At the taxi stand, Bird gestures to the woman from the baggage carousel to take this car and he’ll take the next. It’s too fucking cold to keep a lady waiting tonight. The woman drops her gaze, slides her purse across the seat, neatly draws in her legs without hiking up her skirt. A tougher manoeuvre than it looks; stocking-clad landing gear retracting without a glitch. He wonders whether the woman is home now, or starting a visit. Bird stacks his luggage for the driver to load, feeling caught between manners: better to stand idle, or horn in like the driver can’t be trusted to handle a suitcase? The driver grunts, snares the towing strap on the trunk hasp, jimmies it free, chucks the bag onto a greasy jack. Slams the trunk shut.
Bird sits tight and speeds toward downtown Winnipeg, still queasy from the flight. The heat is cranked and his knees are crushed. His head brushes the padded roof; a big fat circus bear cramped in a novelty vehicle, paws fit for clobbering. Repeating the hotel name, Bird settles the headrest between his shoulder blades, cranes his neck, closes his eyes.
Aboard the plane, Bird paced, held back vomit, and counted minutes until landing. He sweated and privately panicked and nearly became a story for fellow passengers to recount, the kind that ends with seat confinement and authorities at the arrival gate, but got hold of himself by imagining faces to match each hairdo that poked above the seat tops. In the airport, Bird dissolved on his knees in the men’s room, barfing so heartily he dislodged his house-keys from his trouser pocket. Now, wedged into the small, fast taxi, Bird defends his devastated belly, cupped hands forming a shell.
“Really, I need you to go a little slower, please. I’m not at all well.”
The driver is squat and doughy; a moist pudding steaming inside a nylon parka. It is unseasonably freezing, threatening snow. The driver in his slithery ski jacket smells overdressed; though, he’s probably smelled overdressed since last winter. He cuts his eyes at this sissy passenger and speaks low about bastards. As cramped up front as Bird feels in back, the driver hoists himself a few inches out of his seat then drops, trying to locate comfort behind the wheel. This is his tick, the gesture he repeats hundreds of times each day. The seat springs heave and grind as the perfect position eludes him. The driver’s build and boxy knuckles suggest manual labour, and Bird wonders whether age or injury deposited him on his backside ferrying travelers and drunks from place to place. His squirming is a leak of frustration: the driver took up driving and has been sliding around an ill-fitting front seat ever since.
When they reach the hotel, Bird pays by credit card, earning additional “bastards” from the driver. He tries to make amends by unloading his own cases, but the driver swats away his reaching hands, swinging the bags toward a waiting cart. Bird thanks the retreating nylon back, his words white puffs hanging in the cold air.
The concierge is programming Bird’s room keycard when the airport lady steps up, docking her crossed arms at the front desk. Legs clad in flannel now, slender shoes replaced by broad bedroom slippers: here an hour and already locked out. She is steamed, her cheeks are pink. Bird is warmed by this coincidence, casts a smile down the marble counter. She isn’t looking. Bird covers up, makes as though he were stretching his jaw and wipes his lips with thumb and index…no, middle. Damn it, now he’s given her the finger.
The concierge turns Bird over to the night porter, moves to help the locked-out lady. The night porter thinks the concierge smokes joints out back between late-night arrivals. The concierge is pretty sure the porter uses his downtime to jerk off, and gags a little, watching him touch people’s luggage and coats. Masturbator or not, the porter is definitely not a hand-washer judging from the state of his nails.
* * *
Lily checked in well after dark and goodness know what time it is back home. Then the locked-out bullshit, and now she is just plain done. The curtains are drawn, bedclothes turned down, basket of fruit centred on the dining table. Complimentary robe cast over the armchair. She surveys the suite, assesses storage space: two closets lined with shirt hangers and trouser clamps; six bureau drawers; a recessed shelf housing a rough kitchenette.
While Lily counts amenities, Bird is upstairs using his: clipping slacks to wooden hangers; aligning shoes on the little rubber mat; dismantling his fruit basket and placing each item into the mini-bar, except the bananas, which he leaves to brown on the television stand. He steps into his complimentary slippers, slips them off, pushes them under the bed. Rubs his palms together and gets to work on the Front Desk speed-dial, requesting a wake-up call, continental breakfast and three extra towels. The concierge trusts till morning Bird can make do with the standard six already provided? Bird believes he can.
Down below, room 2704 is giving Lily the creeps. Guest services – the root of comfort during one’s journey – amplify “being away”, attending to anticipated but unreal needs and maintaining an astonishing system of sanitation. Home is never this. Each morning the housekeeping team descends like locusts to digest any evidence of guests. For the duration of her stay, Lily will be greeted by quiet space and the low smell of strangely fragrant cleansers.
Upstairs, Bird sits on the edge of the bed and bounces, palms flat at his sides, testing the mattress. King-size. Long enough for his legs; broad enough for outstretched arms. Sweet. He swings his legs up and under the sheets, missing all the grace of a lady getting into a cab. Tucks his body into a boomerang shape and falls directly asleep.
To: “My Brother”
Sent: Mon, March 28, 2011 10:44:59 AM
Ughhhhhh so unwell…want it?
From: My Brother
Sent: March 28, 2011 1:26 PM
Subject: Re: Ick
Ick. Keep it to yourself.
To: My Brother
Sent: Mon, March 28, 2011 1:28:25 PM
Ohhh darn it! You should’ve replied faster. I already sent a box of it to your office via courier.
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 8:41 AM
Do you have any idea how much trouble I got in for refusing shipments all afternoon?
To: My Brother
Sent: Tue, March 29, 2011 8:47:27 AM
Heh…oh my gosh, you cannot even imagine how disgusting this cold is. Seriously, my handkerchief felt like a wet facecloth by the end of the day, and last night I just got in bed and curled up in the shape of a bagel and lay there while Birdo sat on the pillow and poked my face with a paw…totally defenceless…this morning, after I had a shower and breakfast, I made the bed and the blankets were still hot. GROSS.
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 9:40 AM
Speaking of gross, I have found 2 cockroaches in my apartment over the past couple of weeks. It made me think of your horror movie experience with them. The ones you found under your toes and were as big as an envelope. Gah, I think I would barf if I had one between my curled toes. It’s frustrating because I keep my place nice and clean. They were just hanging out on my nice (cleaned before bed) kitchen counter. Nothin’ to eat or play on or anything.
And yes, I am saying that your illness reminds me of cockroaches – you’re gross!
To: My Brother
Sent: Tue, March 29, 2011 9:46:47 AM
Hey…I am no cockroach! Ninny.
Were they those little “normal” dudes or the ones the size of your thumb? Mine were the thumb-sizers…which have nothing to do with filth, fortunately, and simply live in woodpiles, basements, heaps of leaves etc…for instance, all the things you probably have in your apartment, heh.
The little dudes? Even one or two is BAD NEWS…get traps, pronto, and tell your landlord because they’ll multiply in weeks till you find them boiling out the shower drain when you flip on the light some morning. No joke. I’ve had them in three or four places in my life, and they are revolting, impossible to get rid of, and in secret places that make you paranoid they’re all over, like the Stand By Me leeches.
The best test is the get those box-shaped glue traps that can also be used for mice. When I say “can”, this does not mean “should”…I really can’t imagine thinking an appropriate method for dealing with a live mammal in your home is the glue it to the inside of a box then dispose of it. But, I digress.
Anyhow, put a couple of those glue traps in places where you’ve seen the “bugs”. If you have a gap between the kitchen cabinets and floor, stick one just inside there. Place one in the dry bathtub overnight, one in the closet, things like that. Because…the two or three big thumbers I found? I assumed they were rogues cruising around my apartment, lost en route to the real party somewhere else. WRONG. The next morning, the glue traps each had more than a half-dozen inside. Each. (pause) EACH.
So yeah. I am sure that didn’t really make your day, but that’s what big sisters are for—saving you from roach infestation!
PS: apparently a roach can live on the glue from a single postage stamp (the old fashioned licky kind) for a month.
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 10:13 AM
Ya, I will be speaking with the landlord tonight. He asked me about a month ago if I had seen any because he found one upstairs. At the time I didn’t think much of it – we have signs in the area to keep an eye out for some kind of Asian bug that’s infesting North America and they look similar to roaches. I figured he was mistaken and it was one of them. Now that I’ve seen them, they are definitely roaches—the bad kind, about just under an inch long.
I think I might try those glue traps. I agree they are horrifying. We used them in the grocery stores and I was appalled. I saw on the internet to use bait-traps. Not so sure if I want to use a trap that actually attracts more to the area.
The worst thing is, I know behind my oven, and behind my kitchen sink cupboards are probably an ideal breeding ground. When I moved in, everything was clean, but I had to go through and do a “real” clean. I won’t go into detail, but I just know it’s scary in the spots I can’t get into.
To: My Brother
Sent: Tue, March 29, 2011 10:15:52 AM
Heh…it’s not so much inviting more to the party if they’re not already living there…it’s more like figuring out if they’re partying like party cat while you’re asleep. Blehhhhh
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 11:57 AM
“boiling out of the shower drain” *shiver*
To: My Brother
Sent: Tue, March 29, 2011 12:01:28 PM
That was the day I cancelled my rent cheque. The landlord had just laughed when I showed him a jar full of the long ones, and reassured me that, “we have those ALL OVER the basement, hahahahaha, whatchoo want me to do? I can give you some fresh glue traps but they’ll just fill up like those ones did!”
So, I figured that was sort of his side of the argument we could potentially present at the Landlord Tenant tribunal, if he argued about me not giving 60 days’ notice to move out. And, since mostly he worked from home as a “book keeper” with job duties that looked a lot like “dude sitting on the sofa in track shorts and a hockey jersey listening to techno alone all goddamned day long”, I felt confident whatever real, highly illegal profession financed his home ownership would keep him from pursuing things too far.
Strangely, the baby-sized kind started appearing too, and the only thing worse than them boiling out of the shower drain was the realisation that these were in fact NOT regular roaches come to crash the party…oh no no no no…these were hundreds of infants destined to achieve two-inch status in due course. Gahhhhhhhh!
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 1:45 PM
I went out at lunch and got supplies. Traps, stuff for homemade traps, cleaning gear. I’m getting into all the hard spots to clean too. If you don’t hear from me tomorrow, call the army.
To: My Brother
Sent: Tue, March 29, 2011 1:48:10 PM
The part of about “stuff for homemade traps” is especially worrying…
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 1:50 PM
Yaaaa, that’s all you need to know. I gots some well-crafted homemade designs drawn up.
To: My Brother
Sent: Tue, March 29, 2011 1:53:06 PM
Hmmm…I might send Pete over to check in…I’m having drinks with him later tonight.
From: My Brother
Sent: March 29, 2011 2:03 PM
Ok, all I can tell you is that it involves beer and a hammer. Don’t send Pete—it’ll only make for twice as much poor judgment if we get together on this job.
According to the book, One Thousand Beards, a moustache is capable of absorbing 20 percent of its own weight. Sadly, the only method of calculation is to shave. A twist of whiskers on a kitchen scale, warm with residual upper lip heat. The moustache has to die in order to learn its weight, at which point it’s no longer situated to absorb any liquids at all. Like a rabies test performed on a biting animal. In order to check for the affliction, they need to take the brain right out, and a negative test result isn’t really helpful to the animal at that point. No dog high-fives its clean bill of health, and no moustache cheers when it sets the record at six ounces.
Each January, we stick a label on it, and that label says THE ONE. As in, this year is going to be ______. And then we begin to assemble its parts, like a Lego village, like a bed frame, like building a bowl of tonkotsu ramen.
It starts off as an untouched virgin of a year, one that isn’t going to deliver shit by the cubic yard like the dirt-guy who comes to my parents’ house each spring and dumps mulch for my mother’s garden in a mound on the boulevard. To further that metaphor: I know. The mulch looks like bad news but is precisely what the garden needs. And sure, sure, sometimes a year that dawns like a heap of driveway shit is likewise what we need to get someplace good. And yet, no one likes to shovel that mulch; no one likes to smell that mulch; no one likes to contemplate that mulch too deeply. We like looking at the flowers that bloom in August better than gazing at that daunting mountain of shit in April, and the same goes for a year that shows signs of teaching a lesson, building character, or being cobbled together from nothing but work.
When I was six, I worked through each meal to reach dessert, not because I liked anything on my plate. Peas? Gah. Carrots? Fine, but fine is not the same as good. Chicken? A thing I would chew till my mother grew tired of watching me grind my teeth through protein, then I would ask permission to spit into my napkin. Being six was all about the payoff — one that either swiftly followed an ordeal (like cookies after chicken) or which was immediate and unconditional (cookies themselves).
After essentially behaving like a six year old throughout the December holiday season, albeit one who can legally purchase and consume liquor, and knows how to hail a taxi home at the end of playtime, it’s tough to shake the desire for instant gratification. Therefore, I think we tend to perceive a new year that dawns with an attitude as a bad sign of what’s to come.
And so, each January, we snap on our optimist goggles and decide that the brand new year is going to be The Shit, rather that shitty. It’s going to be the one that sees a friend get out of debt, another make a baby, that one dump a loser, maybe someone else find a mate, earn a credential, make a big and good decision. This year will be the year that pays a reward. Cookies after chicken, or maybe even cookies on a plate with nothing first.
By 2011, I pretty much had a standard January refrain, which sounded like this:
THIS year is going to be MY year; I’m going to get a job I at least don’t break out in a rash contemplating each Sunday night; also, I will meet someone who isn’t a complete fucking fucktard and barring that, someone I can spend 90 minutes with, a meal and good conversation between us. Preferably someone who, once we remove our pants in tandem and press parts of ourselves up against each other, isn’t additionally removing his pants and pressing his parts against the rest of Toronto. The Bullshit Floodplain is going to recede while sunshine comes my way instead.
I felt pretty confident smacking an ambitiously hopeful label on 2011 because throughout 2010, I had worked like mad: toward a career; toward getting published; toward completing a book about kids who spend a night island-bound at an amusement park. So, looking back on the writing and publishing bit? Well, it remained a bundle of works in progress, but they at least seemed to be progressing…at a glacial pace, but hey, we all know what wonders the glaciers ultimately wrought.
It was, however, major news that in 2010, I worked hard at my career for the first time since accepting that The Office Job was no longer paying my way through school, nor was it killing time till I get my real career off the ground. The Office Job was here to stay, and I was working it on purpose. In 2010, I “applied” myself to my office CAREER, and it wasn’t horrible. In fact, it was rather great.
I also applied myself to trimming the dead weight. So! Much! Dead! Weight! Ugh.
2011? Mmmm hmmm, I thought. Bring it on. My cookies on a plate after all that applying of self would surely be an even better job, and I felt confident 2011 would be The One, the year that was All Mine. The one that was going to elevate things from ” chop wood, carry water”.
During my first of several ultimately unsuccessful attempts to earn a degree, I studied contemporary American literature, which included a handful of Horatio Alger texts to establish the American Dream trope followed by a reading list of increasingly disgruntled, disaffected and down-trodden protagonists who came face to face with the truth:
Hard work does not necessarily pay. And sometimes, really damn lazy people get the stuff some hardworking person should’ve received instead, if only the world were a fair place.
The works we studied also covered some lesser (but no less jarring) truths, like “bad things do happen to good people” and “good people can quickly become crummy people if they surrender to base desires”. Sister Carrie cautioned that kept women have nice gloves and sweet chapeaux, but they also have seamy reputations and one day (worse still) they will grow old and fall out of favour with their patrons. The Invisible Man is narrated by someone who grows to understand that all his hard work has failed to spring him from the constraints of twentieth century racism. The abject ex-pats favoured by Hemingway, Stein, Ford and others plainly begged to contract diseases — from one another and from their own corrupt behaviour — as they drank, ate, and screwed their way through a world war. And so on, right up to the 1980s when protagonists shuffled off the burden of trying, failing, and wallowing in disappointment in favour of not giving a fuck in the first place.
In short, I should have known better than to believe that applying myself would pay off in the short-term. Admittedly, that first degree-attempt took place in 1993, and my memory holds water like a tin can perforated by a screwdriver dozens and dozens of times. But still…if there is one thing I have a good memory for, it is stories, so I should have remembered all those books.
An extremely wise woman once told me that sometimes, Monday to Friday will feel like nothing but a job of work, and during those weeks, I ought to plod toward that fortnightly pay cheque, grateful that I walk in at 9 and out again at 5 and get money for simply showing up. And, she was right. Mine are, as they say, First World Problems and if the crappiest thing that happens to me one day is feeling unfulfilled at work, that is a mighty fine day for most citizens of the world.
That said, it makes my spleen ache to contemplate disliking the way I spend my days but choosing to do nothing to improve it. I worked a job I loved for a long time, surrounded by a perplexing combination of the most interesting people I’d ever met plus three of the most soul-destroying, back-stabbing, politically screwed-up individuals I’d ever met. And so, part of the 2010 policy of self-application was to find another job, one that wasn’t perhaps as esoteric, but where my days would not be punctuated by a colleague reciting her list of reasons why First Nations people in Canada deserved the cultural eradication they experienced through the mid-twentieth century. A job where people did their jobs without complaining about the unfairness of having to perform to standards. A job that made me think, and made me try really hard, and where sometimes work would land back in my lap marked “not good enough” and would force me to learn new things all the time.
I lined up several interviews, but of them all, one was especially sweet-sounding and I crossed fingers it (like all those new Januaries) would be The One. Travelling to the interview by public transit, dressed in a suit and heels on a 40 degree day, I fainted midway there and had to sit on the curb awhile after disembarking the streetcar at my stop. Confident I could shake it off and breeze through the screening (which included A TEN-MINUTE POWERPOINT PRESENTATION, FOUR-PERSON PANEL INTERVIEW AND HALF-HOUR WRITTEN TEST), I carefully placed my hands to shield the scuff mark on my blouse from where I hit the streetcar floor on my way down, and got on with things. It is now office legend that I cruised along in a complete brain fog, and in response to the panel’s question about how I deal with high-pressure situations, competing deadlines, and the simple fact that some days I will not be able to complete everything that is required, I said, “I just remind myself that work is just a place I go every day.”
What I meant by this was, if you get stressed about workload, deadline pressures, demanding clients and the constraint of having only 24 hours in a day, you will fall even farther behind, mess things up, make poor decisions and get nothing done. Instead, I basically informed the hiring committee that hey, work is just this thing I do, so when things get tough, I remind myself it’s not that important. And? I got the job. Apparently, on the basis of that answer.
And so, job landed, I applied myself, riding the high that came from deciding to leave an unfavourable situation and snickering from time to time about how I stepped into that business suit, fainted, said crazy shit, landed the job and was now clearly on my way. Cue the lessons of Alger et al.
2011? Imperfect, but littered with some very, very good things.
2012? More like building a good soup. Rather than affixing an annual label, I am quietly layering components, thinking it all through without over-thinking.
One of my favourite and least-favourite things last year was the debut of Lucky Peach, a magazine devoted to grungily reporting on high-end culinary pursuits. It’s a magazine that showcases thousand-dollar knives, international reknown, the F-word, highly engineered denim, and guys putting incredible effort into a meal then eating it like total animals. Its tone bugged the crap out of me, but was strangely comfortable and familiar. By issue #2, a girlfriend and I had figured it out — we were repulsed by the dude-centric kitchen thuggery, but compelled to keep reading because it reminded us of the boys we grew up with and remain close with now.
Our guy-friends have a joke about which animal would win in hand-to-hand combat: gorilla or bear?
This conversation has been raging since approximately 1995, and after many weeks of discussion via our pre-Facebook Yahoo chat group, no conclusions were reached. By that point, the debate had expanded to the various advantages each creature would hold over the other, as well as grave analyses of their weak spots. It’s a debate that continues to surface even now. “If he was allowed to use hammers, the gorilla would win for sure.” I feel like victory in such a fight, were it to actually take place, would be predicated on a similar principle as my theory of work: chop wood, carry water. Whichever animal can set to the task and plod through it without overthinking, this is the animal that will triumph.
In issue #2, the Lucky Peach boys brought forward the identical question: gorilla versus bear. Which would be the victor? This alone has potentially secured my loyalty as a reader, regardless of the alienating tone and content of the articles. I feel like that question demonstrates the magazine’s potential in a way not accomplished through all its pieces about small-batch bourbon, injecting foam into cracklin’, cooking eggs at high altitudes, and locating the king of all noodles in a remote alley inaccessible to pretty much everyone.
I love that fight question in a way that’s tough to articulate. It’s not as simple as “I like it because it reminds me of the boys I’ve loved for 20 years” or “I like it because it’s silly and familiar.” I like it because it encouraged me to look at a magazine that was immediately off-putting (despite its excellent feature on ramen varieties and assembly), and to not be put off after all, much like the year that starts off looking like shit can turn out mighty fine. And, whether I appreciate their posturing hipsterism or not, those Lucky Peach guys? They work fucking hard. They apply themselves, whether there’s a cookie now or a cookie not till later. And, as I set my mind to another year of applying myself to something that might get me no place fast, this is a work ethic I could really write on a label and slap on 2012.
Me: Man, driving is so great. If I could do it, i would definitely do it a lot.
H: No, you wouldn’t. Driving is terrible. If you could drive, you would drive as little as possible.
Me: But the getting-around! The not lugging all this shit in bags and arriving home with tired arms and shoulders. I would drive so much. All driving, all the time.
H: I repeat. Driving is terrible, you would never drive.
H: Seriously. Terrible. Just because you can does not mean you would.
Me: Yeah, I guess that’s like saying, “If I were tall, I would wear a lot more pants because they would look great on me then.”
H: Right. “Oh, look, I’m so tall, aren’t my pants great? This is great, being tall in pants! Pants are the best, they’re so great, if you’re lucky like me to be so tall.” Totally not how it works.
Me: Yeah. Thanks for driving me home.
H: Happy New Year.
New pants. Ones that fasten without the aid of a piece of camping equipment (see photo, above).
Thirty days in the hole; no sugar, no flour, no liquor, no beef, no coffee. Perhaps. We’ll see about that last one. No need to be crazy about this business.
A little bit of writing.
A lot of stretching.
Hopefully some sleeping.
More of this; less of that.
Happy new year!