Sunday, November 23, 2008

teenage wasteland redux

(pic - false memories of idyllic childhood)

Having spent most of my first wave baby boom childhood as a chronic asthmatic whose parents worked at full time jobs in the city, I'd also spent a lot of the average school year home alone. Many people who'd lived at the lake earlier had moved away to the new suburbs meaning I reached puberty in a very quiet and serene environment. Not only was the lake wonderful but behind the house my parents had bought in the late 50's there were hundreds of square miles of undeveloped public parkland. I wandered and dreamed.

In time a September arrived that meant highschool but the closest school had no room for us until the following year when the first expansion would be completed, leaving a number of us to be bussed to a school in a town so out of the way and tiny that I've forgotten the name. I do recall it was in a Quaker farming district and the bus ride was 20 miles along narrow country roads. By the time all the kids on our route had been picked up it was standing room only and the driver routinely stopped the bus to demand we cease screaming, yelling and singing rude songs or he'd leave us to walk home. I learned all the verses to 'North Atlantic Squadron' before I knew what most of them meant.

(pic - how many jock straps does it take to cover a French teacher's desk?)

In classrooms overflowing with 9th graders the staff and our sternly raised Quaker classmates were completely flummoxed by the raucous behavior of 12 busloads of rampant juveniles. I'd made a friend of a girl who lived not far way whose mother had gone to England for a 4 month holiday and since her father worked at night, my parents had agreed to let her come and live with us in the interim. A sister!

The first thing we decided to do was stop going to school. We hated the place so it made sense to us and our excuses for not going got wilder and more theatrical as the months went by. We made bandages for our heads and pretend casts for our supposedly broken arms and legs and waved out the window when the bus stopped to get us. Once we covered ourselves with red pen marks to prove we had a communicable disease. Every so often we'd show up at school with notes for the principal we'd written ourselves but I don't think he cared because it was all too overwhelming for him anyway. We amused ourselves by walking up to the highway and catching the bus to Toronto where we'd spend the days riding the subway and exploring the city - always being sure to be home before my parents. The fun ended the evening my mother found a time stamped subway transfer on our dresser. I won't describe her remarks but my friend moved back home and the following spring the family moved away. We'd missed 93 days at school.

That left my only possible companion being the girl at the opposite end of our little road. We were friends of necessity, thrown together again because of being the same age. She was 6 months older, 6 inches taller and 1 IQ point smarter than me according to a teacher who'd thought it wise to announce everybody's scores to the entire school. Rita and I came out first and second. Yay. Once again both sets of parents made the mistake of believing we were smart enough to be trusted. Hah.

There wasn't much for teenagers to do back then (even worse than now) but there was a movie theater in a town 8 miles south and my dad was willing to drive us there both nights and be available to bring us home later. You'd never see anyone standing outside that theater but amazingly, inside it was always packed

(pic - the original movie madness)

No adults ever went to the Friday and Saturday night shows. There was always a double feature with cartoons and the fabulous 'Coming Attractions' trailers to get everybody pumped up for the following weekend. Not all the 'B' movies were sci-fi but even though those were the best, I'll never forget Steve Reeves as Hercules drinking from the spring of forgetfulness then leaving his demi-god life to become a manwhore for the lusty queen of Lidia. It was very titillating and we were all really ready for that. In fact, in the darkness and considering the hormone levels of the audience, there was always a lot of general titillating going on. Depending on how scary or silly the movie was, or simply because there were so many of us in the same cramped space, there was also shrieking and shouting rising to levels of cacophony that would cause the 'dreaded event'. The movie would stop. The manager, who resembled nobody more than than Mr. Burns from the Simpsons, would march down the side aisle carrying his flashlight and climbed the stairs to the stage. The projectionist would shine a spotlight on him for his usual 5 minute tirade of threats to close the theater and throw us all out. Then he'd slowly march back up the aisle and the movie resumed. So did the noise.

Thus began my transition to adulthood.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

gone west

This is not a real story since nothing in particular really happens but then again, that's true of much of our lives. What we're left with is a series of impressions whose implications we reflect on later. When we departed Montreal for Vancouver the train seemed to be our best means of getting there for several reasons. We had tons of stuff and it was cheaper to ship it all if we were passengers on the same railroad. Since we had a small child and pets to look after we decided for comfort's sake to travel first class.

We boarded the Canadian early on a beautiful autumn morning to learn that the first class cars would be added that evening when we got to Thunder Bay north of Lake Superior; the first day was spent just watching the gentle rolling landscape of Quebec and southern Ontario between bouts of excited conversation. It had been dark for several hours when the train rolled to a hissing stop and the conductor asked us to step down and wait until our car was available. We expected a station and a cozy place to wait but instead found ourselves between the rails in an enormous switching yard while the wind blew and sodium lights glared pieces of heavy equipment into high relief while leaving everything else in Stygian darkness. Luckily none of us suffered frostbite as we watched the engines push the new cars into position and soon a door opened to warm light and we climbed the little stairs with great relief.

Our conductor very kindly brought us a late dinner and hot drinks then went off to finish making up our beds. As the train pulled away into the pitch darkness of the northern night I settled the baby into his bed and climbed into my own bunk with a fresh cup of tea. The stars and moon lit the lakes as we rode further west.

My love affair with trains began in Europe and most especially in England in the mid-60's. You've seen them in movies like 'The Lady Vanishes' - narrow corridors, private little compartments with 2 cushioned benches facing each other and the semi-open area between the cars to traverse when you want to go to the bar or the dining car. There's something magical about spending hours or days not quite being anywhere at all but simply being another anonymous passenger temporarily suspended from the routines of place.

Our train was nothing like the old English ones but it wasn't new either. When Canadian Pacific decided to replace the rolling stock they discovered new train cars would cost millions more than they were prepared to spend. Instead, they refurbished the ones they'd had for more than thirty years so we got to travel in the most old style comfort North America could provide. The dining car was wonderfully appointed with crisp white linens, fine china, silver flatware and crystal.. not to mention great food. Yet guilt and sadness weren't that far away either. At breakfast that first morning the train moved slowly through part of a native Canadian reservation. The houses I saw were ramshackle and the children watching the train looked hungry and cold. I hope things got better for them.

Probably the neatest part about the trip, other than having real beds, was that we got to spend time in the baggage car. Every so often the train would stop and, even though I have no clear reason about the why, the result was that our conductor would let us know in advance so we could go and take the dogs for a walk along the track. The baggage handlers had a very comfortable setup with overstuffed furniture for relaxing on and a real potbellied stove for heating water for tea or whatever. During the day they left the big doors open and I remember the horses running alongside as we picked up speed one day on the prairies. So long as one of us was there the dogs were allowed out of of their traveling crates making them happy too.

As we closed in on the Rockies, the observation cars were added to the train in Calgary. Seeing the mountains of the west for the first time was an experience hard to describe.. or to draw. Mountains as far as the eye could see and beyond with huge forests and rivers raging through the gorges. Our waiter told us about the train that had fallen a couple of thousand feet into Hell's Canyon years before then told us he'd been ordered not to mention that and to please not tell the other passengers. As if we would ;-).

Sunday, August 24, 2008

how cold was it?

(raisons de partir or moving signs)

Cold, glacial chill seeping under the covers on a frozen February night woke me with the sudden realization that the heat had failed in our Montreal loft. I could hear our son squeaking a loose rail on his crib, a sure sign he was awake, but not sounding upset or uncomfortable. He had a tendency to throw his blankets off anyway so I always made sure he was well bundled for bed. Nevertheless, this wasn't the usual nip of a winter night in our drafty place but the portent of a numbing, pipe freezing arctic cold that would murder further hopes of sleep while we worried about how much colder it could get.

The loft was the fourth floor of a building on Boulevard St. Laurent with tall windows at front and back and lots of open space in between separated into personal living and work areas by painted partitions and hundreds of yards of extensive drapes. In the distant past it had been a nightclub but all signs of that were mostly gone and we were down to bare brick and supporting posts. The two floors below ours were clubs used by the Loyal Order of the Moose and the Royal Canadian Legion mostly on the weekends. The ground floor was an old fashioned Montreal bar. The guys went to the cellar and found the boiler working. As we sat around the central living area drinking hot coffee and talking we realized that our problem was that the bartender, Jacques, had shut off the heat when he went home. What made it a rather serious problem was that the next day was Sunday.

When it got light we called the landlord who drove in from his home 20 miles away to unlock the door to the bar. Sure enough he found the thermostat was turned almost all the way off and said he'd tell Jacques to leave it set at 70 so we'd get heat on the top floor. Everything was fine til the following weekend - a long weekend - when he did it again. Once again the landlord drove into the city, grumpy as would be expected, promising he'd tell the guy again to leave the heat on. By this time we'd begun to suspect the bartender was doing it deliberately and knew that action needed to be taken.

On Tuesday when the bar opened three of our friends dressed as electricians went in and convinced old Jacques they worked for the city and had to check the wiring for safety. While they were there they put a bypass on his thermostat and rerouted control of it to the loft. Our heat was no longer a problem - at least not the warm air kind.

That problem with heat was the night we got raided. One of my friends owned an antique nickel slot machine which had been providing amusement for months especially among the people who came to visit. Several months earlier an area of the loft we never used had been walled off and soundproofed for use as a small FM radio station with one result being visitors who weren't already friends. Word must have been passed along because one night at 3am we were awoken by the clamorous noise of heavily booted feet kicking open our lower door. Now that's a sound that'll get you out of bed in a hurry.

Mayor Jean Drapeau's long career as an old style city boss wasn't unlike the hold Richard Daley had on Chicago and his police force could equally be described as a corrupt organization simply because of longevity. The Montreal Vice Squad had arrived in force and they'd come for the nickel slot machine.. must have needed it for their policeman's lounge. It was a classic made by the Caille Brothers in 1936 and one of the last slot machines the company produced before going out of business. It was unique in having a circular jackpot window and streamlined styling - about 22" tall by 16" wide and equally deep. The coins traveled up an escalator device in the front window and dropped down into the jackpot window. You can understand why it was valuable before the days of personal computer fun.

It had taken two guys to carry it up the stairs the day it arrived but the night it left it was carried out by an overweight, red-faced, very distressed looking junior officer. He stood in the middle of the loft space with sweat glistening his jowls in the dim light as his captain threatened us with arrest for running a gaming house. My friend wanted a receipt so she could claim it back and he wanted the documents that would eventually guarantee his ownership. It was a standoff that lasted only until he added the menacing promise of a return visit to search for drugs he guaranteed he'd find. That was the end of it and off they all trooped but for the fact he never got the paperwork.

Politically, things had been pretty intense in Quebec in the early 70's with the rise of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), a revolutionary organization promoting an independent and socialist Quebec. They had kidnapped two government ministers in 1970 demanding a fortune in gold, publication of their manifesto and the old standby, a plane ride to Cuba. One of the ministers, Pierre LaPorte was found in the trunk of a car, strangled with his own rosary. Prime Minister Trudeau got serious at that point and a manhunt funded jointly by the provincial and federal governments ended with the successful arrests of the conspirators.

Nevertheless, things were still tense. The Parti Quebecois with its separatist ideal was gaining strength and momentum in the provincial government and regulations were passed outlawing the use of the English language in business as well as schools. Montreal had been Canada's leading financial center but there was a mass exodus of local US corporate headquarters 400 miles west to Toronto.

One winter afternoon one of our friends was downtown when a mailbox exploded on a street corner just a hundred yards behind him. Thankfully, nobody was injured that time but these terrorist incidents were still common. Half an hour later as he was still wending a shaky way back home he noticed puffs of dust at his feet and chipping brickwork of a building nearby followed by popping sounds and shouts. Turning to see what was going on he was knocked to the ground by a pair of fleeing bank robbers who were being chased by several policemen firing guns wildly in all directions.

That evening we had a long discussion. Montreal was a beautiful city but it might no longer be the ideal surrounding for a long term stay. Other friends who had moved to Vancouver the previous year were encouraging us join them in a climate that was gentle both physically and socially. It seemed reasonable and besides, a first class train journey across the country sounded like a lot of fun.

The next day we bought tickets for six adults, one child, two dogs and a pair of crazy cats. It was time to move on.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

outsider art

Once there was a girl who decided to pack up her clothes and her paintings and fly away from her dull life in southern Ontario to London, England where she was sure to win fame and fortune. She was a self taught artist since the school she'd attended taught all sorts of subjects but not art. Everyone (mostly her parents) agreed she was very good and art school would only spoil her vision.

That's how I wound up in London in the mid-60's. At the time I'd been having a wonderful time with color, painting big abstracts of dancers in acrylics and enamels, which I thought were very avant garde. Dressed in my spiffy new Emma Peel style trouser suit I picked up my portfolios and headed off to the best art galleries in the city with the absolute certainty my paintings would soon be the next big thing. I was due for a surprise.

I went to half a dozen galleries that day walking from one place to another as each of the very polite owners or managers essentially said, "Oh, that's very nice work but not quite the style we're looking for at the moment. Why don't you try so and so on Sowhatsit Street. Your work looks very much like something they'd hang."

The very last gallery I walked into was a huge, silent space where all the enormous canvasses were painted gray except for one that was gray with green spots. There were big metal objects looking like nothing I'd seen before spaced far apart around the room. I must have passed a motion sensor because once I got to the middle all of a sudden the machines whirred to life. Chains slithered around on the floor, blades swirled and slashed, wires whipped around on metal balls and there was a lot of general banging and clanging from every direction. I looked for a way out but it just wasn't safe to go back to the door.

Finally, a well dressed 40ish man strolled out from a back room somewhere, touched a button on the wall as he passed and the clatter stopped. I already knew by then what the story would be at this gallery too but I was too proud to just excuse myself out of the place so I showed him my paintings. He stroked his chin, arched his eyebrows and told me I really should go to the Green Park Gallery - that it would be just the place for my work. So I asked him directions and off I went.

The Green Park Gallery turned out to be the grassy area between the sidewalk and the wall of London's Green Park. Paintings, sculptures and oddly dressed people filled the narrow space that stretched a mile or at least as far as I could see. Hmpff. I think I was getting the idea by then that there are a lot of artists in the world each with their own unique vision that isn't quite cool enough for hard core art galleries. There was a lot of very good work on display and a lot of bad stuff too but mostly I saw people even more determined than me to sell their stuff.

Most amazing of all were the guys doing perfect replicas of some very famous old paintings in chalk - on the pavement. I saw VanGogh's 'Sunflowers' and Michaelangelo's 'God and Adam' from the Sistine Chapel. Yow. It sounds silly to be impressed by such a thing now that we're all older and sophisticated but it was a big surprise to me and also very daunting. Quite frankly, I was depressed.

That evening found me down at the Thames Embankment looking at the moonlit Palace of Westminster and Big Ben across the river. The traffic flowed by on London Bridge as the dark water flowed past my vantage point. I was overwhelmed by how ancient and carefully made everything was. Generations of masons had worked on these buildings while living in squalor on streets now burned, bombed and gone. It was a beautiful moment even as I realized what a total fool I'd made of myself all day and got ready to sling all my paintings into the water.

Just then I heard someone making a polite throat clearing sound and looked around to see who was there. A very tall Crow leaned on the stone balustrade, took a long pull on his cigarette and said, 'That was fun. What do you plan on doing in the next act?'

It was time to find a job, make some friends, go to art school, travel around Europe, see the great public galleries, museums, churches, palaces, castles, parks, seasides.. There was a lot to do and there are advantages to being an outsider. Crow and I have been friends ever since.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Market

This one's for my friend, Belle, with love.

Kensington Market in the heart of Toronto is infamous for its year-round vendors selling everything from fresh fish to chilies and everything in between. Small houses set among labyrinthine streets with murals, sculptures, tiny restaurants, vintage clothiers are a mishmash of unique urban adventure. With a rich European cultural heritage and several main streets occupied by family shops that have been there for generations it was a really great place to live.

It was the kind of place where one of your friend's four year old daughter could fall in love with a bunny in a cage and your friend would agree that it was a bunny worth having as a pet so she'd pay for it and they'd come back later to take it home. Later she'd have to deal with her daughter's hysteria when the bunny was presented skinned and gutted. The butcher shops didn't deal in sentimentality.

It was the kind of place that if you had another friend who was a confirmed shoplifter you remembered never to go marketing with her again after she'd shoved purloined fruit and veggies into your bag while she tasted various delicacies and argued with the vendor about the price. Being chased down Augusta Ave. by an angry Zorba the Greek was not my idea of fun.

Tall brick built houses from the 20's were well decorated with gingerbread moldings, multiple little windows and the most outrageous outside paint jobs you could imagine. Houses were often divided down the apparent middle with one side painted lime green with yellow trim and the other side colored lavender and red. I often wondered if the people living inside them ever talked to each other. Estate gardens may be a new idea here but old Toronto neighborhoods like Kensington have been growing vegetables in their tiny front yards from day one.

The vintage stores were filled with flapper dresses, kimonos, real silk Hawaiian shirts, beaded jackets, shadow dyed silk dresses from the 30's, tailored WWII women's suits and lots of shoes, beads, feathers, jewelry and general finery. I never wore clothes made in the 60's or the 70's either unless I made them myself but that's another story.

In the late 60's three of us moved into an apartment on the second floor of a house owned by a middle-aged Chinese couple. It was a nice enough place with a big living room at the front, a big kitchen and porch at the back and a long corridor in between with bedrooms and a bathroom off to one side. The only unusual feature was a tiny bed sitter apartment on the third floor that was accessed through our place. It had a little kitchen but no bathroom so whoever lived there shared ours which was no problem so long as the teenage runaway lovers from Thunder Bay lived there.. or somebody else we knew.

We got right into the spirit of the times (as well as that of the neighborhood) and painted all of the rooms ceilings to floorboards in color vibrating panels, swirls, lightning bolts, circles, moons, stars and rainbows. Our friends came by to visit at all hours to smoke dope, drink wine, listen to music, play music, joke, laugh, tell stories, plan adventures and generally have fun. We couldn't understand why the owners would peek upstairs through the window in the lower door or through their curtains whenever we went out but decided that was just their inscrutable way.

One day the kids upstairs packed their suitcases and left after telling us they were going to hitch-hike to BC. We didn't think much about it but decided we'd ask around to see if anybody might want to share the space with us and then went away ourselves for a weekend in the country. We got back late on the Sunday evening not noticing anything unusual.

Next morning I got up early to get ready for work and found the bathroom door locked. Well, that was a bit of a problem but I had my coffee and waited out on the porch which was when I noticed the sounds of splashing from the open bathroom window. Maybe Terry was up earlier than usual but he hadn't mentioned plans. I got on with washing my hair and the rest of me in the kitchen sink but the splashing sounds continued and I was getting more curious by the minute. I went down the hall, peeked into Terry's room and found him sleeping. Larry was asleep as I'd left him. As I dressed I was still wondering who could be in the bathroom? I mean there was one thing I needed to do that couldn't be done in the kitchen sink.

The bathroom door had a little hook inside for a lock so I went to the kitchen, got a butter knife and went back to the bathroom. I knocked. Splashing. I knocked again. More splashing. Time for the butter knife. I unlatched the door, flipped up the hook and looked inside where to my surprise I discovered a very tiny, very old, fully dressed Oriental lady sitting in our bathtub with laundry. There were towels, pants, socks, sheets, underwear, dresses, shirts all dripping from the shower rail and her sitting smiling in the midst of a tub filled with water and more clothes. Weird. I closed the door and went to work.

 When I got home later the boys told me a family of at least 15 people had moved into the little apartment upstairs. They'd been up and down the stairs all day long and even as we talked there were 6 kids peeking into our living room. We couldn't imagine how they'd managed to fit into the space but there was one thing we knew for sure. It was time to move.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Thayer St.

Now I can't say I'm a big fan of cars nor ever have been other than having appreciation for their utility at being able to provide transportation for oneself and one's stuff from point a to point b. That being said I must point out that I did grow up in North America during a time that new highways and burgeoning suburban enclaves made it appear that the future was to be ongoing technical and mechanical Utopia for all. The size, power and design of Detroit built cars reflected this belief of constant improvement and the car that epitomized the height of the auto-makers vision was the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible.

Early one afternoon as we walked toward our favorite Thayer St. hangout in Providence one of those was parked right out front - so long it took up two parking spaces and all gleaming white with chromed everything else. It was beautiful. Happily, our usual table outside Andrea's was just being cleared so we ordered our beers and spanikopitas while sitting back to watch the summer parade of locals and visitors stroll by. We liked the spot because there was a crack in the sidewalk right next to it that only the previously initiated would avoid tripping over. We'd take great delight in watching snooty rich people come to check out what qualifications Brown University and its environs could offer their young scions against Harvard or Yale. Invariably one of them would trip on the crack but, since we were connoisseurs of pratfalls, we wouldn't laugh out loud but give one another hand signals indicating points for style and flair in recovery just like they do at the Olympics.

On this particular Sunday the Caddy was of special interest since cars like it were always rare and by the mid-80's were next to extinct. Even now there are still more Model T Fords in regular operation than there ever were Eldorados and the few that existed were owned by very wealthy people.

As usual some friends came by pulling up extra chairs and eventually an extra table too. When I moved my chair to make room I found myself sitting rather close to a tall man of early middle age with languid eyes set in a milk chocolate face. He was dressed casually, almost carelessly, in clothes that were of the very best quality as well as the last word in fashion. He smiled and I felt my heart melt all the way down to the happiest places. It wasn't long before he and his friend-driver were sharing jokes and stories with the rest of us. The low rumble of his laughter was so infectious and sensual that people at other tables who couldn't possibly have heard what had been said laughed as well. We learned he was a talent agent with offices in New York and Hollywood and they were touring the country in a car he'd bought for the sheer luxury of doing the trip at his own pace in style and comfort.

Our waitress, Rachel, who had high hopes of becoming a Broadway star, was also very interested and our tables were getting a lot of her very personal attention much to the general outrage of other patrons. This was New England, after all, and the natives tend to express their irritation volubly when they don't get their food and drink replenished immediately. We heard a lot of comments like, 'Hey, bitch, where's our fucking beer and cheese dip?' and even more impressive variations of where they were planning to look for their meals.

Rachel was not only oblivious to the comments but was getting even more caught up in what she appeared to feel was her one chance of winning fame and fortune. She'd found some odd chromed bar utensil inside that she began to use as a pretend microphone while she proceeded to go into a full Debbie Reynolds routine that you'll understand if you've ever seen 'Singin in the Rain'.

We got to hear a capella versions of 'Some Enchanted Evening', 'Someone to Watch Over Me', 'Send in the Clowns' and 'Anything Goes'. When she got to that one she put down her tray and microphone, took off her shoes and continued to sing while turning cartwheels up and down the sidewalk. By then even the most jaded of Rhode Islanders were beginning to look a bit stunned and more than a few were hoping right along with her that she really would get a chance to go to Hollywood. Naturally, they were also hoping she'd just go away and another waitress would come out to serve their tables.

The Cadillac owner sitting next to me just kept smiling except for once when he looked my way and winked. Flirtation is a funny and subtle thing when you have nothing to gain but the pleasure of mutual understanding. Rachel had finished her acrobatics near the restaurant door and had gone inside. Everyone outside assumed she'd finished but two minutes later she was back for her unrequested encore - microphone and all.

She started to sing that all time favorite song of Broadway musical hopefuls - 'Summertime'. The level of emoting was something extraordinary to see on a city sidewalk and as she got more and more physically engaged in expressing the passion and sadness in the song she got closer and closer to the 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, stroking its long sleek lines, tickling its chromed bumper and finally slithering up onto its gleaming white hood where she writhed and moaned out the last lines of the song.. 'So hush little baby, doon't youuu cryayayayy!'

It was a moment to be remembered. Anyone less cool than the man sitting next to me would probably have picked her up bodily and thrown her off the Caddy. He smiled. We said good-bye to all and walked home having enjoyed another fine afternoon on Thayer St.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

je me rappelle un chien

If ever there was a dog who belonged to himself it was Garth. Grown up in a time before leash laws and scooping he was happy enough to accompany us on our walks around town but if he sniffed something interesting in the air he'd say his farewells and be off like a shot.

In the early 70's we lived in a fourth floor loft in Montreal. The first person out the door in the morning would find Garth heading downstairs with them. As often as not he'd walk along as they shopped for brioches and fruit to go with breakfast coffee, buying something for him to eat as well. Back at the street door, in typical canine fashion, he'd say 'thanks and goodbye' and would stroll away for his morning constitutional. When he returned he'd stand at the door looking expectant until someone passing opened it for him. He got to be quite well known.

Walking to the top of Mt. Royal Park was something we did just about every day. The paths were wide and tree lined on one side with widening views of the city, the St Lawrence River and old neighborhoods on the other. At one side of the summit is Sacre Coeur Church and a huge metal cross above it whose nighttime lights dominate the city. In the church are canes, crutches and wheelchairs presumably left by people who'd been cured of crippling diseases by crawling up the long stairs. I never saw anyone do that.

 Closer to our place the park had gardens, tennis courts and playground equipment so it was a favorite place to rest on the way home. Sometimes Garth came home with us and sometimes he'd notice (or nose) something that he just couldn't ignore. It was those times I had to pretend I didn't know him. Who me? My dog? Nope, never saw him in my life before. Other times he would have love affairs, only come home for meals (if that) and I'd have to go looking for him. He never realized his tail gave him away no matter how well he'd hidden himself.

One afternoon when we were walking along one of the nearby narrow streets a door to an old house built close to the sidewalk opened and an elderly gentleman with a sweet smile beckoned. The man spoke little English and my French was barely acceptable but Garth walked right inside. It was obvious he knew the place and I was quite curious about what was going on so I followed him through the door with the smiling man motioning me to go further along.
We went down a long hallway to a broad sunny room at the end where a beautiful female dog was lying in splendor with a litter of black and white, and white and black puppies. The two big dogs nuzzled each other and Garth examined each of the pups. The old man, very proud and happy, told me that when she came into heat Garth was the only male dog he had allowed into his backyard.

Nowadays, I never see a black and white dog without wondering if he or she is one of Garth's descendants. As all of us do he slowed down as he aged but we covered a lot of miles together in a number of cities and parks on both sides of the border and in my mind's eye I can still see the optimistic wag of that magnificent white tail.

Monday, May 5, 2008

hot fashion story

There comes a time in every girl's life when the Dr. Scholl's or the genuine Swedish clogs simply don't provide that certain je ne sais qua required for full enjoyment of modern life. Sometimes you just have to ditch the jeans (or the overalls), put on the cute little dress and step out in something fancy. Let the world know when it comes to style that you set the trends and not by buying the season's latest as dictated by Sears or JC Penney.

Living on the east coast clothes were not the problem. Several times a year my friends and I would head to Filene's Basement Store in Boston early on a Saturday morning. They had clothes from all of the most expensive and exclusive stores in the country with the incredible benefit that the minute an item went on sale there it was already marked 50% off.. and there was a little date sticker on each price tag. Every day the price dropped by another 10% so it was easy to buy a lot of very cool clothes for a small amount of money. We'd dive into the chaos of the double deep Basement with the plan to meet at a particular spot some hours later. To give you an idea how big the place was (and may still be) we hardly ever met each other while there. The other weird thing was there were no changing rooms so you had to try things on in the aisles and hope nobody took the clothes you'd arrived in as a particular great bargain. People (well okay, men) would stand up on the balconies just to watch the women shop. The lingerie department was always well observed.

Shoes, cool shoes, were harder to find and percentage wise as expensive then as they are now. Plus, there were no Manalo Blahnik's or Roger Vivier's even if you were crazy enough or had a serious enough foot fetish to consider spending thousands for a pair. Nevertheless, shoes can make us feel beautiful and when you've just bought a little red silk dress for $15 instead of the original $300 asking price, it would be neat to have a pair of shoes to show it off.

In downtown Providence I found 'Adele's' - a store that had been opened in 1932 - and one look in the window was all it took to know I'd found the holy grail of fancy shoedom.

There were some odd things about the store once you went inside, the most noticeable of which was that they appeared to have shoes dating back to when the place first opened. Shelves of shoe boxes stretched to the ceiling and there were shoes on tables, under tables, in cartons, racks and stacks everywhere. There was even a floor above used as a warehouse for the overload. Two nice young men, her nephews, were always pleased to help but there was something funny going on too. You see, tucked away among the shoe boxes, there was a very old lady sitting on a little platform. If you liked a particular shoe (and you could only ever find one of a pair) one of the men would take it over to her and a quiet conversation would ensue. If the woman liked the way you looked or behaved or whatever, then the guy would go off and find the matching shoe. If you wanted to buy a pair another private conference took place about the price. She must have liked me because I bought a collection of antique shoes from the 30's, 40's and 50's for about $2 a pair. Most were Italian made and a few were snakeskin and alligator - platforms, wedges, maryjanes and 3+ inch heels. I was a tall, sexy lady in those shoes.

Wearing our designer dresses, garters, bustiers, seamed stockings and fine shoes we were a party waiting to happen and happen it did. I have this good friend, really good friend, really really good friend I've been living with for a long time and among his many talents is being a musician and song writer. At that time he'd written some new songs and was planning to perform them in front of a genuine audience - on a stage, with lights, with microphones, with a sound system. I mean REALLY.

For a very brief time we were a band - kind of like a reprise of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. We were the Andrews Sisters, Tina Turner and the Lickettes rolled into one tight little group singing backup and playing percussion. Everybody should get to have that much fun at least once.

Like innocent bystanders watching our time go by (I just had to quote my favorite song by Dan Hicks - Moody Richard) we witnessed the day when a local cooking school bought up the block in downtown Providence where Adele's store sat. Deals were done and everybody moved out - everybody but Adele who owned her building and refused to sell. So far as the school was concerned plans were far advanced with construction scheduled, students accepted and one little old lady with a shoe store was in the way of progress.

Funny how these things happen but one night the building caught on fire. Nobody was hurt but the building, shoes and all, was gone by the next morning when the fire marshall declared it a total loss. I've always wondered about those two nice young men..

Sunday, April 13, 2008

strange neighbor

Roger Williams Park in Providence is the second largest mid-city park in the country after New York's Central Park. It was also laid out by the same landscape designer so it's very elegant and wild at the same time. There are serpentine lakes with many bridges, a Japanese garden, a boathouse, a zoo, and even a small amusement park with a beautiful antique carousel right by the water. At least that's the way it used to be but perhaps it's all been turned into condos since then. Garth (full name - Garth Cold Nose Strong Heart) and I spent many hours and many miles exploring its paths.

We lived at the end of Bartlett Ave. in an old Victorian tenement house on the second floor.. a big apartment with a front parlor, middle parlor, dining room, 2 bedrooms and screened verandah. There were lots of windows overlooking the park. We slept in the front tower since it was like being in the middle of a forest glade with the lake just across the way and the Temple to Music across the water. The kitchen and dining area we used were at the opposite end in another tower. It was nice.

The thing about living in apartments though, is that sometimes you wind up having neighbors who may be a little on the strange side and one of them moved into the place above ours at the end of a winter. At first she appeared to be very normal and so much so that we wondered what she was doing living in our building rather than a bungalow in the suburbs.

There had already been some odd characters in and out of the other apartments including one family who'd lived downstairs for a few months the previous summer. Fights had been raging at all hours but one day the guy stayed home and played 'Stayin' Alive' over and over at top volume for 10 hours straight followed by taking an aluminum baseball bat to all the windows, furniture and anyone who didn't get out of his way. Then he jumped in the family car and tore off down the road at full speed until he was stopped by a tree. The rest of them moved that night.

Anyway, back to the new third floor neighbor. We learned she'd moved out of the bungalow she'd shared with her husband and young daughter and that she worked as a secretary at a local college. During the week the little girl lived with her mother and everything was as quiet as you'd expect but when Friday afternoons rolled around dad came by on his scooter to take the girl off for the weekend. Mom, wearing her usual Mrs. Cleaver outfit, would wave good-bye but once they were safely out of sight she'd gallop upstairs and change into hot pants and halter. Like clockwork, within five minutes she'd be back downstairs waiting for 'the boys'. I do mean boys.

Now this lady was at least 40 and probably more but it seemed that while working at the school she'd developed a taste for much younger men.. and not just one in particular. She liked all of them and preferably in groups. Sometimes several carloads would park outside and all the guys would troop upstairs carrying beer, snacks and goodness knows what and partying would ensue until they either got tired or had to go home to their parents.

It came to be time for the 4th of July fireworks display that happened close to the Temple to Music every year and we invited our family over for a picnic dinner on the lawn outside our place before the show. Naturally, we weren't out there alone since lots of people came from further up the street so they'd be there for the fireworks too. Unbeknownst to us Mrs Hotpants had visitors of her own and just as everyone was eating, talking, laughing and playing (lots of kids) we heard terrific shrieks coming from above. Everybody stopped what they'd been doing and looked up at the third floor windows to see two guys holding a naked Mrs. HP. outside her window and kind of jiggling her up and down. It was a show nobody had expected.

Maybe she wasn't as anonymous as she'd imagined and maybe someone had made a phone call but the end result was that she was gone a few days later.The house was quiet again for a long time after that. People are strange, aren't they?

Sunday, April 6, 2008

first trip to the City

It was round about 1971, when we were living in a big loft in Montreal, that a couple from NYC came to stay for several weeks. Russell had stolen his girlfriend Barbara from her very wealthy Manhattan parents and the fact she was an only child made this even more significant. Barbara was good company but pretty quiet in our bohemian surroundings. Russell was a different story. He was boisterous, funny as hell and hardly ever slept. My first clue he was a bit different was the fact he'd sit in a chair near the kitchen area all night long smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky with the cannister vacuum cleaner hose in one hand ready to hit the switch at the first glimpse of a cockroach. Since we lived on the fourth floor with bars on the other three there were a few of them around. I wasn't familiar with speed at the time but meeting Russell gave me a lesson in chemical dependency I've never forgotten.

They left Montreal a few weeks later when Barbara's parents agreed to condone the relationship. That would have been the end of the matter for us but for the fact they called several months later and invited me to NY as their Gentile guest for Passover. My son was very young but his father and the other people in the loft urged me to go since I was the only one among them who'd never been to the City. Thus, I found myself on a plane heading south a few days later. The flight was due to land at LaGuardia, one of the smallest of the NY airports, and getting there involved flying directly between the skyscrapers of NY. It was a brief but remarkable experience and when the plane landed on what appeared to be a large dock right on Flushing Bay I knew I wasn't in Canada anymore. That doesn't mean I wasn't familiar with other world class cities since by then I'd spent several years in Europe and the cities there aren't to be sneezed at ..but they're old and they're beautiful as they are. I know huge buildings are everywhere now but not so much at that time and who on earth could imagine tearing down the Louvre to put up the head office of an insurance company? (Don't answer that.)

Russell met me and took me on a whirlwind tour of the City in one of the Lincolns belonging to his new in-laws. We actually stood on the plaza of the World Trade Center but, try as I might, I simply can't draw that. Suffice it to say those buildings were huge; the North Tower had opened just a few months before and the South Tower was ready but not yet occupied. As I looked up and up and up I suddenly got very dizzy and started to topple backward. I would have fallen if he hadn't caught me and I explained that although I'd done some climbing and had even stood at the top of the Eiffel Tower, I seemed to be experiencing some serious vertigo.

By then it was getting close to dinnertime and we drove to one of the older apartment houses close to Central Park and left the car for one of the doormen to park. I knew the apartment would be nice but I hadn't been expecting a two story penthouse 29 floors up in one of New York's landmark residences. It was obvious Barbara's parents were more than just rich - they were super rich. I don't remember much about them or the dinner other than the fact that they were nice, the surroundings were large and luxurious and the servants quiet and efficient.

After dinner Russell asked if I'd like to go out to the terrace (yes, the terrace..not the balcony) to look at the Empire State Building and the skyline across Central Park. As we stood at the railing he suddenly picked me up and held me at arm's length over empty space and said, "What do you think would happen if I dropped you now?" His eyes were glassy and his grin was typical of a speed freak rictus. I was too terrified to think of anything other than I would never see my son or my parents again. I begged him to not let go. I begged him to bring me back. After a few minutes he did. I don't recall much about the rest of the visit but was never so happy to be home as I was the next day.

That was all a long time ago now but the memory has stayed at a very deep level. It was later, much later, when I really did start thinking about Russells's question and although I've never come up with an answer it's a question we all need to ask ourselves. Maybe we just need to keep in mind we can die at any time. Perhaps we need to live our lives in such a way that we will have no regrets about its ending. This isn't always possible but what is possible is to try.

This morning I remembered a favorite Joni Mitchell song and these words came to mind:
We are stardust,
We are golden.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

childhood summer

In 1954, not too long after the end of WWII, with England heavily rationed, hospitals laboring to look after the wounded and much of the country still scarred by bomb craters and debris, my parents decided to move to Canada with their asthmatic daughter.. me. We went directly to cottage country by a little lake 25 miles north of Toronto and that's where I grew up.

Lake Wilcox was close enough to the city that it was a very popular spot on summer weekends. Although you could drive to the bigger lakes further north, doing so wasn't practical back then since the only way to get to them was by two lane roads many of which weren't paved. Going that far was possible but it had to be for a week or two just to make the drive practical. So never mind Sauble Beach on Lake Huron with its miles of white sand, Sunday picnics often meant Ash's Beach at Lake Wilcox and it sometimes seemed as if half the population of Toronto drove in. The cars were filled with irritated sweaty grownups and tons of kids just plain looking for a place to stop. Most of the beaches were private and there were no parking lots so once the park itself was was full the only hope of a spot was a slim chance that someone with a pregnant woman would have to drive to the hospital right that minute. Come to think of it there were likely a few babies born in those circling cars. All was chaos on the weekends.

But there was a roadhouse with beer (except on Sunday when people brown bagged the stuff), pool tables, pinball machines and a good size contingent of bikers usually on hand. Across the road was Ash's booth that sold soft drinks, ice cream, burgers, fries and hotdogs. Next to it was the entrance down the stairs to the beach and next to that was the dance hall - jukebox, jitterbug heaven. I didn't get out of the house after dark to check the nighttime action for years but we knew it could be dangerous.

Even though the weekends were crazy and the nights could be it was the days that belonged to us kids and the mothers who occasionally paid attention to what we were getting up to. We spent the summers in and around the water. There were artesian springs that fed the lake and we loved finding where they'd sprung up from one summer to another. You could put your arm or leg into what appeared to be a wet hole in the beachgrass and feel the icy cold as deep as you could reach while the sun baked the rest of you. We'd cover each other with wet clay and then go dashing into the lake to clean off. Since I wasn't allowed to swim until July I often had to find other ways to entertain myself and one of my personal favorite places was a very old and decrepit roller skating rink further along the beach. There were hundreds of pairs of old roller skates lining the walls and the trick was to find a pair the right size with unbroken straps you could fasten to your shoes. I liked to spend hours pretending I was a famous skating queen or a magic flying fairy.

Now our own beach was a lot of fun but the cool place to go during the week was Ash's Beach. Every winter big dump trucks filled with sand would drive out onto the lake and dump their loads on the ice of Ash's so there'd be mostly sand under the water and not weeds.. a very big yuck to all of us. There were also things to play on at Ash's - water slides, diving boards, rafts that floated on big empty barrels and the boats. All of them were great places to play pirate and, since every year Mary Martin appeared live on television to do her Peter Pan role, we were all very big fans of pirates.

Jean Ash, who was also mother to two of the kids, ran the ticket area for the beach. The .25 cent admission was about as much as any of us got as a whole weeks allowance so paying admission wasn't exactly on the agenda. But Jean was very cool, our own local version of Bettie Page who really had seen everything, and she pretended not to notice when we came swimming around the fences that went out into the water. She'd even tell us stories about some of the wackier people who came to swim - like the butch women who demanded to rent men's bathing trunks. None of us knew what to make of that but it was pretty funny.

One of our favorite activities was climbing down the rope that anchored the rafts. The idea was to stay down there holding your breath as long as possible. Strangely enough, me with my asthmatic chest, won those contests more than anyone else.

Then there was the Booth. My friend Rita's mother was one of the women charged with watching me since both my parents had jobs in Toronto and Linda's mother worked at the Booth doing the food preparation and serving the customers. One weekday afternoon Linda and I heard shrieks of laughter from behind the closed shutters so sneaked inside to have a look at what all the fun was about. A lot of ladies at that time were what you might term statuesque, not necessarily fat but big, buxom women who'd given birth to several children. An old brass balance scale was part of the kitchen equipment inside and when we peeked around the ice cream coolers we couldn't believe what we saw them doing. There were five women with their blouses unbuttoned and their bras lifted up or unfastened and they were having a contest of their own to see who among them had the biggest, heaviest breasts. Linda and I sneaked back out without them knowing we'd been there.

T.O. Story

It's occurred to me more than once that many Americans harbor some unrealistic views about Canada. They see it as a perfect land with no crime, no accidents, free health-care for all and the Prime Minister makes sure everyone is tucked safely into bed every night at 9:00 o'clock. Well, none of that's true except for number 3 and to illustrate (good God, a pun!) here's a true story from the late 60's:

At the time I not only had a full-time job but was attending art classes and rehearsing a play so it seems the last thing I'd want was more employment. I've never spent any time under one of those trees that money falls off and since I had a trip in mind I figured since I was young and healthy, why not take a job that began at midnight? To this day I can't remember who offered it to me but one night after rehearsal I found my way to an unmarked street door on Dundas and climbed up a long staircase to the 4th floor where I found an after hours nightclub. I'd always thought that once the clubs closed all the musicians went home to bed like everybody else but I learned a lot of them aren't the least bit sleepy and prefer to go clubbing. The place itself was more than a bit tacky with unmatched broken chairs, peeling wallpaper, permanent nicotine and beer fug, and cockroaches. Then again, few nightclubs could pass the good housekeeping standards of our mothers and that's why we like them.

The idea was that I'd stand behind a little counter at the top of the stairs and collect the admission fees until around 3am. It was a private club but only in the sense that whoever came by could just say they were a member and the Toronto police turned a blind eye to the fact the owners made their money selling drinks the same as at any other bar. Round about 1am the place would start getting busy as musicians, their girlfriends and various other night people started to arrive. Of course, there'd be a lot of jamming going on as old friends who were playing clubs like the Brown Derby and Le Coq D'or actually got to spend some time playing with each other. The music was very cool and I didn't mind the fact I wasn't getting paid much. Nevertheless, there I was with an open cash box that nobody showed much interest in and the pay really was very bad. Ross, the bouncer was also very badly paid and since he acted as my bodyguard when required I decided to amend our income directly by taking some money every night and splitting it between us.

As an example of why I might need a bodyguard I remember one night when I heard the door crash open at the foot of the stairs followed by the sounds of shouting and stomping as the new arrivals got closer to the club entrance. All of a sudden a crying woman screamed, "You're gonna hit me! I know you're gonna hit me!" The next sound was a terrific SLAP! Then the footsteps continued. On arrival, if I hadn't already suspected, it turned out to be a pimp and some of his ladies - one of whom apparently hadn't earned her keep that night and the guy was mad. The weird thing though, was that she kept describing her own punishment since the next thing she screamed was, "You're not gonna pay my way in!" So the guy said, "Pay your own way in, Bitch!" There she is all boo-hooing but out of the sobs came some fatal words, "You're gonna push me down the stairs! You're gonna push me down the fuckin stairs!" Oh dear. Everything seemed to go very quiet as he let go of one of the other girls and turned to move toward her. Next thing he'd grabbed her by the shoulders and gave a mighty push down the long stairs that had no landings. There were loud bumps, yells and finally a crash as she hit the bottom. I think I'd stopped breathing. Then a minute or so later we heard the door open at the bottom and the sounds of her still crying as she left.

The next night when I arrived the owners had left a roll of tickets that I was supposed to give half of to the customers and keep the other half in the cash box. It seemed they'd been counting the patrons and had found a discrepancy in the entrance fees. I stayed and did my shift without handing out any tickets and at the end of the night I took all the money. I gave half to Ross and kept the rest.

A few days later I ran into Ross on Yonge St. and we walked a ways together. He told me 'they' were looking for me and said I probably shouldn't go back. I wasn't planning to. The criminal was me.

true housekeeping

When you work as a housekeeper the second worst thing you can find when you open the door for the first time is a clean house. The worst thing is to find a clean house that's also creepy. I ran into one of those in Providence which, as you may or may not know, is one of the oldest cities in the US. At the time I got jobs from an agency and one autumn day they had a new place on their list and I went by for the key. Usually, the keys were like the ones we all carry but this key was of the big old fashioned skeleton variety.

I had a map, since I wasn't all that familiar with the city yet, and found the address on the East Side where it's mostly steep, narrow and cobblestoned. The houses are big but often built deep into the properties with narrow fronts facing the street. Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design are both in the neighbourhood as is the amazingly enormous Swan Point Cemetary. But more on that another time. Providence was also famous as the junk jewelry capital of the country (Monet, Spiedel etc.) so there were tons of little factories that specialized in watch bands, pins, belt buckles and all the associated metal work with cleaning, degreasing and polishing. Many of them were closing back then as even cheaper stuff came in from other countries.

The house turned out to be closer to the Providence River than to the ivy league schools when I finally found it and to say the neighbourhood was deserted would be an understatement.

The front door led to a dim foyer with the livingroom further along a narrow hall. Inside, everything was neat and clean but musty and dark since the inside doors were all closed and what few windows there were faced the buildings on either side. The floors were dark oak, the walls half covered in over varnished wainscotting, and the furniture sparse but old and heavy. There was a black marble fireplace and the upper half of the walls were covered in the ugliest paper I'd ever seen.

The main floor also had a long, narrow dining room filled with cumbersome Victorian stuff - table, sideboard, curio cabinets and chairs. It was hard to imagine more than one person fitting the space. Further along the hall was a library that looked similar to the rest.

The stairway going up was in the foyer so up I went only to find another corridor with closed doors on either side. One door was locked so I passed on that but found four bedrooms and two old fashioned bathrooms - clawfoot tubs and ten gallon toilets. The next flight up led to what had been servants quarters - tiny rooms and almost no light at all. Since it didn't look occupied I decided to dust and be done up there.

I'd been turning lights on where I could find them but the place wasn't bright and neither did it look inhabited. There was no dust or dust bunnies; the fireplace was clean; the bathrooms unsoaped, unstained and unsullied; the bedrooms made up but unslept in. I was in serious need of some grime so it was time to go and find the kitchen. Just beyond the diningroom door were more stairs going down and that seemed the logical place to look.

Ah, kitchen! Geez! That was clean too but I went ahead and found the vacuum cleaner and other stuff in a pantry. I also found a wine cellar, another fireplace with a couch and a couple of chairs, a completely walled-in courtyard beyond some new glass doors, and best of all.. a radio which I turned on.

Have I mentioned I'd been reading H.P. Lovecraft? He lived on the East Side of Providence all his life and is buried at Swan Point. Every year on Hallowe'en an unknown group has celebrated a black mass at his sepulchre.. or at least the signs of that have been found the next day. Lovecraft is easily laughed off if you read one or two of his books at the beach but my experience was reading him while living in Providence and he was very knowledgeable about the old city and its foundations and architectural history. So when he wrote about tunnels and underground chambers inhabited by pale, slimey, slithery, sucking beasts it started to gain a subconscious hold.

So there I was in the kitchen with the lamps and the radio. The house felt heavy and portentous above me but there was a job to be done so, ready or not, I picked up the vacuum cleaner and carried it up the stairs. The lights had gone out so I turned them back on as I went all the way to the top.

I worked up there doing the usual things even though nothing looked cleaner as I worked but I needed glass cleaner so went back down to the kitchen to find some. All the lights were out on the main floor again and once again I relit them. As I went down the back stairs to the kitchen the lights went out behind me. When I got to the foot of the staircase the lights down there shut off and the radio clicked off. I stood stock still and looked all around but could see nothing different and nobody was there. I would almost have been happier if someone was there but there wasn't. I'd had enough.

One minute later I was up the stairs, down the hall and out the front door. I decided to cut through the river park on my way back to the agency to return the key. It was only later I realized a duster was still hanging out of my back pocket.