Sunday, 30 August 2020

EAT ME

Pandemic Palate

Ann said a couple of weeks ago, “You know, this time last year we were on the Island.” I thought of eating lobster rolls by the water in Summerside, under no illusions about the meaning of “market price” on a creased and sticky laminated menu. And wasn’t the crab and lobster club at the local pub in nearby Kensington a sandwich worth flying across Canada for?

This summer has been very different. Ann and I booked four months in Porchtown, an exclusive resort conveniently located a single step outside the front door of the Crooked 9. Drinks are cheap and you can smoke as if the end of your life depends on it. I’ve been lagering a lot of time there, enjoying the street life serenade – especially when it rains.

There’s a monstrous, obese house across the street, erected before sub-dividing standard lots and throwing up a pair of skinnies became all the ugly rage. It’s painted a bluey-grey, a colour I associate with an east coast cottage, an Atlantic Ocean shade. The place is all right to look at except for one niggling thing. There’s an octagonal alarm company warning sign resting on the sill of one of the front windows and more often than not it’s tipped on the wrong edge. Sometimes I’m tempted to break in just to set the sign straight. Give it a nudge more than a good talking to. So I stare at that sign frequently and while I’m doing that I see other things going on.

Our neighbours receive more callers than our local drug dealer. They’ve all been summoned via a delivery app. I’m pretty certain Amazon Prime delivered their three children. I know their Skip the Dishes guy by sight. If it wasn’t for him, they’d starve. And he would too; I’ve read some alarming statistics about gig delivery drivers grazing on their customers’ meals. Last winter a waitress in a pub Stats Guy and I favoured for our Tuesday Night Beer Club outings told us that management quickly figured out that an app to-go meal was way different than standard take-out: carrier bags required more staples than a fresh surgical slit.

Last winter, cast my memory back there, Lord. In February Ann and I read about a weird viral outbreak in some remote Chinese city in some remote Chinese province. I thought, “That’s nice, something like ebola or zika on the other side of the world. Who cares? Anyway, I’ll take pastrami and salami over wet market bush meat any old time.” And then the tempo of the news changed, the stories were increasingly urgent. Ann and I compared it to watching a storm gather in the western sky. Thunderheads billow and bubble up. Sunlight takes on a harsh metallic hue. The twilit sky reels a seasick green.

When things became really weird we turned pro because we had to. The most mundane tasks beyond the confines of the Crooked 9 have become missions. Some days neither Ann nor I feel particularly motivated to embark on a grocery store adventure. Some days we’re not particularly inspired by what’s on hand in the fridge and the pantry. And some days the prospect of just eating because needs must looms like a tiresome chore.
Our shabby commercial hub is a 20-minute walk away, across the light rail tracks, past the elementary school and the fire hall. The old IGA grocery store is some sort of rainbows and unicorns daycare facility. There’s a mom-and-pop convenience which sells dust and penny candy beside it. The hair salon became a nail salon because they grow faster. The creepy, nosy pharmacist whose voice carried from his elevated perch at the back of his space pulled up stakes. The bank has been sub-divided into medical offices.

The saving grace along the avenue has been an Indian restaurant called Coriander. Ann and I have been sweating its survival. Opening an eatery at the best of times is risky enough. Before Coriander could even establish its presence in the neighbourhood, the City tore up the street, a months-long reclamation project. About the time Coriander had finally managed to acquire its liquor license covid-19 hit.

Ann and I have phoned ahead for pick-up three or four times these past six months. We don’t mind the hassle of collection because we know an independent food delivery service isn’t skimming Coriander’s revenue and our Tandoori chicken. But we can’t eat Indian food every day although I suppose Indians do and don’t give it much thought.

Around the corner from Coriander is Campus Pizza, a local institution. The current and third owner drove delivery for the second owner who in turn had cooked for the founder. Not exactly a family-run operation, but pretty darn close. Campus, like Coriander, has faced its own challenges. The street was a trench for an entire summer of course, but then a pipe burst after the new asphalt was steamrollered, flooding the space and forcing an extended closure. Once Campus reopened Ann and I bided our time because, gee, there had to be something in that water; best wait and see if our neighbours get poisoned.

Part of the attraction of Campus Pizza is that there’s just the one shop; there always has been and there always will be. It has meaning on the south side in the university district. Ann and I don’t order the ‘House Special’ from a multinational logo. No polyester uniforms in this corner joint. As well, the toasted subs, especially the meatball and the Italian, are exquisite sandwiches. Campus donairs are decent enough although the crucial sweet sauce seems to exist more as a descriptive menu detail rather than an actual condiment. Sweet sauce is essentially evaporated milk and garlic and it pairs nicely with the spicy meat, essentially congealed abattoir floor sweepings roasted on a spit.

The logical albeit impractical deliverance from my donair dilemma would be to layover in Halifax en route to Charlottetown and graze downtown on the fast food slope between the citadel and the harbour. Not this year. Thanks to Ann I’ve stumbled upon a made in Alberta solution a little east of us on the other side of the Canadian National Railway freight tracks. Burger Baron is a local operation with few links left in its chain. The industrial park drive-thru is always open. Ann enjoys the Baron’s mushroom and Swiss cheese burger and the onion rings. Lately I’ve been augmenting my donair order with a side of hamburger or hot dog. It’s possible that this pandemic will not end well for my waistline.

Some things stick with a person throughout their lifetime, like a hearty stew or heartburn. Ann and I were both raised to appreciate that food prepared outside the household kitchen is a treat. And treats by their very nature are infrequent indulgences. While we can’t imagine donning masks to be seated on site inside a restaurant neither can we imagine daily Skip the Dishes deliveries. So maybe covid-19 hasn’t affected our dining habits all that much.

Summer is winding down. We have missed taking our holiday and eating food prepared in different establishments a long way from many places. “Then again,” Ann reflected recently, “we’ve really utilized our patio this season – when it wasn’t raining – which is surprising, all things considered.” We have safely hosted small parties of relatives and friends. The socially distanced pleasure has been such that I even enjoy cleaning up afterward. Though I have missed my Tuesday evening chicken wing summits with Stats Guy, a bachelor, we’ve been able to feed him proper cooking a couple of times.

Yesterday morning Ann said, “We’re getting into soup season.” Last night’s supper was homemade chicken noodle soup mildly accented with a dash of smoked paprika. There’s no app for a bowl of that.       
             
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of processed food advocacy since 2013. Don’t sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9, stay safe.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

SAINTS PRESERVE US

GOP-smacked

Canada’s most charismatic prime minister, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, once remarked that neighbouring the United States was akin to sharing a bed with an elephant. The elephant is the mascot of the Grand Old Party (GOP), a recognized Republican symbol. Sunday’s news from south of 49 suggests an elephant not only rolled over but started sleepwalking.

I’m not a political news junkie but I keep an eye on Canadian machinations because it’s my civic duty to be informed. As such, it’s impossible to be blind to the executive, legislative and judicial chaos rampaging through the United States; ripples and shockwaves spilling over the border and signaling the decline of empire. No surprise then Republican conventioneers acclaimed der Trumpenfuhrer as their candidate in November’s presidential election.

With apologies to Erin O’Toole who won Canada’s Conservative Party’s leadership race in the wee, wee hours Sunday following a botched vote counting procedure, the night’s big news was the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) declaration that the GOP had zilch for a 2020 election platform. Not a plank. The cadre is prepared to live and die “enthusiastically” with the odious vulgarian’s erratic twitterpations as policy.

The RNC cited the covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for its collective cranial cramp. Yet this intellectually vapid rationale was somehow mildly reassuring. It suggested that the GOP’s backroom operatives recognize the disease for what it is rather than a hoax perpetuated by donkey-riding socialists. It also signaled an existential surrender of sorts. Since der Trumpenfuhrer and coherency pair as well as Comrade Xi and Guns n’ Roses, ‘Chinese Democracy,’ why bother doing the work? The buffoon will go off message the moment he purses his lips in front of a microphone.

Another possibility intrigues me but I can only speculate. What if the lack of a Republican election platform was in fact an invisible plank of a soft coup? What if the RNC has quietly decided that the orange man, his convicted cronies and his spawn are hogging too much space in the elephant’s clown car? What if the brains in the party organization are playing a fatalistic long game: concede the 2020 White House to the Democrats; irradiate the elephantine Republican brand cancer from Queens, and meanwhile, gear up for 2024. There’s got to be at least one Republican backstabber in that divided country who’s looking forward, desperate to launder the soiled sheets of the GOP.     

 meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of political commentary since 2013. Don’t sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9, stay safe.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

HUMAN WRECKAGE

Keeping Records

On the occasion of his twenty-first birthday, July 6, 1886, Edwin Moore, a resident of the UK port of Bristol, was presented with a family bible by his father Cecil. That heavy and relatively ancient tome now resides in a cotton pillowslip on a closet shelf in the Crooked 9.

‘Brown’s Self-Interpreting Family Bible’ by the Reverend John Brown, Minister of the Succession Church, was printed and bound in Newcastle-on-Tyne. Its black leather cover is embossed with gold. The great book stays closed with two ornate hinged brass clasps. The colour plates depicting biblical scenes and the flora and fauna of classical Palestine are softly rendered. The type is set in two wide columns with smaller annotations to the text running flush left beneath them. While I cannot vouch for the content of the gospels there is historical context too, such as an essay describing the Jewish laws and rituals of that time – as they were understood nearly 2000 years later. The Moore bible is a relic from an era when printing was truly an intricate craft process.

The second guardian of the book was Edwin’s son Leslie, my grandfather, who was born in 1891. Under his care the bible arrived in Montreal in a steamer trunk aboard a Canadian Pacific ship about five years before the outbreak of the First World War. Like his father’s, Leslie’s handwriting on the blank pages provided for recording births, marriages and deaths is stunningly elegant. My father Stephen’s birth in 1924 is recorded in a finely wrought script.

Generations come and go, as they will, as they must. Life adds up. To keep our family’s records up to date, Stephen, now living in Ottawa, began inserting information into the Moore bible on his personalized stationery. Alas, my father’s final entry before he died was the death of his eldest child in 2012, my older brother Robert, born in 1951. Consequently I have become the placeholder, the temporary secretary, our family’s current record keeper.

My father once instructed me to avoid cursive whenever possible - time and circumstances permitting. To write a figure eight as two circles, like a snowman. Printing was so much neater and precise than handwriting. I have compared Stephen’s printing and Robert’s printing to my own printing and it takes a moment to tell us all apart. They were both right-handed, engineers; I’m left-handed smudge and drag.

I cannot put down a sentence without an ascending or descending arc on unlined paper. Tucked into the bible amongst the sheets of my father’s stationery I found a sheet of graph paper. I realized how Stephen had made his entries. A horizontal sheet of graph paper underneath a plain vertical sheet of paper provided guidelines for the straight edge of a ruler. I noted too that Stephen had recorded deaths in black ink and the balance, the good news, was in blue. “Got it, Dad.”

Stephen’s death in 2014 was the first of the four black entries I’ve had to enter into the Moore bible. I find the task solemn and intimidating. I pull the bible from its shelf and place it on the dining room table. I stare at the white rectangular lump for a week. I double-check dates, names and spelling. I practice printing them on a pad of graph paper of my own. I make certain there’s enough ink in my particular preferred pen, black or blue. I believe this is an important task and ritual for our family in this disconnected digital age, we need to understand how we got here and from where.

The modest grace is that I’ve been able to add one blue note. Late last fall my late brother Robert’s son Harry, born in 1988, married. Harry is destined to be the fifth guardian of the bible and he is its rightful keeper; our future family archivist is the eldest male of the eldest male. Harry and his wife are preparing to welcome their first child in October. They have chosen a given name. I was delightedly stupefied to discover that their proposed name was already in the Moore family bible, an entry dated November 2, 1896. I expect to write it down a second time 124 years later, in blue.       

 meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of memoir since 2013. Don’t sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9, stay safe.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

SAINTS PRESERVE US

Secret Worlds Awry

The recent news footage from Portland, OR has been passing strange. On my own one evening eight years ago in Ottawa, ON I bought a ticket at the Bytown Theatre’s box office for an absurdist European sci-fi film called Iron Sky. The film’s premise amused and intrigued me: Near the end of the Second World War the Nazis, aided by their expertise in primitive rocketry, established a secret base on the dark side of the moon. They bided their time there until it was opportune to invade the United States whose sitting president in the movie is Sarah Palin. Her Oval Office d├ęcor triggers a cringe reflex beyond Tina Fey’s devastating condemnation of her foreign policy expertise: “I can see Russia from my house!” Iron Sky’s Nazi space costumes are eerily similar to those worn by federal agents in Portland, masks included: I’ve seen all this before.

America’s existing security and intelligence apparatus is massive and massively expensive. Buckle up, here come the deep state acronyms: the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the ATF (an E for “Explosives” is a recent addition although it’s yet to be absorbed into the existing vernacular acronym) and the DHS (our friends in Portland). Each of these agencies has their particular mandate and jurisdiction. But they compete for budgetary allocations and their duties frequently overlap and so they tend not to scheme well together; they don’t like to share. Remember too that the various branches of the military have their own intelligence services. Realize too that any form of intelligence is both a commodity and a weapon and it’s been privatized, there are contractors.

Canada’s security services include the RCMP, CSIS and the CSE, sometimes CCSE – which did not officially exist until recently, even though it always has, and whose budget remains a state secret. The United Kingdom’s watchers and eavesdroppers include MI5, MI6, the NCA and the GCHQ. That’s how a few of the good guys line up. The bad guys of course possess equal and opposite agencies.

Little wonder then that the secret world is Klondike gold for writers, readers, filmmakers and filmgoers: lodes of material, big brother. Of course, any largely unaccountable and entrenched bureaucracy manned by paranoid apparatchiks is easily mined for parody and satire. Pandemic Netflix evenings here at the Crooked 9 have lately been filled with a sub-titled French production called A Very Secret Service (Au Service de la France).

The series (two short binge-worthy seasons) begins with the recruitment of a young agent into the French secret service. He can never know his job description because that is confidential information. This is satire in the vein of Our Man in Havana and The Tailor of Panama rather than Get Smart, Austin Powers or Johnny English. And because it’s French, there are rich dollops of pathos and existential angst.

It’s the dawn of the swingin’ sixties. The Cold War could very well turn hot. France is attempting to exert her influence in post-war Europe and retain it in her African colonies. The ghost of the Vichy regime hangs in the air like an alcoholic fog. But the times they are a-changin’. The new recruit is mentored by three more experienced colleagues and together they bungle enough missions to precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs and the overnight construction of the Berlin Wall. The dirty work is conducted with a haughty arrogance and for the greater glory of France and General de Gaulle. The plot of each half-hour episode is not so far-fetched; the agents smoke and drink a lot.

A fair number of Canadian viewers will suffer laughter hernias when the FLQ delegation turns up at headquarters seeking the Deuxieme Bureau’s aid in their fight against their Canadian oppressors. Parisian French meets Quebecois joual: “What language are they speaking? They’re like the Africans. And yet they seem to understand us?”

Farce, be it crude or sophisticated, is something best experienced through an arts lens. Something silly could’ve happened. Something silly could happen. Farce is something of a participle, past or future, not present. Should farce unfold in actual time in a Portland place or behind the barricaded fences of an international landmark like the White House, well, it’s too absurd to be funny.
           
meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of paranoia since 2013. This blog post will self-destruct in five seconds. Don’t sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9, stay safe.