t have cared less about who might eavesdrop or get offended.[††]
‘SNOJOB’, it turned out, was their nickname. An acronym of ‘SKIPJACKS of Northern Ontario, Joint Order of Bikers’. Cannabis was their stock-in-trade, hence the joint in ‘joint order of bikers’, and they were in town hoping to make some deals. It was a risky move, I gathered. Infringing on another gang’s territory was, apparently, a definite biker no-no. Conducting business without permission was worse.
These guys obviously knew they were trespassing and several members appeared nervous at the idea. Only Rook’s iron will and violent methods of dealing with dissent kept the entire gang on task. Armed with his ridiculously large knife he felt safe. Too bad for the Skipjacks that the local gang carried guns.
That night retribution arrived. Blood flowed and the parking lot of the city’s rundown Marriott Hotel became the scene of, what the media insisted on calling, ‘a violent gang war’. On the 11 o'clock news, the story opened with the sort of breathless excitement normally reserved for humiliating political sex scandals or grisly mass murders.
"Our city streets are no longer safe!" The reporter managed to make the Skipjacks' one-sided beatdown sound way more terrifying and threatening to the naïve citizenry than a half-score of mostly fat, pot-dealing bikers getting their asses handed to them should have. As if the fight took place in the viewer's own backyard rather than at some out-of-the-way hotel.
Facing a surprise attack on unfamiliar territory, not to mention vastly superior numbers and firepower, meant the Skipjacks had no chance in hell. And Rook found, apparently to his surprise, that no one, least of all the overworked local police, much cared what criminals did to one another.
I saw him on the TV that night, bleeding and broken but stubbornly refusing offers of medical help. Demanding “Why?” over and over again in desperate despondence while bored paramedics worked on his comrades in the background. Rook still towered over all around him but somehow seemed . . . diminished. No one had got killed but it was a close call.
Several of the Skipjacks ended up hospitalized (the news provided daily updates since, even in ‘the City’, this was a big story) only to flee as soon as they could throw a leg over their Harley.[‡‡]
Somehow rumours of the ‘Pizza Hut Incident’ spread through my hometown, at least among the circles that counted. Teenage girls approached me, impressed at my courage, and asked three words that made me feel six-feet tall, “Is it true?”
For my part I always played it cool. Adopting the drawling demeanor of those classic Hollywood Westerns my grandfather so loved to watch, my first reaction was the hint of a smile. Then I’d show off the gradually fading remnants of my bruise, exaggerating Rook’s fist size only a little. Finally, I uttered the nonchalant words that sealed my name: “Standing up to a biker gang ain’t no big deal.” The phrase dripped off my tongue with confidence. Practicing it in front of the mirror helped. Thus, the legend grew.
I did buy a new knife though.
[*]And by ‘night’ I mean, of course, our 10 p.m. curfew.
[†]Clean-cut and well-scrubbed, dressed in a white polo shirt, complete with little alligator label, designer beige slacks, and dress shoes with little frills on the tongue - I looked their antithesis.
[‡] Subsequent research has revealed this to be the preferred terminology.
[§]This was in a simpler time when lots of teens, at least in Northern Ontario, had knives - some even brought them to school and no one so much as blinked.
[**]Where our illicit keg would play a big part in assuring some temporary popularity.
[††]We didn’t dare leave until Rook reclaimed his jacket and he didn’t seem in much of a hurry.
[‡‡]None of the SKIPJACKS’ motorcycles were harmed in the fighting. Bikers might be violent, deranged criminals with no respect for law or society but they do have a ‘code’ - and rides were off limits…that included both the two-wheeled kind and the two-legged type known as ‘old-ladies’.
Uncle Bob Says Fuck’em
by Thomas Leduc
Beer-tipped the rim of his glass
a tumbling gymnast of slurred words,
a verbal trapeze artist without a net.
He danced, a ballerina on a tightrope
not a drop spills to the floor as he sang.
in a Kumbaya circle-jerk.
Mouths stuffed with sweet
Ensure sugar choices.
His soggy cardboard fingers
gripping a glass life preserver.
His sour, grinding teeth and
face of an old hiking trail.
He shakes and coughs a storm.
Turn up the oxygen tank,
take another drink,
sing another verse.
brown nosed ass kissers,
rapped in bubble rap and
bathed in double rainbows.
His dark, sunken, fishbowl eyes,
his tar-pond tongue, blackened, scarred lung,
Grey, is what he’s always been, always will be
As he croaks out a yellow stained Calvary song.
with their mini vans, and pension plans.
with their candy-coloured tattoo’s,
and diamond running shoes,
their snake-eyed glances,
and plastic, dollar store advice.
He’s a last call preacher, singing out
sermons from a bar stool
to an empty neon church.
He lifts his mixed drink
of misery and distain.
I’m going home.
A Certain Kind of Drunk
by John Jantunen
The war in Kosovo had not been good to Bernie. When the first American bombs fell on Belgrade, he was watching a hockey game in his groundfloor bachelor apartment with den. A commercial break ushered him into the bathroom and from behind the partially open door he heard his roommate mutter, “This is going to mean trouble.”
“Did the Blues score?” he called back, trying to speed the operation.
No answer from Fisher, so Bernie hastily zipped and rushed back to the living room. Fisher was in the kitchen cubby, removing the ice tray from the freezer, and on the TV a news announcer was rattling on about some crisis or another in a part of the world he’d be hard pressed to find on a map. The announcer signed off with the promise of a full report at eleven and, after a short commercial, the hockey game came back on. Bernie maneuvered past the open fold-out couch and sat in the plastic lawn chair under the window where his can of beer, smokes and full ashtray lay patiently in wait. After a few moments, Fisher returned with his quarter-glass of scotch.
“Did you say the Blues scored?” he asked, settling himself into his recliner on the far side of the room.
Bernie lit a cigarette and ignored him, intent on the game.
“You pissed off at me or something?” Fisher asked.
“I’m watching the game.”
“Fine,” then after a pause, “Did the Blues score?”
Bernie clenched his fists and pounded them twice on the table.
“Goddamn it, can’t you see I’m watching the game?”
Fisher sipped at his drink and stretched back in the chair, propping his feet up on the leg rest. Another outburst like that, he thought louder than intended, and I’m out of here.
“What did you say?” Bernie shot back at him.
“I said, you’re becoming that kind of drunk, Bernie.”
Bernie understood exactly what he meant and the silence between them, spanning the remainder of the third period, hung like a noose around his neck. As with all relationships, theirs was founded on a principle and that principle was defiance - as good a principle as friendship, love or money. It was the cornerstone of their agreement and they held onto it as a child holds onto a handful of firecrackers wondering what he’ll destroy first. And later, with the afternoon littered with mangled Hot Wheels and headless Barbies, he grips the last instrument of destruction and promises himself he will save it for something special.
Neither Bernie nor Fisher would name their 'something special' but both had a clear image of what it was. In Kelowna, where Fisher grew up, the start of summer floated through the night air with neon flares. Rounding up fireflies past midnight was a declaration of freedom for the young Fisher. One bug was a curiosity but a whole jar of them was a lantern, enough to light up a small tent.
“Do you want another firefly?” Fisher asked as he pried himself off his chair and headed for the kitchen. The hockey game was over and the news was on. The bald anchor spoke gravely of refugees, genocide and a deadline come and gone.
“I’m going to the kitchen anyway,” Fisher said, stopping in front of Bernie.
Bernie drained the last of his beer and handed the empty can to Fisher. He muttered, “Thanks,” sheepishly under his breath and lit a cigarette as he watched Fisher’s sluggish movements around the walk-in, closet-sized kitchen.
The belt on Fisher’s well-worn bathrobe trailed on the linoleum, then caught under his slipper as he turned to the counter with the ice tray. The remaining length of fabric slipped out of the one unripped loop and fell to the floor like a discarded tissue. Fisher retrieved it, kneeling so that his emaciated legs didn’t buckle under the weight of his bulging stomach, and slung it over his shoulder. He then finished pouring his drink and sauntered back into the living room. He set Bernie’s 'firefly' on the table and ambled off to his reclining chair. He brushed a bit of ash from the armrest and slumped into the seat, then dipped his finger into the scotch and gave it a swirl. Licking his finger, he smiled and set to watching the news.
Fisher’s contented jaunts to the kitchen were a familiar scene, replayed a dozen times daily. Every gesture was a monument to relaxation and ease. Each seemed to say, I’m living the good life and know it, how about you? and Bernie at the table, his thin, pale arms banging restlessly against his chair, his eyes darting about trying to find something to latch onto. More often than not they found the door and pressed at the cracked paint searching for the knock that would propel him up and out. It was past ten though and he knew the knock wouldn’t come unless it was an emergency.
I’m in no state to deal with a burnt-out fuse much less a burst pipe, he reasoned and his eyes wandered back to the TV.
“Sons of bitches,” Fisher scowled at the sight of a building in flames. “They ought to mind their own damn business. What do you think they’d do if Texas tried to separate, huh? Just take a look at what happened in Waco and I think you get a pretty good idea.”
“Ain’t got nothing to do with us,” Bernie coaxed.
“Hell it don’t. You got to pay attention. World’s getting smaller and common sense has paid the price.”
“I’m going to take a shower,” Bernie said and stood up.
“Sure go ahead, run away. It’ll catch up to you one day.”
I let you stay here don’t I, Bernie thought while he stood at the tub. He immediately felt a twinge of regret as he pulled the lever that sent water streaming from the shower head.
Without Fisher, he knew, he’d have had to leave The King George Apartments where he’d been the building's manager for six years. The pay was minimal and at first he’d supplemented it by delivering take-out food from a chicken and rib place on Denman Street. When the restaurant had gone under, try as he might, Bernie couldn’t find another job that kept his days free as the owner of The King George demanded. Two months later Fisher was fired from BC Transit for running a bus into a North Shore snow-bank while under the influence and had come upon Bernie as he vacuumed the back stairwell. He drew Bernie into a heated discussion of their 'lot in life' then invited the super to his apartment for a drink.
Bernie still had two hours worth of cleaning to do and he politely declined but Fisher wouldn’t take no for an answer. He clenched onto Bernie’s arm and dragged him down the third-floor hallway. Only when they were safely inside #304 with the door locked did Fisher let him go. The soft flesh where his biceps should have been felt like it had undergone one of his older brother’s extended Indian burn treatments but the discomfort quickly gave way to awe as the spectacle that was Fisher’s apartment lured him into the living room.
Almost everything was in boxes. Not big, old cardboard boxes from the grocery store that people use when they move but factory-sealed boxes. The place looked like a warehouse. Every modern convenience imaginable was lined up on shelves or stacked against the wall. Pictures on the boxes proudly displayed their contents - from a track lighting system and a stereo amplifier to a 4-head VCR and a deluxe aquarium. In the kitchen, if Bernie had made it that far, he wouldn’t have been surprised to find a blender, a microwave and a ten-piece dinette set all in their original packaging. And in the bathroom -
“You see this?” Fisher thrust a framed certificate at his chest. “Twenty years of service, it says. And I got that three years ago for all the good it does me.”
Bernie examined the certificate. It was from BC Transit and signed with a rubber stamp.
“Two more years and I would have made full pension. How do you like them apples?”
Bernie handed the certificate back and noticed the large-screen TV by the window. Only it, a reclining chair and a standing lamp were unboxed.
“Nice TV,” Bernie remarked, wondering where his drink was.
“You like it?” Fisher asked as he rushed to the TV. “Give me a hand.”
They carried the TV down to Bernie’s bachelor with den and displaced the 13-inch RCA Bernie had salvaged from beside the dumpster at the back of the building. Then Bernie helped Fisher with the reclining chair. The lamp and a crate of Scotch whiskey made up the third trip and, while Bernie stood admiring his new possessions, Fisher went into the kitchen in search of a glass and some ice. “Not much room in here,” Fisher said. Full glass of scotch in hand, he poked his head into the den where Bernie’s bed was. “That’s okay, I don’t need much room.” Fisher dropped into his reclining chair and pulled the lever that propped the leg rest up.
“Yes sir, this’ll suit me fine” he said, fully unaware of the confused glare Bernie gave him from the other side of the room.
The next day Fisher loaded all the stuff from his apartment onto a rented truck and came back with a wallet so full of money, it wouldn’t fit into his back pocket. He counted off five hundred dollars and gave it to Bernie, offering as explanation only the cryptic comment, “I’m not really the marrying kind anyway.” When the money from the wallet was spent, Fisher went to the welfare office. That and Bernie’s free room and small monthly allotment had been enough to keep them in booze, cigarettes and canned spaghetti ever since.
Bernie stepped out of the shower, his anger at Fisher spilling down the drain with the last of the soapy water. The clipped ring of the phone from the next room was answered by Fisher’s jovial, “Hello.” Bernie waited and heard Fisher say, “I’ll pass the message along”, then towelled himself off.
See, I got enough shit going on around here as it is, he thought, pushing the final trace of resentment from his mind. I don’t need to be bringing it in from the outside.
The King George Apartments on Haro Street, two blocks from Stanley Park, was a refugee from a time, long past, when the West End was strictly low rent. Condos and fifty-floor concrete bunkers had cured that but the King George stubbornly remained.
It had the cheapest apartments anywhere west of Granville and, because of this, the turnover was slight. The only time anyone left was if they got too old to climb the stairs or had one too many kids and went in search of a larger place on the Eastside. The people who replaced them all had one thing in common - they didn’t mind the cracked plaster ceilings or the musty damp smell in the hallways. In the West End that was a rare breed and Bernie’d have to show a vacant apartment to thirty or forty people before he’d find anyone who valued its location more than its shortcomings.
At one end of the scale was a thirty-something Indian fellow who collected bottles and cans out of recycling bins, claiming the deposit for himself, and at the top a grey-haired columnist for one of Vancouver’s two dailies. In between were mostly couples with dead-end jobs, pensioners and low income clerks who spent more time at the office than at home. Bernie was no more than a liaison between them and various repair services. He’d only met the owner once when he was hired and the tenants sent their cheques directly to her.
Bernie slipped back into his shirt, stale from sitting in the bottom of his closet too long, and opened the door a crack.
“Who was that?” he asked. The steam in the bathroom made him feel drowsy and he didn’t look forward to running damage control at that late an hour.
“The owner, what’s her name? Said she’ll be by tomorrow around noon.”
“That’s what I said.”
Bernie fumbled into his pants and reached for his belt on the toilet. His hands shook as he laced it into the belt loops.
“Did she say what she wanted?”
“Said she’d be by tomorrow, like I told you.”
Bernie bit at the cracked nail on his thumb. He dug too deep and a blood bubble rose underneath the cuticle.
“We better clean this place up.”
Bernie motioned towards the table littered with flecks of ash errant of the tray. Before he’d made it into the kitchen for a rag, the thick layer of grime coating the row of windows distracted him. He rubbed at the top of his head, his fingers scratching closer to his scalp than his hair once allowed. A single strand clung to a knuckle and he drew its curl straight, examining it for a split end.
“I’m going to bed,” he finally said, more to himself than Fisher, and dropped the hair into the ashtray he was suddenly too tired to empty.
The next morning, Fisher left at nine just as Bernie was dragging himself out of the den, picking sleep from his eyes.
“Wouldn’t want to ruin a good thing now, would we?” Fisher grinned.
“She already knows you live here,” Bernie replied a few seconds after the door had closed and he stood facing the unmade fold-out bed. He thought about making a cup of coffee and relaxing for a while with his first smoke. Instead he arranged the blankets on the convertible, stuffed the bed into the couch and threw the cushions on top. From there to the kitchen he noticed three dust bunnies and went in search of a broom. The stack of dishes in the sink sidelined him for fifteen minutes then, with broom in hand, he attacked a cobweb over the stove. He followed the trail of filth criss-crossing from room to room until the pressure in his gums reminded him of his cigarette and coffee.
While the coffee brewed, Bernie piled the drip-dried dishes from the rack into the cupboards. Fisher’s bottle of scotch sat like a beacon on the second shelf, flashing him every time he returned with a plate or glass. At the final gurgle from the coffeemaker, he pulled the bottle down and set it beside the cup he’d saved on the counter. He looked at the clock where the hour hand was bearing down on eleven-thirty and unscrewed the cap.
It was Fisher’s habit to start the day with a splash of scotch in his coffee. By noon he’d have had three cups then would switch over to drinking it straight with ice.
As a rule Bernie never drank before his morning chores were done. He had two or three beers with lunch and stayed away from the hard stuff. With the owner coming, he knew he’d have to forestall this carefully cultivated routine.
He raised the bottle to sniff it as Fisher always did, like it was smelling salts and he needed the sharpness of the alcohol to rouse him. Then, rubbing his nose, he poured a finger into his cup. Sitting at the table, he lit a cigarette then thought better of it and, ashtray, drink and smokes in hand, walked over to Fisher’s recliner. He stretched his feet out on the leg rest and sank back into the plush cushion.
“There are three kinds of drunk,” he said, doing his best imitation of Fisher. “Those that drink to forget, those that drink for spite and those, like us, who drink out of defiance.” Bernie savoured the moment while the word still clung to the air around him. As he pressed the cup to his mouth, he imagined the word was some sort of pill, dissolving into the coffee. He gave the cup a swirl then took another sip.
At best his position at The King George had been meant as a waystation, a moment of respite for the truly desperate. Of all the other managers on the block, only the old German next door at the regal Park Estates still remained after Bernie’s first year. Restless for someone to talk to, Bernie had tried to introduce himself to the other apartment managers in the surrounding buildings. He'd walked up and down the street, waiting until one appeared, then said, “Hello, I’m Bernie, super at The King George.”
Simple enough and direct, aided by a jerk of his thumb pointing in the direction of The King George. The middle-aged queen with the colourful silk scarf at the modern Dominion Apartments greeted him with a derisive frown and went back to watering barrel-shaped flowerpots. They were gone in three weeks. The young Irish couple, both with flaming red hair, that tended the Grove Arms smiled politely before excusing themselves. They lasted a month. The Chinese Man with the thick glasses and threadbare moustache had been more direct.
“They have rats there,” he said harshly, before retreating inside the lobby of the bunker-like Fairlane where he stared scornfully through the window as if Bernie himself were the carrier of some ratborn disease.
Bernie took every slight as a personal attack. The other apartment managers, it seemed to him, had looked into his pasty face, recoiled from his pleading dark eyes, smelled his breath stained with beer and cigarettes and seen their lives in dim reflection. With Bernie on the block the tide had gone out from their once-shimmering bays, leaving them standing on a beach littered with the bodies of creatures not strong enough to survive the turbulent vacillations that drove the uncaring waters of the ocean. The constant rejection kept him inside and, from the quiet isolation of his groundfloor bachelor with den, he resolved to get himself out of the racket by whatever means necessary.
After three years of delivering take-out food and keeping to himself, he was no further along than at the start. He tried to save money but, by the end of the month, the immediate demand of a carton of cigarettes and a case of beer outweighed the fanciful notion that his life would be better elsewhere. He took his first drink at noon and smoked two packs on a slow day.
The afternoon that Fisher had accosted him on the stairs, he had four beers under his belt and had to rest for ten minutes after vacuuming each flight. Out of the nonsensical blur that Fisher’s torrent of words and his sudden fit of generosity created, he found himself with a new roommate.
Later, with the formal arrangements out of the way, Fisher had offered him a glass of whiskey. Bernie declined favouring his beer. They sat and stared at the TV for a spell until Fisher’s third refill opened up a floodgate of curses. He hollered a steady stream of 'sons of bitches', 'bastards' and even lowered his voice to mumble 'motherfuckers'. His tirade coincided with a commercial for the United Way and Bernie thought it was directed at the pictures of starving children with bloated stomachs.
“Serves them right,” he muttered in agreement.
“Serves who right?”
“Them,” Bernie motioned at the TV. The children had been replaced by an older couple walking on a beach while a soothing voice extolled the virtues of RRSPs.
“Exactly,” Fisher replied. “Who do they think they’re fooling?”
Bernie didn’t correct the misunderstanding thinking it did not matter. He and Fisher defied them all.
Now, from the comfort of Fisher’s recliner, he traced back to this moment the path that was leading him to become, as Fisher had warned, that kind of drunk.
The remaining coffee in his cup was cool on his lips and he drank it down easily. On the way to the kitchen for a refill, he took the remote control off the TV and pressed ON. The Noon News was just starting and he hurried to get himself another firefly. A knock at the door froze his hand on the bottle of scotch. He shelved it and drew heavy on a cigarette to mask his breath, then rushed into the living room to meet his appointment.
“You should have seen it, Bernie,” Fisher trumpeted from the bathroom a few seconds after his return. “Those Serbs sure are pissed. Must have been three or four hundred of them gathered at the museum. Making speeches, saying prayers, chanting. Helluva sight.” Fisher washed his hands and stepped from the bathroom drying them on his pants. Bernie sat in his chair at the table, a half-dozen beer cans scattered before him.
“Talked to one guy. Said he was on the phone to his mother in Belgrade last night and the line cut out. Doesn’t know if she’s dead or what. Nice guy, too. My heart went out to him.”
He sagged into his recliner, the excitement from the rally fading in the retelling, and pulled a silver flask from inside his jacket pocket. He shook it, then unscrewed the cap and poured the last few drops onto his tongue.
“So how’d the meeting go?” he asked, stuffing the flask back into his jacket.
“She said we have one month to clear out.”
"What? You’ve been fired?”
Bernie picked at the depressor on the top of his beer can.
“Oh Bernie, Christ, Bernie,” Fisher moaned, then sat bolt upright with such force that he would have fallen face first onto the floor had his feet not been there to stop him. “The old lady in 203. What I tell you Bernie? She ain’t got nothing in the world but that cat. You told her you were going to strangle it if it crapped in the hall again. And what about that Indian fellow who was washing his bike out back? So what if he splashed some water into the laundry room. Then there was that nice young couple who broke a window -“
“I know, I know.”
All of them, the cat, the water, the window and more flitted through the haze of beer and cigarette smoke. He banged his head on the table with each memory of himself standing hand-on-hip, contemptuous, spittle flying from his mouth, as he berated the offending party in a half-drunken stupor.
“And that was just last month. Bernie, what have you done to us?”
Bernie ran his fingers over his face. The veins in his forehead throbbed to the touch. They lead him into the kitchen and to the aspirins sitting on the ledge above the stove. Cold water washed three down and he propped himself against the countertop, his eyes closed, waiting for the strength to return to his legs. After a couple of deep breaths, he felt steady on his feet again and opened the refrigerator. He took out a beer and walked into the living room.
“You ever heard of Albania?” he asked, cracking the fresh can. He glanced across the room and found Fisher’s chair empty and the TV gone. Raking his tongue against his teeth he stared out the window.
Bernie had heard little of what the owner had said after telling him that he had one month to get his affairs in order. The list of offences Fisher would later name was already growing and threatening to whelm him under. Cutting through his distress he felt the owner’s oddly sympathetic touch on his arm as she said, "My sister and her husband are coming from Albania. I’m sure you understand."
Bernie had nodded, unable to speak, and the owner said goodbye.
What does it matter where they come from? he decided flatly, drips of perspiration from the beer can cold against his hand. What matters is they put me out of a job.
“Those sons of bitches,” he growled and kicked the wall.
The toe of his shoe sank into the thin layer of sheetrock. The gaping hole brought a smile to his face and he drained his beer in one fell swoop as, a snarl curling his lips, he reached for the standing lamp Fisher had left beside the couch.
They’re going to think they walked into a fucking war zone!
Why is a Higher Good Endangering My Life?
by Rebecca Kramer
In Nature, some species are predators and some are prey. Both predators and prey exist in human form. Authoritarian predators reach for jobs where they can dominate others they believe are beneath them and get paid to make a living. Kind prey reach for jobs where they can show compassion towards people they believe are equal to them and get paid to make a living. What do Authoritarians have in common with the Kind? Both believe they are doing the right thing.
The kind people see themselves as actors fully responsible for their actions and believe that those whom they work with are reacting to them. They look for constant feedback like a comedian works hard to get an honest laugh out of their audience. If someone is angry, the kind person will mirror their anger, and allow them to vent until that anger is gone. Or, kind people will remain emotionally supportive with a sad person until they hear an honest sigh of relief. Kind people believe that negative emotions are a healthy function of the brain: that these emotions are critically necessary to alarm a human being to protect themselves when others place their lives in danger. The kind person’s function is to help them escape to a safe place. They understand that practical solutions are the only solutions that will spawn positive emotions.
In this area of responsible actors, authoritarians are vastly different. Authoritarians believe in a higher good such as the rule of law, which they are dutifully ‘imparting’ through Law Enforcement without seeing themselves as actors. They enforce the higher good. There is one fundamental problem with force on a human being. To be human is to have freedom of choice. If human beings are given even two choices - ‘this or that’ - they can choose either one. But, if a human being is abruptly forced to do only one thing chosen by someone else, this sends a disturbing shock right through their very system inhibiting their breathing, throwing them off balance, interrupting their speech. Force, by nature, is inhumane!
The force of authoritarians causes suffering in those they believe are beneath them. Suffering finds its expression in the shape of negative emotions such as fear and anger. These emotions are actually reactions to coercion enforced by authoritarians. But authoritarians perceive those beneath them as the actors: ‘acting out’ and resisting the higher good. It logically follows that someone resisting something 'good' is obviously doing something 'bad'. Therefore, authoritarians feel perfectly vindicated to up the ante of force. This begins to edge into life endangerment for their victims.
Now the victims’ fear turns into terror; their anger turns into rage. And what was force, shown by the authoritarians, now becomes brutality, then torture and finally murder with no feelings of guilt at all. As far as they are concerned, they have done the world a favor by deleting yet another 'bad' person. The more obvious suffering they cause, the louder they will flare up the belief in their own minds that they are upholding the higher good.
Attempting to discipline police brutality committed by authoritarians is useless if we don’t take a look at the root problem, which is the concept of a higher good. Predator human beings initially designed the political philosophy of the higher good to psychologically confuse the masses into believing a predatory police force is designed to protect them.
The rule of law supposedly prevents anarchy when, in fact, the rule of law can only cause anarchy. No one is above the law? Yes, there are some above the law. The law does not appear out of thin air. The law is written. By whom? Politicians have the privilege of writing the law. Therefore, the solution to anarchy is raising the level of confidence in the prey population, who usually do not reach for positions of power, to sit above the law and write new ones. Real law and order will be felt for the first time if personal responsibility, respect for negative emotions, and practical solutions are the law for all.
No one has a right to kill me except a police officer carrying a gun? That sadistic cop has the right to endanger my life with brutality and, if I can’t breathe anymore and try to get a gasp of breath, my life preserving ‘acting out’ is seen by him as resistance? He then can lie and claim that he thought I was a threat to his life? Therefore, he has the right to kill me? That’s law and order? Order for whom? Order for the vigilante: the man given the gun and him alone. He is an authoritarian by nature. This one has no right to play with real weapons. Give him and all his black-suited buddies squirt guns. Send them to the park for a good time-out.
Enough terror has gripped the world through police brutality for eons in every country, in every century. As the New Laws get written and kind people launch into real positions of power, let police brutality begin a long, slow death as the production and distribution of their crippling toys are stopped: no more handcuffs, no more torture devices, no more cage wagons to impound us like stray dogs. No more restraints to demoralize and vandalize women no different than in the sex trade. SO DONE! What kind of a higher good damages women into oblivion, paralyzing us and ostracizing us from society?
Me-Too shouts loudly from the dungeons where no one hears of us again. Blast me out. I’m still alive and well. It haunts me to consider how many vast numbers of mutilated women are really out there across this planet. We are so divided and conquered. I speak out loudly. No shame rests on my shoulders. Why endure anyone’s suspicious eyes any longer? No shame rests on any of your shoulders either.
Stand proud. Women survivors of police brutality, UNITE.
Rebecca Kramer is a multimedia artist and trauma survivor who gains resilience through her projects in music, photography, and writing. She lives in downtown North Bay with her three birds and an amazing view of Lake Nipissing from her third story walk-up.
by Tanja Rabe
Paradise is near,
whispers one rat to the next,
keep running in your wheel,
just spin it round and round and round.
Drive on the wheels of power,
they’ll turn water into wine.
The faster we go, the merrier,
just keep it spinning round and round.
Daddy Rat will make us fat,
turn stone right into sturgeon.
Make sure your eyes stay straight ahead
and keep it spinning round and round.
I think I’m getting dizzy,
moans a small rat in her cage.
Keep it up, Big Daddy shouts,
or I will feed you to the flames.
Doomsday an old fairy tale
and gods burn on our pyre,
night lit forever bright in flame,
the wheels may never tire.
Darkness descends throughout the lands,
small eyes look up in wonder,
strange sounds and shadows leave their dens,
the wheels they shake and thunder.
The flames shoot high and higher,
ashes blackening the sky,
Big Daddy’s tail caught fire
and he flees without good-bye.
Paradise is oh so near,
yells one rat to the next,
eyes straight ahead and never fear,
just keep it spinning round and round.
by Tanja Rabe
We live as two ghosts
in an empty tomb,
under the light of the moon.
There are fleeting glances,
so quick we can’t tell,
every sound cuts the silence,
just another penny
lost down the wishing well.
Somehow we’re waiting
but waiting for what?
As we drift along walls
past the door tightly locked.
I’m missing those songs
that cast flesh on our bones,
all those battles we fought
and our love writ in stone.
But we didn’t hold on
and we didn’t let go,
all that’s left are two shadows,
lost to touch, togeth'r alone.
We live as two ghosts
in this lonely, old tomb,
passing the other
in the light of the moon.
Why is it so hard
to look into your eyes?
Afraid to find out
you've cut our last ties?
There’s no way but forward
there’s no going back.
Let’s drop our last coin together
make a wish and bury the dead.
We Children From Zoo Station
1981, Germany, R, Biographical Drama,
Director: Uli Edel,
Starring: Natja Brunckhorst, Thomas Haustein
While living on the Eastside of North Bay for two years, our house at the corner of John and Hardy street happened to be situated on an ambulance route. After dark, every hour or so without fail, our living room would erupt in a dazzle of red and blue accompanied by the obligatory score of sirens. Another overdose, we figured, as light and sound receded down the road towards the city core.
Three doors over was a triplex of crumbling, yellowed plaster and a yard littered with weeks-old garbage, unremarkable except for the steady stream of visitors on foot, in cabs and pick-up trucks at all hours of the day and night. Our suspicions of its true nature were soon confirmed as, one evening, a regular drop-in (a.k.a. guy in red wind jacket) stumbled along the fence separating our backyard from the sidewalk, gesticulating angrily towards said triplex and yelling at the top of his lungs," You ripped me off, motherfucker!", followed by a stream of incoherent mutterings and insults whilst he tottered back and forth along our street. He eventually capitulated, unexpectedly broke into song and disappeared around our corner, his raucous voice fading in the distance.
Over those two years, we realized that the dire issues which have been visibly plaguing the North for many years were, if nothing else, foreshadowing the slippery slope this country itself is heading down. What we shudder to think of as the 'new normal' in the South, be it homelessness, drug pandemics, slumlords and suicides, has for years meant business as usual in northern cities like Sudbury, North Bay and Timmins. Southern Ontario has been sending its 'drug problems' north by the busloads for treatment, without return tickets, leaving city councils scrambling to deal with downtowns wasting away, overrun with the homeless, drug dependants and the mentally ill for lack of care and shelter. Dealers, gangs and slumlords have exploited this crisis with impunity as underfunded public agencies get buried under ever-increasing workloads.
There are countless ways the film industry portrays drug use, from crime fiction and testimonials to the popular breed of stoner flicks and drug comedies. Yet never have I encountered a depiction of substance abuse as brutal and honest as in a film I 'witnessed' on public German television as a teenager and that I credit, at least partially, with stifling any temptation hard drugs might ever have had to offer.
Christiane F. - We Children from Zoo Station is a cautionary, biographical tale that spares no feelings in its viewers.
Raw and gritty, it follows Christiane F. (Felscherinow), a young teen living with her mother in a low rent apartment building in West Berlin in the early 70's, from being a poor but fairly normal teen who's obsessed with David Bowie to falling in with a cute junkie/street boy.
She descends slowly and excruciatingly into the nightmare that is heroin addiction and child prostitution, ever in a desperate panic to score the next hit by any means possible, first selling her precious David Bowie collection, then lining up with her boyfriend and other junkies at the Berlin Zoo train station to sell herself. Throughout her harrowing decline, she copes with friends dying in station toilet stalls or disappearing from the scene - only to reappear on the front page news as statistics -, her boyfriend turning tricks with old men on their mattress and junkies stealing the needle right out of her arm when she's in desperate need.
One of the most memorable scenes deals with Christiane and her boyfriend going through self- rehab locked in a room for days. You can virtually smell the puke and excrement, feel the sweat and grime oozing out of their skin, the pain as their fingernails claw the paper in strips from the walls of their prison and suffer the voracious thirst that no amount of water seems to relieve. The scene left me feeling nauseous and in need of a shower (even in hindsight) and reminds me of the first time I watched A Clockwork Orange a few years later at the Bookshelf in Guelph, creating a similar sensation of unsettling revulsion in my stomach coupled with an odd numbness.
I shall leave the end to the viewer.
Now why, you might ask, would you want to subject yourself to such a cinematic ordeal?
Well, there's the David Bowie soundtrack and concert scene, for one, which has lured quite a few unwitting souls into more than they bargained for. Personally, I believe this film needs to be experienced, with eyes open wide and fully immersed, thus getting you as close as possible to walking in their shoes, even if just for a couple of hours and from the comfort of your living room couch (look beyond the old film and sound quality, avoid the horribly dubbed version and opt for subtitles). It might just change our collective perception of drug dependence and put the blame where it rightfully belongs, i.e. a degenerate social system that is failing many of its citizens.
For all the bibliophiles out there, I highly recommend the book version which includes images from the film and extra materials.
And if you want to instill a healthy fear of street drugs (and prescription opioids!) in your teenager, why not make it a family movie and discussion night!
Cape Breton Post
Cape Breton Post
Is This “Canadian Enough” For Ya?
by John Jantunen
I first met the late screenwriter John Hunter in the fall of 1992.
I was twenty-one at the time and living with an older woman, her six year old daughter and our newborn son in a Co-op at the corner of Vancouver’s Sixth Avenue and Oak Street. The rent was twenty-five percent of our gross income up to a maximum of four hundred and fifty dollars a month, an amount which today seems downright miraculous, especially since our view afforded us a stunning vista of Vancouver’s downtown, appearing to me every morning as a shimmering Pacific Oz on the other side of False Creek. The Co-op was inhabited by a rather motley assortment of artists, fledgling entrepreneurs, single mothers and pensioners residing in what manifests, in my memory, as a kind of Bohemian preserve - a living museum exhibit encapsulating a golden age of creativity of the sort I’d only ever read about in books such as Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. They were lean times for sure (as anyone who’s had to support a family of four on less than two thousand dollars a month in a city like Vancouver can well affirm) but for an aspiring writer who’d spent much of his formative years in rural Muskoka and who’d come to the big city seeking a broader perspective, the promise of a bright new future seemed as close as a quick glance out of my living room window.
Our closest neighbours were another couple with a newborn and also a significant age difference, though he was the older and she the younger. Barry Ward and Delna Bhesania owned a small ink and paint shop on Broadway called BarDel Animation where I worked, off and on, photocopying cells and which they would ultimately grow into the largest animation services provider in North America. By then I’d already written four screenplays and it was Barry, two decades my senior and ever-supportive of my creative endeavours, who both informed me of the Praxis Screenwriting Fellowship, a now- defunct mentorship program operated out of Simon Fraser University’s Film Department, and who also encouraged me to submit one of my scripts. My most recent was entitled Backroads, an initial fumbling attempt to make sense of the violence I’d experienced while living in Regina where its escalating threat had compelled me to flee the city after a single semester in the U of R’s film program and which also seemed to be shadowing me while I hitchhiked from Bracebridge, Ontario, to Vancouver the following spring.
Less than a year after I arrived in the city, that violence would come crashing right through the front door on Thanksgiving Day in the form of five drug-crazed thugs exacting vengeance after the drunkest member of our dinner party committed the 'crime' of pissing on the upstairs neighbour’s prized rose bushes (a transgression which in Surrey, apparently, warranted a good old-fashioned 'ass whoopin’). Bruised and bloodied by the ensuing attack, I’d spend over an hour in the back of a police car (the second and last time I ever have) and it was from this vantage that I witnessed four police officers carrying the unconscious body of The Urinator towards another cruiser.
I would later learn that he’d gone out to apologize to the neighbour mere moments before the neighbour’s 'friends' arrived in a bright, orange pick-up transformed into a monster truck by its almost comically oversized tires. One of these 'friends' had grabbed The Urinator by the hair with one hand and savagely pummelled his face with the other such that his eyes had become swollen shut. He’d awoken as he was being carried to the cruiser by the four cops and, from the way he was thrashing about and screaming, it was clear to me that he thought he was being carried off to his doom by said thugs. In response to his desperate struggle, the four officers swung his body like a battering ram at the cruiser’s door, striking him in the head and knocking him unconscious again before tossing him into the backseat with all the care of a sack of dirty laundry.
The Thanksgiving dinner’s host, one of my then-partner’s cousins, had been stabbed in the chest with a broken beer bottle during the fray and, when I think about seeing him being led, shirtless, to yet another cruiser, I can’t help but draw a comparison to Tony Stark, as much because the weeping circle of gored flesh resembled Iron Man’s arc reactor as because of how little the injury seemed to bother him.
Due to an oversight, the door of his cruiser had been left unlocked and, while all of the attending officers were busy canvassing witnesses amongst the throngs of people then gathering on their front lawns, his wife had come and let him out. Upon his release, he’d immediately tried to secure mine as well and, when he discovered that the back door of my cruiser had, in fact, been locked, he quite altruistically sought out the nearest officer to plead my case.
Whatever he said, it must have worked for I was released a few moments later by the same. By the time I’d made it back to the house, all the cruisers had departed, with no charges laid, and the first thing I heard upon re-entering the kitchen was one of the host’s children - a girl of four or five - crying out through tears, “They said they were coming back with guns!”
We beat a hasty retreat, the host driving to the hospital to attend to his battered friend, and the rest of us piling into a cab with the family’s big screen TV and whatever beer was left in the fridge, all they had of any real value. Back within the safe confines of the Co-op, another of the guests, whose name was also John, hatched plans for his own bit of vengeance, the extent of which involved him throwing a Molotov cocktail through the upstairs neighbour’s window and laughing as he watched him, and his family, burn (I later learned that a short time after, John would wake up, beaten and buck-ass naked, in a Seattle alley with no memory of how he’d got there from Vancouver, but whether this had any connection to the preceding events was anyone’s guess).
I was in the middle of writing Backroads at the time and while this 'incident' didn’t exactly influence its story of a hitchhiker, falsely accused of killing a man who'd picked him up, and his flight from the people who'd actually committed the murder, the fear I’d felt during the assault and over the hour or so I’d spent in the back of the cruiser most certainly did. Over three successive, typewritten drafts, the script had grown to an unwieldy 172 pages and the photocopies of it I submitted to Praxis did an exceedingly poor job of masking the bottle of Liquid Paper I’d used to complete my revisions, so no one was more surprised than myself when I was notified I’d been awarded a fellowship.
I was assigned novelist and screenwriter Sharon Riis and was only moderately disappointed when I discovered that in place of the usual four days of mentorship I was only afforded one, to take place on the Wednesday of the weeklong session when all the other aspiring writers were taking a day off for reflection (at one of the nightly Meet and Greets, I asked Patricia Gruben, the program’s director, why this was, and she told me that she had granted me an anomalous one day spot simply because she’d wanted to find out if what I'd written had actually happened, which told me that at least a little of the fear I’d felt that Thanksgiving had seeped onto the page).
Sharon taught me more about screenwriting during that one day than I’d learned from any number of the How To... books I’d read but, when I think back upon that week, my memories are most often drawn to the nightly gatherings, all of which were well-lubricated with an unending supply of beer from amongst the city’s many craft breweries. Sharon chainsmoked hand-rolled cigarettes of Drum tobacco and I Dunhills, and while I can’t remember what brand John Hunter favoured, I do recall that the three of us were the only smokers, chain or otherwise, of the bunch. It was natural then that we would often form our own, little discussion group.
It was during the first of these that I learned that, in addition to writing The Grey Fox, John was also responsible for an uncredited rewrite on Prom Night, a movie which assumed an almost mythical status for any fledgling Canadian screenwriter, such as I was, who had a predilection for horror. (The story John told me was that he had previously written the screenplay for director and friend Paul Lynch’s The Hard Part Begins, starring Donnelly Rhodes, and after Prom Night was in the can, Paul had told him that there was some concern amongst its producers that the first murder didn’t occur until the forty-five minute mark. He asked John if he could write an easily insertable subplot involving a killer who’d escaped from a mental institution to add some suspense to the movie’s opening half. John did and for his contribution he was offered either a couple thousand dollars or points in the film. John didn’t think his cut would amount to much but still he chose to 'roll the dice' on the latter. The film would go on to box office glory and his gambit would net him about thirty-five grand, enough to buy his first house outright.)
I was a more than eager acolyte and I must have also proven myself enough of a worthy cinephile that, at the end of the week, John graciously agreed to meet me for coffee to talk more about what we were writing and about film in general. We’d do so sporadically over the next seven years, usually on the sidewalk patio of his preferred greasy spoon on Denman Street which is where I’d see him for the last time shortly before Tanja and I left Vancouver in the spring of 1999.
Over the past three years, he’d been researching and writing a mini-series about serial killer Clifford Olson. It was his passion project and, during the research, he’d interviewed every police officer involved in the case as well as many of the victim’s families on his way to writing the three hundred page manuscript, only to hit a seemingly insurmountable roadblock when Telefilm refused to provide any financing for it. His frustration, shading towards abject rage, was clearly audible in his voice when he spoke of how he’d been told that 'it wasn’t Canadian enough'.
Over the course of the next two decades, I’d write a dozen screenplays and six novels, all of which have grappled with the violence I’ve personally encountered both first and second hand across this country while also trying to situate in our cultural landscape the more extreme kinds of violence perpetrated by homegrown monsters such as Clifford Olson and Robert Pickton.
Most of my own efforts have been met with a similar level of resistance by our nation’s esteemed gatekeepers, which is to say that, in the years since I last saw John Hunter, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what 'being Canadian enough' means. As far as I’ve been able to discern, 'being Canadian enough' for a writer is more about what we leave off the page than what we include and that the time-honoured tradition of excising whatever doesn’t fit into the prevailing narrative is a tradition steadfastly upheld by our most esteemed authors, broadcasters, journalists and publishers.
The willingness to do so would appear, in fact, to be the only ticket in town if one wishes to ascend to the highest echelons of the Canadian literary world and, contrary to the oft-recited mantra that the artistic culture in this country is 'open and tolerant', the limiting of the stories a writer can tell and still reasonably expect to procure an agent, find a publisher, receive a Canada Council arts grant, win an award, secure employment as a creative writing instructor, become a writer-in-residence, be invited onto the CBC or to one of this country’s literary festivals - i.e. become a successful author - has engendered a literary culture which is compulsively restrictive, even suffocating, while it emboldens our most vaunted gatekeepers to become openly dismissive of anyone whose experience compels them to reveal a different side of Canada than what they themselves feel comfortable even acknowledging.
The consequences of such an exclusionary environment are writ large in the confusion and downright ignorance so many of CanLit’s most devoted readers have expressed when confronted with the hard realities exposed by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the recent revelations around the toxic abuse and systemic racism endemic to all levels of Canadian public service, the alarming rise of both civilian militia groups and the increasing militarization of our Police Services in response to protests by Indigenous Peoples standing up for their legal rights, the coalescing opioid, housing, homelessness and mental health crises devastating all of our communities and the inability of our governments, or for that matter, the majority of our citizenry, to even consider the policy and lifestyle changes required if we are to mitigate the most cataclysmic effects resulting from climate change.
The corresponding, and widespread, cognitive dissonance surrounding all of these realities now poses the collateral danger that such a 'sudden' tidal wave of unrelenting grief and misery, seemingly without end, only serves to further breed a variety of cynicism which tells us there’s nothing we can do in the face of the Sisyphean struggle which surely lies ahead, thus allowing the status quo to persist, or more accurately, fester, and I’ll be the first to admit that the current forecast is beyond bleak.
By even the most optimistic accounts, the glass not only appears half-empty, it’s been smashed to bits all over the kitchen floor. But whenever I find myself succumbing to the inevitable malaise that accompanies such ruminations, I think of John Hunter, of the hours he spent encouraging me in my chosen discipline without thought of anything in return and of the three years he'd spent working on a script which he knew might never amount to anything but mere words on a page simply because he felt it was a story which needed to be told. He was, in this sense, the thin of a wedge which demonstrated to me that it’s possible to write outside the lines, even if your efforts might well be for naught, and that’s a rare gift indeed for any writer who’s come to believe, as I do, that literature’s true efficacy comes from its ability to say anything.
It’s also a sentiment which lies at the heart of why we've founded Cannery Row Press, though as we enter into a new year equally fraught with the uncertainty which has come to define the old, more and more of late our nascent literary journal is feeling not so much like the thin edge of a wedge as it is a hearth around which Tanja and myself are now huddling in a valiant, if possibly futile, effort to stave off the encroaching chill of this, our twenty-fifth winter together.
And what, I ask, could possibly be more Canadian than that?
Home When Returned
By Jenny Bingham
Inspired by: Aberjhani’s, Visions of a Skylark Dressed in Black’s phrase:
“It could not be his home until he has gone from it and returned.”
Leaving was an unthinkable deed.
Staying was the only life that was known.
Dreaming was the way to survive.
Not knowing, was the best defense.
Only until he left,
did he really understand what he had.
Only when she changed,
enlightened where she could go.
Only when they moved,
they realized retuning they could rest.
They were home
when they returned to where they felt best.
The Day I Decided to Give Everything Away
by Jenny Bingham
I gave away my sorrows. I gave away my fears.
I gave away my doubts.
I gave away my thought of having to be perfect.
I gave away my anxiety and I gave away my frustration.
I actually exchanged them all for listening.
For sharing hugs. For sharing smiles.
And for sharing good memories.
This is what I want to remember 30 years from now.
Did you know that was the day that you came into my life?
That was the day you helped me to understand to accept myself?
That was the day that you smiled at my folly.
Definitely it was a magical day.
Even if you don’t remember or if you did not know,
it is one that I will treasure forever.
Thank you. Thank you for being there and for being you.
Excellent Influential People . . .
by Jenny Bingham
. . . are those who influence with thoughts different from our own and are willing to listen. They offer comments with little judgment. Instead of saying: "It's only common sense", they would declare: "When an individual is accustomed to this kind of scenario, they usually know what to do."
Individuals who change behaviors are . . . those who advance affirmatively with words when they face angry opposition. Excellent influencers inspire people to make a difference, sometimes without knowing. A simple smile and a few words of encouragement can do the trick.
Those who prompt us to undertake new projects . . . are volunteers, employers, and idea makers. They all encourage some type of advancement and change just by being themselves. Their thoughts, ideas, suggestions, plus their hopes and stories are strong, influential drivers. The ones who increased my understanding are . . . the capable ones who answer my questions by explaining in different ways just to be sure I properly grasp the situation. The influencer who can make me a better person is . . . and will always be . . . me accepting to be a better me.
by Tanja Rabe
We're in a car going somewhere. Your friend's behind the wheel, you and I have the backseat. I don't really know you, though you did give me your name. And you did buy me beer at the club we just left. And now you're giving me a ride. A ride to where again? I didn't ask. Or maybe I did and I've forgotten. All I know is the car isn't going where I was supposed to go at the end of this night, isn't going home.
Or what I call my home. That dinky little room on a farm close to the hotel where I work, the room with the sink by the door where I also do my dishes, the room with the cooking plate and my coffeemaker on top of an old set of drawers, with my futon right next to a faded red-velvet armchair and solid oak coffee table under which I house my 15" TV and stereo, so close I don't have to get out of bed to use them. My room.
I know we're driving away from it, farther away than I was before I got into your friend's car. You live 50 km from the club, you said, in the opposite direction. I just shrugged. "Okay then. No way I can catch a train this time of night." I had no money left anyway.
I can feel your arm around me. I'm tired so I let my head sink against your shoulder. All I really want to do is sleep. No, it has nothing to do with you. It's not that I like or dislike you, but we barely know each other. After all, it was me doing most of the talking tonight.
It's starting to get warm inside the car. Your friend's cranked up the heat and I can't see my breath anymore but my feet are still cold. Maybe I should take off my boots so the warmth can get at them but I don't want to move. I don't want to wake up my head, it's drifting so nicely and your shoulder's so soft.
I wonder how you found me out there. How did you know that you had to stop and offer help, that I needed some help? Although, I guess, it was obvious that I needed help but not with what happened back there by the side of the road, ages ago it now seems.
You know, you were the only ones who bothered? People looked alright, but getting involved in someone else's ordeal? No, thank you! Funny, how I sent you on your way and still . . . here you are.
Blame it on the beer. You were sitting there alone at the bar with a full pint. One of the guys along for the ride had bought me a drink earlier, felt sorry for me after my little disaster, but then he got lost. He was just like the rest of those people I hung out with, they lost me pretty quick in the end. But then you were still there, you and your friend.
My mother always told me, don't go with strangers, awful stuff happens. But that's when you're little, right? And you're not really a stranger anymore. I know your name, "Ich bin Andreas," you said and I can feel your arm around me. I can smell you through the odour of stale beer in the car and the warmth of the radiator when I breathe in. Your smell comes from your leather jacket, slightly musky. Once in a while, you hum under your breath. For me, perhaps?
I wonder if your friend ever looks back at us. Is he smiling like he's amused, does he talk to you with his eyes in the rearview mirror? Few words have passed between you since we got into his car. All is quiet except for your humming and the low rumble of the engine.
I know we're still on the highway since the car hasn't slowed down in a while. When I steal a quick peek through my heavy eyelids everything is pitch black outside, the highway deserted. No lampposts, no traffic lights yet ahead so I close them again.
Maybe I should be worried but I just can't get the feeling to sink in. What else would I be doing right now if I wasn't here? I'd be in that darn room where you can hardly turn around without bumping into something. I'd heat up a can of soup on the hot plate with my stack of records piled dangerously close, pull a slice of stale bread out of the old wardrobe and eat in bed because I turned down the heat before I left and the place is even colder than my mother's house. And I'd fall asleep alone with a hangover awaiting my head the next morning.
Tomorrow's Sunday, a day off. I'd hang around under the covers until I'm sore enough to get up, maybe go for a walk and, for nothing better to do, visit Paps in his cramped attic apartment in the evening. And there I'd sit listening to how miserable he is without my mother while watching him down five beers in a row.
But you're here, "Ich bin Andreas", and it's warm and cozy lying against your shoulder, listening to you and the car hum for me.
I noticed earlier your friend's driving a Mercedes. My mother used to say every butcher drives one of those in Germany, common show-offs, she meant. Always found them kind of ugly myself but this one's okay. It's a vintage model from when they made them with some flair and still has its hood ornament. I know there's one of those hanging from my leather jacket, some trophy from a night out on the town with the gang a while back. Your friend didn't mind when he saw it, made a joke, laughed when I threw a look of mock guilt at his hood.
"Don't worry," I assured him, "I never touch anything about to give me a ride." There was really no point to it, the owners got it fixed and Mercedes-Benz got richer. It kind of defeated the purpose of our little romp in social activism. (I'd heard it rumoured 'M-B' were elbows-deep in the arms trade)
He smiled and told you to hold onto me in case I fell over. "Just give me enough warning if you're gonna puke," he added. I'm not going to throw up though; if I had to I'd have done so long ago. My belly seems to have fallen asleep by now although my head's still working somehow, trying to figure things out.
Was it because I'd missed that damn exit, way back in what seemed like another lifetime? Maybe. If I hadn't, I might have made it to our club earlier and things could have turned out differently. Not that it really mattered. I missed the exit where I was supposed to turn off to get three of the gang, and myself of course, to the club. To get there and drink and just forget all the crap for a while.
I knew my car wasn't fresh off the belt, it had already seen a couple of decades when I'd bought it a month earlier and was showing some old age quirks now and then, usually the battery's fault. There was no problem once you got the thing going. Less of one if I remembered to turn off the headlights.
Tonight, though, the piece of junk had made me nervous. It had enough gas. I’d filled it up before we left, although it cost me more then I'd planned for, leaving only a ten spot in my pocket for the rest of the eve. I always kept an eye on the fuel gauge ever since I almost got stranded one night when I couldn't find an open gas station. I was quickly reminded of being back on German soil where everything shuts down early. Just in time I'd found an open pump that fed on cards, the gas station itself wrapped in darkness.
So why did the damn thing sputter like that? I'd been about 20 minutes into tonight's drive when the trouble started. The gas pedal was slipping more and more frequently, slowing us down enough for me to worry about still making the minimum 80 clicks on the highway.
And my passengers were sounding none too friendly either. Increasingly, cynical remarks found their way to the front in direct proportion to the decrease in speed. My eyes were glued to the side of the highway, searching desperately for an invitingly illuminated gas station, hoping in vain for some mechanic on night duty just waiting to slap a band aid on my scrap of metal. I implored my guardian angel, just in case, to pull some overtime for me tonight. Please, grant me another half hour, come on.
Most of the indicators on the dashboard of my Fiat Bambino didn't function and I had to take a guess at the speed as we were chugging along. Someone had told me that "Fiat" stood for "Fehlerhaft in allen Teilen" (Faulty in all parts), which kept going through my head like some obnoxious tune caught on the radio. My mom's boyfriend Gunter was a mechanic and had fixed up the car, or so he'd claimed, but I was starting to wonder if he'd forgotten to fill me in on all of its little quirks. I wasn't too curious at the time, just excited to get my first set of wheels.
One of our group of yahoos had a rusty, old VW van, the party wagon, that everyone would pile into at night but, lacking seniority, I'd often been left behind when space ran out. Then I'd end up spending the evening alone in my room or, looking for company, at my Paps' place eating through his stock of cookies while he'd ramble on about my mother.
I wanted to tell him, good riddance, you're better off without her after the affairs she had behind your back.
Her first lover was one of Paps' colleagues who she'd invite over with his wife the odd Saturday evening for a merry round of Fireman's punch. Mom was quite the puritan, so it was strange to see her stern face light up after a couple of glasses, her eyes growing soft and flirtatious at the other man in the room. She'd laugh at his boorish jokes and the glances they passed each other soon grew into a banter barely discreet enough to keep my father and the man's wife from freezing up in their seats.
Paps left one day without much warning and for two years I'd only see him over the summer holidays spent at my grandparents' house where he'd found refuge. In the meanwhile his colleague, having left his own wife, moved in trying to bribe our affections with gifts and false smiles.
Of course it didn't last. When reality hit and mom had to pick herself up after he'd dumped her, Paps was allowed to join us again. We moved to a new town to avoid gossip.
"I did it all for you," she threw at me once, years later. "I wanted you and your brother to have a family, at least until you left home."
After the reunion, our happy little ensemble sustained itself on my mother's next affair with Gunter, the mechanic, while Paps drowned his sorrows downstairs in the spare room. She waited until I was 19 and safely shipped off to Canada as an Au-Pair before she legally ended the farce.
While I'd be sitting there with him, the truth on my tongue waiting to shatter his illusions, I'd look around his new place. At the litter of empty beer bottles decorating the table, lining the hallway. And I had to admit I couldn't really see much of a difference, so I'd just listen and keep my mouth shut. After finishing his beers and before he'd pass out, I'd go home sick to my stomach. With a finger down my throat I'd give those cookies a quick flush down the toilet hoping that would keep them from settling on my hips. Unfortunately they didn't go without protest. Those dark rings under my eyes were settling quite nicely.
Back on the highway, staring beyond the Fiat's headlights into the night, I could feel my stomach clench up, tense as a fist ready to strike. Sitting tight, clutching the wheel, I tried to keep the pressure on the gas pedal light so it wouldn't slip through, all the while conscious of cars zooming past us.
I didn't notice our exit sign as it passed by and curses from the backseat arrived too late. It was gone and I couldn't turn around on the highway even if I was desperate enough to consider it. Next exit, just keep moving.
It was cold in the car, the heater had never worked well, a technical oversight excused by the fact that Italians were blissfully ignorant of that coldest of all seasons. My feet were so numb I barely noticed the pedals through my Docs anymore.
I felt the pressure go for a few seconds, catch, then slip again. We were slowing down to what might have been a fast run on foot and, as I steered the car onto the shoulder giving into the inevitable, the gas came through one more time and held steady, kept us riding along the side of the road.
When I saw an exit sign ahead I gave a sigh of relief. A definite mistake as, at that exact moment, the car sighed its last breath and stalled. Dead. The wheels carried us as far as the exit, caught wind on the declining off-ramp and rolled themselves out into the lights of a deserted intersection.
I turned off the ignition, jerked it back on. Nothing. I turned off the headlights, pumped the gas, cranked the starter, on, off, on, off. Nothing. My head was feeling light as I kept turning the key in the ignition. Catch, you piece of shit, move!
A noise came through the fog, a voice behind me screeching in a panic. I turned around to hear better. Lips were moving but even before the words had any meaning I could see flames through the rear window, smell the odour of scorched rubber filling the car.
"Get me out of here! We're gonna blow, damn it, let me out!" a yell. There were no doors in the back, hands frantically jerked at the front seats, cursing.
Dreamlike I felt my body move, the door handle soft and distant under my fingers as if wrapped in marshmallows, my feet flowing lightly across the road. It seemed the surface of my skin had ceased to function, escaped into another dimension, luring the rest of my senses to follow along. There was nothing but the flames in front of my eyes, their warm glow holding me spellbound in front of my car slowly turning into a pyre.
Time passed in a fog. Could have been seconds or an hour. There was an intrusion, something stirring deep down in my body where everything had been so peacefully asleep. A pulse was growing behind my bellybutton, slowly pushing upwards on every beat, its drumming leaving a faint echo in my throat, tickling the back of my tongue, irresistibly. Then I heard a sound high and light in the air, driving the smoke out of my nose.
Standing there watching my car burn against the dark sky I found myself shaking with laughter. Tears ran down my face, the taste of salt on my lips. A voice in my head was telling me to stop, this isn't funny, you're in the middle of nowhere, you're screwed, but it just made me laugh harder.
Everything went up with the flames, all the dark, the heavy, the lonely was caught for a precious while in that madness of laughter and tears, broken up into shreds, driven out and feeding the fires rising into the night, beautiful rays of light sparkling through the drops.
Someone asked me a question. I turned and noticed a car had stopped beside me, a thin, blond guy in his twenties giving me a curious look.
"I said, do you need some help?" I stared at you for a moment, still shaking, then looked around and saw the fire truck. I swallowed hard, trying desperately to get my breathing under control.
"No, I think everything's taken care of. Thanks though." I stammered.
"Well if you're sure, we'll move on then. Good luck," you smiled and your car drove away, disappeared around the corner. Good luck alright, I nodded to myself.
The ground was solid again under my cold feet, the air chilly on my face. I walked towards a fireman who appeared to be in charge.
"Nah, cars don't blow up that easily, only happens in the movies," he answered one of my questions as he scanned my driver's license. And, "no, you don't have to pay us but you'll get a bill for the towing," to another as he filled out some papers. He ripped off a page and handed it to me. "You'll need this for your insurance, Fraulein Becker," he reminded me as I carelessly stuffed the piece of paper into my pocket without even glancing at it. Insurance, right, they were going to love this. I'd signed up with them barely a month ago. The thought of being accused of attempted fraud crossed my mind.
I needed a drink. Looking for my group I found they'd flagged down a car, were talking to the driver. One of them pointed my way repeatedly, gestured towards the wreck about to be hitched up on the tow truck and I sighed with relief when he waved me over.
The four of us squeezed into the back of the VW Golf, hipbones locked in tightly. The drive to the club was made in silence, everyone hanging onto their own thoughts. I let my mind sink into the sounds of the engine, let my eyes drift along the passing street lights and rest in patches of darkness, my body rocking lightly with the motion of the car until all thought had drowned out again, fallen asleep to the night's murmur.
The VW dropped us off at the club and, moving through the dark hallway and into the noise of the converted factory, I was shaken back into consciousness. Straight to the bar my feet carried me, my last five spot trading places with a pint of Korea, that revolting mix of red wine and Coke so popular amongst the punk crowd. The next drink arrived on feelings of charity that my car's demise seemed to have stirred up in one of my passengers.
Then I was out. Out of coin and holding an empty glass. I felt desperate, most of the night still ahead with no hope of leaving early.
Theresa came to mind, the friend I'd made in Canada. She knew how to play the game, had always been able to find some guy to pay for her drink with a seductive flash of her dark-rimmed eyes. Evasive promises she had no intention on keeping, she'd merge playfully back into the crowd with a full glass, already on the lookout for the next sucker. I had admired and envied her lack of scruples, the ease with which she approached her prey, always confident of the outcome.
I didn't think anybody would fall for the clumsy approach I had to offer. What good was it anyway. I'd end up feeling like I owed them something and get stuck listening to their prattle when all I wanted was to find a corner and nurse my drink in peace. "Who cares," I thought, "I need another."
The first guy I hit on for coin shrugged, mumbled he was sorry. His sympathetic smile drove me on along the row of bar stools, every nod and coin in my hand making up for a previous letdown. Much to my surprise and in no time at all, I held enough in my hand to approach the bartender. And way too soon did I look down into an empty glass. Stumbling around, I tried to muster enough courage to go on another crusade but my head wasn't quite with me anymore. I was feeling unsteady, motions becoming awkward, phrases I tried to build in my mind fading unfinished.
"Can I have a sip?" my voice came through the racket around me. The full pint I'd gazed at moved towards me invitingly and without much pause.
"Sure, go ahead," an oddly familiar voice answered. "Say, aren't you the one with that accident back in Biberach?"
I glanced at you over the rim of your glass. "You're the guy that stopped, right?" I took a long sip before passing it back to you.
"Keep it, I'll get another. And don't go anywhere, I'll be right back."
Obediently I sat down by the side of the dance floor, cradling my drink and waiting for you to return, wondering if you would and why you'd bother.
I remember talking for what seemed like hours, calling up images from behind my eyes. You kept asking questions, listening closely like a priest at confessional, smiling when I felt your gaze make me uneasy, keeping me going with another drink when I looked regretfully down into my glass. Pitching you my ghosts, you'd catch them with a nod. Another, throw me another.
I had slipped dimensions five months earlier when I'd boarded the plane in Canada to return me to my Fatherland. Stepping back onto German soil, there was no such sensation as having returned home. Not what I had come to know as home during my stay abroad. As family, as friends.
My brother had put a name to it.
"Culture shock, that's your category. It'll wear off." Wear off? Like a stain, maybe, tainting a piece of fabric?
"You'll reintegrate in no time . . . don't worry." Reintegrate into what? Into my family? Let's not get started on that. You'd find me back on a plane across the Atlantic as fast as you can spell the word. Back to the family I'd found there, back to those faces I'd been missing so much, to those arms wide open.
I told you about the phone call I got at work a few days ago from the mother of the children I'd taken care of in Canada.
"It feels so good to hear your voice," Marina had said, "we miss you. The kids have written you a letter with a bit of help. They talk about you all the time, want to know when their 'big sister' is coming back." I could see the triplets, laughing and yelling as I’d come in the door, storming down the hallway and wrapping themselves around my legs.
"You'll like the arts program at U of G, I mailed you their schedule yesterday. How are you doing with your camera? I really loved your pictures, you've got a good eye." Yes, I was still taking pictures. But I wasn't sure anymore.
"Nonsense," my mother's response, "that's no way to make a living. Now if it was medicine or law, there's something useful, but photography? Spending a year abroad has filled your head with stupid ideas. And the friends you had there weren't good for you at all. Just look at yourself, those ripped clothes and your crazy hair. What are the neighbors supposed to think."
And on and on. I moved out. To be closer to work, I told her. I didn't need another argument. But she kept nagging and every visit left me with a pit in my stomach.
My best friend Ulla's reaction had been rather painful. She'd broken off contact soon after our first meet, shocked at the change she saw. Was it the way I looked now or maybe all the stories that enthusiastically spilled out of me? I wasn't the same person anymore, she couldn't recognize the old me, her mother had explained apologetically over the phone.
So, I told you, there'd been no one left, no one to fill the gaps. Everyone else I knew had done the proper thing after high school. A serious career, a place at some university. In their own country, in their own language. A language that didn't seem my own anymore, that after twenty years had worn out its welcome to my ears, nagging at me in my mother's voice, in my father's laments, from the thin mouth of the salesperson behind the counter.
I sought to make new friends and, for a while, I thought I'd found some, those people you saw me with. But just because I looked and acted the part didn't mean I fit in. I really tried, believe me. Maybe I didn't go far enough, didn't drink enough, just didn't let go enough. Maybe it was because I never really thought of myself as a punk and it showed.
It had been different in Canada where the alternative scene seemed more out in the open, even considered artistic and hip. Maybe with so many people from all over the world sharing the same space, tolerance had to develop necessarily over time or the country would have torn itself apart by now. I mean, in Germany the word 'Auslaender' (foreigner) was still considered an insult and Turkish residents were treated like a national disease, the system giving any redneck the green light to go after them. And my family's attitude was nothing to be proud of, let me tell you.
There was that day, a couple of weeks ago, I'd gone shopping with my mom. A mother-daughter thing we used to do when I was younger. Nostalgia must have clouded her mind. As I was getting myself a drink at the foodcourt waiting for her to finish her adventures in fashion paradise, I soon found myself eyed by a couple of skinheads. Naturally, I got a little nervous, more so when their looks became hostile and smirks were thrown my way.
"Time to get out of here," I thought. They'd have no scruples picking on a girl.
"What do you expect," my mother had frowned when I tracked her down, "looking like this you have to expect people to take offense." Green light, it flashes again.
There's my younger brother, now of voting age, who after our lengthy debates still doesn't understand why he shouldn't give his support to the new Extreme Right.
"They'll clean this place up," he'd said. "There are Turks everywhere, they're taking over the dance clubs, picking up our chicks. Damn machoes." My brother, macho if you ever saw one but having a hard time with the girls, poor boy.
Then there's the other side, the people I've been hanging out with, the colourful lefties, defenders of the downtrodden. Most of them still in high school or barely out of it. Except for a couple of them not so close to me in age, but closer in attitude than anyone else I knew . . . or so I thought. After a while though, all their talk about "kicking skinhead butt" sounded like nothing but teenage rage looking for a target yet, on the chance of coming face to face with it, you couldn't find anyone running faster with their tails between their legs. And the stories afterwards, how they would have dragged those bald heads through the mud if they hadn't been so unfairly outnumbered.
I felt like I'd entered a war zone, ludicrous but threateningly real all the same. What those guys were playing at was just a pale shadow of the cloud that was growing over Germany.
The evening news reported on another immigrant asylum in the north going up in flames, there were suspects but police hesitated to make arrests. Weeks later still no word about a trial with seven immigrants dead, two of them young children.
There were riots in Berlin, once the Third Reich's capital, which now housed the nation's revived Right Wing movement in glorious commemoration.
Two Pakistanis drenched in gasoline and set on fire in the small town of L. by unknown hooligans. Silence, again.
East German patriots, so long deprived of the Western dream, had poured into the country after the Berlin Wall had come down while I was in Canada, armed with a new war cry: "Auslaender raus!", resurging the nation's patriotic fervor. A bit ironic? I thought so.
The population was rising dramatically, our long-separated relatives returning to the Fatherland with high expectations that needed instant gratification and funding. The housing market had turned into a disaster of scarcity and cut-throat prices. I had to look around for quite a while before a work mate referred me on to the farm where I lucked out getting that dinky, little room I call home now.
Politicians had to appease the increasingly restless citizenry so they kept silent when people died, kept silent when buildings got bombed, kept silent to the Neo Nazis wreaking hate crimes throughout the country. They proclaimed the 'Day of German Unity' in a twisted celebration of nationalism, perhaps hoping it would bring people back together under a higher ideal and stop the chaos.
In the meanwhile, Turkish store owners were scrubbing racist graffiti off of their buildings on a daily basis, replacing the smashed glass fronts of their businesses.
"Auslaender raus!" The cries continued on their path of destruction and the government felt forced to employ Step Two: No German citizenship for foreigners. No right to vote nor any other rights associated. And that meant, in my understanding, deportations in case of any criminal offense. So who started the fight? Skin colour became the incriminating evidence and eager witnesses filled the stands.
There were rumours. The Government of Unification headed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl secretly entertained liaisons with the Extreme Right, large funds were changing hands, information classified.
In a town nearby, a gang of skinheads lay in wait in front of a punk bar one night, setting to work ferociously as the patrons left at closing time. And more silence. Not a word in the local papers.
Simply walking the streets alone at night made me look over my shoulder, shivers running down my spine at the sound of my own footsteps echoing through a sleeping town.
"I'm going back to Canada," I told you. "I've got a ticket for January. I can only stay a couple of months but we'll see, something might come up. There's some time to figure things out." I heaved a deep sigh.
Then it occurred to me. My ride!
The bar had been emptying slowly as the end of the night approached and I hadn't noticed how time had passed. As I looked around the factory hall scanning the leftovers for signs of familiarity, I failed to recognize anybody who usually shared space in the party wagon.
I stormed out of the bar into the dimly lit parking lot. Maybe they were just getting ready, waiting inside the van. Maybe someone had walked past me on his way out, told me they were leaving and I hadn't paid attention. But there was no van parked amongst the few cars left in the lot. They were definitely gone. So I went back inside. No use standing out in the cold waiting for a miracle that wasn't going to happen. This obviously wasn't my night.
"Need a place to crash?" I felt your hand on my arm.
We're in a car going somewhere. My head is resting on your shoulder. As I'm drifting off to sleep I feel your voice against my ear.
"Strange, how things turn out sometimes. You know, we also took the wrong exit tonight."
The Tent City
by Rebecca Kramer
THE REVITALIZATION OF MY HEART
A. My Response Quote:
“Unless one person rises as a leader out from under a suffering minority group
and makes their cause known, the rest of us are at a loss as to how to help.”
B. The News that Prompted My Pen to Write:
Here is my written response to a colorful homeless demonstration which took place at the beginning of November 2020 here in North Bay. A tent city was built on the City Hall grounds to raise awareness of the homeless/housing crisis in North Bay. The Advocate was able to negotiate with a Politician a practical solution. The old police station will be converted into apartments for the homeless.
C. My Response Poem Called: Obvious Parade Logic:
Place the smallest last and the dangers never end.
Place the smallest first and the parade makes sense.
D. My Story of an Unexpected Emotional Release:
As I was hit with the homeless situation here in North Bay during on of our harsh Canadian winters, I had to go back 30 years to feel the desperation my 20-year-old brother Aaron must have felt dying on the streets of Victoria after spending six months in the bitter cold rains of a West Coast winter. And, for the first time, I actually mourned his death. I hadn’t yet shed one tear; that’s how long I had been in shock. I found relief from that shock by just giving way and breaking in half, letting go of all my despair, all attempts of defending him and the urgency of wanting to do something for the homeless: always finding myself in a powerless position to affect real change. The tent city advocate succeeded in raising awareness for the homeless. Crying for my loved one was an offshoot of his advocacy. He may never know how his strength has brought me such healing. Thank you.
For more info on what's happening in North Bay visit: baytoday.ca
Two Peas In A Pod
by Thomas Leduc
We sat on the lawn, mid summer
snapping fresh peas from their pods,
sweat beading on our necks.
I watch as a young girl slices the seam
of the pod with her long red fingernail,
slides her thumb down the soft green skin,
clips fresh green pearls to her lips.
An older woman squeezes a pod
between her thumb and index finger,
tree branches gossip in the breeze,
a bird in the grass, she picks each pea.
She closes her eyes, her sunlit face
a wash of primary colours,
summer dances on her tongue,
her whole-body hums.
I have one palm replete with barren pods
The other bursting at the seams with peas.
I plant a pea between my teeth.
Smile and look over at my wife.
She sits, covering her face, tears
fall from hot, dry cheeks
in her sterile palm, her fingers
cradle an empty pod,
she’s thinking of the miscarriage.
Indigenous Resistance & Resurgence
by Pamela Palmater
Fernwood Publishing, 2020, 274 pages
While reading Pam Palmater’s latest book Warrior Life: Indigenous Resistance & Resurgence, I was provided with ample opportunities to reflect on a brief correspondence I recently shared with an Alberta police detective. 'Bill'* had made an impassioned defence of “the brave frontline officers [who] often take the brunt of all criticism and are the fall guys in most cases” on a social media post, concerning the violence committed against Mi’kmaw fishermen exercising their legal right to a moderate livelihood in Nova Scotia, and I saw his comments as a chance to engage with someone who held a wildly divergent opinion on the matter than myself.
During the ensuing exchange, Bill would dismiss any suggestion that a genocide against Indigenous Peoples occurred in Canada and would dredge up the age-old arguments that the 'issues' currently confronting Indigenous Peoples are mainly a result of 'corrupt chiefs' and that racism in Canada’s police services has been confined solely to 'a few bad apples'. That a seemingly otherwise intelligent and dedicated police officer would maintain opinions which so wholeheartedly, and brazenly, fly in the face of the mountains of evidence accumulating to the contrary, didn’t come as much of a surprise to me as, over the past thirty years, I’ve encountered the exact same 'misconceptions' coveted by the vast majority of our citizenry, regardless of which side the individual adherents might fall on the political spectrum.
Over those same years, it’s been rare to encounter individuals willing to speak with a voice of genuine dissent against this country’s prevailing narrative and rarer still that they’ve managed to commit these voices to the page (the most notable exceptions which spring to mind being Daniel N. Paul in We Were Not The Savages and Stephen Henighan in When Words Deny The World).
Few 'activists' have articulated with such passion their own brand of dissent better than Ms. Palmater and those already familiar with her through her blog Indigenous Nationhood and podcasts, which also run under the banner of Warrior Life, will find her latest collection of essays a welcome companion to her online activities. Those unfamiliar with her ongoing efforts to “wade through media misinformation and government propaganda to get to the heart of key issues lost in the noise”, and who are also bound by the colonial mindset she so incisively deconstructs, will at times no doubt experience a sensation not unlike the one encountered when the human dissidents in They Live take off their sunglasses after viewing a world, they thought they knew, so radically transformed.
It can definitely be a disorienting experience, but those willing to truly engage with Ms. Palmater will discover that her words serve a deeper purpose than to merely unsettle the reader. James Baldwin once wrote “if you alter, by even a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it” and that seems to be her goal here as well. While she does spend much of the book shredding the prevailing myths expressed by the likes of our Alberta police detective, and to great effect I might add, her efforts are rooted, as if by a tether, to the conviction that, at this moment in time, the very survival of 'settler' culture itself is dependent on not only listening to but, more importantly, learning how to live a balanced life from those cultures which place the wellbeing of the land and the people who reside upon it above the drive for short term enrichment, regardless of how many billions of dollars are at stake.
It’s certainly an idea the time of which has come and it’s one that we, regardless of race, creed or colour, ignore only at our own gravest peril.
Yorkton This Week