Entries in autobio (97)
On Saturday, the last day of the Blogher09 conference, at the Storytelling and Blogging panel, in a roomful of women who were there to discuss writing and creativity, I took the microphone and talked about a woman with a square head. I spotted her at the People's Party on Thursday night as she threaded her way around little knots of people. She held a glass of white wine in her hand and her neck supported the most geometric face I have ever seen. Not just a square face, with the mouth and chin peculiarly squashed, as if her head had been built to order by a slightly careless designer - but a downright cubic head. I wanted to lift up her hair and search her skull to see if she had corners and right angles.
It was a mistake to mention her. I was trying to describe my ideas on storytelling, and the way in which I would approach the story of the BlogHer conference when it came time to hack my way through the experience. I drew some laughs from the room, but I knew that at least a few of my fellow attendees would visit my weblog later, and they would expect an appearance from the square-headed woman. She went from a stray detail to a great square rock in the stream of my story, turning the flow of my narrative to chaos and foam.
Damn you, square-headed woman. And damn me too, who wanted to impress a roomful of women.
I wake up at 3:30 am Thursday morning to fly to Chicago. On the Regina-Toronto leg of the flight, I start watching Sunshine Cleaning. The flight lands and I miss the last 20 minutes of the movie. On the Toronto-Chicago leg, my wife watches the movie and describes the ending for me. As the plane begins to drop down from 38,000 feet, the moment of my birthday passes. I am 38. Seven hours from now the square-headed woman is waiting for me.
On Sunday afternoon we finally leave the hotel and walk out into the city. Chicago is much as I remembered it from my last visit in summer 2004: downtown streets like dried river paths through art deco canyons, the air suffused with muggy heat, homeless people stepping in and out of notice as they ask for change or emerge from under bridges. Everyone has cameras riding on their hips. There seem to be more Irish pubs than ever.
Twenty years ago my parents are driving me out of the city, along a gravel road so thick with grasshoppers that we seem to be splashing through them. It is my 18th birthday and I am on my way to a creative writing school in the country. Next to me lies a heavy Smith-Corona typewriter with an erasing ribbon and a golf ball head. Within a few days I will realize that most of what I write is pretty terrible. The square-headed woman sips her glass of white wine and takes a drunken step into the party ballroom.
Saturday evening and I am the impromptu judge of a contest at the Shutter Sisters suite, standing in front of a crescent of women and holding a plastic glass of red wine. The square-headed woman is 48 hours in my past. Next to me Stephanie Roberts holds up a book of photographs. Jen Lemen stands on a chair and calls out questions. Shutters click. Two hands go up. Someone blurts an answer. I put down my glass of wine and point.
At the MamaPop party the DJ puts on the last song of the evening. Friday night has segued into Saturday morning. The bar has closed an hour before but people still crowd the room. As the first notes of Lean On Me sound, a few dancers slip their hands around each others' shoulders and form a circle, an uneven, swaying, drunken organism that swallows the entire floor in seconds. I insert myself between Schmutzie and Lena. My drink splashes over my wrist as the waves of force in the circle break against my body. The lights go up and we wander out in search of more drink, set stubbornly against the end of the night.
I walk out of the People's Party on Thursday night in search of Schmutzie, who has vanished somewhere in the press of 1,000 conference goers. Women sling swag bags over their shoulders and swig beer with their free hands. I spot Schmutzie by a pillar, talking with a tiny woman in glasses and soft slipper-like shoes. The woman catches my eye as I walk up and we move into a long, easy and grateful hug. I have waited years to meet Blackbird, and the moment is just as warm and unforced as I had always imagined. As we embrace, a woman with the squarest head I have ever seen threads past us and disappears into the crowd.
For the first hour or so of the 3 hour bus trip from Regina to Saskatoon I thought we'd gotten away with boarding a crazy-free bus, but then the man in the seat behind me began to talk to himself.
I'd seen him earlier in the ticket queue, a slight fellow in a white shirt and black shorts, a thatch of hay-blond hair sticking out from under his black baseball cap. He had an air of politeness, even deference, that probably came from living in and out of institutions. A white crust clung to the corners of his mouth, and the skin on one of his legs was a bright ham-like pink crazed with white markings. From his pores puffed a haze of cheap alcohol.
I'd met and struck up conversations with plenty of people like this one, and I could already map out the course of our acquaintance: a few innocuous remarks that would eventually get a reply from me, and then the chopped-up biography, rearranged and presented for maximum pity. Eventually he would ask me for a cigarette, which I would have to decline (being a non-smoker), and he would wind down our brief friendship and start up the show with the next person.
It's not quite accurate to say that he was talking to himself on the bus. At first I thought that some machine or system had developed an edge or started to heat up, because I could hear a strange humming sound that reminded me of the air conditioner in my office. Gradually the humming took on a kind of rhythm, pulsing with patterns that felt familiar but just out of reach. The sound reminded me of mumbled incantations, the buzz of far-off voices. And then I realized that the noise was issuing from the lips of the man behind me. Worse yet, I knew that the sound was meant partially for me, that it was designed to lure me in to a long and pointless conversation, a psychedelic retelling of all the wrongs done to him. I ignored the sound and turned back to my book.
After a while the mumbling fell away and he started in with individual words. Some of them were responses to a conversation going on in the rear seat of the bus between a young man and woman flirting with each other by trading a series of lies (he charged a hapless jerk six bucks for a cigarette, she was facing charges for beating up her stepfather), other words seemed meant to describe interactions between particles in the air. Cool, he said at one point. Hah at another. I kept my mouth shut. Even the least hint of a response would be an opening.
Halfway through the trip he leaned forward and addressed us directly.
"Excuse me," he said. That's when I caught the light fog of booze enveloping him.
"Yes, how can I help you?" I felt oddly secretarial saying that, but it seemed to formalize the situation.
"What highway is this? I mean, is this the Number One"?
I weighed my response for a moment. We were not on the number one highway, the East-West corridor that runs the length of the entire country. We were in fact over one hundred miles from the Number One, and rushing farther away from it with every moment.
"No, this is Number 11".
"Okay," said the guy, and sat back for a moment. Then he leaned forward.
"Because the Number One highway is the Trans-Canada, right?"
"Excuse me again, but will this bus take me to Ontario?"
This put me at a bit of a loss. Ontario is two provinces over, a solid twelve-hour drive to reach its western border. This was either the most graceless conversational gambit ever, or I was dealing with someone whose mind had been emptied or everything but a few sticks of furniture and some cryptic notes scribbled on the walls. I pictured a wall stripped bare, with the cryptic imperative "GET TO ONTARIO" scrawled in charcoal.
"No," I explained. "We're heading northwest to Saskatoon. Ontario is east of here".
"Okay," he said, completely unfazed by the news that he was heading in the entirely wrong direction, "so how would I get to Ontario from Saskatoon?"
"You can take the bus back to Regina, or just head straight for Winnipeg. Or you could hang out in Saskatoon. It's a nice city".
My shot at humour set him cackling. "Okay man, okay," he said. "Thanks a lot". He sat back in his seat and resumed his strange machine hum of a monologue.
I'm getting on the bus again in a few hours and I won't be surprised if he's sitting there, asking people how to get to Ontario.
It's not often that a total stranger takes a sip of your drink and starts to hack and spit like he's just swallowed a beaker of the ol' hydrochloric, but then you're probably not me.
I spotted Mike early in the evening, sitting on the patio of the bar at a table of people he didn't know. It was clear, from the way that he was nursing his drink and glancing around, that he was going to end up at our table at some point in the evening, knocking back beers, smoking somebody else's cigarettes and entertaining us with well-rehearsed stories that may or may not be complete fabrications. Nearly all bars host these kinds of guys, whom I affectionately call The Itinerant Bullshitter. They're usually in town on some kind of business, they live somewhere more interesting, and they're itching to wade up to total strangers and spill their stewed biographies.
One of the strangest and subtlest of human senses is our ability to pinpoint a stranger in a crowd. Mike didn't look particularly different than the other people at the bar – a bit older, maybe, but the place catered to people from 85 to 18 (and younger) – but he was just different enough. He had a bulky post-athletic torso that seemed tucked into a set of skinny hips and legs. He wore a blue denim shirt and faded black jeans, with a blue and grey baseball cap atop a great cubic tanned slab of a head. The hat seemed to be covering up a neglected mohawk. He had probably been a very handsome man fifteen years ago.
After an hour or so people began to drift away from Mike's table, which left him alone and searching for others. Here's the thing: me and my friends were stuffed onto a set of converted church pews between the outer wall of the bar and the patio tables, with only a few feet of space between us and several tables of drinkers. We looked like spectators with boundary issues. Mike waved us over.
Come on and sit down here, he said, I've got a whole table here. Ill be out of your hair as soon as I've finished my drink.
I'm Mike, he said, extending his hand.
I'm Rod, Rod said.
Where's that from?
It's an Irish name.
Mike leaned back and swept his eyes over my face. You could see him tallying my features and running them against a roster of Irish faces he'd known.
But you're not Irish, he decided. You're no Irishman.
My father's family is Irish. My mother's is Portuguese.
That's it, he said. You're part Portuguese. My mother was Irish. Skin white as milk.
At that point another guy named Aidan came and sat down with us.
You see? Mike said, pointing at the other Aidan's pale freckled skin and coarse, ruddy beard. This one looks Irish.
Yeah, I've got a permanent tan going with my skin.
Mike glanced around and leaned in close. Have you ever been to Africa? He asked.
No, I said, because it was true, and because I couldn't think quickly enough to change the subject.
Go to Africa and meet a black man, he said. They are black, black, blaaaaack. Like, blue-black.
Okay, I said.
Not brown. Black.
I took a swig from my bottle of beer.
What is that? Mike said.
It took me a second to realize that he was looking at my bottle.
It's called Mill Street Porter. They make it with coffee.
Get out, he said. I started to think that every other thing out of my mouth would be the most remarkable and unbelievable thing Mike had ever heard.
Go ahead and try it, I said. It's good. At least I like it.
Mike stared at the bottle a moment longer, then tipped his head back and and poured a sip into his open mouth. A ripple of shock went up his jaw and popped in his eyes, then the beer erupted from his mouth. I can't, he gasped, I can't – then he got up and ran for the bathroom.
That was weird.
Yes, Rod said. But he sipped your beer like a gentleman.
Mike came back a few minutes later, having processed the situation.
I think I've got it figured out, he said. You're half Irish, half Portuguese. He pointed at the beer. So you like that coffee beer.
That must be it, I said.
Okay, he said, I'm ready for another sip.
In 1968 Garrett Hardin published an essay on overpopulation and resource sharing called The Tragedy of the Commons. The notion behind The Tragedy of the Commons is that a commonly owned resource will eventually become overexploited by its users, even it it's in no one's interest to have this happen. What the tragedy of the commons fails to address is that an easily accessed resource will eventually fill up with the batshit crazy.
For example, the bus to Saskatoon.
At the start of a long weekend, the buses are usually packed to bursting, but this time the bus was disquietingly empty, with only one in three seats filled up. It put me in mind of that weird urban legend, the one that claims that air disasters tend to have anomalously low numbers of passengers. Schmutzie and I sat in the back. This may be a safe place to sit in an airplane, but in a bus it's just a little too close to the bathrooms. It also means that you're sitting with people who worry about the integrity of their bowels.
Here's how the crazy broke down:
Name: Black Metal Man.
Crazy Level: Enthusiastic.
BMM was probably the best-groomed metalhead I'd ever seen. The metal fans and guitar torturers of my youth were scruffy guys with grimy sneakers and long, greasy/frizzy hair, so my optic nerve is unprimed for the ones with tidy haircuts and crisp Into Eternity t-shirts. It's the discreet tattoos and facial piercings that you need to look out for these days.
To be fair, BMM was not really crazy. But holy man, did he love black metal. Throughout the three-hour trip he alternated between reading a magazine about black metal, showing people his guitar, talking about black metal with the Well-Paid Christian, engaging in complicated handshakes with the Slow-Turning Giant, and rocking out to black metal tunes that I could hear tinnily but clearly pounding out from his headphones. Every so often he sent text messages on his phone, which no doubt expounded on the awesomeness of Dragon Force. He rocked out in his seat, nodding in explosive little bursts and occasionally shaking his fist whenever the song made a germane point about Satan or the Holocaust or whatever.
Name: The Girl Who Loved Music.
Crazy Level: Autistic.
You know you're crazy when the other crazies are staring at you. All I saw of the Girl was the back of her head, encircled by big noise-cancelling headphons, whipping back and forth for three straight hours. No one in the world has enjoyed music quite as much this girl. Even though I never caught her face, I could picture the blissful expression, the eyes scrunched tight against the outside world, the lips, mouth and jaw contorted into that ecstatic snarl. I hope for her sake that she was listening to some classic AC/DC.
Name: Mole Face.
Crazy Level: Jolly Serial Killer.
Halfway through the trip the bus paused for five minutes in the town of Chamberlain. All the smokers and snack fanciers filed off and a few passengers got on. One of them was a little girl, ten years at old at best, with a pillow, a Disney colouring book and set of glitter-barreled pencils. She sat across from us, next to a seat which, unbeknownst to her, contained Mole Face.
She set pencils, pillow and colouring book on her seat and went into the bathroom. Mole Face made his way to the back of the bus with a giant bag of chips and some beef jerky. He moved the colouring book aside and sat in the little girl's seat, then began to eat a strip of jerky. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: he deliberately sat in the little girl's place.
The girl came out of the bathroom and found Mole Face sitting in her seat. She stood in the aisle, too shy (and probably too scared) to say anything.
Hi there said Mole Face, grinning through shreds of jerky. He had a radio announcer voice, resonant and friendly. Five years ago, he might have even been a handsome man, before he started sleeping on bus station benches and slitting hobos' throats for sport.
I didn't know you were sitting here.
Yup. He continued to smile at her.
Sorry, whispered the girl, gathering up her things and moving to the front of the bus.
You forgot your pencil, the man called out.
She turned and removed the pencil from his hand. Mole Face leaned back and cracked open his big bag of Lays, luxuriating in easy cruelty.
I wanted to say something, but it struck me that Mole Face was that rare kind of person who could strangle you while chuckling at the memory of a Marmaduke panel.
The Well-Paid Christian.
Crazy Level: Totally Fucking Crazy.
The WPC is every traveller's greatest fear. Forget the risk of decapitation; enduring the WPC is a voyage-long project, and by the end of it you're the one with the itch to homicide.
He sat two rows ahead of us with a guy that I can only call the Slow-Turning Giant, a man who filled his seat and nearly bumped the ceiling of the bus cabin when he stood, with a gigantic shaven outcropping of a head. The back of his skull was decorated with different kinds of scars, which suggested that he'd been attacked from behind multiple times, because no one would be nuts enough to take on this geographical feature of a man face-to-face. He was also a man of great patience and restraint, because otherwise he would have beaten the Well-Paid Christian to a pulp.
The WPC was like a hyperactive dog that had just been rolling in a ditch. His arms kept flinging themselves out as he talked, and every statement ended in a dead serious Maaaan or a stacatto cackle of Ha! Ha! Ha! As far as we could tell, he had two topics of conversation. One was evolution, which apparently was a lie concocted and painstakingly maintained by Satan for the last six millennia. The other was his job, which seemed to encompass every duty in the cosmos and pay at least fifty bucks an hour, tax-free. Ten minutes later he repeated himself, but this time the job was even more remunerative at sixty bucks an hour.
You know that Satan buried all the fossils in the Earth six thousand years ago, man, he shouted into the Giant's ear.
I leaned over to Schmutzie. I bet Satan got paid like seventy-five bucks an hour to do it too.
And that's not taking inflation into account.
Yeah. So you know that's good money.
Name: Cheap Suit.
Crazy Level: Decapitator.
As weird as the WPC was, we knew that he was a distraction from the main event, a round-faced fellow in a cheap grey suit and a combover that looked like a bad toupee. He kept glancing back and staring at us, as if we were all potential threats. The damp air of desperation clinging to him would have elicited pity in another setting, but in the irradiated air of the bus cabin it produced a bracing wariness. I expected him to shoot the bus driver and take us all out in a ball of flame. Eventually he pulled out a newspaper, which brought down the ambient level of craziness to manageable levels.
And the driver was a jerk.