Still Life, With Camera
I’ll tell you right now, here’s how this story ends. I get killed by a flying mattress. Not for a few months yet, but it’s inevitable.
Now, though, I’m on a subway with a camera the size of a black bar of soap in my lap. I’m taking a picture of a guy across from me. He’s wearing a magenta sweater and he’s eating Niblets corn from a blue Tupperware container. Some of the yellow kernels are stuck to his sweater at chest height, like he had a few bad teeth knocked out. So, yeah, good picture, especially for the Lomo camera I’m aiming at him.
Lomos, in case you didn’t know, were cameras the Russians came out with in the 80s to compete with the Japanese Cosina. Google it.
The Lomo’s crap really, but the lens coating kicks up the colour saturation. So, excellent for Niblets Boy here.
You’re probably wondering why I’m not using a digital camera or a smartphone. Long story, which I’ll fill you in on later. But, don’t worry, I’m not some retro hipster asshat who’s all into the integrity of the film emulsion, Stieglitz and the aesthetic of analog, blah, blah, blah. Trust me, if you saw my reflection in the subway car window, like I just did, that thought would vanish. I’m old enough to have been a hipster’s sperm donor.
Niblets Boy, of course, has no idea I took his picture. His eyes are zoned into that commuter middle distance that’s right beside the dust mote about four feet from his eyes. His earbuds mask the shutter. Really it’s like doing a portrait session with Helen Keller.
I glance down the length of the car, empty except for us. I press the shutter again. I’ve had lots of practise. I know the camera’s tilt and framing without looking through the viewfinder.
At the edge of my vision I can see Niblets Boy licking his fingers and snapping a lid back on the bowl. He burps it like a baby and stashes it inside the gym bag he has splayed across his feet. Niblets brushes some of the kernels off his sweater and digs a book out of his bag - a disreputable copy of The Great Gatsby. A red library stamp spreads wide across the open top edges of the paperback’s pages that are as pale as oatmeal. The pages bleed to a rich caramel at the edges. Love that.
I can almost smell them, you know, that crisp, elusive age-scent that coughs up images of church bazaars. Niblet’s corn-damp fingers turns a page, soiling it, of course.
He’s three-quarters way through - Gatsby still alive and mysterious - Daisy pale and languid - the swimming pool undisturbed and as smooth as Miss Buchanan’s tennis whites.
At the next station platform a guy with a thicket of grey beard and a greasy blue parka bows to three young women in short bomber jackets, black tights and brightly printed rubber boots. The girls get on. One’s alternately snorting and guffawing and the other two are red with laughter and that fleeting humiliation specific to teenaged girls.
"He smelled like earwax!" the girl in purple paisley boots says.
"Ewwww!" And you would know what old earwax smells, like how?" shouts the snorting girl.
"I don’t know, but he totally did. It’s like that street person smell."
"My grandmother smells like that guy, but she’s in this home where they eat mashed potatoes and watch movies on a VCR all day," says the third girl.
She’s wearing the newest boots, ones with Japanese manga characters on them.
"Oh God, promise you’ll kill me first!" said Purple Boots.
"I though he was kind of hot the way he had food crumbs all in his beard," says Japanese Boots. Purple Boots points to the Niblets Boy. The kernels haven’t all come off his sweater, and there’s a nice little collection of them around his feet. The girls laugh their asses off. Niblets keeps reading as though he were deaf.
I get a shot of the girls, since I’m old enough to be totally invisible to them.
I suppose, right now, I should stop and tell you a bit about myself. My name is Stanley Pope. I do not make money taking pictures on subways. I lose money at that. Printer ink is clearly made by Epson from unicorn sweat and elf piss. I teach photography at a couple of community colleges, do some freelance and have an occasional show in galleries where I don’t have to pay to have an occasional show.
I do the odd wedding, which is about as fun as gargling thumbtacks, and score some photo gigs for local magazines, if all the photographers they really want to work with have been striken temporarily blind. I have been told I’m difficult. I accept that.
Lately I have taken to getting little postage stamp-sized prints of my photos made up. I stick them places. On subway car poles, on the counters at Second Cups, washroom doors, atop urinals (a favourite), on the glass doors of expensive shoe stores and the like. I am responsible for the most diffuse, smallest photography exhibit in Toronto. You’ve probably seen my work.
The graffitied stop sign on the sugar container in the Starbucks on St. George and College? That’s one of mine. The half-bald, one-eyed doll’s head on the cash register at the chocolate store in Union Station? Yep.
My longest hanging pieces are in stores with crappy hygiene. Really, the stories. There’s a Tim Horton’s I won’t name that for six months featured my tiny “Running Shoes on an Overhead Wire” on the underside of the counter near where you get your toasted bagel. I should probably inform the manager so he can have a word with the staff.
Sometimes I put my work on subway passengers’ briefcases or upside down on the seat so they get photos on their pants and skirts. Childish, I know. Yet, a statement is made.
I had one of my pieces beside a Lorne Harris at the AGO for a couple of hours. They’re not really that sticky, so no harm. I’m not a vandal, I’m a tiny artist.
By the way, I’m writing this in a Tim Horton’s, not the one with “Running Shoes on an Overhead Wire” on display of course.
I feel it is important to note my life, in spare moments like these, because I don’t have that long. I normally write on my phone, but, as I’ve said, it is currently not in my possession. So, I’m using a Moleskine which I have decorated with 32 of my favourite photo stickers, front and back.
The little buff flyer that comes in a new Moleskine says its the notebook that was used by Bruce Chatwin, the English bisexual travel writer who made a lot of shit up and died of AIDS. I added those details, because I’m fascinated by travel writers and liars. The Moleskine flyer just says “Bruce Chatwin”.
Vincent Van Gogh, who expired from an infected and self-inflicted revolver wound sketched in one; Oscar Wilde, who died of syphilitic meningitis, used one. And Ernest Hemingway, who died of shotgun; was a fan of the notebooks too. So am I. I will die of mattress. So, if you don’t own a Moleskine yet, you might want to think twice.
My writing is crabbed and almost illegible. My writing muscles have atropied to the level of a four-year-old’s because I use a computer and phone for most of my work. Just scrawling these few paragraphs has got my left hand all aching and cramped. My thumbs, on the other hand, are endurance athletes. As you can imagine, one Moleskine lasts me a long time.
I mostly use it for noodling out classes or listing the names of imaginary CBC weekend news reporters. So far that list includes:
- Oda Dodaday
- Gorgonzola Crumbles
- Jemima Stewinkle
- Ida Cuttlelisp
- Hankie Dalrimple
- Persimmon Weeks
- Sucka Loddahoneywax
- and, Samantha Peardroppings
I am easily amused. It’s Thursday and I’ve just come from teaching at McKenzie College. I give the second year journalism students there a class on photojournalism. The term has just started and I’m trying to explain f-stops and depth of field. Many of the students text while I’m talking. Some do it out in the open, others put the phone in their laps and text blind, their arms moving rhythmicly like they’re masturbating in class. I’ve asked them to stop, but it’s like asking an extrovert to shut the fuck up. It works for about 10 seconds.
It’s a small class, an elective, so it won’t be that tough to mark. You get 30 kids and you can spend an hour going through a multiple choice test, especially when you have to write detailed comments beside each wrong answer and your hand cramps up.
I just got back from picking up the film I shot on the subway the other day. Sharif, the guy who runs the photo shop I go to, loves the shot of the girls’ boots. A little too much, if you ask me, but that’s the monkey on his back. Do I think he kept a copy for himself? Probably.
Sharif loves developing film from the Lomo because, really, how can he screw it up? You name some janky colour shift, light leak or vignetting that you can’t blame on a crappy Russian camera built like a slipshod Lada and the next round’s on me.
"Why do you shoot with that piece of Communist crap?" Sharif asked me. "I punch a pinhole in Pringles can, put film in the lid and I’d get better images."
He’s probably right. He’s machined his own view camera, for Christ’s sake, so his Pringlescam would probably make Cecil Beaton soil his flannels.
Look, here’s the thing, and I didn’t tell Sharif this, I can’t use my other cameras because I think they’re full of bedbugs. Oh, and I shattered my iPhone. The two things are not unrelated.
You know that little model apartment they have set up in Ikea stores that’s about the size of a airplane washroom, but it has a bedroom, kitchen, living room and bathroom packed into it using some kind of furniture origami, feng shui and anal retentive storage systems?
Okay, so take away the Ikea furniture and the astronaut storage junk, but leave the size. That’s my place.
I pack my photo gear in giant plastic bins from Canadian Tire, under my bed. Actually I store most everything I own in giant plastic bins, it’s not much and neatly labelled, I might add, so you don’t get the idea that I’m a crazy hoarder who will die alone with his sixteen cats fighting over who gets to eat his eyes.
I actually hate cats. They are psychopaths, aping human emotions while plotting to spill shampoo on the bathroom floor while you’re in the shower. You know the tiger that paralyzed the Seigfried and Roy guy? That’s who cats want to be when they grow up. They are the John Wayne Gacys of the animal kingdom. Plus, their winking anuses are arm-seeking weapons, and their breath smells like a tackle box.
Anyway, my apartment is in a building that recently became infested with bed bugs. We don’t know who Patient Zero was, but I blame Mr. Klemper, who lives below me and bangs the ceiling any time I play Chopin on the stereo because he hates Polish people. He also smokes Gitanes and makes liver and onions every Thursday night. I figure if I can smell his hell-scent of camel dung cigarettes and organ meat I can get his bed bugs, which I did.
I’ll spare you the red-welted pasty-flesh details. Suffice it to say I’m sleeping on a cheap foam pad in a bedroom that smells like a chemistry set and my cameras and gadget bags are in an industrial deep freeze for the next two weeks until I’m certain every last born and unborn bug is dead as dust.
Klemper denies it is his fault. I went downstairs to accuse him but he didn’t answer the door. So I went upstairs and put on Chopin really loud. He banged on the ceiling. So I called him. He didn’t answer. He probably has call display. So, I called him from my iPhone. He answered and called Chopin a “stinking Pollack piano diddler”. That’s when I threw my iPhone against the wall.
I got the Lomo camera at a pawnshop on Church Street. A whole cluster of them grew up down there, most run by Russian Jews. Even Henry’s, the big camera store, started as a pawnshop. The one I walked into was a black and silver rat’s nest of photo gear, band crap, flutes and army surplus Christ-knows-what.
Old Fender amps supported knob-shy Akai mixers that held up beaten guitar cases. Stainless steel microphones wore weathered ballcaps around their goosenecks like baby bibs. The place smelled like mould and ozone.
Under a counter at the back was a jumble of camera bodies and, inexplicably, a neat row of lens, mostly Zenit and Tamron junk from the 70s. And there were a couple of Lomos, stuck right back in the corner.
"What you want?" the owner asked. He had planted himself on a bar stool behind the counter, his massive ass overflowing the seat like a mushroom cap. To camouflage himself in the store, he wore a black dress shirt stretched tight over his chest, a silver trimmed belt slung low and disappeared under the soft glacier of his stomach.
I pointed at the Lomo. “Let me see that one.”
"What the fuck you want that for?" He didn’t move. "You want to drive fucking nails?"
"Fine, I show you, smart guy." He slid the rear glass door back and laid the Lomo on counter.
I popped the back and fired the shutter a few times holding the camera lens up to what seemed to be the only light in the store. A bright pinpoint winked through the lens. “How much?”
"$150". He was watching my hands. I put the camera back on the counter.
"Expensive hammer. $120".
"$130. Fucking kids pay more than that on fucking eBay".
"So, sell it on eBay".
He leaned across the counter putting his catcher’s mitt paw over the camera, smothering it. ”I like you smart guy. You got $120 cash, you can have, no problem.”
I pulled the bills out of my wallet. “How long you owned this place?”
"My father owned it. Me, I got given it for my sins. You want to buy?" His face overcame inertia, cracked a brown, gaping smile and shook with a weezing rumble that passed for a laugh before collapsing into a fit of moist coughing. He recovered, wiping his face with a gray handkerchief.
"I sell shit. My father sold shit. I just deal with crazy people now. They come in off the street and yell at me or they try to sell me junk for drugs and I kick their asses out. I am a sorry man. I tell you that for free." He passed me the camera, but pulled back on it when I grabbed it. "Why you buy this?" he asked. I met his eyes. It was clear then how very drunk he was. I told him about the bedbugs, about Klemper.
"Fucking Germans," he said, the syllables lay flat in the air. He said his name was Efim Brodsky. Grandfather from Kiev, father grew up in Belleville. Brodsky played violin in pit bands and weddings. "I practised in here between customers. Got good that way," he said. Brodsky told me he played for Johnny Mathis once. "After Mathis gives us all pocket watches to say thanks," Brodsky says. "Then we find out they are a kind of watch that lets men know you are gay. Funny guy. Fucking funny guy."
I headed up Queen Street with the Lomo in my pocket. I imagined Efim as a skinny kid playing scales on a violin in that doomed shop day after day and wondered how long he kept the pocket watch.
I have no idea how this McDonald’s makes any money. First, I think I’m the only person in here who has actually ordered something. Second, I’m the only one who isn’t having an angry conversation with myself, dissecting an uneaten muffin or suspiciously guarding what looks like a Longo’s bag full of sports socks. Nor am I cautiously making my way in the direction of the washroom while starting and stopping like a indecisive squirrel crossing a highway.
There are eight of us caught in here, with rain pissing down on Church Street, and I hope to hell the staff is being paid by a grant from Health Canada.
The guy next to me, the muffin slayer, is replaying the same two seconds of hand gestures over and over as if it’s Zapruder footage. He’s reduced the bits of stale Morning Glory between his fingers to an ochre paste. Slayer’s hair is rain-flattened and hangs in tendrils around his neck. The air is filled with the dull acridity of wet nicotine.
These people frighten me, not because I expect they’ll do me harm, but because I sense the thin fabric of circumstance and brain chemistry that separates us. One little slip of dopamine or serotonin and I could be obessively stacking sugar packets while staring mutely at a rain-streaked window too.
Yes, I could have gone to a Starbucks, except I’d actually rather be stuck in a room full of damp psychiatric out-patients than drinking burnt coffee beside a botoxic lawyer chugging a triple soy Americanchiannio bullshit thing. Fucking soy milk. That’s milk the way mothballs are testicles.
I’m just killing time before my Genius Bar appointment to replace my iPhone. I’m lucky. This is the first time I’ve broken my phone, so some Genius Barista with chartreuse hair and hollow ox bones dilating each earlobe will probably feel sorry for me and and only extract $300 for a new one.
I have imagined a dozen stories to explain the frightening web of cracks and shards that have exploded across the phone’s glass front. One involved a nun, a handgun and an anvil. In another, I was killing a spider on the ceiling of my workplace at the request of the terrified quadrapelegic in the next cubicle. Who the hell makes a phone out of glass, anyway? Why not sell rice paper condoms or porcelain cricket bats?
I sure as hell have no interest in telling some kid with a blue t-shirt and a can-do attitude that I imagined my phone as the face of a Chopin-hating German with bedbugs. I don’t want my life reduced to an ironic tweet.
The woman stacking sugar packets at the window is chuckling now. Somewhere, sometime she had something to laugh about and she’s tossing it up on a screen in front of her, like she’s Tom Cruise in Minority Report. That’s good, I guess.
The rain is letting up, the light outside making that subtle shift that seems to come from everywhere at once, like a mood that changes for everyone at the same time. Slayer cocks his head towards the window. His hands stop moving.
On the sidewalk a thin woman coaxes a red umbrella closed and steps inside. The case workers behind the counter brighten. There’s a siren in the distance. There’s always a siren when it rains.
The Apple Store in the Eaton’s Centre smells of fan fug. It’s the cologne of 200 overheated humans sandwiched ass-to-ass between solid maple tables all placeset with alumnium fetish objects. Korean submarines probably have more oxygen, less hardware and fewer primates per square inch. The air conditioning is, frankly, not up to it.
At the back of the store, where I’m planted on a black stool, an ugly little cooling unit whirs uselessly, its vent hooked to dryer ductwork wrapped in alumimum foil. It looks as out of place in here as a booger hanging from Grace Kelly’s nose.
The employee who’s minding me found my name on his iPad’s appointment list then hurried off, probably to return his glasses to the Buddy Holly impersonator he borrowed them from.
The Genius Bar is two deep in desperate bastards. A crimson-faced woman halfway down is on the verge of tears, like she just found out her cat has lukemia. The guy waiting beside me, on his own little black stool, gingerly peels the leather cover off his iPad while I’m watching. The device’s glass surface is as shattered and spidered with cracks as my phone. He drops the lid and opens it again, expecting maybe that this time, the ruined screen will be pristine again. These things aren’t that fucking magical. He’s sweating through his suit jacket, a drop falls from his forehead and smacks flat onto the blonde tabletop.
I turn to face a young woman with pale magenta hair and Chinese symbols tattooed on her neck. She’s wearing the regulation Apple t-shirt untucked over jeans that are rolled mid-calf. On one leg she’s got a full-colour tattoo of Christopher Robin hanging out with Winnie-the-Pooh. Honey’s oozing from a tipped pot and flows down her ankle into a laceless navy blue Ked.
She notices my glance and arches an eyebrow, which is a challenge, since they are both already pencilled in as asymmetric chevrons that make her look severe and surprised at the same time. “Stanley Pope?” she repeats. I nod.
"You have a shattered screen, I see," she says, glancing down at her tablet. I show her my phone. "Nice one. How’d you manage that."
"Hotel bathroom floor," I lie.
"Ceramic’s a bitch." She’s looking down at her tablet again. Her other leg has the black outline of what looks like Eeyore’s sad-assed donkey face on it. "I love A.A. Milne," she says, without looking up.
"I think Tigger’s an asshole," I say.
"Yeah, kinda," She looks up and smiles faintly. I like her face.
"Okay," she sighs a bit. "This is your first repair here, right?" I agree that I’m generally very careful with my gear. "I want you to love your phone. I’m going to replace it, no charge." The faint smile again.
I had not expected this. “Very kind of you,” a wash of guilt flushes my face.
"No worries. Be right back." She returns a few moments later with a plain box and pulls a new phone from it. "Yours backed up?" I nod. She takes my phone from my hand and gives me a new one. "You’re all done."
"Thank you," I say, hefting the device, which is releasing a whiff of nerd pheromones. "Thank you … Miss …."
"My friends call me Tigger." she says. And she’s gone.
You know what the saddest goddamned thing in the world is? I’ll tell you. It’s Chet Baker’s 1987 performance of “My Funny Valentine” in Tokyo.
It’s long after his slide into heroin addiction and his stints in prison. It’s long after his front teeth were smashed out of his mouth in a drug deal, long after the poverty and the comebacks, when he had to retrain his ruined embouchure to play flugelhorn. And long, miserable, fucked-up decades after he recorded the same song with a heartbreaking voice and a movie star’s face.
And it’s one year before he died from a hotel room window fall, gravity finishing a needle’s push.
On stage in Tokyo, in 1987, every scar on his arms, every razor crease of his face, every disappointment, anywhere, ever felt; every crazy, too-late, unrequieted confession of love; every regret; every failed redemption; every doomed dream and bad lay; every goddamned real, dark, tragic, dry heaves moment of a life ill-lived comes pouring out of his throat and horn in a ruined husk of jazz that makes you ache beyond words and wish the magnificent bastard could just pack his soul into his horn case, cover it gently with a piece of spit-damp cloth, and give it an eternal, peaceful rest. But not for another twelve bars.
That performance is playing in my ears right now. I’m on Queen Street West, with the sun setting, doing a bit of street photography with my iPhone - shooting for black and white. Here’s the trick of street photography, if you want to know. Be a brazen bastard and shoot close. Never use a long lens. Make your own luck. Henri Cartier Bresson, the unbeatable son-of-a-bitch, would wait for hours on a corner, or at a puddle’s edge waiting for something, anything to unfold. Waiting for the action, the light, the setting, the story to gel into a perfect photograph - there in one beat of a fly’s wing, gone the next. You have to come in on the downbeat. I shift down the block.
A girl thrusts a finger at an angry boyfriend. A white dog drinks from a puddle. The rangy shadows of bicycles glide and bump over streetcar tracks. Someone has bled on the sidewalk, a child notices. A hotdog vendor waits on a girl in a trenchcoat. Somewhere in the dark a fist connects with Chet Baker’s mouth. A cluster of Asian kids laugh at a store window. A woman turns from an ATM, reading only disappointment on her deposit slip. In a motel room, Chet Baker’s drug-weary eyes slide shut. A young woman begs for change with her dog, its hair almost matted to dreads. Her arms are covered with Japanese tattoos. The face of the girl in the Apple Store. Chet Baker finishes the song about a woman who won’t stick around, no matter what he says. He squints into a spotlight, as bright as the sun that’s spilling glare and silhouettes all along the length of the street.
I have just asked if there are any questions.
I’m looking out at the students in my class. It’s like studying a giant photo mural of the students in my class.
Azumi, a Japanese girl, is wearing oversized frames she doesn’t need. She’s frozen in front of her computer screen, which is displaying a fashion Web site - mostly the colour of Pepto Bismol. I can see it reflected in her prescriptionless lenses. Just past her, in the dim room, Courtney is texting, her blue-lit face taken by the astonished amusement one sees in community theatre. Carl, his green toque low over his forehead, is hunched down on his notes which contain, if I know Carl, the words: “Are there any questions?” Beside him Steph is, I’m guessing, IMing Roxy who is sitting two rows away. Roxy looks like Zooey Deschanel, who my students find completely adorable and newsworthy.
"Really, any questions?" I ask again. The polite students make eye contact, but say nothing.
Finally, thank Christ, Jacob, a lean, dark-haired kid in the back of the room, raises his hand. “So, are you suggesting we shoot aperture-preferred all the time?” Azumi blinks once.
"No, not always. So, who can give me an example of a time you might not want to do that?" I ask. In my head, I start counting. Roxy grins at her screen and turns her head towards Steph. Bingo. Jacob puts up his hand again.
"Maybe at a sports event, so you can pick a faster shutter speed?" he says. I nod.
"Great. Thank you." Jacob is one of the few students who wants to be a photojournalist, or an actual journalist of any stripe, really. Most want to do jock talk on TV, host Entertainment Tonight or get a job at CP24 where they’ll do one minute 30 seconds standups in front of pet shelters, house fires and concert ticket lineups. It’ll be like goddamned Groundhog Day for the rest of their working lives and Azumi would slow poison Roxy if it meant beating her to a free internship. Truth is, when it comes to real stories, neither of them could find their ass with both hands and roadmap. Which won’t harm their careers in television one bit.
I pack up my laptop and cables as the class files out. “Mr. Pope?” I look up. Jacob shifts the messenger bag on his shoulder. It’s made of inner tube rubber, even the strap. He’s got an Olympus PEN digital slung bandolier style over the same shoulder, the camera resting on his other hip. “I’m working on a photo project, not for class or anything.”
"Good man," I say.
"I was wondering if I could show you where it’s at. I mean it’s early days and …"
"Certainly." I coil my power cable around one hand and stuff it into my bag.
Jacob has a habit of running his both hands through his hair when he’s nervous. “Great. That’s great. So, like, when would be good for you?”
We agreed on coffee in the afternoon at a deli near the college. That’s where I’m writing this, on my iPhone this time. Jacob’s running late, which doesn’t surprise me. I ordered coffee without him.
I let the waitress run through the specials even though lunch was long past. She seemed new and was practising, the list a dogearred square in her hand. I thanked her. She looked up, pleased. “Any questions?” she asked, hopeful.
The images Jacob spreads out on the restaurant table are in black and white. The tones are rich, like a W. Eugene Smith print. The shadows are slightly open and hint at the detail inside, the faces dark enough to capture expression and story. You know what the skin has seen. It’s the start of a photo essay; the first, tentative glimpses of the life of a woman confined to a wheelchair, her arms caught in awkward flight, her head lolling sideways in every shot.
"Her name is Carly," Jacob says. I nod, scanning the prints rapidly.
"Nice here," I clear space for a print and tap the woman’s face. She’s making contact with the camera, her eyes clear and deliberate, giving permission. There’s motion blur in her errant right hand, caught in an arc above her head. The room in the background is bright and beautifully out of focus, the bokeh round and gauzy. It’s like a portrait of a dancer. I glance at Jacob’s camera, which he’s placed on the table, strap curled around it like a snake. The lens is worth more than the body. "Where’s the light coming from here?" I ask, circling the woman’s face with my finger.
"It’s a community centre. There are windows on three sides in that room," Jacob shuffles the prints and shows me a wider shot, the woman caught in silhouette against a long bank of bright panes. She looks like a Thai shadow puppet, all exaggerated gestures and rich edge detail. Lovely.
I sort through the other prints: a close-up of the woman’s hands, knotted on a dark chair tray, crumbs of food littered in the shadows. A shot from behind as the woman pilots her chair down and a dark hallway toward a sun-bleached window. I toss it to one side. “Too sentimental,” I say, “I’ve seen that. Show me something new.” Jacob runs both hands through his hair.
"You spent $500 on that lens. You didn’t buy it to shoot bullshit Easter Seals pictures," Jacob is laughing now.
"My parents helped with that."
"My point remains." He’s holding back. This kid didn’t fumble over his coffee invitation to show me this work. His hands go for his head again then he stops and reaches inside his rubber messenger bag. He pulls out a handful of prints and hesitates.
"What?" I ask.
"She wanted me to take these." He spins the images around. The light in the photographs spills low across a bed. The woman is under the covers, her shoulders bare, her head in profile on a taut fist of pillow. A porcelain doll lies on the pillow beside her. The woman is lost in the doll. Her face is streaked with tears that have darkened the fabric below. Her limbs fight the fabric in a wild contortion of grief. It has a replusive intimacy. It calls you to witness and chastises you. It’s what a great photograph should be. I touch the doll. "Okay," I say, "now you have my attention."
The small girl in the snapshot is unmistakably Carly, same clear eyes and direct contact with the camera. She’s maybe three, smiling and standing with an older woman on a pebble beach. Behind them, cauliflower clouds hang in an Ektachrome sky. The woman has a cigarette jutting from her left hand. Her almond-shaped sunglasses have caramel rims. Carly is wearing a sundress the colour of wheat.
Jacob pushes the picture towards me, his finger on the wide lake beyond the shoreline. ”This was taken the same summer Carly fell in and got trapped under a neighbor’s dock,” he says. ”By the time her mother pulled her up she’d lost oxygen to her brain for a few minutes. It brought on the cerebral palsy. The parents divorced the next summer.”
”Her husband blamed her,” I tapped the older woman in the photo.
”She did a good job of blaming herself, according to Carly,” Jacob explained.
Her mother couldn’t forgive herself the momentary inattention. Her husband stopped talking to her, she stopped talking to Carly, horrified by the cerebral palsy the aphyxia had caused: the aphyxia she had caused, the moment caught in the film gate of her memory until it burst into flames. Carly’s father left and her mother crawled into a shell that left Carly in foster care, then a group home until a few years ago.
"Carly partied a lot," Jacob said. "Some guy she doesn’t remember …"
The corner of my mouth twitches. My eyes shut tight for a moment. His drunken bet; her desire, need and curiosity.
"She didn’t know she was pregnant at first," Jacob says. "A few months later she was coming home late from a bar in her electric wheelchair, and drove it off the sidewalk. She ended up spilled onto the road, badly banged up."
I look at the beach snapshot again.
"The baby was okay but an ambulance got called and Children’s Aid found out. They took her baby right after she as born. Carly’s still fighting it."
"Fuck," I look up at Jacob. "Fuck." Jacob smiles, like a wall has fallen between us, then catches himself.
”How did you meet her?”
"My girlfriend works in the community centre."
I point to the shot of Carly in her bedroom. “Your girlfriend was there when you took this shot?” Jacob nods. “Okay, so what was this picture about for Carly?”
"She wants a document. She wants a witness."
"Who? Who does she want as a witness?"
"She wants it online. Her story."
"You going to do that?"
"What do you think?"
"Is she playing you?"
"What do you mean?" His hurt is transparent.
"What about it," anger in the voice.
"You think she’s full of shit?"
"I think you’re young. I think she’s smart, I think she’s got an agenda."
"What are you telling me?"
I look Jacob straight on and hold his gaze. “I am telling you this is a great goddamned story. I am telling you this is a great photo. But I am also telling you not to get too close, not to get involved. She’s just your subject. And here’s the point of this lecture, if you’re taking notes. In the end, you’ll always betray your subject.”
Jacob is crushed, whatever wall fell is back up again. “Did you ask me if my girlfriend was in the room because you thought I was …”
I hold up my hand and shake my head. “No,” I say, pushing the pictures across the table. “you’re not that goddamned stupid.”
I’m at home, Chopin’s Étude in F minor playing loud on the stereo. Yes, I could wear headphones, but Klemper could also have used restraint before buying a used mattress from a hobo, or however else he brought bedbugs into this apartment.
It’s going to be another week before I get my gear out of deep freeze. I’ve decided to make the best of things and put together a show called, “Across From Me: Subway Candids” based on the images from the Lomo. My friend Karla has a small gallery on College Street and an artist pal, Anita, flaked out on her for a show in a couple of weeks.
Given that the Anita’s exhibit was going to be a series of soccerballs with a handful of Barbie doll heads glued on each, it’s probably just as well. Karla said the show was a statement, “about the dominance of the male hegemony in commercialized team sport”. I think it’s a statement about Anita being, “an unreliable fucknut with a glue gun and a bunch of crap she picked up at Goodwill”, but what do I know? I tried to say something astute about a pile of drywall chunks on Karla’s gallery floor once and then found out she was having the bathroom gutted.
I’m not much one for conceptual stuff. To me the pieces look like arts and crafts projects done by retarded 12-year-olds with access to acrylics, leftover lumber and gallery space. Calling a work “Symbiotic Amalgam #23” doesn’t work on me. Neither does the little card that reads: “A dystopical perspective on the entropic nature of semiotic representation in a culture devoid of archetypal anchors”. If that’s writing then so is a monkey crapping a dictionary. It means sweet bugger all to anyone except over-hennaed OCAD profs who think Tinkertoys make interesting earrings.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a, “my kid could paint that” Philistine asshat. But, I didn’t fall off a vegetable truck either. Plus, Anita was a prize dick to Karla when they were in a relationship a while back, something Anita might have called, “Experimental Bedmate #17”.
I picked up some scrap aluminum channeling. I’m going to run the photos between them along two opposite walls of the gallery, like they’re ads in a subway car. Maybe I’ll drop some wriststraps from the ceiling. I’m making Niblets Boy the centrepiece. The Lomo turned his magenta sweater into a crazy neon and the kernels form a constellation of corn. But it’s the way his face reflects a mind tuned to a channel of static that grabs you. Whatever inputs are coming in are dialed down to a subliminal fuzz and rumble, like he’s in a hyperbaric chamber.
I put that print beside one of a young woman sitting alone, her face buried in her left hand, her crimson nails picking up the red of the subway seat, her navy jacket and blue water bottle throwing the red into vibrating relief. She could be crying, praying or laughing, it’s hard to tell. I like the enigma.
On the other side of Niblets Boy I try out a shot of a girl with Bette Paige bangs, black lipstick and a fine ebony nose ring. I shot from my lap, up at her thin face. She’s looking straight ahead at something behind me. She’s anticipating, waiting, impatient. A copy of the Atlantic is on her lap, a Doonesbury character dressed as Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeves. I spread more prints out on the floor, wishing I had more light in here.
Maybe you think there’s something wrong about me taking pictures of people without their permission. Fine. We take pictures of people every day. We see, we remember, we reinvent, we reimagine and recombine. We collect scenes like trading cards, exchanging them in conversations, or blog posts or tweets or paper dyed in words. All I do is catch blinks in amber. Hold them like a pinned butterflies for easy identification by species and genus.
We live in public and thousands, maybe millions of eyes see us, judge us, watch us, lust after us or are repelled by the very sight or smell of us. Photographs are just permanent markers on a dry erase board, a sensor just a pixelated palimpsest. I just give the power to see with my eyes. Not everything, just the edited, cropped, caught, culled and categorized album of one old bastard moving through the world. Maybe it’s not Barbie dolls on soccer balls, but I’m okay with that.
At the moment, and for no good reason, I am sifting through industrial roller bearings at Active Surplus, a store on Queen West where geek crap comes to die. It used to have a stuffed gorilla out front - now replaced by a kid with a ratty cardboard sign and a three-legged dog. You want a vintage cathode ray tube from a radar scope, 25 feet of cheap coax or, in my case, rubber-coated canvas strapping that’ll pass for subway grabs, and you wind up here, lost in what appears to be the small motor aisle.
The guy beside me is having a nerdgasm. He’s holding a cube of milled aluminum with a spindle protruding from it. “A 100-watt SureServo!” he shouts to his pal, a ways down the aisle. He holds the gizmo out on the palm of his plump hand.
”Oh man, that is totally covered in awesome sauce,” his friend shouts back. “Check this out, display port to HDMI dongles for six bucks. Fuck me.”
"I know, right?"
Nerdgasm Lad is wearing a black t-shirt that reads “I Void Warranties”. His jeans are pulled flat across a sexless expanse of ass. His pal wears black tactical pants he probably ordered from a security guard website. If the site saw them now it would issue a recall. His t-shirt says, “Your favorite band sucks”.
"Dude, I am SO getting four of these mofos!" says Nerdgasm Lad, diving into the servo bin again. "This place is a freakin’ gold mine."
A girl shouts from the next aisle. “Green laser! Score!” The two guys look at one another and grin. The girl rounds the end corner of the aisle. Pale magenta hair, chevron eye brows.
"Tigger for the win!" shouts Nerdgasm Lad. She holds up a blister pack in a Black Power salute. "When did those bad boys come in?"
The girl inclines her head toward the front counter. “Larry said they just cracked the boxes last night.” She glances down the aisle and spots me. “Hey,” she says, tossing that coy smile again. “How’s the iPhone?”
The guys look in my direction. “Customer,” she says. “Has very strong opinions about A.A. Milne characters.”
"What are you looking for?" asks Band Sucks. He’s eyeing the roller bearings I’ve been toying with. I put them down too quickly.
"Rubberized strapping," I say.
"Really" Nerdgasm says, slowly. The girl tries that trick with her eyebrows again.
"I’m doing a photo exhibit and …" The trio eye each other.
"We got blow this joint kids," says Band Sucks as brusque as an IT guy interrupting a conversation about Jane Austen.
"Collin’s building a 3D printer," Tigger says, pointing to Nerdgasm, who’s picking out more motors.
"Just figured out the best way align the guide rods. Get it wrong and the extrusion goes to batshit," he says.
I have no idea what the fat, assless bastard is talking about, and he knows it.
"We hang out at HackHaus, it’s a maker club," says Tigger pulling Nerdgasm’s arm in the direction of Band Sucks, who has already disappeared around the corner.
"HackHaus rocks!" says Nerdgasm passing one of the servos to Tigger.
"Check it out sometime, if you’re not too tied up," she adds. This time the smile is wicked. Joke’s lost on Nerdgasm. I’m alone in the aisle. I see them leave in the distance, laughter in their wake. I track down the strapping I need. There’s twenty feet of it, cushioned beige rubber. Awesome sauce.
My allergies are acting up, so, at Karla’s suggestion, I have a small white teapot stuck up one nostril. My head is tilted over the bathroom sink and warm salt water is running up through my sinuses and out the other nostril. It’s like brewing snot tea. It’s also a bit like being waterboarded by your grandmother.
I’m probably using this neti pot thing wrong, but since I’ve been waking up at 4 a.m. after some bastard with a turkey baster jammed 30 quarts of mucus into a half cup nose, I’m willing to try anything, even if I end up confessing to being part of a sleeper cell.
I’m getting ready to meet with Sam, the editor of Elevation, a magazine about urban planning that he runs out of a two-by-four office on Spadina. I like Sam. He’s got the bulbous babyface of a recreational prednisone user and thinks clothes irons, hair brushes, and diets are hellspawn. If Sam ever did hot yoga, the room would smell like smoked meat and jockstraps for a week, the thought of which appeals to me enormously. Also, on the plus side for Sam, he actually hires me on a semi-regular basis.
I squeezed into the Elevation offices just after ten. I say squeezed because there were already seven staffers packed in there like wacky 50s fratboys in a phone booth. “Stan, you worthless tool,” Sam yelled to me, pressing his cellphone to his chest. “Grab a seat!” By this he meant, “wander into the other offices on this floor and see if you can steal chair because damned if I can see an empty one in here.”
I managed to borrow a church basement special from the front office of Friends of Hyde Park, and carried it in front of me, walking like a pregnant woman.
Sam was shouting at his phone when I got back, then he hung up. “Jesus, printers,” he said to the room. “you think I could get a goddamned break on a fifth colour just this once?” He looks up at me. “Park yourself beside Melody.” Melody, a frighteningly thin girl with limp, thinning hair, and sallow skin skittered her chair sideways, almost dumping the tablet off her insubstantial lap. I pegged her as a vegan intern, which meant her stay at Elevation would be short and grief-ridden.
Sam dug into his tabletop and fished a sheaf out of a red folder. “We’re doing a story about pedestrian-first streetscapes,” he said. “We’re calling it ‘Walk This Way’”. I smiled. Sam’s a sucker for those kind of headlines. He ran a feature on used clothing stores in Little India with the head, “Whose Sari Now?”
He tossed me a sheet of paper, the names of a locations printed on it. “I want a double-page photo essay, black and white. Total Joel Meyerowitz feel. Through the day, night. I want to taste the fucking streetmeat.” He said this for the intern’s benefit. She winced, which Sam noted and ignored.
"Got it." Across from me a rangy kid with a chinstrap beard and black straw fedora meant for a small child unfolded himself from an orange beanbag chair. He tossed his laptop onto the inhaling seat.
"I’m hitting the can, anyone want anything?" he asked, grinning like a simpleton. Melody closed her eyes and shook her head. "I really enjoy your joke, Ashton." she muttered. "I hope you left yourself logged onto Twitter. I would exploit that oversight in your absence."
Sam laughed with the subtlety of Jabba the Hutt. “Melody is our social media editor,” he said. “I fart and 358 people retweet the news. Fucking amazing.”
I returned the chair to The Friends of Hyde Park office and waited for the elevator. Ashton ambled out of the washroom, just as the doors opened. “Melody checked your browser history,” I said, as the elevator slid shut.
I have a dream. I’m in a car on a highway, I think somewhere near Woodstock. Sometimes I’m with Karla, who is driving. Sometimes it’s my late mother, Beatty. Sometimes, lately, it’s been Tigger. I’m always in the passenger seat, watching the soup-flat farmland blur by.
I’m shooting a stop-motion video, but the frames are popping out of the top of the camera like toast. They’ve covered my lap and are half way up the glove compartment. The sun is setting, then rising, then setting in a shallow bounce on the horizon.
A green threshing machine tosses cow after cow over a pale moon in a cobalt sky. The driver du nuit is yelling at me to stop taking pictures, but I can’t. I jam my hand over the top of the camera but the pictures ooze around my fingers and reassemble on the other side. In the backseat my student Carl is grabbing images at random and taking careful notes.
Suddenly we’re in a blizzard, then, a moment later, the setting sun blinds us from a cloudless sky, which is how I know we’re somewhere near Woodstock.
In the dream the radio seems to be stuck on an Everly Brothers playlist, “Crying in the Rain” in heavy rotation. My hands are sticky with images, yellow beneath my nails, cyan in the creases of my knuckles, magenta on my palms. They smell of turpentine and developer. The images from the camera are up to the dashboard now and are wobbling like the icons on the screen of my phone.
I am half-aware this is a dream, that this has happened before, that I know how it will end, but then I convince myself otherwise, and panic wells up like the mounding, juddering photos.
In the passenger rear view I see a red pickup approaching. Dragonflies bounce off the windshield like rubber bullets, fired by an angry wind that barrels across the fields. The prints start to cut my hands to the nerves as they pass through. In my dream I have synesthesia. The pain is the colour of a backlit fern and the cry of a barn owl.
The red pickup passes fast on the right, in stop motion. A blue tarp boils atop a blocky load rebelling against the speed and wind. The truck’s in front of us now. The wind rips the tarp free and it flies up and over the field. The arcing cows watch it tumble by, convinced the glowering sky has shed its skin.
In the tarp’s place a white mattress bucks and oscillates like a ululating tongue. We gain on the pickup as it hits gravel. A tan cloud clay dust explodes behind it. The photos are chin-high now. Through the skintone haze I see the mattress rip free of its restrains, barrel roll sideways and rocket towards the windshield.
I burst awake in the dark, wondering, of all things, why Carl was along for the ride.
Sam, in a rare moment of magnanimity, invited me to lunch. He likes a deli on Mutual Street where the waitresses treat him like visiting royalty and he can play them like a mandolin.
He also likes thick, pink,labial smoked meat sandwiches with a giant pickle on the side. If Freud ate at a deli, he’d let Sam order for him.
"So, how are the spoiled little pricks?" Sam asks, which is how he always inquires about my teaching. Sam explores the interior of his sandwich for mustard and finds it a sad joke.
"Couple of good kids, a couple thick as two planks nailed together, bunch in the middle," I dump too much sugar in my coffee. "Most want to be chase producers for Ellen."
"What the fuck, eh?" Sam says, "Skinny dyke does some half-assed standup and now she’s French kissing Lady Gaga and fartin’ through silk." He extrudes yellow mustard in a graffiti tag on top of his sandwich. "What a fuckin’ world. What the hell’s that got to do with journalism?" I stir my coffee. "Like they give a shit about that, right?" We’ve had this talk before.
Sam was a slot man at the Toronto Star before he took a buyout package. He’d worked cops, sports and City Hall before that. I met him when I was still doing freelance for the paper and he was working 4 to 11 and you could still smoke at your desk. “Can any of them shoot worth a shit?” Sam asks, temporarily parking a bolus of smoked meat in a cheek.
"Kid named Jacob’s got a good eye," I slice into my Western. "He’s got a line on a story about a woman with cerebral palsy".
"Hope she’s not another fucking plucky overachiever with a chip on her shoulder, and a cat."
"Sam," I say, "are you a total asshole yet, or are you still short a few credits?" Sam almost spits his smoked meat across the table.
"I am, my friend, an assaholic," he says. "A fucking proud assaholic." He wipes his face with a crumbled napkin. "So, how’s the streetscape shit coming along? Too much gristle in this fucking sandwich. Yours okay?"
"Fine," answering both questions. Sam waves the waitress over.
"Sally," Sam picks a piece of half-chewed meat from his mouth and dangles it in midair. "would you please tell Manny I found the fucking rubber band he lost."
Sally sets her shoulders and looks at me sympathetically.
"What am I, chopped liver?" Sam asks.
"Chewed," says Sally.
Sam tosses the gristle on his plate and passes the whole unfinished mess to Sally, who ferries it off, wordlessly. “I want to talk to you about your students,” He leans across the table. “I might need one of them for a job.”
"A shitkicker of a story. I need a kid for it."
I push my coffee cup towards Sam. “A kid.”
"You heard of a group called Borderless?"
It rings no bells.
"Started in Alberta but they’re here too. They work with new immigrants. Fight for their rights, help at hearings."
"Okay, what does this have to …"
Sam flags down Sally from across the room. He points to my coffee then his chest, then turns his attention back. “They also hold political training for the grateful immigrants.”
"Borderless is rooted in anarchism. They collect warm bodies for protests, actions, black block shit like at the Vancouver Olympics and the G20."
Sally brings Stan his coffee and refills mine. “Rice pudding?” Stan nods and looks at me. I decline. “Food of the Gods, your loss,” he says and Sally leaves.
"So, what, Stan," I say. "New immigrants are adults. "Probably some pretty pissed off adults. If they want to listen to Def Leppard, wear army surplus clothes and pull bandanas over their faces who cares? And what the fuck do my students have to do with it?"
"Know who Charlotte Kippens is?"
"Heard the name, that’s all. I think she taught at McKenzie in Poli Sci."
"She’s running Borderless now. Bit of internal coup from what I hear. She shifted it to to the radical left."
"Cut to the chase Stan. I have to piss like a race horse."
"My source says she’s doing some interesting freelance work as well."
"You’re killing me here. I’m an old man."
"Word is Charlotte is an RCMP informant. Still have to take a leak?"
"And you want one of my students to join up? Are you fucking nuts?"
"Hey, your students are adults. Probably some pretty pissed off adults. I thought one of them might be hungry enough to go after a real fucking story."
I stood in front of the deli’s urinal feeling the relief well up like the scent of the blue deodorant puck. There was an ad in front of me encouraging students to call a cab if they did something stupid like getting shitfaced at a party. I wondered why there wasn’t an ad encouraging profs not to let a student do something stupid like returning Stan’s phone call.
My student Steph is sobbing, her eyes rimmed red, the red surrounded by yielding black liner. We’re in a spare office at the college, our seats a safe distance apart, my hands resting on the arms of my chair, the door partially opened. “I’m working SO hard,” she says. “This course is really important to me.” She daubs at the side of her left eye. “Sorry,” she says, poking at the other one with a damp tissue.
She’s got the clear, smooth complexion you can’t fake past the age of 23. No lines, just smooth contours wrapped effortlessly around high bones, the skin at the eyes relaxed, not taut, the edges of the mouth as uncreased as fresh paper.
"You’re late almost every week you’re here, which is about half the time". I flip open a blue folder with the class’s attendance sheet in it. I’m not entirely sure how Steph’s outfit goes together, but I count six bra straps.
"It’s a ten o’clock class! It’s hard to get up that early." She flips her Blackberry over and over on her thigh. Her fingernails are done in a careful robin’s egg blue with an inverted white crescent at the top. The phone’s case is the colour of a grape sucker. The Blackberry vibrates and she glances down. I look at her silently.
She drops the phone in her purse, and does a studied eye roll. I can feel my cheeks heating up.
"I am trying to have a balanced life, okay?"
"What does that mean?" I close the folder.
"It means things are complicated. That’s all."
"You got one out of ten on the last pop quiz," I say. "That part is pretty simple." The sobbing stops.
"You sprung it on us!"
"That would be the pop part."
"I don’t know why I should be penalized because I missed the class where you talked about that stuff."
"Are you listening to yourself?" I lean a bit forward. "I’ve put the slides online. You could have asked a classmate for notes. You blew a test. Own it." I deliver the line with an unemotional flatness.
"You’re supposed to be helping me. That’s what you get paid for, right? That’s what tuition is for, right?" The crying gambit is completely on pause now.
"When you miss half the classes you don’t get to complain about how your tuition is being spent." Steph adjusts a bra strap, the green one.
"My mother says you just don’t like me. She wants to talk to you."
"That is not going to happen, and Steph, listen to me. I don’t even know you. The cleaning lady who does the garbage bins in the classroom is there more often than you. Her, I like, by the way."
"You should let me take another test." She makes it sound like a threat.
"Because you need to accommodate me."
"Do you have a disabilitity?"
"I have a great deal of difficulty dealing with stress."
"You’re supposed to, otherwise they’d call it yoga." She starts tearing up again.
"No, really, this is all very, very difficult for me."
"I can’t accommodate you after the fact. But if you do have a medically verified anxiety disorder you should discuss it with the access office. I would be happy to take that into account on the next test". My response is too rote and she smells it.
"My mother says I should talk to the Dean".
"I’ll let her know she might be hearing from you. But the test mark stands." The phone in her purse buzzes again. "I wouldn’t have your mother call the Dean, by the way," I add, because I know that’s what follows. "She doesn’t take those kind of calls."
"What kind of calls? From my mother?" Her face collapses on itself in a perplexed grimace. I raise an eyebrow microscopically.
"Thanks for coming by," I say, standing.
"Could I do some other assignment for the mark?"
"No, Steph. You failed the quiz. There it is. You failed and it was your fault. Not mine, not your mother’s, not the Dean’s. You just didn’t bother enough. You can tell that to your mother, or to Roxy, or whoever is texting you. Just be in class next week."
She pulls her purse roughly of the floor and slams it onto her shoulder. “Thank you for seeing me,” she says with a sudden, sweet smile, and swings out of the room.
I put the blue folder back in my bag. My decision about talking to Jacob about Stan seems so easy now.
Jacob drops himself into the seat across from me. It’s been a week since I had lunch at the same table with Sam. Jacob is late again. I think his generation has an elastic sense of time, a shared understanding that if they text or email an apology then tardiness is no longer rude. It’s as if, somehow, they think they’re already partially at their destination while they’re en route. That they’re both there and here. But I didn’t get any text from him. Or an email. He’s just late.
Maybe that word just doesn’t mean anything any more. Late. Time is just like pizza dough now, spinning thinner and wider midway between a ceiling and flour-white hands. In a second Google can search the word “tardy” and pluck it from ten thousand places. A bullet from a M-40 sniper rifle can turn a distant brain to pink aerosol between one heartbeat and the next. For the shooter, the bullet must be photon-fast to the target, then ruin the flesh at the pace of an unfolding poppy.
I don’t imagine a hummingbird imagines a second the way I do. Or a sloth. Or a CPU. Or, maybe Jacob, who, for all I know, owns a watch with rubber gears and a social calendar that’s just a glutenous mass of tendrils that can stretch or contract as suits his inward-focussed impulse.
"Sorry," he says, tossing his inner tube bag, as vulcanized as his watch, beside him. I shrug.
"Has Sam called you?" I signal for the waitress, a new girl.
"Yeah. Your take?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing." The new waitress hipchecks her way to the table and has Jacob’s complete focus. She looks like she has a baby’s ass grafted onto her chest, its plumber’s crack half exposed above the low scoop of her violet top. From between the deep mysteries of her astounding cleavage a black and red spiderweb tattoo radiates upward to her collarbone and shoulders. Her lips are outlined in sharp, edged crimson lipstick set off against morgue-table skin and dyed black hair, cut in Bettie Page bangs.
If this girl doesn’t moonlight doing burlesque for a goth theatre troop then Jacob had shown up early and was planning on buying the coffees. Jacob pulls himself from the tractor beams of the girl’s breasts and turns back to me. “Two coffees,” I say to the waitress. She smiles at Jacob and cantilevers away.
I repeat my question. “Asking. You. Same thing. Jacob, work with me here.” Jacob swivels his head at the sound of my voice.
"Is the Sam guy legit?" he asks.
"If you’re asking me if he’s honest, yes. Will he pay you on time, yes. Is he a serious journalist who could run circles around you and me, yes. Is he a garlic-gargling, vegan-baiting, lardassed carnivore who’s about as politically correct as a "Hitler is My Homeboy" t-shirt, just a little batshit crazy and has a face like a jar of smashed arseholes? Yes. Legit? Without question, yes. Next."
Spidergirl returns with the coffees, Jacob gets a stupefied grin on his face and she disappears again. I feel sorry for guys his age. They’re hooked on a perpetual testosterone drip that sets their brains to stun and their dicks on a hair trigger. And here they are surrounded by melon-breasted women with yoga-honed asses lovingly moulded in black tights. If my 20-year-old self could see this now, the blue balls alone would kill the poor bastard.
"So you think I should go undercover? Do this story?"
"I can’t make that choice for you."
"You gave him my number."
"And you have the option. I was just giving it to you."
"This could be dangerous, right?"
"Jacob, going down a flight of stairs is dangerous. Life is all about risk and benefit. Look, you could risk giving our waitress your number, like I gave it to Sam. Benefit, obvious. Risk, obvious."
"My girlfriend would have my balls."
"Or, worse, our waitress would, first date." Jacob blanches, then laughs.
"Let’s change the subject. I told him I’d think about it."
"And you have."
Spidergirl returns with the coffee pot. She looks over at Jacob’s rubber bag. “Love that,” she says. “Where?”
"Friend makes them," says Jacob. "Give me your email address and I’ll hook you up."
I watch as Spidergirl refill my cup. Jacob throws me a shiteating grin.
Sam has his man.
This afternoon the Dean of Journalism called me into her office. The walls are covered in documentary film posters except for a spot right above her desk reserved for an editorial cartoon of her drawn by a Globe and Mail artist and signed by everyone in the newsroom when she took an early buyout package.
The first time I saw the poster was when I was shown into Dean Ellis’ office for an introductory chat a few years back. I thought her cartoon head was enormous, like on a dashboard sports doll. Then Ellis returned from the washroom and I realized the artist was drawing from life. Ellis’ bean is about the size of an exercise ball, and she had a buzz cut, so it wasn’t the hair. It was however, by far, the largest cranium I’d ever seen on a woman, even an American woman, which is saying something, because they all have giant heads, in my experience. Which explains the high Cesarian rate in our neighbour to the south.
She turned it towards me as I walked in today, her hair now a girlish bob, which was not working for her.
“Have a seat, just finishing an email. Registrar.” I waited until her rapid-fire, two-fingered typing stopped. It sounded like she goes through keyboards the way a Haitian sailor burns through condoms. The old Remington that turned her thick fingers into mighty flesh pistons sat on a shelf above her monitor. She was a solid woman with a long-distance swimmer’s insulation. The sharp lines on her face sketched out an old smoking habit. The Remington probably still smells of unfiltered Exports.
But, the best thing about her is that she doesn’t take shit from anyone. Great story about her at the Toronto Press Club I heard. She was playing pretty decent honky-tonk piano one night and a gin-soaked PR woman came up to her and called her a “fat-assed dyke”. Ellis kept playing a bass line with her right hand, opened the woman’s purse with her left and vomited a night’s worth of draft into it.
She spun on her seat and tossed a blue folder on her desk between us. “Got a call from Steph’s mother yesterday”.
“I meant to mention she might be in touch.” Ellis’ lip twitched at the corner.
“She’s concerned that your hostile attitude about her daughter will prejudice her mark.”
“She said you told Steph you like the cleaning lady more than her.”
“Which I did. Slavitsa’s a sweetheart.”
"You also said she was lazy and ignored her plea for help about her stress."
"Please." I tossed her the universal deadpan expression for journalist disbelief.
“Right.” Ellis made a note with a silver fountain pen.
“She said you were paying undue attention to her daughter’s undergarments.” Ellis was reading now.
“Come on. She had sixteen bra straps. They were like a gay pride flag. Jesus, what is this Grace?”
“We’re just having a conversation here.”
I stared her down. She closed the folder.
"Should I be getting my union rep in to share in our conversation?" I asked.
"Stanley, cool your jets. Jesus. If you’d needed a union rep I would have suggested it myself. I was head of the friggin’ union at the Globe, remember? We’re just talking."
“Mrs. Sanderson reminded me that her sister’s husband is a major alumni donor.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake. Grace, you don’t take these calls. You know this bullshit. Pampered kid whose mom thinks she shits Almond Joys.”
“It’s different now, Stan. Enrolment’s down. I have to step through this.”
"In it, you mean."
"Stan, listen to me. We are having a conversation. I am sharing a concern I received from a student’s parent. She believes you are prejudiced against her daughter. Her daughter is quite aware of her power. I am not asking you to do anything. I am just letting you know the circumstances."
"You want me to make sure she doesn’t fail."
"No. I am telling you that if Ms Fucking Almond Joy lodges a formal complaint about a failing mark it will be appealed. If she loses she will go to the Provost. Then, she will win and the Provost will be asking me what is wrong with our program. It will be a world of pain for all of us, since my pain will be your pain. So, use this information however you wish. Okay?"
"Got it." This time I give her the eye-to-eye contact of a reporter and editor who know exactly what’s what.
"And this conversation we’re having?"
"We never had it."
The HackHaus is on the third floor of a rathole in Kensington Market. Before I went there I read about it on a reference library PC. It’s called a Maker Space, which, as far as I can tell, is like a collective workshop for nerds whose long-suffered live-ins got fed up with them leaving soldering irons, gaskets and glue guns on the kitchen table.
Makers, it seems, take a bunch of broken shit: computers, electronic toys, piano keyboards and surplus motors; gut it, and turn it into fully-functioning shit like dot-matrix printers that can play Sometimes When We Touch or little robots that can solve Rubik’s cubes or flush a laser-triggered cat toilet. Makers think they’re saving the planet by reusing, instead of trashing junk. But, if their long-suffering bed mates don’t want glue guns cluttering up the house, why in the name of Christ would they want a laser-guided cat crapper and a printer with a taste for Dan Hill?
I told myself I was going to HackHaus because I could get some ideas for some discrete recording gear Jacob could use if he took Sam up on his offer. Then I told myself that was bullshit. I really just wanted to see Tigger again, and, she had invited me and it was a Tuesday, drop-in night when fake Makers like me could pop by and check out the action.
I also told myself this wasn’t some weird Woody Allen thing going on. Manhattan creeped the living crap out of me, to tell you the truth. Allen drolling all over Muriel Hemingway like a perverted uncle fucked up the whole movie, even if it was shot in velvety black and white and had a Gershwin soundtrack. Plus Hemingway’s acting made Andie McDowell look like Meryl Streep, which didn’t fucking help.
Tigger just interests me in a way none of my students, except maybe Jacob, do. Potential - that’s what’s there. Some little flickering, hidden, precarious, husbanded hope of someone making something out of nothing. That maybe she’s a maker, in a good way.
And, I flattered myself that I interested her, which was probably, stupidly, embarrassingly and totally wrong. But still, she did invite me. Or, she was just being polite to a pathetic old bastard shopping for rubber fetish gear when her Apple Store training kicked in. Who knows.
The wooden stairs up to the HackHaus were swaybacked and paint spattered, the colours as dulled and dirty as gum wads on a sidewalk. The stairwell smelled of hot flux, acetone and microwaved currie patties. A high, rhythmic whine drifted down from the room above, like a dentist was using his drill to tap out the beat on a hapless molar.
The room I stepped into was lit in the blue white glow of LEDs that gave everyone in the large, open space the pallor of Twilight extras. There was a pot-bellied giant with long red hair hunched over tent frame of metal rods the size of a toaster oven. He was seated at a long wooden work table around which pasty men and women tinkered, tapped and examined an assortment of gimcracks, junk and gadgets. The giant looked up.
“Hey, new face! Great! Welcome. I’m Jim.” His hand reached out, smothered mine and then shook it to death.
“Thanks. That looks like a pup tent for a small robot,” I said, nodding to the device in front of him. He beamed like a drunk Viking. “3D printer, mostly my design, but Collin’s helping me put it together,” he tossed his head in the direction of one of the guys I’d met when I ran into Tigger at Global Surplus.
Collin looked up at the sound of his name and gave me a tight smile, clearly blanking on how he knew me.
Jim tossed me a small plastic box, the sides of which twisted around in a lazy spiral. It had fine plastic grooves on it, like the surface of a record.
“Lid comes off,” Jim said, still beaming. I unscrewed it. “Printed it out on the earlier version of this,” Jim explained. “The lid was already screwed on when it was printed. Each groove on the box represents a pass of the print head,” he says. “Stuff still blows me away.” Collin ambled over and rested his hand on the 3D printer’s top rods.
“You could print an adjustable wrench in that, pick it up off the deck and start using it,” Collin explained. “Shit’s going to change the world. Total Star Trek replicator precursor.”
I screwed the lid back on the box and tossed it to back to Jim the Giant. His hand swallowed it whole.
A light went on behind Collin’s eyes. “Got it!” he shouted, “you’re the guy in Global looking for rubber straps! I had to run some background pattern matching,” he said, tapping his forehead.
“Tigger invited me,” I said, looking down to see if he was still wearing the same T-shirt he had on in the store.
“Tigger invites everyone,” he said.
Somehow, I knew that.