66 Years in the Making!
3 Plays for a Quarter!
Yes, it’s true!
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Rebel reaches for a box of tampons and slips them inside her jacket. Above her head, the convex mirror relays the image of her crime to the clerk in the convenience store.
“Hey,” the clerk says loudly. There is no mistaking she is talking to Rebel.
“Hey!” she says louder. “Put that back, you thief!” The clerk is walking briskly toward Rebel.
The clerk is in her mid twenties, bigger and taller than Rebel but a hint of fear in her voice betrays her bravado. Rebel recognizes the fear and, her face twisted into a sneering mask of hatred, starts walking toward the clerk. She growls a low sustained warning but the clerk keeps coming toward her, talking louder.
As the clerk stumbles backward from Rebel’s glancing blow to her face, the tampons slip out of their hiding place and fall to the floor. Rebel scoops up the small box and runs from the store. Blocks later, her heart raging in her chest, Rebel stops and leans panting against the cement wall of the parkade where she lives. She feels wet warmth draining from her crotch.
Her period wasn’t something Rebel had considered when she finally fled her mother’s alcoholism, her stepfather’s sexual advances and her brother’s manic depression. The harrowing environment of dysfunction she left behind receded into the cruel reality of living on the street, finding something to eat, a place to sleep, warmth, cleanliness, friendship, even love. At this moment, Rebel would settle for a few minutes alone to deal with her menstrual cycle.
She slips into the near-empty parkade. It smells of engine oil, exhaust and the faint rancid odour of discarded things decaying. And, of course, urine. The ill-lit corners in the cement parkade are dark and eaten away from uric acid.
Everybody’s always pissing. Rebel has watched businessmen carrying $1,000 briefcases and wearing $3000 worth of clothes, step into a corner and piss to their heart’s content before getting into their expensive cars for the commute home. She has seen women dressed in elegant evening gowns and long gloves, aglitter with jewels, yank up their dresses and squat to relieve themselves. One woman took a small lace-edged hankie from her tiny evening bag and daintily wiped herself with it before carefully folding it and putting it back in her bag.
Like dogs, everybody’s always pissing. The creepy security guard who works midnights lets it hang out and leaks wherever he pleases. If he thinks he’s alone he’ll stand in the middle of an empty level and spin around in circles, howling and pissing, his cock flying in the centrifugal force.
It is after-hours for the day workers who drift in from the suburbs and their comfortable homes, park and secure their expensive cars and SUVs so they can perform their important daily grind feeling secure. Seldom do they notice Rebel, even when their headlights sweep across her, crouched forlorn against the cement.
She reaches up into a recess in the low ceiling of the parkade and hauls out her knapsack that contains everything she owns. She finds some table napkins she lifted from a donut shop and rummages for a fresh pair of panties. The ones she finds aren’t fresh but they’ll do. She crouches behind a low dividing wall and slips out of her jeans. Her crotch is sticky with blood. Wiping away most of the purged fluid, Rebel opens the small box, unwraps a tampon and gently pushes it in. It hurts a little going in but feels settled and helpful once it’s fully inserted. She pulls on her clothes; her jeans are foul smelling and soiled with her blood.
Rebel’s stomach rumbles. Damn. Why hadn’t she grabbed a bag of chips or something along with the tampons? It would have made the escapade complete and her punch more justified. Rebel resigns herself to another dumpster dive behind a fast food restaurant.
She sits and relaxes in the quiet parkade. She hears echoey voices coming over the cement wall. Several other runaways share the parkade with her but the voices aren’t theirs so she doesn’t check to see who it is. A minute later, a car engine starts up and pulls away toward the exit ramp.
Silence returns to the parkade.
“For fuck sake lady, my name is Rebel. Just call me that, can ya?”
“If you want us to help you you’ll have to tell me your real name.”
“Rebel. Rebel is my fucking real name.”
“All right. I’ve had enough of you. Get out.” She closed the file, looked up and saw Rebel giving her the finger as she strode out of the office.
As Rebel fumes down the corridor, she meets the Duchess of Street Medicine who’s overheard her meeting.
“Hi Rebel. My name is Lily,” she says extending her hand to the girl.
Rebel stops, looks from Lily’s open face to her hand and back to her face.
“You’re old. Fuck you, Lily.”
As Lily watches Rebel disappear around a corner, she says to herself, “I am old. I sure feel old today. Even a Duchess needs respite from the street sometimes. I should go visit my brother out on the home farm. I’ll give him a call.”
The Duchess of Street Medicine has the patience of Job, the humility of Mother Teresa, the fingers of Jerry Garcia and guts containing yesterday’s chicken dinner because she has a cyst the size of an orange gradually blocking her upper bowel so give her a break if she seems fidgety or inattentive during today’s session with a broken ten-year-old named Cooper who was a “tail” baby.
“How about taking your helmet off early today, just for the Duchess? It would make me smile,” the Duchess offers hopefully.
Inside his helmet, the universe flickers on and off so fast Cooper can barely keep up but he does and he smiles his crooked little smile, his secret smile that only he and his helmet know the true meaning of. All the constellations of his world glow across the dome of his helmet. It is the safest place in the universe and Cooper knows it. His helmet knows it too and knows how to sustain the universe just for Cooper and keep the universe unfolding Cooper’s way. Just for The Duchess he slowly removes the helmet.
“Me worried about brother me.”
“Which one, Cooper? Your real brother or your imaginary brother?” she asks.
“Umm…I think he’s brother me real.”
“Wayne. Why are you worried about Wayne?”
“Is Wayne brother me real? Me mixed get up.”
“I know. It’s all right. Wayne is your flesh and blood brother. The one you can pinch.”
“Okay. Me pinch. Me know who now is him is now. No. Not him is now. Not now. Me brother other.”
“Hymns Ladders. Your imaginary brother? Why are you worried about…”
“Oh, Me really now up mixed.”
“Wayne is your real brother, the one you can pinch, Hymns Ladders is your imaginary brother, the one you can’t pinch.” The Duchess wonders how many hundreds of times she has explained this difference to Cooper.
“Me brother real, I as worried about pinch brother.”
“Why are you worried about Wayne, Cooper?”
A frightened look crosses Cooper’s face. “Me gone as. Bye bye.”
Cooper quickly puts the helmet back on and little body relaxes. He smiles. The Duchess sighs and thinks of the home farm.
Later, at the foster home, Cooper smiles at the loaf of bread but it doesn’t smile back as it usually does.
“Bread sad is?” Cooper asks.
The bread says nothing so Cooper asks again.
Conrad stood at the counter of the convenience store, his emaciated body weaving inside his dirty clothes. He didn’t know why the cashier couldn’t understand him. He moved the stinking rag away from his face revealing black patches of skin around his nose and upper lip, deterioration due to continuous contact with the gasoline Conrad sniffed every day all day. He spoke again without the rag over his mouth and still the person did not understand him.
Conrad couldn’t tell if the person was a man or a woman. His eyesight was growing dimmer everyday from sniff. Squinting, he repeated his words to the cashier. They made perfect sense to Conrad.
Based on scrambled prompting from his dissolving brain and passing through his black rotted teeth and decaying lips, all that came out was an incomprehensible hiss of air. Conrad had been unable to form words for several months.
Just after his tenth birthday, Conrad Nightbird began sniffing gasoline with other children on the grim Pikangikum Reservation in northwestern Ontario. The poverty, abuse, disease and desperation in which he was immersed seemed to diminish with each deep pull of the acrid solvent that Conrad took into his lungs. His mind settled into a sustained state of indifference to the world around him. Nothing mattered. Sniff erased caring. He liked that.
If he could still have remembered back to his early use of sniff, Conrad would have recalled being huddled around the warm air vent outside the dilapidated school in the middle of dark winter nights with a group of other children from the reservation. He would recall the rag that passed from dirty hand to dirty hand, the relief the rag brought and the smell of young addicted bodies. He might have remembered accidentally setting fire to the community centre and the subsequent banishment of him and three other teens from the reservation.
That was when Conrad drifted into Winnipeg.
Since then, he had lost the mental capacity to remember anything of his past or to anticipate a future. All that remained for Conrad was a confused and dim now, a present that was mostly a blur. Sniff had wiped away the brain cells needed for thoughts and memories. Any personal ability he may have developed to analyze and think things through was gone. He could no longer step back and observe himself; all perspective had dissolved into the solvents. His sense of self was flat and momentary. He barely existed.
Without a sufficiently distinct sense of himself, Conrad could no longer support complicated feelings such as love or anger. He was not capable of emotional range. All that mattered to him was basic bodily impulses and instincts but, in the throes of his deterioration, even hunger and sexual arousal had been erased. He was left with only one instinct, one need: to cauterize himself and the world with sniff.
This was not an egocentric requirement. The loss of personal perspective and the brain damage from sniff reduced Conrad to a pre-egoic state, back to the primary matrix. The only reason he existed was to feed his cells the sniff they screamed for every moment. It was his only attachment to the world, his last responsibility.
Most of his language was gone. Conrad was reduced to a few basic sounds, mostly senseless noises. To Conrad, his noises remained a murky communication that still allowed him contact with others.
The one thing, in some cases the last thing, all huffers truly know is that fire will kill them. Open flame of any kind is their nemesis. It takes a single witnessing of a sniff-drenched friend who forgot and lit a cigarette. The indelible image of a human being exploding like a bomb from internal fire will not be denied, no matter how high you get.
Conrad’s last emotional strand related to this fear of fire, yet he was not sure what fear was anymore. He did not know if it felt good or bad. This left him uncertain about fire.
Conrad’s only other link to the world was through music. Vague and fleeting, snippets of song lyrics or distinctive voices still resonated inside his mind. He was saying “Johnny Cash” because he “remembered” a song about fire Johnny Cash sang. Conrad’s previous request at this same convenience store several days before had been “chestnuts” because he recalled a song about chestnuts roasting. The clerk did not understand him then either.
Since the cashier could not understand his words, Conrad began to express himself with uncertain gestures of his right hand. It moved in the air like a dirty grotesque puppet, nails and fingertips black and rotting from the solvents. Conrad’s squinty eyes traveled back and forth from his fingers to the hazy form behind the counter. Neither his words nor gestures were getting through to the cashier.
Something distant but overpowering began to rise in Conrad. In that undifferentiated wasteland that was the remainder of his awareness, an emotion was emerging. Though he could not identify it, Conrad was feeling frustration due to the lack of communication. And his body was responding!
As the central organ dealing with toxins, Conrad’s liver had become a sluggish mass of disease and corruption. It began sending flushes of toxic waves through Conrad’s bloodstream several days before. This sent shooting pain through the core of Conrad’s body. At the convenience store, this enormous pain registered for the first time in what was left of Conrad’s consciousness.
His eyes rolled back in his head as he collapsed into a cardboard display of Bar B Q potato chips. His body began to shake, his arms and legs flailed among the noisy garish bags. Every pulse of pain sent Conrad into convulsions, dark vomit spewed from his mouth, a trickle of blood came out his left ear. Brittle bags exploded, reddish potato chips flew into the air with every spasm. The harsh crackle of the bags, the frightened cries of the young cashier and the store manager on his cellphone calling 911 filled the small store.
Just as the manager was telling the operator he had a fifty-year-old sniff addict out of control in his store, Conrad’s body settled into stillness. His arms and legs stopped flailing, his body relaxed and, sinking into a red bed of potato crumbs, he died. Slowly, like a flower opening, his rotting fingers released the foul rag.
Though he had not remembered, Conrad turned seventeen the day before.
written January 12/03 “Sniff” won Third Prize in the Winnipeg Writer’s Collective Short Story Contest, Spring 2003. Published in Collective Consciousness May/June 2003
“Does it hurt?”
“Yeah, at first, kinda, a little bit but it feels real good in a little while.”
“Does it hurt every time?”
“Yeah but you get used to it, kinda. You’ll see. You never stuck anything up your ass…just to see what it feels like?”
“No!” Kevin had but he wasn’t going to admit it.
“You ever sucked a guy’s dick?”
Actually that’s a lie he will admit. Dad’s brother, Uncle Trett, drunk or high or both, forced shirtless Kevin to his knees and poked his cock in the boy’s mouth when Kevin was in the garage putting the lawn mower away. He vividly remembers retching and gagging while Trett laughed and pushed his cock further into Kevin’s mouth. He was 12 at the time, two summers ago.
“Canyon will teach you everything you need to know. He’s cool. He’s deep. He’s a professional. He taught me…here he comes now.”
“Hi Canyon. This is Kevin.”
“You bet, Canyon.”
Rootboy gives Kevin a quick sideways smile as he walks down the street past the liquor store and the bum puking on the sidewalk.
“I hate your name, Kevin, so before this day is over I’ll have a new name for you which you will use whenever you and I are doing business. Your new name will be a compound word. Got it?”
“Umm…yeah, compound word.” Kevin doesn’t sound sure.
“Meanwhile, I’m going to teach you how to take it like a man from a man, any man but still be a boy. Do you wanna learn that talent, almost-not-Kevin anymore? Is this what you want me to teach you? Is that why you want to see me?”
“Yeah. Okay.” Kevin is still uncertain, maybe.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” Kevin replies, not quite fast enough.
“I’ll be fifteen in a month.”
“Better. C’mon, baby, time for lesson one.”
They could have been father and son walking together down the grimy street just past noon – Kevin in his 14-year-old body still with a touch of baby fat, as his mother used to call it before she killed herself, and Canyon, 35 years old, eight inches taller and seventy-five pounds heavier, most of it muscle, all of it hard, glancing down at the slim boy, delightful sexual immediacies dancing with dollar signs in his head.
Kevin is so nervous he thinks he’s going to throw up but he doesn’t. He hasn’t eaten since the previous afternoon and feels woozy.
“Umm, Canyon, could you buy me a burger before the lesson? I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Feeling, you know…weak.”
“After the lesson I’ll buy you anything you want, that is, if it goes well.” Canyon’s voice is deep and sonorous and scary, thinks Kevin. He’s so big, his arms are…
“I have a place here.” Canyon turns onto the steps of an apartment block built in 1920, rustles a set of keys from his pocket and lets them into the lobby. It smells of pesticides, something fried to burning and dead things under moldy carpets. Up one flight, down the hall, Canyon opens the door with number 9 painted in bright red nail polish.
It’s a small apartment with a narrow kitchen, small living room and even smaller bedroom. The bathroom is bigger than the bedroom. Canyon locks the deadbolts on the door and pockets the keys. He turns and stares at his new boy.
Kevin’s t-shirt and jeans are torn and dirty, his sneakers are the colour of mud, his long stringy not-quite-blond hair is matted, his rich brown eyes are clear so he’s not on crack…yet, and he smells of lemony body odour strongly mixed with “the way boys smell.” Normally Canyon charges extra for a smelly, dirty street boy to satisfy some master’s fetish, but today he wants a clean start with this sweet, frightened boy.
Kevin wonders if Canyon can see him shaking or if he is just quivering on the inside. It feels like an earthquake is passing though him. He stares at the large man before him whose handsome face is sectioned by a well-trimmed goatee and moustache. Kevin is physically attracted to yet fearful of Canyon.
Canyon makes the most appealing gesture Kevin has seen since he ran away from home in Squash Squander Heights. The big man stands with his arms open and welcoming for a hug. Kevin falls into Canyon’s embrace which is long, strong, soulful and sincere. Kevin hasn’t felt this wanted, this loved, this human for years, maybe ever. Tears well up in his eyes and drain onto the fabric of Canyon’s pale blue shirt leaving dark lurid splotches. Kevin smiles through his tears.
“When was the last time you had a shower, boy?”
Kevin can’t remember. He’s learned how to take birdbaths in lockable washrooms. “Don’t know.”
“You smell bad, boy, not even good bad, just bad bad. Time to get clean. We’ll get clean together, wash away our sins and start a new life, born again clean and free, amen and praise the Lordy Lord Lord Lordy. C’mon, stinkerboy. Don’t worry, that’s not your new name.” Canyon chuckles. “Stinkerboy, ha!”
Canyon walks into the bathroom, flicking on a light that creates a pleasant dim glow in the entire room. “Take off your clothes,” he says to Kevin as he unbuttons his shirt and tosses it onto a hamper.
The bathroom is spacious and includes a huge old double claw-foot tub with the taps in the centre and, in one corner, a large shower. Canyon reaches in and turns on the shower. He strips off his blue jeans and stands naked before Kevin who has just removed his t-shirt and stares at Canyon’s muscled flesh.
“Today, boy, today!” Canyon lights a fire under Kevin who finally gets into the moment and strips off his remaining clothes. The sound of the shower resonates warm and soothing through the room. Another embrace with Canyon! Kevin’s never felt anything like it in his life. His living, quivering naked flesh presses against the hard body of a man, a real man, a true man, larger than life man but real, this time, real, hard and real.
Canyon lifts Kevin slightly and kisses him hard and long on the lips. Kevin dangles in Canyon’s grip. Still clutching Kevin, Canyon takes three steps and they are in the shower. He releases Kevin who trembles under the warm gush of water. As Canyon lathers him with a bar of Irish Spring, Kevin starts to relax. Weeks of fear and longing are washed away, the uncertainty of his future feels less compelling in the steamy shower. Canyon shampoos Kevin’s long hair, which feels remarkably familiar and wholesome to the boy, like Mother. He succumbs to Canyon’s curious hands.
With every caress, every probe, Canyon is already figuring out the market value of Kevin’s young body, who among his many clients will pay the most for a smooth virgin “straight off the farm,” how many times he can pass the boy off as a virgin and how submissive Kevin might be or can be trained or coerced to be. Beyond his future cash value, Kevin possesses the fast approaching inevitability of being thoroughly trained and thoroughly enjoyed by Canyon. The prospect inflames the big man. It always does with new boys.
Stepping out of the shower and toweling each other down, Canyon says to Kevin, “From now on, pay close attention to everything I say and everything I do. This is your new streetwise education. If you want to survive out there, remember all of it.”
Three hours later, Canyon says, “Before we move on to lesson two, what say we grab a bite, Candyass?”
“Candyass. That’s my name for you, our business name. To me, you will never be Kevin again. Got it, Candyass?”
“Because you got the sweetest one, baby, the sweetest one.”
THE COFFEE ROCKS
Requiring little or no cream in your coffee was a badge of honour when coffee became mandatory for everyone. Bungle waged a private war within himself every time he sipped his brew black. He even eschewed sweet, though it was a radical stance; artificial sweeteners were mandatory for people under 25. Sweet and low, thought Bungle.
The media was baffled, as usual. Why were so many college age men suddenly feeling compulsions to gather around boulders and perform seemingly random rituals that involved a great deal of touching flesh to stone, dancing in slow motion and smashing their cell phones, now mandatory for everyone from birth, on the rocks? What’s going on? The media hasn’t really wanted to know the answer to that question in the last twenty years.
Let me background you on the stones. They became a trendy landscaping feature in the early part of the 2000s after cosmetic poisoning of lawns, boulevards and all grassy areas was made mandatory. Weeds were against the law. You were fined if a weed inspector found a dandelion on your lawn. That meant the grass everywhere was toxic all the time. Entire residential blocks hired cosmetic lawn poisoning companies to continuously slosh a chemical on the earth to prevent weeds of all kinds. Only green grass and some flowers were permitted.
Instead of lawns, concrete became the popular option. To add some visual relief to the cement, we used stones. Rocks didn’t need poisons and broke up the straight lines. They became such a common feature of city landscapes that businesses catered to a lunch crowd who sat on small rocks to eat off larger rocks. Every coffee shop had a few big boulders among its tables and benches. There were coffee shops on every block, often nothing but coffee shops with boulders out front or in back. It was the Stone Age but with coffee.
Bungle was working on his eleventh cup of the day as it approached two in the morning. Bungle and his buddies hung out at Win-Win Situation, a slightly sleazy coffee bar known for some “interesting” brews. The coffee boys gathered around a large granite boulder, one of the more popular stones outside Win-Win. Garnet, Loop, Fifi (a man with a dog’s name) and Bungle usually met at this boulder for their nightly howl.
Why they were continuously drawn to this spot night after night, meeting with groups of others, was utterly outside the awareness of these four young men and all the other men who, for equally inexplicable reasons, were drawn to other large stones. What subterranean direction were these men following? What Kosmic commandment held them in its sway?
No one could explain this bizarre behaviour.
Chemicals are added to coffee to increase its addictiveness, as with cigarettes. Since the Human Genome Project mapped our DNA, everyone is vulnerable to the good and evil whims of scientists, corporations and politicians. One effective way to exploit without being discovered is to add several hundred genetic markers to products to increase their addictiveness, markers that ensure a wide gamut of human types will become further enslaved to the product. Tobacco, coffee and alcohol are the obvious places for such an experiment. But it extends into breakfast cereals, canned peaches, baby food, instant soups, soft drinks, among hundreds of other everyday products. Don’t get me started about what the greasy burger chains do with their meat!
One of the unforeseen reactions to these chemical markers is this odd behaviour in young men of a certain genetic make-up: northern European with blonde hair, blue eyes and pale complexions from Sweden, Norway, Holland, Denmark, Germany, usually very lactose intolerant.
During the “rituals”, the media showed the young men gathered in the dark, eerily lit by midnight streetlights, caressing the stones, singing wildly, incomprehensively. Dancing, entranced, in slow motion, their lithe bodies swirled around the stones, each a moving expression of his inner agony. There the media coverage usually ended. This is a heavily censored story.
Those were only the first symptoms. The second stage is stranger. At a time of their lives when most men can think about little else but sex, the coffee boys became utterly asexual. Their sex thoughts dried up, their genitals shriveled, their body hair fell out and sex became irrelevant to them. This the media never reported. Nor did they report the late stages.
The endgame began innocently enough with each taking a turn smashing his cell phone into the rocks, the plastic jabberware disemboweled and silent. It was a symbolic gesture. It’s meaning resonated only within a certain strand of the DNA, far below waking consciousness, dreaming and deep dreamless sleep. The media would give teasing glimpses of but no explanation for the heretical smashing of cell phones against the rocks. It was disturbing for people to feel someone didn’t want to be in touch with them, that there were unphoneables.
After that, the boys go “seeking the softness of the rock” and “turning to stone”; meaning they throw themselves down repeatedly with great force onto the stones. Sometimes they’d take running starts and smash their shoulders onto the stone, breaking collarbones and ribs, sometimes necks. But the usual cause of death, and most of the coffee boys died, was smashing open his skull on the rocks. You can live to do it again if your body is working on sheer instinct alone. It cannot be done thoughtfully a second time. You no longer are able to think.
As Bungle emerged from Win-Win Situation carrying his dozener for the day, he saw his friend Fifi laying on the concrete jerking and twitching, his right shoulder a mass of blood and bone. Loop and Garnet stood wide-eyed and speechless, pointing.
Fifi’s spasms became more organized and he painfully drew himself up into a low crouch. Then he ran, as fast as he was able, into the rock headfirst. His body arched and he fell, a dead heap, blood oozing from his head in ever-decreasing pulses.
A sudden envy grew in Bungle when he saw his friend, someone he’d known for fifteen years, now prone, lifeless, delivered, an escapee. Bungle felt a need to accomplish this too, an inner drive that compelled him toward his next act, his destiny, his time.
Bungle howled one last time at the glare of the yellow sodium streetlight, put his headphones on, pushed a button and “Baby Elephant Walk” by Lawrence Welk began to play – all good music had, like weeds, been made illegal – turned it up full and sped, fleet and fair, his blonde hair streaming away, head first into the rock.
His bounce was sweet and short, he lay next to his friend. A sudden geyser of blood erupted from a growing bump on his head. Bungle had blown his top. The rock was sprayed with a fine mist of Bungle’s brains and blood. They’d still be there the next morning, dried into a red crispy peeling sheet.
If you listened carefully, you could hear the bucolic strains of Lawrence Welk still playing on Bungle’s headphones.
written August 16, 2002
I anticipate these family gatherings with a mixture of dread, curiosity and fascination. My parents are both dead and my wife rarely accompanies me (she’s developed a strong “distaste” for my side of the family) so I am left to fend for myself against the wall of mirrors my relatives have become, mirrors that reflect back parts of me I don’t necessarily want to be reminded of, parts that they still cling to dearly but I’ve let go of years before. I feel like I’m inviting a series of ghosts into my life, each one representing some family aspect or trait, each phantom wearing some undeniable characteristic.
Yet here I am, stepping up to my cousin’s doorbell, pausing before I press the button. I’m filled with a powerful urge to walk away, climb into my car and spend the rest of the weekend under a tree in a park away from here. Somewhere away from the memories and the pettiness, the hostile relationships between the cousins and the continuous need to be victims, always victims. If there isn’t an obvious form of hurt available, each family member goes out of his or her way to manufacture something/anything to be hard done by. That is how they operate, their method of being in the world. Not all my family is like this but the ones who aren’t no longer attend these gatherings. They have learned their lesson and grown away from the clan.
My finger hovers in the air in front of the doorbell button. I push it and a muffled chime sounds inside the house. Welcome to the world of victims. The door opens and cousin Reggie greets me.
“Will. Great to see you. Come on in.” It’s Reggie’s usual shallow, insincere greeting that he will extend to every one of the relatives that arrives.
“Hi Reggie.” I shake my cousin’s cold calloused hand and step into the foyer. Reggie’s wife Jilleen comes toward me smiling and gives me a big hug which goes on a little too long as it usually does with all of Reggie’s male cousins.
“Williston. When was the last we had you in our house?” she says taking my arm and leading me toward the living room which is lively with conversation.
“I think it was about six years ago,” I say. “After Uncle Steppie’s funeral.
“Poor old Steppie,” says Jilleen. “Poor old Steppie.”
Occupying one of the gigantic sofas in the sumptuous living room are my cousins Laurel and Lynton, between them Lynton’s boyfriend Carl. Laurel rises with difficulty due to her arthritis and gives me a short cold embrace. Lynton and Carl both hug me, Carl longer than appropriate, runs his hand over my ass as he breaks the hug.
It’s been about five years since Lynton came out of the closet to the rest of the family. I’ve known for thirty years that Lynt is gay and dutifully kept it from everyone else in the clan. I remember vividly Lynt introducing Carl as his “lover.” Aunt Frannie fainted, Uncle Frank turned away from them both and never spoke to Lynton again though before they had been close. Lynt’s acceptance by the rest of the cousin’s was mixed; about half of them didn’t care who he slept with, the other half used it as more evidence of their victimization. When invited to family get-togethers, several ask if Lynton will be there before committing to attend.
On the other sofa sits Uncle Treat and Aunt Claudia, my last remaining aunt and uncle. Both smile warmly though neither rise to hug me. Instead, I sit between them and put my big arms around their scrawny shoulders. There’s a flash and the whirr of Reggie’s camera.
“How are you dear?” asks Claudia. Not waiting for a reply, she continues, “I’m not well, you know. The operation was only partly successful and I have pain everyday. See this.” She holds her thin arm out to reveal large bruises. “I don’t know how I get bruised so badly. Treat takes care of me as well as he can but with his bum leg and shakes, he’s not much good either. Don’t get old, dear.”
I can hear a small high-pitched beeping sound I recognize as Uncle Treat’s hearing aids. Treat holds a black and white snapshot of two people standing next to an old car. He turns to me and points at the picture.
“They are all eating spaghetti,” he says. No one in the picture is eating anything.
“Never mind him,” says Claudia. “His mind is going bananas. Some days he just sits and stares out of the window all day, never moves. That’s not healthy. Did you hear that Raywall has prostrate cancer?”
She can never pronounce that word correctly. I’m the only person in the whole family who actually says ‘prostate.’ It’s one of many idiosyncrasies that once were cute and endearing but now simply annoy me. I have to restrain myself from correcting everyone, resisting writer’s prerogative.
“I hadn’t heard that. Is it serious?” I say humouring her. Raywall died in a car accident the year before.
“Very bad. He’s not going to make it.”
The doorbell rings. More victims arrive.
It’s the first of Treat and Claudia’s three children. Croot – his real name is Virgil – and his latest girlfriend Vicki receive the same phony welcome from Reggie. Croot is the oldest and most favoured child of Claudia and Treat. He seldom visits family but keeps in touch via email. Intermittently successful Croot works with computers. He was a corpulent child. Now he is an obese man who rasps with every breath. His parents rise to hug Croot and Vicki, whom none of us have ever met before. She seems to tolerate everyone, including Croot, the rest of the visit.
The doorbell chimes again. Paul, Treat and Claudia’s youngest, ten years Croot’s junior, arrives alone. Paul embraces his parents who both demonstrate indifference toward him. Tension begins to build.
As I survey the room that contains the better part of my living relatives, I wonder how I’ve become the exception to these people and their ways. Instead of sharing my wisdom that “there’s enough” these people dwell on lack and scarcity. They wallow in their suffering, spraying it forcefully, without qualms, at anyone within earshot, a continuous litany of smallness made even more pathetic due to my personal knowledge and experience of the true hugeness of our beings. Each family member leads a constant charge against any intrusion of positive energy into the fortress they’ve built to defend and replicate their suffering. Inside each fortress the glass is always half empty and someone else is at fault. Blame is always necessary and meted out even on the flimsiest of pretext. Maybe it is the utter refusal of any of them to take responsibility for their lives that bothers me the most. Or maybe it’s just the relentless familiarity of the people, their stunted evolutions worn with pride like medals after some pointless battle.
I don’t know how long I’ll be able to bear the family whine this afternoon.
Next to arrive is Sylvia and Boxer. She’s Treat and Claudia’s second born, has been married to Boxer for fifteen years and not a speck of offspring sprung from their loins. Today Boxer has his left arm in a sling and sports a shiny purple left eye. He’s a big bruiser of a man so we are all surprised by his condition.
“Did you get hit by a truck?” I ask.
“He just found a bigger bully, is all,” says Sylvia who sneers at him. Boxer nods in resignation. “You know Indians, can’t hold their booze.”
Boxer isn’t Indian, he’s from Turkey. Is my whole family getting senile?
“How are you, dear?” Claudia asks her daughter.
“Still not pregnant, if that’s what you mean.”
“But we keep trying, Mama Claudia,” says Boxer grinning and nodding his head. Claudia and Sylvia roll their eyes in unison.
Neither Croot nor Paul greet their sister.
“Gang’s all here then?” asks Lynton.
“Kaiser and his new girlfriend Quim are coming,” says Croot. Door chimes. “That’s them.”
Kaiser isn’t as obese as his father but will be someday. Quim is a petite little thing that Kaiser could break in half bare-handed. She hangs off his fat arm like a bangle. I can’t take my eyes off her. She smiles coyly at me. Kaiser could break me in half just as easily I remind myself as does Kaiser’s glare.
I’m still sitting between Treat and Claudia who tells me to move. Off the sofa I stand by the window looking out at the enormous patch of rhubarb that covers most of the side yard.
“Jilleen and me welcome everyone to our home today,” says Reggie. “What can I get youse to drink?”
Between us we list eight different beverages we’d like, none of which is tea.
“How about a lovely pot of tea instead?” suggests Jilleen sternly. Everyone nods.
“I’d still like a beer,” says Croot.
“Me, too,” I say, just to be a dink.
“Tea all around then,” says Reggie. He gestures to Lynt and Carl to help him. The pair giggles like girls and baby step their way to the kitchen.
“Are they queers?” Quim whispers to Kaiser who nods quickly. “Ugh,” she says.
“Quim. That’s an unusual name. What nationality is it?” asks Claudia.
Though for a moment it appears as if Quim is flummoxed she musters, “Um…white.”
“I thought so,” says Claudia smiling at the girl.
“I got a letter from my brother in Australia this week,” says Treat. “Where’s that letter from Martin, Mother? I want to read it out.”
Claudia rustles in a small stack of paper on the end table and draws out an envelop, hands it to Treat. He carefully pulls the letter out and unfolds it, digging his glasses from his breast pocket.
“It’s not a long letter,” Treat says.
We all know what happens next. Treat stares at the letter for an extended moment, moving his head and the letter to find focus on the words. He clears his throat.
“Dear brother Treat, I hope this missive finds you well and happy and the same for your beloved Claudia. It’s our winter now which is good because it keeps the snakes in their dens, especially the poison ones that eat children and pets. All fine here except for the scoliosis. Brotherly love, Marty. That’s his letter so he’s doing fine down under.”
We all nod and mutter how good that is knowing that Martin has been “down under” aka dead for over ten years and that Treat has slipped beyond language where words don’t make sense anymore and that he’s making up the letter like he has every time before.
What amazes me is nobody among this batch of eternal sourpusses has ever called Treat on this. It’s our family’s one gleaming illustration of grace: tolerating Treat’s dementia. Aren’t we good people, huh? It’s just temporary anyway. Be patient.
That’s as large as we get.
Previously I have posted two black and white snapshots of my cousin Edra when she was a child in the early 1940s. Both pictures were taken outdoors in winter with incongruent clothing and furniture. The images popped out of the hundreds of typical family pictures for obvious reasons.
The first was Sweet Dream Baby when she was about a year old. Click pics to enlarge
The second was Dreaming of Tea Time. She’s about three here.
Recently I came across two more pictures of Edra from The Winter Series, as I’ve come to call it. This time she’s seated next to her brother Arvin on the same little chairs from Tea Time. She’s about two years old. It’s called Me and My Big Brother.
Here’s my Mom wearing the same hat on her wedding day two years before.
Among the artifacts unearthed in a recent archaeological dig through the family archives, I discovered seven party hats made of crepe paper. These are part of Mom’s teaching materials from the 1930s. As a child I was never allowed to play with these which accounts for their excellent condition today.
I’m not sure if Mom made these as an assignment when she was learning to be a teacher in Winnipeg Normal School in 1932 or if they were made afterward for a school event. They are all small and medium sizes to fit children’s heads. The crepe paper pieces are stitched together. The appliques, bits of wallpaper, are glued on. Here are the other six.
My last post featured a picture of cousin Edra at two years old. Subsequently I remembered I’d seen another similar picture of her so I dug it out. Above is Edra at one year old posed in a similar fashion to the previous picture with her eyes closed gripping the edge of a crib. Both are outdoors with snow on the ground and the same pole in the background. Edra’s birthday was in late March so that would jive with the snow. A couple of my family commented on the previous picture but no photographer was ventured. Taken together the two pictures capture innocence and growth, change and hope and are lovely mementos to have and share. I call this picture Sweet Dream Baby.
I shot this perfectly restored Texaco sign in front of a business on the outskirts of Dauphin, MB with the threatening sky beyond. This sign has a nostalgic meaning for me. My dad was a Texaco consignee (he sold and delivered gas to farms and service stations) for 10 years in Shoal Lake, MB. I grew up there and worked with him, even delivering fuel myself when I got my license. Dad wore a Texaco uniform and cap that featured the big red star with the green T emblazoned on the white circular background. The slogan of the day was, “Texaco. You can trust your car to the man who wears the star.” This is a re-post because I finally found the 1960s Texaco jingle that uses the above slogan. Click the pic to view the 20-second tune.
Since Dodge Ram’s use of Paul Harvey’s speech in their Super Bowl ad has caused such a flurry, I thought I’d investigate the speech. Originally read to a gathering of the Future Farmers of America in 1978, Harvey’s speech was edited to fit into the two-minute commercial. Here is his entire tribute to farmers including the two sections omitted in the ad.
And on the 8th day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, “I need a caretaker.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the fields, milk cows again, eat supper and then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.” So God made a farmer.
“I need somebody with arms strong enough to rustle a calf and yet gentle enough to deliver his own grandchild. Somebody to call hogs, tame cantankerous machinery, come home hungry, have to wait lunch until his wife’s done feeding visiting ladies and tell the ladies to be sure and come back real soon — and mean it.” So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody willing to sit up all night with a newborn colt. And watch it die. Then dry his eyes and say, ‘Maybe next year.’ I need somebody who can shape an ax handle from a persimmon sprout, shoe a horse with a hunk of car tire, who can make harness out of haywire, feed sacks and shoe scraps. And who, planting time and harvest season, will finish his forty-hour week by Tuesday noon, then, pain’n from ‘tractor back,’ put in another seventy-two hours.” So God made a farmer.
God had to have somebody willing to ride the ruts at double speed to get the hay in ahead of the rain clouds and yet stop in mid-field and race to help when he sees the first smoke from a neighbor’s place. So God made a farmer.
God said, “I need somebody strong enough to clear trees and heave bails, yet gentle enough to tame lambs and wean pigs and tend the pink-combed pullets, who will stop his mower for an hour to splint the broken leg of a meadow lark. It had to be somebody who’d plow deep and straight and not cut corners. Somebody to seed, weed, feed, breed and rake and disc and plow and plant and tie the fleece and strain the milk and replenish the self-feeder and finish a hard week’s work with a five-mile drive to church.
“Somebody who’d bale a family together with the soft strong bonds of sharing, who would laugh and then sigh, and then reply, with smiling eyes, when his son says he wants to spend his life ‘doing what dad does.’” So God made a farmer.
Since childhood I remember driving past this old, long-abandoned stone farmhouse set humbly but with a certain majesty at the top of a rise next to the highway south of Hartney, MB. My grandparents homesteaded in the area so I often saw the old house up there, lonesome and vulnerable.
It is constructed from the most readily available material on the prairie in this part of the province: field stones. The mason who collected the stones and created the patchwork hues had a special eye for colour and size. Now tumbling down, the stones are returning to their fields, the patchwork disassembling in the wind, snow and heat.
The Mansard roof is cut with six gabled dormers. Lightening rods puncture the roof fending off the electric storms that sweep across the land. Swallows find excellent nesting sites under the eaves. The sky scowls down.
I’m not sure why it took me so long to investigate this house but this summer I spent a cloudy afternoon capturing it. Combining still and live images of the exterior and interior of the house with some whimsical sound I created a two-minute video. Click on any picture to start the video.
Cities weren’t the only place the post-war baby boom occurred. Suddenly the countryside was alive with newborns who needed an education. To remedy that, just outside of Hayfield, MB, a one-room schoolhouse – Hebron School – was reopened which I attended for two and a half years. My account of those days is called Hebron School – 1 Room, 8 Grades, 30 Pupils, 1 Teacher
I hadn’t been able to find a very good picture of my old school until I was checking out the Manitoba Historical Society website, a regular haunt of mine, and found this great shot of the place. The Classical Revival columns that supported the little portico roof were a sharp contrast to the bucolic scene around – open fields, rolling hills and dry dusty roads. It gave me a warm yet lonesome feeling when I saw this picture of my first school.
Once again I am grateful to Gordon Goldsborough, Webmaster, Journal Editor and Secretary of the MHS, for his diligence and integrity at finding and reporting Manitoba heritage sites. He has tracked down 3600 so far and now we can discover them first on this great map on the MHS website and then out there on the road. Thanks Gord.
It’s a big day! Keep your energy up, collagers!! Extinct hunting will happen this afternoon, despite it being controversial and all over the Big Head’s face gobs. The hunters vote on which extinct specie they’d like to kill most, a simple majority of votes decides the beast and off they go, an afternoon of complete futility, chasing something they know is non-existent, armed with weapons ranging from slingshots, bows and arrows and atlatls to submachine guns, grenade launchers and small nuclear tasers that zipline a custom hole in anything or anybody of desire. After a few hopeless, vain, senseless hours, many hunters will weep for the first time in their lives. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Tonight is the elegant ball in the elegant ballroom of the Bally Theme Hotel, Inn, Suites, Closets and Crawlspaces. The ball’s theme is Balls. “No yellow” is the ball’s only law. If you wear yellow, you’ll get kicked in the balls and/or equivalent. Should be a ball! Party on, specie!
After sitting through a long dinner with adults, little Whispa was glad to be off to her room. With her rubber stamp set, scissors and glue she assembled this poster of her daddy. She presented the little gift to her father at the table, much to the delight of the dinner guests. Whispa blushed as Daddy pulled her close to his warm smooth suit that smelled like cinnamon and exotic wind.
Umber Aja swims next to his dolphin brother, Climie, through the Gulf of Boredom as they try for the world title in tandem flexing at 8:30 every time it comes around which for the boys is just about often enough as they catch their combined breaths gulping the sewage-spoiled water. Climie almost swallowed an eyeball about an hour ago but spit it out at the last second.
Today, among Linda’s things, I found this picture she had taken of Teedy, our lovely cat that lived with Linda and me for seventeen years. Clipped to the picture was a little piece of paper with this quote from one of Linda’s favourite authors written on it. “The slow petting of the beloved cat is the increasingly complicated heart speaking with the hand.” – Barry Lopez.
I just needed to share this with you.
Timothy Allen is a British photographer who has contributed to BBC’s Human Planet series. This seven and a half minute clip of his photographs with his audio commentary is an uplifting glimpse into the courage and customs of humanity living in extreme conditions. Click the pic of the couple at the Mount Hagen Sing Sing in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea to view the video.
As John Lennon would say, today is a “red lettuce” day in the history of Linda and Reid. On this date, 35 years ago, we formally amalgamated our households and our lives by moving into a small house at 729 Lorette Avenue in Winnipeg. Since we had fallen madly in love, the move was inevitable. It was an usually hot April day, at least for back then, as the temperature soared into the 80s. Sweat was pouring off us and my friend Ted who helped with the move but we managed to clear out two apartments and find space for our combined stuff in the little house.
The house had been a rental property for some time before we moved in and had been reasonably well-maintained. I think we paid $130 a month for it which was appropriate. It became our “one-and-a-half-storey utopia” as we called it, alternating with “the boxcar” because it was long, narrow and open. This picture shows 729 Lorette in 2010 just before it was demolished. It hadn’t been lived in or heated for several years and was deemed “unihabitable.” It had served its purpose, satisfied intent and provided all its shelter.
About Lorette Avenue: it’s a Winnipeg anomaly, a “hermaphrodite street,” as Guy Maddin calls it in My Winnipeg (See this movie please). The front yards of one side of the street, our side, face backyards across the street. This odd bit of urban planning goes on for a couple of blocks then shifts over a block then dissolves into correct property lines. “No one speaks of Lorette Avenue,” again from My Winnipeg. This is the view directly across from 729 Lorette today.
Putting Lorette Avenue’s hermaphroditic charm to use, during the hot summer of 1978 I shot a fast frame Super 8 film out our front window into the backyards across the street. It wound up with a great Pere Ubu soundtrack, a song called Go, and is a popular choice on my DickTool channel on YouTube. Catch a glimpse of Lorette back then.
Linda and I lived on Lorette for two years, making our early art together – photography, films, collage, video. You can find the detailed chronological history of our artlife on my DTC Art page. Some of our strangest video art ensued from the Lorette house. Videos shot on Lorette include Cheap Grace, No Shirt No Shoes No Service, The Yard, Evidence of Winter and Video Shoes. The Super 8, Passionate Leave, was also shot there.
The little house was demolished and replaced with a spanky new duplex over the past year. This is what stands at 729 Lorette Avenue today.
“Sandy, the fireworks are hailin’ over Little Eden tonight, forcing a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July.” – Bruce Springsteen
My high school English teacher, Mrs. Smith, along with my teacher Mom, instilled in me a deep appreciation of images conjured out of mere words and the power that ability holds. They made me realize that to stimulate the imagination of others using language carries a mysterious power, creates a direct bond between people and satisfies our need to share experiences. I have pursued the satisfactions of words ever since, in what I write, what I hear and what I read. I am always listening for an original turn of phrase, a dazzling metaphor, an unexpected linkage of images to include in my writing. I admire writers who do this with alacrity and clarity. Annie Proulx’s best work is a cascade of exciting and unexpected images. Almost every page of her fiction offers something that makes me think, ‘Yes, that’s a unique way of expressing it.’ Annie intimidates me and inspires me with her imagery.
Songwriters have garnered my admiration for their abilities to build pictures with words, especially Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. Last summer, when I listened to music on my travels in the mighty Avenger, it was almost always Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, both released in 1973, the year Bruce turned 24. That year I started at CFRW-FM in Winnipeg doing a free-form evening radio show that often spun tracks from Greetings… When the second album came out in the fall, it became a huge hit on my show with listener requests every night. The Boss had arrived!
This revealing picture of Bruce was taken by Lynn Goldsmith and appears in her 1995 book Photodiary. Opposite the full page picture the copy reads: “Once during a studio shoot Bruce started taking off his clothes. I yelled at him to stop. He thought it was funny. I was angry. I told him that if he ever took his clothes off for any photographer he’d be putting himself in the position where one day the pictures could be published.”
The work on Bruce’s first two albums reflected and, to a degree, created American mythology, some of it dredged from adolescent fantasies, some captured from flocks of fresh and fleeting visions in the form of stream of consciousness rants.
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
released January 5, 1973
Greetings… consists of nine songs, all written and arranged by Bruce. Every song is infused with youthful vigour and keen enthusiasm, images tumble by as a peculiar cast of characters emerge, live their short urban lives then recede only to be followed by others. The album quickly, and somewhat justifably, earned Bruce the title of “the next Bob Dylan,” an endless quest of 1970s rock journalists. Bruce’s encyclopedic knowledge of 1950 and 60s rock and roll combined with the heavy influence of American movies meant the images from Bruce’s first album already felt familiar. Most songs on Greetings…, especially Lost in the Flood and The Angel, have great cinematic flare. Bruce writes what he knows. His milieu is the big city and seaside resort as experienced by a bright curious American boy. Right from the album title through the postcard cover design to the last track, Bruce invites you into his world. His vision has knowable, safe parameters and sources; he is confident that his world is worth visiting and he is ready to show the rest of the world why.
I always like to know the first words of an artist’s career, meaning the first lyrics they sing on the first track on their first album. In Bruce’s case, Blinded by the Light kicks off Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. with these words: “Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat in the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat.” That’s a helluva start to a career! And only the beginning as a rampage of characters follow. In 1977 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had a #1 hit with their dreadful version of this tune but you need to know the original. It is Bruce’s first song.
Growin’ Up is a wistful mid tempo rocker that demonstrates Bruce’s evolved perspective on vanishing youth. Bruce was 23 years old when this album was recorded.
Mary Queen of Arkansas appears to live on Dylan’s Desolation Row having just returned from My Last Trip to Tulsa on Neil Young’s first album. Harrowing, sparse and personal yet lyrically opaque, Mary has just enough ambiguity and heartbreak showing through to make us yearn along with the poor confused boy.
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? One of rock’s great question songs, it’s a peon to entertaining yourself by people watching while riding the bus. A favourite line is, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.” Bruce conjures another wild cast that build to a gorgeous cinematic finale.
“Everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinkin’ unholy blood,” – an apt description of the misfits and cops who populate Lost in the Flood. Three things about this track: it has some of Bruce’s most dramatic poetic images that build in an enticing musical and lyrical swell, Steven Van Zandt makes his first appearance on a Bruce album providing “sound effects” (he’d next appear on Born to Run two years later) and I love this track. It takes me there every time! Back in the day, that was the end of Side One of Greetings…
The Angel is the outline for a movie, sung plaintive and plain with a denouement I wish I’d thought of. It demonstrates that right from the get-go Bruce wasn’t afraid to use quiet strings and solo piano to frame his stories.
For You is another cascade of brief but urgent glimpses into the psychic field between devotion and rejection, disease and healing and all the angst contained therein. Bruce and the boys relay the emergency convincingly.
One of Bruce’s sexiest grooves, Spirit in the Night is my favorite track here. Today Martin Scorsese would direct the movie in which this is but one marvellous scene. The characters are high, happy and horny and the events at Greasy Lake are your basic orgy on the beach. Body and soul unite in a magical sex flight “where the gypsy angels go. They’re built like light,” one of my favourite Bruce characterisations. Clarence, who is under used on the album, establishes and maintains the bubbling groove and reenforces it with a fine break. Wild Billy has “a bottle of rose so let’s try it” which I take to mean Wild Irish Rose, a long-time harsh and cheap bum wine. The hint of sadness in Bruce’s voice in the last verse when they leave Greasy Lake makes me feel very nostalgic for youth, for the freedom the unknowable future encourages.
As if he foresaw or richly imagined the life and work ahead of him, such as becoming a Planetary Treasure, It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City is tongue-in-cheek bluster from one of the coolest guys Bruce ever described. Pumping along, high definition city core images arise then sink back into the steam in the street. The tune and album end with a burbling fadeout.
The E Street Band was in its formative stages on Greetings… The only players here who became permanent band members are saxman Clarence Clemmons and Garry Tallent on bass. The album suffers from muffled production by Mike Appel and Jim Creteros. The biggest drag on the band is the ham-fisted drumming of Vincent Lopez, one of rock’s worst over-drummers. Otherwise the playing is worthy of the songs, Bruce the lone guitar on the entire album.
In order to save some of the cash Columbia Records had advanced to Bruce, Greetings… was recorded quickly in an inexpensive studio in Blauvelt, N.Y. and it sounds like it. The tunes and the songs are there, the talent is evident and the whole album has the feeling of being just the tip of a very large iceberg but the production detracts more than it should. Nonetheless an auspicious beginning!
The album only sold about 25,000 copies in the first year of its release, but had significant critical impact. On its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone ranked it #379. It’s #57 on my list.
The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
released September 11, 1973
This was the convincer for me. Like Axis: Bold As Love, Hendrix’s second album, The Wild… proved without doubt Bruce was a force that the future required, beckoned, quickened. Although again produced by Appel and Cretecos and recorded at 914 Sound Studios, the same studio as the first album, this outing is less muddy than the debut, in fact almost throughout it’s downright bright. Future permanent E Streeter, Danny Federici, turns up on keys, everything’s bigger, even Vini Lopez steps up a little – maybe it’s just how he was recorded this time. Again Bruce is the only guitarist on the album. The Wild… is attractive, convincing, eloquent, beautifully sequenced so every song complements and contrasts the ones around it and Clarence gets to wail!
The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle kicks off the escapade with clattery horns resolving into a smooth groove maintained by Clarence that bounces around under a story of sexy youthful diversions performed by a fleeting cast. The last minute and a half feature a sweet guitar break followed by a funky percussion workout to the fade. Sweet and a perfect introduction the next track.
One of my all-time favourite Bruce songs, 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), like all great rock and roll, is about fucking and the pursuit thereof. It’s Sandy’s big chance for sex with the needy poet boy from the beach. The fireworks of the first line promise orgasms later. Throughout he’s telling Sandy what he thinks she’ll buy, what will make her sexually sympathetic to him. He mentions getting stuck on the tilt-a-whirl, shares boardwalk gossip, explains his break-up with his waitress girfriend, tires of the factory girls who tease him, generally uses all his “lines.” To create empathy, he tries to explain that he and Sandy are the same stuff, know the same lives. I like how during the line “And the wizards play down on pinball way” Bruce’s acoustic guitar imitates Pete Townsend’s work on Pinball Wizard. Near the end of the song Bruce promises that if she loves him tonight he’ll love her forever. The delivery of the word forever is truly marvellous – a mixture of sexual urge, youthful promise and doubt with a huge scary question mark beside it which acknowledges the understanding between he and Sandy on this potentially special night! Beautiful! But he’s quitting the beach scene and encourages Sandy to do the same, to give up the “carnival life.” Although the song ends without a denouement, I like to think it all worked and they had mad, once-in-a-lifetime sex under the boardwalk that night creating more fireworks as promised.
Kitty’s Back is the perfect companion piece to Sandy, filled with seaside characters and their relationship to Kitty. Bruce’s sweet guitar playing sets the tone for the piece which has a free-for-all break that allowed most of the band members to improvise during concerts. This tune and Rosalita were the album’s most requested songs on CFRW-FM.
Continuing the fast-slow-fast-slow flow of the album, Wild Billy’s Circus Story ends side one with a delightful visit to the circus and some brief glimpses of its odd denizens. Garry Tallent pumps the tuba, Federici provides accordian and Bruce strums guitar and mandolin to create a midway atmosphere so pure and convincing you can smell the hot dogs, taste the cotton candy and hear the screams of the roller coaster riders. Bruce writes what he knows yet the tune only hints at the drama that awaits us.
Side two consists of three epics starting with Incident on 57th Street which features Spanish Johnny and his adventures in bed and out on the street. Here’s Bruce’s opening description of our hero: “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night with bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat-up old Buick but dressed just like dynamite.” The whole song could be the outline for a great movie script. The track is dominated by gorgeous piano and organ work from Federici and David Sancious and a bunch of tedious over-drumming from Lopez.
Fuelled by Clarence’s sax and Sancious’ organ, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) rocks! A long-time concert closer, it’s the story of our poor boy pursuing beautiful Rosie, his “stone desire,” against the strong will of her parents. He’s sure things will work out because “The record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!” – one of Bruce’s happiest deliveries.
New York City Serenade offers romantic mythology couched in dramatic piano work from Sancious. The entire epic floats, buoyed by Sancious’ piano and string arrangement and Clarence’s sexy sax wail. A new cast arises, starting with Billy and Diamond Jackie getting it on in the backseat of Billy’s Cadillac at “midnight in Manhattan” with hookers, jazz musicians, small time crooks in “a mad dog’s promenade.” Clarence’s contributes glorious sax throughout. On a personal note, there are two lines from this song that I have said aloud to myself every night for the past 20 years just before I fall asleep. These words have become my day-ending mnemonic device to induce sleep: “Shake away street life, shake away city life.” Works every night. Thanks Bruce!
In 2003, The Wild… was ranked #132 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. On my personal list, it’s #17.
FM radio caught on to Bruce right away. He was hopeful, humorous, intense and great fun! For me, from the beginning, he was a breath of fresh and honest air in a growing sea of mediocrity dominated by phony bands like Kiss.
Bruce Springsteen changed my life. Find out how in this post https://readreidread.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/linda-and-the-boss/
Next my Bruce post is Born to Run. Coming soon to blog near you.
A blast from the past! Alternate take of “Frozen Warnings,” a Nico classic covered by beautiful Linda and myself somewhere in the early 1980s. (Find our original version here.) This time, join us on a taxi ride from near River and Osborne to Winnipeg’s North End via the Arlington Street Bridge. Alfred Avenue between Battery and Artillery is where Linda grew up. The Winnipeg taxi dispatcher works hard to keep the customer satisfied while we Dick Tool around, intoning a freakish duet. Local landmarks arise, Homer’s Restaurant on Ellice, the Windmill Restaurant on Selkirk and who remembers the Rickshaw Restaurant at 875 Portage? Rancid Randy, a feisty obese raccoon who frequented area backyards, can be heard pounding on a toy baby grand piano we set up near our trash can and tricked him into playing. That coon plays a nasty yano!
Despite the full moon and the deep background the places contain, things aren’t quite right. Aren’t they? Click the pic to find out.
“We never know how we will affect people by just being who we are.” – Chris Scholl
Looking back over my six decades as Reid Dickie, I see patterns that define who I am. The older I get and the more honest I am with myself, the more evident my patterns become. Recurring events and themes that were confusing and unhappy at the time now make sense in the long view. By seeking out our patterns, we make ourselves wise, wise about ourselves and others, wise about the world. The trade-off in this life is wisdom for youth. As our bodies age and start to limit us, we are given the opportunity to become wise, to blossom mentally, possibly spiritually. Wisdom is not guaranteed though. It takes work.
A major pattern of my life has been luck. Starting when I was a little boy I can recall my father often saying to me that I had a lucky horseshoe up my bum. When your father tells you something like that, you tend to take it literally which I did until Mom explained what he meant. Dad was trying to tell me what a lucky boy I was. In the long view, he was right, as ever! Dad’s wisdom flowed smoothly and naturally through him. He inspired me more and more intensely the older and wiser he got. Every day I aspire to become like him. I have my work cut out for me.
Whether I was born lucky or grew into it, the horseshoe became a lifelong symbol and reminder of my good fortune. It certainly contributed to the notion that we create our own luck. Here’s an example of creating my own luck.
I am one of those incredibly lucky people who knew from a young age what I wanted to do with my life, what I wanted to “be.” When I was eleven I decided I would become a radio announcer, more specifically a disc jockey. I remember earnestly discussing this with my parents when I was about 12. Although, as parents do, they both had higher aspirations for their only child: Mom wanted a doctor and Dad wanted…huh? Dad wanted me to be myself. Whoever that was or would be, that’s what Dad wanted me to “be.” Thanks Dad. Though Mom persisted good-naturedly with the doctor thing, we all decided that if I wanted to be a disc jockey, I’d be a damn good one and go to school to learn how it was done well. And I did.
After two years studying Radio and television Arts at Ryerson in Toronto, I got my first radio job in Flin Flon at CFAR where I was DJ, news reader, commercial writer and general joeboy. I loved it! I had made the right choice. Nine months later, in 1971, I got on at CKX in Brandon where I did the all-night show for 23 months. Five nights a week, starting at 1 a.m., I played whatever music I wanted for four hours then two hours of country music from 5 to 7 a.m. and I was done. I loved it! In the summer of 1973 I got a job in a major market – Winnipeg on CFRW-FM. At the time CFRW-FM simulcast the AM station for 18 hours a day and let me free range in their FM band for the other six. Again I could play or do whatever I wanted…and did. I loved it!
Hairy and happy, this is a picture of me in the CFRW-FM studio about 1974. There are more pics of me from my radio days in the Gallery.
For a short time after I got there, CFRW-FM studios were in the Confederation Building on the bend on Winnipeg’s Main Street. The station moved across the street to the old CKY radio studios near Main and McDermot. (The building is gone now.) The FM studio happened to be the very same studio where the CKY DJs who inspired me to work in radio did their shows in the early 1960s. I had come full circle. I had been devoured by the medium and spit out nightly on air, free to do and be whoever I wanted in a major market! It was the fruition of my dream from when I was eleven, a little bit of heaven, a luxury that few DJs thereafter ever got to experience. I created my radio fantasy for nearly two years before CHUM from Toronto bought both stations, turning FM into heavily-formatted CHIQ-FM.
CHUM buying CFRW-FM was another irony of my radio career. When I attended Ryerson in Toronto, I listened to CHUM-FM which was a terrific free-form radio station, a creative leader. CHUM-FM inspired the style of radio I would do in my early career but, in Winnipeg, CHUM was eliminating free-form radio in favour of tight formats.
Since its inception in the 1930s, FM radio had largely been a commercial mystery to broadcasters. Its stereo capacity attracted classical music but it wasn’t until the 1960s that FM’s commercial potential began to be exploited. First it was free-form radio, alternative, hippie stations that played lots of new music, had no format and played no hits. This was the first hint that FM held enormous possibilities to make money. By the mid-1970s FM had come under the thumb of the “format geniuses” and the end of free-form loomed. I was among the last DJs on a commercial station to create radio without formats or any kind of restrictions, other than playing the Club Beer commercials after 10 p.m. College and university radio stations would provide the next opportunity for people to create free-form radio. I was very lucky.
CFRW-FM added to my luck because it was there I met Linda. She worked in various capacities at the station, one of which was to give me a wake-up call about 1:00 every the afternoon. Linda lived in my neighbourhood so we started to hang out together, fell madly in love and spent the next thirty-three years together. Again, lucky, lucky!
Since getting online ten years ago, I have been contacted out of the blue by three former radio listeners who remember my work at CFRW-FM. All three claimed that my words and music left an indelible impression on their lives, whether it was their taste in music, their outlook on life or as an example of personal freedom. Recently one former listener contacted me and I hope he won’t mind if I quote his first email: I just wanted to let you know that you had a most profound affect on my life. I listened to your radio show on CFRW FM nearly every night. I`m talking about the show you did from 8pm -2am. Your words and music have stayed with me in my life. Right now I can barely type these words as memories keep flooding back. I am glad I was able to finally tell these things to you. Thank you so much. And remember “the harder you pull, the tighter it gets”.
I was surprised, humbled and overwhelmed by this email. I am enormously grateful to this man for sharing with me. Talk about a day-maker! As my friend Chris pointed out in this post’s opening quote, we never know the positive change we make in the world by simply being ourselves, by following our bliss. But every once in a while…
Lucky, very lucky!!
Six weeks after I had double bypass heart surgery in 2002, I wrote this piece about healing and prayer circles.
Before we got our home desktop, whenever my computer-literate friends would talk about virtual reality, virtual communities, virtual museums, virtual anything, I would smile, nod and appear to know exactly what they meant. I didn’t, of course.
I understood the word ‘virtual’ and the concept they were using it to support but I was not adequate to their meaning of the term. It was the context I was missing. I didn’t have the necessary tool to create the possibility of something/anything being ‘virtual’ in my life. That changed the day I unpacked the computer. Soon I’d be keenly aware of the new meaning of this word ‘virtual’.
It was Valentine’s Day 2002 when I found out I needed double-bypass heart surgery. The stress test, angiogram and nuclear heart scan all pointed to the same conclusion: two of my coronary arteries were almost completely blocked. Surgery was recommended though not urgent since I could function with medication and moderation.
Ten years before, at age forty-two, I’d had a heart attack shoveling snow on another February day. It was my wake-up call! I paid attention. Changing my diet, habits and attitude, and walking twenty miles a week for a year at a rehabilitation-fitness centre saved my life. I had ten good years before my “genetic predisposition” caught up with me. The cousin who minds the family tree mentioned how many of my male predecessors had heart problems and attacks. The surgeon who performed the bypasses commented on how I’d gotten a bit of a raw deal genetically since I was slim, otherwise healthy and “young.”
There is a limit to the amount of responsibility for one’s situation you can attribute to “genetic predisposition.” The guilty food pleasures, the walks I should have taken but didn’t, the negative thoughts and aggression that always work against the heart; this is where my responsibility lay, how I started to jam up my own arteries. And now the consequence, the feedback was making itself known. Heart surgery!
Nothing virtual about it. This was a problem at the level of matter and meat. It was something we could fix, do fix everyday, almost routinely, with modern medical tools and skills. A re-arranging of arteries and veins, the right drugs for the various stages of the procedure and afterwards, the pump to take over from the heart and lungs, the drainage pathways required, the restricted movements to allow proper healing of bone and flesh – all this we are very accomplished at doing.
I had the surgery in mid-June. With at least six weeks of recovery after the operation, some financial planning had to be arranged and I needed to research the surgery and the alternatives. I spent many hours online reading about the heart, bypass surgery – often in full colour graphic detail – and the other resources available.
After weighing the alternatives, Linda and I decided the surgery would be my best option at this stage of life. I was strong and healthy enough to survive it intact, we were confident about the skills of the surgeon and the surgical staff.
One idea I came up with during this time was to create a prayer circle of family and friends online and elsewhere when the day of my operation neared; a ‘virtual’ prayer circle as one of my friends dubbed it.
As resilient and resourceful as the human body is, it necessarily houses a spirit that requires expression in the world and thrives on love exchanged between beings. That was what I wanted to tap into with the prayer circle.
I was on the cardiac surgery waiting list four weeks. On a Friday, I got my date. It would be in one week. Linda and I kept the date to ourselves during the weekend giving us a chance to mull it over and feel more settled about the whole procedure. It weighed heavy on my mind.
When we live more intensely, as in a pre-operative state, life begins to manifest itself in ways that are necessary and appropriate. As we began to inform family and friends about the surgery date, something wonderful happened! When we shared the burden of knowing, an increasing lightness started to grow in both Linda and me. The simple act of sharing the burden relieved the weightiness of the immediate future. With each successive person we informed, anxiety melted away. An unexpected confidence started to build in me, complete certainty that this was the right thing to do.
Two days before surgery I emailed the prayer circle request to about 25 family and friends. It was straightforward with date and time of surgery, approximate hospital recovery time and a simple sincere request:
“Please join together in a circle of love during and after my surgery with your prayers and positive energy. Your loving help means so much to us at this time and will aid in my full and speedy recovery. Thank you for sharing in my healing. Now that you have read this, the healing has already begun!”
Several people emailed me right back with their messages of hope and loving support. The rest I felt in my heart. On surgery eve, I was awash in the positive energies and expressions of love generated by the prayer circle; bliss in full measure took over my being. It was palpable. Linda felt it too. I had invoked the healing interplay between body, mind and spirit and wept at the sheer perfection of its unfolding. I was ready for the repairs!
There was nothing virtual about it. The reality of love and friendship, expressed with singular intent across many miles from many sources, converged in me. This aura of love carried me through the surgery, the immediate recovery and onto the ward where I spent four days. I basked in the afterglow of this healing intent, aware of how it was fueling my recovery, abetting the natural regenerative abilities of my body and lifting me when I felt some post-operative depression.
This outpouring of loving support manifested in other ways. It helped me sustain a positive attitude during my hospital stay. The people who noticed this immediately were those angels of mercy, the nurses. They’d seen people deal with this same situation in all manner of ways, some more successful than others. Maybe it was my spiritual preparedness or the intangible support that I brought with me; whatever it was, the nurses and staff recognized something extra was happening.
Looking back on this I now realize what was happening: the ‘virtual’ was being made real in the world. The prayers and loving intent that I asked for ‘virtually’ online became my reality. While the computer tool made the virtual prayer circle possible, it was the spirit and expression of our loving first nature that made it real in the world. I was living those special conditions.
And what was my responsibility? The answer came to me with such brash certainty I could not ignore it. It made perfect sense. The only way I could repay my family and friends for their limitless sharing of love was to recover fully, completely. It would answer their prayers. It was the exchange the special conditions demanded.
In the six weeks after the surgery, my recovery was nothing short of remarkable. My heart, with its new stamina, allowed me the increasing exercise I needed, the flesh and bone healed with little scarring and no infection. An unexpected benefit of the procedure was increased creativity. Suddenly I had all this extra blood flowing to my brain causing fresh new ideas to spew out of me. For a writer that’s almost a miracle! One of the risks of heart bypass surgery is cognitive decline. For the exact opposite to happen is an unexpected bonus.
The fact is, love lives large in the world and, when focused, produces amazing results! The love shared by my family and friends merged with Linda’s unconditional love and devotion resulting in a perfect healing environment for body, mind and spirit. Nothing virtual about it.
Read an earlier post about my heart surgery.