Hot coffee and cold lavs

The bathrooms here are always freezing. But you forget.

At the back of the room, or down the creaking stairs and labyrinth of hallways, the doorway seems acceptable. There is usually a piece of art or an ornate mirror outside, advertising a destination similar to the warm, wood-floored, gently-lit cocoon of hot beverage drinkers you just left.

And then you enter, warmed to brimming with coffee or tea, skin flushed with the cosy expanse of heat. Unknowingly vulnerable. Because then it hits: the sadistic slap of cold. The freezing back-hander of the Toronto coffee shop bog. Smacks the happily caffeinated grin right off your face. And then blinking and gasping in the damp aftermath, the chill spreads over your skin. Cold and creeping, and you can barely think anything other than Get me out of here. And those few minutes freezes into forever. It makes your eyes water. Finally you leave, hands still numb from the gush of glacial tap water. Arctic cold and miserable.

This is their plan, you see: chilly customers need more hot coffee.

10 minutes with the yellowed man

I didn’t catch his name. He was a yellowed man: sepia skin and rust-coloured teeth in fractured stages of decay. Stained fingers curling like an old photograph. He spoke with a weathered tongue, consonants leathery and tough. Words left out in the sun too long.

But his face could still crack a smile.

He was on an adventure, out on a two-hour leave from the Addiction Centre. On this bus, then onto the subway to another bus to Scarborough to his old house: the house he’s pretty sure he’ll lose someday. There’s nothing in my fridge, he laughed. His son had taken out all the food. And his daughter had been trying to get his status upgraded to a Form 3. Not sure what that was, but it sounded bad.

Then fragments of stories about being locked up, surgeries, broken things: twenty years in a few minutes, aged and ugly and pockmarked.

He stopped and looked at the cardboard cup in my hands, asked about my coffee, how it tasted. It was actually weak and watery, and I had spent the five-minute wait for the bus inwardly whinging about its deficiencies. But I said it was good. And he grinned with a wide stretch of brown teeth.

He said the coffee inside there was terrible. De-caf served all the time: a grey-brown swill with no spark. Awful stuff. And just six cigarettes a day. But, before going in it was two packs per day. So there’s progress. A jubilant ochre finger upwards.

We reached the subway station a few minutes later. He left with my cup and a rusty smile. I left with something else.

Uninvited

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Never welcomed here:
Once a prison, once an asylum,
once both: no clear distinction
between violence and lunacy.

And then the closing. Windows blinded
and doors shut, sealed off from the
outside world. Sealed in from us.

We are uninvited,
not permitted to peer inside
the chilled and shadowed rooms,
not allowed a whiff of damp
or madness.

We remain unincluded
alone and isolated on the periphery
with our own dark thoughts, wondering.

Down the stairs

You’d like to think that you’re not scared of what’s down there. You’d like to think that it’s just another set of steps creaking down to just another basement. A bit of damp and dark.

You’d like to think that you’d be just fine starting the descent: foot on each groaning stair: one after another, one creak after another announcing your arrival, despite your soft-shoed efforts, your snapped-shut teeth, and your ever-clenched breath.

You’d like to think that there’s nothing waiting at the bottom. Just beyond the dim glow of the bulb, within the ring that dissolves into dusty darkness.

You’d like to think that you didn’t hear that noise just now. That subtle scratch, that muffled thud.

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My Julie Andrews moment

He stops me in the park, the man in the patterned sleeping pants and baggy sweatshirt, no coat despite the cold. Grizzled beard. Red patches on the cheeks. A face that has faced several lives.

After we exchange passing-by greetings he calls out, “You look like a nun.” A nun? I reply. Stunned because I there isn’t anything remotely religious-looking about me.

“That nun from ‘The Sound of Music’,” he chirps. With emphasis. With a brightness to his voice.

I laugh and we both keep walking away from each other, beneath the lightening winter sky.

After a few moments I realize that he meant the Julie Andrews’ character: the mischievous young nun that daydreams and sings and makes clothes out of curtains (which some might see as inventive or finding creative solutions to challenging situations…).

I smile. Maybe even hum a few bars.

Lakeless

There is no lake by Lakeview Avenue. No lake, no watery landmark in sight.

This street, with its stretch of Victorian houses in various states of disrepair. Red brick, yellow brick. Some with paint peeled back, splaying an onion skin of colours. Turquoise, aquamarine, and royal: the blues on this street do not belong to water.

The lake is ten or fifteen blocks away from this pot-holed street and boulevard of tattered grass. The only water collects in a few scattered brown puddles, into wet cracks where the pavement breaks. And then its blocks and blocks of similar streets, houses with suspicious or smug expressions. Some with shifted smiles or drooping eyelids; melancholic, remembering happier times.

Like when there was a lake closer by. Or at least it felt closer: a mad, furious bike ride away, houses blurring into the periphery; a soft, summer evening walk lit beneath pale streetlights.

When the city was quieter. When puddles were bigger and laughs were louder.

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A small sweetness

“Miss, would you buy me a piece of cake?”

The tall, heavy-set man had been ambling between the rows of tables, his gaze moving slowly back and forth, from face to face. He stopped at mine.

I had been typing away at my laptop, half-way through my second coffee. Today the ideas were liquid: a smooth ebb and flow. But they lacked a container, something solid to shape them.

I looked up. His sheer size blocked the light overhead. But I could see his face. Expressionless. Tired. If it wasn’t immediately apparent that he was harmless I may have shook my head.

“Sure, just give me a minute.” I grabbed my wallet. Left my words on the screen. “Let’s go.”

He shuffled to the counter. I followed. His rumpled coat clung to his hulking torso. Long, fat fingers dangled at the end of his sleeves. He didn’t say a word.

And then, after a few moments in line. “What month were you born?” June.

“So you’re a Gemini.” No, a Cancer.

A sweetness spread into the corners of his eyes. The trace of a smile. “I’m March. Aries.” Within seconds the vacant look returned. But there was a softness to it. Like drifting back into a happy moment from childhood. A birthday. Licking icing off the spoon.

“What kind of cake would you like?”

His massive finger raised and pressed against the counter glass. Holiday Gingerbread. A large, moist fingerprint marked his choice, then evaporated.

I ordered and paid. The woman behind the counter slid the cake slice into a paper bag, handed it to him. Said nothing. As the man grabbed it, I caught the warming scent of ginger and nutmeg.

And then he was shuffling to the door. Gone.

Back at the table, my words on the screen were still there. Waiting to take shape.

Mourning the little losses

For a week I’ve watched the moments pass. Made mental notes, promised to find a moment and set the words down, anywhere — in pixels or ink. I’ll get to that. After the party. Once the dishes are put away. When I can pop away from the conversation. As soon as I can get to my laptop. Before I go to bed. And day-by-day the ideas slipped. Dissolved into that opaque soup of possibilities that passes behind the glass.

And I cannot see in. Cannot shatter the pane.

This is one of the worst feelings as a writer: that some of those glorious ideas we put on hold or save for later will disappear. Vanish for good. Even though they once flickered and lived inside us; those little lights that announced their existence: ignored for long enough, they leave us. Often for good.

The perils of abandonment.

Apocalypse not

Tomorrow might be the end of the world. These words might be the last ones I write.

Drops from the sky

But am I worried? No. Because the Apocalypse is not upon us. The Earth is not going to explode into tiny fragments and disperse into the universe. Why? Because NASA says so. So nah, all ye doomsayers. Note: I would have preferred a statement by the lovely Professor Brian Cox, but that doesn’t seem to have surfaced anywhere.

Why oh why do we get our knickers in a twist about the end of the world? Every few years there seems to be a diabolical threat to humanity: from asteroids hurtling toward our precious planet to fire-and-brimstone judgement days sponsored by [insert religious cult here].

My theory is that we’re bored. We’re people: we get up, go to work, take care of our families, cook dinner, watch some TV. Every once in a while we go out with friends or take a nice trip. But the daily grind can get a little ho-hum. We need — perhaps crave — some distraction.

So, if one person interprets a “sign,” has a seemingly prophetic dream, is visited by an apparition, or somehow comes to the conclusion that our fair Earth is about to meet its certain end, well, a few people are bound to perk up. Armageddon — if anything — is exciting. And the better the story, the more quickly people will share it. And the more it’s shared the more people will believe its truth.

The end of the world gives us something to focus on. When there is no World Cup or royal wedding to look forward to, the Apocalypse serves as a handy alternative.

Yes, there will be fanatics. Which is both head-scratching and heartbreaking. We do not want to see believers inflicting violence on others or themselves.

Aside from this grim downside, there are actually some positive potential outcomes of our looming and ultimate demise.

  1. Builds community. All over the world people are talking about the Apocalypse. We all live on the Earth, and its end affects all of us. It brings us together in the spirit of collective finality. Plus, it’s a great topic to toss around on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.
  2. Encourages creativity. The writers and artists of the world have a deep, rich vein of subject matter to mine. Stories and songs and photos. Heck, it gave me something to write about today.
  3. Serves as a life wake-up call. There’s nothing like a looming Armageddon to make a person take stock of their life. Do I need to make some changes in my life? Am I happy enough? Should I learn to surf or play the sousaphone? Should I call my Mom tonight?
  4. Great excuse for a party. If anything, Doomsday makes a great excuse for some celebratory snacks and cool cocktails, no? If we’re all about to meet our glorious end, why not face it with a Bourbon sour and a smile on our faces?

If this is my last-ever post (and it won’t be), I raise my glass.

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