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.
There are several times in our lives that we feel invisible. At the starting line of a large marathon and at the finish with people whizzing past every second or so. Another of these times is when we are unemployed against our will. Someday astronomers will discover a former black hole that has become plugged up with poetry submissions, resumes, promises and good intentions. I remember waiting to set the date of my second marriage because of this exact problem. I had found a part-time gig servicing gas furnaces and it barely paid the bills on my small suite in the third floor of an old house on 48th and Fraser in Vancouver. I had just left a $100 a month rooming house and my Texas grandma had paid my first months rent after resorting to tears when I initially refused her gift.
The landlord was a German man who was divorced and worked at the TRIUMF facility at UBC making mesons with Teutonic precision. He also calibrated rifle scopes by mail-order for a sideline. He was a jolly, arrogant fellow and for awhile we enjoyed a sort of father/son relationship. The suite I occupied was simple and the only draw-back was that the house was so old that the four-footer tub was down a common hall and the toilet was in a closet that was shared with another guy who lived in the loft.
This young Englishman was an alcoholic and many were the times I heard him crash to a heap on the long staircase in the wee hours. As I assisted him to his door I would be treated to the repeated story of how his relatives were related to the royal family and that through some complex turn of events had been cheated out of their proper place in the Peerage. When sober he was quite polite and when in his cups he was just like the Man Who Would Be King's unfortunate cohort.
One morning I heard a cacophony. There were drums, loudspeakers and thousands of voices singing and chanting in Punjabi. I went to my small balcony which commanded a view directly South down St. George St. to 49th Ave. There exactly between the Buddhist Temple and the Kingdom Hall a mere hundred yards from the old house Jimmy Pattison had lived in as a boy, I saw my first Vaisaki Parade. At the time it was the largest crowd of people I had ever seen outdoors except for one of Willie Nelson's three day concerts in Texas. As I watched the long procession, the noise caused several mice to scurry from the living room to the back bedroom.
In the basement, underneath the main floor where the owner lived, was a young junkie. He was affectionately called Schmedrich by the German. His rent was paid by the Welfare Department directly to the landlord and he spent ninety percent of his time nodding off. The other ten percent was spent tapping his foot and heating up Kraft dinners on an old hot-plate. Once, the boss was away in Germany and the wispy boy had accidentally locked himself out and away from his next hit. My fiancee was at my place and I was at work.
I received a distressed phone call a from her that he had run amok, so I returned home immediately. When I got there he was calmly sitting in his chair by the door, nodding off. When roused he told me that my fiancee had refused to use the master key I had been given to let him in to his suite, so he had smashed out the window. I couldn't blame my gal nor could I fault the poor addict, who mentioned that he had also left his hot-plate burning and was worried for fire as well as for his dose. Two days later, a pipe burst in the ceiling of the landlord's suite and I had to rip out a huge section of gyp-rock to patch the pipe. It was summer and we patched up the window with plastic.
I was at a service call some time later and in a basement sipping coffee with a nice old man as we stared at the zillion pieces of his furnace spread out on the concrete. I was giving the burners a thorough wire-brushing and cleaning all the jets when the phone rang. The man went up to get the phone and my jaw dropped when he said it was for me. I took the phone in my sooty paw.
It was Canada Post and they wanted to know if I could proceed downtown to take a driving course and test. I had been out of real gainful employ for eighteen months and had soaked the universe in resumes during that entire time. As I rushed out the door, I promised the old fellow that I would return to reassemble his furnace later that day or night but I could not say when. I had important business and we shook on it.
I passed the test and returned to rebuild the furnace that late afternoon. The old guy had never doubted me and they don't make 'em like that anymore. He was overjoyed at my happiness and we had another coffee while I talked of my pending marriage and the family I would start soon. It was dark when I left and Autumn winds had piled a foot of yellow leaves along the curb. I was feeling good and I gave them a kick.
When I checked my mailbox, I had a letter from the Vancouver City Police. It was an order to appear at 5:30 AM at a building in the PNE complex for orientation, if I wanted a career as a cop. After a year and a half of fruitless, desperate job hunting I now had hours to decide the next thirty years of my life. I rolled a smoke and sat on the back balcony where I kept the Bonsai trees I had raised from seed. I had worked a small job with the Police to re-qualify for Unemployment Benefits and thus had spoken to many of these men. All of them had told me that their work placed a heavy strain on any marriage and to be fair warned. My up-coming marriage was inter-racial and we had all the strain we needed. I decided on being a mailman within two smokes.
I went for mailman school and passed with a hundred percent score. I went for on the job Letter Carrier training on the South Slope delivering many letters from India to the sons and daughters of the old saw-mill workers who had bought up the abodes facing the river there around the Blue Boy Hotel. My teacher was a young, capable and patient woman. I was winded after thirty minutes but I wanted my future with all my heart. I set the marriage date for three days after getting the job and announced this to my friends, relatives and new in-laws. For many months before I had wrangled with priests of every Christian denomination in the Yellow Pages and every single one of them had refused to do the ceremony due to my having been divorced and for not actively attending any church.
The last place I had tried was a Salvation Army on Lonsdale in North Vancouver. After I told the Major my story, he agreed to preside over the union if I agreed to take a pre-marital course offered by his church. We had already been to several meetings and I remember sitting in the parking lot listening to the bitter verbal fights of the other participants as they strode to their vehicles after class. Apparently young couples do not spend any time discussing their religious views, their child rearing opinions, their financial theories and such like. Of course they don't, they are too busy kissing and that kind of talk would make a river run backwards. In some parts of Louisiana a couple can place a broom over the doorstep of a house and jump over it in the presence of their friends and family and they are as married as any wine glass smashing dandies. We were wed in a lovely ceremony in a Heritage Park in Burnaby amongst a reconstructed nineteenth century town.
Soon, a Safe Driver Course and second driving test was ordered. This was because a Courier job had opened up. It wasn't what I had applied for but it was a start. I wanted to walk. I attended and after the class I was told that I alone had failed. I asked why. I was told that I hadn't committed any error but someone had to fail in each class for statistical purposes so the man had decided to write me up as having been too careful and thus too slow.
My appeals fell on the deaf ears of a “just business” kind of guy. I asked what was to become of me and was informed that the driving tester did not know. I asked if I was fired already and was answered in a vague manner that left equal tastes of doubt and hope on my tongue. Burdened with unbearable anger, sorrow and confusion, I limped on in to my Headquarters. I rolled a smoke and asked the mice not to tell my wife just yet.
I went early the next morning to the Post Office and asked around for the head of Letter Carrier Personnel. He turned out to be a big, gruff Ernest Borgnine lookalike. I told him my predicament. He was an ex-Navy man and he asked only one question. He asked what job I had applied for in the first place. I told him I had applied for Letter Carrier. He smashed a hairy fist on his oak desk and caused me and the phone to jump in unison. He grabbed the receiver and dialed upstairs. I won't repeat his language but it would have stripped the paint off a battleship. After some heated oration, he cupped his hand over the mouthpiece and asked me in the friendliest tone where I lived. I told him on 48th near Fraser. He grinned, ranted into the phone and hung up hard.
He shook my hand, smiled and said, “Mike, you are a Letter Carrier and your home base is Station O on 47th and Fraser. Congratulations, son. Go see Bill at 6 AM.”
“Thank you Sir. I am mighty grateful and I won't let you down.”
Buoyed with unbearable relief, happiness and hope, I floated on in to my Headquarters. I couldn't wait to share the news with my beloved. I checked my mailbox and there was a letter from Victoria. It told me that my driver's license had been suspended for six months due to too many speeding tickets. At this point I couldn't tell if I was drilled, punched, bored or screwed. I told the mice not to worry just yet. I can't remember what I told my wife. I made a mental note to re-read the myth of Sisyphus.
The next morning I walked the several blocks to Station O and met the Boss, an old-time fiddler named Bill. He gave me a copy of an album of fiddle tunes he and some musical friends of his had recorded for the Haney Old Time Fiddlers Association after I told him I was a guitar picker from Texas. His desk stood on a little raised platform so he could view the entire show and no one was allowed up there other than he or his assistant. When I told him of the six month driving prohibition, he took my Vehicle Operators Permit and called me up to his desk. He slid open a little drawer and hid it under some papers and told me that I was allowed to go in and retrieve it in six months time. Meanwhile he would see that I was only scheduled for foot walks. He retired and subsequently died before the time was up and I cried tears of gratitude when I retrieved my card that Spring.
I worked overtime daily for three years and bought a mortgage. I was blessed with my first son. I fixed up the house and was divorced five years later. That is another story but thus went the first few years of my career as a Letter Carrier. The years pull one downstream like a log in a river and the currents do the rest. I re-married and was blessed with my second son. Towards the middle of my career, I wondered what my last days at the Post Office would be like. Around forty years of age, I experienced that old invisibility again that I mentioned earlier.
A co-worker who was several years older, educated me to the phenomenon. It turns out, he said, that in our current culture, once a person reaches over forty years of age they disappear. No one notices you when you show up to work each morning and when you look at a recent photo of yourself at that time and compare it with a photo from when you began to carry letters, it is easy to see why. It is a bit hard on the ego and with more birthdays something worse is yet to come. Near fifty you again become visible to the people you work with but this time as an old person. Your Elvis has left the building, he is still the King and you are now his grandfather.
Your own children will cause you to experience invisibility yet again during the time I mention. It is a tricky road indeed. One thing that helped me was realizing early on that young people learn from actions more than from words. This becomes evident to the youngsters when they experience the phenomenon of feeling like they are becoming their parents as they mature. Mammals learn by mimicry and the unspoken lessons of their parents are the strongest and subsequently rise to the surface after the veneer of acquired attitudes and habits is worn away by the sturm und drang of life. The lesson here is the importance of setting examples even when to all outward senses you are being totally ignored. You are being watched intently in reality.
When I reached my final few days at Canada Post, there were people I had worked beside for thirty years in the building but most of those immediately physically near me at that time in my work row were very much younger and some but not all I only knew by their first names. We call each other row-mates and that may sound like a prison term but it probably does have some parallels to the dynamics within any set of walls occupied by groups of humans for long durations. Some people who served as mentors, guides and friends along the way were already retired or passed away and I hope to describe them in future stories. They have my everlasting thanks for their wisdom, encouragement and inexplicable interest in my life.
It is common to talk of food and other topics during the morning sort. I remember waxing forth in my last year, describing a gumbo I was making for visiting friends from Texas. Unable to get enough oysters and fresh crab, I had found a good affordable supply of frog meat to supplement the magic broth. My wife and I made forty quarts. This led to discussing Southern cuisine. This in turn led to my discussing my grandma's cooking. During my last two years it had been my custom to play MP3s of my favorite tunes while processing my flyers each afternoon. It was a mix of Seventies, World and Southern music for the most part with some eclectic items sprinkled in. One of my favorites was a twenty-one minute live version of Whipping Post by The Allman Brothers Band.
On my very last Friday, after thirty years carrying mail, I strode into my aisle. It was the 1,440th time I had done so, give or take. My row-mates burst into singing He's A Jolly Good Fellow. I turned red and waited it out. My emotions were running as high as my German and Swedish blood would allow. The Irishman and Welshman within were composing poems and sobbing and my Inner Cherokee was struck dumb. I could smell something that reminded me of my dear old grandma and all the guys were smiling at me in the weirdest fashion. I couldn't take my eyes off of them.
Presently, one young man who worked just behind me spoke. He asked me to lower my gaze a few feet. When I did, I saw a cart with a massive slow-cooked-fall-off-the-bone pot roast, rich gravy still steaming, carrots, roasted potatoes and onions, butter and bread and all the trimmings you would find on the best Southern table. The fellow smiled like a Bodhisattva and reminded me that I had talked about those very dishes as being my favorites one morning weeks before, unaware of what was up. Turns out he had personally cooked the whole shebang and was up all night doing it. I didn't even know the man's last name and had never been to his house.
Another young man, who worked just beside me a few feet to my left punched up a MP3 player he had rigged and as the first bars of Whipping Post wailed through the early morning carried on a beef and gravy breeze, he handed me a big chunk of banana bread he had made himself. He had been listening to and monitoring which songs I had played years before we were row-mates and I had scarcely known him. He had sat up all night searching out the play list and I couldn't have chosen any better than he had done. My spirit was sitting in my grandma's kitchen two thousand miles away and introducing her to my new young friends.
The man who had cooked the pot roast gave me the remainder to take home for the weekend. I had already moved most of my things upriver and my place was empty save for my computer and a few pots and blankets. On the strength of that delicious roast, I was able to complete the first set of these Bobcat Logic recordings and burn the first copies to give to those dear people on Monday morning.
During the final three days of the job, a young woman whom I had worked beside during my last two years, was covering the desk to my right and like an angel she helped me make my sort on time. She had learned more about me in those last months than anyone is likely to learn beyond whatever of these writings survive me. I can say with honesty that I would not have made it through the last few years with any dignity without her daily inspiration and companionship at work. Her name is tattooed on my heart and will remain there. Our pending goodbye felt like a broken rib. I couldn't even speak properly those last two shifts.
Four and a half months passed before I was able to write these words for fear of short-circuiting my keyboard with that ole salt water. A few days after I arrived in Lillooet, a book came into my PO Box. It was about hunting deer for beginners and it was from the young man who had made up my final play list. He had heard me talk of taking up hunting during my last few months at work. It was one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received.
To top this off, my boss for the last decade or so was the best I had ever seen the Company produce over thirty years. There were before him many fools and several idiots. This is no exaggeration and I remember once likening him to the young Captain of a u-boat in the movie Das Boot for his ability to show leadership, to instill confidence and his ability to quell fear in the crew while Union/Corporate depth charges were exploding all around. I can say now, I would not have lasted without his competent stewardship and the example he set for us all.
Adjusted for vacations, I had walked the circumferences of the Earth, then the Moon and finally from Houston, Texas to the Church's Chicken on I-10 just outside of North-East Side San Antonio. What a long, strange trip it was. So, there at the finish line were these random and unique people, each having had a special part to play in my reaching the goal of retirement or in acknowledging and celebrating that fact. All younger than me. I have learned conclusively that while we all may sometimes feel invisible, indeed we are not. Not ever. I sincerely hope that I set a good example for all those who were watching me as I ran my race whether or not I knew their names. Aaron, Ryan, Vivien and Mike ya'll are with me everywhere I go. This story is for you guys and it carries more gratitude than raggedy little words can convey.
My first seven years at the Post Office were spent as a Sick Relief Carrier. This meant was that I would report to my Station and be dispatched from there to where ever someone had phoned in sick for the day. The covered area was from Horseshoe bay to Deep Cove and all points in between. Because of the traveling time to the job site, my day began later than the other regular carriers. Because of human nature, the work load was enormous. That is, many people planned their sicknesses and left behind lots of undelivered flyers to clear up.
It was a lonely business and I racked up a lot of overtime. At the beginning of my third marriage, my day came. At long last, I had successfully bid on my own route! I was ecstatic. The route was a Vancouver East Side multi-ethnic lower middle class neighborhood that in response to rising costs and declining employment had rented every available square foot of basement to those in receipt of welfare.
I covered from 31st Ave. to 28th Ave., between Fraser St. and Main St. and two streets down to 25th Ave. The irony of life hit me between the eyes when I got to my first call on the first day. It was right across the street from a massive graveyard that stretches from 41st. Ave. to 31st Ave. Every morning I walked the line between the living and the dead for the first half-hour or so. That sets a man to thinking about many things.
Over the years, after many adventures I came to rent a place nearby on 41st Ave. It was such a large acreage, that it was the unofficial practice range for new car drivers. Children learned how to roller-blade there and many people used it for walks and jogging. Homeless people holed up there and a group of Wiccans started having candle-light sing-a-longs at night during October.
Once, my son and I tracked a coyote into the grounds and following its shed fur, discovered a massive burrow. It was wide enough for a man and went so far back, one couldn't see the end. I crawled inside as my son stood guard outside. When I got about twenty feet in, in pitch blackness, I felt a strong conviction to clear out. My son was small, I had only a pocket knife and we didn't know if they were home or if they had young pups in there.
On my backwards crawl out, I dropped a brand new pouch of Drum tobacco. I could have easily retrieved it but the idea of leaving it as a gift entered my mind. After all, I had come unannounced to their house. I have been seeing coyotes ever since that day, from San Diego to Lillooet. One week-end I was walking through and I was reading gravestones. A marker that was set right on a corner caught my eye.
It said “Walter Euper – Texas” and had his birth and death dates, the name of a Canadian Volunteer Regiment and his parent's names. It was a flat stone and badly covered with weeds and mud. As a fellow Texan, I cleaned it off and sort of adopted it. Just before I left Vancouver, I saw that the old stone had been replaced with a nice standing marble.
I found the graves of a couple who were relatively young and had died on the same day. I looked them up and they turned out to be famous writers and mountaineers. They had traveled the world climbing peaks and writing of their adventures. On one return voyage to Vancouver, the ship that carried them foundered in sight of land off Stanley Park and they along with many others aboard had drowned.
The place had other lessons to teach. Towards the middle of the property was a small section with a high fence within the main fence. It turned out to be the Jewish only section. If one came out of this partitioned area and looked due West over the grounds, a large Oriental structure could be seen. It was a covered table with a red-tile roof and large metal fire-bins standing by. This was the Chinese section. The table was always covered in offerings of rice, flowers and all kinds of fruit. The bins were for burning fake money for the deceased to spend in eternity. There was always incense burning and you felt as if someone had just been there moments ago, no matter when you happened by.
The soldiers were along the West fence and there were rows and rows of names who had the same death dates, particularly those killed in WWI. Amidships stood an obelisk with the usual message warning the living not to forget. After the graves of those who fell in the trenches of the Great War and those who fell in the War To End All Wars, the Korean Conflict, the Conflict In South East Asia, new ground had to be dug for the bodies arriving from Bosnia and Afghanistan. All the graves had to be reshuffled to accommodate these newcomers.
One morning at work after I delivered the last house on the street bordering the graveyard, I cut across the strip of grass on the public property side of the sidewalk near the street. I stopped to roll a smoke and after a puff or two, I scanned the cemetery for coyotes. I didn't see any and began to march down to the next street. My eyes were focused a half-block down the street because of a recent run-in with an untethered hound who had it in for me.
I came to an abrupt halt several yards from the corner. I had sensed an obstruction and when I looked directly in front of my feet I saw a most curious thing for the first time. Thrust upright in the soft soil with green and red stones glittering in the morning light was a beautiful sword. I was stunned that I hadn't noticed it before. I looked up and down the street. There were no people in sight. It stood on public property and right in my path.
I looked up at the sky. I felt that if I took up the sword, that great responsibilities would come with it. Nothing worth having is free. Like the boy in the Sword In The Stone legend, I pulled the blade out of the soil. It was very long and had a beautiful hand guard set with ornamental rubies and emeralds. The shape of the hand guard was instantly familiar but I couldn't place it. I only knew I had seen it somewhere.
There was an inscription on the blade and some fancy work. It was steel sure enough and possibly Damascus, I reckoned. I stood across from the graveyard wielding the weapon and began to feel conspicuous. I slid it into my Post Office belt and it just cleared the ground by an inch or so. I continued on my way delivering the mail.
When I reached the end of my route, I reconsidered. Something didn't feel right and I decided to walk back to my station on 10th Ave. and Quebec St. via Main St. There were a dozen or so antique stores, junk shops and pawn shops along the way. I got an inspiration to let it go for cash. I felt better somehow, knowing I would be unburdened from it.
In the first shop I walked into, the man told me no before I had opened my mouth. In the second shop, I was asked where I got it. I told the truth and that fellow examined it carefully and almost reluctantly said he couldn't buy it. In the third store, I asked the man what he thought it was worth. He said he wasn't sure but that it would certainly be in the hundreds of dollars to start.
By now I had a growing feeling pressing on my mind to be rid of it. This intensified so much as I went North down the sidewalk, I offered it to five or six shop-keepers for the price of a dinner for two. I was going to treat my wife. Everyone vehemently said no and as a last resort I tried to give it away. To a man, they all strongly declined. I was stuck with it. I took it home after work and my wife polished it up carefully and I hung it above the fireplace in our rental. I never tried to research it or sell it.
It happened that we moved to another apartment just around the corner five years later. It was an unplanned emergency move and the unpacking was done in great haste. Within a week, everything was in its place except the sword. I had no fireplace and had not decided where to mount it yet. It stood in a corner, leaned against the wall next to a bookcase.
I kept my keys, tobacco and pocket change on a shelf of this bookcase and the last thing I did each work morning was to grab those items. I was up at 5 AM and usually out the door by 6. I put my coffee mug in the sink one morning and walked over to the shelf and began to load my pockets for the day. It was semi-dark. I heard a loud, solid thump in the living room behind me.
I whirled around still holding my keys to see who had fallen. There on the beige carpet was the blade. It lay seven feet away from where it had stood upright against the wall beside me. The ornate hand guard was shattered into several pieces. I couldn't imagine how it could shatter on carpet. I had experienced telekinesis before when living in a haunted house on Vancouver Island and as a result of that I had no trouble understanding that the object had indeed flown across the room.
I knew that something was showing off. I never start fights but I will finish them. Whether the opponent is on This Side or the Other Side. I became very angry. I remembered those haunted six months in Nanaimo. I slowly bent the steel over my knee. It was incredibly strong. Using all my body weight and my feet I managed to put it into the shape of a Toledo steel pretzel. My intent as I deformed the shank was to show my invisible audience that weapons are nothing. Deeds are everything.
I grabbed my backpack hurried out to the street. I placed the sword into a garbage barrel at the Chevron Station next door and ran for my bus. That was about fifteen years ago. I first researched that strange sword online today. After a few moments, I knew where I had seen it before, its name and its original owner. Its name was Tizona. It became the object of much veneration by the deeds of a flesh and blood man, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, who died 915 years and 18 days ago. We know him as El Cid. I first saw him and his wife Ximena portrayed by Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren.
Wiki tells us “During his campaigns, El Cid often ordered that books by classic Roman and Greek authors on military themes be read aloud to him and his troops, for both entertainment and inspiration before battle. El Cid's army had a novel approach to planning strategy as well. They frequently used unexpected strategies, engaging in what modern generals would call psychological warfare — waiting for the enemy to be paralyzed with terror and then attacking them suddenly.”
Over the years, I had many routes and as time progressed the Board of Canada Post put into practice all the ideas that were hatched at their meetings. Small neighborhood stations began to amalgamate and coalesce into ever larger operations housed in new buildings. It was a real-estate sell off and a preparation for down-sizing that required no PhD to interpret.
I found myself working for a newly created station which was a combination of two which had been my learning ground in my early days. There was a contest to name the new station and after the rejection of Stalag 31 and other such names, it was decided that the winning name was to be Mountainview. The new letter-carrier station was situated on Yukon St. in Vancouver at Seventh Ave.
It was divided into two floors, with the upstairs being the old Depot 31 and the downstairs being the old Station C. The latter station's territory was the East-side and the upstairs covered the West out to Oak St. The upstairs routes encompassed all the larger apartment towers and the higher income residential areas, thus the dogs were smaller and friendlier.
It occurred to a friend and early mentor of mine within the post office that it was time for the two of us to “move on up – to the West-side.” His plan was for us to grab two monster apartment walks and cash in on the lack of gates and stairs as well as the extra money for the delivery of metric tons of junk mail.
I considered his plan and concurred. My family was without wheels and the car commercials kept telling me I belonged outdoors, bungee-jumping with my brood. We were regularly hiking and and pursuing all kinds of activities but we had to come and go by bus. It was getting to be a drag.
We placed our bids and were both successful. My route was just under 900 calls and my friend's was in the same ball-park. Before a quarter was up, my friend bid off to something more humane and I stubbornly stayed on mine, making one after-tax cent per flyer until I had saved enough to buy a vehicle with cash saved over the course of four years or so.
During this time, I was successful in tearing both menisci. My knees swelled to the size of grapefruits and stayed that way for two years while I awaited my turn to get an MRI to diagnose the problem. Meanwhile, I altered my sortation case on the weekend, fixing it so my histamine holders wouldn't bang into the unforgiving maple.
I was on that route for four years before a successful bid took me to a residential route, which although many times longer to walk, proved to be better for my knees. During the four years, I was busy climbing all the peaks in North Vancouver's Lynn Watershed on my time off.
At the same time, I was studying up on tracking and generally trying to become more tuned in to my surroundings in the bush. As I progressed in this endeavor, I began to see more wildlife each time. In addition, I had to learn to monitor the weather, the route and my own condition.
I began to notice many more things even at home in my neighborhood as well as at work on my route. The city is just another jungle and has its own food chain. I noticed for the first time, the man across the street who had visits from prostitutes about twice a month. I noticed the ever changing bag men who carried off the days drug-selling proceeds to their boss from an apartment several blocks to the South.
Before, they had just blended in as random passers by. Now, it was if they and their two bodyguards across the street were spray-painted Dayglo orange. They passed by around 8 PM each evening and made the drop at the Chevron station on the corner. The body guards changed each time as did the bag man. The method and the timing was rock solid and you could set your watch to it.
Looking back, it may have also been the constant severe pain in my knees that contributed to my extra-heightened awareness at this time. I noticed a man one day standing by the upraised hood of his car while I was delivering my route. When I glanced at him, I knew he was out of place and when I left that street nearly an hour later, he hadn't budged. He stood in exactly the same spot, hands on the hood and seeming to peer into the depths of his engine.
I knew a customer, a Welshman who was a private detective. We discussed the man I had seen and I was told that in a city the size of Vancouver, in a neighborhood as high-end and as dense as was my route, there would easily be dozens of his ilk, busy doing jobs for suspicious wives, husbands, bosses and insurance personnel. Added to this were the throngs of camera carriers. Some were students and some worked for real estate companies and others were tourists.
This new information made me even more aware of my surroundings. It became a new adventure each day as I spotted all the snoopers. They had always been there, I had just been oblivious before. Now it was easy to see who was out of context. Part of the secret of seeing them had to do with movement.
In a cityscape, people are in constant flow. Both the observer and the observed. If a person drives slowly past a man peering iunder the hood of his car at the roadside, they make a mental note that they are glad it isn't their car in trouble and then shift their attention to the lady in red sashaying over to a car parked in front of the flower shop.
The vision of the man will be forgotten in an instant and the observer's mind will have already written a back story and a conclusion to the whole phenomena. If, however, the observer happened along the way again four hours later and the same man hadn't moved an inch, he would begin for the first time to analyze that man. If the observer had himself stopped within sight of the car man for even forty-five minutes, he would have become intrigued.
This propensity of the human mind to fill in blanks to the satisfaction of the observer in order to avoid processing any “extra” data is greatly heightened by city life. People that would fool you are well versed in their understanding of this trait and use it to their advantage. I began to relate my days sightings to my Welsh P. I. friend and he laughed each time I mentioned a ruse that he himself had used in his work.
I found every CCT camera on my route and noticed for the first time that the bus I rode to work was wired for both sight and sound. I noticed that the photography supply store on my route was a front for selling hydroponic grow operation chemicals out the back door. I found three in-home meth labs and two in-home grow operations.
I noticed that the travel agency on my route had never been in that business for the entire four years I delivered its mail. As it was in a lump of 900 calls, it was awhile before I noticed that the jacket slung over the chair at the desk and the empty coffee mug adjacent hadn't moved a centimeter. Only the pile of mail under the front door slot had been picked up.
I noticed one day while sorting mail that I was receiving about 500 miss-sorted letters that were for another colleague's route. They were addressed to a private post office box service about two blocks away from the bogus travel agency. It became annoying to cull this mail out and walk across the station to give it to the other carrier. On one of these trips to dump that mornings gleanings, I noticed that the other carrier was delivering about fifty pounds of this mail per day to that box. I saw Dayglo orange.
I scrutinized the envelopes and noticed that all the letters were from Alabama, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, Florida and Mississippi. Most were scrawled in pencil and the towns of origin were all tiny rural communities. Eventually, in the flood came one letter that hadn't been sealed and the contents fell out of its nearly destroyed envelope.
It was a cheaply printed note, telling the sender that they had won very much money and as soon as their five dollars cash processing fee was received that they would be sent the information as to how to collect their windfall. Folded inside the note was a wrinkled, crinkled, wadded five dollar bill. It was covered in the dust and dirt of honest toil and I could imagine the sharecropper sitting at his or her kitchen table making it ready to send and dreaming of perhaps a new roof for his shack.
I replaced the contents and sent it on its evil way. I was angry and I Googled up the codes on the exterior of the envelope and found that the source for sending out the winner's notices was a self-serve Postal Outlet in a small mall in South Carolina. One weekend I sat sipping coffee and munching pizza next to the P. O. Box business in Vancouver and watched two nice looking young men haul away a massive sack of these envelopes into their expensive car.
I did a rough calculation and found that these bandits were making some serious money. I told my boss and with a raised eyebrow she informed me that the Canada Post Security and Investigation Team was hot on the trail already. She seemed surprised I had noticed anything at all. She gave me a card with a number to phone if I saw anything else pertinent.
Not long after this it was my turn. They say if you peer too long into the abyss, it will begin to look back at you. I became aware one fine day that I was being followed and monitored. It was obvious to me but nothing would have looked out of place to anyone else. It was being done by a team and a fairly large one. No one stalker stayed on me for long before being replaced by another.
The playground was my route and the duration was several months. These people were mostly in their thirties and had some sophisticated equipment for the time I am speaking of. Some of their methods were classic and could be found in any police training manual or any good spy novel. I was even photographed by a young man with a peep-hole camera he had installed in the left elbow of his Army Surplus jacket.
The jacket was spotlessly clean and his shoes were too expensive for my postie salary. There was a neatly cut circular hole the size of a match head in thew elbow of his jacket and he awkwardly pressed a squeeze-type shutter mechanism with his right hand while cutting in front of me on the sidewalk and pointing that elbow at me like a gun. I asked him if he wanted to take two in case it didn't come out well as he sped off around the first corner.
My first instinct was that it wasn't really happening. This was disproved very quickly. My second instinct was that it was the Post Office training a new crop of S & I people. It was logical. My route was close to the station, close to transportation from downtown and had many good places to eat and buy coffee. I approached my superintendent and asked him if this was the case or if I was actually being shadowed due to the large amount of overtime which I had legitimately booked on my monster route.
He answered that he was not aware of any investigation of myself and had not ordered such. He said he would phone the appropriate high-ups and make sure. The next day he told me that Canada Post was definitely not involved. That tore it for me. It wasn't fun anymore. I was being hunted and I didn't know by whom or why.
The surveillance would start within a block of my exit from my station. I always walked from 7th and Cambie up the steep hill to 16th. Usually a man or woman would emerge from either a parked car or a doorway across the busy boulevard. They would be in lock-step with me and if I altered my pace, they did likewise. If I crossed the street, they would abruptly break off and either enter a store or turn a corner. Within seconds I could always pick up the next tracker who would emerge from a store or car or doorway on either side of the street. They would give themselves away by matching my purposely changing stride and by the sudden dash into a store if I looked too long at them.
The sheer number of players along the length and breadth of my territory told me that they were sophisticated and were not after me. Rather they were after my schedule. As these guys took notes outside each of my big apartment towers as to my arrival time and length of stay, I took license numbers of every vehicle I saw them scurry into throughout my day. I phoned these into S & I each day.
I began to vary my delivery sequence at random. This caused much confusion at first and several times I surprised a spook. Some times I would have a smoke in the cover of a big evergreen while watching a perplexed hood checking his watch and anxiously looking in the direction I was supposed to come from. These moments made the pressure bearable.
One afternoon I was followed to my rented duplex. I had a wife and two sons in there and now things were taking a serious turn. That week-end I saw one of the crew standing right across my street at a bus stop. He let bus after bus go by. I told my wife. She said, “Pop, you're working too hard.” I told her I would make a prediction. I told her to watch the man let two buses go by from our window first. Then I told her that if I stepped out into the yard, he would magically decide to take the very next bus.
My wife smiled and took up my challenge. I was right! I had my payback for getting cheeky with these guys by the fact that they now knew where I lived and some of my family routine. Over the next few weeks the mail started to be stolen from my route and many adjacent routes in this part of town. At first, the panels of boxes were broken open physically but within weeks, they were simply opened with some sort of key and re-closed.
Piles of mail were discovered dumped in city parks, beaches and other places sometimes miles from their source. Each instance was duly reported to the station and to the S & I. I had to phone them daily and sometimes a few times in one day. The operation was very big. I continued randomizing my delivery patterns and observing everything around me.
One day, I did a very convoluted pattern of delivery and was treated to the following sight. A young woman, probably in her teens and dressed in dirty torn jeans and a tee-shirt was busy in the lobby of a building that I would normally not get to until many hours later in the afternoon. She had her own key and a black plastic garbage bag.
She was nearly finished shoving all the last few letters into the bag and locking up the panels with a practiced hand. As I watched from a behind a juniper bush she headed off down the sidewalk in the direction of a mall on 12th Ave. Right across the street from her were two young muscle boys who escorted her all the way to the mall. I grinned, as I had arranged the night before to meet my wife and son at the food court of this same mall. I checked my watch. I decided to arrive to my lunch a bit early and follow the mail thieves.
I checked my rear and sides and followed two blocks behind. When the young lady got to the entrance the young men kept on their way past the mall. I hurried into the food court. I just saw the girl disappear into a corridor which contained the door to the big mail-room of the mall and some washrooms.
I sat at a good vantage point and awaited my wife. My son and wife called from across the floor and soon we were chowing away on noodles. I didn't mention the drama to my wife so she wouldn't stare and it gave me an excuse for being in that place at that time in case I was being studied. I never took my eye off the corridor.
After about ten minutes, the young woman appeared, this time all dressed in swanky shoes, a nice dress and adorned with jewelry and make-up. She streamed into the throng and instantly became another shopper who had been there all day. I watched the corridor over my wife's head. In about four minutes, out came a big man in this early forties. He was dressed in an expensive well-fitting suit like a lawyer and had a hands-free phone in his ear. He was gripping a small expensive Gucci gentleman's bag.
As he exited the food court area he mumbled into his mic and I caught some movement on the Mezzanine level above where we were. There, stationed at the four corners were four goons in their thirties, similarly dressed to the man with the briefcase, all with phones in their ears and all moving down four staircases simultaneously to flank their boss out of the building. I hadn't previously noticed them.
I had occasion to meet the local head of postal security some months after and learned that Russian mobsters had worked this scam right across Canada. They were well-funded, well-equipped, well-trained, well-disciplined and not to be trifled with. They had managed to equip themselves with the keys then in use via armed assaults and always used underage dupes to do the actual theft. The postal keys across Canada were all changed to a vastly superior type in response. The irony that this all happened in the nicer parts of town was a new lesson for me.
I learned that poor areas have much visible petty crime and thus an overblown reputation that tars many decent people with a dirty brush. There simply aren't the funds to cover the dirt with. Conversely, nice parts of a town harbor every type of evil, almost perfectly concealed under a layer of store-bought window dressing.
One evening, well into my third marriage, I wrote this poem. It is about men, women and what I had learned from my experience up to that point about romantic love versus reality. I hadn't expressed myself in the poetry medium since my late teens and I was surprised to see the piece once it was done. The words had come easily off the pen to the page like a flock of birds leaving a telephone wire to land on a rice field.
I stored it away, not really sure what to do with it. Once in a while, I would read it for my own edification during my rough patches. It lay on my desk for years as I raised my children and lived peaceably with my wife. I was two decades away from my retirement from letter-carrying on The Trail Of Tears.
Like a glacier which gives up the bones of climbers who fell half a century before kilometers away from a summer scree-field, the day came when I began my last route. It was a neighborhood that had escaped me thus far over the thirty years and there were not many in that category in the Lower Mainland. It was old, funky and well kept with an eye to thriftiness. That is to say, rather than make-overs, each dwelling had been repaired as needed and the work done was always top-quality. I admired it and found the people to be very intelligent, outgoing, opinionated and generally philosophical.
It turned out to be one of the old Jewish neighborhoods and was now tucked away behind the massive Children's Hospital and Red Cross Blood Donation Clinic complex, which it predated. My territory was from 37th Avenue at Cambie St. over to Oak st. and down to 26th Ave. It had over five thousand stairs, a park, a Synagog, multiple Rabbis, an old fashioned strip-mall, a gas station and a Starbucks.
My youngest son had found lodgings across the street and I would be pleasantly surprised to meet him at the coffee bar once in a while at random. There was a deli in the supermarket and it sold world-class spanakopitas at ridiculously low prices. There were pastrami sandwiches on rye breads sturdy enough to take the weight of a sandwich that would humble a field-hand.
I was soon enjoying this run. I found a house near the park where I would sit for my sandwiches and coffee. The old couple inside came out on the first day and invited me in to sit at their table. I declined due to my muddy gear and the second day, the old man donned a toque and jacket and began sitting on his steps to chat while I had lunch. He told me the history of the environs and described the view before it was blocked by the ongoing hospital construction and the long line of Cars2Go.
His name was Goldberg and we became friends. I usually had a parcel of books for him and even when the old fellow stopped coming outside as the weather got colder, I had a few words at the door with him several times a week. Once when I thanked Mrs. Goldberg for being so nice about letting me use her steps to have my lunch on, she told me that we all might as well be good to each other.
“After all,” she said, “We are only alive for a short few days, but when we die, we are dead for a long, long time.”
It was the kind of place where you could be buying a Baby Ruth candy bar at the grocery store and have a spirited discussion about Quantum mechanics with the cashier then another about orchestral composition outside with a random passer by.
There was a house three calls from the park with a long set of wooden steps. Almost every day, I would be greeted by a handsome elderly man at the bottom of these stairs. He was tall, slim, evenly gray and well muscled for his medium sized frame. He carried himself nobly without appearing haughty or proud. He dressed in modest top-quality wool slacks, a well fitting shirt, a sweater-vest, a jacket and wore a scarf always.
His voice was accented such that I placed it somewhere on the plains of Hungary near Lake Balaton, though I never asked. I assured him that I minded not carrying the mail up the steps and he always insisted that I give it to him in the yard. We had many small talks this way and I used to watch him wandering back and forth in his yard as I ate lunch across the street.
One day as I handed him his large stack of mail, I remarked that I could always tell which were his letters when I was sorting as 90% of them were in the same odd square shaped envelopes with black borders. There had been scores over the first several weeks of such envelopes. As they were not post-marked from Germany, I overlooked the significance of the dark borders. The man looked at me square in the eyes and asked me if I knew why those particular envelopes were arriving everyday. I answered that I did not.
“They are condolences, Michael. My wife passed away three weeks ago. We have many friends. We married when we were very young and were together constantly for fifty years. It's hard now. That is why I am outside the house all the time these days. I have been many places and have done many things. This makes it hard to get excited about life any more. Believe me, life hold no surprises for you when you get to my stage. We have one son. She was a wonderful woman, wife and mother.”
I gripped his arm and expressed my own condolences. We spoke awhile and I told him briefly of my three marriages and how I managed to find a woman like his on the third try. It turned out that we had both married at the same age. I was twenty-three years into my current marriage. He told me that the important thing was that I'd found her eventually.
Days passed and on each of them, I delivered a stack of the ominous black-edged cards from all over the city and all over the globe. Something began to gnaw at my heart over those days and would not relent. I knew the feeling and also knew to wait until the cause made itself known. The old man stopped coming outside after that and I missed seeing him.
One day soon after, I was eating lunch on the Goldberg's steps and it hit me. I rushed through the route and got home on the train as quickly as I could. I dug out the poem I had written decades earlier on love. I printed it out and wrote a small explanation at the bottom in my own hand. I put it in the longest rectangular envelope I could find and addressed it to the old man.
My idea was to bypass the politically correct format of expressing condolences and to openly recognize and celebrate this man's extraordinary life of love, fidelity and companionship. What he had just lived through was increasingly rare in the world we inhabit.
Fifty years together with a faithful woman and the raising of a well-educated son. Somehow, the expression of sorrow at the recent loss by the man's friends seemed to me to lack recognition at the five decades of heaven he and his beloved had enjoyed, no doubt due to their own good character, perseverance and dedication.
In my opinion, if he had followed his wife the next day, his had been an exemplary life, well-lived and containing its own rewards, spiritual and temporal. I was sure of it, down to my bones.
I delivered the long envelope together with a hefty stack of the sad cards and a few bills. I hadn't seen the man for some time. The next day he was still absent from his yard. A week went by. Like all heart-led decisions, I began to doubt myself and actually worry that I had over-stepped some boundary and either offended or angered the man. This feeling grew more intense as the days grew colder.
In the second week, I had a registered item for the gentleman. With some trepidation, I knocked at his door. Presently, he appeared in the glass pane, attired as usual. He gently swung open the heavy wooden door and signed for the item. When he handed me back the digital device, he straightened his body and drilled me with his eyes. He looked at me the way a man does when he is wondering if he can kick your ass and the jury is still cloistered.
I nearly trembled visibly, such was my angst at possibly having offended the wonderful man in any way. I heard crazy babble fabricating explanations in my turbulent mind. Another part of me was serene, calm and sure. That was my heart. I waited for him to speak, like a man tied to a post and waiting for the report of the firing squad's volley.
“Wait here a moment,” he said sternly.
He disappeared into the house, past a beautiful oak table set up for six people. He returned a minute later with my poem in his hand.
“Did you write this?”
“Yes, Sir. I am sorry. I just wanted to tell you that you are an example of the kind of man I strive to be and that I know that luck has nothing to do with it. I wrote that poem many years ago and I didn't know why nor who it was intended for. When you told me of your wife, I knew it had been written for you.”
“Micheal, it made me feel good! I showed it to my son. It made him feel good. We both thank-you very much, Sir.” He bowed low, the way an orchestra conductor does. I felt like I was in someplace like Vienna and it was the eighteenth century.
My heart felt like I had main-lined some Adolph's Meat Tenderizer and we shook hands. The next day my new friend was again out in the yard. He thanked me again for the poem and said his friends had also liked it. He said his Rabbi had liked it. He told me that he came from a land of many trains and that he had an analogy of life based upon them. You got born on the train and found that there were some people on-board that you liked and some that you didn't. You couldn't get off and when it arrived at the final station you were done. I told him about my Train To Heaven story. He smiled and stroked his chin.
The next day I met him on the pavement outside the Starbucks. He had been chatting animatedly with a beautiful young woman who was pushing a baby carriage loaded with grocery bags. It was cold but the sky had cleared to a beautiful cobalt blue. When the young lady went her way, the old man approached me and shook my hand. He thanked me again for the poem and we began to chat. I rolled a smoke and sipped my coffee.
Like a father, he put his arm across my shoulders and looked at me the way someone does when they are about to impart a great secret. The expression was one in which the orator has already determined that the listener is ready to receive the information. There was no vestige of doubt on his face.
“Micheal, do you want to live a long time?”
"As long as my creator deems fit,” I replied.
“Of course. I am a Doctor. That's my profession. A medical doctor. I only retired recently and I practiced medicine for over forty years. Here is my gift to you. Don't go to doctors. Period. Stay away. Believe me. I know. My mother smoked like you and lived to be well over one hundred years old. Do you know why? She absolutely and categorically refused to see a Doctor for any reason whatsoever.”
He looked around to see if our exchange had been monitored and then looked back and smiled warmly. He patted me twice and walked away. I never saw him again.
Some people drink because they have tragedy in their lives. Some people have tragedy in their lives because they drink. There are worse things than drinking and some reformed drinkers have merely replaced their drinking with another addiction. As long as the dopamine crosses the neuron gaps, life goes on. Modern colleges have bars right on campus.
Drinkers can be guilty of ruining and endangering the lives of others but that is only if others allow it, with the exception of children. I had a step-father, my first of two, who drank like a galley slave. He had been at it quite some time when he came into my life. He was in his latter thirties when I met him and one drunken night, after we had polished off the ales, the wine and the Aquavit, we were musing on life.
He pulled an old card-board box out of the closet and rummaged inside. He extracted a newspaper clipping with an Oregon masthead. It was dated nearly two decades earlier. There was a photo of a young man in a hospital bed. He was in traction, wrapped in layer upon layer of bandages and a half body cast. There was a small inset photo of another young man with an accompanying obituary.
The story told of two young Danes who had come to Canada to receive jet pilot training in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The boys were also accomplished tennis players and my step-father was a dab hand at jazz piano. The pair were authorized to represent their base in these two capacities and traveled around to competitions by plane and by car.
On these excursions there was much prodigious drinking engaged in by the boys. My stepfather had been driving along the highway that runs through The Dalles. He was three sheets to the wind and lost control of the vehicle. His best friend was killed and he was crushed, particularly his two legs.
He woke up just before they took the picture in the paper. He is smiling in the picture and hadn't been told the news about his friend yet. When he rose from that cot, he began to punish himself and continued this until his death, several years ago. I believe I was the only person to receive his story since the tragedy happened. He never spoke of it again.
After my mother divorced him, I saw him only once. He was living in a funky dilapidated house with raccoons and squirrels running across the keys of a broken piano which a friend had gifted to him. He broiled a steak for my new wife and I and fell asleep in a urine soaked chair.
One of his friends, another Dane, was a car mechanic. This man had a brother who was a disheveled falling down non-functioning drunk. The mechanic had a son whom I ran with for a while. The mechanic was also alcoholic but the functional variety. His booming business kept him in the dough and he had a nice house, a strong wife and expensive clogs. As an auto mechanic, I found him to be less than honest and not overly talented.
One day, I was having some work done on one of my clunkers and I saw a secret. A customer had brought in a big luxury car that had an undiagnosed problem. The shop-owner pulled his his indigent brother up from a chair in the back and gave him some liquor. These two got in the car and went for a drive. They were back in ten minutes.
While they were gone, the customer, another Dane, intimated to me that the sloppy drunk brother had an incredible talent which the other brother was able to use. The delirious one could ride in any vehicle and by using his incredible sense of hearing and knowledge of mechanical things; he could diagnose with 100% accuracy what was the problem with any car. Then the functioning brother would perform the work and write the bill. Other than this, the gifted addict was shunned by his family.
When my ex-step-father passed away, I was invited to a wake at the Army and Navy Club in North Vancouver. It would be a Viking binge to be sure. I declined to attend for two reasons. One was because he had made my mother and baby sister miserable for many years. The other reason was that I had ceased drinking alcohol three decades earlier. The friend who phoned me with the news has never spoken to me since that time.
The night of the wake, I went out onto my front porch for a smoke. I was instantly and completely enveloped in a choking cloud of alcohol fumes. There was no visible source and I knew within a minute what was up.
“Lasse, I know you have come to say goodbye. I bear you no ill-will and I know you will understand why I didn't come tonight when you sober up. You will have to go on your way, you are dead now.”
I went out into the yard and cut a cedar branch and lit it up. I wafted the smoke around the yard, the porch, the doorway and also the interior of my apartment. To put it simply, this act gets the attention of those stuck between realities and signals them that they may continue saying goodbye to others in this world. The person doing the smudge has acknowledged their presence and has waved farewell. The smell disappeared as rapidly as it had come.
Several years into my second marriage I took on a mortgage. I paid ten thousand dollars down after saving the proceeds of daily overtime I worked at the Post Office. I built closets, stripped six layers of wallpaper, painted, gardened and repaired. I had my first-born son strapped onto my chest in a baby harness as I did all these repairs.
The boy was in his first year and loved the contact. He soon grew used to the noise and sawdust. Like a Yanomami mother, I had him with me unless I was sleeping or at work. When I got to the point in my endeavors where some carpet laying was to be done, I phoned a tradesman. It was a task I had never done on my own and I lacked the little tricks of that trade as well as the special tools.
A fellow came over to estimate the job and I chose the color. The next day a carpet layer pulled into the driveway and we had a brief meeting whereupon I showed him the rooms to be done. I was busy dry-walling, changing diapers, fixing bottles and baby meals. The man who was about my age by the look of it, shook hands and patted my boy on the head.
For the balance of that day we worked at our various tasks and passed each other in the house and in the yard. I had to rebuild some stairs in the bedroom so he could finish laying the underlay. We parted ways that afternoon in the driveway and he said he would likely finish by the next day. I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing the end of a long hard year's work of renovation.
I had a week off from the Post Office and was already up with my son strapped in when the carpet guy pulled up in his van with the royal blue carpet I had chosen. We had coffee and talked about my son and then both got to work. About noon, the fellow came to tell me he was missing some items he needed to complete his job. He said he would just pop back to the warehouse and pick them up.
He didn't return that day. The next morning he showed up at eight AM and told me a complicated tale of a day gone wrong. We had coffee and talked about sons. Then we got to work. At about noon, the carpet layer showed me where he had done half of the hallway and had run out of staples and such. He said he would run out to the warehouse and grab some. He didn't return that day. Nor the next. I phoned his number and left multiple massages which were not answered. My wife was furious and called me a fool. The hallway was half bare and one other room to be done was clad in underlay only.
After a two days absence, I saw the familiar van pull up bright and early. The carpet guy jumped out whistling. His plaid shirt was clean and he had shaved. He called me over to the truck and lit a cigarette. I walked over with my ubiquitous baby chest-pack. Daniel, my son was chewing on an animal biscuit.
“Mike, lookit, I'm sorry for the delay. To make it up to you, I fixed this paperwork so you get the underlay for free. You're just gonna pay for the carpet and half of my time.”
“Wow. OK. You don't have to do that. I know it is hard to keep several jobs on the go at the same time. Happened to me when I was retro-fitting oil-burners.”
He looked at me hard in the eyes, his expression tightened up as if he was wincing in pain and then it softened like when a man is holding a baby in his arms.
“I gotta tell you the truth... What it was, was this. I got married a few years ago and we had a little boy. He's got to be just the same age as your Dan there. My wife took off with him and got custody. They left town and I ain't seen him since. When I saw you with your boy, I couldn't bear it. My trips to the warehouse were trips to the bar. I'll finish up right now and I'd appreciate it if you'd work outside til I'm done.”
He did an extra special job and the carpet was laid with perfection. Dan and I wished him well and watched him back out of the long driveway. Less than a year later, I was standing in the street out front of that address. There was a huge mud hole in the ground where heavy equipment had wrecked the house. I saw a scrap of blue carpet poking out of the debris and thought of my son, whom the Court had ordered into the custody of my estranged wife. I missed him with a pain like a root canal of the soul. I remembered the carpet guy and knew I wasn't alone.
The Great Spirit knows what we need before we do. All that is required is patience to see the Hand at work. This story is but one small example out of many. Adolescence is a difficult time for people. My own view is that it is the same the world over and through all time. Older cultures have rituals in place to aid and mark the passage of the young person into adulthood. The modern world has garbled this up beyond all recognition. Children are now expected to be adults before their time and adults are encouraged to remain childlike forever. This story starts in Texas and winds up on a mountaintop in British Columbia. I found one of my many teachers when I was working as a letter carrier.
When I was going through my passage into the realm of adulthood, I was living in Texas. My country was at war. Most of the boys in my Oak Forest neighborhood were on average six years older than me and I watched them get drafted to serve in Vietnam. Many of the guys who made it alive through their “tour of duty” came home with heroin addictions. Certain boys from certain families didn't have to go. The same methods of brainwashing the public in a country which is being used as cannon fodder were employed in the Sixties as they were in the Boer War and all the others.
For my part, I did not believe in killing people who were not threatening my life directly or that of a loved one or friend. I knew the propaganda was just that. During the “Cold War” the flow of “secret information” from the West to the enemy in the East was proceeding unabated and was aided and abetted at every turn. The whole affair was stage managed by bankers and other Internationalists for the furtherance of very old agendas of control.
The left wing and the right wing flap away but it is the head of the bird that they are joined to which should be watched. The public where I lived was kept in constant tension and fear of the Communist threat. From this fear, taxes were levied in unprecedented amounts to fund research and development of new bombs and planes to counter those of the enemy. In reality, which I saw first hand when I came to Canada was that the enemy couldn't feed itself and thus was sold our Alberta and Saskatchewan wheat at attractive prices.
The horrific weapons they possessed were handed to them one micro-fiche at a time. There were men who regularly visited the Iron Curtain and even kept apartments there when it was forbidden to travel to these countries for anyone else. It just wasn't publicized and their academic and business credentials made them untouchable at any rate.
Much the same tactics were used when it was decided to put into practice a next step in the old agenda. That of building up China to be the world's manufacturer. On the outside it appears they have lifted themselves out of the dark ages when in fact they have been given purposeful advantages of every kind to ensure their success. For a time. Their people will see when it is too late that they have been played like a fish by little men in bow ties.
Back in Texas, I being an adolescent philosopher began to ponder on war in earnest. My graduation from high school was looming closer and I had no plans for attending university, so if the war was still on in three years time, I would be in Country. I tried to come up with a solution that I could live with.
The solution of going to jail was not for me. No one should volunteer to go into a cage. I wasn't a member of a recognized “conscientious objector” religion though I was a Christian to put it in general terms. I knew that deep inside, none of the guys wanted to go who had already gone. It was surreal to watch them being patted on the back by their parents at going away parties and told the usual tripe about being a man and making their fathers proud who had served in WWII and Korea.
My own mother was a Dalton Trumbo fan and had arguments with the other ladies about the dubious honor of serving in the current war. This was a very unpopular view to take. I cheered her but this going against the mainstream didn't fix my problem either. I also suspected that Johnny Got His Gun was a propaganda piece designed to help usher in a perfect utopian socialists control grid. A world where nice men looked after people from conception in a test-tube to recycling at death.
Most parents were quite happy for their sons to go kill in a jungle 15,000 miles away from their backyard. Just like the parents today who are happy for their boys to kick in doors in the Middle-East and blow away the inhabitants. This in itself was unsettling to me at fourteen years old. I took up smoking near this time as I pondered these things. I
wondered how many soldiers would be willing to fight and die protecting their actual homes and families from an actual invasion. I wondered if the Commandment about “Tho Shalt Not Kill” had been altered from a possible original “Thou Shalt Not Murder.” Obviously, there were situations in which a person may be given no other option than to kill another in order to preserve their own life or that of their spouse or other loved one. God couldn't have overlooked this.
I wound up being moved to Canada before I would have been drafted. While this was not the reason my family moved, it was a relief of sorts. I felt a bond with all the poor guys from my streets who had to go. I felt a bond with those who did not return and those who returned as cash machines for pushers.
In some piece of boy still stubbornly hanging on inside myself, I felt a misplaced guilt that I had been spared. I carried this pretty far beneath the surface at a place where I didn't let myself think about too much. Yet it was there like a wrinkle on my Texas soul. It was illogical, destructive and had more than a little Cherokee behind it.
Many moons later I had been working as a letter carrier and raising a family. I was paying lawyers and I was paying landlords and I was paying child support. I saw a new guy at my postal station who people said was a real mountain climber. I had always wanted to do that. One day the fellow stopped me on my route and hailed me over to his beat-up faded red Toyota. He asked me if he could give it to me as he had heard I was without wheels. At this point we hadn't been formerly introduced. I thanked him and declined his offer on the grounds that I couldn't even afford the brake job that was imminent for that car.
That is how I met Al. He had been climbing mountains since he was about seventeen he told me. At work we began to chat when we had time. I wanted to ask him if he would teach me to climb mountains. One day I brought some photos of some places I had “hiked” to and asked the maestro if he would take me along on a “real” climb and he asked me who had taken a particular picture that I had handed him. I told him I had taken it.
“Mike, you idiot, that is Mt. Matier Glacier. A “real” mountain. So is this other picture. I know all these mountains. You have already climbed some mountains.”
I was flabbergasted. The pictures I had shown him were from places where I had stopped my car without any previous planning or equipment and went for a little walk uphill to relieve some stress and sniff around the woods. I counted none of it as official mountain climbing.
After many weeks and months with nothing more said I received an invitation to accompany my new friend and his wife and one of their close friends to climb the Black Tusk. It is the core of an extinct volcano whose softer rock has worn away over the years and left a column of black friable stone thrusting 7700 feet skywards. I was elated. A “real” mountain at last and in the company of a real mountain climber.
The golden morning came and I met Al and his wife at their townhouse. We drove the hour or so to the base of the hill in Garibaldi Park and met the other friend, a farmer from the valley. It was a magical day. One of the things that happens when people climb mountains is that all the crap in a persons system, be it physical, mental or otherwise is cast into the furnace to provide energy to continue. As we ascended, all the toxins in my body and blood worked their way out in sweat. The mental toxins came next and though subtle, they popped up in all of us present.
Al had some Daddy issues as I had and though we didn't chatter, we did talk in spurts as this was the first time we ever did something together and outside of the work floor we hardly knew each other. One of the emotional burps that I belched up at about 6000 feet was quite a surprise to me. I realized that I felt guilty for not having gone to serve in Vietnam as many of the boys in my Houston and Baton Rouge neighborhoods had.
We talked about it as we huffed up the grade. Al had something similar that he had made peace with and before we got to the part where we were stepping in fine volcanic dust and slipping backwards two feet for every foot of gain, I let this guilt come to the surface in my conscious thoughts where it had to fend for itself against rationality instead of festering like a bag of shrimp shells in a garbage can.
At the near top was the exposed column. It was very cold up there and the crack we had to negotiate was notorious for falling rock. I got the honor of going second. I only remember that I reckoned that any one can do anything with proper training and equipment, attitude and desire. Although I am terrified of man-made heights, I have no fear of God-made heights. I scampered up like a squirrel. The others joined me and I got to go down first after our brief rest on top in the howling ice on top.
I was a few hundred feet down the crack and had veered way off onto what I would call the apron of the mountain. If I could have seen where I was in the mist, I would have frozen in panic. Al saw what I had done and in the most casual of tones suggested that I traverse a wee bit to the left. I happily and immediately complied as I was being watched by three real mountain climbers and didn't want to look like a fool.
When the party was a hundred feet below where I had been when corrected, Al stopped and showed me what he had meant. It was a horribly exposed bulge that would have dropped me a couple of thousand feet if I'd gone a few yards further. I made several mental notes. We went to a pub in Squamish after the climb and as we watched some local loggers playing pool, Al asked if I didn't feel superior to those mouth-breathers and suggested that I go start a fight with one as he probably deserved it anyway.
I didn't know if it was a test of my character or a prescription for my own well-being from one who knew some of my trials first-hand. I used to live in Squamish and was on home turf in a way. I could see no reason to lay a finger on someone who hadn't wronged me in any way and I said so to my group. They quaffed their beers and we left in good spirits.
Al told me later that of all his work friends, his wife had liked my company best. I was very honored to accompany Al several more times. After several more trips with my teacher, I struck out alone and climbed all the mountains in the Lynn Watershed in North Vancouver. I took my own sons and my wife when she was still frisky enough to do it. I have taken sisters and nephews as well. One local mountain here is Grouse Mountain. It is a ski mountain and has a tram from the base to the chalet at the top where one may take ski-lifts to the actual peaks.
It is around 3000 feet tall and over the years it became a popular training exercise to hike up underneath the tram, getting a great workout at the same time as saving cash on the ticket. In the old days, anyone who did this “Grouse Grind” was given a free ride down. I used to do this on my way to climb some of the peaks in the watershed beyond such as Goat Mountain, Little Goat Mountain and Crown Mountain.
One day I was just topping the last few yards onto the shelf of land that houses the chalet and it was the height of tourist season. I wormed my way through the crowd to line up my ascent of Grouse off to the side of the lift and then head off north-west to climb Crown. It was an easy go from the chalet to Grouse Peak and once there I usually stopped to sip from my thermos and get attuned for the coming climb.
A big man and his little wife walked up to me holding hands. They had just gotten off the lift and were getting ready to take pictures of the peak. I was pulling on my first layer as I had come up the Grind shirtless so as not to ruin my clothes with sweat. The man was about mid-fifties and as soon as he spoke I knew he was from either Texas or Oklahoma. He was weathered, neatly shaved and if you'd have hit him with a mop handle it would have snapped in two.
“Son, I been watching you and I want to know how you got up here.”
“I climbed up, Sir. From the bottom of the tram. Now I'm heading for that mountain over there.”
I pointed out Crown Mountain and the camel-shaped rock next to it
“Son,” he said looking me straight in the eye and talking very slow and purposeful, “ I am a Drill Instructor for the US Marines and I want to tell you that you would have made a damn good Marine.”
I thanked him for the kind words and we shook hands. His wife snapped a photo and I was off. That piece of misplaced guilt that had been buried in my psyche, then unearthed on my first climb with Al to become a little Devil on my shoulder had just had its ass thoroughly kicked by a Southern Drill Sergeant. It couldn't have happened in a more perfect place, the message couldn't have been delivered by a more perfect messenger and I have never been nagged by that silliness since that day.
Guys who climb together don't always nor do they usually socialize together. They may not even keep in touch between climbs yet they trust their lives to each other in the bush. My teacher Al had a daughter and moved to a different station. I never saw him again and heard through the grapevine that his wife had passed away. As far as I know he is still active in search and rescue. I know he has seen the Hand at work in his own life. I know that he does what he must. I know that the sight of his head-light coming through the mist has been a blessed life changing event for some poor souls lost in the rocks and trees. Al, I know that you would have made a damn good Marine. God bless you brother and teacher. There is a mountain in my heart and you and your daughter are sitting on top of it smiling.
I had been a letter-carrier for about eight years and finally had my own route. It was a maze of rusty gates, rotten stairs and dogs named “Blade”, “Major” or “King.” None of the occupants owned the houses and so nothing ever got fixed. The racial mix was across the map from Sri Lanka to Portugal, from Capetown to Newfoundland. Every so often a grow op was busted, a person stabbed or a house shot up in a drive-by. The bushes were thick, the trees were old and the sidewalks were broken up by their ancient roots.
I nick-named it “The Trail of Tears”, until I got to know it intimately. Then I dubbed it, “The Widow Maker.” This mailman's attitude to his routes is like his attitude towards his spouse. She is mine and I cherish her. I held this route for about seven years. In the first years of having it, I went through a divorce that stretched over two years. I then remarried and continued building a family on this same beat. I suffered broken bones and also had life-changing revelations on this route.
The house were old stucco-covered, wood-framed affairs with dank basements. The yards all had old gates with several busted concrete steps to an overgrown yard and another set of rotten wooden stairs leading to the front porches. After putting my foot through several rotten front stairs I asked the occupants to have them fixed. I waited weeks to no avail. So, I simply removed the offending planks and tossed them into the front yard making ingress to the front door impossible. The turn-around time for new stairs was about two days.
This also worked for front gates, long rusted shut and hung from fences with posts rotted at the soil-line. One of these gates could squander several hundred calories by itself leaving one weak to deal with the other obstacles of the day. Snapping the posts off with well-placed kicks and laying the whole affair flat in the lawn was satisfying, easy to walk over and the turn-around time to a new fence was about a week. No paper work was involved, necessary nor was language a barrier.
The frustrations were ubiquitous and the hazards were many and very real. The people were the lower-middle class workers and the welfare recipients. Some had been children of the first wave immigrants and were determined to succeed after watching their parent's Herculean efforts come to naught. Some of these turned to the easy money offered by crime. There were pimps, dealers, gangsters of every stripe, illegal aliens, junkies, alcoholics and schizophrenics. Everyday was a new adventure.
As they come to mind, I will tell of some of these adventures from that Trail of Tears. Check back once in a while for new stories under this heading. The territory is Vancouver's East-side in the decade of the nineties. The stories are true and I only omit enough details to protect those still living in the hood. I am still walking a beat as I write, but a different route and I yet have many others behind me. I may write of them in future. Don't let my choice of names for this collection give the impression that all was negative. Far from it. There were moments of perfect bliss, satori, shibumi and enlightenment.
Alas, there came a day at the Post Office when the lunchroom of the letter-carrier was moved back to the great outdoors from whence it came over the long road of collective bargaining. Hard won had been the right to wash ones paws and and warm up some proper victuals from ones own kitchen. It was back to sandwiches again a la first grade.
We were given a choice, nay, a provision for awaiting a “buddy” to pick us up on the route and deliver the two of us to a nearby negotiated place of refuge in which to eat. There was a nebulous array of rec centers, rinks, odd cafes and mall spaces to choose from. In fact they were designated to each route. I'm still waiting to meet the first man or woman who used one.
This predicament necessitated the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. I decided to embrace the change. (After swearing in seven languages for seven months) I procured a sturdy, compact, washable container and a small green mesh bag with a drawstring. The bag with the container could just accommodate two pieces of fruit and a large sandwich. Now it was time to scout.
I found refuge immediately at a large Catholic Church property. The giant front entrance had decorative river rock gardens with flowering trees on either side. The first thing I noticed was that when people came out of a Mass, they were focused on the street and traffic out front in anticipation of the drive home. Oddly, they never looked right or left into the rock havens.
The trees were big and had clean shiny leaves which afforded protection from the rain, sun and wind. The traffic on the street was unable to see through the foliage. The ground was one smooth oval rocks like you find on a big sand-bar on a big river. Even in a wind-driven rain storm, it was snug and dry. If any person coming out of the main chapel had looked to either side when exiting the doors, they would have had a clear unobstructed view as the trees were planted five feet away from the building.
The roof was swept down to within two feet of the earth in an elaborate gull-wing style. This provided extra cover from the side streets and kept the space absolutely dry. Thus I had a choice of two such spaces: one lying North and one lying South which two choices would serve me in different seasons of the year. In the exact centre of this consecrated space of some 120 square feet and high above it was a massive Crucifix wrought in a Spanish style.
I soon cooled my initial anger at having to eat outside after many years of having had my wife's good pancit at a proper table with clean hands. It was as delightful a spot as I have ever dined in on any of three continents. The feeling of silently munching on a Hungarian Salami sandwich with Swedish senaps on rye bread, regarding a crispy Gala apple lying alongside a steel thermos of coffee propped on a clean rock as the people filed out of the big doors, contemplating the good words and oblivious to my presence; was ineffable.
Handy to my right arm from where I was hunkered down against the foundation was a great black ashtray filled with clean white sand. A church that acknowledges that many people use tobacco is in a realistic sense more apt to remain viable. In time I got to recognize the same people coming out. There was a caretaker and he spent about three months trying to find me.
I never moved from my spot but he could smell the slightest trace of Landjaeger and also my after lunch smoke. I knew I would have to do something soon. He was zeroing in. I decided to speak to the boss. I knocked on the office door and the secretary to whom I always handed the mail let me in to see the Priest.
He was an affable Dutchman although very gray and of much personal gravity. I told him that we posties no longer had our lunch-taking in our office and that I had noticed a park bench on the side of the chapel under cover of the roof. I asked if it would be acceptable to him if I used such bench for my half-hour lunch. He replied, “By all means. What in the hell is wrong with your union?” I shrugged and thanked him profusely.
My new authorized spot had also a big ashtray and was near the doors that the choristers used. They were young pretty Korean housewives and always laughed, joked and smiled. On the second day of using the bench, the caretaker approached as I was making a quarter pound of Gypsy Salami disappear.”So, it vas you? I kin-not find-it out vair you ver hi-dink. So, now I find. Do you vant a beer my friend?”
I told him no thanks that I was a coffee drinker and we learned each others stories over the ensuing five years. He became so enamored of my hat, that I had to secure another one and remove the logo and all traces corporate. I then came in the prearranged unlocked side door after the Korean ladies had left. Up a short flight of stairs was my friend's office of sorts. He insisted in giving a token fee for the new piece of haberdashery.
He proudly wore that hat on the blustery days while trimming trees and pruning things. During the most snowy winter he came out with a camera one morning to snap a picture. The next day he gave me a nice copy. He said he vanted to show them in old country how Canadian mailman "vair short in vinter." When the second or third summer came, I sought to change camp for the warm period.
I found a grove of ten massive white oaks behind a hospital further down the route. It had lots of sun and also much shade. It was situated by a psychiatric ward of sorts and on certain days the noise coming from behind the walls was hard to take. There were woodpeckers, sap-suckers, robins, gulls, coopers-hawks, pigeons, gray squirrels, black squirrels, jays, red-winged blackbirds, skunks, coyotes and raccoons.
Cherokees have seven trees they love. Oaks are one of these and it was very powerful to set ones spine alongside an elder entity of such caliber. Especially when taking sustenance. There was a real pretty Cree woman who worked at the hospital. I got to know her husband because he used to wait to pick her up in his truck. He instinctively came straight to the trees to pass the time and we got to know each other.
His woman's coming was always announced by a dozen or so crows. She called them her black babies and she fed them peanuts after every one of her shifts. The birds flew as a formation before, around and behind her as she crossed the hundred yards to where we always sat. We had some nice chats on the warm days. Odin himself only had two crows, Hugen and Munen. Thought and Memory.
The husbandman was an interesting fellow. He'd had a best friend in California in the sixties when he'd been in his late teens. The friend had been drafted and was terrified and loathing his fate to such a degree that the Canadian traveled down to talk to him. There was only one remedy they figured.
The California man swapped all his ID papers with the other man and the Canadian went to boot camp in his staid. By the time I met this man, he had survived four tours of duty and had remained in possession of his sanity and of his humanity. He was one of the most gentle souls I have ever been around. He was a wary man though and could notice a squirrel acting out of character seventy-five yards away.
One week, his wife got a different job and I saw them no more. The crows were in a state trying to figure out where their lady went. I figured they could have easily followed the truck to her home but maybe had become accustomed to having her come to them at this location and hence had neglected to scout that out.
I felt sorry for the beggars and started throwing them bits of rye bread and salami in the winter. They took some time to come off their peanut addiction. I began to notice some things that had changed in the passage of years. Many years prior I could remember chucking an apple-core, for example, to a bird for a snack. The core would be already oxidized by the time I would throw it. A gull or crow would take it every time.
Usually a gull will swallow it whole where it would join the full length chicken bone already in his crop. A crow would crab-walk up to it sideways while watching you for any sign of treachery. At precisely the proper instant, he would grab it and fly up to a distance of thirty feet or so and begin to peck and tear at it. In the late summer and fall he would bury bits under leaves to munch on later on unlucky days. The black squirrels figured that out pretty quick.
This hadn't changed, however. What had changed was that the apple-cores no longer oxidized! I once hid one from the animals and checked it daily for weeks. It remained pure white and only became desiccated. Reader, that ain't natural. In the time I am writing of in this story, neither the crows nor the gulls would take certain apple leavings. They touch their tongues to them to test therm and reject immediately the ones that don't oxidize.
Using my own adaptive abilities I began to learn which fruit available to me was non-genetically altered. The GMO fruit had been on the market for a full ten years before it became common knowledge and was subsequently acknowledged by the Canadian Government. The way this came about was that during a debate in the British Parliament, a member in support of the bill to introduce the freak-food cited the example of the Canadian successful decade of consumption of the new food. The fact that the consumers were used as out of the loop Guinea pigs was moot. Crows won that round.
Not too long ago I was having my Lyonnaise, rye bread and coffee in a back alley and I threw a crust of rye to a crow. He had been watching me for some time and did not react when I proffered the food. I was halfway through a Franken-Bartlett when he swooped and took it. He went about twenty feet away and carefully laid it beside a shallow clear puddle on the asphalt.
Then he flew due West. He was gone about seven minutes or one smoke. When he reappeared he was toting a white plastic cup. He landed, rather gracefully considering his cargo and lit right in the middle of the puddle. Eye-balling me the entire time, he tipped the container over to draw in a drop or two of water. He inserted his obsidian beak and stirred the way an old man stirs his coffee when he's at a young woman's kitchen table.
This done, he tore a strip of bread and dipped it in the container, swirled it around like you might do to a french fry in a small paper cup of ketchup and swallowed heartily. He ate about five such bocadillos and never took his eyes off me. At the end he thoroughly washed his white besmeared beak with water and dried it on some nearby grass. He then flew away south-west. I walked over to the puddle to investigate. There in the puddle was a Roasted Garlic pizza dipping sauce container from a popular pizza house about ten blocks to the West of my location.
Many people run to doctors for everything. Animals usually crawl under a bush and let God figure it out. People used to remember that they are beloved creatures and I am here to tell you that some still do. I am one. I had the good fortune to meet another, Mr. Rodriges, on the Trail one late September day.
He lived with his pretty dark-eyed plump wife, Maria on my very first route. It was a snug, well-kept little house with a large garage. I first saw Rodriges out in the driveway sawing logs. He was about 150 lbs., slim, handsome as a movie star and his eyes sparkled like sunlight on the ocean.
He always wore the same blue checkered thick flannel work shirt and green suspenders. He looked to be a healthy fifty years old and turned out to be eighty. His movements didn't betray his age because he was a relaxed, methodical man by nature. Here's how we met.
I couldn't help but admire his woodpile. I was awestruck. There in his side yard was the most immaculate Catholic cord of fragrant wood I have ever seen up to this writing. It was raised off the damp ground, perfectly square and level and had a snug-fitting blue tarp tailor-made to roof the top. Each piece was exactly the same dimensions and you couldn't have inserted a cigarette paper between pieces, so precisely were they cut and stacked.
I asked him if I could adore this marvel for a moment and he stopped cutting and joined me for a smoke at the woodpile. He told me the story of how he learned to work with wood as a boy in Portugal, how he met his wife at the town well when he was fourteen and he answered all my questions about cork trees, oak trees, pine trees and the river Tagus.
His favourite things were women, trees, little children, good tobacco and wine. After all, what else is there, really? When I told him I had read Camoens, he slapped his knee and said, “Miguel, come-it, I eshow-it you esomting.”
He took me by the shoulder like a father would and led me into the shade of his garage. He motioned me to sit on a small chair. He walked over to a table and got a glass. Like the kind you keep in the bathroom for washing out your mouth. He walked slowly over to a large concrete tank. He lifted a wooden hatch and showed me his fermentation tank.
Pausing for effect, he waved his arm along the length and breadth of this hand-made polished fine grade cement, perfectly square fifty-odd gallon cistern. Above the tank were three oaken barrels fitted with old fashioned brass taps. He put the little glass under a brass tap, turned to me, raised one eyebrow and turned the spigot. A beautiful red liquid flowed out. It was the same shade of red as the jerseys of the national soccer team of Portugal.
“Dis barrels come-it from old country. Use-it before for ship-it cherries.”
He handed me the glass and told me to look through it at the light outside. If it had been a crayon, the label would have read, “Sangue Translúcido de Campeões.” He next told me to smell it. I closed my eyes and breathed it in. The spirit whisked me away to pine-clad hills, down along a river to where cherry trees grew and onto a beach where men were building ships with oak and gypsy girls danced barefooted around smoky cork fires.
“OK, OK! Miguel, now you drink-it.”
We had three small glasses of his Portagee Red and we shared my tobacco. While we drank, Rodriges asked me if I wanted to hear a story. I said I sure would.
“A man, he's walking home-it one-a day after work-it. He esees a gypsy woman. The woman asks to him would he like-it she gonna tell-it him his-a futura. The man esays, OK. The gypsy tell-it the man everyting and man give-it her money and keep-it walking. Later, the man's friend esees him coming-a down the road. But the man is weeping like a baby. The friend, he ask-it what's the matter. The man tell-it to him about the gypsy. His friend esay, Eso what? The man tell-it his friend. Esonamabitch-it, gypsy tell-it me I'm gonna have-it three esons. That's great, esay the other man. No my friend, gypsy told-it me one eson will be-it a liar, one eson will be-it a thief and one eson will be-it a murderer! I feel-it like I'm a gonna die. Esonamabitch-it! Wait, it's OK, esay the man's friend. Look-it, here is what to do-it. Send-it the forst eson to be-it lawyer. OK. Send-it the esecond eson to be-it priest. OK. Send-it the toord eson to be-it doctor. OK?”
I laughed til I had trouble getting my breath. Rodriges merely lifted his right eyebrow and held it there til my fit was over. From that day we were fast friends. Fall came and turned into winter. On bad days, Rodriges would come out to the driveway to get the mail and pull me into his house.
“Hey, Miguel, why no come-it innaside. Sit by da fire. Warm-it up da luigi? Mama made-it something to eat. Want to hear-it a story about a donkey, an under-taker an a nun?”
One visit, after looking at pictures of the Rodriges' grandson, the old man told me a very interesting story. He had worked in the lumber industry in Portugal as a young man and had injured his back. He sustained a misaligned disk as a result of a fall. The injury had plagued him all through his “best” years and followed him to Canada where he engaged in furniture making at a small factory.
One day, he said he had been gluing some pieces together for a large table while another man was ripping long planks on the electric table saw. The man's pusher stick had slipped and this caused the inboard piece to jam against the powerful blade. The four foot length of oak had shot across the workshop floor and as if hurled by Zeus. The butt-end had connected with Rodriges flannel shirt one inch to the right of his misaligned disk, immediately snapping the wayward bone back to its rightful place.
The chronic pain and loss of range of motion he had suffered for thirty years was gone and it never returned. His wife swore he spoke truth. Rodriges rose up to demonstrate his flexibility and raised one eyebrow. His wife brought more snacks.
“About da donkey an da priest an da nun, I don't know-it. I was not there. Sound-it about right though, eh?”
I told them the story of how I'd hurt my own neck vertebrae when I was a teen.
When I was seventeen I was in a car accident. I was living in Squamish and had offered to drive to Vancouver to buy Led Zeppelin tickets for all my friends. I borrowed my Mom's bright orange Toyota Corolla and as I was returning from a friend's place in Lynn Valley on the way back north, a woman in a Buick land-yacht blew a stop sign.
She tee-boned me directly on my driver's side. My neck bent like a Japanese farmer's waist when he meets the Emperor. My head went through the glass of the rolled up window. I remembered playing in an automobile junkyard in Louisiana when I was small and it was there I learned how hard safety glass is. It took several throws of a chunk of concrete to get through the plastic laminated tempered glass. I remembered throwing bricks into the air with a friend around the same age. It was a pissing contest to see who could throw higher. My second brick toss came down perfectly square onto my noggin and the projectile split neatly in two. I had not a scratch and no head-ache.
“Dang!” said my friend.
It was December and the ground was snow-covered. The force of the collision had pushed the Corolla all the way off the road onto the sidewalk and it came to rest after displacing a bus bench. The driver's side was caved in so bad I had to crawl out the glassless window like James Bond. There was a little girl in the mammoth back seat and a nervous woman in a red coat in the front seat of the maroon Buick.
The little girl said, “It was all your fault Mommy. You ran a red light. You were wrong. It's all your fault.”
God bless little girls. The two ladies and their chariot had almost no damage. This was in the days of chrome bumpers. I spoke to the woman and asked if we could swap phone numbers and deal with all the paperwork at a later date. She was adamant that we file a police report immediately. I was wondering how I was going to get my Mom's car out of the remains of the bus bench and find a police station and still make it home in time for supper.
“The police is right there,” said the little girl, pointing behind me.
Sure, enough. It turned out we were yards away from the North Vancouver RCMP main office. Some pieces of the Corolla were on their property. I said I'd go first as I was in a hurry to get back to Squamish and I assured the woman that I was OK. Really.
I walked across the lawn and into the station to report. A policeman handed me a paper to draw the accident map and to write all the details. I borrowed his pen and began to fill out the paper. I lit a smoke and took a big drag. At the same time I exhaled, I saw that the cigarette was straw coloured and way too big. Such are the effects of shock.
In my addled state I had accidentally reached for a number that a friend had given me for buying his ticket. I put it out immediately and rolled a cigarette. The policeman never looked up. Soon, I was on my way up the familiar highway. It began to snow again and by the time I got home, there was about four inches on the left side of my body.
My Mom fainted in the parking lot when she saw the mangled car. I started to get a headache that night. I took a Bufferin. The ache went away soon and the only reminder of the incident was that I had tension in the muscles on one side of my neck ever after that. I had to crack it several times a day, like you do your knuckles. Especially now that I was packing mail.
“I'm used to it,” I told them.
That next fall when the broad-leaf trees were going to sleep, I got confirmation on Rodriges' story. I was cutting across a yard at full clip with pouches both fully loaded. There was a plum tree in that yard and I heard a dog bark over my left shoulder. I cranked my head around to sight the animal and before I knew it, I had gooned myself on a low-slung branch.
The force halfway knocked my wool toque off and sat me down unceremoniously on the frosty grass.
My forehead was smarting on the right side but no skin was broken. The direction of the blow was opposite that of the car crash. Something in my neck that had been crooked for the past seventeen years was now straight. Muscles that had been wired tight now had room to relax.
“Esonamabitch-it!” I said.
I looked up through the branches at the October sky. I raised my left eyebrow and slowly got up on my feet. You could say, methodically. Boy, did I have a good one for Rodriges.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.