If I wanted to put a positive spin on it, I’d call the last month “lying fallow”.
That’s what I call it when nothing comes to me in the way of writing ideas.
And I only call it that after the fact – after the relief of getting something to write about.
Now ensconced in the city and sitting on the back deck with my morning winter coffee (reading Lights Out in Wonderland), it came to me not to wait any longer. In fact, in the spirit of “gotta use words” or just spitting it out, I decided to simply put down some thoughts on the last month, covering the transition from the burbs to the big smoke.
This has been more of a psychological transition than a mere geographical move of 25 miles.
It has been an editing of my possessions, a restructuring of my routine and a daily re-writing of lifestyle.
When I say an “editing of my possessions”, I mean it was time to divest myself of 5 years worth of accumulated objects. It truly was for practical reasons: space.
This was more of an adventure than I had counted on.
For example: the culling of dozens of books went fairly smoothly. Of course, I wanted to keep them all, but settled for ones I knew I’d keep picking up or had such personal significance that I couldn’t let them go. I surprised myself how quickly I could sort them into two categories. This box for keepers, that box for “I can live without them”.
The adventure began with finding a good home for these “unwanted” books. Libraries don’t want donations, used book stores are extremely temperamental about what they’ll take. With help in making loads of phone calls to various stores and agencies, a good place was finally found: The Handy Book Exchange. What a gem this place was. We met Andy who runs the store and is a testament to the saying “you can’t tell a book by it’s cover”.
I did not guess from his burly exterior that this man was one of the most knowledgeable people I’d ever meet about the history of publishing. How else would I ever have learned that Buffalo was one of the biggest publishing centers back when having a printing business made you a publisher. He’s also written for the Wall Street Journal.
He got seven boxes of books and I got a credit for buying books. A good home indeed.
I won’t even go into the divestment of clothes, furniture, and appliances. Thanks to the services of a number of charitable organizations, most of my “edited out” goods were picked up and distributed where they saw fit. Nothing went into landfill, but much was recycled.
It seems it is harder to get rid of stuff than it is buy it.
There were more adjustments than I had dreamed of. After all, I had lived in the city for 30 odd years and wasn’t expecting any big surprises. I’d forgotten how different it is to “get around” in the city compared to the burbs. Here, parking is a concern that just didn’t exist before.
Before, I took for granted that I could park wherever I was going. I’d had underground parking which meant weather wasn’t an issue. Car travel to almost any kind of place is as convenient as you could make it. But then you absolutely must have a car.
That’s the way they planned the suburbs. For cars and shopping.
Here you don’t need a car, but it’s congested and takes a lot more time to get around in much more tricky and stressful conditions. Every time I think about driving somewhere, I think twice.
Another surprise about moving away from my suburban town was all the people I’d got to know.
My little pick-up audience.
Most of the people I’d met and got friendly with I initially met through retail transactions.
When I first moved there, it didn’t take too long to settle on a few favourite stores and soon I was on a more than passing acquaintance with those who worked and served at these places.
I didn’t have a social network in this town and these folks soon became my familiar faces. Over a period of months, “have a good night” became “how is the work going? How is your family?”
One of my treasured memories is of meeting with a couple of great guys every Sunday night at the local all-night Metro grocery store.
Keep in mind that I was pretty much living a nocturnal life – see my previous post of Night Drives – and I was getting introduced to a whole strata of society that is alive and working all through the dark hours.
Even if there was no particular structure during my week, I could count on meeting Foti and Bryan at the Metro on Sunday nights. I’d either go out around 11 p.m. and drive up to the mall where the store was, or I’d be coming back from a drive in the country, writing and listening to audiobooks in the car. Either way, I’d usually meet up with the guys about 11:30 and they’d make coffee and take a break – just to talk with me.
Foti is Greek and a great scholar of ancient mythology and all things Hellenic. Bryan is a retired university administrator and hockey veteran, with a great affinity for Marshall McLuhan. His rec room is furnished with chairs and paraphernalia from the old Toronto Maple Leafs dressing room at Maple Leaf Gardens. I got to see it all when he invited me to a barbeque at his house.
Then Foti and his wife entertained me (with Bryan and his wife) at his place and now we had a regular social relationship. I have been to his place many times now, I’ve helped him with his computer, I know his kids, and we will keep this going. He’s a friend.
And then there was Music Girl. (I never knew her name).On my way out for my night driving, I would usually stop in at the local Starbucks. They play music in the background at Starbucks and often, if it seems “appropriate”, I will comment on it to the counter people.
One such person was a young 20ish woman who dressed a bit different, commented herself on the background music, and who was quick with a come-back line. It was fun, and a bit of a running quiz, to banter on about the big faves in her music listening. She would test me on my knowledge of bands like Japan, Television, Sparks, and many others whose albums I’d been around to buy the original vinyl of. A neat way to bridge a 30 plus year age gulf. I got a lot of free coffees and she would give me a hard time if I hadn’t dropped in for a few days. She would never acknowledge that she herself had taken some days off when I had been there and missed her. 20 year old brat.
A last example: the man whose name I never learned, who worked the cash at the local Esso station. Always overnight. He had been a lawyer back in Pakistan and often had a radio tuned to a local Pakistani radio station. He wasn’t just listening. He’d sometimes hold up a hand to me indicating “just a moment” and pick up the phone and call the station to take part in a live discussion. All in Urdu, so I didn’t get anything from it. Once, he suggested that I go outside and sit in my car and listen to him on the radio there – he was going to be on the air for a while and didn’t want me to have to stand in line at his counter too long. I did it. He also told me the best places to get Middle Eastern food.
Do I have to mention the strange ways we meet people? Do I have to mention the hidden stores of shared interests and feelings I’d found with people I’d normally not really notice? How everyone has their “stuff”?
This may sound obvious and ordinary but, really, my thought was that I was leaving behind a world and a “phase” of my life.
Kind of like I’d done my time in the wilderness.
Tibetan Lamas do a silent, solitary retreat of 3 years, 3 months, 3 days (approx) and then they go back to the monastery. Most people might think you go to a monastery for just those very reasons of solitude, isolation and refuge. For these initiate monks, going back into the monastery after 3 plus years of being alone and speechless, is more like my return to the city.
Once, on a trip to the beaches of South Carolina, I met a couple who had come from the mountainous interior of that state to cool down by the sea shore. We had gone there for the warmth. Same place, opposite attraction.
And I’ve had to travel back to the burbs at least once a week since moving. The first few times it felt like home territory. Once I’d cross a certain line – a certain exit on the expressway – everything would get re-oriented (I’d get a new compass). This was more real than my new place was.
But not for a couple of weeks now. I still know how to get around like second nature, all the right turns to make and what lanes get me there fastest. But more than ever, it’s where other people live. I’m still not a fish in water in the city, but the place lived in for 5 years has become a series of photographs over the horizon.
In keeping with the theme of this blog (can we come up with a better word? It’s starting to annoy me as much as “significant other” used to, and as much as the comment “nice!”, the conditional “that being said” and the misused and clichéd “iconic” do now) … in keeping with this blog theme, the last month has seen the end of one narrative and then nothing at all – except wondering if I was going to slip into my old narrative or wondering what a new narrative might be. Was I going to try to recapture something or jump from the cliff and see what happens. Well, inertia always wins with me and I bided my time.
Not that I did absolutely nothing. I poked around my favourite haunts, started shopping at the old markets again, cooking real food, reading a lot.
But the place wasn’t coming into focus. It was like every time I looked out the window either from my place or even from a car window, I would see places, people, scenes, through the lens of memory.
There is a young women who lives across the street and she comes out onto her porch for a smoke several times during the day. She did this 5 years ago when I lived in this house then. She’d been doing it for a number of years before then, starting soon after she’d left adolescence.
But when I look at her now, it’s like I’m going back in time. I’m not seeing her in the here and now, more like I’m playing back an old tape. It’s still her, the same porch, the same general view out the same window. Time doesn’t not seem to have moved on.
It’s like this for me, too, when I drive downtown on old familiar streets and see glass and steel condos where two-story shops used to be. I do a translation in my mind where I see the old shops first, then transpose the new buildings over them. It’s like I have to see the original picture and then do an update to see the new, real, streetscape. “Oh yeah, there’s where that favourite restaurant is. Used to be. There’s this new ugly condo.” That’s the process. It’s like I’m using old film.
I expect this will change. I’m maybe just stubborn and refuse to see these undesired changes. It will take some doing to get used to a lot of old familiar funky spots being replaced by those shiny condos. There is a lot more looking up than looking in.
And a lot of just plain old wrecks of stores around town have been “cuted”- up” – you can smell the renovation bill.
Some places have defied gentrification: the downtown Chinatown and Kensington Market, where every ethnic group has started out.
So, what’s been keeping me occupied all this time in transition. Reading, cooking, keeping 2 cats separated, figuring out the recycling and garbage scheme. That’s what.
I’ve stayed in the house a lot more than I thought I would. Maybe only to adjust, like a diver decompressing.
1. In the Lost and Found by Elliott Smith fr: Figure 8
2. Real Emotional Girl by Randy Newman fr: Trouble in Paradise
3. One More Town by The Kingston Trio fr: The Capitol Collector’s Series
4. A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square by Roger Kellaway fr: I Was There