*Originally published in Juice Magazine, September 2011*
Most nights, when I came home, Nikki would be there. Usually, she’d be sitting on the couch in her underwear, looking through photographs. It was summertime, and the apartment would be roasting. But she never opened the windows. When I came through the door, I would head straight for the windows and open them, then go and sit down beside her.
“Do you like them?” she would ask.
“Yeah, they’re great,” I’d lie. Nikki considered herself a photographer. She took pictures of streets and train yards and people she liked. The pictures were not very good but she worked very hard at them, and I think sometimes that should be enough.
“Mhmm,” I would say, pointing at a photo, “especially this one. I mean, these came out great!”
Then she would smile and put the photos away. After that, if we were both feeling lazy and the fridge was running low, we’d order a pizza and I would go across the street to pick it up. When I came back, the apartment would be a little cooler and Nikki would be dressed and we would eat in front of the television. A little while after dinner, Nikki would ask:
“Do you think we’re stuck in a rut?”
I would think about it for a second. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I hope not. I don’t want for us to get boring.”
“Are you bored?”
“No…I worry about it though. I don’t want us to be bored, because then we’ll break up.”
“Well, we’re not stuck in a rut.”
“I know.” It would be quiet for a minute. Then, “Babe?”
“You’re not just saying that, right?”
“Of course not, no! Nooo, I love ya.”
“Really really. Same as I always have, since the day that I met you.”
Nikki would look down, wiggle her toes a little. “You always say that.”
“And I always mean it!” Then I’d wrap an arm around her and say, “I love you, Nikki. Okay? I love you I love you I love you, a whole whole lot.”
Nikki would smile. “Okay. I love you too. And you don’t think we’re stuck in a rut?”
“We’re not stuck in a rut.”
“I hope not,” she’d say, “sometimes I just worry.”
We had that conversation once, sometimes twice a week.

*  *  *

It hadn’t always been like this. I first met her at a noisy little bar on the east side of town. It was a birthday party in late November. She came in with another girl who looked familiar. The bar was dark and crowded, and I only caught glimpses of her at first. She was thin and very lovely, with curly brown hair and a deep, natural looking tan, as though she had been away for a while. At some point I saw her step outside onto the patio with a cigarette. I waited for a minute and a half – I wanted our meeting to look accidental – then joined her outside.
“Are you here for the party?” I asked, lighting up my cigarette.
“Which one?”
I looked through the patio’s glass door and pointed to the table. “That one.” She leaned in towards the window, peering through. Her eyes were light brown and shaped like almonds.
“You mean Don’s?”
“Yeah,” I said. She nodded.
“So how do you know Don?” I asked.
“Oh, I don’t, really. I came here with Laura, we work together at the Portsmouth.”
“You’re a barmaid?”
“We actually prefer ‘bartender’.”
“Sorry,” I said.
She laughed and shrugged. “I don’t mind. What about you?”
“Don and I took some classes together in university.”
“Yeah? What’d you take?”
It was a banal conversation, but I didn’t mind. It felt good to be alone with her. And then suddenly, I got very nervous – not because I was talking with a beautiful girl, but because I knew that soon she would ask me The Question. The Question was simple enough, but I always had a hard time answering it, and I knew that when I tried, her eyes would glaze over and our conversation would be over. Sure enough, a moment later, she asked me:
“So what do you do?”
“You mean for money?”
She nodded, yes. I took a long drag of my cigarette, now nearly finished. “Nothing special.”

“Oooh,” she drew her lips together, smirking, “how mysteriousof you.”

I laughed. “No, it’s not like that. It’s just boring, is all.”
“Well? Go ahead. Bore me.”
“You sure?”
She nodded. I felt around my pockets for another cigarette, and pulled out my Pall Mall Reds.
“Could I bum one of those?” she asked. I handed her one, then pulled out another for myself.
“I work for a company that does document storage.”
“What’s that? Like, a warehouse?”
“Sort of.” I hoped that she would drop the subject. Instead she just stood there, waiting. Well, I thought, here goes:
“According to the law,” I started, “every business has to keep their personnel records for at least seven years after the date they were signed, or last updated. Contracts, written complaints, performance reviews, all that – anything you sign at work, anything with your name on it, they have to keep for seven years.”
“Well, in case you decide to sue them, or something like that.”
“Does that happen very often?”
I shook my head. “Not really, but that’s the law. Anyways, over seven years, those documents pile up, especially if you’re a big company with a lot of employees. And since most of those documents are about people who don’t even work there any more, most companies can’t be bothered holding onto them. So they pay people like us to do it for them. We hold on to all these old papers, and once they turn seven years old, we destroy them.”
“Destroy them?”
“Yup. Shred ‘em.”
It was quiet for a moment. Then, she looked up at me. “You practice that, don’t you?”
“That whole thing, about your job. It sounds rehearsed.”
I shook my head. “No. Not really.”
“Maybe a little.”
She laughed. “I’m Nikki,” she said.
“Hi, Nikki.”
We talked for a bit longer and after that we went back inside. The band was noisy and terrible that night, and I didn’t get a chance to see Nikki again. A few weeks later I saw her at another friend’s party, and this time I managed to get her number. I got to know a lot about Nikki after that. I learned how she loves summer, but hates spring, and how her middle name is Catherine and she wishes that it wasn’t, and how she lost her virginity when she was fourteen and that she likes to smoke cigarettes from countries she’s never visited. She had been new back then, thrilling, and we were happy together.
Maybe she’s still happy. I don’t know.

*  *  *

My father got me the job, when I finished university and nothing else was coming up. I figured it would be short-term; that was two years ago. Most days, I didn’t mind it. Every morning I would come in, and there would be a freshly printed list of files sitting on my desk. The list showed all the files that were expiring that day, and where to find them. Most of my day was spent walking through the storage complex, with its endless rows and columns of tall gray filing cabinets, looking for files, tossing them in carts, and bringing them back to my desk. Then, I’d double check, make sure I had the right ones, and send them through the shredder. Mostly, I was paid for the things I didn’t do – I was valuable because I didn’t try to steal anything, or sell one company’s information to their competitors. It was mind-numbing work, sure, but it paid very well, and over two years I had come up with a few ways to kill the time. One thing I liked to do was read the names off my list, and try to imagine what kind of face that person had. I would read their names aloud as I walked.
“Terrence Updike, Borland Corp.” Terrence, I decided, was a stocky, round-faced man in his late thirties. He had a hooked nose that he broke as a child, flattening it to his face. Underneath his nose, the beginning of a moustache was sprouting. God, he was ugly. I moved down to the next name.
“Erin Krishner, Sierratech Industries.” Erin wore large, square-rimmed glasses to distract people from what was – in his opinion – a nose too large for his face. Other than that, he had no real distinguishing features, thin lips, and noticeable dandruff in the winter. Satisfied, I read the next name.
“Emily Vaughn, Digital Imagery.” I thought about this one. Emily Vaughn. That’s perfect. She would have sandy blonde hair, very straight, and her eyes would be blue. I figure that when she smiles (which is often) little creases form around her nose. Emily Vaughn. I liked that name. It had some poetry to it. I spent a long time working on the details of her face. When I was finished, she looked quite beautiful, and I wondered if I was just remembering someone I’d already met before. The feeling soon passed.
“Sylvia Mynarski, Atlear Group.” Now Sylvia, she…

*  *  *

A few days later I was deciding whether Janet Vickars’s chin should be pointed or squared when the name came back into my mind. Emily Vaughn. It kept coming back all afternoon and into the evening when I got home. Each time, I would see her face again, the face I had made for her. At least, I thought I had made it. Maybe I had seen her before – she was so familiar – but I couldn’t remember where. It was funny, and it nagged at me. I wanted to know for sure.
That night, I opened up my laptop and logged onto Facebook. In the search bar, I typed ‘Emily Vaughn’ and hit ‘ENTER’. The search came back with Emily’s, dozens of them. I clicked through the first few results – none of them looked like the girl I was thinking of. Where was it she worked? I mulled it over, trying to remember. Was it ‘image’? It had an ‘image’ in it. I searched again, this time typing ‘Emily Vaughn image’. And there she was, the very first hit.
This Emily looked very much as I had imagined her, except that her skin was fairer and her hair was a lighter shade of blonde. She wore a black dress in her profile picture, posing with some other girls. She was stunning, really. Her profile said she had worked for ‘Digital Imagery’ for a few years now. It was definitely the girl whose name I had seen on the file. But had I met her before?
I kept looking. She had hundreds of photos, and I spent a few minutes going through them. She was always smiling, always happy. I saw her on vacations, and at parties and at home with the family for Christmas. After the photos, I read her Bio, and her Favourite Movies, and her Hobbies and her Interests and her Favourite Music and Books. I soon realized that I couldn’t possibly have known her – she lived in the States and we had zero Mutual Friends. Still, after going through her profile, I felt like I knew more about her than I knew about Nikki after three months of seeing each other. She was much more open about her life.
I found my way back to Emily’s Wall, and began reading the messages there. Some were very long, but most were short. The most recent of them read:
“i went to see your parents today. i tried to cheer them up but they still miss you. we all do. you were a great friend and a truly amazing person and i hope i see you again someday. ily”
I scrolled down and read another. It read, “Emily, when God took you away, I was angry for a long time. I didn’t know why He could take someone like you away. Now that its been awhile Ive seen that He has a plan for us, and I know you looking down on us from up there. Rest in Peace.”
Another simply read, “Emily Sara Vaughn March 25 1982 – July 16 2004. RIP”. I read the posts for a long time. When I was done, I closed the laptop and tried to fall asleep. Nikki snored quietly beside me.

*  *  *

A few days went by, and Nikki was in the apartment again. The sun was just setting, and the apartment was baking. I ordered some Thai food for dinner and went to pick it up. When I left, Nikki was on the couch in a tank top, flipping through channels trying to find a movie we hadn’t already seen. When I came back, she was lying down with her eyes closed.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“No.” She sat up when she said it. The TV had been switched off. We ate dinner, saying very little. It was very quiet in the apartment. Sometimes an ambulance would blare past on the street below. At some point I turned on the TV, but it was still very quiet. Finally, Nikki spoke:
“Why do you lie to me about my pictures?”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“You don’t like them.”
“Sure I do. Why, what is this?”
“Sarah texted me. She told me you said they’re no good.”
“When you were getting the pizza.”
“I didn’t see Sarah.”
“No! That’s when she texted me. She heard you say it last weekend.”
“Laura’s party.”
“I didn’t talk to Laura there.”
“You weren’t talking to her, you were talking to Alex.”
“Oh. Well I didn’t see her there,” I said absently. Nikki didn’t respond, she just stared out the window with her jaw clenched tight. “Which one is Laura again?”
“My friend, Laura. You’ve met her before.”
“…Is she blonde?”
“Fuck you.”
“What?” I asked. Nikki had gotten up now. She was picking her clothes up off the floor.
“You heard what I said, I said…fuck…you! I introduce you to my friends, you talk to them, and then you don’t even remember them, ever. It’s like you’re trying to….I mean, why don’t you care?”
She put on her socks, then her shirt, and now she was wiggling into a pair of jeans. I thought it was funny, how the socks went on first. She kept on talking, snatching things up off the floor.
“…and they’re important to me. So, when you act like you don’t care about them, it’s like you’re saying that you don’t care about me. You know?”
I sat up on the couch. “How come you put your socks on before your pants?”
Nikki turned around. She had all of her clothes on now. “What?”
“Nothing, no. I just thought it was funny, how you put your socks on before anything else.”
Nikki looked at me for what felt like a long time. Then she said, “Go to Hell!” and walked out of the room. When she was gone, I stood up and put the rest of the Thai food in the fridge. Then, I sat down on the couch and checked my email. While I was there, I logged onto Facebook and changed my Relationship Status to Single. It was as simple as that.

*  *  *

A letter:

JULY 16, 2004


You are receiving this letter as a reminder re: our Company’s ‘Time Off Policies’. Employees are expected to notify their Supervisor(s) as soon as possible if, for any reason, they will be absent from work. In some cases, your Supervisor(s) may request a doctor’s note or other documentation to verify the reasons for absence.

This office’s records indicate that you have been absent from work, without properly notifying your Supervisor(s), on the following dates:

April 13, 2004

June 7, 2004

June 21, 2004

July 16, 2004

Unexplained absenteeism is detrimental to the Company and puts increased pressure on your co-workers to perform your duties while you are away. Please consider your co-workers in the future. Failure to do so will result in termination of your Employment Contract with the Company.


Derrick Isley,
Human Resources, Digital Imagery

It was Friday afternoon. I looked down at my desk, at the stack of papers all turning seven years old that day. I read the letter again. Someone had struck the whole page through with a red marker, and at the bottom they had written “N/A,” and below that, “DECEASED.” I read the whole thing over again. It seemed very cruel, but nothing could be done. I fed the letter into the shredder beside my desk.

I didn’t want to go out that night. Don told me I should – he said it would help me get over Nikki, that I had been weird lately, distant. I told him no, thanks, but I’d really rather stay in. I opened a bottle of wine with dinner, and left it out when I was done. Late in the evening, it started to rain, and water came in through the open window. I was starting to feel better. I got up to shut the window, and opened another bottle.
It got to be pretty late. I was lying in bed, tired, but not sleepy. My laptop was sitting on the nightstand, and I sat up and laid it across my legs. I checked and re-checked my email. Then, I went to Emily’s profile. There was a button below her picture. It said ‘Send Emily a Message’. I clicked it, and began,

You don’t know me…we’ve never met in person. I wish that we had, though, even just once. I think we might have liked one another. I’m a lot like you. It feels weird saying that, but it’s true. We like the same things. We like the same bands. Your friends still post on your Wall, even though they know you won’t answer. I think you get more posts than me. I guess that says something. Anyways, sometimes, one of them will find an old picture of you, and put it online. They tag you in it, and people comment on your pictures. It’s like nothing is different. I think that shows how much they care about you. Well, that’s all I wanted to say. Take care.”

My legs were warm where the laptop had been sitting on them. I had felt strange at first, writing the thing, but reading it back to myself I began to feel pretty good about it. I pressed ‘Send’.
‘We’re sorry, something went wrong. Please try again later.’
‘OK,’ I clicked, then ‘Send’.
‘We’re sorry, something went wrong. Please try again later.’
‘Oh, Hell,’ I thought, and clicked ‘Refresh’. The browser took me back to my news feed, not to Emily’s profile like it was supposed to. I went back to the search bar, and typed ‘Emily Vaughn image’.
‘Sorry, no matches were found.’
I was starting to understand, though I didn’t want to admit it. I searched again.
‘Sorry, no matches were found.’
I tried again, and again and again. She would not come back to me. I looked at my watch. It was nine minutes past midnight. Emily had been dead now for seven years and one day. That meant that no one had accessed her account in seven years and one day. I understood perfectly well now. Emily had expired. I shut the laptop and got under the blankets, and for a long time I listened to the sounds of the city and the rain.

When the Going Gets Weird… (Conclusion)

*Originally posted April 27, 2009*

Madness. A determined and frenetic madness was now washing over me. Or maybe not. Surely, I felta little crazy, and after all, you can’t actually be crazy if you feel like you are… Joe Heller taught us that. By this time of the night, I was fully aware that what I was doing was hazardous, silly, and most likely to end in disaster. This sort of trip runs a very high risk of self-destruction. As I ran out of Toad in the Hole, dodging carloads of drunks like some real-life game of Frogger, this truth became increasingly obvious.

And while I’m on the topic, I find that when one is engaging in this sort of weird journey, it’s important to have friends on the alert, so they might contact the Proper Authorities if you happen go missing the next day. In the early hours of Saturday morning, I had several good friends calling and texting just to make sure I was still alive and kicking. I’d like to take the opportunity now to thank all of them here. You know who you are, and it was really, very sweet of you.

After a few minutes waiting in some transit shelter, a bus comes lumbering up the avenue, and I shuffle on board. Frost drips from my beard onto the floor as I speak with the driver.
“Hi there, do you know where to get off for Shannon’s Irish Pub?”
“Shannon’s. It’s a bar, right on this street somewhere.”
“I don’t know man, I just drive the bus.”
Something about the phrase makes me laugh aloud. It really sums the moment up nicely.
“You and me both, man.”
“You’re doing a great job, by the way. Really, you’re the best of your kind…”

I make my way to one of the seats. No problems here, I think. I’ll just ask around the bus, someone has to know where this bar is. I observe the surroundings. Two homeless men (that is, homeless by all appearances and aromas) are passed out in the back, and an Indian man and woman are sitting nearby. I sit beside the man and woman, making sure to wait for a block to pass before addressing them, to avoid seeming desperate. Which, by this point, I am.

“Excuse me, but do you know which stop is closest to Shannon’s?”
Christ, did everyone in this town suddenly stop drinking?
“Shannon’s Irish Pub. I’m supposed to be there right now, but…well, I’m not. Could you help me out?”

Neither of them knows what or where I’m talking about, and I realize that I’ve been getting that a lot lately… Still, they are friendly and try as best they can to help. Fine by me. I’m not used to relying on the help of strangers, and tonight I have been heavily reliant on many of them…and all have been happy to help so far. I believe it’s some karmic coincidence. I always give plenty of change to panhandlers (even if I ask that they spend it on cheap liquor)… The Indian woman jerks me out of my train of thought.
“Why don’t you ask these folks getting on?” she says, “They’re young, they should know.”

I turn around and onto the bus walks…Her. You know Her. She is the archetypal beauty. The golden standard to which all women are compared. The Perfect 10. I never even knew she existed until she walked onto that bus…She had always been a creation of the imagination, something drawn together and made up of only the most beautiful features. Of course, everybody’s got their own variation on Her, but for me She’s slender, taller than most girls, with deep blue eyes, pert C-cup breasts, soft pale skin, her hair down in loose curls…

And of course, She’s a brunette.

Talking to strange women isn’t a problem for me, especially when discussing such mundane topics as ‘Where-The-Fuck-Am-I-Going? …But then again, this was Her! She was wearing a black coat and lipstick. Not a very dark red, mind you, just enough to draw your eye to her lips. Two guys board the bus with her and sit on either side of her, but clearly neither of them is romantically linked to Her. Both of them probably made a move on Her at some point, but got shot down and decided they’d try again after being Just Friends with her for a while. Poor Damn Fools. Meanwhile, I am inches away from being confused with one of the homeless gentlemen in the back of the bus. Not one of my better moments. The point is, I had a hard time even getting up the nerve to open my mouth, and when I did, the words came out funny.

“Scuse me, uhhh…hi. Listen, I was just wondering if, uh…do you know when I should get off for Shannon’s?”
“Uhhhh, well Shannon’s… it’s this Irish pub somewhere on Pembina. My friend is having hi-”
She cuts me off, “There’s no Shannon’s on Pembina. You mean Dylan’s?”
“What? No, uhh…no, no I’m pretty sure it was Shannon’s…”
Where the hell am I even going? I think while my words trail off. Is this even the right night? Is it possible that when I get to…to wherever I’m trying to go, no one else will be there? A million million doubts set in.
“The only Shannon’s in town is the one at the convention centre.”
“Well, yeah, but I thought maybe they had like a…”
She cuts me off again, saying, “You want Dylan O’ Connors, its right before the stop at Bishop Grandin. It’s big, there’s a big sign in front, you can’t miss it.”
And she knows her bars, too! The bus slows down, She stands up, the two boys following her to the door. Looks like our time is up.
“Well, uhh…Thanks. Yeah, okay, but…hey wait! I mean, ah…wuh-what’s your name?”
She turned and looked at me and smiled…I tried to smile back, but it must have looked pretty pitiful. Then She said to me, in that soft, sweet voice, she said,
“Have a nice night.”
…And stepped off the bus, her boys in tow.

That was it. I met my dream girl, and she wouldn’t even give me her name. That didn’t bother me as much as it probably should have…after all, this is one of those way, way way-off nights. I don’t believe I would think as highly of her if she gave guys like that a shot. No, what bothered me more than anything was the smile she gave me, just before she walked off. Something was wrong with it. Her mouth twisted up like mouths should in a smile, but there was nothing in her eyes to give evidence that she was, in fact, smiling. There was no emotion, no…life in this smile. And suddenly, it occurred to me that I had seen that smile before. It was plastered on the faces of all the drivers, all the salesmen, all the bartenders, all the people who serve my food and handle my money, the dealers at Regent and the doormen and coat checkers…they all had that same expression that come close to showing happiness, but had no real spirit behind it. They all had on that same Hollow Smile. And as I sat there, lost in my own head as the city streets whizzed by, something dawned on me. It struck me, with sudden and terrible clarity, that somewhere along the line, that smile had become my own.

*  *  *

I decide to call Paul one more time while standing on the street facing Dylan O’ Connors, just to make sure I’m at the right place. I start off cool and collected…
“Paul, where in the FUCK are you?”
“RAAHHWWWB!! Come here! You should be here right now!”
“Paul, listen to me, WHAT is the NAME of the BAR you are in?”
“We’re…we’re at the Tavern! COME TO THE TAVERN, ROB!”
“The Taver—where the hell is that? That’s not Shannon’s, it’s not Dylan’s, it’s—it’s not even Irish!”
“We were at Dylan’s! My friend, her birthday’s tonight too…so we came over here…”
“And where is ‘here’, Paul?”
“We’re right next door. When you get to Dylan’s you’ll see it.”
I turn around and look across the street, and sure enough, THE TAVERN UNITED sign looks back at me.
“…See you soon.” I hang up on Paul, one final time for the night.

An overdue sense of elation sets in as I walk through the doors of the Tavern. I collapse into a booth next to Paul, and he introduces me to some of the other revelers. Among them is the girl I had called for a ride from the Club Regent. Let’s call her ‘Maria’. She and I are the only sober people here, and while we have never met before, when she tells me that Paul never called her about giving me a ride, I believe her. There’s also ‘Ivan’, the only person in the party able to rival Paul’s B.A.C. He is overjoyed to see me, which is odd considering I don’t know him whatsoever. Drunks can be the friendliest people. They can also be the loudest, crudest, angriest, funniest, and/or most likely to destroy public property. I am glad to be in their company again, especially one like Ivan.

“Last call!” cries the bartender, not five minutes after I walked through the door. I check the time; it’s almost two in the morning. The waitress walks up to the table, drops the bill and smiles – that Hollow Smile – before turning to walk back toward the bar. Paul takes one look at the tab and starts shouting.

“There’s no fucking way I’m paying this!” he bawls. The waitress stops and turns around. I shoot her my own little Hollow Smile to let her know that Paul is being taken care of. She turns back around, and I check the tab. It’s in the triple digits. This seems a teensy bit high, considering the bulk of the party’s drinking was done across the street…

Indeed, the bill is higher than it ought to be. The Birthday Girl, who convinced Paul and his party to switch bars, had been ordering rounds of Jose Cuervo like this was Tijuana all night. She wrapped herself around the porcelain shortly after Paul arrived. It took one of her friends on either side to carry her to a car. When the Birthday Girl left, her friends quietly snuck off with her, stiffing Paul, Ivan, Maria and the rest for the bill. The joke’s on her, I think to myself, I couldn’t even pay for this if I wanted to!

Paul continues making it known to everyone in the bar that he is not going to pay his tab. I tell him to quiet down before he draws the waitress again. Time for an escape plan.
“Listen,” I whisper, “we’re getting out of here now. Okay? You leave cash for the drinks you had. Then we’re gonna get up, and very quietly! — we’re gonna walk out the door. Got it?”
Paul nods, and we slide out either side of the booth. Then Ivan gets his first look at the bill, and the shouting starts all over again.
“We aren’t gonna pay this fucking tab!” he roars.
“I KNOW!” answers Paul.
“Shut up!” I hiss.
The waitress comes back to the table. Our party occupies two separate booths, and somehow we convince the waitress that Paul and Ivan are trying to explain that this bill is being paid by the othertable. She walks over to that table, and they start trying to explain all about the Birthday Girl and Jose Cuervo and Drinking and Dashing. A stack of change begins piling up on the table as they all chip in for their drinks, but still no sign of payment for the tequila. The waitress is getting more and more insistent by the moment. Indeed, she should be. If nobody pays this tab, it comes out of her paycheck.

One by one, Ivan, Paul and I go up behind the waitress, reach around her, across the table, and drop change for the drink fund; my contribution amounts to roughly sixteen cents. My cash resources are now completely exhausted…but just as I had planned, they were exhausted at the party, which was a victory in itself. I grab Paul by the shoulder, turn him around, and start heading for the door. Ivan takes the cue – I think he may have done this sort of thing before…
At two in the morning, the three of us burst out into the cold air of Manitoba in springtime. Leaving the bar with Paul on my right and Ivan to my left, both of them staggering and laughing and shouting at the night sky, I break into a smile which has not crossed my lips in a very long time. Maria, our Designated Driver, our savior, walks out of the Tavern and the three of us make our way to her car.

“Rob, I’m glad you came, man.”
“Wouldn’t miss this for the world, Paul.”
He looks at me and sees the fat, stupid grin I have on my face, and breaks out in one of his own.
The four of us duck into the car and Maria pulls out of the parking lot, back onto Pembina Avenue, and drives off into the early hours of a Saturday morning in early March.

“I’d been wondering, all week, why I was feeling so low and out of sorts…but it never occurred to me that a giant leech had been sucking blood out of the base of my spine all that time; and now the goddamn thing was moving up towards the base of my brain, going straight for the medulla…

…I would have to do two things immediately: First, deliver the sermon that had been brewing in my brain all week long, and then rush back into the room and write my lead…

…Or maybe write my lead first, and then deliver the sermon. In any case, there was no time to lose. The thing was about a third of the way up my spine now, and still moving at good speed…

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Who said that?”
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl.

When the Going Gets Wierd… (Part Three)

*Originally posted April 13, 2009*

Oh the passenger,
He rides and he rides,
He looks through his window,
What does he see?
He sees the bright and hollow sky,
He see the stars come out tonight,
He sees the city’s ripped backsides,
He sees the winding ocean drive,
And everything was made for you and me,
All of it was made for you and me,
Cause it just belongs to you and me,
So lets take a ride and see whats mine…

-Iggy Pop, The Passenger

I started smoking about five weeks ago. National Non Smoking Week came around, and I figured it was as good a time as any to start. I bought my first pack – Benson & Hedges, Black – a Zippo lighter with faux-antique finish and an FDR-style cigarette holder. Real classy stuff. If you’re going to get yourself involved in a toxic habit, you might as well do it right. It’s strange…I’ve sold or given away more cigarettes than I have smoked myself. I only ever smoke when there’s someone around to see it, or when lighting up a smoke would compliment the scenery. For example, when you no longer have any money, when you’re stranded on foot in an unfamiliar section of town…when you’re leering sideways at a glittering casino marquis, about to just start walking down the street because there’s nothing else you can do…well, this is a perfect time to light a cigarette, and that’s exactly what I did.

In fact, it’s a perfect time to have two. This feels like as good a time to start chain smoking as ever. I decide to stop for a minute. I sit down in a bus shelter on Nairn Avenue, reach into my breast pocket, and find the crushed pack of cigarettes. I hold it between clasped fingers and bow my head, as if praying to some cancerous god. It’s at this point that I decide I cannot smoke this second cigarette, because this second cigarette is my last cigarette. This is all I have left.

The metal benches in the bus stop are heated. Nairn Avenue is a busy enough street that there’s a full bus shelter on this corner. I am dressed for the cold: a full winter jacket, with gloves and a hat tucked away in my backpack.
‘Maybe I should sleep here’, I think to myself, ‘It’s more comfortable than anywhere else I can get to. …Yes. Yes, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll just sit here for a while, and if everything feels right and nobody walks along, then I’ll just sort of lie down and drift off…’

You never leave a university on Friday evening to check out the nightlife suspecting that later on you’ll find yourself in a bus shelter, planning to stay the night. This was exactly the situation I found myself in. My plan to spend the night would have fallen into place then and there, had I not been interrupted by some other late night traveler. A lanky, Asian boy in his teens wearing a red striped toque and skinny jeans entered the shelter. I found his intrusion on my sleeping arrangements unpleasant, and we sat together in silence for a few minutes. This was not a good time for idle chatter.

On the avenue, a white sedan pulls up to the stop line, it’s factory-standard speakers blasting what should be a throbbing bass line. A girl opens up the rear passenger door and leans out, vomiting. The others — one guy and one girl — sitting in the car laugh hysterically, and she pulls herself back inside. Several seconds pass. The light is still red. The voices in the car grow loud, louder than the tinny bass of the speakers, becoming angry and frantic. The rear passenger door opens again, and this time the girl jumps out and bolts down the sidewalk. I notice that she is barefooted. The girl and guy in the car scream after her, ordering her to get back in the vehicle. The light turns green. Instead of changing lanes and chasing the barefooted girl up the street, they just drive straight ahead. Both the car and the girl soon disappear into the night, and will play no further part in this narrative.

Both the Asian boy in skinny jeans and I witness this event, though neither of us breaks the silence in the shelter. It will be a few more minutes before we speak to each other.
“Excuse me,” I ask, “but do you know how much the full fare is? I uhhh…I left my bus pass at home.”
“Yeah, it’s two thirty.”
I rifle through my pockets, pretending to search for change. I already know damn well how much I have; forty six cents on the nose. Still, for some reason it feels better to double check it.
“Aw, damn…” I mumble a little too loudly, “Look, uh, I’m sorry, but do you have a few quarters? I’m a little short.”
“Oh, yeah, sure man, uhh…how many?”
“Like …like, eight quarters, I’d say.”
The kid looks at me, and something registers in his eyes. Is it Pity? Not quite, there is a smirk on his face, as if he’s just figured something out. Good for him. He hands me a toonie (too much change for quarters), and I am more than happy to board the very next bus, grabbing a transfer just in case. I suppose now I can proudly add Panhandler to my list of skill sets. The beard helps, I think.

The bus is headed downtown. Since I don’t know the address, or even the name of the bar I am headed to, I decide it is time for a backup plan. My friend Elise, I remember, has an apartment downtown, she can give me a place for the night. I call her at 12:47 AM, but hear only bar noise and static, then the call gets dropped. Three minutes later, she calls me back.

“Hi Rob, what’s up?”
“Long story, Elise. Listen, I was wondering if I could crash at your place tonight.”
“Oh! Oh, ummm…yeah. Yeah, well I –”
Heavy static in my ears. Elise’s voice is being drowned out, and I begin to yell into the receiver.
“Hey, Elise?! Where are you?”
“I’m at Toad in the Hole. Come down here, we can–”
“Great, thanks, see you!” Hang up.

It was now time, being comfortably settled in a bus and headed for my new destination, to take stock of the evening. Several images flashed through my mind — sitting at the cafeteria table, plotting out my night, my first sight of the Club Regent marquis…the faces in the casino, action at the tables, walking away from Club Regent, begging for change…

*  *  *

There are times when the events of one night and the course of one’s life run together in haunting symmetry. The entirety of your life over the past few months – or years – crystallizes into a few hours. When I got out of high school, I made myself a lot of promises. I imagined myself as I wished I was, with all the qualities I did not have…the kind of invariably positive, magnetic qualities that everyone has in movies. I promised myself that I would soon be that person. University is, after all, where you’re supposed to go when you want to stop being such a stupid asshole and recreate yourself, and so it became my mission to improve every day. I imagined all my failures and flaws disappearing with time, and those newer, better qualities taking their place. I would be a newer, better Rob.

Long months passed, and this newer, better version of myself failed to appear. It was not terribly upsetting that I hadn’t somehow spontaneously become a better human being. To be honest, I didn’t really make much effort to get better anyways. Too busy. What was upsetting – and in the coming months, continued to grow more and more terrible – was the feeling that I wasn’t changing at all. Save for a few new friends and a heavier workload, university was one hell of a lot like high school. It wasn’t just me. Nobody else was changing either. All of us, everyone I knew, we were exactly as we had always been. My life, like those early mornings in winter, had become a constant struggle with The Grey. Each day offered the same rote routines, the same people, the same conversations, the same places…the same me. This is All There Is.

Escape. Escape became my only desire. Often, my longing to flee from routine conflicted with the task of university and my responsibilities to the people who got me there. Each and every time, those responsibilities won out, and I stayed on an even course. Still, deep down, some primal urge remained. The Escape Instinct. That was what sparked this whole evening, this now-failed experiment in independence. This night started out as a necessary reaffirmation that ,yes, I was alive and that yes, I was not prisoner to my own unnatural rhythms.

…And suddenly, here I am, on a bus headed downtown, abandoning my plan due to fatigue and lack of funds. A well deserved feeling of self-loathing and abject failure begins to sink in. Maybe the routine is good for me, I think. At least it keeps me out of trouble.

*  *  *

There is a line at Toad in the Hole Pub when I arrive, roughly one in the morning. The Doorman would be loathe to let me in at all if he knew that at that moment I was as poor as I looked. Eventually my backpack, my hobo beard, my last cigarette and I get inside. I find Elise at her table with some art school friends, and explain the happenstance.

“…Listen, I had a rough night. I was wondering if…I could crash at your place?”
“Yeah, well, um…there’s kind of a problem with that.”
“Whaddaya mean?”
“A guy who lives on my floor died last week.”
“And they only found him yesterday. The whole building smells like corpse.”
“Jesus shit!”
“You haven’t even smelt it. Why don’t you just stay with your brother? He’s got an apartment around here.”

Steve. My brother Steve had chosen this particular Friday afternoon to break up with his long-term girlfriend. Practically common-law by this point. It was not a good night to come knocking on the door of his fire escape, looking for a place to stay for the night. Surely he had his own shit to deal with, and I was more than happy to leave him to it. I dismiss Elise’s suggestion with grace and charm.

“Ehhh, I don’t wanna see that asshole right now. Can’t I just stay at your dead guy smellin’ apartment?”
“Well…I mean, I wasn’t gonna stay there tonight, I’m staying with friends…but if you need a place, we could go there. It’s up to you.”

I consider the options. I have a place for the night, if I choose to take it. It smells like dead body, but it’s a place. At the same time, by crashing at Elise’s, I’ll be ruining her decent night. I can’t do this, I think Elise is one of, if not the oldest friend I have. I can’t make her spend the night in some corpse-reek room on the top floor of a downtown apartment building. But… what other options do I have?

Some long-silent voice in the back of my mind springs into action and answers the question. Let it Roll.

Let it Roll?

Let it Roll.

Never mind the fact that I do not know where exactly Paul’s party is, or whether or not Paul and the rest of them are still there, or if I will have any other places to sleep tonight. In an instant, these have all become minor details in my mind’s eye. Let It Roll. I thank Elise for the offer, but tell her that I have a transfer bus I have to catch. I’ll be damned if I’m going to bail out now, after everything that’s happened, everything I’ve done to make it here. No…this story needs a proper ending, and I am determined to live it.

Another voice in my mind speaks up. “That’s the kind of thinking that left you penniless and scrounging for bus fare.”

Shut the fuck up, Reason, you’re never any fun. Next time I’m not inviting you.

My destination is somewhere along Pembina Avenue, I can sort out any other details along the way. Last call shouldn’t be for another half hour at least. A little grin spreads across my face, and I hum a tune to myself. I board the next southbound bus at the nearest corner.

…All of it was made for you and me,
Cause it just belongs to you and me,
So lets take a ride and see whats mine…

To be continued…

When the Going Gets Weird… (Part Two)

*Originally posted April 7, 2009*

“Let’s keep this party polite,
Never get out of my sight,
I know the way you’ve treated other guys you’ve been with,
Hey Luck, be a lady tonight!”

-Frank Sinatra, Luck be a Lady.

After eating a slice of pepperoni pizza with extra chili flakes, combined with a stop for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese or two, and walking across icy sidewalks for two hours, the first thing on anyone’s mind will be a good toilet. The time alone is important. Time to put yourself together. Gather your thoughts. The night is just starting, got to make plans. Calm yourself. Breathe deep – you’ve made it now. And indeed I had. Outside my stall, the casino buzzes.

One thing you notice, spending any serious time in gambling houses, is that the handicapped bathroom stalls get more traffic than any other facility. And why shouldn’t they? Chairs, canes, crutches, walkers – they litter the main lobbies and slot sections. In the wild, the first to be eaten are the weak and the sick. Casinos have everything a cripple – both the physical and emotional kind– needs. Video poker offers pure, uncut, lowest common denominator entertainment. Slot machines flash with hundreds of bright flickering lights, blaring sirens and bells, promising treasure and thrills…and that Big Win, always just one game away. Please Try Again. The slots are especially appealing because you only need one arm or stump to play them. You can sit right down, prop your crutches against the side of the glowing box, and play your night away. Club Regent even has a McDonalds built right into the lobby, next to the bathrooms (always a huge line). The entire casino is a glittering prison oasis. You’ll never have to leave.

I pull out $60 – a laughably small amount – from the ATM. There’s no ATM inside the casino of course, that would be irresponsibility on the casino’s behalf. You have to walk down one hallway, to the attached hotel complex and use their ATM. Sixty dollars bankroll will not bring me much cash even on a good night, but the small withdrawal also guarantees that the casino won’t bleed me out of cash tonight…

Back onto the floor, I find myself skirting a bingo tournament, the players surrounded by cheap slots. Ignore them all. Stare at the floor, blend, shuffle past these hollow people. Walk through the giant glass hallway/aquarium, stop to admire the fish. Emerge into a second pool of VLT’s, more bodies, and a talking animatronic pirate skeleton. I quicken my pace to avoid talking with the animatronic pirate skeleton. The last thing I need right now is to engage in forced small talk with a corpse. Besides, if I wanted to, they are in abundant supply this Friday night.

At last, I reach the card tables. Save for the bar, the only place I am comfortable in a casino is right here. Tables, at least, have a social atmosphere to them. There’s emotion at a table – drama, excitement, tension! And there are always familiar characters if you know what to watch for: the old drunk making side bets on every hand and mumbling to himself, packs of pimply-faced barely-legals asking the dealer what to do with their hands, the Filipino woman screaming “Lucky, lucky!” or “Monkey!” or “Big card!” on every hand…and then of course, there are kids like me. Kids with half a brain for numbers and some mad delusion that we can come out on top any time we want; get in, earn our money, and get out. Despite all the obvious evidence walking around the casino floor, something makes us think we have an edge…each time you walk out of the casino with enough extra cash to pay for your gas, your drinks – hell, anytime you earn more per hour than you would at your day job – you get a little more confident. Ignore the cripples losing life savings on the slots, and the drunken fuckhead playing roulette over in the corner. You are not like them.

The night progresses slowly. My bankroll gradually rises, settling at $110. I check my watch. Ten o’ clock. The party started an hour ago…better see what I can do about getting a ride to Paul’s birthday. I stand up, walk out to the lobby, and make the call.

“Paul? Rob. What’s up man?”
“Rob, why aren’t you here yet? The party started an hour ago.”
“I told you hours ago, I’m at the casino. I thought you could hook me up with a ride.”
“Oh, yeah, I can…um…this girl, this girl I know, she’s coming, she lives out there. She can give you a ride. I’ll call her first, lemme give you her number…”
“Great, see you soon.”

Hang up. Paul is now the ticking time bomb of my night. I have to rely on him to get the logistics of this evening all sorted out before tequila shots start coursing through his veins. I have major doubts about the plan so far. Still, I have a name, and a number to call for a ride. I call the number and…no answer.


Be patient. She’s gonna be here. Paul won’t let you down, he’s good people. I decide to wait it out at the casino a while longer. I can think of worse places to be forced to go camping. And since I’m here, and I’m still ten dollars short of doubling my bankroll…

Let it roll? Let it roll. I amble back to the tables.

My chip count goes down and up all night. Up, then down, then up, then down, and down, and finallygone. After a few hours of play, I get sloppy, can’t see the trends anymore. A bitter defeat. No matter, sixty dollars is not a lot of money. Career wise, I’m still in the green. Still, it does sting.

That is the nature of the Beast. She will tear off your skin if you give her the opportunity. Of course, some of us have a hard time swallowing our pride. We can’t go running off to nurse our wounds. No, for some of us, the only option is to come back in a month, or a week, or twelve hours, because wehad it. We were this close to that Big Win. Letting the Beast triumph now is completely out of the question, not to any self-respecting gambler. No, the Big Win is coming, and when it does you know that you are going to laugh in the face of your beaten and battered enemy…after just one more game…

…In Manitoba all the casinos are owned by the provincial government. The government also runs the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba. The AFM places big, government-funded booths about gambling addiction in the big, government-controlled casinos. Sometimes I wonder if guys from those two departments ever get together after work for drinks. I like to think they do.

I check my watch. Two hours have passed…wait, what? Two hours? How did that happen, and where the fuck is my ride? I get on the phone again.

“Paul! Did you call up that girl yet?”
”ROOOOOOOOOBBBBB!!!! WHY…why aren’t you here?”
“Because you told me to wait for a ride at the casino. That was hours ago. Did you call up that girl yet?”
“What? No, no, um…Rob, you have to come here. I want you to be here, ROB, I WA –”

Hang up. Paul is now an impenetrable wall of drunk. Continuing this conversation is going to be a waste of both our time. Better go back to the bank machine, pull out a little extra cash, see if I can get change for the bus.

The bank machine begins to take on the shape of a slot machine.
No…Okay, okay, it’s alright. You hit a cold streak, but you should be able to hit this next one.
“Come on, big win! Let me see the win!”
“Monkey! Monkey!”
Please Play Again.

Let’s recap our situation. I am standing at the coat check of Club Regent to claim a jacket and backpack. My personal assets now include one jacket, one backpack full of homework, two cigarettes, one Dr. Pepper, and fourty six cents in loose change. There is a party across town, too far to walk, especially now that the sun has set. Not enough change for bus fare. I step back into the cold air of early March, light the penultimate smoke and glance sideways at the glittering CLUB REGENT sign.Breath deep. I make my way back to Regent Avenue, and just keep walking that way, out to wherever, out from nowhere, my mind squirming.

To be continued…

When the Going Gets Weird… (Part One)

*Originally posted  March 28, 2009*

” It’s a hundred and six miles to Chicago. We’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.”

– Elwood Blues, The Blues Brothers.

Losing your mind in a Mantioba winter is a distinct possibility. Within the Winnipeg city limits, there’s no real threat — always a good car theft or murder to keep the brain alert. It’s once you get beyond the Perimeter Highway, out to the small towns and farmhouses held hostage by nature 5 months out of the year, that the risk begins to rise. You see, twice every day – once in the morning and once at dusk – there is a moment when the sun lies just below the horizon. Snow covers every inch of the world, muting the already flat features of the praries. On a clear day, without any clouds in the sky, you can look out upon the earth, and you won’t be able to tell where the it ends and the sky begins. It all blends into a snowy, off-white (fuck, I’ll be honest, it’s grey) landscape as wide and far as you can see. It’s a truly amazing thing to time.

…But this is what a Manitoban wakes up to every morning (and sees before going to sleep) virtually every day for months on end! If one stops to think about the landscape too long, it will send a wave of panic through their whole nervous system. An awful, sickly feeling suddenly takes hold, a feeling that the whole world might be like this — that This is All There Is. This freezing, bleak, unending Grey blanket.

The feeling soon fades away. Of course, the whole world can’t be like this, can it? The thought was foolish. And then you look out again, out at where you think the horizon must be, content in the knowledge that soon this god-awful season will be over and you will still be there. You will have lived through another winter in Manitoba, your mind still intact.

The first Friday of March happened to begin with one such dawn, and after my morning battle with The Grey, things picked up a little. Plans were made. ‘Paul’, a friend of mine, was having his 20th birthday party that night in the city, and damned if I was going to miss it. After a few text messages, it was obvious to me that Paul was way too high for one in the afternoon. My requests for details about the party were met with incoherent, semi-functional responses it what must have been English. But it was after all his birthday, and he could do what he wanted. Eventually I got the details for the night straightened out to a suitable level, and went back to class. That was all. Just another night on the town, nothing more, nothing less.

The party didn’t start until 9:00, and my classes were all finished by 2:30. Living in one of those small towns I mentioned earlier, getting back into the city that evening would have been a pain in the ass. The only sensible option was to stay in Winnipeg. But where to go, what to do? The university was dead, emptied out for the weekend. Go see a movie? ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ is not a good flick to see alone, I’m sure. Shop a little? I already own enough T-shirts, and there aren’t too many holes in most of them. And then, like lightning, the answer came to me. I remember sitting at a cafeteria table with friends.

“Hey guys, I think I’m gonna walk to Club Regent.”
“It’s snowing out.”
“Yeah, so?”
“Rob, Regent is miles away. You aren’t gonna walk there.”
“Wanna bet?”
“No. You’re already planning on walking to a casino, you don’t need any help with the gambling problem.”

I suppose I had to let that one slide. At this point, by all appearances, I could pass as an addict. My eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep and from hours poring over papers and assignments. A thin, mangy beard was spreading across my face, a result of a misguided bet that I would not shave over the course of Lent. So far so good. All that was needed now to complete the gambler facade was a mad, obsessive urge to bet.

But gambling was not the objective here. If it were, I would be at the roulette table right now rather than in front of a writing desk telling this story. Planning to walk – not take a cab or bus, but walk – for miles to reach a gambling house on the other side of town, even though other casinos are far closer, is not the behaviour of a hopeless gambler. No, the end goal here was not money or strongly mixed cocktails. It was nothing tangible of concrete. The end goal was the journey itself. Nothing can righteously describe why I chose to make the pilgrimage that night. The impulse must be felt to be understood. It had something to do with being told I wouldn’t or couldn’t, and with the slight risk that the journey entailed. But it mostly had to do with the fact that nothing particularly interesting had happened in a very long time. The walk would make for a decent story if anything, something to shake myself from the rut I had gotten into.

So, at 4:30 in the afternoon, I find directions to Club Regent on Google Maps, and set out. I consider stopping in for a nice dinner at a halfway decent restaurant, but time is of the essence. I settle for pizza at the Portage Place food court. Not that great, but it doesn’t matter. A panhandler begs me for change, and I drop him a couple bucks. Hopefully he spent it on something worthwhile, like booze.

Half an hour passes. I begin to doubt the advice of Google Maps. Snow sculptures of toques with legs sticking out of them adorn the streets, many half melted and crumbling. There is something strange and unfamiliar about this place. Doubt sets in. Was this really the way I meant to go? I text ‘Micheal’, a friend who is by now riding on a crowded bus back into Selkirk.

Rob (5:01): “I’m beginning to think walking alone across town was a bad choice”
Mike (5:02): “No really”
Rob (5:15): “All the signs are in French here”
Mike (5:25): “Nice”
Rob (5:25): “Yup Yup Yup”
Mike (5:26): “Dude you have made a huge mistake”
Who, me? Rob Holt? Never.
Mike (5:27): “You are not going to get there”

That remark was the Point of No Return for my evening. It was all the motivation I needed to press onward. Somehow the knowledge that someone did not expect me to see this through made it all the more important that I keep going. To turn back now would be to admit failure, to settle with what I already had – and right then, all I had was The Grey. I would not, could not allow it to win, because beyond that horizon, there is something else. There must be.

I walked into a gas station, spotted the map kiosk, picked up the downtown Winnipeg section and replotted my route. All the while, a French-speaking teen boy with the unfortunate task of working the till kept staring at me. No doubt he was silently hoping that this chilly, bearded Drifter-Looking-Type wasn’t going to make off with any of the store’s precious contents. I flashed the kid a smile, all teeth, before walking out. His eyes followed me out the door.

A similar scene unfolded nearly two hours later. Having taken two wrong turns and walking for miles up and down Lagimodiere without realizing it was the wrong street, the sun had now set. The temperature was now steadily falling. I trudged into a Sobey’s, hoping they might have a map or two. Surely enough, there at the customer service desk, there was another kiosk just like at the gas station. My fingers, numb with cold, fumbled to open it. It fell out of my hands, and I squatted down to pick it up. When I looked up, I saw a young girl working the till in front of me. Our eyes met, and while I tried to smile, there was a definite look of suppressed disgust on her face. I recognized it as an expression I would reserve for hated relatives or noisy drunks. It was a look of masked contempt, and I really can’t blame her for bringing it out. Ice had built up in my sparse beard, and was now melting and trickling down my chin. I shivered, fumbled and breathed heavily, unable to feel my fingers or even grasp a map. I looked and felt like a wreck, and she undoubtedly sensed that. She wanted to know if I was a threat, whether she should contact the police immediately or just let me wander like a lost child through the aisles for a while before leaving of my own accord. It was not one of my prouder moments. I used the customer bathroom, ran some hot water over my numb hands, bought a Dr. Pepper, and knowing now where I had to get, exited. No hassles, but no big, fake, friendly “We Appreciate Your Business” smiles either.

Seven fourty five. After three hours of walking (two and a half without seeing a single person on the sidewalk), an array of flickering lights peeks out from behind the dark silhouette of a building. In bright white lights, there it is — CLUB REGENT. I have triumphed over the elements, the city’s poor street planning, and common sense to make it to this place. A sense of triumph sets in. I fire off a few quick “Just-So-You-Know-I’m-Still-Alive” texts.

One person replies, “Oh my god. I’m glad you didn’t die”.
Micheal responds, “Dude”.
Yet another answers, “Holy shit…Was it worth it?”

Let’s find out. The night is still young, and the tables are calling. I pause a moment, lick my lips, shiver one last time in the Manitoba cold, and step inside.

To be continued…

We Are All Diseased.

*Originally posted July 14, 2008*

Three weeks ago, I woke up to a message on the answering machine from my brother. It went something like this…

“Hi Rob, listen…George Carlin died today. He was 71. Just thought you’d wanna know…alright, take care.”

Since then I’ve been trying to find words that could possibly sum up a man like Carlin, only to find I have none. There are no words. There is no tribute. There is only what he has left us to remember, and to study.

I first heard George Carlin perform when I was 11 years old. “Jammin’ in New York” was playing on The Bravo! Network. This was, of course, before ‘Bravo!’ became the wretched sperm-bank of cable television. Here was this balding hippie, then aged 55, who absolutely commanded my attention. I didn’t give two shits about the Gulf War, but that didn’t stop me from tearing up laughing when George talked about it. From that point on, I was hooked: George Was Comedy.

In grade 9, I found a copy of Carlin’s ‘Napalm & Silly Putty’ at a Brandon bookstore. Usually you can tell the ethical content of a book by where it’s placed on store shelves. ‘Napalm & Silly Putty’ was placed in a small ‘alternative humor’ section, sandwiched between two racks of Japanese toon porn collections with unpronounceable names. As I walked up to the register, one of the two cashiers stopped to inform me that nothing in that section of the store was for sale to minors. We started arguing and the other cashier approached, likely planning to help her kick me out of the store. He looked down at the book in my hands and smiled. Without a word, he walked back to the till and rang up the purchase.

I suppose the first cashier was right to try and stop me. George was subversive in a society that still needs more traitors. He couldn’t open his mouth without pissing somebody off, but far more important than that, he was always Right whenever he did. He rode along in the back of the police wagon when Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity, and took the ride solo for the ‘Seven Dirty Words’. He represents all that is insidious, dangerous, and corrosive to our society, and for that we will be forever indebted to him.

In the grand scheme of things, Carlin’s death will receive less coverage than those of truly important people, like Jerry Falwell, Heath Ledger, or Anna Nicole Smith. His life and story will quickly fall by the wayside of the mainstream, and that’s exactly how he’d want it. But to me, Carlin was the last living childhood hero, and his passing signals the conclusion of something in my life. Exactly what is hard to say. But what must begin now in the post-Carlin world is equally mysterious and far more urgent.

“When I was young I used to read about the decline of Western Civilization, and I decided it was something I would like to make a contribution to.”

Thank you, George, for everything. It’s up to us now.



Those words, scrawled in bright yellow letters across my friend Bryan’s T-shirt, sent scowls through a maximum capacity crowd gathered in the theatre. Early in the first semester of 2007, an “Undergraduate Awards Evening” was planned for top-grade students to celebrate their Outstanding Achievements. It was the sort of evening where parents could sit together and compare notes on their children’s success. A collective pat-on-the-back for teachers, school administrators, parents and – least of all – students with not much else to do in early October.

I sat in the middle of this Business Casual crowd, clad in black suit and tie, a fedora, and a broken pocket watch. Bryan sat two seats down. He was unshaven and unkempt, with dirty blonde hair and even dirtier blue jeans. Members of the crowd who lacked a sense of humour seethed silently. To them, Bryan’s dress and manner showed a complete lack of respect for the institution of the Honour Roll.

In fact, Bryan was there to accept an award for Excellence in Mathematics, and his marks are some of the best in not only the school, but likely the country. The Evening had been planned for him, after all, and he was going to enjoy it in his own way…and so was I, although my mockery was somewhat less obvious. He was a thumb in their eye, and I was a feather in their cap.

*  *  *

Welcome to the Comp. It’s cold in the winter and hot in the summer. Typical of any high school, it is a bizarre collection of upper-class Hillbillies, Stoners, Preps, Drunks, Brains, Jocks, Geeks, Freaks, and a variety of other Doomed People. More importantly, the Comp is a massive, intricate network of money and people and books which has been given the seemingly impossible task of preparing every student for life after high school.

Basically, what that means is that at some point in their three years at the Comp, a student will be called into the guidance counselor’s office, sat down, and asked very politely, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Indeed, it’s assumed that by age 17, a kid should know how they want to spend their next fifty years.


…The first encounter I had with The Question came one sunny spring morning last year. I walked into a counselor’s office to talk about changing my timetable, when The Question was popped.

“So, tell me, Robert, what do you want to be?”
“Well…what are your plans for the future?” “Plans?” I said, “What plans?”
“I mean, do you intend to go to university, or college, or…”
“Right, umm…actually, I was planning on going to university.”
“Great! Now, what fields of study are you interested in? What kind of career are you looking at?”
“My God,” I thought, “Here it comes.”

I listed off every possible career I could think of. I told the counselor I wanted to study law, or education, or writing or aviation or physics and maybe train as a welder, too. Most careers I listed were nowhere near what I was considering job-wise, but that didn’t matter. In the end, none of this information changed my timetable, but it did nicely answer the counselor’s questions. Unfortunately, people keep asking me The Question, so often that now, whenever I hear it, I instinctively answer, “How should I know?”

Over the past year, I’ve seen that uncertainty isn’t just my problem. It’s almost everyone’s. While a good number of people I talk to have some sort of plan for the future, few are overly enthusiastic. The careers they’ve decided on aren’t careers they’re passionate about, but more or less a way topay the bills. And for them, that’s all that matters right now…

Here’s the deal. It scares me to think that somewhere along the line, someone somewhere has replaced The Question…

…with the much less important question…

At some point, the two became identical for a lot of people. For them, wherever they work and whatever they do, that’s who they are: they become their jobs. The purpose of high school is to prepare them for Higher Learning, which prepares them for a steady, high-powered job, which prepares them to raise a family, and if they don’t die of stress-related heart failure, they can finally retire somewhere sunny and out-of-the-way.

It’s my belief that people who think this way at age 17 should be hung up by their ankles and fed to savage dogs. These are the same kind of people who only truly begin enjoying life at the age of 75; when their RRSP kicks in and they’re too fragile to do anything but fart around all day. And usually, at that point in their lives, farting around is the most enjoyable thing going for them.

*  *  *

…There’s a feeling of absolute panic and disorder that comes when a person can’t immediately recognize where they are. The easiest way to experience it is to go find some strange place to crash for the night. It doesn’t matter where you go – house party, friend’s place, a filthy ditch – just find somewhere alien. When a person can’t immediately rationalize where they are or why, their brain will try every combination of theories and ideas and wild guesses to make sense of the situation. That’s where we see ourselves now, I think: all gripped by that murky, nervous feeling of waking up in The Unknown. Some people seem powerless to deal with this lack of direction, and others thrive in the chaos…

Back to my point…We are collectively reaching a turning point in our lives, each and every one of us. Right now, we all have nearly limitless possibilities: in fact, more possibilities than we may have ever again. However we are all being coaxed – and in some cases, forced – to start limiting our options, to start picking a clear path to our futures. And to a few, including me, nothing on Earth could be more terrifying.

If I can say anything to the Grads of ‘08 (and apparently I can because I’m in the paper and you’re still reading), I ask that we all make an effort to always remember the core function of education: to prepare every student for life after school. Whatever any of us chooses to do in order to pay the bills, it should never conflict with who we are, and who we strive to be. And if you want to be a thumb in the eye of Old Wisdom, feel more than free to do so. A person’s image of what they want to be may make their life worth living, but it’s the moments when we challenge convention – like Bryan that cold, windy, nervous night in October – that make our lives truly Outstanding.

Now, get out there and make some bad decisions. I know I will.