Where Words Defy the World
Cannery Row Magazine
A Literary Journal . . . with Benefits
by Tanja Rabe
by Katerina Fretwell
Poetry & Musings
by Randy Eady
by Roger & Chris Nash
Poetry & Musings
by John Jantunen
by Tasnuva Hayden
Poetry & Musings
by Alan Parker
by John Jantunen
by Katerina Fretwell
Poetry & Musings
by Mat Del Papa
by Alice Shapiro
by Rebecca Kramer
by Rebecca Kramer
by John Jantunen
Born in Kingston - Made in Canada
Chasing Distant Horizons
by Tanja Rabe
April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain . . . - T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
It's been almost a quarter of a century since we left that shining metropolis on Canada's West Coast in the rearview mirror of our overloaded, twenty-year-old Stationwagon.
Smaug - as we affectionately called it due to the image of a dragon stuck to its back window and the roar and black fumes emanating from its tailpipe upon firing up the engine - was the first vehicle John and I ever owned together. A veritable behemoth with a trunk space of such outrageous dimensions, it would serve more than once as an emergency sleep bunk and make-shift moving van on our travels over the years.
It was the end of April, in 1999, when we took to the road. Vancouver had worn out its welcome after seven turbulent and, consequently, exhausting years; the noise and distractions of big city life had become that proverbial wedge slowly driving us apart, helped along by accumulated baggage, ever-present in our immediate surroundings. A week-long camping trip to Long Beach on the Island the year previous had refocused our minds in the companionable solitude of the Coastal Rainforest, stilling all doubts of our future together and planting the seeds for a permanent change of scenery down the road.
Resolved to avoid the pitfalls of trying to save money for our exodus whilst surrounded by costly diversions, we put a tin can in the bedroom closet and watched our fund grow with the twenties we fed it religiously every paycheque day. A joint smoked on the steps of the Robert Burns monument before heading into Stanley Park became the staple of many an evening's thrifty entertainment, supplemented by the odd 'spiked' coffee from Delany's on Denman street. (To this day, taking long walks together has remained our favourite pastime any place we find ourselves in, sparking new ideas, nostalgic reminiscences and intriguing encounters with fellow human beings/assorted wildlife that continue to feed Our Story)
Plans to tackle the move via rail were scrapped quickly when we found out the prohibitive price tag which didn't even begin to address the logistics of moving our few possessions, including a couple of rambunctious ferrets, back East as well.
Hitting The Sun's Classifieds, we located Smaug in Surrey - or at least its hull - awaiting our downpayment so the owner/mechanic could resurrect it with a new (used) engine, courtesy of a nearby auto wrecker's. A thousand bucks and a week later, we were the proud, though slightly anxious, titleholders of a pea-soup green boat-on-wheels.
The end of April approached fast, our furniture found a temporary home in the West End alley of our old 'King George' residence and we packed Smaug to the rafters. On a drizzly Vancouver morning, we hit the road east in high spirits towards the blue skies that beckoned on the jagged horizon beyond the Lower Mainland.
Stopping in Hope for a snack and some leg stretches, we got our first inkling that all was not well with our ride when it failed to start. A mechanically-inclined samaritan gave us a boost and, after a quick look at our 'new' engine, remarked with a frown: "You're missing a carburator screw so it won't start when the engine's hot . . . might wanna get that fixed."
John to me: "Did you pack that screw I left on the mantel a few days ago?"
Me (baffled): "Huh?"
Turned out, John had found the missing screw loose in the wagon's engine while checking the fluids, placed it on the apartment's fireplace mantel for save-keeping and - according to my personal recall - omitted to fill me in on its origin, though to this day he insists on the opposite. (A common bone of contention between couples, as I've discovered over the years.)
Needless to say, this innocuous, though crucial, piece of hardware, likely trashed by yours truly in the shuffle of clearing out the premises, almost proved the death of us. Boosted, and a helluva lot less confident looking at the steep trek ahead, we motored on and managed to reach the Okanagan Valley, making sure to give the engine time to cool down at every break and carefully maintaining the speed atop 20 km/h to prevent it from stalling at inopportune moments. Shifting into 'Neutral' kept it rumbling along during obligatory stops.
A night spent at a grungy 'Roach Motel' in Osoyoos, then off to the West Kootenays to drop in on an old friend of John's hiding out in the backwoods surrounding the old logging town of Slocan, a location scout's dream for any number of "Deliverance"-style films, including the obligatory run-down tavern replete with taciturn rednecks casting us the evil eye (I kid you not!) as we asked for "directions to Chris Pottruff's place".
Intent on taking a leisurely evening stroll down the road from his 'cabin' (a structure slowly rotting back into the forest soil), Chris blocked our way out the door, alarm written all over his face: "Biker gangs patrol the roads out there at night with shotguns in their pickup trucks . . . they grow weed everywhere in them hills around here! We don't go out after dark." Needless to say, we heeded his warning and stayed close to the safety of the bonfire he sparked up in our honour.
After a rather torturous night spent on the floor of Chris's van, we hastily booted it back on the road with the first light of dawn, aiming to traverse the Rockies and push through to Calgary all in one day. The weather was beautiful, not a cloud in the sky, as we headed through the mountains towards the Alberta border. For the life of me I can't retrace the route we took, though I distinctly, and acrimoniously, recall the cheerful smile on the face of the park attendant on duty as she waved us past her booth on our way to tackle one of the major mountain passes in the region that would take us to Banff and the prairies beyond. We still curse her and her miserable progeny to this day . . .
Night falls quickly in the Rockies, as we were well aware, but we figured there was plenty of sunlight left for the hour-long trip across the higher elevations so, merrily, we pushed on.
As we approached the pass, a mass of ominous, black clouds appeared out of nowhere, blotting out the setting sun like a vengeful mountain troll maliciously conspiring against all travellers who dared cross its range. Within minutes, a white-out blizzard had swallowed the darkening ranges around us, Smaug's headlights reflecting off an impenetrable wall of madly-whirling snowflakes with no visibility a few feet beyond the long hood of our car.
Where, moments earlier, we'd enjoyed the awe-inspiring view down the steep cliff dropping off a few feet beside our tires' track, we now held our breath in horror as the (non-refective!) guardrails along the abyss completely disappeared in the black and white bedlam around us. Slowing the car down to a crawl whilst anxiously maintaining enough momentum to prevent Smaug from stalling was a nerve-wrecking balance act, John's hands white-knuckled as he clutched the steering wheel with eyes glued to the side of the (invisible) roadway, searching desperately for any glimpse of the flimsy guardrail that had guided us along the cliff so far.
The only evidence we had of still being on solid ground was the road under our tires and the occasional Moose Crossing/Falling Rocks signage reflecting back off to the side at all-too-sparse intervals through the white-out battering Smaug's windshield. Not being religious, I nonetheless prayed to all benevolent forces in the universe to keep us from running off the highway into the final nether regions, all-the-while cursing that smiling half-wit of a park attendant for cheerfully sending us into this maelstrom of death without any kind of fair warning.
For all intents and purposes, this should have been our last trip in life, but the Fates appeared to have other plans for us. Our wheels stayed on the road, Smaug stuttered precariously a few times but never quit (a potential rear-end collision another terrifying scenario in the offing), and, after what seemed like a breathless journey through eternal hell, the blizzard subsided as quickly as it had let loose. The rest of the way was spent in dumbfounded silence.
We must have passed through Banff, though that memory is still lost in a fog. All I recall is the immense sigh of relief both of us breathed as the Rockies parted, offering a first, and oh so welcome, view of Calgary, which beckoned like a shimmering City of Oz in the dark prairiescape. We crashed at a friend's place in the 'Burbs' and spent the next day recovering from the ordeal, making damn sure to drop by a local auto wrecker's to replace that infernal screw on our way out of town the following morning.
Traversing the prairies tends to be a tedious affair, with the horizon stretching forever out of reach as the hours pass by sluggish as molasses with little change in the wide expanse on both sides of that unwavering, straight line of asphalt. A lonesome melancholy can grip travellers used to more contrasting landscapes and, after spending seven years in the shelter of the BC mountains with any vast, open spaces generally displaying a surf-tipped ocean-blue, we could slowly feel ourselves succumbing to that heavy downward drag in our mood as the prairie insidiously wrought its hypnotic spell upon us.
This time around, the storm clouds ahead provided a welcome distraction from the humdrum of the road, breaking the spell and infusing us with renewed energy as we ploughed through the barrage thundering from the heavens - frantic windshield wipers barely cutting a dent into the river smothering the glass - that threatened to test our 'boat-on-wheels' theory. It took about an hour to get through the relentless downpour with the clouds receding in the rearview as we chased blue skies ahead once again.
We passed Swift Current when the sun set on the day, rendering the Saskatchewan prairie pitch-black within the blink of an eye, so we called it a night as the Lone Eagle Motel beckoned invitingly by the side of the highway at the outskirts of a tiny farming community.
A quick stroll along the country road to shake off the stiffness once again worked its magic; a small pond bordering our path emanated such a deafening volume of frog trill, it literally blotted out the roar of transport trucks on the nearby Transcanada that had kept us company on our walk up until then. Mesmerized by this spectacular chorus in Dolby Digital, we let the aural experience sink in until our eardrums ached, then turned in the opposite direction to explore the hamlet of Herbert on the other side of the highway.
A quiet settlement with streets aligned in perfect criss-cross symmetry and apparently proffering few diversions to the curious passer-through, it nonetheless managed to impart a lasting impression. As we wandered the streets, a pickup truck sporting the Confederate flag as its emblem approached from behind, perceptively slowed down as it passed by, then gunned its engine and, tires squealing, turned up the next corner with its thunder receding down the road. Its roar circled the village, returned ahead of us and another slow pass was executed though, strain as we might, the cabin's darkly tinted windows brokered no visual of its occupant(s).
Recalling Slocan - and Chris's warning about 'rednecks in pickups with shotguns' - we hightailed it back to the Lone Eagle . . . a perfect excuse to pack it in for the night before our curiosity handed us more than we bargained for.
We set out at the first crack of dawn, hoping to get past Winnipeg and into Ontario before nightfall. Halfway through the day, storm clouds, once again, gathered ahead of us and, once again, Smaug fought his way through a deluge that appeared a perfect imitation of the one we'd ploughed through the day previous.
It dawned on us that we were playing tag with a low pressure system, stalking us eastwards since we'd hit the Alberta prairie, the clouds pulling past during our nightly stop and us catching up to them by the following mid-day. This scenario would repeat itself well into northern Ontario and prove to our advantage in an unexpected way a few days later.
Just south of Winnipeg, Smaug emerged from the storm, dripping but otherwise no worse for wear. As the torrent slowly abated and the cloud cover thinned, we found the prairiescape around us a-flurry with litter that appeared to be all sorts of paper waste. A tornado funnel moving off towards the US border made us count our blessings, providing a rare spectacle from a safe distance and leaving us to wonder if a recycling depot had got in the mad whirlwind's path.
The next two days passed uneventfully, in fact so much so that I can't recall a single detail besides stopping in Kakabeka Falls (for the night maybe?) where the Finnish side of John's family hailed from. Only the recurring weather pattern has remained in my memory which would catch up with us on that fateful day we reached Marathon, a small town east of Thunder Bay.
The temperature had risen steadily over the past couple of days, a heatspell mid-May nothing out of the ordinary even in northern Canada. Being sensitive to high-pressure systems, I could feel the tell-tale signs of, what proved to become, the mother-of-all migraines pulling at my temples, cursing my lack of foresight to stock up on pain meds for the trip.
As we approached the town with the failing evening light in the hopes of finding a motel for the night, a strange sight greeted us. The Transcanada was blocked off ahead in both directions and a never-ending line of cars backed up all the way along the highway and into the village proper. Rolling down the window for some fresh air as we waited to exit, the acrid smell of smoke started to fill the car and instantly solved the riddle of the road blockade.
Turned out, a wildfire raging south of the area had caused the evacuation of the nearby Reservation along the Pic River and the place was packed with Indigenous refugees. No rooms were available anywhere in town and even the local Community Centre, set up to house the displaced, was packed beyond capacity. So, when a volunteer announced that stragglers were free to find shelter at a campground nearby that was still closed for the season, we quickly headed out after getting directions and grabbing a couple of price-inflated bottles of water at the corner store next door.
All the noise and commotion was sending piercing shocks of pain through my skull by then, the migraine taking hold fast and threatening to whelm me under in waves of blinding agony, the likes of which I've never experienced before or ever since. The night we spent on that deserted campground still imparts a phantom pain in the remembering. After hours of eternal misery, the sound of raindrops on the tent roof was a relief that would extend far beyond the vice grip slowly releasing my poor head and letting us catch a few hours of sleep before facing the challenges that lay in store the next day.
With the rain clouds having, once again, caught up with us and calming the forest fires ahead of our path, the roadblock was lifted and we treated ourselves to a well-deserved breakfast, diner-style, before our intended departure. But the fates proved unkind this time again, throwing another wrench into our plans.
Instead of its usual roar, Smaug produced but a few choked stutters as John turned the key in the ignition upon departure and, after a couple of tries, died off completely. CAA to the rescue! Within an hour, Smaug got a tow to the local Salvage & Autoyard and the starter was replaced at a surprisingly reasonable price. (The surprise would reveal itself down the road)
Back all in one piece, we hit the Transcanada south, passing through smouldering forests on either side of the road with the windows tightly rolled up and the vents shut off to keep from suffocating on the lung-scorching smog outside our vehicle.
Smaug got us to the outskirts of the 'Big Nickel' just before nightfall. Since we'd made no plans to stop in Sudbury for the night, determined to put that final stretch of our road trip behind us, we took a last break to stretch those aching muscles, got back in the car, turned the ignition and . . . the Dragon started billowing black smoke - this time, uncharacteristically, not from its rear end but from under the hood. Once again, a hero-of-the-road jumped into the bedlam, disconnecting the battery before it could go up in flames. Another tow later and our CAA membership had paid for itself, though we obviously weren't much in the mood to appreciate that fact at the time.
Our tow-truck driver had a veritable Heart of Gold (much unlike the previous one). He explained that our 'new' starter had been installed with the wires crossed and he dropped the car off at a (closed) garage in town with the promise of having it fixed before lunch the next morning. Then he went the extra mile to find us an inexpensive room for the night at The House of Kin, a not-for-profit hotel offering accommodations to families of cancer patients treated at the nearby Health Sciences Center (and others in need, it'd appear).
The Dragon was waiting for us at the exact time specified the next day, outfitted with a new starter and ready to roar ahead. The only catch was that the faulty wiring had fried the battery after all and we had the choice of spending 80 bucks of our dwindling funds on a replacement or getting the car boosted and keeping the engine running for the last couple of hundred miles, foregoing any breaks along the way. Knowing that his uncle Guy, a retired mechanic, always had a few, semi-functional car batteries sitting on his porch, John confidently chose the boost and, after a couple of false starts, we were back on the highway heading towards Muskoka.
I am infinitely happy to report that the last leg of our journey to John's hometown of Bracebridge passed completely uneventfully. Uncle Guy had that spare battery waiting on his porch which proved a perfect fit. We parked Smaug in front of John's parents' place, turned off the engine and gave it (and us) a well-deserved break for the summer.
A few months later, we'd be back on the road heading further east to explore Montreal for a spell and the following fall would find us striking out towards the East Coast with a 1969 Airstream Bambino in tow where, a few years down the road, our first son was born and old Smaug would find its final resting place in a Nova Scotia junkyard close to the familiar ocean sounds of its youth.
I shall end the story on this nostalgic note. If there is any moral to be found in our little travel journal, I leave it to the esteemed reader to take away whatever suits their temperament and need. Writing this editorial during an August heatwave has been somewhat of a challenge, so it is with no small measure of relief that I pass the keyboard on to John for his editorial "Riding the R5 Express- A Tourist's View of East Hastings", an editorial sparked, as mine was, by a long-overdue visit to Vancouver this summer - our first time back since we left it in Smaug's rearview mirror two decades ago.
May fair skies be with you on all your journeys.
As always, my deepest gratitude to our wonderful contributors and readers near and far across the globe.
Stay well, keep engaged and enjoy the Journal!
Patience (Tanja Rabe)
by Katerina Fretwell
Begat near the beginning, after the Big Bang,
water birthed herself.
She mourned when her amphibians
ventured landward, but later marvelled,
dazzled by her tenants' diversity,
sea urchin to white whale.
The ocean rises to the Moon's
gentle pull or fierce tug,
surface rippling in sensual glee
and chic in Luna's silvery stole.
But when roiled, she mutinies, tsunami-strong,
floods countries, topples condos,
seduces surfers craving the Big One.
Sustains the lifeforms within ...
What thanks for sustaining mankind,
inventor of plastic nurdles –
fish and coral dying on her watch.
Is she tempted to drown us down
to the seafloor where sailors and ships
are buried in Davy Jones Locker?
Fireflies in the Garden
by Robert Frost
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.
Blue Hues of Healing
by Randy Eady
At dusk, during the summer months, millions of fireflies light up a magical display in the old-growth forests on reserves such as Piedra Canteada Park, about an hour east of Mexico City. These tiny illuminators of the night have become the main source of income in the neighboring village of Nanacamilpa, helping save the towering pine and fir trees in the region from the bite of the chainsaw. Between June and August, visitors from larger cities - where few people have seen fireflies in such significant numbers - are drawn to this habitat.
Today, the park’s cabins and camp sites are sold out well in advance, with the attraction especially popular amongst families with young children and couples seeking a romantic setting.
For years, economic pressures - including low prices for farm produce - have forced rural communities like Piedra Canteada, a cooperative rather than a government-run park, to cut down trees for lumber sales. Then, in the early 1990s, community leader Genaro Rueda Lopez, amazed at the impressive, synchronized light show he observed one evening in the park - "really spectacular, like Christmas in the forest” - got the idea that the area could attract tourists and create much-needed revenue for the local population.
Consequently, Piedra Canteada has managed to emerge from poverty and dependence on logging with the help of a renewed interest in eco-awareness. As deforestation, pesticide and herbicide use as well as urban growth are threatening the world's 2,000+ species of fireflies with extinction, the cooperative has decided to no longer treat the area here with chemical toxins.
“[...] it’s logical, if we have insecticides, that could affect the fireflies,” explains Hugo Brindis, a certified guide at Granja Salma, who managed to convince the 42 families of farmers working near the forest habitats to avoid using pesticides and fungicides while sustaining a preserved area of 1,560 acres (630 hectares).
In Piedra Canteada, firefly tourism has provided sufficient income for its residents to decrease their reliance on lumber sales. The co-op also acquired a small sawmill in 1998, so it could sell higher-priced cut timber instead of just logs, while at the same time reducing their wood production by 60 to 70 percent to preserve the forest. The sawmill provides residents with jobs beyond the three-month firefly season. Additionally, they have plans to plant over 50,000 pine trees in areas they log each year.
The idea has also spread to nearby places in largely rural Tlaxcala where firefly tours subsidize agricultural income.
Beyond the Yellow Flash & Go,
There Exists a Ghost-Blue Glow
Perhaps the most amazing discovery to date comes from the collaborative behaviour of a rather unique, blue-light-spectrum emitting firefly and its path and pattern of illumination.
Unlike many fireflies found in the eastern and central United States, the glow of the Blue Ghost firefly adult male is characterized by its steady glow, rather than the more common, species-specific pattern of flashes. Instead of winking their blue-white lanterns, the males emit a soft luminosity, continuously lit just a few inches above the ground, while the females, which emerge when the ground is warm enough, release pheromones and their own bluish luminescence - that many liken to a blanket of light on the forest floor - to attract their sexual counterparts.
The light-infused blanket of these insects has shown to be not only vital to the fertility of the fireflies, but to affect the fecundity of plants in the area as well. Since the females are wingless, this design makes perfect sense for their mating ritual, with the added benefit of their glow boosting the growth of certain sprout and seedling plants.
Just as biochemists have shown how plants react differently to vibrations caused by insects (e.g. vibration from the sounds of crickets on branches stimulates cellular leaf growth), a steady exposure of illumination with this particular wavelength of light seems to provide an enhanced incubation function.
This appears particularly true with regards to the delicate, one-could-say neonatal, soil composition that the Blue Ghost fireflies' glow saturates. Akin to an 'earth womb', they require high humidity and a steady hot temperature, making the moist leaves on the abundant forest floor the perfect cross-fertilizing habitat.
In Mother Nature's tantric-twist, the males provide the environment to encourage plant growth (with their light) while egg-guarding females actually release a volatile chemical protecting their eggs against attack by soil microbes.
During mating, their combined illumination melds into an amplified 'unity-glow' that irresistibly draws them, and us as captivated voyeurs, into their ecstasy.
While quite widespread, the insects' centre of propagation appears to be across the Southern Appalachians - where, according to legend and hence the name, the glowing blue fireflies are said to incorporate the ghosts of Confederate soldiers who lost their lives in the region - and ranges from eastern North Carolina to northern Florida and into Virginia, though the hotbed for this unique marvel seems to be in Transylvania County.
"When I first saw the fireflies in May . . . there was a carpet of light, six inches apart, in all directions. There were millions of them,” notes Don Lewis who has watched these Blue Ghost fireflies as they've appeared on his land in Cleveland, SC, for 40+ years. “I came to the conclusion, because they were in a blanket like that, that the males will space themselves equi-distantly apart [completely saturating an area]." He laughs warmly at this memory. Don, a Master Potter, is a longtime preserver and Blue Ghost firefly advocate who's even kept a website dedicated to his observations of these flying 'lanterns'.
Sadly, global warming has had its effect on the lives of these unusual glow bugs, according to Don, with violent storms also at times cutting their breeding season short.
“In 1975, they first emerged around May 5 to May 7 and, now, they show up three weeks earlier because the climate is warmer,” says Don. In the past, he and his wife have also been known to host an open house each spring so that people could come out and observe the glowing lights on their property. He no longer offers these events, though visitors are still welcome to drop by and experience this brilliant display.
Light blankets . . . Metaphorical and Real
Apart from eco-tourism and nightly light shows, firefly research has assisted with medical science projects to improve and even save lives in numerous ways over the years.
Scientists discovered that luciferase, the bioluminescent enzyme produced by all fireflies, is highly useful in a number of ways - from detecting blood clots and tracking the efficacy of cancer medications, to determining toxic fungicidal or bacterial levels in stored foods.
A cooperative effort between a US group of social entrepreneurs and eastern-based research partners has explored the beneficial bioluminescence of the Blue Ghost firefly and successfully created a simple, effective and low-cost device to treat both respiratory distress and jaundice in infants by means of blue-light phototherapy.
Firefly Infant Phototherapy was developed specifically to allow rural hospitals with limited resources and inexperienced staff in developing countries to successfully treat otherwise healthy infants afflicted with jaundice. Most significantly, this portable device is designed to treat the newborn in the mother’s room - the best way to support mother-child bonding and breastfeeding. Its application allows for earlier discharge from the hospital, lowering incidences of infections in newborns and freeing up resources to treat more infants.
It would appear that Blue Light Phototherapy has a stimulating - even nurturing - effect on the neurons contained in an infant's brain, likely activating immune and healing responses via the newborn's nervous system. It is likely no coincidence, then, that the principal site in the brain responsible for controlling key physical and mental functions is the Locus Coeruleus, which literally translates from the Latin as 'Blue Spot'. The LC, a tiny collection of nerve cells buried deep in the cerebrum, is primarily composed of medium-size neurons heavily pigmented with melanin granules that impart its characteristic blue hue to the locus.
Small as it is, the brain's 'Blue Spot' connects to almost every other area of the nervous system and plays a major role in the brain's networks that are essential for arousal, alertness and detection of novel stimuli (especially startle reflex). The projections of this nucleus reach far and wide, innervating the spinal cord, the brain stem, cerebellum and, in particular, the amygdala and the cortex. Noradrenaline, a hormone produced in the LC, triggers most areas of the brain, mediating arousal and priming the brain's neurons to be activated through stimuli. It is said that a single noradrenergic (noradrenalin-activated) neuron can innervate, via its branches, the entire cerebral cortex.
In the image of these blueish lights hovering mere inches above a baby's skin, one can easily conceive of a parallel to the forest ecosystem: appearing by the thousands in undisturbed, high-moisture, spongy-leafy seedbed areas, Blue Ghost fireflies illustrate a unique plant-insect biotopic scenario (in a grander biosphere).
Despite the fact that the existence of these remarkable insects has continually been under threat as pristine forest habitats fall victim to deforestation, urban sprawl and toxification, the synchronistic beauty of these dazzling sparks of nature won't blink out forever; the rise of sensible firefly eco-tourism and the fact that luciferase is now synthetically created for a wide scope of industry applications means, the harvest of this bioluminescent chemical from fireflies can be abandoned.
Their show will go on to delight artists, romantic lovers and nature enthusiasts for generations to come.
Haikus by Roger Nash
Images by Chris Nash
in the summer grass
curving script written in braille
a camouflaged snake
tune on the wireless
nonstop news from other worlds
that cicada sound
two years of hard drought
in farmers’ very rare talk
another dry pause
the ferris wheel turns
a scent of popcorn and hope
when you reach the top
wet spots on the beach
where my wife and a frog sat
which is which is which?
a hummingbird flies
yet without moving at all
it leaves as it stays
loon calls in the night
the sound of being alone
while still together
The Rise and Fall of Randy Lavine
by John Jantunen
Randy Levine had delivered papers for as long as he could remember.
When he was young, he’d overheard his mother, on more than one occasion, say to Ms. Lott, her friend from the laundry, that he’d been born with a paper clenched between his teeth. That’s why, she’d joke, it took so long for him to come out. Both would laugh, his mother a little louder than Ms. Lott, and shortly Ms. Lott would leave, having had her fill of his mother’s pastries.
If Randy was standing on the basement stairs, as he often did when his mother had Ms. Lott over, Ms. Lott would smile at him, run her fingers through his curly, red hair and exclaim, loud enough so that his mother could hear, “Your mother sure makes a mean date square”. Then she’d wink at him and make a play at not being able to open the door. She’d call out, “Pat, the door’s stuck again,” all the while pulling on the knob with her foot wedged firmly against the base of the door.
His mother would shout back, “There ain’t nothing wrong with the door and you know it!” to which Ms. Lott would reply, “I know a man who could fix it for you.” His mother would step out of the kitchen a moment too late to see Ms. Lott remove her foot and swing the door open. With a wave, Ms. Lott would hurry off before his mother had the chance to call out that she knew no such thing.
When Mrs. Darcy, her friend from the church, came over, there was much less shouting and carrying on. Randy would duck downstairs when he heard them saying their goodbyes and only see her shadow against the wall and hear the clicking of the door to know that she was gone. As far as Randy knew, she’d never had a problem with the door and Randy had also never heard his mother mention to Mrs. Darcy that he’d been born with a paper clenched between his teeth.
It was a silly idea anyway. He had started his first paper route when he was eleven. He couldn’t recall his first day, although he still delivered to Woodland Heights and the couple of surrounding blocks that he had since he’d first started. Nor did he know why it had been so important for him to become a paper- boy in the first place.
At one point his mother did start letting him keep some of the money, he remembered that. He must have been fourteen or fifteen, maybe a bit older, because it was around the same time his mother had taken the job in the laundry at the hospital. According to a plaque she had been given for fifteen years of service, hanging in the living room next to the painting of the moose, that was in 1982.
A long time ago, Randy would think to himself whenever it came up. He’d try, sometimes, to figure out for sure how long ago that was, promising himself that he’d write it down so he wouldn’t forget. He wasn’t very good at math though and would get all tangled up with the numbers.
“Just like in school,” he would think and go watch TV or mow the lawn if it was getting too long.
It didn’t really bother him that he hadn’t learned math or much of anything else useful in school. He’d had fun watching all the other kids struggle with tests and oral presentations while he got to draw pictures at his desk in the back. Some of them would tell him that he was lucky after the bell rang and they were collecting up their boots and coats from the coat rack. He thought so too. He got to stay inside during recess to help the teachers clean the brushes and chalk board after a couple of 'incidents' on the playground and grew to become very fond of the English teacher, Mrs. Kirkpatrick.
She was a small lady, older than his mom, with bright red hair and a habit of taking her shoes off when there was nobody around. She’d lean back on her large wooden desk and recite verses of poetry from memory. Not the drippy kind of poetry like in Christmas cards, but poetry filled with knights and dragons and monsters that lived in the forests outside castle walls. Randy didn’t always understand it. Most often, he thought she wasn’t even speaking English, but he was always eager to hear more. She liked Randy listening, too. He knew this because, on his last day, she had given him a hug and said to him, “Whatever am I going to do without my little helper?” He didn’t know what to say in response, so he’d just smiled and run along, as excited as everyone else that summer vacation was starting.
Now, every day was like summer vacation, yet Randy still followed the same routine he had when he'd been in school.
His alarm clock went off at five a.m., but he’d already be awake He'd push the snooze button and wait for the seven minutes to pass when the alarm would go off again, then get up. After getting dressed - he wore jeans now though, not brown corduroy slacks - he'd head downstairs to check and see if the papers had arrived from the city. If the stack was on the porch, he'd make himself a bowl of granola with chocolate chips, raisins and sunflower seeds added from the baking shelf.
If the papers weren’t there, Randy'd consider it a special occasion and commemorate it by frying up a couple of eggs and some bacon, if there was any. This happened rarely and, when it did, Randy could count on two things: Mr. Gajdecki would phone him at seven demanding to know where his goddamn paper was and he’d get to say good morning to Buddy Laurelson, the man who dropped the papers off.
Buddy Laurelson was the only person Randy knew who had delivered papers longer than he had except, of course, Buddy only delivered papers to the carriers. He drove a beat-up, blue Ford pickup truck that stalled whenever he stopped.
“She’s about as happy to be up at this ungodly hour as I am,” he’d explain, with a wink, as he lifted Randy’s bundles past the open tailgate and set them on the grass. Sometimes, he’d offer Randy pieces of advice like “Get out of this racket while you're still young, kid. It’ll kill you” or “The world's gone arse-over-teakettle. Buy a gun and head for the hills.”
Also, he was always talking about 'the hubs of hell', whatever they were. One morning he’d say, “It's hotter than the hubs of hell”, while on another “It's colder than the hubs of hell”. His ex-wife was meaner than the hubs of hell, his back as stiff as the hubs of hell and growing old was harder than the hubs of hell.
Randy had no idea what 'the hubs of hell' were, but they sounded none to pleasant. He made a mental note that, if he ever saw the hubs of hell, he’d run the other way just like his mother had told him to do when Sheldon Carmicle, their neighbour’s son, was going through a 'difficult time' with his father.
Like most of the people Randy knew when he was young, Sheldon was long gone. The town he lived in, the central point in a thriving cottage industry, prospered during the summer months and then almost died in the winter. Yearlong work was hard to come by, so most of the kids in town left home as soon as they were old enough. They only returned for Christmas - or as tourists if they could afford a cottage on The Lakes. Randy never had any allusions that he might leave as well one day. No opportunities lay in wait for him elsewhere, he was sure of that. Besides, there was still so much for him to accomplish here in his hometown.
Now, it wasn’t right to say that Randy was ambitious but it was also wrong to say that he didn’t have ambitions. A map on the wall of his bedroom spelled those out clearly. The map, which he had received from Mr. Calchuk, the district sales representative, showed how the town was really a collection of zones. Each zone was a designated delivery route. Some routes were only two or three streets long while others, like the Woodland Heights’ route, covered a half-dozen. Randy controlled nine of these zones. With a red felt marker he had traced over the streets in his zones and, using push pins, designated the houses that he delivered to. “This is your life’s work,” the map seemed to say to him everyday when he awoke and his eyes fell upon it.
It had taken him almost twenty years to accumulate his nine zones. As his thirtieth year came and went, he assured his mother that he had almost reached the extent of his capabilities. The nine zones in themselves took care of all his daily needs. He made enough money to buy his own clothes and treat himself and his mother to take-out food once a week. Whenever he wanted to go to the single-screen cinema in town, he knew that he could afford it. Other expenses, like a new set of cross-country skis for the winter or an eighteen-speed bike to replace his twelve-speed, could be saved for over a matter of months. Still, there was something about having nine zones which sounded incomplete.
“That’s what you said about eight zones six months ago,” his mother, who had recently become laundry supervisor, reminded him. “And we don’t need the money with my promotion and all.”
But Randy was convinced that it wasn’t simply a question of need or, if it was, it was a different kind of need than his mother spoke of. Ever since his mother had taken him out of school when he was fourteen - two years below the legal age, although no one complained - he had felt that nothing more was expected of him. Having failed to measure up along with the rest of the kids, he was shuffled off to the side while the others were propelled forward by their hopes and dreams.
The process was all a great mystery to Randy. As far as he knew, he had no real hopes and dreams at all. Once, he had caught wind of something resembling - what he assumed to be - a hope or a dream when he was sixteen. After failing to pass his driving test twice, meaning that the lucrative summer cottage zones were forever out of his reach, the hope or dream, whatever it was, fizzled.
No matter, he assured himself, if I’ve lost out on the big tips I could get from the tourists, I can make up for it at Christmas when the locals are more than generous.
In the wake of marginal aspirations, Randy had the promise of a slow progression. Towards what, he could not say. All he knew was that, when he added a new zone to his roster and more pages to his series of collection books, he felt content for a time. With a new zone, depending on its size and location, it might be a year before Randy once again turned his attention to the map.
Before Mr. Calchuk had left his position as district sales representative, he had shown considerable disdain for Randy’s attempts to seize control of new zones. He had told him, flat out, that it wasn’t fair that Randy was depriving children of the chance to become newspaper carriers. He made it sound like delivering papers could mean near as much to them as it did to Randy when he knew, for a fact, that most of them did so grudgingly at the bequest of their parents. So, for five years, Randy hovered at four zones. Four zones! It made him angry every time he thought of it.
For reasons Randy was never made privy to, Mr. Calchuk was relieved of his post and no one ended up replacing him. From then on, Randy phoned a 1-800 number whenever he needed to speak to a sales representative. And nobody at the 1-800 number complained when he accumulated more zones.
“Mr. Calchuk had it in for me,” Randy decided.
The accumulation of zones became a badge of honour. Without Mr. Calchuk in the way, he could go directly to the delivery boys themselves. He had a plan he followed once he’d decided on what his next acquisition would be.
First off, follow the carrier around while he delivered his papers. Get a sense of how long it took, who lived in the houses and how much he could expect to make on a weekly basis. Also, let his presence be known to the carrier. Make him feel uneasy, like he was being watched. Give him one more reason, aside from the early hours and inconvenience, to give up his route. This was best achieved in the summer as, without school, they tended to deliver at a later hour which meant Randy could finish his routes and still have plenty of time to conduct his surveillance.
Then, after a couple of weeks, he'd confront the carrier with an offer to take the route off his hands. Most of the carriers were aged eleven to thirteen so the sight of Randy walking up to them and asking for their route was usually enough to make them hand over their bag right then and there. If it wasn’t, Randy went to Stage Two.
Using his knowledge of the prospective route, he'd show up at their house after Buddy Laurelson dropped the papers off and delivered them himself. Although a number of fathers had chased him into the street and become quite irate with him, Randy always ended up with the new route anyway. If it wasn’t the father who'd say “Take the goddamn paper route then, but just leave my boy alone,” it was the carrier who'd say, “It’s okay, let him have it. I was sick of delivering papers anyway.” Then Randy would only have to wait for a few moments in the street until the carrier, or his father, came out with the blue collections book and the route would officially be his.
Buddy Laurelson, having watched what Randy was doing with a mild curiosity, came to see him one day as Randy was heading out on his bike, the papers stacked in the trailer he wheeled around behind him.
“You’ve got quite a monopoly,” he commented, leaning out the window of his truck. “I’ll tell you one thing though, people are none too happy with what you’ve been doing. I’ve heard mention of getting the police involved.”
Randy stared back at Buddy and smiled. It was a tactic he'd employed with great success when he was hassled at school. He had learned that if he gave into his first impulse and ran, he would be chased. Often, he would be tackled before he got a few steps and, several times, had been beaten quite severely. If he simply stood and smiled back at the other children, they might push him around for awhile but, after that, they'd leave him alone. No bloody nose, no bruised eye.
Buddy Laurelson, Randy knew, wasn’t likely to chase him down if he ran. But the way he was looking at Randy, eyes narrowed and his tongue clicking against his yellowed-stained teeth, made Randy not want to take the chance. It was a familiar look. He was sizing Randy up, trying to decide if he was worth it or not.
“He ain’t worth it.” Those words spelled release for Randy. He had heard them so many times that they had become a protective shield for him.
“That’s right, I ain’t worth it.” Worth what? Well, it. Randy was glad he wasn’t worth it, whatever it might be. Not being worth it was freedom for Randy. It allowed him to go about his business elevated above those around him, all of whom were somehow worth it.
“Who knows where I’d be if I was worth it?” Randy often asked himself at night when darkness obscured the lines on his map. He’d think about it for awhile, trying to press back his memory to see how his life would have been different if he had been worth it, but he was unable to see beyond the way events had actually played themselves out.
“I certainly wouldn’t have nine zones, that’s for sure,” he’d finally reassure himself.
In front of him now, Buddy Laurelson’s expression broke and Randy’s smile settled into that comfortable grin which he carried with him throughout the day. Buddy turned away and contemplated the steering wheel, then adjusted his Massey Ferguson hat and scratched at the day's growth on his chin. He glanced back at Randy, but there was a look of concern, not judgement, in the way his eyes darted about Randy’s person.
“I just know how much the papers mean to you, son.” Buddy said at last, “and I’d hate to see you lose ‘em."
Moments after Buddy’s pick-up truck had coughed and wheezed itself down the street and out of view, Randy set off in the direction of Woodland Heights. He didn’t think much about what Buddy had said, it was enough that Buddy had let him go on his way. Yet, the relief that he usually felt after such a confrontation was not forthcoming. Buddy had been trying to explain something to him. He wasn’t angry with him and did not grow frustrated when Randy didn’t reply. He didn’t leave in a huff.
“I’ve missed something important,” Randy thought to himself, furrowing his brow as he pulled up in front of Mr. Gajdecki’s house, his first stop. Mr. Gajdecki’s bull terrier raced out to greet him eagerly, yapping up a storm. The dog stopped at the edge of the driveway and growled at Randy, as it always did. Randy baited it with a rolled-up newspaper, then tossed the paper in the direction of the front steps, shaking his head as the bull terrier sped off in pursuit. The paper landed with a thud and skidded right up to the door. A perfect shot! Randy nodded, congratulating himself for such a fine start to the day, and pedalled off towards the next house.
Scholars and Reindeer
by Tasnuva Hayden
Excerpt from An Orchid Astronomy - A poetic collection of memories, mythologies and science in the face of climate catastrophe and personal collapse.
(University of Calgary Press, July 2022)
Tumbling towards the center of the galaxy, at the
birth and death place of millions of stars,
it’s a little clot of blood that forms.
I no longer associate sunshine with drowning.
The ice is melting faster and faster now.
Every year, faster, the orchid agrees.
On the morning they found Sarvvis wrapped in kelp and
seaweed, I’d caught a cold.
Dreams of the seascape.
Dulled bits of glass pressing into shoulders.
Spilled beer and muddy footprints.
At the end of spring, which came and went quickly.
Even on his deathbed, Einstein continued to explore the
equations that he hoped would be candidates for a
Roots or feet?
At the mention of Bjørn, an involuntary lump lodged in
I whispered, “the stars are out.”
A bloodshot gaze simmering.
Convinced yourself that we’d be staying until the ice disappeared.
Your name starting with a diphthong.
For the second time, losing yourself inside mamma's shuttered bedroom.
Modern physics steps into the realm of
That mamma would choose suffocation.
Buried alive under unyielding
But the Sarvvis can also cause unintended harm by
becoming too curious about human life.
A generation that has abandoned common sense —
science and philosophy.
A liaison. Illicitly.
The number of constellations, visible all year, increases as one
moves further north.
At your age, the word tenderness ought
to be subjected to an inquisition.
When facing the rhetoric of those who
have neglected literature.
Chaos theory as a mathematical truth.
Is that what happens when you become aware of the oblivion?
The comfort of objects. A monstrous aloe. A toy
car stuck in a pile of pebbles. A favorite tube of
lipstick. A traveler through time.
Some say Sarvvis sold his soul for Saturn’s rings.
What is civilization without
From the window, watching stars.
Sand sugared across shoulders.
Hands or hooves?
Choose one of these scenarios as truth.
Can scholars negotiate with reindeer?
The familiar smell of synthetic pine.
The unbridled and the unrestrained
You hadn't read a poem since university.
TASNUVA HAYDEN is a Canadian writer of Bengali descent based in Calgary, Alberta, where she works as a consulting engineer and fiction editor for filling Station, Canada’s experimental literary magazine. Her work has appeared in Nōd Magazine, J’aipur Journal, Anti-Lang, carte blanche, Qwerty and other publications
(Text in part adapted to comply with mobile format)
Based on the Novel
by Roddy Doyle
1991, UK/Ireland, R, 1h 57 m, Music/Comedy/Drama
Director: Alan Parker
Starring: Robert Arkins, Andrew Strong, Angeline Ball, Colm Meany, Johnny Murphy, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Bronagh Gallagher...
An absolute cultural phenomenon on release in 1991, Alan Parker’s ‘The Commitments’ remains an essential piece of working-class cinema, and one of the greatest musicals of all time. -Travis Johnson
This movie brings back a ton of personal memories and it all started in the summer of '91.
I was still living in Southern Germany at the time and the Canadian boyfriend (later ex-husband) I'd got involved with the previous year while working as an Au Pair in Ontario, had come over for a month-long visit with the plan of hitchhiking together through parts of Europe. Our feelings for each other were still in the rose-coloured-glasses stage but, being aware that most relationships quickly disintegrate down that slippery slope of long-distance, we'd decided that roughing it for a month on the road would be a good testing ground to see, if we could still tolerate each other in the aftermath.
Backpacks stuffed with camp gear and a change of clothes, we hit the road in great spirits one sunny August morning and, in no time at all, caught a ride with a young couple to the Alsace Lorraine, best known for the Black Forest and its centuries-long history of dispute between France and Germany. The French ultimately had the last word in the matter after the Vaterland lost WWII and, much to our exploratory delight, the footprints of both cultures still infused the bilingual and culinary landscape of Strasbourg.
Fortune once again smiled upon us as we hitched a ride out of town with a charming Parisian woman who'd just dropped her daughter off at Strasbourg University. She, bashfully, confessed we were the first hitchhikers she'd ever picked up and, upon arrival at the French capital, even invited us to camp out in her backyard, though - much to her husband's visible relief - we gratefully declined as the big-city lights beckoned beyond her suburban home.
Impressions of Paris were too numerous to do them justice on the quick. Let it be noted that we covered the main drags, smiled back at the Mona Lisa, shared baguette, cheese and wine with buskers under the Eiffel Tower, hiked up to the Père-Lachaise Cemetery for a private seance with some legends of old and cursed the cockroaches that partied in our garbage can all night long at the old hotel we treated ourselves to for the stay . . . Parisian living 'in style'.
Trying to hitch a lift out of the famed metropolis put a slight dent in our mood; after five hours of thumbing, we managed to catch a short ride to the next town north on our way to Le Havre and ended up taking a train most of the way to catch the night ferry to Portsmouth just in the nick of time. The passage across a rough and tumble North Sea found us seeking refuge on deck, trying to catch some shut-eye - the stench of seasick regurgance permeating all indoor facilities - and we were decidedly a bit worse for wear upon arrival on British soil the next morning.
The English proved a delightful lot for hitchers all around. A short stop in London (five pounds for a slice of pizza!) and off towards the green hills of Wales, setting up camp in a lush meadow that doubled as pasture for a flock of curious sheep, their bleating outside our thin walls heralding a new dawn every day. Castles, rolling hills and quaint towns in abundance, a day-trip to Dublin slightly impeded by a tick that had burrowed into my arm (note-to-self: don't collect sheep wool caught on bushes and stuff it up your sleeve) and Fish & (curried) Chips supplemented by Snicker bars washed down with quarts of milk our mainstay - with the odd Guinness and cider thrown in to ward off the first signs of scurvy.
The trip back to the mainland did prove a more pleasant ride the second time around across a calm and glossy sea, followed by the obligatory stop in Amsterdam for a sampling of local 'delicacies' before heading back south towards home and a temporary farewell.
I'd hop a flight to Canada a month later with a suitcase and a knapsack full of records as my sole possessions, barely made it past customs at Pearsons Airport in Toronto (they're no fans of one-way tickets) and we ended up saying our vows in front of a Justice of the Peace in Guelph three months later, just in time before my visitor's visa expired.
How does this all tie in with my review, you might wonder?
Well, the first sign to greet us as we (gladly) stepped off the gangway in Portsmouth was a giant billboard featuring the release of Alan Parker's The Commitments and, since my (now) ex-husband was a fan of the director, it went straight on his 'to-watch' list for our return to Canada. We ended up enjoying it at The Bookshelf Cinema in Guelph a few months later and it's been one of my all-time favourites ever since.
For those unfamiliar, the film follows a simple plot. Based on the 1987 debut novel by Roddy Doyle and set in Dublin’s hardscrabble, northside neighbourhoods, it centres on wanna-be music promoter Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) who hits upon the idea of forming a soul band. Staging auditions in the cramped family home - much to the consternation of his grumpy, Elvis-obsessed father (Colm Meaney) - he recruits a motley ensemble of local musicians with the obnoxious - but wildly talented - singer Deco (Andrew Strong, only 16 at the time) fronting the band.
From there, Jimmy whips the rag-tag troupe into shape, navigating interpersonal dramas, rapidly growing egos and a tangled web of sexual jealousies to forge a tight, powerful soul group - “the hardest working band in the world”. Alas, the infighting triumphs over their talent and, after their finest gig yet, The Commitments flame out in spectacular fashion. (Unfortunately, our at times challenging - though certainly successful - hitchhiking trip proved no guarantee for a lasting union either, but it did conveniently coincide with the storyline trajectory of The Commitments.)
The film was a massive hit (outside the US) when it was released, spawning two soundtrack albums (I own both) and a brief soul revival in addition to setting the mould for populist Irish and British bigscreen comedies for years to come (Brassed Off, The Full Monty, etc.). Since most of the songs are soul covers originating with black artists, but delivered by an all-white Irish band, the film gives a nod to the issue of cultural appropriation when Jimmy offers this - fairly cringey - explanation to his band:
"The Irish are the blacks of Europe. Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. The Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So, say it once and say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud.”
For my money, this is the best fictional band ever created for the screen, the music explodes into the room, the settings feel gritty and authentic Irish (non-)working class, the dialogue is laced with realistic, rueful humour and banter (a great Colm Meaney before his typecasting as the token villain), the pacing and editing is perfect, and those sobering, reflective moments serve as natural breaks from the, at times, chaotic energy that drives this cinematic and musical marvel.
There is not a dull moment to be found throughout the film. It all speaks to the genius of Alan Parker's direction, his intrinsic sense of culture and his appreciation for where music truly originates from - the people and the street.
Movie trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3paf2TLrgsg
Riding the R5 Express
A Tourist's View of East Hastings
by John Jantunen
As Tanja recounted in her editorial, we fled Vancouver in 1999.
It marked the beginning of - what we’ve come to call - our 'Great Adventure' which would see us living and working in some of the poorest communities in Canada - from the backroads of Muskoka to Eastside Montreal, Cape Breton & Guysborough in Nova Scotia and then, after a ten year respite in the more affluent Guelph where I’d write my first four books, off to Capreol and North Bay before finally landing us in our current locale, an aging brick two-story in downtown Kingston.
While an increasingly inflated housing market has long priced us out of any hope that we might yet afford a permanent residence of our own, it recently provided my mom with a healthy post-retirement cushion. She decided to celebrate with on an all-expenses-paid family reunion at the Tigh Na Mara resort just outside of Parksville on Vancouver Island - the first time that all seven of her grandkids would be together in one place.
The trip would allow us to return to the West Coast for the first time in twenty-three years. A recent Canada Council grant had provided a little cushion of our own, so Tanja and I decided we’d to splurge on an extra week in Vancouver and revisit our old haunts while spending a few more precious days with my oldest son, Drake who we ourselves hadn’t seen for over a decade. While the initial week would prove most providential in that it would also allow me to reconnect with Drake’s sister, Danara, whom I hadn’t seen in over twenty-five years, I’ll readily admit that it was the latter week I was most looking forward to.
Hitchhiking to the City from my hometown of Bracebridge when I was nineteen instilled in me a chronic case of 'itchy feet' but, perhaps as a result of growing up in 'Cottage Country' where one is perennially provided with ample reason to loathe the entire tourist class, simply being a 'tourist' has never much interested me. Aside from our annual camping trips to Awenda Provincial Park just north of Penetang when the kids were young, Tanja and I have generally sated our mutual passion for exploration by eschewing vacations for what we’ve deemed “workations”, which entailed that if we wanted to explore a particular region, we'd simply move there and get jobs. Our last such relocation, a three-year sojourn in Northern Ontario, provided abundant inspiration for three subsequent novels and so it seemed something more than mere providence, when my mother offered to fly us out to the West Coast just as I was starting my next book, a fictionalized account of the eight years I lived in Vancouver during the 1990s.
Much of the novel is set in the Downtown East Side and, while Tanja was mainly interested in revisiting the West End and Stanley Park, both of which provided a suitably idyllic garden for our love to blossom, I was most tantalized by the thought of returning to East Hastings Street.
As I wrote previously in “Disposable People” (Cannery Row Magazine, Issue 4), my guide during earlier forays into the 'poorest postal code in the country' had been Drake’s mother. In an unexpected turn, she’d also come to supply me with the most brutally honest reportage I’ve yet to encounter regarding the current state of affairs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside by way of a youtube channel where she posts under the pseudonym Debbie Hellion & The Apocalypse. Her video diaries would reveal to me a hellscape more festering sore than 'neighbourhood', and imbue my latest fiction with a heightened sense of immediacy, full in the knowledge that the seeds of the current 'shitshow' (in her words) had been germinated in the fecund soil of the capitalist excesses which had made the 1990s such an exciting time for a good ol’ boy from Muskoka to come of age in a new city, even as I began to recognize that this self-same soil was infected with a most pernicious blight. Almost biblical in its implications, it couldn’t help but manifest the truth of that old proverb which cautions us: You can only reap what you sow.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that, over the intervening years, I’d come to use William Faulkner’s oft-quoted line from Requiem For A Nun, “The past is never dead, it isn’t even past”, as the controlling idea governing all of my creative pursuits. While I’d originally taken this line to suggest that the past is always there waiting in the wings, ever ready to come back and bite us in the ass, it was over the course of reading Faulkner’s corpus, and writing seven novels of my own, that I’d come to recognize, such an interpretation failed to adequately account for the nuances, and the often beguiling ambiguities, which had make his fictions seem like voyages of discovery as compelling as any that I’ve taken in the real world. For while it is true that our past transgressions frequently come back to haunt us in the most insidious fashion, it’s just as undeniably true that, as the fallout from our transgressions becomes increasingly impossible to dismiss, so too does the imperative to seize upon any and all opportunities which might allow us to chart a different course.
And nowhere is this fallout more pernicious than in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Long serving as Canada’s epicenter for the coalescing housing, homeless, mental health and toxic drug overdose crisis - though with the successive heat waves afflicting Vancouver these past two years, increasingly the climate crisis as well - the DTES is a bellwether for our true trajectory as a nation. And so, the chance to see how far we’ve 'progressed' over the past twenty-odd years was simply too good to pass up. As providence would further have it, Drake happened to be the bar manager at a popular craft brew pub just off Commercial Drive, two blocks south of East Hastings. The bar would offer us a welcome respite after our daily wanders throughout the West End and Stanley Park while riding transit to and from would provide us with endless opportunities to witness the current state of our Dominion, both for good and for ill.
We took our first such excursion shortly after dropping off our two teenage sons at an Airbnb in Burnaby a few blocks over from East Hastings Street, which is also where we’d board the R5. I’d spent a fair amount of time on the old Hastings Express back in the day, travelling from downtown to Simon Fraser University, and found the new air-conditioned R5s to be quite the improvement. I’d also come to observe that the bus drivers seemed to allow destitute people to ride for free.
I’d earlier been impressed by a similar concession I’d observed while riding transit in Dallas, Texas, where the subway system had seemingly been turned into de facto moving shelters. On first blush, I assumed that Vancouver must have adopted a similar strategy and took that as another welcome sign of progress. Reddit has since informed me that this concession stems more from a fear of reprisal on the bus drivers' part than out of grace which, lamentably, only served to remind me that it’s been the Canadian propensity of hiding behind our fears, instead of confronting them head on, that has led us to our current impasse.
But it was a different sort of reminiscence that was on my mind as we boarded the R5 for the first time. The final ride I'd hitched to Vancouver back in 1990 had dropped me off on Hastings. My first glimpse of the City had been through the front window of a bus and, finding myself looking at the same view again, it felt like I’d come full circle with Tanja now by my side.
The bus was full, except for a couple of seats right at the front so that’s where we sat, ever mindful of the signs that cautioned: Must Be Vacated For Persons With Disabilities. A stop later we'd quickly vacate our seats when a man - not visibly disabled - attempted to board the bus with, what must have been, all his worldly possessions which included a couple of suitcases, two black garbage bags and a large cardboard box (I say 'attempted' because he was having a devil of a time getting it all through the front door). He struggled long enough for the woman sitting across from us to mutter rather acrimoniously, “Jesus, hurry the fuck up, man.”
I occupied the seat closest to the front and, for expediency’s sake, moved to lend him a hand. I’d pulled the box out of the doorway and was trying to figure out where I might find room for it and the rest of his stuff, when the woman who’d muttered from across the aisle offered a more conciliatory, “You can fold the seat up.” She was pointing at the one I’d just vacated and then, watching me struggle in vain to do just that, quickly added, “Pull that yellow lever underneath.” I did so and, through some artful arranging, managed to get everything to fit in the space normally reserved for wheelchairs, while leaving enough room for the largest of the suitcases which the man couldn’t seem to lift off the curb. I grabbed it too, surprised by how light it was, and set it with the rest.
“Thanks,” the man sighed, as he slumped into the seat Tanja had just vacated. “It’s hard to lift things ever since I got the liver cancer.” He then buried his head in his hands, which I took to mean he wanted to be left alone in his suffering. The bus lurched forward and I grabbed at the handrail, steadying myself and peering out the window, watching the seemingly limitless expanse of stores and restaurants flashing by, with a similar sense of wonder I’d felt arriving in the city all those years ago.
“You’re not from Vancouver, are you?” the woman from across the aisle spoke up.
I’d neglected to mention that she was Indigenous, for no reason except that it didn’t seem important and only mention it now because, when I turned towards her, the acrimony that had soured her face before had been washed away by a smile radiating such a genuine warmth, it would be a disservice to this recounting if that was left unsaid.
“We lived here in the nineties,” I told her. “But this is the first time we’ve been back in over twenty years.”
“I could tell,” she said. “The way you’re looking around. It’s what I did when I first moved here.”
“Me too,” I said, flashing her an equally genuine smile of my own. “And now I get to see it like that all over again.” The woman herself would spend the remainder of the trip gazing out her window with a similar sort of revery as my own and it wasn’t hard for me to imagine that she was also remembering the first time she’d done so. Departing the bus at Commercial Drive, I bade her, “Have a good eve,” and in return, she rewarded me with a carbon copy of her previous smile as she chimed, “And you enjoy your trip!”