Thursday, June 26, 2008

The grocery whisperer

The new cashier at the discount grocery store knows he stands out from the rest. Dressed entirely in black, he's literally a stark contrast from the bubble-gum-outfitted cashiers, with logos spanning their asses, making saucy declarations like PINK and JUICY, that I try not to think too much about.

This market is the sort of work environment that thrives on chaos, where I suspect applicants are subject to a minimum decibel requirement, and it fazes no one to get knocked by a skinless lamb riding the butcher's shoulder on its way to the meat counter. Stock-boys clog the aisles, recounting tales of their weekends and things they did to piss off their girlfriends, not always waiting until you're out of earshot to say something that would further piss off said girlfriends. But this market, it's got its charm, and great sales.

I'm not sure how this new cashier got his foot in the door, though. He never wears anything but black. His pants, his shirt, his hair, his eyes, his piercing, all black. And yet, he's found enough common ground with the juicy pink cashiers that they've become his cheerleaders. "He's awesome!" one said for my benefit, fluttering her silver-glittered eyelashes, and he smiled an appreciative snaggle-toothed grin. It was just the opener he needed.

Apparently, her compliment was enough of an icebreaker that he felt a segue was unnecessary, and, turning to me, he said, "I'm an insomniac. I have trouble sleeping." Unconventional, yes, but I'd assumed the statement would be followed by some sort of qualifier, something relevant, so it wasn't yet a story I'd retell. But he went on, and without pause:

"I'm an insomniac because I suffer horrible, HORRIBLE nightmares, really awful nightmares, so I try not to go to sleep until I'm completely exhausted and just can't stay awake anymore, like physically can't keep my eyes open, and that way I'm just too tired to dream anything really, because it's the dreams that keep me awake, because of some messed up things that happened to me, like accidents and shit, and partly because I do that thing on Mount Royal where we dress up like medieval warriors and battle, which I love, but that combined with my memories and all the transcendental meditation I do, well it just sets me up for some pretty crazy lucid dreaming, but I take part responsibility for it as well because when I meditate I can communicate with both sides, you know, like life and death and I really like talking to the dead because I know not everyone can do it and the dead are just so wise because they've seen it all and they can travel back and forth from the physical world, where the rest of us are so limited, but they can go to the realm of the afterlife and come back with this cool perspective and I'm not scared of them, and usually they're pretty nice if you just open up to them, but I think most people would be, so that gives me an advantage. It's all about compassion, you know?" he said, and he smiled. I smiled back and thanked him, sincerely. He'd given me the gift of absurdity.

"Can I get $40 cash back please?" I asked, and passed him my debit card. He smiled at me like an old friend, and processed the transaction. "The colours are in your aura," he said. "I see you can talk to them, too, but more on that the next visit. I'm an insomniac, so I have lots of spare time."

All these years I've lived in Montreal, I thought, and brought visitors to gawk at one of Quebec's strangest subcultures - its anemic Conans and their Red Sonyas - battling in homemade costumes with fur appliqué and fitted leather loincloths, wielding styrofoam swords, swinging axes of plastic, protected only by their shields of cardboard, duct tape and hand-painted logos. All that time, I've just written them off as freaks and weirdos.

It's nice to be right sometimes.

IMG_7468, originally uploaded by djnoel.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Iron Maiden's maidens

When I agreed, last minute, to help a friend and work at Montreal's first Heavy MTL festival, I knew, I just knew there was fun to be had. I mean, I know basically nothing about heavy metal or its hardcore followers, so it was in the name of hilarity that I signed up, and brought a few friends along. When all was said and done, it was probably the most fun I've ever had working. I wish I could take my best friends to work every day.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Death, destruction and deprivation: A lesson in cat-sitting

Three times I've poked the cat to make sure he's dead. But every time, he manages to revive himself. Initially, I was worried because he appeared to be falling into bits, like the doomed goldfish I had when I was five, but now I'm finding swirling, autonomous clumps of him all over the house, like mogwai spawn. Gremlins. I have gremlins and I fear for my life.

I'm kitten-sitting for friends, while they bask in the sun on a beach in North Carolina, and it's not as easy as I thought it would be, what with all the death, destruction and sleep deprivation involved. The long-haired mini-beast appears comatose all day long, upside-down on the sofa, spawning more mogwai even while exhausted from meowing and playing cat hockey all night, every night.

He arrived with the promise to rid me of any mice I might have, and indeed I've witnessed his homicidal tendencies. A born killer, he sees every beating heart as a challenge to his reputation, and I find it quite unsettling that he watches me sleep. Every time I open my eyes, he's there. The way he looks at me, his dilated cat pupils could very well be the portals to Hell. I can't shake the feeling that if he had opposable thumbs, I'd be dead by now.

We didn't get off to a good start, and I guess that set the tone. I'd let him out of his box to sniff around, and gone to retrieve the rest of his rations from the car, for the term he's serving with me. When I returned, that long-haired, sadistic beast was ready and waiting, and within seconds, and without losing eye contact, he produced a foul grey mass from his throat, and all but gave me the finger. While I cleaned it up, he circled around, produced another and walked off. He'd only been an inmate for five minutes and already I knew he was trouble.

Day 5: I've accepted that there's been a one-cat mutiny, and relinquished control. He's beaten me down psychologically, with the gradual destruction of everything I care about. On Day 2, he pushed a ceramic pot from the window sill, smashing it and revealing to me its ridiculous contents (an anatomically incorrect bobble-head lobster, a dollar-store spaceman action figure, poker chips, an antenna adapter from the Eighties, craft scissors and a beer cozy). Gathering it all together under his watchful eye, I was forced to examine my lifestyle. On Day 3, he attacked the only remaining living thing in my apartment other than me, my starter basil plant. Next, he went to work on some electrical cords, and I was tempted to let him.

Diligently, he guards the windows, preventing my escape, stopping only to refuel so he can create increasingly vile gastro-concoctions for me, as I'm on latrine duty. And worst of all, he can't keep his filthy paws off me.

Perhaps the approach of the full moon has wakened his feral beast within, as I hear happens in asylums, because last night I got no sleep at all. For hours, he tore around the house, the sound of his terrible claws scratching the wood floor as he rounded corners in crazed pursuit of any one of a hundred objects he'd found.

Laying very still and quiet as to not encourage him further, I prayed for the madness to end, and I was very nearly able to retreat to the happy place that is my unconscious, until the big bang. Having survived the terror which ensued, I investigated the sound and I'm still not sure what caused it, if it elicited the attack, or simply served as a warning. Either way, upon hearing it, I opened my eyes and turned my head in time to see the airborne cat's silhouette, in full Halloween arch, flying at me. I barely had time to pull the covers over my head in defense and scream "Jeeeeeeeeeeeeezus!" before impact. "You've got to be kidding me!" was the next thing I said, with a pounding heart.

It's clear now, he truly wishes me dead. He should know, the feeling is mutual.

Monday, June 16, 2008

P is for Park, and Pervert

Dear PP (Park Pervert),

I'm not sure if the video will be for your private collection, or one of those voyeur websites I've seen, with videos of unsuspecting women on beaches in bikinis (and maybe a little nipple here and there), but I'm quite sure you'll be winning no awards for today's footage. If I thought you might, I'd ask for a cut of the profits. Or, a "thank-you" at the very least.

I knew it was risky to blog in a city park in a bikini, or to do anything at all in a city park in a bikini, and that's why I chose the predominately homosexual section, and sat away from the crowds. And I didn't shower or do my hair, but all that succeeded in doing was filtering out the sort of men that care about hygiene. Prime example of how practice can defecate all over theory.

After weighing the risks, there weren't any I thought I couldn't ignore for the luxury of a little vitamin D, not catcalls, drunken lurkers, nor UV warnings would deter me. No, I was going to indulge in one of nature's sweetest lunch combos, a sunny afternoon in the park, warm skin and a cool breeze. How relaxing, I thought, until you arrived. I was instantly and instinctively suspicious, something about the way you greased your man-boobs and splayed yourself under the sun like a giant fuzzy "X" just wasn't quite palatable, but I wasn't bothered enough to consider relocating. I was enjoying my sandwich.

Your awkward spy tactics gave you away and called attention to me. You did your best, but your best caused a ripple of concern to unsettle everyone in the vicinity and ultimately, I had to acknowledge you and gesture for you to stop, for the sake of social norm and my peace and quiet. No one actually believed you were videotaping yourself, not with the camera aimed high over your shoulder, the viewfinder turned so you could see what you were recording, me on your right, and that girl in short-shorts on your left. It would have been more convincing had you said something, as though you were making a video for a far-away relative or had you smiled as though you were taking still shots.

When you knew you were caught, you pretended to be surprised to discover that you'd "accidentally" turned the camera backwards, oh silly you, and that wasn't especially convincing either. I've baby-sat sneakier third-graders.

Going paparazzi on me, and running off, would have been a more considerate approach. Then, I could have gotten on with my day after little more than ten wasted minutes. But no, you opted for stealth too early in your career of "park pervery", and your skill-set doesn't complement your raison d'être.

I know it must be hard for you, perving out all by your lonesome in the big scary city, but I'm sure there are plenty of great women looking for a man with no allure, no tact, no respect, no hope at all, just a pant-load of frustration. Or has that not been your experience?

Either way, if you're wondering where you might be going wrong with the ladies, I may be able to offer a few pointers.

You could have at least stuck around long enough for me to take a successful picture of you (with that little camera in my laptop), taking pictures of me. But, alas, my skill-set does not match my sense of humour.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ghost in the latrine

"I think I have a poltergeist in my bathroom," I said over the phone to my best friend in London, and I was completely serious. It was the only explanation I could conjure on the spot, because what was happening just didn't make any easy sense, and the noise of it was distracting. Bang. Bang. Flop.

We were well overdue for catching up, and I wanted to give her my full attention. We'd pre-arranged this call (for Wednesday the 11th, two days before the only Friday the 13th in 2008), to circumvent the five-hour chasm between us. Last time, she cancelled due to a migraine, and a few times before that, I'd missed her call. And now, now there was a poltergeist in my bathroom.

What I was seeing was akin to special effects for low-to-no-budget films, something facilitated by someone's dad, and at par with footage from You Tube. And since I live alone in a multi-storey walk-up, on a middle floor, and my windows weren't open at the time, I was at a complete loss as to how someone's dad might've gotten in to arrange this.

I've played witness to strange happenings before, back home in Nova Scotia, so I didn't panic. My family's house there, according to local lore, is haunted. And if it's not, it certainly should be. Any old, wooden sea captain's house set in a fog belt on the windy Atlantic shore, near a cemetery with especially creepy grave markers (a number of which are inscribed with, "Lost at Sea") must have some restless spooks. Rot at least.

My old bedroom there was supposedly particularly haunted, and not by lovers. I was only sixteen for shit's sake. Anyway, one night, a school friend stayed over and while we chatted in the dark, a dim phosphorescent orb appeared near the ceiling in the corner of the room. I noticed it first, but I'd expected, for some reason, that it would disappear as soon as I mentioned it, or that she'd just suggest I had a cataract. But it didn't and she didn't and so we had to deal with it.

Not that it was doing anything disruptive (aside from showing up), but it's hard to relax with a glowing orb in the room. Incapable of conjuring an explanation of our own, we summoned my ever-rational, scientific-to-a-fault father to have a look. There we were, three of us in my bedroom, hands on hips, orb-observing. A minute passed before my dad, who always had an explanation, concluded, "Well, that's pretty weird."

It was the most unsatisfactory explanation he'd offered me as a child (of course, not including, "...because I said so."). I just couldn't let it go at that, and forced an explanation from him with a pout. He thought for a moment, and then decided that there was likely a phosphorescent fungus in the attic that permeated the ceiling in that one spot, causing the appearance of an orb - a yellowish, glowing, "pretty weird" orb. Or something. His explanation still lacked, but the orb didn't seem to be going anywhere, or doing anything, so my friend and I did all we could: We got over it, and went back to bed to talk about boys. By the next morning, it was gone, and it never reappeared. A crap explanation sufficed then, and I was sure, for my current situation, a crap explanation was all I needed now. Then, I could get on with my intercontinental conversation.

The loose ceiling tiles in the bathroom had been floating upward into the infrastructure of the building, and randomly slamming back into place, over and over. Bang. Bang. Flop. My brain did a quick scan for an explanation. Human error? That usually works. OK, me first: Was I nuts? Surely, but hallucinations aren't my style. Maybe, I thought, I have someone living in my ceiling like that guy in Japan who had a woman hiding in his closet for months. That's not so unrealistic, it happened. No, she could never move all those tiles at once. A fire. Must be a fire, I thought. Remember Backdraft? There was some vacuum action in that. Meh. That explanation requires evacuation, so ixnay. Next. Hmm. Perhaps the apartment upstairs blew away. No, now that's just ridiculous.

My friend waited patiently while I stuttered on the phone. "I don't know what's happening," I said. Then it came to me: "I think I have a poltergeist in my bathroom." There, that's perfect, I thought. There's nothing I can do about a poltergeist. Not my problem. And just as it happened after the incident with the orb in my bedroom all those years ago, we did what we could: We got over it, and went back to talking about boys. A natural transition really, because the appearance and behaviour of both still remain, to us, largely ill-explained.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Misunderestimated Supervillains (after last call)

"Is that for measuring my dick?" He aimed a dirty sausage-finger at the measuring tape on my costume. "Yeah, cuz it might not be long enough, harrrrrgh," his wing-man piped in, while the rest of their torso-heavy buddies formed a semi-circle around us and guffawed, as was expected. They kept piping it in, too, spewing as much crap as spittle, potty-mouthing to the max. Such is the norm after last call in the party-heart of the city, when you're a group of women dressed as Supervillains.

We didn't look particularly sexy, hilarity was our goal, but that didn't matter. We have heads and legs, and at 3:30 a.m. on The Main in Montreal, that's all anyone's really looking for in a woman. For this particular group of drunken frat-boys, encountering humans possessing both vaginas and costumes, in addition to heads and legs, was proving to be a little too much to handle. Likewise, encountering slobbery frat-boys shouting about each other's penises was a little too awkwardly homoerotic for me. Keep it in the locker room, I say. Tired, and at the end our night, we were in no mood to facilitate this verbal circle-jerk.

Still wearing our capes, we decided to cut our losses and make a run for it, succeeding in little else than calling more attention to ourselves. The catcalls didn't bother us, except that everyone assumed we were all variations of Wonder Woman, as though we're that uncreative. No, together we were the League of Misunderestimated Supervillains - the female contingent comprised of: The Bad Joker, powered by pun and with the frightening ability to kill any conversation, Feral Cat and her eye-averting sidekick Camel Toe, The Personal-Space Invader (me, equipped with the "invadable" space-measuring tape that caught the frat-boy's attention), and most tasteless of all, The Golden Showerer.

While, as a member of the ridiculous League of Misunderestimated Supervillains, it would have been nice to defeat the frat-boys, we were no match for their vulgar, drunken machismo. Especially not me, The Personal-Space Invader, because when it comes to guys like that, I'd really rather keep my distance.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Unaccompanied women

"Where did she get that travel bug?" My parents still live in the small, fairly traditional community where they raised me and field the question all the time. What people are really asking is: Why hasn't she settled down yet? No husband? No boyfriend? No kids? No husband?! No boyfriend?! No kids?!

And what they're thinking is: We always knew she was a lesbian...[pause]...or a slut. It's OK, though, there was a time my mom thought that, too. Now she knows I'm not a lesbian, and for the other matter, she's settled on the more general term, "free spirit".

Mom's called me worse things, but with saccharine laughter in select foreign languages, and for most of my life I'd assumed they were Polish pet names, so it doesn't count. What I didn't know, didn't irk me. It was her privilege as a parent. Clever of her, really.

My dad spent his quintessential Canadian youth driving gravel roads from Quebec to the Yukon with my grandparents, and later hopping trains across Canada, working on grain farms to pay his way, and riding freighters through the Great Lakes, so he's more sympathetic to my transient lifestyle/travel addiction than my mom. Though her father was an adventurer, too, after making the long, uncertain trip from Poland to Quebec before WWII, my grandfather seemed content to stay put and generally so does she. Try to get her on a boat, I dare you. (Actually, I take that back. I'd hate to be liable for your safety.)

The women in my family, two and three generations ago, they were the real wild cards. Bucking convention, they each ventured out on their own for love, education or professional development - whichever they wanted most. I'm sure their neighbours in that era of marriage and motherhood had a lot of questions, too, BUT - judging by the facial expressions of my great-grandmother, great-aunt and their friend in this picture, waiting for a train in the Eastern Townships - they probably knew better than to ask.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Guerrillas, Freemasons, Rastafarians and me: 60 days in Central America

I was just too tired to meet Subcomandante Marcos, masked revolutionary/spokesperson for Mexico's Zapatista movement, (EZLN). Besides, he's notorious for standing people up. My trip was already Jewel of the Nile-meets-Blood Diamond, and I wasn't going to go trekking blindly through the backwoods of Chiapas, after a 24-hour bus ride from Mexico City, to add a documentary to the mix. I needed to catch my flight home and sleep for a very, very long time.

It was nice of the Italian indie film-maker to invite me along, especially since this was potentially the most important event of her career, an interview she'd been trying to arrange for months. I'm sad to have lost the web address she gave me. Now, unless she makes it big with her film, I'll never know what I missed.

The whole thing was hush-hush, but I guess she trusted me because, weeks prior, I'd accompanied a group of Mayan Guatemalans to Honduras with Rights Action. We'd been interviewing human rights lawyers, health professionals and locals about environmental and health problems in areas where the Canadian company, Goldcorp Inc. operates (which had plans to expand in Guatemala).

I was pissed off, because (a) meeting kids with heavy metal poisoning sucks, and (b) all Canadians own stock in this company because our pension plan invests in it, and (c) I had no answer to the Honduran reporters' question, "Why does Canada allow this?" (Read here for the full story and pictures.)

While I complain a lot about Honduras - it being the only country in which I've been shot at AND accosted by pubescent boys (a veritable one-stop-shop for travel hazards) - after seeing what Canadian companies do there, as an unofficial ambassador I think I had it coming.

Off-duty after a final chaotic press conference, and with another month of travel ahead, I set out in search of my luggage, lost by the airline nearly two weeks earlier. Their nearest office was in neighbouring El Salvador, where I suspected my backpack might be. Getting it myself was my only hope I realized, when an airline rep asked to confirm that Honduras was indeed a city in Japan.

Just inside the border of El Salvador, with $5 in my pocket, I realized my bank card is only accepted in its major cities, and I wasn't anywhere near one. That made travelling alone and without a credit card all the way to the capital, San Salvador, a helluva lot more interesting.

First, I bought bags of water (the cheapest, not tastiest), bread and a few tomatoes, then I counted my change and hopped a decommissioned U.S. school bus-turned-public transportation (the cheapest, not safest) confident that, in a country with a per capita income of $2,656.90 (2006), I could make the trip on less than $5. Eight buses, ten hours of informal Spanish lessons, a few ounces of baby puke on my arm and several half-hearted marriage proposals later, I arrived in the capital with change to spare.

I was still doing the I'm-so-hardcore-I-rock-so-hard-at-cheap-travel dance at the United Airlines office when they delivered me my backpack (which, filthy and torn, clearly had a rougher trip than mine), and quickly switched to the I'm-so-smart-I-found-my-bag dance.

Intending to kick back and relax in tiny-town Tacuba, before meeting a friend in Guatemala and heading to Mexico for a friend's wedding, I ended up playing tour guide instead.

Habitat for Humanity had a new group of keeners in the area, and the family-run tour company was all out of English-speaking guides, so they asked me to co-guide and translate for a five-hour hike in Parque El Impossible - a great opportunity to pretend I know more than I actually do, and convince innocent do-gooders that everything in Central America is poisonous, for my own amusement. "¿Que dijiste?" asked the real guide.

Having firmly established my "in" with the family, I spent the next two days running errands in the back-country along the Guatemalan border where their helpers lived, and balancing first-hand accounts of the recent civil war from both guerrillas and soldiers. At the end, they offered me a job, so I left patting myself on the backpack.

Fast forward through two weeks of bus-travel, marred only by the presence of a Christian youth group, vomit, fire, mudslides and a suspected pedophile on staff at The Spring hotel in Guatemala City. We made it to Mexico in time for our friend's wedding, where she now lives with her artisan husband, a witch. Apparently, it runs in his family.

Among the wedding guests was her new friend, a relatively famous Belizean artist (a Nicaraguan refugee, whose family sent him to Belize when he was nine, after a nasty run-in with a land mine that claimed a toe, part of his sternum and a playmate or two). Always a sucker for the insider's view of a country, I accepted his invitation to Caye Caulker (where he was working on commission for local moneybags) to help with customer relations, my specialty. So, I packed a few things, and we caught a bus to Crazytown. I mean Misogynyville. I mean Crackcocainetonshire. I mean Belize.

I knew before we left that he was a Freemason and an alcoholic, but not that he was a temperamental, paranoid ex-Rastafarian and barely recovering crack addict with connections and debts to Belize's most loathsome. No, I didn't know any of that until I got there. But so goes Central America. If not for his straight-edge Japanese wife and her ass-kicking mastery of martial arts, he'd be lost.

"Don't ever, ever tell anyone what you are about to see," he demanded one evening, after a long day of painting and complaining that, for a woman, I was too bossy, and then carefully arranged an altar for some sort of Masonic ritual. What happened next was so overwhelmingly ridiculous to me, that I opted to just cover my head with a towel and wait it out. The crescendo of barks and moans made it difficult to think anything but this: If guys like this can actually tap into the powers of the universe, that explains a lot about the current state of the world.

I thought that a few times during my stay on Caye Caulker, and I didn't sleep well. Partly, because I had a healthy fear of everyone I met, and partly because the caged parrot outside my hotel room made sex sounds from sunrise to sunset, occasionally throwing in a "pretty bird" for good measure. The parrot knew the island's vernacular. I was surprised it didn't try to sell me drugs.

When I left, I did so declaring that someone would have to kill me to get me back there, and promptly regretted saying it out loud. Stopping only for Chinese food in the Free Zone (between the borders of Belize and Mexico), I caught the restaurant owner shoving wads of cash into a stuffed animal, averted my eyes and ordered the Belizean favourite, fry fish [sic].

The next day, I took a few antacids and jumped an internal flight from the army base in Chetumal to Mexico City, to make the final milk-run home to Canada, and that's when I met the ecstatic Italian filmmaker at my hostel. While I knew meeting the masked revolutionary, Marcos, would be an "experience of a lifetime", I wasn't sure I needed another one of those so soon. Not to belittle the Zapatista movement, but I opted for a long, hot shower instead.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Dating under the giant phallus

The Catholic church has overseen my last few half-hearted/no-hearted attempts at relationships, literally. The exact same imposing steeple was visible from each bedroom where I've played guest, a constant feature of my Walk(s) of Shame and an enormous phallic reminder that Montreal can be a very small pond.

Living here for more than a decade, I've somehow, accidentally reduced this vast city of millions to a dating-pool effectively as small as that of my former high school. Population: Me, my ex-conquests and their new girlfriends. Great.

The men I cut out of my photos are generally artists and/or musicians (by coincidence not preference, I've learned that lesson already), and they all live within 10 blocks of me. And they're good at what they do, or if not good, then at least prolific. So, even if I'm lucky enough not to leave my apartment, go for coffee or grab a beer at the same time as any one of them, they still find their way back into my home via some form of local media - radio, TV or free weeklies. When The Mirror referenced three ex-something-or-others in a single issue, my comfort zone started feeling a little lopsided and lumpy. Maybe, I thought, it was time to find a new one.

Besides, bumping into a local ex-conquest at the end of the night (the just-give-me-poutine-and-put-me-to-bed part of the night) really blows, because unless you make an obvious and cowardly detour, you'll be sharing the same route home. Just you, your ex, and his annoyingly cute new girlfriend in the skanky little outfit she wore especially for him because he likes how it makes her ass look. Ugh.

When it happened to me most recently, the smalltalk was staccato and artificially sweetened. I certainly wouldn't order it again, if that means anything, and I couldn't wait for it to end.

Just before all tact was lost, the familiar giant phallus rose into view - a foothill to a mountain of relief - and grew taller with every click of the heels that were killing my arches. It became my symbol of hope, nearly as its architects intended. If I could just make it to the church, I thought, then poutine would be just around the corner and everything would be OK.

I knew then, walking with these people I'd rather have avoided, that this neighbourhood (and everyone in it) is "home" whether I liked it at that particular moment, or not.

Poutine, originally uploaded by mttsndrs.