Category: Essays

They Said The Mountain was Full of Horses

I moved to Fort Mcmurray, Alberta in the summer of 2003 to meet a friend and find a job. As a 22 year old Cape Breton male this seemed as much a choice as it was my destiny. In the tar sands capital of Canada I was reunited with people from my home town than I hadn’t seen since high school graduation 3 years earlier – something that surprised me at the time. When I asked what they were doing there, they replied invariably “Same thing as you! Makin’ Money!”

 

I had been raised to understand Alberta was the promised land of quick cash but had never pictured myself moving there. Like it or not, the previous 2 years living and studying in Halifax had left me with plenty of bills and a student loan to pay off. I heard of friends moving ‘Out West’ and doing well for themselves, so I figured with a little luck I could wipe out my financial worries in a hurry. Luckily for me some family friends were leasing a condo in downtown Fort Mac and had a guest room to spare. They offered the room up to me gratis, giving me an opportunity to get on my feet financially. I had friends in town and the overall prospects for employment seemed great. Arriving in mid June and walking down Franklin Avenue I saw help wanted signs everywhere! Having spent the first 18 years of my life in a place with the second highest unemployment in Canada I could hardly believe my eyes; sixteen dollars an hour to work at Subway, seventeen to mix drinks at the club, plus tips. Everywhere seemed to be hiring, and I was broke. It was a match.

 

3 weeks into my search I found a good paying job at Suncor Energy Inc., the tar sands second largest extraction and refinery facility. Once hired, the first order of business was obtaining security clearance to work the site. Travelling by passenger van 40 km North across the Athabasca River with 13 other would-be workers I got my first glimpse of the dark Behemoth. “Holy Shit” I said to the face next to me. “That’s awful, look how terrible the land looks now.” All the way to the horizon was Black. I didn’t see much wildlife or apparent vegetative growth happening for what seemed like hundreds of square kilometres.

“You don’t even know what you’re looking at” the face replied. “That’s where they haven’t even got to yet.”

 

Up until that day I had registered Alberta’s ‘Tar Sands’ as one of two things. To Cape Bretoners and people of East Coast Canada it was either the worst kind of mythic beast – reprehensible for it’s intoxicating allure, a sure road to damnation – or the answer to our every prayer. At no time had anyone accurately described the Tar Sands to me or told me in detail what went on there, so it’s chimerical status was preserved in my mind since childhood. My Saviour. The Black Messiah. Our Angel of Death. Years later after working in ‘the oil fields’ I understood that most people ‘back home’ had no idea what went on there, hence they hadn’t got past its mythology when rendering a description for me.

The few photos I had seen hadn’t prepared me for the shock and awe of tailings ponds and the utter blackness of the earth surrounding them. Sound cannons blast at 10 – 15 second intervals to keep migrating birds from landing on what must look like clean water to fowl in flight. At surface level it is all too plain to see and smell the toxic leavings; the reason for keeping wildlife at a distance. Overwhelming amounts of acids, benzene, hydrocarbons and residual bitumen from the refinement process slowly seep and dissolve into the ground through layers of salts and silts. Tailings ponds are the solution that’s been used since the early days of Alberta’s oil boom, but decades of increased demand for fossil fuels have taken their toll on the surrounding ecology.

24 hours a day, 7 days a week the worlds largest draglines scoop the areas bitumen filled soil into the payload of high capacity dump trucks. The dragline (essentially an apartment complex on tank treads) has a latticed boom arm like that of a large crane. The arm protrudes out and is attached by a series of taught cables to a trap door bucket attached at the tip. Some draglines are capable of scooping up to 200 cubic yards of earthen material in a single motion. I was told by an operator claiming to earn in excess of $300,000 per year that driving this beast was like playing an oversized video game. Filling up the backs of waiting trucks, then, must be how one earns bonus points. There are no levels to advance. There are no special achievements. There is only the black earth, and the work. Every scoop of the bucket is destined for the back of a waiting heavy hauler before being sped away for separation and refinement. CAT 789 and Liebherr 282 dump trucks run ceaselessly to and from the processing plant where massive tanks contain the boiling water used to separate Oil from Sands. The trucks can haul almost 400,000 lbs of material in every load, and they run all day, every day.

Before beginning work on site every new employee was required to watch a video underlining the importance of staying out of the path of these biggest of big rigs. The general rule in the field was that ‘Everything Yields to the Biggest Thing’. The training video culminated with the story of two friends having lunch one day before heading back to work. One was the driver of a 3/4 tonne welding truck, the other was a 789 operator. After warming up his rig and giving what he believed was enough time for his friend to drive out of harms way the operator put his truck in reverse and began to back up. On the video screen we saw a map of the CAT 789’s blindspots, which cover almost 50% of the area around the vehicle. The driver was backing up his truck when it suddenly stopped moving and would go neither forward or in reverse. Getting out of the vehicle he was horrified to find he had driven over his best friend, who had been having trouble starting his welding truck and had stayed in the drivers seat desperately trying up until the last moment, believing he could make it out in time.

My job was in the repair bay for these electric chariots of fire. Our crew kept the area pressure washed and free of debris. We joked that we were the highest paid janitors on the planet, each of us figuring we had achieved the Atlantic ideal of doing next to nothing while being well compensated. I’ve never fully understood that mindset, it’s warped and makes people incredibly lazy. I asked for other jobs to keep me occupied and would sometimes clean adjacent offices and extraction plant control rooms. In these rooms I saw rows of television monitors with the fixed images of conveyor belts moving black material – earth and stones. Black into Black, and then they disappeared forever. One camera stayed fixed on a raging flame – dead centre in the monitor. The technician told me “If that goes out, we have a problem.”

 

Where did all this material come from? Where was it going? Why was this strange flame so important?

There are things known and things unknown
In the wilds of Alberta
Once I had a steady work pace established I started feeling more at home in Fort McMurray. Despite the obvious discrimination experienced by First Nations residents and the high rates of substance abuse evident when walking down Franklin Avenue, I appreciated the good pay and relative sense of opportunity compared to my time living around Industrial Cape Breton. I amused myself by culture watching. Since many people are up and on the go quite early it was important for news media to broadcast the days necessities first-thing. ROCK 97.9 gave half hourly updates of 3 pertinent pieces of information:
One – The bear watch: If and when black/brown bears made their way into town, where they were, if cubs were present, when they had been tranquillized and relocated

Two – The air quality report: There are environmental monitoring stations set up all around Fort Mc and at intervals to the plant sites. A rogue breeze could bring fumes and gases from the refineries into town so it was important to keep residents apprised.

Three – The morning report on the Drive-Thru lineup at Tim’s: Despite having over half a dozen Tim Horton’s coffee shops (two virtually side by side) it was common for the lineup of cars to extend well onto the roadway into traffic, impeding the progress of morning commutes. Gots ta git me Timmy’s whaaa!

What was this place? what was I doing here?

There are things Known and things Unknown In the wilds of Alberta
The bear watch gave helpful hints about what to do when confronted by a bear in the wild or in town. At the time I was living there, a Native man who had been missing for several weeks was dragged dead onto the side of Highway 63 by a black bear. It was a gruesome sight for dozens of workers on their way to the plant that afternoon, witnessing the bear consume its kill in broad daylight. It was determined shortly after that the man had been living in a self-made camp just outside of town. He had been killed and lay buried under brush for several weeks before the bear returned for the body.

At that time I was travelling the bordering woodlands on foot trying to escape the madness of the city. A close friend’s younger brother, Sean, showed me a camp he was building up, about 2 km outside town on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Athabasca River. An impressive spruce had fallen the year before creating a natural lean-to structure. We added a deck and supported the fortunately placed beam with 2 x 4 stick framing. We added a spruce bough roof. We had cookouts and stayed late into the evening talking shit over campfires.

We hadn’t thought much of our cooking and noise making until late one August evening. Sean and I were determined to reinforce the roof of our structure on account of some excessive leakage during rainfall, and so were out cutting boughs in a densely forested area. There was the noise of my own feet moving, and I could hear Sean slashing boughs off to my right. There was the swing of my hatchet and the *chime* it made as it cut cleanly. There was the sound of my breathing. Then there was something else, something foreign, off to my left. I looked up from my bent-back posture and saw a mother black bear 20 feet from my position. I froze. I stopped cutting boughs. I could hear Sean singing to himself about 15 yards away, still swinging his machete, blissfully unaware of the visitor. I scanned the ridge line between the bear and my young friend. Sure enough, there were 3 cubs plodding their way along the ridge… picking grubs and bounding over each other. I looked behind me to survey any possible chance of escape should the bear make a rush. I was 15 feet from the edge of a cliff that dropped straight down 150 feet to the winding river below. I considered the possibility of jumping and breaking both legs on impact. I accepted that scenario as a completely reasonable choice, and then refocused my attention to the present situation. I gripped my hatchet firmly, trusting my ability to get a good swipe into the mother should it come to blows. I exchanged a friendly but alert glace with her as she looked to me and then to her cubs. She watched them as they moved on away from our camp. She followed them up over the ridge, and they were gone.

There are things known and things Unknown
in the Wilds of Alberta. I left Fort Mc not long after.

It was five full years before I returned to that black land. I rode the mini-fortune I had earned in the meantime to its logical conclusion, spending my money to buy time on a small island off the coast of France. When the money ran out I ran back to the island where I was born. In Cape Breton, the death of a close friend sent me searching for solitude, and I burned 3 years on a frozen rock in the Arctic Circle. In 2008 I arrived back in Alberta to take a job as bartender at a friend’s night club. Rock City is Grande Prairie’s largest capacity club with full capacity at 1200. The building is an old Canadian Tire store location – massive and wide open. It featured 9 bartenders on duty at 3 bar areas, shooter girls, fire spinners and even a male strip show on Wednesday nights. I could pull in an average of $250 to $1000 in tips most nights of the week which was appealing, and the staff were really great to work with. Most of the money was coming in from off-duty oil field workers keen on drowning their sins and sorrows. I asked around to find out what they were earning, thinking I could stack roughnecking and bartending into a serious 1-2 financial punch. Sure enough, a lead came through from a friend and fellow bartender of the same mind. After a rigorous physical and drug test we were both started in the yard at Nabors Production Services, waiting on a crew to pick us up for the real money work in the field.

I spent a month hanging around the yard, getting friendly with the boys and doing busy work when there was busy work to do. Painting, scrubbing, pressure washing the underside of filthy rigs – whatever whim popped into the yard supervisors mind that day. In between labor tasks I squeezed my way into office areas to get some hints as to what crews were gearing up and who to talk to for higher paid work. Richard Butt – an unfortunately named Newfie – presided over the flow of information.

I noticed ‘Accident Reports’ coming in by fax, or sometimes just laying around disowned on desks. I had never much considered the reality that oilfield work is pretty dangerous business. Most of the H2S training you get skims the surface on hazards, at best. The most sincere warning I received was from a woman who emailed me months before when I was living in Halifax. I had listed my belongings for sale on Kijiji prior to leaving and got a reply of this nature from her for my 3 piece microfiber couch:

“Hello, I’m writing in response to your post about the couch for sale. I see from the ad that you’re moving to Alberta for work. I’m not interested in your couch (though it is beautiful!) but felt compelled to email you and tell you to be careful out there. My son moved to Alberta 4 years ago to work in the oilfield. He was there 3 weeks when he fell into a man made hole in the ground and was knocked unconscious. No one on the work site noticed he was missing because he was ‘the new guy’. He died of Hydrogen Sulfide gas poisoning, alone in that hole. Please Please Please be careful.

Sincerely,

XX ”
I wrote back to assure her I had no intentions of working in the oil field. I told her that chapter of life was over for me, and at the time I believed that to be true. Now a year later I was standing in the office of a company that claims ‘Zero Accidents Since (whenever)’ looking at faxes that say things like ‘Replace Safety Chain XYZ on Slant Rig 123, Safety Guard Had Let Go, Worker Killed Instantly by Steel Tubing Through His Neck’, etc.

There are things KNOWN and things unknown
In Alberta.

I continued working for Nabors Production Services and was picked up by a crew doing a daily run to a lease site 80 km out of town, and back home every night. That was pretty lucky from what I understood – most guys were sent out for 28 day stints and were ‘in camp’ (Hotels/Motels) away from family, friends and any real social activity. That lifestyle can be pretty attractive in short bursts but incredibly draining over long periods. I got to sleep in my own bed every night. I got to see my girlfriend and be a Rock City bartender all at the same time. It was a decent deal, all in all.
After 10 days of rig setup time in the bush I noticed my workmates to be notoriously unreliable when it came to information about what we were actually doing on this site, 80 km from nowhere. When I asked about the conspicuous lack of information I was told we were working what is called a ‘Tight Hole’ – as little information as possible is given to the workers, and what does get through is not to be shared with friends or family.

I learned that this site was special. It was one of the largest underground oil deposits in all of Alberta. Located by seismic testing in the year 2000, it was capped with a wellhead and left for 8 years when the company controlling the lease, Beyond Petroleum, was unsure what to do with it. Diagnostic equipment revealed layers of propane and crude oil among other deposits. After a concrete casing was poured (think of a really big straw) almost 2km into the Earth the ‘zones’ were separated with dog nuts and left for consideration. Our crew was the first to crack the seal on that wellhead in 8 years. No one knew what was going to happen, but everyone sure seemed antsy to get going.

 

Despite sworn secrecy, even a veteran tool-push will start leaking information after a while, they just can’t help it.

“Got a new guy coming to work tomorrow” He says to me, driving home from the lease one evening.

“Oh yeah?” I inquire, halfheartedly. Part of me wants to learn what we’re doing, part of me is just too damn tired.

“Yup. A Russian Nuclear Physicist…his name is Igor”

“No shit, what’s he going to be doing?”

Leaning on his console armrest, scratching his beard stubble while he stares out the windshield onto the dusty back-roadway this man is hesitant to break his Tight-Holiness. He wants to prove to me he has some line on what’s going on here – That his position grants him some kind of access to the inner sanctum of Oil Field informational hierarchy.

“He’s testing a new tool down-hole. It’s a new type of fracking gun. It’s called the Shear-Dilation Tool, but don’t bother looking it up – it doesn’t exist”

From what I learned around the yard and in the field my first 2 weeks on the job there were currently 2 types of fracking happening in Alberta: Pressure Fracking and Acid Fracking. Pressure Fracking is where a ‘tool’ or ‘gun’ is wirelined down into the Earth through the poured concrete casing. The gun is fitted with dozens of small explosive charges that detonate either by remote activation or when a lucky team member ‘drops the bar’ and sets the tool off by pressure. ‘Dropping The Bar’ means dropping a piece of rebar into the hole at surface, letting it travel 1-3km straight down at break-neck speed before striking the tool and setting it off. It’s an oilfield wet dream, maybe the 12 year old boy in you can understand. When the bar impacts it sets off the explosive charges and they fracture (frack) the porous rock in the immediate area, sending cracks for a considerable distance. All of this works toward the end goal of making more oil flow toward the giant straw-like casing in a bid to bring it to surface. Acid Fracking can be combined with pressure fracking to ‘eat away’ the porous rock after it has been fractured, further increasing the potential amount of crude coming top-side. All of this requires several 3rd party companies, is expensive and time consuming. Companies are always looking for new ways to bump up production: Enter Igor. His Shear-Dilation tool is meant to do exactly as it says: it Shears (cuts) and then Dilates(opens a cavity). According to my associate the tool had been tested once in Mexico.

“So what’s the explosive charge then?” I ask.

“Can’t tell you, but it’s pressure sensitive…something like C4. It comes in little pucks, kind of look like hockey pucks. Each puck is equivalent to 7kg of TNT, and there are 60 pucks in the tool.”

I do the math. 7 x 60 = 420 KG of TNT. That’s a lot of pressure sensitive explosive to have around! I wonder to myself about what happened in Mexico.

“Igor will be on site first thing tomorrow to assemble the tool. It’s 42 feet long – two 20 ft sections filled with the charges joined together with a 2 ft hydraulic hose in the centre. Our job is to guide it into the hole and get it down to the depth to detonate. I wanna drop the bar on this fucker, it’s gonna be huge!”

I should be scared, but I’m not. I have no idea what is going on and at this point am just along for the ride. It’s my 10th day on the job.

There are things known and things Unknown
in the Wilds of Alberta

Sure enough, at 8am the next morning a peculiar looking van enters our work site. Tank armour is plated at hard angles along the top and sides – it’s a bomb proof van. We’ve been waiting eagerly for Igor to arrive and there is a real sense of excitement about what’s going to happen next. He parks his ride then joins us for the morning safety scrum.

“I am Igor…” he says in a thick Russian accent, periodically darting his eyes up from the circle of boots kicking dirt. He has no more English to share, and we don’t speak his mother tongue. We do our best to include him in the ritual safety round of ‘slips, trips and falls’ but he has his own agenda. He makes his way back to his van and starts to assemble The Tool.

We set up our end of the project which consisted mainly of test running 4 tonne blocks up and down the 30 meter telescopic derrick and clearing away any debris between our catwalk and Igor’s workbench. A light rain had started to fall, making things extra slippery. Looking toward the bomb-van and saw Igor jobbing his primarily PVC creation together with a cordless screw gun and rubber mallet. The whole scene had an air of Amateur Hour about it. I remember back to the previous conversation about ‘pressure sensitive explosives’. This man knows what he’s doing…right?

After 2 hours the tool is assembled and laid out on the catwalk, ready to be hoisted high in the air before being set down in the hole. I get a little queasy as I pass by the tool and it’s foreign father, feeling the first bit of uneasiness now that it’s almost show time. Igor passes me some advice, in his characteristic accent:

“Do not keeck, weeth boot…will explode.”

Ok, check, Don’t kick the fucking thing. Awesome. Totally not sure what I’m doing here at this point. I’m not sure if it was Igor’s intention to stir up feelings of uncertainty among the crew, but there was a definite sense of high anxiety permeating the environment as we raised his tool up the derrick. Another crew member, a 20 year veteran, leaned in as he passed me near the catwalk “This is fucking nuts. I’ve been doing this shit 20 fucking years and this is fucking nuts. This is cowboy shit”

It was totally Cowboy Shit.

I realized then that there were people in my immediate vicinity who just don’t care about the value of human life, and they will do damn near anything to blow a bigger hole in the ground. They don’t care that this thing could blow up and kill all 3 dozen people on site if you did so much as look at it the wrong way.

Cowboy Shit.
There are things Known.

So what did we do? We raised this monster 50 feet in the air and brought it down to enter a foot and a half wide hole in the ground. We started stacking 10 meter lengths of 2 7/8 inch heavy gauge steel tubing on top of it, every one bringing it 10 meters closer to its destination and 10 meters further away from us. I swear to God no one on our crew took a breath for 15 minutes until that Thing was far enough away that it wouldn’t kill us even if it did go off unexpected. And we kept stacking tubing on top of it. The Tool was destined to arrive 1.8 km closer to the center of the Earth before being set off remotely. Fortunately or unfortunately, it never arrived. About 200 meters short of it’s destination the length of tubing we were holding at surface jumped up the derrick almost 3 meters. To put that in context, a 10 meter length of 2 7/8 steel tubing weighs approximately 230 pounds. We were holding 160 pieces of said tubing. 160 x 230 = 36,800 pounds which moved 3 meters VERTICALLY. Perhaps a large explosion occurred below? It’s not rocket science folks, this is the oil field after all.

We radioed back to the trailers where several company reps from BP, Shell and Encana sat salivating, waiting for the good word. We told them the tool had gone off.

“WHADDYA MEAN IT WENT OFF?? PUT THAT FUCKIN THING IN THE GROUND AND QUIT FUCKIN AROUND OUT THERE”

Cheery.

After failed attempts to add more tubing to the string and a few more tyrannical radio messages, the brains of the operation conceded that work had halted – at least for now. A 40 year veteran, extremely disgruntled, made his way up onto the floor in a huff. He stuck his face directly over the hole and smelled what we had already been smelling for minutes. It was a shotgun residue smell – a sure enough sign that something had detonated. He turned to leave. “Take lunch.” he barked as he stormed off, irritated.

All of this happened before 11:30 am. After a decent lunch we grouped in for another safety scrum. The angry veteran spoke first:

“So, the Shear-Dilation tool detonated prematurely”

‘No Shit’ thought a chorus of minds.

He continued: “We don’t know why it detonated prematurely…but we’ve got more explosives ordered from Edmonton and we’re going again first thing tomorrow morning.”

My heart sank into my stomach which sank into my shoe. I must have been Ghost White. I knew right then that showing up for work the next day posed a greater risk to my life than I was willing to take for these psychopaths. There was no way I was sacrificing myself to people who didn’t even know my name let alone care if they blew me to pieces. I went home that night with a difficult decision to make: Stay the course on this ship of fools or forfeit my job and live to tell this story.
There are Things Known and there are Things Known
In the Wilds of Alberta

Moving in a Moshpit

moshpitI have a friend who can unlock awkward social situations like Magic. I’ve seen her do it at live music events when people are not dancing. She takes the initiative, dancing off-beat in an unselfconscious way, getting underneath people.

The first time I saw it I was embarrassed. Then I noticed a ring of people toe-tapping on her periphery heave a collective sigh of relief and start into their own first steps. The Ice had been broken. They seemed to say “Well, at least I’m not the MOST silly person in the room” and an ease spread over the venue like domino. After seeing this happen a handful of times I pulled my friend to the side and told her

“I see what you’re up to, and I like it”.

We talked about her interventions briefly to confirm my curiosity. It only takes 1 person to start things off, you know?

My art is a selfish pursuit. I like getting sweaty and intimate in moshpits. I move to music that I love so I can walk home on Cloud 10 knowing it squeezed the best out of me. I know by now the kind of grind I’m after and understand it takes the cooperation of a room to satisfy.

Two weekends ago I stirred up a room in Halifax. I know I’m going to give my best when a poster for the show makes my whole bodymind go ‘YES!’.

There were several reasons I was excited to attend:

1. It’s a band I legitimately enjoy
2. I was introduced to their music by a friend who has been dead just shy of 11 years
3. It had been too long since I got sweaty in a moshpit

I felt capable of moving time and space to be there. The enthusiasm was heightened when, meeting a friend for lunch the day before, I was offered a free ticket for the event. These are the days when all things align and I have pure confidence in the ground rising up to meet my every step.

When I’m in that mode before a show I usually say things like “I’m going to DESTROY the place tonight.” What I mean is I’m going to give the room everything I’ve got.

As is oftentimes the case, the show got off to a slow start. I’m never sure if it’s self-consciousness, lack of love for the band or just years of ‘watching’ life happen that makes people stand still at rock shows. That’s not my business though, I came here to sweat.

Steeped in music I love I find it impossible to stand still. I start by squeezing my way to a central location in front of the stage. The people standing there usually have some interest in the music so they’re a good bid for fellow-instigators. Too far back didn’t come to dance, too far forward just wants to be close to the band.

When the music gets in me I start slow rocking side to side. Zombie knocking into those next to me. A rhythmic stumble to a beat. Continuing to knock into people brings in the ones who want to push and shove. The ones who don’t want to push and shove move to the outside. It’s my calling card, an advertisement for the kind of time I want to have. This attracts all sorts, of course. Some don’t know they want to push and shove until they’re pushed and shoved. Some show up angry, Some do it in Love. What you Give is what you Get.

I look to lock eyes with others who came to stir up the crowd in a similar sense of brotherhood. Under silent agreement we can work together to create a time that gives everyone what they need. I look to affirm trust in a chaotic environment. The pit can be a very safe and loving place when a handful of people will to stand as pillars of protection. I notice a well built red haired chap in leather jacket pushing through with respect and relaxed attitude, a good candidate. He’s slightly taller than me and a good 80 pounds denser. We exchange a silent contract towards the Mutually Assured Construction of a good time. I’ve come to trust that look as bedrock solid foundation.

In this environment of unspoken trust I rely on my allies to hold up their corner of our protective structure while I stir the crowd and work to expand the circle. The contracts between pillar-people enable a secure environment to grow in confidence. As the structure grows it pushes out, inevitably imposing itself on those who have chosen to stand and watch the show. It’s tension that defines our boundary.

Although I do not always trust their judgment, the venue staff is an important part of the protective structure too. On this night a bouncer tapped me out to say “If I see you straight arm shoving someone again you’re out of here”.

Totally fair, I do get a little carried away sometimes 🙂

There will also be unwitting allies in the mix. I was doing my work advertising at the edge of our influence when a thick, moist arm wrapped itself around my neck. I was suddenly propelled backward – heels dragged – through six rows of crowd. I reached up to remove my noose making it clear to the attached Man that at NO POINT is it ok to choke someone in a moshpit. After some minutes of miscommunication he explained that he was acting in protection of a woman close to the front of the stage who had been harassed and preyed upon by several men at the start of the show. He was an unknown ally under covered contract, another pillarman holding up his corner for the protection of All. He expressed this by wrapping his arm around my neck and dragging me through 6 rows of people. It seemed worth a few minutes investment in conversation to see each other eye to eye. It’s possible to have a high level of trust and security in a chaordic environment. I figured with the right communication we could well be on the same page next time around.

I explained to him that I was there for the music. I told him it was particularly important for me to rock out extra ridiculous for myself and for my fiend who had died. This man, probably 10 years my junior, became visibly agitated.

His eyes widened, he stepped his face close to mine.

“You want to talk about Death?! My mother is in the hospital right now dying of cancer!”

I watched him for a few seconds, then something broke in his expression. A foot in the door for conversation. It was then that I looked down and noticed our hands gripped on each others shoulders and elbows. There was connection and high emotion.
I said:

“I’m totally happy to hear you out, man. I understand you’re fucking pissed and if you want to talk about it I’m up for that”

We made a place in the middle of the crowd that was alright for him to say what he needed to say about his dying mother. I reiterated that at no point during future concerts should he choke people. He walked away less agitated, and I think I gained an ally.

I’ve been told I play it close to the chest.
I’d like to know how close our chests can get.

Pound It.

fino

 

There are pillars in your community that you have never seen. There are people filling gaps that are rarely understood. There is work being done that will always go unnoticed. I passed the first 18 years of my life on Canada’s East coast, in a rural community on an island within an island. Boularderie Island is surrounded by and separated from Industrial Cape Breton by a narrow channel at the Northeast tip. My mother, sister and I lived on a 50 acre piece of 3rd generation family property lovingly referred to as The Farm. We commuted ‘to town’ for school, recreational activities and much of our necessities. Maintaining a property like The Farm is a full time job, and our family being singly parented added its own unique set of challenges to the mix.

My parents were divorced by the time I was six. My father took most of his possessions with him before my mother changed the locks on our back door, before she changed our phone number once, twice, half a dozen times. I still find pieces of his 4-Runner under the work bench in the hay bar, in the far corner by the stairs where my grandfather spent countless hours alone, straightening bent nails. I’m fairly familiar with my father’s unfinished projects, the things he began that weren’t important enough to come back for after he left. This past summer I offloaded a truck full of them at the local dump and felt at least three generations of our family collectively exhale ‘Ahhhhhhhh’.

 

He took the Hi-Fi stereo but left his records. Having no system to play them on as a child I pulled them out from the painted peach corner cabinet in our living room, looking them over when my mother wasn’t watching. I sized up these relics of a man whose face I remembered only from his 1970’s Nova Scotia Liquor License left buried among knick-knacks in the top junk drawer of our country kitchen cabinet. For adolescent me these impressively adorned cardboard vinyl sleeves were powerful talismans. Much larger than CD jewel case inserts, they added a visual spatial dimension to the music that for me was precursor to the music. Years of appreciating these covers as whole and complete artistic expressions in and of themselves built a bubble of anticipation so fulfilling that I almost couldn’t bear to listen to the sounds they contained! And so, album art became a compelling way for me to relate to music and musicians. I was also trying in my own way to connect with my father through relating to the music that he related to – does that make sense? I thought I could glean something of the man from understanding how he spent his time and energy, and these objects were really all I had. So Fleetwood Mac was my aperture on his world. I held King Crimson in my hand and tried to conjure the man. I obsessed over the cover image of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’, feeling the cold burn of that god awful handshake, a moments agony frozen forever within the bounds of a solid white border and burned eternally into the back of a little boys brain. I’m still not sure which one of those men I think I am.

 

As a young boy I unconsciously sought out ‘male energy’ in different forms. Though our community is small there were no shortage of offerings. There were hard working men with families and responsibilities, and there were hard drinking men who seemed incapable to manage either. A handful of older men interested me with their stories and experience, and I appreciated their time and wisdom more than Christmas dinner. Some of the men I met were walking cautionary tales – whispers to my conscience of what not to do. There was a man known as ‘The Wood Thief’ who slinks illegal onto our old growth back lot to cut a portion of his winter warmth. There was the sausage fingered tough-as-nails heavy equipment operator who gets his winters warmth from a bottle of bourbon tucked into the cab of his front end loader. His son died by suicide in 1996. The alcoholic father of another family begrudgingly travels West for work yet manages to make it home for the holidays where he stupidly lavishes gifts on a family secretly craving his sober time and attention. There are mines in the field to be sure, friends. If you’re going to cross this river you’d best find a guide who isn’t drowning in his own.

Daily travel to and from the town of North Sydney broadened the sociological spectrum in both directions, considerably. For one, my own Grandfather (adopted) lived there. A Presbyterian Minister for 60 years, he struggled with bi-polar and manic depression throughout his life. In my ignorance, I chalked his quiet and dissociative tendencies up to respectable thoughtfulness and a pensive constitution. There was also my family doctor with his easy bedside manner, the kind of person that makes you feel good because you sense all of their attention is placed on you. This kind of focused attention didn’t go unnoticed by my young self. I didn’t consciously understand why I felt so absolutely good, why my whole body literally tingled in the presence of that calm, focused attention. My spidey-sense was telling me I was onto something, though as a youth I had no idea what it was. I naturally gravitated to individuals who transmitted that feeling of well being because I craved something they had:

 

Patient, Calm, Thoughtful, Intelligent, Focused Male Energy.

 

Sometimes when you’re hungry you don’t know you’re hungry till you take that first bite. Then you realize you’ve been starving all along. By the time I reached sixth grade, I knew I was starving for something. Seton Elementary in North Sydney was lucky enough to employ a man who provided this kind of nourishment for young people, and I was lucky enough to have him as my Grade 6 home room teacher. Bob Anthony is an incredibly gifted educator, a good friend, great listener, intelligent conversationalist, and somehow a humble human being to boot. He was the kind of person I needed to meet at that critical point in my personal development, and I’m forever grateful that I did. Bob is the kind of person that helps other people feel important and worthy of attention. He’s the kind of man who can put his complete focus on you without seeming oppressive or overbearing. He’s relaxed about it, yet attentive. You don’t get the feeling he has somewhere better to be, and because he is so relaxed you have nothing else to do in his presence but be yourself. If indeed he had somewhere else to be he’d tell you he had somewhere else to be. You don’t catch him sideways glancing at the door during conversation the way some people do. It’s hard to trust people who sideways glance at doors, they’re always thinking they’d rather be somewhere else but just won’t say so. Since they’re never fully with you it’s hard to trust that they want to be with you at all. I could trust Bob. This much I understood, even at age 12.

When I finished my final year at Seton Elementary it was time to move on to Jr. High School. I had become accustomed to the focused attentiveness I was receiving from Bob and noticed that quality was conspicuously lacking in the adults at my new school. Like a miner who had struck a rich vein, I returned to where the digging was consistently good. Bob continued to teach at Seton and I visited him regularly as I moved through Jr. High and then High School. I became good friends with his son Willy and still visit their home from time to time. They live on that same island that I once called home – Boularderie.

A typical visit to the Anthony residence lands me in the kitchen chatting with Bob. It’s not always so much the content of our conversation that makes the difference but more the quality. I appreciate his even tempered approach and willingness to discuss virtually any subject. I’ve noticed recently that I’m able to give back some of what I have received from him all these years.

 

Time. Attention. Appreciation. Interest.

 

I’m not the only person who notices these qualities emanating from Bob. For as long as I’ve known him I’ve seen many young people respond positively to the quality of attention he seems to exude. I’ve mentioned my appreciation for Bob to other adults in our community and have been met invariably with the response “Yes, we’ve noticed that about Bob, too”. It seems like everyone notices these things about Bob.

 

 

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

I pull my van into the parking lot of Britannia Community Centre on Commercial Drive in East Vancouver. It’s 11:08 PM on January 9th, 2016. “The Drive” as it is known is a mile long stretch of over 400 boutique style shops, restaurants, coffee dens and bars. Most of them are single location, owner operated businesses. It’s the Greenwich Village of Vancouver – a relatively hip, relatively safe, relatively cheap option for community minded city dwellers seeking a sense of connection that you don’t find in every corner of Vancouver. Britannia Community Centre has been like a second home to me since I arrived in this city 3 months ago. Within its boundaries are a public library, skating rink, fitness centre, swimming pool, sauna, steam room, basketball courts, tennis courts and a High school. I use the sauna and gym facilities on a regular basis and often park my van in the parking lot overnight. It’s one of the choicest areas in the city where campers can park without fee.

I arrived to the lot late that night, exhausted after a long days work as labor hand on a construction site in North Van. On nights like that I just talk the next days tasks out loud, it feels like I’m using less energy than by thinking them through.

“Ok” I say

“Here’s what we’re gonna do”.

I support the weight of my drooping head with an upturned palm, and elbow balanced on armrest. I speak out what I need to do in preparation for my tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if I’m going to work or not going to work, meeting a friend or taking a drive out of town. Whatever activity I have planned will require me to be somewhat organized, so brainwashing myself a little bit before bed primes the pump and gets the gears turning on my tasks. I’m slovenly running through my mental inventory and cobbling together my list of to do’s when I catch some motion in my passenger side mirror. What I see is two young men in hoodies turn and make their way towards my van. I watch one of them stuff something up inside his sweater as they approach, but I’m not quite able to make out what it is. I sense uneasiness in these boys gait and recognize it immediately – I’ve been there.

From (roughly) 1993 to 2003 the weekend night focus of my chosen group of friends ran a narrow spectrum from throwing eggs at things we didn’t like to breaking the windows of people we didn’t like to lighting brush fires for the hell of it to generally terrorizing the neighborhood while somehow managing to feign perpetual innocence. The fact that I have no criminal record or outstanding warrant is akin to playing Russian Roulette every weekend for ten years and living to tell the tale. Seems impossible, yet here I stand.

And there I sat. Bored. Tired. The kind of tired that I only and ever always call ‘Bone Tired’. I’m so tired that I don’t even worry about what they’re hiding in their sweaters, I just welcome them with an open window. As the two boys arrive at the passenger side of my van I punch the centre console window control with my free hand and drop the transparent partition. Having been about to knock, they’re momentarily thrown off by this preemptive maneuver.

“Uhhhh…hey man…sell us some weed!” the bolder of the two speaks up as he purses his lips and cocks his head back a slight angle.

I have a look at what’s in front of me: These boys are pushing 15 and that’s me being generous. The more outspoken of the two stands about 5’10 and sports a highly styled fro-hawk. The other looks vaguely Korean, and kicks back while his homie gives me the shakedown. Clean clothes? Check. Fresh Haircuts? Check. Both look as though it’s been a while since they’ve skipped a meal. My elbow hasn’t moved from its nested nook on the centre console. My chin rests lazily on my upturned palm. These kids better wrap this up quickly, it’s totally my bedtime.

“I don’t have any weed” I send back.

“Come onnnnn maaaaaaaaannnnnnn…..hook us uuuuuup”.

The lip pursing and head tilts are in full bloom now. This kid means business, I mean he really wants some weed. I’m tired and uninterested, albeit slightly amused. I recline in my mind and picture how this situation came to be what it currently is. So far, I am aware of a few facts which may have contributed to the scene:

a) It is Friday night.

b) A group of young boys has been standing idle in the High school parking lot.

c) I have entered the High school parking lot and am idling myself, within spitting distance of said group.

d) My van is Green.

 

I think I see where miscommunication happened here.

 

“Yo man. We know you got weed, man…Just give us some weed, man” the leader implores.

“Dude, I don’t have any weed.” After a few reps of this exchange he begins to see he is wasting both our time and smartly decides to move on.

“Alright man, alright. Peace man……….. Pound it.”

 

Both boys extend their arms inside the van and form fists pointed in my direction, a call to connect through the brotherly rite of knuckle-touching. I’ve been presented with this invitation before, and have a standard response to it. I extend my hand to the offered fist, and cover the top of their closed hand with my open palm. It’s a gesture that diffuses any overly aggressive knuckle smashing about to happen, and straight up gives some people the heebie jeebies. It’s a bit of transmutation, a little bit of sociological judo, and it makes me laugh every time I do it. I like to drive a wedge into folks routines and see if we can pry them open. I’m not always terribly concerned if people go willingly or un, but I enjoy beginning the ride and seeing where we end up.

The fro-hawk leaves, he’s not much interested in this game. The Korean boy stays planted at my passenger window, fist extended inside. He’s locking eyes with me now.

“You gotta gimme my props, bro.” He’s pretty serious. “Pound it”

I’m still leaning, slack-jawed and slightly less amused after my failed attempt at alchemy. No Gold.

I tell him “No”

“Pound it” he intones, extending his fist further into the vehicle.

He adds an eyebrow raise for emphasis.

I shake my head. It’s not happening.

He’s visibly annoyed now. “Do you know who I roll with, Nigga?”

“Ahhhhhhhhhh ya I think you roll with those guys over there” I crane my neck and nod in the direction of his friends, who are taking turns pissing against the side of a perpetually parked taco truck. He looks back to me

“I roll with R.A. Nigga!”

I silently wonder why R.A. isn’t delivering him some weed to the High School parking lot maintenant, and tell him I don’t even know what R.A. means.

 

“It means when I tell you to gimme my props you gotta gimme my props!”

 

His arm is in well past the elbow now, and whatever he’s got in his sweater is knocking against the outside of my van. I figure maybe a knife? Bear mace? I’m surprised how much I don’t care. As he leans in further and exhales heavily in my direction I immediately cognize what he’s got tucked under that shirt. The smell of alcohol hits me and I catch the drift that I’m not dealing with a sober 15 year old.

“No, I don’t. I don’t have to give you props. I don’t have to give you anything.” I’m only this relaxed because I’m so goddamn tired. We’ve locked eyes in a total standoff and nobody wants to budge. He’s got his attitude, I’ve got my Bone Tired. I look at the kid, and figure maybe there’s an opportunity for this scene to end amicably. I break it down for him: “Listen man, you seem like a cool guy. You don’t have to talk big to get people’s respect. Just be a cool guy! I don’t even know you and I already think you’re a cool guy…so just be cool man, and you’ll get respect!”

He lowers his head, relaxed. The fist unclenches and he extends an open palm in my direction. ‘“Sorry. Sorry man. Hey, cool man, we cool? Be cool man, thanks. Seeya man, have a good night, man.”

We shake hands and I assure him all’s well, that I’m just tired and want to get some sleep. As he walks back to join his friends I can’t help but wonder if the monkey wrench I threw will gum up the gears of his situation long enough to pry it open just a little bit. It’s fine to have balls, dude – just don’t be such a prick.

Tough Guise

tg
 guise
Steve and his wife Sherry live in a gorgeous home. Steve and Sherry live in a neighborhood of gorgeous homes. They live in a confusing maze of suburb outside the city, Vancouver. The master bedroom is on the main floor. As of March 20th, 2016 they’ve never used the 3 upstairs bedrooms. He says he’d like to downsize soon. Maybe something smaller, maybe something in Osoyoos. She says she likes the house they’re in just fine, thank you very much.
     Steve’s been ill for three months now. A persistent lung virus ‘took him down a few notches’ during my first week of working for him, and still presents him chest pains when he lifts, bends, stands, walks, talks, sleeps, breathes – you get the idea. Yesterday he winced while lifting a doorframe into place. I saw him wince, and he saw me see him wince. Later, he confessed in confidence that he’s got shingles covering his left side torso – from armpit to waistband. I suggested he see a doctor. He replied with a smile, supposed to be the punchline to a joke I never told.
     “ I’m just not quite back at 100 percent ” he’s been saying since December. “ Have you seen my bottle of Tylenol? I’m totally fine, it’s just the pain that slows me down.”
We install custom window and door systems all over the GVRD. They’re the type of products that add considerable value to a home. They’re high quality steel, tempered glass and vinyl, and are definitely not cheap. The door systems average between 12 thousand to 35 thousand dollars each, some homes ask for more than half a dozen installed. They are an investment in the potential re-sale value of the home and the present owners sense of satisfaction – they’re quite nice, really. Steve habitually works straight through lunch and rarely takes breaks. Every day with this man goes pretty much the same: Around 930 AM he vaguely mentions ‘going for a coffee’. He talks absentmindedly about the phantom coffee at intervals until 3pm. Then the lingering buzz that never was is supplanted by “Let’s start cleaning things up here – I gotta run to another site.”
_______________________________________________________________
I wonder if he switches off thinking about windows and doors when he gets home at night.
When he’s out for dinner with friends.
When he finally hangs his hat before bed.
______________________________________________________________
That dusty Mariners ballcap – I’ve almost never seen it off his head. His aged body is well comfortable under it, and under layers of well worn well weathered work shirts. He’s always got on this thermal vest that’s seen years of sawdust and weather and caulking and paint. His pants simultaneously rise and droop on account of a putty spattered, worn soft leather toolpouch. He and that sock have been together at this work for 38 years now.
The pouch sinches him tight at the waist, confessing an almost gaunt figure. The leather is smooth from sweat and rain, years of sticky glue and the nick of sharp blades. It lives in the back corner of the back of the work van. I bring it to him when he calls for it, put it back in its place when the job is done. Every time I pick it up it telegraphs a little bit more of where its been. “ I’m shocked I didn’t get an invite to the Academies last night! ” he says with a sideways grin, acutely aware of his every day appearance. He said the exact same thing at Oscar time, with that same charming grin. He’s always saying things with that grin, it’s part of his allure and one reason he’s so goddamn good with the clients. They love him. He IS lovable.
_______________________________________________________________
The reality of the physical world, objects and appearances, is at best an afterthought for Steve. It’s chess pieces he moves around to meet ends and make ends meet. He seems invincibly able to bend time and space to fit in more work and more jobs jobs jobs. As an employee I simultaneously appreciate and abhor this magic. Despite how adept he’s become at cheating time, at 64 years of age he’s fading fast due to an absolutely delusional disregard for his own physical health. He seems reluctant to realize that he does * in fact * consist partly of a body.
“I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” he says, too often.
I think he gets more satisfaction from talking about his poor health than he would from actually doing anything to improve it. So he talks about it often.
______________________________________________________________
It’s 6:30 AM on the way to Abbotsford. I’m not much for small talk today, having left the studio 4 hours ago with just enough time for a quick rest before work. Steve resolves to fill the silence with banter, presumably out of habit.
“Make any money off those paintings???” he asks me, again. He’s asked me this several times so I’ve had a chance to sculpt and re-sculpt my re-ply.
“That’s not really what they’re for, Steve”
I watch my comment rattle around a bit in his upstairs. His eyes search aimlessly in their sockets, mirroring the shiny new pinball of thought in his mind …
He just said….that’s not what they’re for….. They’re not for making money…. –
He’s searching for a familiar slot to fit it in, and doesn’t find one.
“I don’t understand” comes out of his mouth.
No sideways glance. No grin.
Utter sincerity,
and I believe him completely.
_______________________________________________________________
Steve is old school. His idea of success is working as often as possible, to make as much money as possible – reality and health be damned. He likes his wife to look after the house during the day and have dinner ready for him after work, every night.
“ I put in a commercial range when we redid the kitchen oh….5 or so years ago. Sherry Loves it! she can cook anything in there! ”
He tells me this is his third marriage.
I let that one breathe in the front cab of his Mercedes ‘Sprinter’ cargo-van as we pilot Highway 1 East.
“I don’t like to be alone” he offers to the silence.
______________________________________________________________
Fumbling to peel an orange while speeding the winding back roads out of South Surrey, his lack of concentration and speed combination have got me anxious in the passengers seat. He’s on a call with his cellphone wedged between ear and shoulder. The turn signal’s been flashing since 4 minutes, getting rave reviews from morning motorists passing on the inside lane. He doesn’t notice them. The ‘fasten seat belt’ warning buzzes intermittently as he takes another order for a steel door, writing with his fruitless hand, somehow managing to keep the van between the lines. “DOES IT HAVE A PANIC BAR???” he’s asking over the engine rev and piss pouring rain hitting our windshield at 130 kmph. I reach out and grip the steering wheel just as the van veers suddenly toward the shoulder. He takes the opportunity to palm his cellphone and send an invoice with his now free hand. He’s missing three-quarters of a pinky finger on that hand, but I’ve never asked him why.
_______________________________________________________________
There are degrees of separation in what constitutes wealth. I consider his position and think:
“ I’m willing to be exhausted for a purpose, something I believe in ”
______________________________________________________________
I’ve forgotten my resolution after the first hour peeling lead paint from an old doorframe at the mornings jobsite. Someone put latex over oil, and it’s a real issue to get off. I sport a full respirator despite the heat and discomfort. What I lose in ‘tough guy points’ I more than make up in the evenings ability to breathe without obstruction and respect for self; I’ve never been much of a tough guy. I’ve also never seen Steve cover his face or wear any type of ear or eye protection since we’ve been working together – I have to assume this has always been his way. The location is some kind of medical centre. There are many bathrooms on its main floor and we’ve removed all doors for sanding, painting, rehanging. Passing through a hallway on my way to the work truck I catch a side view of Steve leaning over one of the large, low sink basins. He’s washing his face and hands clean of the dust and sweat. His ballcap rests on the sink countertop, off his head for the first time I can consciously remember. I drink in the novelty as he leans over the sink with his head bowed, grasping the ceramic sides for support in a back bent posture that I first take to be an expression of exhaustion. His hands rest heavily on either side of the sink, propping up his mortal coil with the only perceivable tension at his shoulders, where it sits fittingly. Water drips from his balding head; sparsely populated with longish, thin white hairs. It moves slowly down the sides of his face and over the tip of his nose, echoing in the half filled sink and out into the empty hallway. It’s one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever seen; he’s immersed in nothing but his own self care.
A little impulse arises to poke fun at him, to say with a half-cocky attitude ‘Didn’t shower at home today, Steve?’ But I catch myself before it comes out – I catch that bubble before it pops. It’s not the time for that kind of joke, not now. This is a very private moment and to jar it would be absolutely inappropriate – the very definition of irresponsible. I feel privileged to be here and realize how tender this time really is. He washes his hands in a slow, relaxed way. He takes care removing the paint and wood filler from under his nails, the drywall dust and sawdust dissolve away under a tiny crystal clear waterfall. I look up to his dampened face and see a look of true joy, communicated primarily by a subtly upturned corner of his mouth and the softness of his eye. The man is no doubt loving this simple moment and the chance to care for himself this way. Looking at his face from this angle I notice for the first time that his nostrils are large and very distinct. They are the nostrils he was born with. Yes they’ve grown over time, undoubtedly – but these are the nostrils he was born with.
I think ‘His mother must have cared for him like this at one time’. She must have cared for his tiny body and gave it love the same way he’s doing right now- with attention, and patience and quiet focus. His head is still wet and dripping, his hands move slowly over and over each other, caring for themselves as they deserve. Everyone is someones child, you know? The hands…..his head……the missing pinky…..the nostrils…. She Loved them, too.
……
His cellphone rings the characteristic tone I’ve come to recognize as ‘another job’ and his body snaps back to a tension. We’ve got a morning appointment for doors on Wednesday, and another for Friday.
______________________________________________________________
On the drive home he tells me he was interested in Journalism, once. “Cant make any money at that though, unless you’re Anderson Cooper!” he quickly shovels rationalization over top of his admission. “Or Steve Norton!” I say, and I’m serious.
He gives me a halfway grin, that god awful punchline of his. Did I say something you found funny?

We are V-Men

vman

The writing I’ve done lately centres on a theme: recognizing alternatives to the ways men habitually relate with each other. I write these pieces partly for myself because I want to grow and change as a person – I want to live the best life I possibly can. I’m interested in tracking subtle changes as they happen in my life – the more they happen the more I notice them, the more I notice them the more often they happen. I offer what I find to the soup of information we swim in daily; the messages we knowingly or unknowingly re-act in our lives and relationships. It’s good for me, maybe it’s good for us.

I wash my clothes every Friday at Venable Laundry on the corner of Commercial Drive and Venables in East Vancouver. Wilson’s Laundry down the street is open later which is convenient, but I decided after one trip to Wilson’s that I would come back to Venable. I like the people who run Venable Laundry, it’s also cheaper and they have better machines. I’ve made friends with other folks who do their Friday loads there, and it’s cheaper. Did I mention it’s cheaper?

Laundry day is crucial for me. A week at the barn leaves my clothes sweaty, damp, full of hay and horse hair. Dirty items wind up scattered around the floor of the van and in my studio so by Friday I’m teetering on the verge of anxiety overload if I don’t deal with them. I’ve got to get as many clothes clean in one shot as I possibly can and to do that I’ve got to be wearing as few of my clothes as possible during that wash/dry. I’ve got a pair of black Kyodan sweatpants and a Cannibal Corpse ‘butchered at birth’ t-shirt turned tank top that serve as my trusty go-to outfit for the weekly occasion. I understand that t-shirts featuring fetal corpses hanging from meat hooks aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’ve always been a sucker for obscene band T’s.

2 weeks and 2 loads ago I decided to leave my jug of sensitive skin high efficiency laundry detergent behind the counter with the staff at Venable. It might not seem like much to you, you with your plum basement laundry situation; you with your in house laundry and soap sitting casual wherever you please – but it’s about as serious as commitment gets when it comes to choosing a commercial laundering spot. Leaving my soap behind the counter says: ‘I’ll be back – oh yes, I’ll be back alright. Keep this behind the counter for me, I’ll be back. It’s got my name on it, my name is Brent … that’s right, I’ll be back for sure.’

I dropped the jug of detergent in Venable parking lot a few months ago, cracking the plastic screw top lid. When the container tipped over or I used the lid for measuring I got high efficiency soap leaking out all over the place – what a mess! Mending the top with 2 layers of red tuct tape worked pretty well to keep the contents under control. Consequently, it’s pretty easy to pick my bottle out of a lineup.

“Can I have my soap? It’s the one with the…” they know it by now. Such an individual I am 🙂

I get along well with the staff at Venable, although we don’t know much about one anothers personal lives. I feel a genuine respect has grown between us since I made my conscious commitment to their business. We often chit chat about the city and neighborhood; they switch my washed laundry to the dryer for me if I’m not around. I pitch them a few bucks for the favour and make sure to be back before closing time to pick things up.

On Good Friday I made my weekly trip to Venable. It was 15 degrees in Vancouver, on a Friday, on a holiday, so the shop was empty. Holidays be damned though, my socks are limited in number and filthy after a weeks work with horses. The middle aged Thai man I’ve come to expect folding laundry behind the counter seemed irritated and in his own world when I arrived. The shop bell chimed as I entered but he didn’t even look in my direction. On a usual visit we’d engage in some kind of banter back-and-forth, but not this day. Something’s eating him, but I decided to leave it alone.

I get back to the shop an hour after setting the wash cycle to take my things from the dryer, fold ’em up and pack ’em away. My sweater comes out a few minutes early so I can wear it while it’s piping hot then put it back in the dryer for a few more go rounds. I love hot laundry, and I really love folding hot laundry. The farmhouse I was raised in didn’t have a clothes dryer so it’s a luxury I take full advantage of now. Our clothes were dried on the line outside in warm months, then inside the farmhouse during winter. This had some benefits, no doubt. Our summer clothes always smelled fresh like the lilac tree next to the hay barn. Items dried inside in the winter helped offset the de-humidifying effect of the triple plated steel Kingsman wood fired stove that gave us our heat and kept the pipes from freezing in.

Win win, right? Sort of. Air dried clothes tend to get quite stiff, and they wrinkle like you wouldn’t believe. My mother, sister and I took turns ironing and folding the stacks of jeans and tshirts coming in from the line or down from the banister. It was tedious, there was always a stack to work through. My mother insisted on doing laundry several times per week which I always thought excessive. I’m more of a ‘save it up for the weekend’ kinda guy; I guess I just have other things to do. She insisted on us doing a set list of chores to keep the household running the way she wanted, and the laundry turned out to be my least hated of them. I preferred it to dusting the innumerable wooden antiques in our aged home. Ornately turned oak table legs and the impossible nooks and crannies of that relic pump organ. The foot powered sewing machine in the upstairs hallway that announced itself only when a toe was stubbed, the black lacquer bedframe that has occupied my sisters room since before the house was built. Beautiful handcrafts full of histroy, yes; dustmagnets, each and every one of them. The spray wood cleaner ‘Pledge’ irritated my sinus and made me nauseous. Ammonia filled bottles of Windex and aerosol Bon-Ami made the skin on my hands and forearms goosepimple red and my eyes water. She told me recently that she never used those products,

“Just vinegar and water!” she’s convinced herself…

…but my nervous system will never forget.

I have a collection of triangular burn marks on my thumb and forefingers from the tip of the iron getting too close to my skin. After the initial cautery I got used to the sensation, even began to anticipate it. I realized that although the burn was painful I could experience the pain without doing or saying anything about it. Have you noticed people saying ‘ow’ when they haven’t injured themselves? I’ve always thought that was strange. I came to enjoy the time alone ironing clothes and still find folding laundry to be an incredibly satisfying task.

I was early to pick up my clean and dried clothes on Good Friday, 30 minutes early to be exact. Sitting on the long black and white couch against the back wall of Venable I read a paper ‘The Georgia Straight’. The couch is in a quiet spot flanked only by old and unworking wash machines. Thumbing through and then bored with my paper, I look up and around the shop. The Thai man behind the counter is grimacing as he arches forward, reaching diagonally across his back, awkwardly, with his left arm. He’s reaching for his right shoulder blade and pawing lamely at the tight muscle contained beneath his parka. He’s in definite discomfort.

“Is your back sore?” I ask as I move automatic in his direction

He doesn’t respond with words, but he doesn’t need to. His contorted face says it all:

‘YES FOR THE LOVE OF GOD I’M IN AGONY!’

Maybe he’s not sure what to say?

Walking behind the counter I find him seated, leaning forward on one of those chiropractically useless fold out metal chairs. You know the type; they’re the kind that seem singularly purposed to give people physical discomfort. I ask him where his back is sore. He motions at two spots on his right side, one above the shoulder blade at his trapezius and another just below the shoulder blade about 10 inches off the spine. I start working at the top of his shoulder; it’s difficult because he’s still wearing his winter parka, a sweater and a t-shirt.

“Here, take your coat off.”

He removes an arm halfway out of a coat sleeve, uncertainly looking back at me like a hopeful and nervous animal, as if to ask ‘Is this enough?’. No, it’s not enough. He’s not totally sure what’s happening here, but he lets my confidence be his confidence. Horses are like that much of the time, so I’m in familiar territory. I tell him he’ll have to remove the parka, and he obliges. He’s used to seeing me on the other side of the counter and takes a moment to relax into our new relationship.

Glancing over at my drying load I see I’ve got 25 minutes to go. “I’ve got 20 minutes” I tell my patient, he nods affirmatively. I work around the indicated knots for a few minutes then press into them directly to get some blood moving. He needs a bit of prompting to breathe into the most densely packed nerve bunches, and I check in with him to make sure the pressure isn’t too intense. His initial gesticulations were spot on – there are two tightly packed pockets of nerves – one above and one below the right shoulder blade. After a few minutes attention on those spots I work over to his left side to give them a break; by that time he’s relaxed and grown used to my presence behind the counter.

He asks me how I learned this skill. I tell him a past girlfriend gave me great massages and I wanted to give something back to her. I also wanted more massage and figured the best way to get it was to give it. At the time it was one of the only ways I allowed myself to relax and find some peace. I had a serious cocaine habit from 2005-2007 and didn’t sleep very regular hours. Meaghan was always good to me during that time; when I got off a bartending shift at 3am or stayed out partying till noon she always looked after me. She’d run coloured baths for me to soak in and make sure the house was quiet and dark when I needed to sleep. She made a book with my picture on it called ‘Brent’s Sleep Book’ full of suggestions on how to get better rest. I tell him I was overwhelmingly a selfish person during that time. I say “I guess you get what you give” and I think that’s true, at least some of the time. I massage the mans back and shoulder for 20 minutes as a few folks step in and out of the laundry shop on this lazy holiday Friday. No one approaches the counter for change, so we continue totally uninterrupted.

When my clothes are just about dry I sit for 5 minutes and check my phone. A person sitting at the high table next to me had been watching while I worked and says

“That just totally made my day, that was really nice of you.”

I tell them it’s partly a self interested thing, that I want to live in a world where people help each other when they recognize someone is hurt or needs something. I say I’ve received a lot of that kind of care from others and realize that part of the way to get things is to give them – it might not work all the time, but sometimes is often enough. Another part of me wants people to see a grown man wearing a Cannibal Corpse tank top giving another grown man a back massage in a laundromat on Good Friday. It isn’t the main motivation for giving the massage, but it’s in there.

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