Thursday, 23 January 2020

HUMAN WRECKAGE

About an Avenue

Forgive me while I remember.

Before February freezes into double digits I will turn 60, older than the Rolling Stones and the Who but not by much. These days I find myself emitting frequent, involuntary, old person noises. Their source is not physical, aches and pains, so much as the persistence of memory. Every conjured, uninvited memory is a bad one, each comprising a cringe-worthy litany of every stupid, embarrassing and shameful thing I’ve ever done in my life. This is why elderly people tend to stoop; why Catholics inflict the hell of confession upon themselves even though there’s no way to ease the weight of wrong. Still, my psyche isn’t playing fair with me because lately I’ve been reminded of some idyllic times.

These were the days in Montreal before I made the heroic leap from Jean Beliveau to Keith Richards, a puberty-driven and ultimately career-limiting compulsion to never, ever fit in if I could help it. The Town of Mount Royal, separated from downtown by the mountain, a dead volcano, was an ingenious and enlightened example of pre-war urban planning. The main boulevards of the modern garden city spoked toward compass points beyond its boundaries from a hub housing a central park, recreation and public service facilities, schools, a commercial area and the commuter train station. Housing was a carefully regulated mix of walk-up apartment buildings, duplexes, semi-detached, bungalows, two-storeys and modest suburban mansions.

My childhood playmate Mark lived across Dobie Avenue, a few doors farther down toward the tennis courts, rugby field and baseball diamond. We never attended school together because he was Protestant. The nuns never explained that schism in catechism. And what in God’s name was a Jew? Who knew? I had a better handle on Hugh MacLennan’s ‘Two Solitudes’ because the Pea-soups or Pepsis at the hockey rink spoke French and I was fine being called a tete-carre or maudit Sprite as the epithets were nothing personal, just part of the game.

Mark was the youngest of four in his family. He suffered from some type of affliction in his legs. For a time he had to wear clunky, corrective boots. I wanted a pair just like them because Mark was my best friend. Eventually we both sported the same brand of running shoe, North Star knock-offs. The soles of our sparkling white shoes peeled off in the space of a week. Mark decided we should go to the shoe shop in the Centre of Town and complain. We walked home together, an arm around each other’s neck, grinning, admiring our brand new Adidas, three blue stripes.

One of his older brothers, Ian, used to hang around with us from time to time and I looked up to him because he possessed a wise and worldly additional 30 months or so on Earth compared to Mark and me. Ian and I are now Facebook friends. He is a musician who willingly shares his gift. The memories our limited correspondence has prompted have made me smile. His baby brother, my old friend Mark, has, as I understand it, wisely eschewed the duality of digital existence. I don’t know where Mark lives. I don’t know what he does. I wonder how he’s doing.

There were fewer fences back when the Canadian flag and the introduction of the metric system were still novel. We would place brads beneath a front tire of a Guaranteed Milk truck and trespass full throttle through two backyards to emerge innocently on a parallel avenue. One peculiar feature of the Town’s planning was that there were areas where the backs of the residential lots were not quite flush. This anonymous right-of-way was maybe four feet wide, perhaps three. One entry to this secret trail was behind Mark’s and Ian’s garden. It allowed us to move up and down Dobie virtually unseen.

Stealth was required for guerrilla warfare, garbage can lid shields and little green apples. And especially Nicky-Nicky-Nine-Door: ring the doorbell and vanish. As is the case with nascent human nature, we tended to pick on neighbours we deemed strange or different. It never occurred to me that they might view our respective families in the same way. When we did get to know some of the avenue’s weirdos, it was a bit of a letdown to learn they were entirely normal, or as close as you can get what with people being people.

(I suppose the kids residing on my Edmonton street today consider me one of those strange and different types. I smoke. I'm not overly social. My modicum of grace is that the Crooked 9 has no doorbell.)

It’s hard to say when things began to change on Dobie. All of the lovely, shading elms were cut down, victims of disease. Older boys like Ian developed more mature interests than being mere brats. Their hairstyles changed; the local barber's business slumped. Kids like Mark and me made friends with other kids from different blocks and other parts of the Town in our separate schoolyards. Our avenue world expanded very quickly and then burst like a supernova. Growing up. Mark’s and Ian’s family moved to St-Jerome. What was left of mine eventually decamped for downtown Montreal.

About five years ago I drove through the Town of Mount Royal, buckled into the passenger seat of a Mazda. Everything, even the big houses, seemed so tiny. The streets were impossibly narrow. How wide had that secret trail been, really? I reminded myself that I was smaller then too, not even close to almost grown. I thought of a Bob Dylan song, so apropos, ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’ and its lyric: “What looks large from a distance, close up, ain’t never that big.” But it was; it really was.                                              

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced, inaccurate alternative source of memoir and opinion since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Apprehension and Disliking in Las Vegas (Part II)

A kid wearing a St. Louis Blues home sweater asked me for a light. He said he’d lost his lighter. I handed him my Montreal Canadiens Bic and said, “If you lose this, I’ll kill you.” Ann and I were in The Park, the immense pedestrian plaza in front of the T-Mobile Arena shoehorned between New York New York and another MGM branded property different from the green Grand across the boulevard. We were sipping tins of Stella Artois, stupefied by the pre-game festivities of warm weather hockey. We moved like crabs through the throng, sideways past the liquor kiosks, flowing with the current of the pounding techno. Gazing upward I noted the masked, tennis ball-green security forces looking down on the crowd from every storey of the Toshiba Plaza. My emotions were mixed, I wasn’t sure if I was comforted or discomforted.

The sports story of the last decade is the Vegas Golden Knights. The expansion club was great from their first puck drop. But, man, their marketers were all-stars. Knights gear is for sale everywhere and seemingly every business here trumpets some official affiliation with the team. This is the way hockey permeates Montreal. Looking at all the sweaters in The Park, boring colours and a decent crest, I understood that there’s a fan base in Las Vegas which in turn led me to an absurdly obvious though shocking conclusion: people actually live and work here. If the transient, carpetbagging football Raiders get it right, their confrere Chargers in Los Angles proof that it’s not a given, there’s more golden nuggets to be mined in the desert.

When I eventually reached the wicket window, there were just 18 seats available in the rink. For $140 each plus service charges and taxes - about another $75; Ann and I would not even be able to sit together. The ticket agent was friendly and helpful, good at her job. My mind spun: 7, BAR, lemons. The game meant nothing to us although I suppose I would’ve paid that much to watch the Canadiens lose. I politely demurred.

Because I have effectively mismanaged my personal life since the last notes of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ faded at one of my Secondary Three high school dances, friends and family were concerned that Ann and I might exchange marital vows in Vegas, stood before some plump rhinestone Elvis Baptist preacher. There has been more than enough grief in our lives. We opted instead for Love, the Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles tribute at The Mirage, a few monorail stops away from MGM Grand. I never did buy the Apple soundtrack because I wanted to hear and experience the deconstruction of their songs within the context of performance. My father took me to see a circus once, around the time I was preparing for my First Communion, so 1967. Some snotty little puke about my age in the row behind us vomited on him. We left early, missed the finale.

There has been a trend in theatre recently to foist jukebox musicals on patrons, hit songs strung together by a tenuous and shaky narrative thread. Beautiful and Million Dollar Quartet are not documentaries; facts don’t matter so much as the attempt to somehow lift the curtain on the miracle of art, humanity’s finest creation. The Cirque adds miming acrobats and a highwire. Love’s stage is populated by athletic avatars of Beatles characters, Eleanor Rigby, Mr. Kite and Lucy. The Fool on the Hill, maybe an Eggman and a Walrus, everybody on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s, I couldn’t be certain. Imagine the era of post-war, pyrrhic Britain to John’s murder condensed into a Yellow Submarine cartoon with live actors zipping up and down through strobes and fog and all around Blue Meanies, glass onions and mojo filters interspersed with short, deferential tangents vectoring on George and Ringo, one song each – just like the albums. I’ve taken magic mushrooms and God knows what else in my time but I’ve never hallucinated anything quite like Love. Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees learned harsh lessons messing with the Beatles’ music and legacy. This audacious, carefully choreographed spectacle is so over the big top, enough as to be deranged and yet not without flaws: Ann noted the flaccid nets and unused trampolines during 'Revolution,' many cues were missed.

But the Cirque organization is everywhere with different shows in every resort, as ubiquitous as the colourfully explicit escort calling cards that paper the city. Las Vegas is the only holiday destination you’re tempted to escape from even while you’re there. It’s all too much. I was reminded of the downtown Edmonton apartment I rented 30 years ago following my first divorce. Even though I lived by myself I hated going home. I tried to explain my existential crisis to my older brother. He said, “You get home after work, unlock the door and it’s just you, and you can’t stand your company.” I said, “Yeah, no, maybe.”

While the slots are modern machines in the “fabulous” Flamingo, it’s the only joint on The Strip that still possesses a whiff of Rat Pack pomade. Ain’t that a kick in the head? There’s a pit bar in the middle of the casino. There are paper matchbooks available. But to really get away from it all without flying home, we flagged a cab downtown to Fremont Street. Our taxi sped by peeler bars, liquor stores, drug stores (not Walgreen’s or CVS) and auto body chop shops. After I paid our driver I slid my wallet into a front pocket of my jeans.

The branded Fremont Street Experience unfolds beneath a programmable electric sky, an LED canopy that extends for three city blocks. On the mall under the trance inducing lights are live bands and deejays, fishnet stockinged dancers, open air bars, kiosks selling junk and palm readings, street performers and street people. It’s a grittier scene than the vaguely Disneyfied Strip, though paradoxically as plastic as the discarded beer cups, yet its scale is human. A visit forces you to ponder the human condition such as it is in the wake of a few thousand years of civilization. My God, what some people (don’t) wear. Ann and I attended on a Friday night and returned again on a Sunday morning to survey the wreckage in the harsh desert glare of hangover day.

I heard a guitarist grinding out a Keith Richards riff through the open windows of an Irish pub called Mickie Finnz. Ann and I went in for the happy hour specials. Immediately inside the entry we were greeted by a large aquarium populated with a few undersized, clinically depressed lobsters. YOU CATCH IT AND WE COOK IT. Christ. I judge the cleanliness of an eatery’s kitchen by the state of its men’s room. I would not chew my fingernail in Mickie Finnz.

Ann was equally intrigued and appalled by the neon wretched excess across Fremont. The Heart Attack Grill offered free food to patrons weighing over 350 pounds. There was a scale on the street. A drinker beside us told Ann that he dropped his wife there about once a month and waited her out in Mickie Finnz. He said, “If you can’t finish your meal they spank you.” I had so many inappropriate questions with which to pepper him. For maybe the second time in my life I kept silent, bit my tongue - not on the menu at Mickie Finnz but at least I knew where it had been.

The Mob Museum is nearby on Stewart Avenue. Despite its silly name it’s no Ripley’s on Times Square. History, while always fascinating, is often ugly. I believe it should be documented and acknowledged rather than erased. I was reminded of a museum I visited in Bristol, England which was surprisingly forthright about that port city’s role in the slave trade and how its abolition crunched the local economy. The universal hallmark of progress is disruption. There is a mild MAGA odour wafting through The Mob Museum as the panels of text herald the noble forces of American law rising up against the Italian, Irish and Jewish immigrants who imported their evil ways to orchestrate a New World gangland. It’s not the facts so much as how they’re presented.

When I was a good Catholic boy many of my friends had little Red Cross badges sewn onto their bathing suits. I badgered my parents for swimming lessons because I wanted a bathing suit badge too. One of the tests was treading water for 30 seconds in the deep end of the pool, under the low and high diving boards. I was terrified. I didn’t smoke back then and so I managed not to drown for 29 seconds. I was passed anyway, sort of like that mercy 51 grade in Secondary Three chemistry. Maybe that’s the story of my life and career, barely adequate.

When Ann and I felt we were flailing and floundering, asea in the grotesque, we repaired to the Triple 7 sports bar in Main Street Station close by the western top of Fremont, near the Plaza and the Golden Nugget. The micro-brewed beer is as good and as reasonably priced as the food and the casino’s men’s room is immaculate. You can piss against a segment of the Berlin Wall (the reassembled St. Valentine’s Day Massacre wall is in The Mob Museum). We took the same stools every visit, down at the end of the long wooden bar. I don’t pay attention to American football any longer but, boy, watching a playoff game with people who have stakes riding on multiple outcomes, over-under, spread, winner, is some kind of secondary rush. Should we ever return to Las Vegas, this is where I’ll establish our unofficial headquarters.

Provided you get a good night’s sleep, leaving Las Vegas is easy. We were mortified when a black stretch limo turned up at the MGM Grand to take us to McCarran, the primary point of our journey back to reality. We don’t habitually move in such ostentatious circles. I’d booked sedans for us. I guessed this embarrassing vehicle was a make-good for the foul-up upon our arrival. I assumed the rims of our eyes were as red and rusty as the surrounding shimmering distant desert peaks; razor wire and palm trees with giant pineapple-like tumours high up their trunks under their dusty fronds animated in our tinted window-framed foreground. Goodbye to all this and that. An e-mail alert: our flight was delayed which meant our connector from Vancouver now became something of a slots SPIN button result. Ann’s weather app indicated we’d eventually get home to Edmonton’s freezing temperature amidst a snowstorm. There was nothing we could do except sit back and enjoy the somnambulant ride. What else could possibly happen?                                  


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced, inaccurate alternative source of travel writing since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

A LONG WAY FROM MANY PLACES

Apprehension and Disliking in Las Vegas (Part I)

Tuesday night Ann and I were a below-zero, pedestrian kilometre from Edmonton International’s terminal. The sodium lights of the park-and-ride lot shone like diabetes urine. Wind whipped driving snow into slithering, hissing snakes, Medusa before a salon appointment. The battery of our Honda CRV was dead. Ann’s iPhone 6 was adhering to Apple’s planned obsolescence protocol. Neither one of us was dressed for the dead of another Alberta winter. Our roadside emergency kit was snuggled safe and warm at home in the Crooked 9’s garage. We shivered, smoked, swore and giggled at our plight. Six hours earlier we’d been seated in the back of a long black limousine gliding by the palm trees that stand sentinel around the dangerously enlarged heart of the American Dream.

Descending to McCarran you wonder if the jet’s going to touchdown on the Interstate or an actual runway; the concrete strips pretty much abut, separated by a chain-link fence topped with coiled barbed wire. You hope someone like Clint Eastwood is driving your plane. I’d booked a sedan car to take Ann and me to the MGM Grand at the south end of The Strip, minutes from the airport but an impossible walk. I was expecting us to be met by a bored fellow in a black suit holding up an iPad screen reading MEGEOFF at the baggage carousel. Well, didn’t that initial Las Vegas fantasy get snuffed out like a cigarette in a cancer ward. Still, we were a pair of newly arrived magpies in the land of glittery objects.

The transformation of Las Vegas Boulevard began in the final decade of the last century. Consequently The Strip is lined with massive resorts designed to confine guests as voluntary inmates. The Grand Canal Shoppes (oh, please) at The Venetian border an inauthentic canal, that is to say the mall wasn’t flooded. Waterfalls, fountains, volcanoes, castles, pyramids, New York City’s skyline and the Eiffel Tower encourage gawping but not a vibrant street life. There is no scale here beyond huge, really huge and really very huge. The sidewalks and pedestrian bridges are populated with exhausted tourists who were unable to judge distances, ersatz selfie showgirls and touts pushing coupons, vouchers and packets of miracle epidermal ointment. You just want to tell everybody to shut the fuck up, move over and get out of your way because all you’re seeking is some personal space to breathe without being hassled and perhaps a contemplative white filtered Player’s. The MGM Grand hosts over 6000 rooms for rent. There are 10,000 or so hotel rooms in the city where Ann and I live. Your effete digital fitness bracelet will self-destruct before it can count all your steps to perdition in Vegas.

By departure day Ann and I had sort of figured out the layout of the MGM Grand whose exterior is lit a gorgeous emerald green after dark. A puffy Pete Rose was signing caps and baseballs at Field of Dreams in The District. Down in The Underground the America! shop hawked orange odious vulgarian 2020 re-election merchandise, hoodies, MAGA hats and t-shirts. The casino is ringed by television chef restaurants, Soandsomoto, the “Bam!” guy and Wolfgang Fuck. Across six lanes of traffic at the Tropicana, which has all the charm of a fading shopping mall on Edmonton’s poor side of town, somebody named Robert Irvine has elevated the noble public house by charging five or ten dollars too much for everything on the menu.

Smoking is equally expensive in Vegas because you can light up in front of a slot machine. Ann said, “I could get addicted to this.” I had to agree. Beyond the nicotine and free drinks, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and 007 were calling like the Sirens of Greek mythology. I calculate we gambled a century note of our own money, played with four or five times that and ultimately broke even. The sensory assault in a casino is enough to trigger epilepsy. There are music and sound effects, flashing, blinking lights, spinning wheels and rotors, stimulation carried on forced, canned air. “Would you like a massage while you play?” No thank you, please fuck off.

At MGM Ann and I found respite from the calculated punchiness outside in the smoking area to the right of the entry hard by the miniature dog park. I watched miserable, hungover guys leading their wives’ scratching diamond dogs, rats the size of cats. One morning I tried to overhear the conversation of two dreadlocked dudes in fashionable track suits. Their street patois was nearly incomprehensible. They were chatting over a breakfast of herb and Heineken. I made out: “My first Asian.” “No, man, she was Filipino.” They were soon replaced by a Hong Kong hipster who’d dyed the crop of his black ‘do copper. He was as skinny as a triple A battery, toothpick legs in black jeans, no socks, leather shoes, well-turned ankles. He smoked with his flu mask hooked over his ears even as his filter dangled beneath his chin. The local tourism bureau slyly trumpets what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. I’m not sure this is the case with infection and disease.                     

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced, inaccurate alternative source of travel writing since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

HUMAN WRECKAGE

You Say You Want a Resolution

Over the past twelve months I’ve kept a list of every book I’d read in 2019. This was prompted by my membership in a Facebook group dedicated to books and reading. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed upon review that my total only amounted to 29 because I’m essentially retired and I’ve got the time to enjoy a tale well told. In my defense, I’m nearing the completion of the first draft of a new novel of my own. Just have to write the rest of the words down.

I remember sitting down with a friend of mine named Mike in a Tottenham Court Road pub late last September. He was months into his retirement. He said over a pint, “I thought I’d be spending my days reading books and listening to music, but I’ve been busy doing other things, anything and everything else, in fact. I don’t know how I managed when I was still working.”

Yesterday evening Ann and I sat down at the counter and flipped through the operating system of the Crooked 9, our kitchen wall calendar. Memorable times were flagged by departure and return dates. There were my minutiae, left-handed and angled: “first robin,” “first snow,” “furnace filter.” Most days of any particular week had time blocked off for appointments, events, invitations and social obligations – too many funerals.

And hadn’t the remaining hours in each day quietly filled themselves with household tasks, chores and projects, and errands? We read our newspapers and magazines. We browsed the internet and binged on long form television. We took walks and we took naps. And Ann and I always found time to talk about it all, anything and everything.

I spend a lot of time viewing the world through the lens of the window pane in our back door. I don’t believe thinking – pondering, wondering – is a waste of time. Things get done, written even, in a silent, neurological way. The other day Ann said, “This is a good spot, I just might take it over.” Stand in my footprints, one size fits us both. Ann usually gets her cogitating done in the wee, expanded hours of sleeplessness. Maybe I’ll take a few minutes and create a sort of time-share back door window schedule for us. We can take shifts, punch the clock.

Contemplating the nature of my passing days, I realize that I’ve even enjoyed the time I’ve wasted. And that is a comforting conclusion to arrive at because at this stage of my life I know there are more days behind me than ahead. There are eight new books stacked on my night table. Should I be able to absorb and enjoy them at the rate of one per week, this impending new year suggests the promise and pleasure of 44 more just like them. Time permitting.    

meGeoff has been your most reliable, balanced, accurate and alternative source of nonsense since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.