Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Welcome to the Microcosm

As the long evenings of summer disappear along with an increasingly elusive sun, as the greens transform to reds and oranges, and as the crisp air of autumn hints at the promise of winter just months away, Patty and I often give in to wanderlust (I prefer garden-variety lust, but that's another story). For Patty, our truck becomes our vessel for adventure, for meandering treks along unpaved roads with no set timetable and, often, no set destination. For me, these outings chew up hours that might otherwise be filled with home repair assignments I work so hard to avoid.

Most times, we happen upon tiny but quaint communities untouched by the hustle and bustle of urban sprawl, places that have instead adopted a more laid-back charm as their definition of progress. These villages boast wine shops, antique stores and gift boutiques, nestled among mom-and-pop office supply and shoe shops that have miraculously survived the megamall age. I'm a small-town boy, so visits to such places often inspire moments of nostalgia, and serve as a refreshing change from charmless suburbia.

Some stores offer handmade jewelry and knick-knacks by local artisans. With Patty on board, these villages cost us a small fortune, because Patty is stronger than most at finding something unique we just can’t pass up lest it be lost to us forever.

This past Saturday, we stopped at a small town where being literal was apparently the order of the day. Railroad Street ran directly parallel to the Amtrak tracks. Center Street and Main Street, running in opposite directions, divided the town. I looked on a local map, and felt no surprise to find Church Street as one of the main routes. I did feel some surprise to find no street named “Liquor Lane”, because the number of pubs in town was surpassed only by the selection of places of faith. For just a moment, as I did a tally of the saloons, I thought, "I could live here forever."

After Patty satisfied her shopping urge by picking up a pair of earrings ("We have to buy something, don't you think?"), I suggested that we stop into one of the town’s bars for a drink. She agreed. We selected one and walked through the door. We didn’t immediately realize we’d also walked through a portal into the past.

As we received our drinks, in plastic cups (which immediately made me think this was one of those places where glass is frowned upon, “just in case”), I scanned the patrons. The man beside me, who kept regaling the bartender with stories about his son—to whom he referred not by name but as “M’boy”—sported a bushy mustache that obscured both his upper and lower lips. I whispered in Patty's ear.

“Check it out. Does anyone have just a mustache anymore?”

Before she could reply, a cursory scan down the bar provided an answer. Yes. In this town, mustaches were not only acceptable but, it would seem, required. All of the men had them. I felt out of place. I felt even more conspicuous when I reached into my backpack (which caused everyone in the bar to cast a disapproving look, as though I was fishing through a Louis Vuitton purse for my lost lipstick) and pulled out my cell phone (the appearance of which inspired looks that suggested all present considered me “high-falutin’”).

At the end of the bar, two men—one with hair to his waist (and a mustache) and the other with no hair at all (other than a mustache)—entertained their female companion, who had no mustache but whose hairstyle harkened back to the rock videos of the early 80s. The less hirsute of the two kept the woman giggling with a loud demonstration of how many pot-smoking terms he knew, which he presented as an uncategorized list:

“Blunt. Mary Jane. Reefer. Bong. Spliff. Doobie. Munchies.”

He paused only long enough for her to look up and admire the expanse of arm clearly visible below his wife-beater shirt. Said shirt bore the name of yet another local bar. Another scan of the room revealed that everyone was content being a walking billboard for a vice of choice--a bar, brand of cigarettes or variety of beer.

I turned to the man next to me.

“There’s a lot of bars in town, huh?”

“Well, they come and go." He reeled off an impressive list. "Oh, and there used to be a place over on Center Street, but it wasn’t very busy, and then it burned down.” He said the latter without even a hint of suspicion. “M’boy likes the Silver Saddle.” He then turned back to his beer in a way that suggested that since I insisted on carrying a purse, future conversations were not encouraged.

I suggested to Patty that, if she was amenable, I'd be content to chug my drink immediately and hit the road. She agreed. Before we left, I stopped into the bathroom. It was designed for one person, and provided the choice of a urinal or a toilet. I chose the urinal, but looked over at the toilet just long enough to notice that another patron had opted against the urinal because doing so would mean he’d be unable to pee all over the seat. I decided we really needed to get going.

Moments later, we were back in the truck, on a freeway, with a new set of earrings and my backpack-purse, heading back to what we, in the suburbs, define as civilization.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Room...and bored

At age 17, I left my hometown of 13,000 people and moved to a modest basement apartment in the northern part of Toronto. An ambitious college student who was relieved to have at last escaped the perceived hell of rural living, I quickly became homesick, and took the train home many weekends.

On one such return visit, my parents informed me they had offered up the use of the sofa in my new pad, free of charge, to the daughter of an acquaintance.

"You did what?"

"We told her she could stay with you. It's only for a month."

"But why?" You should imagine a whine here.

"Because it seems like the right thing to do. Besides, her family has always been good to us."

"Dad, you are a customer in her father's restaurant. A paying customer. No, wait...a regular, paying customer. Getting a good breakfast that you paid for doesn't really qualify as a debt owed."

My arguments fell on deaf ears. My parents paid most of the cost of my apartment, so it was mostly their space to loan out to any near-strangers for whom they felt the slightest affinity. Besides, they pointed out I could get rides home on weekends from my new roomie, who owned a car. I might have offered more of a protest but, well, my mom intimidated me. She still does.

Pat (not her real name; okay, I’m lying, it was her real name) moved in early the next week. At first, I wasn’t completely averse to the idea of having a companion. My apartment was a 90-minute transit ride from my school, so none of my fellow students wanted anything to do with visiting me. I had been spending most evenings (a) sitting in a chair watching television and chewing my nails, (b) playing with myself, (c) pretending I had no laundry and a surplus of friends, and (d) waiting for my landlord to go out for the evening so I could steal some of the weed he stashed under his sofa cushions.

On top of this boundless excitement, having a living, breathing person around didn’t seem horrible, although it would put some constraints on (b).

"Okay, Dad, she can stay...but just for a month."

He looked at me the same way I now look at my kids whenever they refer to our home as "my house".

"You're doing the right thing, son."

Within a week, I discovered that I truly could hate a person more than I hate sauerkraut or laundry. Allow me to explain.

First, the rides home. Pat liked to smoke cigarettes, but didn’t buy smokes.

"I'm not really a smoker."

This meant that any cigarette I lit became a community smoke for smokers and non-smokers alike. I wouldn’t have minded so much were it not for the fact Pat was what we called a “juicer”. This meant that the dry cigarette I passed to her returned seconds later as a hot, spit-saturated sponge caked in lipstick. The shoulders of highways across Southern Ontario became littered with half-finished cigarettes thanks to yours truly. My lung capacity began to improve.

The worst part of living with Pat, though, was her immediate comfort in my space. Case in point: she enjoyed talking on the phone. My phone. Nobody could reach me. For all I knew, every person I had ever known could have died and been buried and I wouldn’t have had a clue. I seethed, but said nothing.

I said nothing because interrupting any of Pat’s conversations—all of which were, apparently, of national importance—caused her to toss me that subtle, “And what the fuck do YOU want?” glare. Besides, interrupting her calls would mean going into my own bedroom, which had largely become off-limits except when she decided I could sleep. I didn’t want any part of that space, because Pat apparently felt all calls were somehow enhanced if she took them while sprawled, face down, on my bed, in an oversized sweatshirt…and undersized panties. Sounds kinda hot, right? Not so much.

I blame my frustration for my judgmental nature. Really, a kinder person would describe my roommate’s posterior as “voluptuous”, “generous” or “Rubenesque”. I was not such a person, so I recalled it to friends (and the strangers I was soon hitting up for conversation) as “Jesus, that is one huge dimpled golf-ball of an ass”. Below said Titleist were ample legs that resembled balloons from which air was slowly escaping. Until I saw my first Vermeer painting years later, the term “milky white” brought no positive images to mind; all I could think about were Pat’s limp, cellulite-clad limbs. (In case you were wondering, I was bitter.)

For the month Pat stayed with me, she proved to be long on promises and short on delivery. Every day I heard about the cases of beer and countless food items that would soon be clogging our fridge. I heard about the good times we’d share visiting parties and bars. Instead, for weeks, I stayed thirsty, hungry...and out of my room.

When Pat finally left, I spent an entire evening stretched out on my bed, taking long, satisfying (and deliciously dry) drags on one cigarette after another, dreaming of beer and food, and relishing my new-found independence.

My brother moved in a week later.

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