It was going to be the best one yet. That next Suzuki. It was to be our third vehicle branded with a big silver S. Personally it would be a chance to underscore my brilliance once again in hopes that like water on stone; the happy accidents that festoon all the trails I walk would make some discernible tracings on the obsidian common sense possessed by my wife. Here is some background on my relationship with Suzy.
After obtaining my second divorce on only thirty-four years on the planet, I found myself driving a beat-up dusty Volkswagen Van. It had no heater, questionable brakes, an insatiable appetite for clutch cables and a not so secret desire to help the mechanic down on Main St. retire early. Eventually I came to my senses and divorced that Teutonic embarrassment. I watched with a smile and proudly folded arms as the tow driver hauled its arthritic carcass far, far away.
I had been without wheels many times in my life and never found it that disconcerting especially when living in any urban area and gainfully employed. Houston and Baton Rouge excepted. In those two locations having a vehicle is not an option as it is in Vancouver and most Canadian cities. After a brief withdrawal, less intense than one would experience say when the video store across the street goes belly-up, I would always rally and become a transit riding fool, rent cars when needed and many times, cover more ground than before when I was in the driver’s seat.
A big part of my reasoning at that particular time was due to the fact I was going to have to pay out about fifteen years of child support. I had no qualms about doing this because the birth my first son was a planned and welcomed event. I hadn’t planned on nor welcomed the disharmonious relationship that had gone into free-fall soon afterwards.
I re-married when I was legally and emotionally disentangled and in possession of my gumption once again. Within a year I was the proud Papa of another blessed son. As my wife and I slowly moved from our first third floor walk up apartment in New Westminster to a succession of slightly larger and more well appointed apartments, I did some calculations.
As it turned out, I was amazed to find out that when all costs incurred by owning a car were considered and averaged to the month, that amount was equal within tens of dollars to what I was paying in child support. Thus, I reckoned that if we simply gave up having a vehicle that the money saved would practically exactly offset the extra expense of my child support. In this way, our new three person lifestyle as dictated by my mail man’s salary would be the same as if I had never divorced and was the breadwinner of my original family of three. I was motivated by not wanting my new family to suffer for my past miscalculations. It was nascent bobcat logic and it became our way of life for the next ten years.
My wife worked a variety of jobs and I tried working two full-time jobs for about six months. I carried mail from 6:30 to 3:00 and then slept in a booth till 4:00 at the Premier Café on Main and Broadway. The waitress would wake me to grab my bus back to New West and I would work in the kitchen of a restaurant at the New West Quay till 1:00. I’d be home at 2:00 and off to bed by 3:00. After paying my income tax that year, I saw the folly of my ways and stuck to just doing my post office gig. We provided daycare for two and sometimes three little boys which kept my son as busy and entertained as it did my wife. I got to enjoy a few hours with the gang each afternoon when I rolled in from the Skytrain. My wife had already raised a half dozen baby boys to adulthood by the time she had her own and she was a natural. It was like watching a horse whisperer. None of the little fellows wanted to leave when their parents came to carry them home.
I always approached by the back door of my ground floor apartment as it was near to the kitchen. One sunny day I encountered a biker-type dude setting on a folding chair in the back alley of our Agnes St. apartment. Right smack in the middle of where I had to walk. He regarded my postie uniform and asked me if I’d like to make some real money. He said he had been watching me work like an ant for about a year. I had never met him and asked him what exactly he had in mind. He said it would be pretty similar to what he figured I already did for Canada Post, that is, delivering the odd package to the odd place.
On the roof of the apartment complex across the alley, a herd of young skinheads had cranked up their music and begun to dive into some serious Wednesday afternoon drinking. I looked again at my prospective employer. He was about forty-five years old and wore an immaculate white tee-shirt, immaculate faded blue jeans and military spit-polished Doc Watson’s. He had an expensive haircut, clean nails, good teeth and a perfectly trimmed beard. I saw in my minds eye the perfect father figure to captain the crystal meth playpen on that rooftop of fatherless boys. I told him no but thanks anyhow for thinking of me and he folded up his lawn chair and gave me that look that father’s sometimes cast upon their sons. The one that says, “I’m not angry boy, I’m just disappointed in you.” He waddled back to his wolf-pack and I went in to greet Nisa’s boys.
There was Joey who always remarked that his little “yeggs” were tired from walking up and down the riverside hills of New West. His Chinese Mom kept a big turtle as a pet in a large tank in her kitchen. There was Terrance. His Brazilian Mom was always sleepy and late to pick him up. He had an incredible blond afro halo of hair and loved nothing better than sitting on his “manky” and drinking “chocomomo” from a sippy cup. My youngest, Miggy, liked to watch the “mototatos” rumble down the alley, bang on an old guitar and blow on the harmonica. My eldest, Daniel, liked to catch ants outside between the buildings and see the “hellcoppers” fly by. There was Samuel, the little Finn. Joey called him Namu and it stuck. His Scandinavian mother left orders for my wife to have him nap outdoors in the winter to acclimatize him to the cold. He was a robust, cheerful little man.
Once I brought a soccer ball home and when he saw it he did a dribble across the living room floor that had me wondering if his father was actually Diego Maradona. When his Mom picked him up that night and I told her about it, she said his grandfather had been a professional in the old country. He was so small they hadn’t given him a ball yet and I suggested it was now indeed time. As I write this I am aware that these little guys are very possibly fathers themselves by now. May the Great Spirit hold them in the hollow of his hand.
We walked and we walked. We bused and we bused. We dragged dozens grocery bags and babies up from Columbia St. At the time we all had legs like tree-trunks and hearts like hammers, including the little ones. Once I scored a big old Weber barbecue in Vancouver from a customer and ferried it home on the Skytrain. One joker said that if the train broke down he’d donate the meat if I’d light her up. A pretty young lady held up a six pack of vodka coolers. I carried Christmas trees, live birds and fifty pound sacks of rice on that New West run. Fortunately this was before the advent of i-phones and Facebook pages.
Days, months and years passed. Boys got tall and my beard started having more salt than pepper. One day my wife told me that in her considered opinion and expert calculations that we could now indeed afford the luxury of a car. I was skeptical at first but soon came to the same conclusion after running the numbers. I told her I would research what was out there to be had and what had changed in the past ten years that we had been without a private vehicle.
During this time and for some time preceding, the Suzuki Corporation had been conducting a rare TV commercial blitz on the Canadian broadcasts. The plots were usually the same. A family group out in a pristine wilderness, grooving to some funky tunes, diving off cliffs into swimming holes and turtling up impossible inclines. Then there was the classic Wolf Boy. The slogan at the time was something like, “You belong outdoors.” Much like last week’s, “Never sit still.” I am here to tell ya’ll that the first one worked on me like a charm back then but the latter one wouldn’t move me off my porch. I’ll sit still all I want, thank you very much.
Turned out that after a careful review of all the available vehicles within our price range and our desire to belong outdoors, Suzuki won fairly and squarely. The quality of their boat and motorcycle engines was an added reason to trust this outfit and their prices compared to the similar SUVs of the time (which were the Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4) were hard to argue with. I had been saving all the money from my junk mail deliveries for four years and this supplemented by other savings we had garnered was enough to pay cash for a lovely little four cylinder Suzuki Vitara. It had four-wheel shift on the fly which I preferred to the chip-controlled sensors for the other two candidates.
We had already moved closer to my workplace and were now ensconced near 41st and Main. My youngest son had only been in a car two or three times in his life and insisted that I drive him to school several blocks away to show the other kids. I understood and we proceeded the four blocks down a stately row of sycamore trees to Van Horne Elementary along which route he did the Royal wave with great pleasure like little Lord Fauntleroy.
It had a steel skid plate underneath to protect the gas tank from tree stumps and rocks. We bought a slew of camping gear at the Three Vets and started to really get into it. I washed, waxed and detailed the little red wagon whether it needed it or not. Once there was a slight problem of worn out bearings. As it predictably turned out, this was discovered several days after the warranty on these parts had expired. My friends at North Shore Suzuki made some calls and managed to fix them for free. There were no other problems with that vehicle except the time I parked under a horse-chestnut tree once and lost the windshield.
One day I went into the lunch room at the Mountainview Letter carrier depot on 6th & Yukon. Someone had left an interesting article on one of the tables and as I ate my adobong pusit, rice, apples and oranges; I read with growing interest. The article was the very first precursor to the Peak Oil myth. Some of the personages quoted within had bona fide oilman names like T. Boone Pickens and others were hyphenated experts on economics, the environment and transportation.
Maybe I was tired, maybe I was mentally exhausted from translating my web-site into three languages to the wee hours each night for the past year or so. At any rate, when I finished the article, I was bought, sold and headed down the river of fear, convinced that everyone else was wrong. On the way home from work I started to see all the vehicles on the road as if they were dinosaurs who had no inkling of their coming demise. As time went on, the feeling intensified. The rising insurance and fuel prices added to my anxiety. I figured for once, I’d stay ahead, well ahead of the curve of the inevitable. I reasoned that the sooner I ditched my wheels, the faster my family would adjust.
I told my wife and children and researched how much my Suzuki was worth on the open market. It was at this time I learned that a vehicle has a three thousand dollar spread between its trade-in and its private sale value. So, private sale it was. I have enough Scandinavian blood to find haggling in the marketplace abhorrent. Sellers should dispense with the bullshit and tag their wares with fair prices in the first instance, if they are proud to sell them. Buyers should not infer that their merchants are less than honest by questioning the tagged prices. It would have been well for me to have been born in Norway or Sweden several hundred years ago, for such is my natural inclination when buying or selling.
I wanted a fast sale, so I took about a thousand dollars off the fair price, printed a copy of the B. C. price guide and made an ad showing that this discount had been already applied and that the price was non-negotiable as a result. Did this work on the non-Vikings that came calling for test drives? Not at all. One Russian guy came three times and had me drive him up and down mountains to see what she could do and then complained that it didn’t have an air-conditioner. I finally told him he was a wimp of a Cossack and to go home. A Gujarati guy from Africa had me drive him to his house so his children and wife could sit inside and see if they liked the seats. I eventually sold it to him and even gave a slight discount on top of that already built in as he insisted that it was just contrary to his nature, upbringing and spirit to buy it otherwise.
It didn’t take too long after that for me to realize I had been had. There was a Welshman on my route that became interested in this story and had me bring him the original article. He was a private detective and was able to trace up all kinds of connections to reveal an entire planned campaign, designed to alter the way people thought about vehicles, fuel and transportation in general. Over time we discovered other bullshit campaigns to affect changes in how people banked, invested, ate food and just about any other human activity you could think of. I didn’t become cynical as a result of these rude awakenings but I did become about as easy as a coyote to get close enough to cheat in any way.
My wife bore all this nonsense with great dignity but did remind me from time to time of my folly. The twin towers came down, Patriot Acts got signed along with trade agreements, omnibus bills and treaties too numerous to count were entered into by groups of seven, groups of ten, groups of four and groups of three. Schools were shot up, animals were tagged and cameras were put in place. Some of these things went on out of sight and some were thrust upon the public. Therein lies a great clue as to which ones were bogus. Between researching on my computer at home, speed reading thousands of articles at the post office as well as my reading at home and talking to a myriad of folks daily from all over the globe, I found many more things to be concerned about of far greater magnitude than whether or not I drove a car.
My wife approached me while I was writing on my computer one day and asked me to go to the Suzuki website. I did so and she said to click on the little SX4. I did and she said to click on the little copper colored one. I did. She dropped a heavy envelope of cash on my keyboard and said, “Add to this Pop and we have enough to buy that one.” She was right.
I proudly parked it out back of our apartment and two days later a windstorm tore the rolled on roof off the building next door. The fly-by-nighters who installed it had decided that they could save some time and money by not using any fasteners. It first rolled into a tube weighing several tons and then flew off to just miss crushing the little copper car by several yards. I drove that second Suzy to San Diego to break in the engine on I-5. Along the way I saw all the military facilities that Bill Clinton and his successors had closed up.
One big Navy base in California was sold to COSCO or the China Overseas Shipping Company. It had a big gate and was off limits to US citizens. I wondered what they were bringing in besides 99 cent flyswatters and plastic dishes. I regarded the man-made water trough that tried to supply the thirsty plants, animals, swimming pools and people of L. A. It looked completely fragile and hopeful at best. I visited an old friend I hadn’t seen since I was twelve years old in Louisiana. He is a computer programmer and as smart, capable and friendly as they come.
I couldn’t tarry so I headed back North within 48 hours to see my son star in a school play. When I was climbing up the hills from L. A. to drop down into the San Fernando Valley, there was a freakish snowstorm and the little Suzy darted up and around all the six lanes of skidding Californians with the speed and accuracy of a rabbit. When I was next at the Suzuki dealer for an oil change I told the mechanic that I was so happy to have broken in the engine on such a long straight road as Highway 5. I had always been told that this would greatly lengthen the lifetime of a motor compared to a city bound break-in. He smiled like a Buddha and politely told me that I needn’t have done so as all modern cars are broken in prior to arriving at the dealerships. I slapped my forehead and said, “What’ll they think of next?”
When I knew we were moving to Lillooet, it became obvious that we’d need a bigger vehicle. I had a stroke of brilliance and decided that for the first time in my life, I’d use an auto broker to save me some money. I sold the SX4 to North Shore Suzuki and found a suitable broker on Main St. near my workplace. He was a friendly east Indian gentleman and after I told him I wanted a four cylinder, standard transmission Grand Vitara, he located four of these and negotiated a good price for me. I had undercoating, paint protection, snow mats, window trim and mud flaps added to the package.
We waited with great anticipation for the blessed day he had promised. Every time I phoned to inquire after that date had passed, I would be told, “It vill be ready definitely on Vensday. Bun hundred por tant! If not ready Vensday, definitely on Friday. Guaranteed, bun hundred por tant!”
This went on for about a month after the promised time and it became an in-joke at the post office when customers asked about their wayward packages.
Finally, the day came and it was raining cats and dogs when I went to pick up the new blue Suzy. I dropped a huge envelope of cash on the man’s desk and he looked at me with some surprise. This quickly changed to a knowing wink mixed in with some fatherly pride. Like the guy in the Lincoln commercial, I didn’t do it to be cool, I just liked to see the people’s faces when I did.
Within two days some idiots had dented and dinged it where it was parked at night behind the building I lived in. When my wife and I drove up to our trailer in December that year to fix some things up prior to my retirement, the oil light came on in Hope. I waited a bit and as the engine was purring like a kitten, I reckoned it was some malfunctioning computer chip and cautiously came on into Lillooet. The next morning when I checked the oil level at minus six Celsius, the reading was a quarter inch over the top limit.
I was perplexed and concerned. I decided to hazard a try back to Vancouver. It drove fine after some trouble getting it going. I dropped it off at North Shore Suzuki with a note and took a bus home. At home I wrote a long e-mail to the Suzuki family in Japan, the auto broker and the dealership in Langley where the vehicle had been prepped. I looked up the LinkedIn profiles of each man and from there was able to get the phone numbers of the cells that they carried in their pockets on the golf courses and actually answered.
Each e-mail contained the full contact information of each other man and the accurate description of what had happened. I also read up on the potential damage done by such elevated oil pressure which can cause havoc years into the future of the engine’s life. I identified myself as an avid Suzuki enthusiast who had purchased three of the vehicles and paid cash each time. I mentioned that I had a website, was a mailman and talked to thousands of people every day. The over all tone of my letter communicated an old fatherly favorite. You know, the one that says, “I’m not angry boy, I’m just disappointed in you.”
I tried to phone the dealer in Langley and he had his secretary trained to keep me at bay. When I promised to come in person and wait for him, he was magically found. He told me that he had been ordered by his bosses not to speak to me or deal with me. He said the whole affair had been given over to North Shore Suzuki although they were innocent of any involvement.
When I phoned those guys, I was told that the phone lines had been burning for days from back east and from Japan. I was informed that Suzuki was shipping a brand new engine from Japan and that when it arrived a single mechanic would be tasked with installing it. I thanked them and when the job was done I brought that man a Black Forest Cake in lieu of a bottle of Scotch. I never found out exactly what had occurred but the popular theories were that a robotic arm that drilled ports might have been slightly out of calibration. This necessitated the shutting down of the whole line of production to check and to correct.
I had to wait a long time but in the end, I felt I had been treated fairly and I was dismayed to find out that Mitsubishi had taken over operations in Canada. The parts will be available locally for ten years from the change. I received a letter last month that the gear-shift linkage for my year and model has been recalled and I am eagerly awaiting that adventure. As one of their slogans predicts, “It’s a way of life.” I’m now wondering if a horse and cart might be better in the long run from here on. After all, Lillooet's Main St. is wide enough to turn a rig around.
The Vancouver Main St. bus was a sea of sweaty elbows and I took purchase on a strap near the front so as to make a quick escape when we got to 12th Ave. I was a brand new letter carrier and still wearing the blue jeans of apprenticeship although I had secured a blue shirt from the cast offs at Station C. I was wearing two pouches with their shoulder harnesses crossed over my chest Juarez style. This was after seeing those thirty year vets in front of me who sported left shoulders a full 2 inches lower than their right ones.
I noticed an attractive woman maybe ten years senior to who stood attired in full blues with a single pouch. She took a wide stance and held a strap near the back aisle of the bus. I hadn't formerly met her yet but recognized her from the morning sort. From time to time I glanced up to meet her gaze. A few blocks from our stop, she spoke in a clear, loud, defiant voice.
“Hey Postie, You too good to come stand back here with me?”
I blushed a bit as the cargo of passengers all turned their eyes on me and then I smiled and ambled back to begin getting acquainted with Judy. We spoke of many things in rapid-fire succession during the remainder of that ride and on the walk back into the station. I had only worked at one other station on Fraser St. and this lady was the first person I got to know out of a crew I would work with from when I had a jet black beard until it turned white.
In time we became coffee buddies at the old Premier Coffee Shop on Main and Broadway prior to making our deliveries as well as sortation row-mates. She was Chinese and had two sons and a Caucasian living partner called Cush who was also a letter-carrier at the same station. Her little house was not far from the workplace and over time I had several massive Christmas dinners there. Many other posties were present at her gatherings and somehow there seemed to be a theme of hard knocks running through the whole crowd at any given time.
I was in the throws of a second mismatched marriage to a Chinese woman and very deeply unhappy about my lot. My life prior to that had been turbulent, violent and chaotic. I soon learned from those gathered as I got to know them that everyone assembled there was carrying heavy loads indeed even after they hung up their mail pouches.
I had put myself on a dry wagon about seven years prior to this after two solid years of very heavy drinking. I soon learned that I couldn't tolerate ethanol even in what used to be considered by me, small amounts. Cush's old car was the last vehicle I ever threw up in. I began to shy away from much social visiting because of my distrust in my ability to avoid the temptation to have just a few. I proved this to be true at the Italian wedding of another postie and after that I just said no.
This in no way curtailed thousands of hours of candid, heart-felt talks and discussions with Judy and very interesting exchanges with Cush on a wide variety of topics. The more her and I talked over the years, the more I felt drawn to her as to say, a newly discovered sister that I hadn't been raised with. There was another component to the magnetism that eventually came out in our coffee talks. Judy was half Native through her birth mother and I was 1/16 Cherokee through my mother.
I learned that her father, a Chinese immigrant had taken her to rural Canton Province at the age of 5 and deposited her there with his wife and family. From that day up to when she managed to escape to Hong Kong as a young teenager and return to Vancouver, she suffered abuse, neglect and the indignities reserved for unwanted slaves. After her arrival to Vancouver she had to fight for everything that eventually came her way.
I have known from around age twelve or so that somewhere in the world I have two half-sisters. They were born in the Colombian jungle and do not know that I or my two other sisters exist. I felt (and still do) an indescribable hollow within my heart even prior to learning of their existence; which only intensified with this revelation. When I learned from Judy that she had a birth mother at large in B.C., I told her that there was every chance that she also had brothers and sisters very close at hand. Thinking of my own empty spot, I encouraged her to look for them. I also made some halfhearted attempts to find my two lost siblings. This was before the days of internet and the Red Cross was to be counted on mainly for people separated by war not by lawyers. One worker even told me that it was possible that if found, my sisters might be upset by the whole affair and wish that I hadn't sought them out.
These matters are emotional nitroglycerin. Judy worked her own way and I mine. Over the years
I came to a second divorce and a third marriage. For my third wedding, I was going to have to take the bus after being financially down for the count. My new wife to be didn't mind this at all and that was one of many reasons she was and is precious to me. At the eleventh hour, I got a call from Judy that a big stretch limo would be pulling up to our apartment to take us to our wedding, courtesy of her and Cush.
There were many moves incurred by my new wife and I and several of the times saw Judy's two sons, Cush and the lady herself helping to shoulder the load. She became an Auntie to my sons and dropped me and my new family off at the airport when I went to the Philippines to meet my new in-laws. I remember finally having the chance to reciprocate when she moved out of her little house. The universe had conspired to place the date of the move on the same afternoon that Steely Dan was doing a live set a few blocks away at Nat Bailey Stadium. It was sublime and is forever etched on the soundtrack of my emotional life.
After that move I only saw her at work until she and Cush retired. I never visited her new place in Delta, B.C. At some point I heard she had moved again and I did not even know where. I finished raising my children, walked off my thirty years delivering mail and retired to my little trailer here in Lillooet.
One afternoon, a year or so before I moved to Lillooet permanently but had already purchased my property, I was at the rifle range by the airport and made the chance acquaintance of a nice young woman who was shooting little pink balloons with a twenty-two. Between salvos, I learned that her father had been a letter-carrier as well. She said that maybe I had come across him. I told her the chances were remote but to go ahead and give me a name.
Upon doing that we both put down our guns and had to call it a day for the name she gave me was known to me. From my first weeks as a postie, thirty years back in the past, I had worked beside her father on Fraser St. at Station O and had also sat at Judy's kitchen table with him to eat and drink. He always stuck in my memory due to his kindness and the fact that he resembled my own father in some of his features. This talk seemed to cloud the thoughts of my new acquaintance and we both headed for our homes to ponder our chance meeting.
I next saw that young woman at the Post Office, in uniform. Well, after my wife and I had settled into our trailer and I was well and truly retired, I had a most curious experience. I was out on the front porch one night and my wife had left the TV on some random channel. As I listened to the night sounds I heard Judy's voice loud and clear from inside the trailer. I ran inside and proceeded to watch her there on the TV telling the whole story of her childhood and her eventual adult confrontation with her step-mother in China as well the search for her birth mother and siblings in B.C.
As I watched and listened to a CBC production entitled Cedar and Bamboo, my neck hair went up. As her story unfolded to a point beyond what I had been privy to and I learned for the first time of her eventual reunion with her Aboriginal family, I was slapped by the familiar magical fishtail of coincidence yet again. For Judy's arduous lifelong search had culminated within a ten minute drive from where I sat. I hadn't spoken to her more than a dozen words in sixteen years, save for one chance encounter at Oakridge Mall in Vancouver before I had retired.
Judy found her half-brothers and sisters and learned of her Mother from one of them. It turned out that the woman had visited a beauty shop in Chinatown that Judy used to own after she was back in Canada and hadn't yet mastered her English for the second time. The poor woman tried in vain to indicate that she was Judy's mother. The young Judy had sent her packing in disbelief. When the siblings were finally located all except one chose not to get to know her. I can say with certainty that this decision is their loss.
I phoned Judy that evening and heard the whole story again from her own lips and filled her in on mine. We swapped addresses again. A year went by. I had a call from her a few days ago and my wife and I were invited to spend the night. We drove down to Maple Ridge and there she was with Cush by her side as well as a middle-aged son and two strapping grandsons. She had a wonderful yard and garden and we dined outside.
I went strolling in her back yard and paused at two large heavily laden fig trees. I looked back at her and started to formulate a question, which she answered before I could ask. Yes, those trees were from several sticks I had been gifted by the Calabrian father of another postie friend of mine. The man had nurtured them at his own houses since before I was born and when his son brought them to me at work, I was living in an apartment and asked Judy if she could plant them in her yard. She took them thirty years ago planted them and took shoots to each of her other houses every time she moved. I got to taste one for the first time.
It was a wonderful visit and from what I could see Judy in her seventies is just getting warmed up. At almost sixty, I remain her little brother standing in awe of her power, strength, goodness and loyalty. Today as I write this, it is her birthday and I wish her many, many more. It occurs to me as I close this narrative that I may never find those two Colombian half-sisters of mine on this side of life but I cannot deny having been blessed with a soul sister to more than make up for it.
I remember being phoned one rainy evening more than twenty years ago by Judy that a favorite movie of mine was going to be on TV that night. It was Spencer Tracy in The Old Man And The Sea. She remembered me mentioning the book and film during one of our morning talks at the Premier. I would have missed it for sure among the commotion of diapers and bedtime stories that were going on at my place that evening. It was the kind of a thing a sister would do for you.
I figure now, upon reflection that the big marlin was like those sought after, yearned for, missing siblings that populated both our lives. When strong, whole and healthy, the fish was like the soul brothers and sisters we are all gifted with by the Creator who doesn't reckon lineage the same way we do. If we are like Santiago, desperate to row into the port of our lives with our official prize, there may be nothing to show but the skeleton of estranged siblings after the sharks are done. I think the trick is recognizing what is yours without having to own it. In fact sister, I know that's the case.
A few months ago, my son phoned me from Vancouver. He wanted to talk about a dream he had had. In his dream, he and I were in a forest and engaged in battling evil things. We were accompanied by a medium sized reddish-brown mammal, similar to a wolverine. This creature was very formidable in its fighting ability and my son had great respect for it and some fear of it. He consoled himself with the fact that it was on our side. When he woke, he went outside to have a smoke and was confronted by the four-legged ally of his dream, in the form of a large and very real solitary raccoon.
Two nights later, I had a most lucid dream myself. In this dream, I was standing on my back deck having a smoke. The deck faces North and it was just twilight. The area was perfect in every detail and all of the usual fuzziness of imagery usually encountered in dreams was absent. From a trailer pad which is situated to my North-West, a reddish-brown wolverine appeared. It walked a few steps and stopped. I recalled the dream of my son and wondered if this was the same creature from his dream.
As I watched intently, two wolves appeared from the same pad and flanked the wolverine. They were a of a pale smoky colour and very large. I studied them and as I did so, three female entities floated like fog from the same area the others had come from and took positions to the right, left and front of the group. These beings had long flowing silky robes which came down to the ground covering their feet. They were ethereal pearly white, including their faces, hands, hair and garments. Their eyes were the kind of black that absorbs light like bear's fur and their faces were clear to see. I thought of ghosts, angels and Kwan Yin. They remained still as I watched.
After a few moments, the wolves stood on two legs and I strained to see in the waning light if they were men clothed in furs. I couldn't tell that they were and this prompted me to investigate. I dismounted the stairs and began to walk very slowly down the road to have a closer look. When I had covered about half the distance, the wolves began to slowly walk forward to meet me. The three female entities silently and effortlessly glided ahead of the wolves and began singing something beautiful. They came up in front and on both sides of me as if to see if I were real.
I was captivated by their voices and their forms and did not feel threatened by them although a great power emanated from them. All the same, I was wary of the encounter. I slowed my pace and stopped. The creatures tilted their heads this way and that as if trying to make sense of a strange object. When the wolves and the wolverine got within a few yards, I began to slowly walk backwards without removing my gaze from the group in front of me. They stopped advancing and began to also retreat. I regained my deck and promptly woke up with total recall of every detail of the dream. I have never looked at that patch of asphalt the same ever since.
I phoned my son and told him my dream and said to be patient until the meanings became clear to us. About a month later, I saw a big gray timber wolf chasing some deer. He stopped and watched me until I was out of sight. I had a good feeling about that wolf. I'll tell you why.
When I was a little boy in Texas, I learned that a thirty-something carpenter from the Middle East named Jesus had forgiven me for every despicable thing I had ever done or ever would do, including being born and worse, being born a human. I learned that the people of this man's tribe, except for a very few, were against him and had stood by cheering while he was tortured and killed in a most gruesome fashion. He really showed them, I learned as the story went on, by coming back from the dead. I remember getting excited at this juncture, figuring that he likely would have all the people's attention this time and that they would all learn an important lesson. Well, it seemed he just disappeared again and told some other fellows to spread the story around the world. But he did promise to come back again.
There was an oil painting of him hanging in my bedroom since the time I could remember. That Jesus picture was done by one of my Aunties and dedicated to my father. It showed a bearded young man pulling a wine-coloured robe open with a wounded hand, while pointing to his heart with the other bleeding hand. His heart was visible by some magic, I didn't understand and was surrounded by a corona of yellowish light. It was wrapped with what looked like big sharp acacia thorns and was also pierced and bleeding. His forehead carried the same orbit of spiky strands.
The man's face was gentle and his expression was far more sad than it was angry, shocked or hurt. His eyes were nice. The background colour was a beautiful dark Portuguese green which the wine and blood complemented perfectly.
In retrospect, being forgiven as a Preschooler was more detrimental than one might think under certain circumstances. As the recipient of paternal abuse and a witness to the abuse of other family members, I can see now that it set up an unintended dissonance. I understood that Jesus forgave me but couldn't figure out why he hadn't sent a memo to my father. I subsequently found myself in a Texas preacher's revival tent in Lynn Valley letting Jesus into my heart at twelve years old and once again at a church in Vancouver at nineteen years old. That time I gave Jesus my Marlboros and he saw fit to give them back not a month later which I was very grateful for at the time.
I carried that oil painting of Jesus everywhere I went. It hung on every rented wall of every place I laid my head to sleep. It was the last thing I saw before sleep and the first thing I saw upon waking. One early AM in North Vancouver I was trying to sleep on a piece of foam on a basement floor. I had been tossing about and felt very hot and vexed. In a move that was to bring me fully awake, I found I had lunged, accurate as a crocodile, from my mat to reach several feet off the floor, firmly grasp the oil painting and pull it from the wall. I was standing in the middle of the thinly carpeted concrete floor holding it a few inches from my face. Sweating and trembling, I went to wash my face and saw that there were long red, almost bleeding scratches down my back. I put the painting away in the closet after that and never displayed it again.
Over much time, I came to learn that all the artwork in my possession which had been painted by my Auntie acted as reminders of very unpleasant things. Some I gave away and some I destroyed. It was a much needed step in the right direction for me and I knew in advance that Jesus forgave me for what I did to his likeness that cathartic afternoon. I recalled the Biblical admonition against idol worship as I went to work with my hammer. A silent neighbour watched from his deck as I broke the frame pieces over my knee and rent the canvases with my bare hands.
I calmly glanced up at him like Moses and he spoke sheepishly, “I guess it's a good day for busting up some old oil paintings?”
“A mighty fine day.”
I spent nearly twenty years of my life at two main pursuits. One of struggling to forgive my dead father for his sins and one of punishing myself for his suicide. The latter was because I harboured the guilt of wishing him dead. Through a process of dream work, I managed by the grace of the Creator, to accomplish the first task. When it was done, I had clear unequivocal confirmation that we had climbed that mountain together on another plane and he was free to move on from that entanglement, as was I.
I was also fortunate to be able to cross an emotional gulf between my mother and myself some years later and we have been allowed this privilege while we are both on this side of life. Both of these healings were forgiveness themed. They reminded me of the spiritual teachings contained in the Jesus story I had only partly understood as a small child in Texas.
I figured that after getting patched up with both parents, the living and the dead, that I would enjoy the remainder of my life in relative peace. Of course, I may go long but either way, I have already covered more ground than that which remains to feel my footfalls. After all, over the years I have forgiven my parents, my family, my ancestors and their enemies, my teachers, my employers, two ex-wives, my children, my rivals, my pets, my neighbours and every miserable cuss that ever did me dirt from Athens to Tangiers.
Well, I can tell you that at fifty-nine years old I still am not feeling the peace that passeth all understanding except after a particularly great omelet. I think I know why. A working man is busy pulling on or off his socks at precisely the time that two spiritual wolves start their shifts inside human souls. These times are namely, the semi-awake minutes when rising from his bed and the last wisps of consciousness just before he falls asleep. A pensioner has time to study both those wolves, while the working man usually just walks out the door unaware of which one has followed him.
Being busy until you draw your last breath saves you messing with the wolves but doesn't make them go away. Being in a situation of simple material satisfaction and thus having more leisure, allows one to come to terms with forces, spiritual and temporal in both their good and bad aspects. The busy man is like a hummingbird. His body is moving a mile a minute but his mind is hovering over a flower nearly motionless. He might be thinking about his lover or wondering what's for supper. His food is the nectar of the earth. The physically idle man is also like a hummingbird. His mind is whirring rapidly while his body floats from blossom to blossom in slow motion. His food is the nectar of inspiration, where ever it may be found. They both need to drink deep and often.
I believe it is meant for us to understand, tame and utilize what I have depicted as these two spiritual wolves. They have many names and forms in many cultures and simply put, they symbolize the totality of ourselves by being polar opposites constantly seeking to attain and to maintain perfect balance. One will assist an elder across a busy street and the other will fight to the death to protect you. The practice of treating them as two entities is only for the sake of making it easier to grasp the learning that they are really a natural singularity. Realizing this on a mental, physical and spiritual level is an attainable human end, a desirable human state and every human born comes to a greater or lesser understanding and mastery of this learning. As it should be, myriad stumbling blocks and mirages obscure the few teachers one encounters on the good road.
After studying the habits of my own wolves during the past two years of relative leisure I thought I had finally found the formula for their proper balancing, maintenance and control. Today I realized that just like the flowers and weeds in the garden which my wife relentlessly pampers and persecutes with great prejudice, I could see that pampering one wolf (usually Snowy, the White one) and persecuting the other one only served to make the suppressed party more inventive. The summation of this teaching is that the physical answer lies in discernment, patience and control.
It is as simple and as complicated as all that. You cannot eradicate something natural. We place the labels desirable or undesirable according to our own biases, the context of a situation and our own codes; upon our personal wolves. This morning my dark wolf, Old Thunder was howling incessantly about trespasses against me that I had long ago forgiven. It was tempting for me to let my wheels fall into that rut again but I steered out of it. Next thing I noticed was that the bugger didn't quieten down either.
Pacing back and forth he began to whine out a long list of slights, miss-steps, ill-considered words, oversights, shortcomings, weaknesses, and cruelties all of which had my brand on them. I started to feel awful inside. I reminded myself that the God I believe in has forgiven me. I expected that acknowledgment would do the trick and was very dismayed to find out that it didn't. Old Thunder kept on whining and pacing in my heart. Snowy looked on placidly as if she just wanted to get up and watch me cut the grass.
I figured that would be the best course of action and was literally struck when Old Thunder stood on two legs and gave me a little bite that spoke clearly to my heart. His message was simple and so obvious as to have remained hidden in plain sight my entire life. What was his message? He told me that while I had been busy forgiving everyone around me, I had completely neglected to forgive myself. Not for even the slightest of misdemeanors going all the way back to the beginning. It had never occurred to me and I was astonished. I now knew my life would be better served if I acknowledged that both wolves were gifts to me and maintained their own balance in my heart. I now understood that as soon as this lesson became crystallized that he and Snowy would merge into one big gray. I tugged on my jeans and went to make my oatmeal. As I poured my coffee I remembered the magnificent gray timber wolf I had seen about a month back just South of town, heading West and I smiled.
Here in Lillooet we get a lot of tourists in the Spring and Summer. They hail from all over the globe and one can hear snatches of conversations in many of the languages of Europe when walking down Main St. The tour buses stop at several locations around town and one of these is near our museum. Nearby is an Esso station which has set up a picnic area on their property for these visitors and provides food and ice cream for those hot days. When you walk past here, two things occur. You hear lots of Aussie accents and you smell something wonderful.
A quick glance at the menu board lets you determine that the source of the aroma is Aussie Meat Pies. You quickly remind yourself that you are a permanent resident here and thus that you should go home and eat there. You may waddle off to the Post Office to pick up your bills and those vacuum cleaner bags you ordered from Kamloops a month ago. On the way back home you pause and look again. They really seem to be enjoying their meal. You promise yourself that one day you will try one.
Exactly what happened to me just the other day. I had never had the pleasure of eating an Aussie Meat Pie although I have traveled the world and have eaten everything offered to me. I had the usual Chicken and Beef Pot Pies while growing up. These anemic distant cousins of the AMP are tinfoil cups full of corn starch, chicken or beef bullion, diced carrots, peas and DICED meat. The typical forkful yielded only enough meat to obscure an American ten cent piece. The whole affair is wrapped in pale half-cooked dough which smells reminiscent of someone else's Grandma's rolling pin rather than your own.
Personally, I detest pie crust, while I love many pie fillings. I make exceptions for thin crust pizza, spanakopita filo pastry and anything with graham cracker crust. I have been like this since early boyhood and it was much later in life I realized I had the ancient gift of the colon whisperer.
Just the other day after over eighty hours of sustained high winds, I ventured forth to collect my mail and buy my tobacco. It happens that the Esso has the best price on that commodity and as I approached two tour buses came into my view. I had just cashed in a five dollar lotto ticket a block before and this brought my pocket total to ten dollars. I went inside and did something I had always wanted to do. I asked the lady to fix me up one of those Aussie Meat Pies. I watched out the window as the picnic tables cleared and the buses re-filled. They were just pulling away when my pie went into the warmer.
While I waited I had a nice chat with an elderly gent about the meal I was about to enjoy. He taught me that what made the Aussie Pie different to any other meat pie, be it British or American, was the meat to vegetable ratio. An Aussie Pie, he told me, was by the meat, for the meat, to protect the meat. It is merely laced with enough peas and carrots to add the tiniest bit of color and afford better traction. I thanked the man and the lady and carried my prize outdoors where I polished it off in the time it takes the kook-a-burras to sing.
The crust was buttery, crisp and very thin for such a robust pie. For this I was thankful. The interior was a lovely brown speckled with green and orange. The consistency was that of a person's first meatloaf before they learned to add an egg or any breadcrumbs. Thick enough to stand alone when dipped into but ready to fall to the gums of an infant. The spicing was, in general, bland as is proper for a dish of British heritage. This said, I soon found that the choice meat, fresh peas and carrots had been allowed full expression of their own flavors.
I was so impressed, I went home and proceeded to adapt what I had learned into something tangible and as a result of this, Cayoosh Pie was born. I will sketch out my method below for any interested parties.
***Recipe for Cherokee Swede's Cayoosh Pie***
Take about 4-5 lbs. Of grass-fed lean beef, buffalo, deer or moose meat ground fine. Fry it up slow and chop it into puree as it browns. If your meat is good quality, when you are done you should not have enough fat to pour off into anything bigger than a spoon, thus you can save the meat drippings in a cup on the side as they are mostly water and salt. Open up a bottle of Argentine Malbec and pour yourself a glass. Put on some Pink Floyd and crank it. While this is ongoing, scrub up about five spuds each as big as both of your fists, skin them with a ceramic device and boil them in salted water til they yield to a fork. Have the meat standing by in a tall pot with a spoon of olive oil spread across the bottom. Mash the potatoes with real butter and add nothing more to them. Put them in a clean bowl and set them aside. Wash up the stuff you have used already, change the record and top up that wine glass. Get another clean bowl and crush up a six inch stack of Stoned Wheat Thin crackers if you live in Canada or an equal amount of stale baguette if you live elsewhere. Use a clean smooth fist-shaped rock that has been rubbed over with fresh garlic. When this is well crushed add one egg, two cap fulls of Realemon, seven hard shakes of Worcestershire sauce and five soft shakes of Tabasco. Wash your hands with particular attention to getting the dang soap off them. In a small dish, spill out some oregano, thyme, black pepper and dill so fresh it smells like driving down a Texas highway in June with the windows rolled down. Start out with 1/4 teaspoons of each. Open a big can of chopped spinach. The best is from France. After opening the can drain the water off. If you have used the French spinach there will be less than a teaspoon in the largest size can. Roll up your sleeves and dump the spinach into the crumb bowl. You will now plunge into the stuff and hand mix it until it is like green drywall paste. Pour the plate of herbs into it and mix it up again. Taste a bit off your hand and see if, in your opinion anything is lacking and if so go a bit more on that one. Set this aside and wash up again. Put the pot of meat on a burner and bring it up to heat. Dash on some crushed black pepper about the size of a silver dollar in your hand. Stir this constantly with a wooden spoon. If its too dry, add the water you saved from “frying” the meat. Now, add a whole fistful of Sabzhi Ash Amira. This is an easy to find mixture of fresh sun-dried herbs from the mountains over Iran way. There are five kinds of leaves in this mix, cilantro, dill, spinach, parsley and leeks. They are bright green, paper thin and swell up like Japanese seaweed when cooked. They will provide a taste feedback loop to your spinach mix. Take a single crunchy celery stalk and slice it into razor thin half moons. Drop it into the meat pot and stir it in. It will be the last time you see it but you will taste it forever. Now, take a pack of Knorr's Cream of Leek soup mix and hydrate it with 1/2 the water called for on the bag. Whisk it while its still cold and let it heat til it thickens up nice. When this is done, add it to the meat. Keep stirring that pot of meat and pour in about a half teacup of the Malbec. When you get this up to a bubbling heat, take a small bag of frozen diced peas and carrots and add one half to the meat. While that is coming up to bubble again, take two to four big tablespoons of tamarind paste and mix it up with enough warm water or meat juice or spinach juice to make it like enamel paint. Pour that in and stir it up. Watch that pot and keep scraping the bottom as things try to stick and dry out. When the little geysers of water diminish in number to no more than two or so, its done. Give another mighty stir and take it off the heat. Get whatever crockery you happen to own as long as its five to six inches deep and grease up their bottoms, sides and top with a paper towel smeared with a little olive oil. Using a spatula, put down a compact, flat layer of spinach mix on the bottom. Keep it about as thick as 1/2” plywood. Wait til the meat is cooled down a bit and then add a good four fingers on top of the spinach bed. Bang the vessels gently on the side board to get out any bubbles and to level it off. Now you will top it with mashed potatoes as you would do for a Shepherd's Pie. If they are too cold and stiff from the butter, heat them gently by any means available and then spread them on like cake icing. Bang it all flat again and from about a foot high, dust some sweet paprika onto them til the tops look like parking lot snow. Turn on the oven to about 350 and bake the crocks for about 20 minutes. The bottom layer aroma will travel into the meat layer which will in turn seep into the potatoes. Remove it from the oven and let it cool off. You can now slice out big slabs of red/white and green onto a plate to re-heat. Washes down equally well with fresh ground coffee, a glass of Malbec or a Cooper's. Have a puddle of HP Sauce on your plate to swab up with each forkful. Cayoosh Pie takes about 48 hours in the fridge to reach its full potential. Enjoy this treat and remember that when it comes to pie crust, just say no. Cheers from Lillooet, Mate.
I was eighteen and living in a basement suite in North Vancouver. I was in my second rental and living with my second room-mate. The suite was the bottom floor of a house owned by a South American lady who was a single Mom of three children ranging in age from about nine to twelve. The daughter was the eldest by a couple of years and the boys were a year apart. The lady was about thirty-eight years old and originally came from Ecuador. She had one of those names that took a paragraph to write down.
My friend and room-mate was doing a lot of traveling in those days, usually on book buying forays to San Francisco, Portland or Los Angeles. I was cooking in a restaurant and my hours were from four PM til closing and I usually got wound down enough to sleep by 3 or 4 AM. Once the woman knocked on the basement door around five o clock on my day off and asked me if I would like to have supper with her and her brood.
I had been smelling intoxicating aromas and happily acquiesced. I gussied up a bit and went up the wooden stairs into the kitchen of the big house. We had a lovely meal of rice, beans and eye of the round, sliced thin and rubbed with cumin, black pepper and chili. After being soaked in lime juice for awhile, the meat was quickly seared in a cast iron skillet with a bit of olive oil. There was a jar of paper-thin sliced purple onions which had been soaked in salt and lime juice to spoon over the rice along with the pot likker from the skillet. It was sublime!
The phone rang and the lady curled up in her chair and chattered away in Spanish, which I understood about three-quarters of. There was lots of talk about their church, some gossip about other relatives and I was able to discern that she was speaking to her cousin who lived in another part of town. I went to see all the many things that children like to show to visitors. The boys had heard me playing my guitar and had asked me if I could teach them some. The little girl showed off her room and her stuffed animal collection. Presently the Mum called us all in for dessert of Popsicles.
While we sipped coffee later and the children were watching TV in the living room, The Senora noticed my jeans had two holes, one in each knee. She asked me if she could fix them. I said sure and went downstairs to change. When I returned, she poured herself a beer, lit a cigarette and began making the finest patch I had ever seen in my life.
When I was a child in Louisiana, my father bought my allotment of clothes for the year at the end of Summer. I wasn't allowed to choose any part of it. I was an outdoor boy and usually ruined pants and shoes within days. To teach me a lesson in clothes conservation when a hole appeared in the knee of my jeans, my father had my mother iron on bright red oversize round patches which he cut all zig-zaggy with pinking shears so they looked like blazing suns on a clown's outfit. This usually led to a fight at school wherein I would come home that day with half a shirt ripped away.
The sight of the professionally done patches really warmed my heart. They were made of jean material the same degree of faded as the cloth they were sewn onto and were as small as could be. The ends all around were tucked under exactly three millimeters and the corners were reinforced with turquoise colored thread. I couldn't wait to get more holes in them!
Over time, I was invited to join them for supper a few more times and I started to spend my time off with the two boys catching garter snakes and playing guitar. I was called upon to do little repairs in the big house and gladly did so. I was warned by my room-mate whose parents had warned him that this lady was not nice at all. I have never allowed other people to make my own mind up and I learned very early in life not to judge a book by its cover. These warnings went unheeded and the more time I spent with the family, the more I liked them.
I was told by the woman that her ex-husband was a Pastor or Elder in some big Christian Church denomination down in Washington and that although they were apart, that she still attended the Vancouver chapter of that Church. One evening, I was asked to accompany her to Church. It was a vibrant and dynamic service with people prophesying, speaking in tongues and praising the Lord til his ears surely turned red.
I had been Baptized as a child in Texas and had attended Unitarian Church in Louisiana where I learned about Jesus in study courses taught by my Mom. I went to vacation Bible School in Houston, Texas and learned some stuff there. I went to baptist Church with my Grandma in Beaumont, Texas when ever I was staying with her. She always sat in the front pew, sang the loudest and off key. After the service she went back to her porch where her girlfriends would appear as soon as they changed out of their Church clothes. Then they would drink beer and gossip. I played guitar for them and kept watch for the Priest. He was always trying to catch them having fun and was never successful. I would give the sign, the beers would disappear and a jug of iced tea would appear. He would be given a glass and entertained til he left of his own accord.
My Grandfather, when he was ashore from the sea, used to lecture me for hours on end about his understanding of the Bible. He read and meditated on it for many hours a day and had been doing so for many decades of his life. He attended no Church but I never met a more devout reader and ponderer of the Bible up to this day. He “quit” drinking and smoking when he was in his forties. He kept, instead, a jug of Bourbon whiskey in a brown paper bag under the sink and poured a big shot into his coffee each morning before taking a handful of natural Swiss vitamin supplements. He got by on Grandma's second hand smoke for his nicotine. Under his big Bible, there was a magazine from his native Sweden with a home-made brown paper cover that showed some buxom nurses doing things beyond the call of duty.
When I was still about twelve years old, my elder sister heard about a revival tent meeting in Lynn Valley in North Vancouver. We had just moved there from Louisiana and had no friends yet to play with, so we went. The preacher was from Texas and the combined sound of his honey sweet twang and thundering brimstone baritone, shook something loose in me. I welled up with awful shame as if I had kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, coached Hitler, instructed Genghis Khan, woven the crown of thorns, dropped the atom bomb, handed Lizzy Borden her ax and robbed the Wells Fargo Stage Coach.
I cried so hard I nearly choked to death. The man asked if anybody felt like they had been “touched by the Hand.” I went up front of the tent and said I had been slapped silly by the Hand and I was sorry for every rotten horrible underhanded disgusting evil thing I had done. It never occurred to me that in my twelve years I had done little more than whatever I was told to do by the adults in my life. The man put his hand on me and smacked me and told me I was Born Again and that I was now forgiven. Then we learned a little Eskimo kayak rowing song in a little room they had set up for kids. I still remember that song til today.
By the second service I attended at the landlady's church, I found myself walking up front. I was filled with the same burden of unspeakable horrors as when I was twelve in the Revival tent. I placed my cigarettes on the alter and gave them to Jesus. I was smacked on the forehead and told by the Priest that I was Born Again. I didn't tell him this was my second spiritual birth.
I began to go three times a week to the woman's church and in between those attendances, we went to Bible Study meetings in private homes. Within a short time, my whole world was 24 hours a day of praising the Lord. I went to a local bookstore. I bought myself a good big Bible with an exhaustive concordance. I read that puppy from cover to cover twice, carefully. Most of my acquaintances dropped away from me pretty quick, like I had leprosy. I took it as a “sign” and confirmation that I was right and they were wrong. Within a few weeks, I was leading the Bible study groups, for no one else had read and pondered it as a whole. They could flap through and grab a quote out of context to win an argument much like a lawyer can article over old cases to find a precedent to win a case that shouldn't be won.
Over seven intense weeks this went on. So much time was spent seeking signs and confirmations and endlessly discussing the intentions of God, that we began to neglect both our nourishment and sleep. This deprivation had us crazy as squirrels in a short while. I couldn't see it because all the congregation were doing the same. I was introduced to the elders and to the ex-husband of the woman who told me I was very spiritual and that he could feel it in my presence. He said that I should await a sign soon and that God would tell me where in the world I was to go and what I was to do.
At the time, I was quite impressed by this praise from a real priest. Around the seventh week, the lady told me she didn't think Jesus would mind if we smoked. Jesus duly gave back the habit I had given him only weeks before. She next told me that she didn't think that Jesus would mind if we had a beer from time to time. Our eyes started to take on a hollow glow from lack of sleep and nourishment.
One evening we were listening to records in her living room and she told me that Jesus wouldn't mind if we went into her bedroom, being as how we were so spiritually evolved and all. We did so and nature took the same course it was programmed to by the Creator. During the short, awkward liaison, our emotions were heightened to the same degree opposite of the abyss of self-induced shame driven by the concept of Biblical sin.
As we were getting dressed, her children, who had been all asleep in their own beds before began pounding on their Mother's locked door wailing and shrieking, “Not again, Mommy! Not, again!”
The woman, didn't bat an eyelash and I felt lower than a snakes belly in a wagon rut. Within a few days more of sleep deprivation, she told me that God had indeed spoken clearly to her. We were to get married forthwith and proceed to South America and await further instructions. My room-mate had planned and cooked a great Thanksgiving Day Feast for all our combined families and closest friends. The landlady and I decided to announce our upcoming wedding at this gathering. We did so and everyone cleared out of the room, food untouched.
My room-mate called us names and my family pleaded and threatened the lady and me to no avail. It was God's will and the fact that they couldn't abide by it was proof of it's correctness. Once wearied to the point of exhaustion, everyone went to their homes. I went upstairs with the landlady and she began to pace back and forth in a disturbing way. By three in the morning she had been told by God, she said, to take the title to her house, give it to a neighbor, purchase two tickets to Ecuador and leave immediately.
I had just started to come out of the evil spell a few hours before and when I asked her what God had said about her children, she looked at me and I saw something that wasn't human looking back. The hollow thing said that God would take care of them and that we must leave immediately. I was hurtled right back into normal reality at the speed of sound. I took her hand and did not let on that anything was wrong. I locked the house and told her God had just told me clearly that we must stop at some Ecuadorian friends house and give them the keys and the title.
She complied and I rang the bell and woke this family up. I knew the woman of this household was a real practical and practicing Christian and I had to communicate everything to her without a word. The landlady was possessed of something terrible and was ready to mentally snap asunder at any moment. The clever woman told me to go outside and await a sign from God as to whether or not I was to marry the woman and go to Guayaquil. She pulled down a huge Spanish Bible and began flipping through it. I came back in after a half hour and reported the “sign” that I had seen which told me that we were not to marry and not to go away either.
After a heated discourse in Spanish, the landlady, crestfallen and crumpled shrugged her shoulders, took her house title and keys back and drove us home. We didn't speak much. Some other relative phoned her ex-husband who came and took the poor children and I moved away. I remained friends to the other Ecuadorian family and heard bits of news from time to time. Turns out the church took everyones money to run a large compound and fund adventures all over the world. The congregation were sent hither and thither to do the bidding of shadowy “Elders.”
I lay in my room listening to my room-mate talking with some friends. I became aware of a wind like a tornado. I was sucked away and seemingly attached to some kind of cord. When I reached the end of the tether, I was jerked to an abrupt halt like a calf that has been roped on the run and hitched off to the pommel of a saddle on a stopped horse.
An awful pain gripped my heart. I can only describe it by saying it was as if a silver cord was attached to the root of my heart and if it broke, I would be swept away into the wind to fetch up on some distant place. I gripped the cord with both fists and wrapped it around my hands like Spencer Tracey in the Old Man and The Sea when he hooks the marlin on a hand line. The cord bit into the flesh and I gripped tighter. The pressure on my heart was relieved and I began slowly to reel myself in. The wind abated. My decision had been made for life and the taking of responsibility and I knew it.
I rose up and apologized to every single person who had attended the Thanksgiving Party that I had ruined. It took me two full days to do this. I told each person what I had learned from the experience of the past seven weeks. I started to eat like a man and sleep like a man again. After some time I was good as gold and after some years I was working as a gas-fitter installing furnaces and water heaters and such.
One morning I was dispatched to install some new appliances at a house in a posh part of North Vancouver. I arrived and measured up the job after setting up my pipe-cutting equipment and removing the appliances from their crates. I met the woman of the house and she looked vaguely familiar. She led me to another room which stood out in my memory for its blatant Masonic décor. It was inhabited by her husband who sat at a little table hand-painting little pewter soldiers using a large book of illustrations to assure historical accuracy down to the color of their clayed puttees and suspenders.
The floor was black and white hard linoleum squares laid perfectly square so there was no trimmed off row at the ends. The walls were painted plaster and the windows exceedingly small and barred with heavy iron. The man looked to me like a child happily working on a coloring book. His table and chair had been placed in a small pool of natural light for his work. He looked up and acknowledged me and bent again to his task. It was like a chessboard where the Bishop was re-painting the Pawns.
I was shown where to install the new items and the woman disappeared. I worked away probably singing in Spanish to myself. After I was starting to put away my pipe vise and cutting oil, the woman appeared at the doorway and asked me if I could come inside her kitchen. I figured she was going to give me a coffee or a biscuit. I cleaned my boots, dusted off my boiler suit and walked in and sat down.
She said that she wanted to talk to me and asked if I wanted a sandwich. I said yes, if it was no trouble. To my amazement, she whipped up a gourmet tuna fish sandwich on good bread and poured me a big glass of cold milk. It was really a treat. She sat down and studied my face for a moment.
“I have seen you around for quite awhile. I know who you are.”
“Yes, I have seen you frequently in my bookstore and I know that you went to high school with my son and his friends.”
“Oh, yeah? Which bookstore, Ma'am?”
“On Lonsdale. I am the owner. You bought that Kenneth Copeland Bible and some other materials.”
“Oh wow! Now I remember you too. We had some good talks. I thought you looked familiar when I got here but I couldn't place you.”
She smiled a lovely smile, blessed me and then I asked her who her son was to make sure it matched who I thought he was. She confirmed this and she waited for me to finish my sandwich. I didn't care much for her son and saw no point in telling her that. My reason was that he and I never socialized anyway although we knew many people in common. It was only a difference of personality, there was no bad blood between us, we just didn't cotton to each other. And for one other reason, which was more recent.
She gave a short speech about how I was very different from the others of my generation and that the world was going to Hell in a hand basket. She soon worked her way up to asking me if I could try to speak with her son and his friends. Maybe, she said, that they would take spiritual instruction more readily from a long-haired like myself than from stuffy old parents and preachers.
It was touching to me to see her concern for her son and his friends. It also impressed me to see her determination in broaching the subject in the manner which she did. I told her that assuredly, if the opportunity ever came up in a natural way and I was solicited for my thoughts on matters spiritual by her son that I would be happy to speak my heart to him or anyone else. I made it clear that I was not a proselytizer, recruiter of souls nor was I possessed of any greater understanding of the reality of the unseen than her or anyone else. It is a permanent work in progress, I told her.
She looked like a realtor who was satisfied with the direction of negotiations but far from being satisfied with the final outcome. It was a toe in the door to her and she was happy I could tell. After she cleared my dish and got us some coffee, she sat back down. She told me that there was one more matter she wanted to address and it was of great importance.
I listened as she related to me the news that her son had recently taken to dating a certain girl. This girl she said was far beneath the caliber of person her son should be mixing with and it greatly worried her. She said that really this matter took precedence over what she had discussed earlier. She continued as if to underscore the severity of the problem by informing me that the girl was from a terrible broken family of lost souls and misfits wholly given over to every type of sin, vice and corruption. They are not like us, not Christian like you and me. She nearly came to tears while writing out a check for my boss for the work I had done after loudly blowing her nose and adjusting her hair.
I thanked her for the check and for the sandwich. I rose to leave and shook her hand. I told her that I would be able to help out on the second item of her concern, for the girl was my own very much beloved baby sister. You could have landed a plane in a fog using her expression as a beacon.
It was the last day of Grade Ten. I was the only guy in my circle who had his own wheels and my friend Dean asked me to give him a ride. I said sure and we motored out of Lynn Valley and over to Lonsdale. Dean was applying for a summer job at the Keg N Cleaver where his older brother worked as a bar-tender. I decided on the ride down the hill that I would also apply.
We filled up the required papers and were hired on the spot due to the connection to Dean's brother. It was my first brush with nepotism, something I hadn't encountered in my job searches in Texas prior to moving to Canada. I thought it was pretty cool at the time but I remember feeling that it wasn't quite fair. Then it occurred to me that they could always fire you if they didn't like you.
We both started as what was called at that time, dish-goats. The pay was around two dollars an hour. It was the most money I had ever made to that time and I was feeling good about that. After four horrible shifts of being slathered in sweat, grease, blue cheese dressing, teriyaki sauce, coagulated butter and crab juice; I was promoted to assistant broilerman. It was going to be a good summer.
My mentor at the grill was a French Canadian young man who was wise beyond his years due to the earlier than usual death of his father. He was four or five years older than me but this gap could have easily been ten years due to his fatherly bearing and life experience. His name was Dan and he was the man. We called him Bodine.
Bodine quickly taught me how to set up the big grill, to clean and scour it each night with vinegar and holy stones and soon had me warming the vats of onion soup and baking fifty pounds of potatoes at a time. He showed me how to broil steaks of all different thicknesses to perfection and have them all ready at the same time by exploiting the temperature difference on the slanted grill. Counter-intuitively, it is hotter the farther away from the fire you go.
I have an anomaly on the thumbnails. It is a concave depression and ridging which makes my thumbs look like I have endured repeated applications of the thumbscrews. I was very self conscious of this all my youth and the first thing I noticed about Bodine was that he had the exact same thumbs. He seemed relieved when I showed them off and really took me under his wing after that. Forty years later, after never having seen another human other than one of my sisters with this condition, I was riding the Main St. bus in Vancouver on my way to the Post Office, when a young carpenter called out to me across the aisle.
“Hey, Bud. I couldn't help but notice your thumbs.”
He held his own out with a grin. “Maybe we're related.”
I told him he was only the second person I had met with this distinguishing mark and he told me I was the first he had met except for his grandma. We discussed the topic and left our speculations at a draw between genetics and spiritual scars before arriving at the train station and parting ways.
Bodine had been saddled with the responsibilities of a man while yet a boy and subsequently set about trying to balance this with wine, women and song. The original Keg in those days of the early seventies was a rocking joint. The thick oak doors vibrated visibly from the booming sound system. The bar was as popular as the restaurant and was where parties sat awaiting their tables while quaffing drinks and yelling over the music.
Bodine liked to abide in the bar and I soon realized that he was teaching me so he could free up some time to go sit yonder and engage in some courting. Indeed, after a month or so I was cooking solo on many of his shifts. I still had to do the foul clean-up which took several hours at the end of the night but I was glad to have gained some practical experience.
There was another Dan, a cook whom I also worked as assistant to. He was a contemporary of the Frenchman and they were like ham and eggs. They planned and took an epic cross Canada road trip in my mentor's tricked out van. It was rigged with the best sound system I have heard thus far in my life and usually was wailing rare Jimi Hendrix recordings.
The broiler bar was set out in the open where the diners could watch the action as they shuffled down the forty item salad bar getting their greens. An old brass ship's bell was mounted at the broiler bar and was used to call the waiters when an order was ready. Each of the half dozen waiters had a unique call sign consisting of a pattern of clangs on the bell.
One night while Bodine was in the bar bird hunting, I decided to try something. I had been taught some blues harmonica down in Texas and at this time in my life I always carried an A harp in my pocket to vent on. I devised a set of unique blues licks and taught them to the waiters. It was an instant hit and after that I kept the harmonica in the cook's drawer. One night when I was working as an assistant to Dan the second, he found it and asked me to show him some licks.
After that first summer both Dans moved on down their personal roads and I was cooking forty hours a week. Harmonica Dan told me he was going down to Seattle to go to Bell helicopter school. I thought that sounded cool and I wrote for their brochure. When I saw what the tuition cost, I wondered why anyone who could afford to learn would bother troubling themselves. I wished him luck and never saw him again for fifteen years or so.
Later, when I was a postman I saw a full page local boy makes good story in the business section of the Province paper. It was about Dan and it turned out that he was the founder and owner of Helijet airways which plies between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. I phoned him that afternoon and we caught each other up on our lives. After flying logs to get his hours in he had had the great idea to get some Sikorskys and start his own business. He still remembered my old Hohner blues harmonica I had hand engraved with the epithet “Ain't life a bitch.”
I kept my job when school started and began a life of coming home at two to three AM five nights a week. My grades for the first time ever started to erode somewhat in that year. One Saturday night my manager was grumbling and cursing up a storm after we had closed on a very busy shift. It had been a five hundred steak night, the tips were fat and I couldn't imagine what he was upset about. He was a tall white guy who wore a massive fro and a perpetual grin. He had been with some friends and dignitaries all evening and really seemed to be having a great evening. I asked him what was amiss when he passed by my broiler bar.
He told me that a friend of his had just flown in from Bogata and had gifted him with a big dollop of the best cocaine then to be had on the planet and he had lost it. I knew that cocaine was for horses not for men and I only knew that because of a Taj Mahal song I had once heard. I also knew that it was expensive. I asked what it was packaged in. I was told that it was in a paper sugar packet and about twice the size. I told him I had uncanny scout abilities and not to worry. He muttered that it was hopeless.
He pointed out that the garbage cans had already been emptied. That is what I was counting on. My new cook's assistant was an incredibly efficient and motivated individual who would have polished the moon with a wet rag if he could have reached that high. I sent my boss back to his friends and went for a little walk. In the third pristine garbage can I reviewed, there in the bottom of a clean green bag was a small white sugar packet.
I scooped it out and brought it into the office. My manager looked like a man who has just been told that his baby is a healthy boy, his wife is fine and ready to go home and that he has just won the 649. I was clapped on the back and introduced to the other young squires. One fellow was introduced to me as the manager of ZZ Top, who were in town for their second gig since bursting onto the charts with La Grange. I was a fan and told him I was from Houston just like Billy Gibbons.
A wine glass was upturned and I was told to stick a rolled up twenty dollar bill in my nostril, cover the other one, not to sneeze and to snort two of the lines of powder that had been deftly prepared with a razor. I was seventeen and I did it. There was a long staircase running from the office to the street level out the back towards the waterfront of Burrard Inlet. I let out a James Brown whoop and bounded up those stairs like a scalded cat. I rounded the building to Esplanade Street and sprinted up Lonsdale's steep slope all the way to the Upper Levels Highway and all the way back down to my original spot in the office.
“Lawd have mercy,” I said.
It was one of the most curious things I had ever experienced. I felt absolutely no fatigue and was not aware that any time had passed. All hands had a good laugh and I remember being glad that this was a rich man's drug and thus out of my reach. A working man could get used to feeling that fresh.
The waiting staff were all university students and most were the sons and daughters of rich men. This is where I learned that it is in the best neighborhoods where the people have the most cash to spend that you will find the most drugs. On top of that it was only the beginning of the Seventies and much of the Sixties culture stubbornly refused to give way to double-knits and disco.
We had a rival restaurant several hundred yards to the west called the Hobbit House and our two establishments were constantly pranking each other. It started one Friday night in the middle of the dinner hour. The front doors burst asunder and a troop of a dozen stark naked Hobbit House employees made an impromptu conga line through the bar and dining area. They took their time, such was the shock factor on the diners and on our staff. When they calmly capered down the back stairs which led to the safety of the waterfront, we knew that they had cased the joint prior to undertaking the operation. A week later twenty of us retaliated with a similar raid.
Once when I had a rare night off, my mother's Danish boyfriend had come in with his drinking buddies from the St. Alice Pub. He had apparently arrived in a shopping cart with a red napkin tied to this head like a pirate. His entourage was singing a ribald Scandinavian song in which the only discernable word was “vaselina.” Informing the greeter that they were friends of Tex, they had been cordially invited into the bar to drop some coin. After a very wet wait, they had been shown to a table right up front by the broiler bar and had ordered their baseball steaks and lobster tails. A young fellow whom I had recently taught to cook was on shift.
Their unlucky waiter recounted to me on my next shift how the lad had been lifted bodily out of his station and threatened with his life in Swedish, Danish, German, French and English because of an overdone steak. Before the police arrived, the perpetrator told all those assembled who's step-father he was soon to be and was escorted out by three other Vikings, one of whom had ducked outside for the shopping cart during the commotion. He was told at the door that the meals were on the house and that he was barred for life.
The Keg didn't hold it against me and the staff became my family for a difficult period in my young life. I did my homework in the bar to avoid being in the maelstrom of chaos that was my parents' rental suite on Kilmer Road up Mountain Highway. I had all my hair then and wore it elbow length, perfectly combed and cleaner than a German dinner table. The restaurant's owner, George Tidball, took on one slick investor from California. By the time this new management came on board, I was a well established and deservedly famous cook.
The new fellow had a background of psychology from no less than Stanford University and a pretty pill-popping girlfriend. The way we met was him telling me I had to wear a woman's hairnet while I broiled. I told him that I would not dignify his order with compliance but that I would step down and hit the road if ever once a stray hair was found in any food I served. Cherokees are proud of their hair. After that he took to calling me Chief. I could tell he was going to Californicate the restaurant.
First up he decided to clamp down on the portions. Prior to him, all the cooking staff ate for free. I chowed on teriyaki baseball steaks, king crab and lobster tails on a daily basis. Now, we had to pay for our food. We used to throw a little extra on the plates of friends and relatives. Now this was forbidden and punishable. Tiny scales were purchased and even the mushrooms were to be carefully measured before gracing a steak. The bacon bits were metered in little ketchup cups. The spirit that had made the restaurant a North Vancouver legend was now in the hands of a man who seemed bent on tying a rope around its neck and milking it. What was worse, they put sour cream on their tacos out there in California.
After awhile, I had held every post except bartender, waiter and prep-cook. The first two positions didn't interest me and one day I was approached by California to see if I was interested to learn the prep cooking and take on that salaried position. The original man was heading to Lahaina to work in another steak joint. I said yes and was given training by our outgoing man and also had two weeks with a Japanese fellow at the Granville Island Keg who was a master of efficiency and cleanliness.
One of my first post graduate duties was to train another man for my replacement on my days off. I was told to pick him up one morning on my way to work. I drove in the pre-dawn fog to the address I had been given and a young man big enough to punch out a horse was waiting on the curb like a young Moses just before he started to smite things. I motioned him into my Beaumont Acadian and off we sped, tilted over like a fallen cake.
“They call me Mountain,” he said.
“I'm Mike, they call me Tex.”
When we got to the parking area behind the restaurant, I discovered that the PhD. had caused a telephone pole to be placed right across where I had always parked since the beginning. I swore and started to back up and look for some more inconvenient location. Mountain asked me to stop. I applied the brakes and he hefted his grizzly bear frame out of my toy car and squatted down by the barrier. He clasped it like a Highlander preparing to toss the caber and hoisted the twenty foot pole to chest height, walked over a few yards and let her drop. I smiled and parked in my old spot while Mountain dusted off his hands on his jeans. It was going to be a good day.
When we got inside the kitchen, we set to work straight away. Everything was prepared in gargantuan proportions. Five gallons each of Roquefort, Italian and French salad dressings. Five gallons of home-brewed teriyaki sauce. Forty quarts of onion soup. A dozen cheesecakes, baked in spring-form pans. Forty pounds each of lobster tails and King Crab legs thawed and split with shears. Twenty pounds of mushrooms sauteed in red wine and butter. Thirty quarts of gravy. All the vegetables for a forty item salad bar washed, chopped and arranged in crocks. Cases of lemons, limes and pineapples prepared for the bartender.
If one began at six AM sharp, one was lucky to be hauling the thirty gallons of ice just as the first customers were being shown to the bar at five PM. Mountain was a very fast learner, an agreeable fellow and particularly helpful in taking in the meat order from the back door to the walk-in cooler. When we grabbed a few moments to do an inventory for the next days deliveries, he lit a smoke. I had given mine to Jesus only a week prior and I was surprised how easily He gave them back.
Next day as I was showing Mountain the pantry for dry goods, one of the shelves broke free and spilled its contents on the floor. While I was returning to the scene with a screwdriver and hammer, it struck me that the place was an absolute pigsty. I looked up and down from the massive double sinks to the Hobart dishwasher to the mega-mixing machine and along the tiled floor. I decided that I might as well use the helping hands to get everything Navy clean. Mountain was obliging and we spent that day with one of us scrubbing, disinfecting, organizing and fixing while the other did the cooking. As the restaurant was empty, we could crank the expensive sound system up and play what we wanted.
It was bliss. We both got caught up in the spirit of the moment and to the strains of Jethro Tull, Rolling Stones and ZZ Top we went Catholic on that kitchen. By three you could have made a sandwich on the floor and used the wall for a plate. Everything broken was fixed and she gleamed white from ceiling to floor like an ice floe. The stainless surfaces were without blemish, the food was prepared and we were chatting with a Fijian delivery man by the door when the music faded to a whisper.
California came up the back stairs with an oily little man in a blue windbreaker in tow. Stanford looked like Chevy Chase in a cowboy shirt. He had that slightly pidgeon-toed walk of a man from El Cerritos who gets a flat tire in Bakersfield at night. The stranger looked like Colombo and had a small clipboard in his hand. I kept waiting for him to pull a boiled egg out of his pocket. Boss looked at Mountain then at me then at the dazzling kitchen. He turned red and laughed nervously like a man who had farted in church. The other man shrugged his rounded shoulders and rolled his eyes. They walked without a word back to the cooler and opened the door. Another nervous burst of laughter.
Presently, the boss said, “Dude, seen enough?”
“Yessir,” said Colombo.
They departed and we heard the music being turned back up. Ravi, the Fijian had just been explaining to me how a proper old time kava-kava ceremony was to be conducted and had promised to bring a bag of the best from Viti Levu next day when he delivered the lobster. I was eighteen and very interested in anthropology and psychotropic botanicals. It was set and we told him to pass by around two. He grinned and hurried off. While we packed away the delivery, the boss reappeared.
“How did you know?” he asked me accusingly.
“Know what?” I replied.
“That the freaking health inspector was coming. I didn't even know. These guys are random. I had to send the poor bastard off without any swag. It was intense.”
His eyes bugged out like grapes trying to give birth to riddles.
“It's a Cherokee thing,” I said, smoothing my pony tail and smiling up at Mountain who stood by beaming like Little John at a banquet in Nottingham Forest.
“Hey, do you want to come to a real Fijian kava-kava ceremony tomorrow with me and Mountain?” I asked.
“Uh, sure I'd be into that. Where and when?”
“Here at two. Ravi, the lobster guy is bringing some shit his grandma carried from Suva and he knows how to mix it and which gods to call on.”
“Bitchin. I'll be there.”
The next day went as smooth as a glass Cadillac on a Teflon turnpike. Mountain and me whistled while we worked and had everything set for Ravi's arrival. He showed a few minutes late and the boss a few minutes later. I introduced all hands and then Ravi set to work. He took a large plastic bag full of fine pepper colored powder and asked me for a large bowl. I brought one and he next asked for a clean cloth napkin. Mountain was sent for a large stainless steel bucket of clean cold water. California asked questions about how much it was worth and such like. We tried to ignore his calculator brain waves.
Soon the four of us were cross-legged on the floor of the kitchen and encircling the bowl. The cloth was stretched across the bowl and some powder was poured in. This was mixed with water and the mash was stirred by hand and allowed to percolate through the cloth into the bowl. This was repeated many times while Ravi spoke in his own language softly. From time to time he would look up at us and flash his impossibly white teeth in a friendly smile.
The only sound was the big overflow sink where a case of lobster tails was thawing prior to being scissored and butterflied. The water made a soft sound not unlike a mountain stream flowing down a volcanic slope on its way to a lagoon and the frozen lumps banging on the resonant sides of the huge sink sounded like a priest drumming on the bottom of his dugout calling sharks into the reef.
Presently, the bag was empty and the bowl was full of a liquid that looked like the water in a mud-puddle at a gas station in a town that God forgot. Ravi produced a half coconut shell from his gear and dipped it into the funky fluid. He filled it and solemnly walked over to a drain on the floor.
“You must offer the first one to Toki. This is highly critical. If men don't, you are not to drink grog with them.”
He poured it down the steel drain and returned to the circle. He filled it again and reached it across to me. Before I took it he instructed me to clap my hands three times and say Toki's name. I raised it to my lips and poured it down. It smelled earthy and as I realized that my lips were numb, it struck me that brand new blue jeans used to smell just like that before the pre-washed days. I refilled the shell and offered it to Mountain.
He clapped, said Toki's name and quaffed it.
“Oh, Momma!,” he said.
He refilled it and offered it to Stanford.
Boss clapped, Tokied and drank it down.
He offered it to Ravi and we went on in this manner until the bowl was drained. Our lips, tongues and innards were numb but our minds were crystal clear. We sat a while and California asked Ravi about what to expect. Ravi gently told him to be patient and he would see. He said it was different for different people and depended on Toki more than anything else. He politely rose to go after an appropriate time and gathered his bag of goodies and walked out the back door like a cat you thought you saw from the corner of your eye. California rose next and told us he was going to catch up on some paperwork downstairs in his office.
Mountain and I put on our music and set about finishing our work. I was to prepare the lobster and he was to fix up the salad bar. When I came to the sink to begin cutting the shells and pulling the meat out, I laughed like a child who has squished mud between his toes. My job was going to be interesting. The lobsters had left the bounds of the sink and were gently swimming to and fro through the air above the sink. I plucked one out of the air about a foot over my head as it swam toward the mixing machine.
Another rose from the cool water and started for the Hobart. I snatched it easily and put it back in the sink. Several more had become airborne in this time and I decided that I would have to take them from the air to be sure none managed to escape. It was like catching butterflies under water. I managed to snatch and cut them all without spooking the herd. Once lined up in their stainless steel trays they behaved and stayed put. While I worked I could hear Mountain chopping vegetables and giggling like a man with his hands tied getting his ears licked by a half dozen St. Bernard pups.
Next day California came into the kitchen just as me and Mountain were chucking our aprons into the Keefer Laundry bag and heading for the door. He asked if he could speak to me for a minute. Mountain stepped out and made way down the stairs. I pulled back into the kitchen.
“That was absolutely over the top yesterday. I had to phone Carmen to drive me home.”
“My lobsters tried to fly away and I had to chase them down one by one. Mountain said every time he cut a lettuce in half it grew back.”
“How much am I paying you?”
“Six hundred a month.”
“Well, you're making eight now, Chief. Come over tonight, Carmen's making Chili Colorado.”
Recently I had to take a sobering walk to the vet with Dusty Bones. He'd lost his baby fangs and the time had come to have him fixed for life in a trailer. He weighed in at eight pounds and although hungry, he was in good spirits. The kindly vet agreed to put his mojo in a little jar of alcohol so I could bury it in the garden here at home. I reckoned it's the least I could do. As I heard that last long meeeow before I strode home, it put me in mind of a day many years ago when it had been my turn to face the knife, albeit for a slightly different procedure.
I have two children and they are both boys. They have two different mothers. The first one was overdue and my wife and I eventually found ourselves in a room not unlike a hotel room, with a bed and a shower. That was after going to school to watch videos of childbirth to prepare us both. My wife was having trouble getting ready for the birth so we were told to chill out and try to relax. We followed the instructions and had several long hot showers and argued about names.
After one of the showers, my wife had to recline with lots of sensors and electronics attached to her belly. These fed into a large monitor which chirped, beeped and flashed green strobes and squiggles on a black screen covered with several different metrics. It was anything other than relaxing but the noises coming from the machine were all quite friendly sounding.
Presently, like an unexpected fire-alarm that triggers when you are by the water cooler in your office, the monitor went wild. The benign green graphics turned red and the pitch of the beeps took on a menacing tone. The doors flew open and three people burst into the room. One ran to the monitor and another began pulling wires off of my wife. I lost all track of time.
A lady approached me and in one long sentence told me that our baby was in distress and would have to be removed via c-section immediately. She asked if I was squeamish, told me I had one second to answer and that if I wasn't I could go in and observe the birth if I started to scrub up according to her instructions that very moment.
I answered her and was shown how to clean up and l put on the little paper overshoes and masks and such. Within moments we were joined in an operating room by our family doctor, a young Chinese woman. There was another monitor beeping and all hands who knew how to interpret its language bore very concerned looks on their faces.
My wife was anesthetized and I was told that my wife was fine and healthy but that the labor had gone too long and as a result, the little fellow was deeply in the danger zone. I nodded my understanding and watched as the personnel in attendance kindly adjusted the green cloths in such a way that I could not see their surgical handiwork.
In rather short order, they had extracted, Daniel and I heard him cry as a nurse squirted a load of silver nitrate into his new eyes. After weighing him and administering an Apgar test, she handed the blinded child to his mum and I hoped his sense of smell hadn't been affected so he could properly begin making external bonds since I was convinced he couldn't see with all that goop in his eyes.
My wife was stitched up and the baby was swaddled and soon I got to hold the little thing. Everyone came out OK and before long we were home and living our lives. Things went rough and after a few years we were divorced. Not long after a lengthy legal proceeding, I was remarried and within a year I was awaiting the birth of my second son.
My wife was tested for something called gestational diabetes. The procedure was curious to say the least. She was made to choke down a huge beaker of sugar syrup that would have turned the stomach of a ravenous hummingbird and then had her blood tested for sugar metabolites. Not being a doctor, I figured that if she hadn't had diabetes before the test, she certainly would afterward.
This procedure started everything down the wrong side of the road. My wife was a very healthy, strong woman and the more care she received, the more problems seemed to arise. One day we were at a regular check-up and the doctor phoned a cab and said that my wife would be going straight to the hospital at that moment.
It was alarming and sudden. We rode over and they took her in as if she was in a critical situation, told me not to worry and to just carry on. We were told that she must stay under observation until the birth which was supposed to be six weeks from that time. There was nothing to be done.
Some days later, I was met on my postal route by another mailman, who informed me that the hospital had phoned. My wife was going to be delivered of our baby by emergency c-section later that day. I went to a phone and asked to talk to my wife who was in shock and in tears. I told her to hang on and I'd be there soon.
I literally ran my route, jumping hedges, kicking dogs out of the way and tossing bundles of mail like newspapers. When I finished my work, I bussed over to the hospital in a soaking lather of sweat, still wearing my two satchels. Before long I was reunited with my wife and briefed by the hospital staff.
Now, it was a situation whereupon, my wife was deeply in the danger zone but the premature baby was fine and dandy. There was no time to ponder the irony and after the nurse showed me where to clean up a bit I was given a cot next to my wife. We were told that they intended to attempt inducing the birth via prostaglandin injections but the c-section would proceed if this failed.
I lay on a gurney holding her hand, stinking of anxious sweat and listened to my stomach howl for food. After many hours whereupon I again lost all track of time, I was woken by a nurse. She kindly told me that I smelled awful and ordered me to go home, take a shower, change clothes, eat and return. She promised that she would not let the baby be born before I got back. Then she looked at my wife's chart and suggested I hurry.
Outside on Oak Street it was below zero and I almost tripped over a very large frozen raccoon which lay directly in front of the walkway from the hospital. It had no visible wounds and a beautiful luxurious coat. I wasn't sure how to interpret the omen and rushed across town to my apartment.
On the return trip, I sat with a half dozen Australian guys who were up in Canada for a sports competition. When they heard what was going on, I was clapped on the back, showered with good will, entertained with rugby songs and injected with strength, happiness and congratulations by these perfect strangers. I remembered all the days on the same buses, riding to and fro with my pregnant wife and being amazed that I had to ask people to allow her to sit rather than have this courtesy extended.
I still hadn't eaten, so when I got to the hospital, I went walking and entered the first place I passed. It was a Greek joint and only I and the proprietor were present. He was a good man and a father. He fed me well and gave me a shot of ouzo to steady my nerves. I thanked him and with a belly full of avgolemono I strode past the frozen raccoon and on into the hospital.
Soon, we were all in the operating room. I was allowed to come in because of not having fainted during my first occasion. I was asked if I minded having a student do the sewing-up and some of the other surgical work. I said I certainly did mind. An experienced doctor was provided and as I stood there, the man discussed his golf game of the previous day while he casually sutured my wife like a man in a deli trussing up a chuck roast with string.
Our baby was tiny. He appeared to be on par with a stick of butter but in reality was about four pounds. After the usual procedures and some additional things done for premature infants he was swaddled and in our arms. I was given a shopping list of tiny bottles, miniature diapers and such to purchase. The boy was placed in a room with all the other early arrivals.
After only three days, he was released and we were told he was tiny, strong as a bull and guilty of causing a revolution of yowling in the preemie room. We were allowed to take him home and we did so with more joy than trepidation. I was met by our family doctor before leaving the hospital. She stood with another two doctors and in the most serious of tones told me that if I got my wife pregnant again, it could kill her.
This hit me like a two by four and I told her that with the current choices of birth control available that we were willing to employ, that it was impossible to promise this with any degree of certainty. She smiled and told me not to worry, that as soon as my wife's stitches were healed I could bring her back in to the hospital for another surgery to tie her tubes.
There was no way I was going to subject my wife to those additional horrors after what she'd already been through and I said so. A male doctor standing alongside piped in that I could have a vasectomy instead. I asked a few pertinent questions of this man and decided on the spot that I would submit to this procedure. I knew I couldn't afford to raise another child anyway on my salary and I had two offspring safe and sound. It was enough to ask of the universe, I figured.
My own family doctor spoke now in what I thought sounded like a spoiled teenage girl's voice. She said, “I'm not touching that!” Then she walked away. I asked the man how to sign up. He gave me a number to call and we shook on it. The thought of losing my wife was so terrible to contemplate, I was positively on-side to have myself fixed even though if a person would have asked me ten minutes prior what I thought of the subject, I would have quickly and vehemently told them that it was an unnatural abomination.
At home with the new baby we discovered that a mother raccoon and two kits were residing just outside the ground floor window of baby's bedroom. We gave them some Stoned Wheat Thins each night and they used to croot the baby to sleep. We could see the mum breast-feeding her young under some low-hanging cedar boughs while we bottle fed our own kit with a tiny device like the zoos use to feed baby animals.
The boy grew fat and big on his mother's milk and the coons did likewise and toddled off when they were fit to travel. By Spring I had a date marked on the calendar for my appointment with destiny. As things turned out, it was scheduled for April Fools Day. The irony wasn't lost on me and I prepared myself mentally and physically for the ordeal.
It was a windy, rainy, cold day that day and the sky hadn't decided what to do. There was patches of cobalt blue and great swathes of gray. Against this backdrop, puffy white clouds were shredded by the winds aloft and strewn across the troubled ceiling. It fit my mood perfectly. That morning I reviewed the little instruction sheet I had been given.
I was supposed to have removed the hair from the area to be worked on prior to coming in. I am the type of guy who brushes his teeth like a deck-hand chips rust on an old hull. I am little better on my face when shaving and many is the morning at my post office a friend would have to remind me to pull off all the toilet paper bits decorating my visage.
I was planning to do my route and walk over to the day surgery as soon as the last letter had been dropped. I was running late to get my train and bus, so I decided that the medical professionals would easily be able to accomplish the depilatory preparations. After all, I reasoned, they were bound by the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
I finished up my route and strode over to the hospital grounds. I paused for a thoughtful smoke under some oaks outside and made my way in. I went to the reception and was directed to another location where I was to wait. After some time reading about re-modeling bathrooms and yoga classes for dogs, I was called on a speaker to come to another room.
I went and was told to wait. I sat on the little leather exam table and a man with a powder blue paper hat came in and chatted for a bit. He asked a few questions and seemed to be making sure that I had followed the sheet of instructions I had been given. I assured him I had and that I was ready except for one thing, which the sheet had said was optional.
He asked what that was with some interest in his voice and I told him that I had been running late that morning so I had decided to let the professionals cut the grass. I told him truthfully that I wasn't even sure exactly which spot had to be cleared. His countenance and his tone changed abruptly. “So, you haven't shaved?”
“I see. Michael, I am going to have to ask you to come to another room. This is very unusual.”
I followed the man to another smaller room. It had a chair, a sink and a chart of the male and female reproductive organs as Leonardo da Vinci would have drawn them had he worked in water colors. Presently another person came in. She was a middle-aged woman and she wore a pastel pink paper hat. She asked me a few questions while frowning at a chart in her hands. “I see here that you haven't prepped yourself.”
“No Ma'am,” I replied.
“Were you given the instruction sheet?”
“Yes, Ma'am, I was. It didn't say it was mandatory, so I figured you guys could do it better than me. Heck, I cut myself shaving my face every morning.”
“It is very unusual. Everyone preps themselves. I've never come across one who didn't. Could you follow me please?”
I was led to an area that resembled a waiter's station in a restaurant. A curtain had been rigged around a counter which had a sink, a coffee pot and cupboards full of things more domestic than medical. A man brought a gurney, I was told to climb aboard and the curtain was drawn around. From my spot, I could hear all the bustle and chatter of the busy floor.
From time to time, people in hospital gowns popped in and out to fill their coffee mugs. Some of them looked at my little chart.
“You didn't prep, eh?” said one young doctor with a grin.
He called a few colleagues over and shared this news with them. Everyone giggled and the first guy told me I had done well and to stick to my guns. I took it as a good sign. I was asked by another passer by just before I drifted off to sleep if I was the guy who hadn't shaved. I assured the man I was. This guy was in his fifties, tired and had the look of a high school janitor a few days away from retirement.
He sported a pale yellow paper hat and with a grunt he undid the brakes on the gurney and pushed me into a very tiny room. He set to work fairly quickly and was as professional in his methods as the last time I had been shaved by a Mexican barber in Monterrey. The difference was that during the entire procedure he bitched, kvetched and complained. He cursed his luck, the hospital and people like me. As he had the blade, I kept my peace.
Soon, he was done, I was prepped and after the reluctant attendant's footfalls disappeared, I was wheeled briskly into a well-lit room. It was a small office and the first thing I noticed was that surrounding the smiling young Chinese doctor were three pretty Chinese nurses. All of them were ten years my junior and the gals wore white hats. The doctor had a light rigged to his head like a mine worker.
I was put in position and given a local anesthetic. I couldn't see what they were up to but by watching the eyebrows of the three girls I could infer how things were going. I relaxed as best as I could and was doing fine until the doctor told one of the girls to stand by with a soldering iron in case he “hit a bleeder.”
I heard the several snicks as he worked and felt the tugs of his sewing. Soon it was over and I was wheeled into a recovery room. I had been under the impression that I would rise and walk out immediately and was somewhat dismayed by this turn of events. The room was large, had windows along the west wall and one could hear the rain beating against the panes.
They wheeled me into a slot marked thirteen. It was then, as the rain turned to hail and wet snow accompanied by thunder and lightening that I realized that I was the only male in the entire room. I was told that I had to remain for an hour or two before being allowed to go home. I felt a very bad energy in the room and it turned out that most of these women had just had abortions, hysterectomies or had had their tubes tied. None were in good spirits and all of them seemed unhappy to see a man.
I had a moment of truly wondering if the Great Spirit was angry at what I'd just done and I told him I did it for the sake of the woman he'd given me as wife. In the middle of these musings, a nurse came and checked my blood pressure and told me I could go home. I rose slowly and walked to collect my things at the desk like John Wayne heading down a dusty street at high noon to face off with a suicidal young gun-slinger. I continued this exaggerated bow-legged gait out toward the bus stop. It was as if any sudden movement would cause my spurs to come unhitched.
Halfway to the bench, I realized that I felt no pain whatsoever and that I needn't walk funny. I tried it out as I waited for the bus and it worked fine. This lightened my mood and I decided to hit the video store on the way home. This I did and armed with a stack of movies I bought a box of Wagon Wheels at a convenience store and then strode over to a gas station and got a big bag of ice.
In no time I was situated on the sofa, watching At Play In The Fields Of The Lord and learning the real meaning of the phrase, “ To chill out.” The pain came with morning as I had been warned. I had decided to go to work after asking the doctors if this was possible. They said that some people swelled up horribly and others did not, thus it was to be my call.
I commuted into Vancouver from New Westminster where I resided at the time. I wanted to tell the Superintendent that I intended to sort and deliver my route but also warn him that if I started to bleed, I would need some back up for the delivery portion for the next few days. I went in his office. I had some trepidation as I had tangled with him previously over some issues that neither of us would back down from. It had led to a truce of sorts whereupon we tried to avoid any future collisions.
He was a young man, not yet forty and I was on the same side of that fence. He was sitting behind his big oak desk and obviously preoccupied and in a strange mood, not to mention that he appeared to be sitting about four inches too high in his chair. I told him about my previous day's procedure and my own plans for recovery.
He unthreaded the clenched long fingers of his two soft hands and placed them on his desk top. He rose from his chair and shook my hand like a man who had just been liberated from a POW camp by an unanticipated allied soldier. Presently he spoke as he drilled me with eyes which were wide as an owl's on a moonless night in a field of tall grass.
“Mike, do whatever you want and take any time off that you want for as long as you want. It's up to you and I'll personally back you up with any paper work necessary. I just had mine done yesterday. My balls are purple, the size of grapefruits and I'm still on an ice bag right now. After my sixth child was born recently, my wife gave me an ultimatum. Son-of-a-bitch! I can't believe you're still walking around.”
There is a restaurant in North Vancouver called the Tomahawk Barbecue. I think it has been around since the 1940's and one may still find it there today. It was one of the first places my father took me to after we moved to Canada. The other one was The Only Seafood House on Hastings Street in downtown Vancouver. He remembered them from his old merchant sailor days and likely frequented them when on shore leave from the ship terminals. The Tomahawk was the last place I ever had a meal with my father and that occasion was the last time I ever heard him laugh or saw him smile.
It was a smallish place with a quaint stone front and a warm cozy interior. There was lots of cedar and log-cabin style architecture on the inside, a fireplace and a little fish pond. The ceiling and walls were festooned with a prodigious collection of First Nations artifacts. Carvings, totems, war bonnets, pipes, pots and many other items held your attention while you sipped one of the best cups of coffee to be had on that side of Burrard Inlet.
There was a bar with stools and a few snug booths as well as several small tables. The paper place mats depicted a comical map of Canada. It was from these mats I first got the physical lay of my new land and the psychological programming of the still popular stereotyping of the different provinces and cities.
The hamburgers were all named for authentic Indian Chiefs that had befriended or traded with the founder of the restaurant. The piece de la resistance was an item called the Yukon Breakfast. This plate would have inspired either a poem by Robert Service or a novel by Jack London had either of these men chanced upon it in their day. I had read both of these authors as a lad and my imagination was running wild when I first spied the menu back in 1969.
Just below the description of the meal, a bit of small print caught my eagle-eye. It was a challenge and to a boy like myself it was a challenge that I intended to meet. This plate was the most expensive and the most expansive on the menu and thus, the proprietor promised that any man who could finish it, could waive the fee. I smiled inwardly. I had been accused of having worms and a hollow leg by my grandfather for years. I figured this was going to be my lucky day. I asked my Dad if I could give it a go and he answered in the affirmative.
The waitress returned a few minutes later with everyone's meals and ten minutes later with mine. I sat regarding a platter the size of a hub-cap before me. I wore the same look I would wear many years later when negotiating the last few hundred feet of the ascent of the West Lion. First, I just admired the beauty of the mountain. Then I looked at the rock I had to climb.
On an oven-warmed ceramic platter had been placed four big squares of Texas toast dripping with real butter. On top of this base and completely covering it was a matrix of perfectly pan-fried hash-browns. The next ply was one of thick sliced Canadian back bacon and again, rather than following some food manager's rules of portioning, the number of pieces was dictated by how many it happened to take to completely cover the potatoes.
Lying on top of this platform of delectable pork protein was a roof of eggs, done over easy and four of which hid the bacon entirely. I had my coffee re-filled, doused the eggs with Tabasco and put a moat of Worcestershire around the rim, crossed it with maple syrup and put several strategic dabs of marmalade in case the going got rough. After dusting her down with salt and pepper, I attacked.
The toast was what thwarted me that day. I absolutely couldn't put that last piece down and have never been too fond of breads in the first place. It was the protein I was insatiable for. My father was a gentleman about it and kept his remarks in the realm of respect for my having done my best. I vowed to try again and again, until I could accomplish this Great White North rite of passage. I remember this as being the first time that I realized that perhaps not everything is bigger in Texas.
Years went by and my folks split up. I kept in touch with my estranged father. He had a girlfriend whom he claimed was the daughter of an old shipmate. She was my age and he had found her on the downtown east-side streets where she turned tricks for drug money. He was working hard to get her clean and eventually found her employment as a waitress on Lonsdale across from the Burrard Drydock and Shipyards at The Mayflower Cafe. They lived together in a succession of basement suites and I used to visit once in a while and play my guitar for them.
One Sunday morning my father phoned and asked me to accompany them to the Tomahawk for breakfast. I was seventeen and hadn't eaten there since I was twelve. I remembered my failed attempt at the Yukon and I knew that this time I could pull it off. I walked to his place and we drove over to the restaurant. It was a lovely sunny day and the house was packed.
Tourists, families and old North Shore hands filled every available seat. All the way over in the car we had been talking up the place to the gal and she was excited to see what a real lumberjack's breakfast looked like. I assured my Dad that he had definitely just saved some money this time because I was bigger and hungrier than ever before. He grinned and said, “We'll see.”
After joking around outside while waiting for our turn we were seated at a table right square in the middle of the dining area. We were all in our best jeans and shirts and I had never seen that girl looking better than on that day. She had gained enough weight to look nourished and the color was coming back into her skin with the returning strength of her youth. Her hair was nice and clean and she smelled good. She laughed a lot but it was a ladylike laugh now and the sarcastic edges were dissipating.
I immediately checked the menu to see if the deal was still in effect for the free Yukon Breakfast to anyone who could put one down. It was and I ordered and got ready to put on a show for my father and his girl. It had been about six years since I'd tangled with the Yukonator. This time, yours truly was going to win. I even contemplated having some apple pie after since the meal was going to be free. I set to eating like a bitch wolf after feeding ninety-nine pups.
We were having the best time any of the three of us had had in a long while and our happiness spread throughout the joint. Soon other people were offering jokes and encouragement to me to get the job done. In good time, I was rounding third and headed for home. Learning from past mistakes, I had cleverly eaten the toast first and rendered it down with several cups of coffee. The hash-browns were as easy to eat as air is to breathe. The back bacon and the eggs were taken alternately. In this way, each served as a reward for the other to the overwhelmed palate.
About an egg and one half plus the corresponding bacon away from a clean plate, two feet shot into my lap nearly knocking the stuffing out of me. The coffee mugs flew onto the floor and the water glasses tipped over, emptied and rolled to join them in pieces. My plate levitated but came down again intact with a solid thud. Directly across from me I could see that the girl was perfectly horizontal and stiff as a two by six. Her neck rested on her own chair which listed at a crazy angle.
My father told me in a clear soft voice to grab her ankles. As I gathered her shoes and gripped her legs, he dropped some cash on the table, pocketed a bottle of Tabasco Sauce and got a hold under her slim shoulders. We wove our way through a sea of wide-eyed, horrified Sunday morning diners. Like a crack first response team we trudged out to the small parking lot. As I was trying to form the words to ask what the precious hell had just happened, my Dad told me to put her feet down and lean her against the car.
He reached inside the car and pulled out a bottle of water and a small bottle of Valium. He poured a bunch of the pills into his hand and worked open her mouth. The gal swallowed them like a goldfish gulping cornmeal and as I stood watching she went from brick-hard to butter-soft right before my eyes. She apologized and with perfect lucid control of her faculties got into the car and explained to me what it's like coming down off that kind of addiction.
When my mother re-married, her and her new husband happened to rent a house directly across the street from the Tomahawk. My father had moved to another town and I never saw him again. When I was twenty I got married to a gal from the States and we occupied a spare bedroom in that rental. My young wife got her first Canadian job as a waitress at the Tomahawk. After a few months my wife got another waitress job at the Mayflower Cafe on Lonsdale. She never met my father and I never told her the story of those two establishments. Four months after the wedding, my father was dead.
Many decades later I found myself waiting for my Suzuki to be serviced a few blocks away from the old Tomahawk. I was in my fifties now and hadn't been in the place for over thirty years. Something drew me over that direction. I had a smoke in the parking lot and regarded the old house I'd lived in when I'd gotten married the first time. I went on in the restaurant and noticed how much smaller everything seemed. I smiled when I saw that the place mats were the same and that the Yukon was still on the menu.
Only two things were different. The prices would have raised the eyebrows of an attorney and the free deal challenge was gone. I decided to do what had to be done, irregardless. When my plate came, I saw that a third thing had changed. The dimensions of the legendary meal had dwindled to a point whereupon it no longer deserved to carry the name it bore. I scarfed up that Yukonette with only two cups of coffee as solvent. Most female letter-carriers I know would have needed two of those plates just to make it through to lunch in a good mood. It didn't really bother me though and as I paid the bill I remembered that bottle of Tabasco my father had scooped and I figured we were all square now.
The first time I came to Canada, it hit me like a rogue wave. The circumstances were unusual as was our route. Within a day or so of first learning of the impending relocation and giving away all my stuff I was looking at Baton Rouge in the rear-view mirror of a four-door sedan as we crossed the Mississippi River. My two sisters and a chow-chow accompanied me in the back seat. We proceeded West to Texas and when we backed out of my Grandma's driveway, I left a piece of me behind in the pines. I took my wife and two sons down in 2007 and got it back.
My Mom phoned my Grandma from a gas-station around Oklahoma later that day and was told that the law had been asking around and that she had told them she didn't know where we were headed. I knew my Dad was running but I was never told what from. Up in Oregon, my baby sister and I met a talking crow at a gas station and that lightened my mood a little bit temporarily.
We rented an apartment in Lynn Valley and the snow was about a foot and a half deep. In a few months we moved to an upper-floor rental suite off Marine Drive near Mosquito Creek. I remember two songs in particular from those six months. One was Galveston and the other was Alone Again Naturally. The former was like a cruel joke and made me awful lonesome for my Grandpa's beach cabin on the Gulf of Mexico only a few miles away from Galveston. I remember that a local North Vancouver AM radio station set up a booth at a strip-mall that first Spring and played the second song till the platter melted.
Gilbert O'Sullivan's song was like a balm to me because misery loves company. I enjoyed it no matter how many times they plugged it per day. In our suite, I found human company for my blues. Our landlord, I had heard was an Indian. I had glanced him once or twice through the window and I was mighty curious as to what tribe he was from. I hoped it was Cherokee but that was a long-shot even to an eleven year old boy.
I decided to find out one Saturday. His door was open to the garage and I knocked at the open frame. There was no answer so I tip-toed inside a few steps to where I could see him. He was slumped in a broken chair at a small scratched-up round wooden table. There was a bottle, nearly empty, of Seagram's Whiskey, a small portable red and tan leather bound record player just like the one I had left in Baton Rouge, an ashtray, a deck of Player's and an empty glass. On the wall was a calendar with a likeness of Guru Gobindsingh and a picture of Ganesh.
He roused slightly as I approached the table and offered me a chair. He asked if I'd come to visit and I replied in the affirmative. He smiled like people do when a waiter plonks down their favorite dish after a long wait. Then he winced and began to rub his forehead. He smoothed his oiled hair back into place with a comb produced from the front his white linen shirt. He banged the back of his head with a mahogany-colored fist and began to adjust his trousers, his socks, his shirt, his belt and even re-rolled his sleeves until the folds were perfect, just like my Dad always did.
He regarded the bottle, clucked his tongue and polished it off in one quaff. Then he spoke.
“Mikalala, do you bant tea?”
I stared, not understanding his dialect.
He smiled broadly and tried again, “Mikalala, do you like drink chai? British tea? Red Rose?
He mimed taking a sip of tea with his little finger protruding. Although we only drank iced-tea down South, I instantly knew what he meant and I answered yes.
“Mikalala. Du bil hav to gut it for us two. Go to cubbort for cups and for tea. Kettle is on stove. Sugar is by sink and also spoons. Milik is in fridge. I bil take four. OK?”
I stared again. I asked if he really wanted four cups.
“Mikalala, no,no,no. Not four cups. Du bil put four baks tea in my cup. OK. Du understan bat I mean?”
“Yes Sir. Four tea bags.”
“Good boy. Berry good boy. I bil put sugar and I bil put milik. Bring to table, OK?”
I did so and soon as the water had boiled we were busy fixing up our respective mugs. He took milk and more sugar than I would have believed possible and I had mine with sugar only. After he had squeezed out the last drop of caffeine out of the four bags and set them in the ashtray, we began to chat.
I told him about Louisiana and Texas and he told me about India. It was then I realized that he was a different kind of Indian. I had a good grasp of geography but had never encountered an East Indian person in my whole life and when my Dad had told me our landlord was an Indian man, I figured he looked a bit like an Apache.
He told me he was from the Northern part of his country and his language was called Punjabi. The province bore the same name and it meant “Five Rivers”. It was those five rivers that made that place such a good agricultural land. He told me his last name was Singh which meant “lion” and that he was of the Sikh Faith. He said he was supposed to wear an iron bracelet, never cut his hair, carry a knife and comb and wrap his head in a turban. He smiled and said that did none of those things however.
He said he had a son, a daughter, a wife and a mother in North Vancouver. They all lived in another house he had bought for them from money he had earned working at a nearby lumber mill on the Fraser River. He added that he had also bought them yet another house which was rented out and the money from the rents helped to feed and educate his brood.
I asked him why he stayed alone in the small basement. He smiled and pointed to the empty bottle.
”My bife beri angry obry time before. I am bad boy. Abry day I go Abalon Hotel and drink beri much busky. My son and my dotter beri angry. My mum beri angry. My bife hut me wit bottle ban I sleep table. Bloody no good. I am safe here but Mikalala I am bloody bad boy. Du understan bat I mean? Abry day abry day I go Abalon Hotel drink bloody bad boy busky until I can sleep.”
He lit a smoke and turned on the record player. It was the first time I had heard Lata Mangeshkar and something magical happened. I closed my eyes within a few seconds and did not open them until the record had played through one whole side. Mr. Singh had done the same. The look on his face when I opened my eyes was the same as the look on my face. We both noticed it. A sixth-grade bayou boy and a forty-something alcoholic from the foothills of the Hindu Kush.
I discovered the real reason and power behind the universal human need for music and the ability of certain of us to fill this noblest of tasks for our stricken fellows. I understood not a word of what I'd heard but I did understand with perfect clarity every note and the pictures they described. I saw the landscape, the animals, the costumes of the people, felt the weather and tasted the food. That was in the instruments.
The really important thing I learned that day was that the universal spirit can heal, encourage, soothe, challenge, tease, educate and entertain. It is the pure yielding nature which draws what ever potential there be inherent in a person to the fore. I believe this power to be feminine in aspect whether it is radiating from a male or a female. She calls a boy into the adventure of unknown woods like the Xtabay and when he is older she sings that he may forget his wounds and rest without vigilance like the bird song which tells the sleeper in the forest that no harm approaches. They both know he'll never get out of the woods.
I visited Mr. Singh every chance I got and he just left the door open most days. We drank tea and listened to Lata records until I could practically sing some of them myself. I learned how to count to ten and some common phrases. I learned how to make a drink from tamarinds that tasted like a bottle of Coca Cola married a glass of iced tea and they both got drunk on lemonade. It was so good it made your teeth hurt. He talked about growing okra which he called bindi and I told him about how we turned that bindi into gumbo.
One rainy night there was a big commotion downstairs. My father called me to accompany him and we went down to Mr. Singh's suite.
“Mr. Mike! Mr. Mike! Mikalala! God dammut helup me please, Sir! My bloody bife bil kull me bun hunded pertant!”
We rushed into the room. A big young man in a turquoise turban, a young woman in a saree and and an elderly woman in a saree were huddled together by the kitchen counter watching a middle-aged woman repeatedly striking Mr. Singh about the head and neck with a quarter-full fifth of whiskey. There was a massive goose-egg above his left temple. I believe it was the hair oil that saved him from a torn scalp. As the woman yelled and screamed in Punjabi she neglected to aim her blows properly and they all glanced off the slick surface.
My father walked between the victim and the attacker and raised his arms to the sides with palms out. The woman dropped the bottle and like a broken steam hose, the bitter venom of her personal anguish poured forth in an ever weakening stream and she staggered back to her family group after spitting in her husband's direction. They left the scene and my father checked Mr. Singh's noggin and then went upstairs. I stayed and got an ice-bag going and brewed some tea.
Mr. Singh asked for the bottle his wife had dropped on the floor and I gave it to him. He unscrewed the cap and poured it down in one luxurious draught. He wiped his mouth with a hankie and adjusted all his clothes. As I brought the tea, he put on a Lata record and lit a cigarette. Within minutes we were on a jungle road walking behind some bullocks carrying the harvest to a market town. Water drums and flutes put purpose in our gait and a lovely girl riding on one of the carts began to sing. We both knew we were going to a wonderful place and that we wouldn't be coming back down the hazardous road we had traveled. To have the distilled starlight of a maiden's voice like audible incense along the way although we might not posses her, was enough. To a reasoning man, it was even fair.
Within six months, life jerked me away from North Vancouver suddenly and unforeseen. I found myself in Beaumont, Texas and then in Houston. I remember a song called Doctor My Eyes from that time in my life that really matched how I felt. I was likely singing it when I moved with my family back to North Vancouver about two years after arriving in Texas. I hunted up some friends I had started to make from the time before and although we attended the same high school, it was never the same and the bonds were weak.
Mr. Singh had sold his house and moved away. I found his son and he told me that the old man said I could come to stay in India on his farm any time I wanted. I never made that trip. I had made a cassette recording from Mr. Singh's record albums of Lata's songs and many was the night she helped me to sleep. I eventually played the tape until it wore out and stretched beyond repair. I stayed in Canada, lived as I thought best and took my medicine.
When I was in my forties, I made friends with a janitor at one of the Post Office Depots I worked as a letter-carrier at. He traded me two Lata cassettes in return for an astrological birth-chart which I computed and drew up for his newest daughter. Some time later, I met another man, a supervisor, who had a small music store in Vancouver's little India as a sideline. He sold me two cassettes of Lata Mangeshkar singing duets of ancient ghazzals with Jagjit Singh, who well may be her male equal. Now, approximately the same age as the man who introduced me to this music, I once again listened to the maiden sing me a bit further down my road. And like an old Irish song says, I still haven't found what I'm looking for.
People who go to sleep with empty stomachs rarely have nightmares. There have been times in my life when I was able to sleep quite comfortably on the floor or the bare ground without my flat stomach hurting me a bit. A ditch on Highway 99, a rocky beach on Honshu, a cliff in Spain, a Greyhound seat and a mat of pine needles up Jackass Mountain have all been beds to me.
Much is made of dreams and I have had some very important ones in my own estimation. I have learned to categorize them, however and there are many which are just dandelion fluff. Like a computer needs to flush its buffers, so does the human brain. I have noticed that the common anxiety dream is often triggered by nothing more than one too many slices of pizza.
I have never followed the logic of mankind, wherein people eat to excess in order to give thanks for having enough food. Feast is the handmaid of famine in my storybook. I also don't believe in hoarding vast quantities of anything, other than patience. To me it is like demonstrating that in spite of one's professed beliefs, that they just don't trust that their mother will see that they have enough to eat or to wear.
In ancient Egypt some of the first research was done into human nutrition. It was worked out over time exactly how much calorie intake of precisely which foods would yield a days work building pyramids, preserve basic health and not leave enough energy at the end of the day to cause any trouble to the boss but just enough to make more baby slaves. While the Pharaoh ate and drank copious quantities of imported delicacies and lay down to dreams so contorted that they would cross a Rabbi's eyes, the workers munched bread, salt, onions, a bit of fish and a beer or two before settling in to a dreamless sleep.
This history was not lost on me as I watched products in the grocery boast less and less of all nutrients and charge double for the lack. I look for salt, sugar and fat when I go hunting among the shelves. Don't mix any of those three with flour and you will have a shiny coat, lots of energy and a proper blood chemistry.
I was sleeping just now and in the clutches of a Kafkaesque dream. I had shown up at a new postal station for work in a strange part of town and when I got there I was informed that I would have to do some pipe-fitting instead. This was made difficult as I hadn't brought any of my tools and furthermore I was clad only in my bedroom slippers. I tried to make the best of it and William Shatner and I set off for the job in an old truck. The truck died and we walked the last few blocks.
Bill had never done sheet-metal before but was a quick wit and able to imagine the sort of tools one would need to actually conclude the assignment. I was intent on connecting the pipes to the appliance before us although it was anyone's guess what the contraption was. It had some pipes from prior to my birth and some that were of a technology beyond my ken. To further complicate the issue, my ex-wife showed up and began the most annoying and distracting behavior. As I tried to get Captain Kirk organized putting on the transition to the plenum, she began to lick me! It was nice at first when she confined herself to my arms but when she moved up to my face, I simply couldn't work any longer. Her tongue was like a belt sander.
In a stark instant, I snapped my eyes open and was confronted by Dusty Bones' deep eyes where he loomed over my chest playing with my necklace. A look to my right showed that the correct wife was breathing softly beside me and I was in the proper dream I have chosen to dream on this side of life. In an instant I knew it was the bionic chicken breast and mound of ampalaya she had fed me hours before and the half box of Windmill cookies I had polished off while watching Star Trek VI on the DVD that were the real authors of my discomfort. After a hot cup of chicory and a plug of halfzware shag, I was good to go.
The kitten's object of interest started me musing. It is a gold stylized rendition of kokopillau, aka kokopelli which I wear on my neck as a wedding token. I took the design from an illustration in a book about the Hopi I had read. A German anthropologist had taken rubbings from rocks he had found scattered from the Arctic to Tierra Del Fuego and from the Eastern seaboard to the coast of California. I have since seen many stylized versions of kokopillau but I prefer the most ancient.
The creature is actually a magical katydid and thus is supposed to look insectoid, not the humanistic version usually seen in “Real Indian” gift shops. I have drawn the little design for over forty years on all my correspondence and as a mark on many of my possessions. In Hopi myth, there was three worlds prior to this present one. Each was destroyed and in each case a remnant of mankind was saved from destruction and told to try a little harder to get along properly. A friend of mine said yesterday that if mankind was created yesterday at 9 AM, all the same color and language and culture, that they would be warring by noon.
In the last instance, the remnant emerged from underground shelters into what is now British Columbia. They were instructed by the Creator to travel to the North, West, East and South extremes of the continent and then to meet back in the middle of this cross. That rendezvous point is the Hopiland of today. Indeed, petroglyphs of kokopillau have been found all along this route. The journey was to take many, many generations and was only completed in fairly recent times.
The little being, it is told, felt sorry for humans and decided to go along as a helper. He had a magic flute and each night as the people camped, if seeds were put in a pot they carried, he would cause them to grow, flower and fruit in a matter of hours by playing music. The first mountain range they had to cross was guarded by an eagle. The eagle made the people agree to a challenge of their bravery before allowing them to pass. Kokopillau stepped up to take the challenge. The task was to stand without blinking as the eagle thrust an arrow point at his eyes. As his insect eyes were unblinking by nature, he passed the test.
From my understanding he was never worshiped as a deity, rather he embodied a connection to things magical or beyond our normal range of perception. This perception has waned in most humans with the passage of time and to their detriment. I am fortunate in this regards. It is in this spirit of understanding that I adopted kokopillau as a personal talisman of sorts. You could call him a helpful wanderer with a touch of mojo. How did he get to be around my neck? Therein, dear listener, hangs a tale.
When I was a young buck, I worked at a truck stop in the Fraser Canyon. On my time off I used to climb Jackass Mountain to sleep in the rocks and pines and watch the summer lightning, the trains and the moon. Once, I was sheltered in a rock overhang and saw a bolt strike a pine nearby. It shot down the trunk in a black streak and some smoldering pieces flew off in my direction. I went in the daylight to inspect and saw that it had a most curious shaped branch.
It was actually two branches grown together, then separated, then rejoined, then separated yet again. The shape spoke to something very deep inside me and I took the design as my own. It has formed part of my legal signature ever since that summer night so many decades ago. I revisited the tree throughout its life only to discover that it had been repeatedly struck and finally toppled. I still have a piece of the pitch-soaked wood blasted away from one of the strikes. In Cherokee medicine as well as in Chinese lore, this is very powerful stuff and to date I have never had a reason big enough to utilize its properties. The tree eventually went to earth but I was able to get a picture the second to last time I ever stood over it.
I had a relative in East Texas before I was born who was a wanderer. Felix G. Landers traveled on foot to points unknown and was always accompanied by two dogs. He was born in 1859 in Harrison County, Texas. He had three brothers and seven sisters. They grew up on a farm in Hallsville, Texas. He never married. No one knew where he went or what he did. From time to time he would show up at different relatives' farms to have a feed and carry on. He would eat and sleep on the porch with the dogs. He had a long gray beard and carried everything he owned in a backpack, save for a trunk which he left at one relative's house near Farmersville in Collin County. That trunk was never opened by anyone except him and no one knew what it contained.
It happened that he passed through one winter that was a particularly harsh one for this part of the world. He took up shelter in a cotton warehouse in a rare blizzard and his frozen body was discovered several days later by local farmers. The story made the local Texas papers and once I found a copy that a relative had sent to my mother which she had used as a bookmark in a book I had lent her.
Here are the two newspaper articles:
“Tuesday, 21 Jan 1930
DOG REFUSES TO LEAVE HIS DEAD MASTER
Loyalty of a dog to his master was described by Lansing citizens who reported to Longview, (Texas) officers today that they had found a dead man in a cotton house in their community Saturday morning. The man, Felix Landers, a wanderer, was frozen to death Friday night during the severe blizzard. He had started to Marshall, (Texas) from Longview, (Texas) and took refuge in the cotton house when the blizzard struck. Friday morning some farmers heard a dog barking in the cotton house, they investigated but the dog, a large collie, would not let them enter the shack. The men had to kill the collie before they could remove the man's body. Those who have known Landers said the collie was his best friend. They were inseparable at all times. Landers would not accept a ride from a motorist unless the dog was given the same privilege.”
“Friday, 14 March 1930
LANDERS APPEARS IN MARSHALL TO DENY HE IS DEAD
Felix Landers, like Rip Van Winkle, has returned to deny that he is dead. But unlike Rip, he found that nothing had changed, only the weather being a little warmer. The following article appeared in today's edition of the Dallas News under an Associated Press credit line. Furnishing a belated and unexpected denouncement to one of the many pathetic stories of Texas' extraordinary blizzard of January, Felix Landers, aged wanderer, came to Marshall, (Texas) Thursday expressly to deny he was frozen to death near Hallsville, (Texas) on 18 January. Since announcement of Mr. Landers' death, a number of relatives have tried to ascertain definitely how the rumor originated. They could not find their kin, but were told hundreds of times that he was dead. A report from Marshall, (Texas) this morning said Landers appeared at the sheriff's office yesterday, shook hands with Mr. Sanders and other officers, and told them “I am not dead.” A few minutes later he and his dog resumed their journey and were last seen on the Jefferson Road.”
The day I received the returned book from my mother by mail, I was busy researching the symbol I had taken from the pine tree so many tears ago. I had wanted to see if the form existed outside of nature, such was its resonance which never waned over the passing of many of my years of its use. I was using Google and after many hours of shooting in the dark, I came across an exact match! It was a bas-relief on the front of an ancient cotton warehouse in Northwest Cairo on the Nile Delta at a place called Sais. The building was thousands of years old and still standing in my lifetime.
Further hours of research showed the symbol to be one of the emblems of a female deity named Neith. A huntress and warrior woman much revered at the time and in that place. I had just re-filled my mug to ponder this when the mailman dropped the book through my door-slot containing the story of the cotton warehouse in East Texas thousands of years and an ocean away. I have had many days like this and though I am accustomed to it, I draw much inspiration and energy from contact with the numinous.
When I married the first time I made rings from hex nuts. When I could afford it, I had a sister-in-law make two rings with the motif from the pine tree on Jackass Mountain. Mine was lost in an attic while working as a gas-fitter in North Vancouver. The marriage didn't last long and I never found the ring in the blown-in insulation. My second set of wedding rings were custom-made and mine suffered a similar fate as did my second marriage. I lost that one in a crawl space doing gas-fitting. It had been made from a piece of my grandfather's ring. His fingers were of such a huge circumference that two rings and a further piece of jewelry were gotten from the one portion of gold.
My third set of wedding rings were store bought. I have big knuckles and slim joints close to my palms. Alas, to get a ring big enough to clear my knotty knuckles, means a loose fit on the other side. This ring was lost in another attic, that of my landlord at the time and I could not find it in the morass of fiberglass and vermiculite. My wife also worked with her hands all day and preferred to keep her ring in her pocket for fear of losing it down a drain. Thus we went about our daily affairs with no rings on.
I have never liked rings, watches and jewelry. I do not like the connotations to the ring in the bulls nose that is placed upon the married man's band by the unhappy husbands of the world. I don't like the ancient connections to Saturn, symbolized by the ring and the black square hats used by university graduates. Saturn was an asshole who ate his children. As Nisa and I are bonded like newly welded valve-flanges on a submarine, we do not feel the need to bother to wear physical reminders.
It has been clear to me for some time that one of the secrets of life is that of satisfaction. This simple principal escapes most of us for the best years of our lives and many of us do not comprehend it ever. What I mean is, if a person can accept their own reality of the time, place and circumstances they live in and hold this picture up against the totality of the world and all time at large, then and only then is one able to discern which times, events and places are the sweet times of their life. Thus, they are able to recognize a good situation and actually revel in it as it is happening, rather than look backwards with bitter tears of regret at the memory of what they now recognize as the good times.
When I was a letter-carrier, I had a lot of terrible routes and horrible assignments. One day at a Station called Mountainview, I bid on a new route. After the first day of sorting and walking it, I realized that it was the best I was ever going to get in my career. It had an AM portion that began across the street from the station at an outdoor gear outfitters store and did all the businesses for three blocks of a half-dozen streets. After a home-cooked lunch, which was taken in the station, I had six blocks of two streets far away next to the apartment where I lived. This portion took about an hour to complete and I would simply walk home.
At the time I had created a web-site of my writings called Follow The Lynx (pun intended) and was in the process of translating it into French, German and Spanish. This took many, many hours and several years to complete. I soon discovered that I could do my morning portion, go home for lunch, work for six hours of translating and then burst through he PM portion near my abode as a break from sitting. It was the cat's pajamas and I knew it! I enjoyed every mile of it and used the precious free time to further my own endeavors.
Over the years I had routes that took me progressively South on Cambie Street from the bridge downtown to 49th Avenue. The worst route I ever had was along this Avenue. One of my calls on Cambie Street was a jeweler's shop. The proprietors were a charming couple. The man was a German and his wife was a Swiss woman. She did the business and he made the jewelry. I got to know them well.
They had met as teenagers in Malaysia or Thailand as young travelers. After meeting, they decided to travel together and subsequently fell deep in love. Along their way, it happened one day that they were riding a motorcycle in very heavy chaotic traffic. An oncoming vehicle passed at high speed and part of its bumper swiped off the German boy's leg at the knee. The girl stuck with him in the sweltering filth and got him to treatment and eventually back to Switzerland where he received the very best care available at the time.
Her father, a jeweler, took the young man under his wing and told him that he had to get up off the bed, learn to walk on his plastic leg and learn a trade if he wanted to marry his daughter, which he very much wanted to do. The man taught the boy and he became an accomplished designer and maker of very fine jewelry. They were married and have been together everyday since that time.
One day as Christmas was approaching, I got the idea to forgo ever having a wedding ring to replace the one I had lost for the third time. I would have a piece made for my wife and one for me that we could wear around our necks. I talked to the German and gave him a drawing I had made of kokopillau. A few weeks later, he proudly placed the two pendants in my hand while his wife beamed goodwill from her eyes. I have never taken it off since and plan to be wearing it on the day I die. The design and the hands that made it carry a lot of power.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.