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.