These are the stories that were told on January 23/24 2021.
[Peter Bowman is a Mohawk College graduate who studied advertising, print journalism, radio and television in the class of ’72. He served five years as President of the Tower Poetry Society, the oldest continuous poetry collective in North America, which began at McMaster University in 1951. He has served on the Board of Directors for the Dundas Little Theatre. He has appeared on stage with Hamilton Player’s Guild, Hamilton Theatre Inc., Village Theatre Waterdown, The Pearl Company, and Dundas Little Theatre. He has written many articles plus a weekly column on theatre and the arts for The Dundas Star, The Dundas Valley Journal and The Dundas Review. He has been a contributor to CBC Radio and Reader’s Digest. He also drove a truck for Purolator Courier Inc. for thirty-five years.]
“Blue Monday” by Peter Bowman
Oh Man! Christmas was so much fun! And now, as I sit here at my window, after Christmas was over, watching the mailbox has become my pastime and my enemy. I know. I overspent on Christmas. But it was so much fun! Watching my daughter and my son-in-law and my grandkids opening their presents on Christmas morning. The squeals of joy were everywhere, from all corners of our living room. With the tree lit up next to the television. With the Christmas music playing. Jenny tore all the wrapping paper aside, tossing it on the floor to reveal her first very own iPad, to do her schoolwork with, we hoped. Johnny got more Lego than he could ever construct an entire city, with skyscrapers, trucks, cars and little people rushing about doing their shopping. Elizabeth got a brand-new dinnerware set for eight, including a tea pot, teacups, saucers, and a crockpot. And Frank, he always did want that red Mastercraft three-drawer toolbox. Christmas had been so much fun, but now, oh man, it’s over. And it’s time to pay the piper. We saved as much wrapping paper as possible. And we gathered all those Christmas bags that we bought from the Dollar store. We carefully put it all away in the storage closet so we could cut down on costs for next year. Ha!
And then we sat down at the dining room table with the tablecloth as pristine as the fresh fallen snow. The turkey, smelling like heaven, was placed at the head of the table, looking golden brown and magnificent, ready to be carved. All the extras were there in glass side dishes, there was stuffing, cranberry, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy, roasted carrots with brown sugar, parsnips, turnips, water chestnuts wrapped in bacon, and then our famous jellied salad that was always left behind in the kitchen, as an afterthought. After dinner there was apple pie complete with a slice of old cheddar cheese, cherry pie, ice cream, coffee, tea, wine, and a glass of beer.
So now, after everything was packed up and put away and the kids were bored again, what’s a grandfather to do? What’s a grandfather to do, except, sit in his favorite spot with his arms comfortably placed upon the arm rests of his Lazy Boy, his head tilted back slightly, his feet dangling over the edge of the footrest. What’s a grandfather to do? All he must do, I tell you, is sit and wait and watch the mailbox at the end of the driveway. Wait and watch for that mail man to skid and stop in his dinky little mail truck in front of our driveway to deliver the dreaded credit card statement that would arrive as sure as, as sure as, Christmas!
Days would pass. Weeks would pass. How wonderful it was to watch the little postal truck glide by in the snow like a one-horse open sleigh going merrily on its way. No news was always good news. Occasionally, the postman would stop to stuff flyers, undoubtedly from Canadian Tire, or Ikea, or Subway, into that small half-circle of tin space already crammed with flyers from days before. I didn’t check it every day, you see. But that perverse mailman would always gleefully honk his horn on the day when my credit card statement arrived just so he could watch me cringe and sink into the depths of my chair.
So, I would sit, waiting, wondering, thinking instead about more pleasant things, like when might my Canada Pension cheque arrive? Would we be getting a raise this year? I never pay attention to the Speech from the Throne or the Budget or the Prime Minister for that matter. Or, I would think about when my Old Age Security cheque might arrive. Certainly, we would be getting a raise with that, in the New Year. And my company pension cheque, I would never get a raise from those stingy people.
I would try to calculate and recalculate the monies I would be receiving from all three pensions in my head, but my head math is very poor and impossible when dealing with three- or four-digit numbers. I would try to remember all the monies I had charged on Christmas, but it got to the point when I was shopping, I just didn’t care anymore. Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes. Spend, spend, spend, get it done. It’s Christmas. I did save all the receipts like a responsible shopper, but they all seemed to end up in a rolled-up ball at the bottom of my winter coat pocket.
So, I watched the mailbox. Hoping against all hope that the fateful day would never arrive. That the credit card statement would be lost indefinitely in the mail. Hoping that even Santa Claus himself might somehow help me for helping him do all his shopping. I wondered if he appreciated all the time I was saving him. If only he could have given me his credit card with that little three-digit security number on the back.
Was I blue? No. I was red. I was in the red. Maybe that’s why Santa Claus’s suit is red. He wants me to be in the red too. All year! I was spiraling in my Lazy Boy down to the depths of my cushions. I was trapped in the blues. I started listening to the blues. I listened to all the blues masters, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Gary Moore, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton. All the greats. Nothing helped. I even wondered if the blues masters had credit cards? Did they overspend on Christmas? I couldn’t shake it. I was feeling down. Oh, how was I going to pay for this enormous debt that I had racked up? On top of last year’s debt! Oh man!
As I held my head in my hands in my Lazy Boy, I heard the distinctive honk of the postal truck coming down my road. Actually, it wasn’t just one honk, it was several honks, over and over, like a parade of postal delivery trucks surrounding my mailbox delivering a frenzy of credit card statements.
I watched the mail carrier step out of his vehicle, the exhaust spewing white clouds into the frigid winter air. He waved and grinned at me devilishly as he almost slipped and fell. I wished he had. Don’t shoot the messenger, they say. Can I at least shoot the mailbox?
The postal truck snowplowed away leaving a dirty black oil cloud in its wake. The blackness hung there, surrounding our mailbox, like an omen bringing bad tidings. I sat in my Lazy Boy for half an hour letting the exhaust clear. I sat there another half hour dreading the walk down our sloped drive. To the blackened mailbox with the snow piled on top of it and the red metal flag raised to indicate that doomsday had arrived. I knew, waiting amongst those red, green and blue soggy flyers, would be that bright white envelope with a smiling transparent window bearing my name. I donned my winter boots, the ones with the holes in the bottoms that would wet my socks so that they would fall inside my boots, below the heels of my feet with the most uncomfortable of feelings. I donned my winter jacket only to feel the giant wad of forgotten receipts in my pocket. I plodded down the long snow rutted driveway only to return up the driveway slipping and sliding with a bundle of soggy papers in my bare hands.
Finally, once again I relaxed on my Lazy Boy, eating three leftover Christmas cookies I had saved just for this moment, nourishment after a long struggling walk. Then, in a sudden flash, I delved into the soggy bundle that was on my side table, pulling out the white envelope, looking at both sides, examining the address, hoping that there might be some little discrepancy. Then forcefully, using my right index finger, I slid it under the flap, slashing the envelope so quickly it felt like ripping a bandaid off a cut finger that I may have obtained from opening a credit card statement from the month before. Now, with it open, my eyes immediately ignored the total amount spent at the bottom of the page, along with other spending indiscretions. My eyes darted to the section with the due date and minimum payment that they would graciously accept along with a simple typed out Thank-you. A huge sigh of relief exited from my chest. I could handle this; everything was under control. Of course, I was told in no uncertain terms in the smallest of print that I couldn’t pay the total amount off for the next ninety-nine years, but the minimum payment, I could handle this. Christmas was wonderful after all. Christmas had been wonderful. My grandkids were wonderful. My daughter and her husband were wonderful. The wolf was not going to come knocking on our door anytime soon. Not in the next ninety-nine years anyway. The sun would rise again tomorrow. And that shall be glorious. Magnificent. There’s wasn’t anything to worry about. Not really! I could once again love Christmas. I could once again love the mailman. I could once again love the mailbox. Oh man!
[Darryl MacTavish writes: Born & raised in New Brunswick, I moved to Hamilton a week after I turned 18. I worked at such glamorous jobs as McDonalds, Inventory Clerk, and Security Guard for almost 4 years trying to save enough money to go to University. I then attended McMaster for one year, and during the summer between 1st & 2nd year I got a summer job at Dundurn Castle as an historical interpreter, mainly based on my ability to talk a lot. At the end of the summer I was offered a chance to stay on year round and I took the job intending to work for only one year. I ended up staying 14 years, 11 as an historical interpreter, and the final 3 as a cook/demonstrator. Since then I have worked at 7 of the 8 museums operated by the City of Hamilton. I have been paid to talk for past 35 years. In October 2011, I became Program Coordinator for both Fieldcote Museum and Griffin House. For 23 of those years, I also worked at Jackson Square Cinemas as an extra part time job. In my personal life I collect antique photographs, and live in a home built in 1887 that is filled with too many books.]
“Henrietta and the Narrow Escape” by Darryl MacTavish
My name is Charles Aloysius Montgomery Pitman, and that right there should tell you somethin about the trials & tribulations my life was surely cursed with.
The night I was born, there was a thunderstorm so powerful, it blew near half the shingles off the barn and scattered most of the woodpile right up into the back pasture. MaryJo says the wind even came right down the chimney and tossed the ashes and hot embers all over her freshly scrubbed kitchen floor.
Mama died a few minutes after I was born. Her cousin Margaret said that she held me close and whispered, “Welcome to the world Charlie…” and closed her eyes to rest a bit, but then just sorta faded away.
Grandmother was furious because she didn’t like the name Charlie on account that was my Pa’s name, but not even she would of dared change my name, with that being the very last word my mama ever spoke. So, she gave me two middle names that she liked better, and let me tell you, I use up pretty near every letter in the alphabet, each time I write my name. Maybe if Pa had been around, he would have been able to get that mess of names shortened a bit, but his ship was lost at sea, five months after the wedding, and seven months before I was born.
So there I was, brand new to the world and already an orphan. Grampa mostly let Grandmother take charge of raising me, which meant that I was gonna have to be a little gentleman, and not only did I have to have schoolin & manners drummed into my head, but she dressed me in the worst type of clothes a feller could ever imagine!
When I was doing chores on the farm with Grampa, I could wear regular stuff, that didn’t show dirt, but for going to school and Church, well the amount of frills on the collar and cuffs, not to mention the sissy colours, had near half the girls in my class jealous of my duds. Course the fellers thought differently and I spent pretty much every recess lettin em know I did not appreciate their opinions. Good news was, after a tussle, my clothes were usually dirty and every once in a while, they was tore up some. The bad news was that clothes that needed mending, well they always earned me a spanking from Grandmother – but it was worth it!
To make matters worse I was the shortest boy in the class, I was seven years old and most folks woulda guessed that I was no more than five. Grampa said not to worry, dynamite might come in a small package, but it can knock mountains down. He said the boys would eventually stop teasing me and he was right. I was in grade two and pretty near every boy in school from Grade four on down, had fought me once, but only once. Since I didn’t care how dirty my clothes got, or if they got ripped, I’d just sorta dive right in, and pretty soon most of em had joined the “Charlie gave me a black eye or bloody nose” Club. My best friend in the whole world though, was Henrietta. I had raised her from a newborn chick and every day, the moment I stepped into the Barnyard, she’d come a runnin, clucking & squawking. She’d follow me around while I gathered the eggs, and I was the only one she’d let near her own nest. Whenever grandmother’s rules got to wearing me down, Henrietta and me would just sit under one of the trees in the apple orchard and I’d tell her my problems, while she clucked away. Sometimes, if I had just been given a butt warming or there was some new clothes made for me, why, I’d dig up a worm and name it Grandmother, and toss it to Henrietta, and it did my heart good to see Grandmother get gobbled up. One day it was so bad, Henrietta got a feast! I must have dug up eight or nine worms, and named em all Grandmother, and tossed them one at a time to a very excited chicken, all because some old fool told Grandmother that I looked just like some dumb kid in a book called Little Lord Fauntleroy, and when she read the book, Grandmother decided that I needed to grow my hair longer, so that my curly hair would look the same as this darn kid, who wasn’t even real!
It was the last straw! The sissy clothes were one thing, but once I started arrivin at school with long curly hair, well it seemed like everyone forgot how they became members of that special club and I hadda remind em. Then one day a miracle happened, although it didn’t seem that way at first. I was sittin in the kitchen with MaryJo, watching her mix up a cake, when Grandmother came in and told her that Rev. Green was coming to dinner tomorrow night. He had been preaching about the dangers of smoking tobacco and how cigarettes were just the Devil’s Nails, helping to build a House of Sin, and of course, Grandmother was in complete agreement. She had already made Grampa toss out his chewing tobacco tin (but I knew he had a secret stash in the barn), and she painted a pretty colourful picture to me about how I wouldn’t be able to sit down for a week, if she ever caught me trying to smoke. Grandmother told MaryJo that she wanted to serve roast chicken and her next words sent a shiver right down my spine. “That pet chicken that Charles spends too much time with, has not been laying very many eggs lately, so that’s the one I want prepared. You let Hank know tomorrow morning when he arrives, to get it butchered and plucked by mid-morning. That will give you enough time to roast it for the evening meal.” She glanced at me, one eyebrow raised, “Charles Aloysius, you needn’t start sniveling, it’s ridiculous that a boy I am raising to be a proper young gentleman, has a pet chicken. My mind is made up!” She walked out of the kitchen with a smile like a witch who had just finished building a gingerbread house! There was no time to lose, I skedaddled out of the kitchen like I was on fire and the only water was in the barn. I grabbed an old empty flour sack, and in no time at all, Henrietta was inside it. She’s pretty big and I’m not, so luckily all that fighting at school, plus farm chores had given me muscles to carry that sack. Soon enough we were on the road to town. I had to find a safe place to leave Henrietta, until after the Minister’s visit. My friend Patrick’s mother ran a boarding house, and they kept chickens, so I figured they wouldn’t care if there was one more, visitin for a couple of days. When I got to their place, there was a stranger on the verandah, relaxing in a rocking chair. He gave me a grin and asked me what was in the sack. He had such nice smiley eyes, that I soon found myself pouring out all my troubles. Henrietta in danger of getting cooked, my stupid long curly hair and sissy clothes, and all the extra rules Grandmother seemed to come up with whenever she got cross. It felt so good to have someone besides Grampa (and Henrietta) to tell my troubles to. “Grampa says that Grandmother keeps forgettin that her last name starts with a W and not the second letter R. She thinks that she’s Mrs. Right, and …” Before I could finish my sentence, the man grabbed my hands and said in a low voice “Is your grandmother’s name Penelope Wright – married to Jasper Wright?” When I nodded yes, his voice got all quivery and he asked me what was my mother’s name and when was I born? When I told him that her name was Ellen and I was born on May 31, 1902, he went white as a sheet. “Charlie, your Father’s ship didn’t go down at sea. During a storm, we were blown off course and the main mast was snapped, and we drifted for a long time, before getting help. Then we had to get repairs, and then finish the trip. I sent a letter to your Mother letting her know I was fine but would be gone a lot longer than I had planned. By the time I got back home, there was a letter waiting for me from your grandmother, telling me that Ellen had died having the baby and the baby died too, so I needn’t bother returning here. She had never approved of us marrying, and when I thought I had lost you both, I saw no reason to ever come here. It’s bothered me for so long that I’ve never visited the graveyard to say goodbye and put flowers where she rests. I finally made the trip here, just to see where she rests and say Goodbye. I never knew I had a son!” His smiley eyes were a little bit wet and he hugged me something fierce!
Well you coulda knocked me down with one of Henrietta’s feathers! I had a Pa! He was alive! We left my chicken in the chicken coop behind the boarding house and walked back to my Grandparents’ home. Grampa saw us first, dropping his newspaper to the porch floor, he shouted “Good God Almighty! Charles is that really you? You drowned over seven years ago! How can this be?” Grandmother came to the door and went very still. For the next few minutes as Grampa shouted and she hissed out cold angry words, it turned out that Grandmother was Queen of the Liars. She never gave my Mother the letter from Pa that he was safe, she told everyone his ship had gone down, and she sent Pa a letter full of the rest of the lies. Soon enough we were leaving again. Pa told me to get whatever toys or books I wanted from my room but not to pack any clothes, as no boy should have to wear stuff like that! He promised Grampa that we would stay in touch and Grampa was welcome to come and visit us whenever he felt like it, but Grandmother would have to wait for at least a year before visiting, as punishment for all her lies. Next thing I knew, we were on a train to the City, with Henrietta in a nice wooden crate in the baggage car. Our first stop in the city was so that a Barber could cut off all those darn curls that reached to my shoulders. Then we went to the Eaton’s Department store for new clothes, any kind I wanted. “Black, all black with no sissy frills” I said, and that’s what I got. Our next stop was at a Photography studio. Pa wanted a picture of me and Henrietta, since if I hadn’t run away to save her life, we would never have met. He told me he was going to have a copy made for my grandparents. So just before they took the picture, I asked Pa if I could have a cigarette, just for the picture, explaining that everything happened because Grandmother had invited the Minister to dinner because they both hated cigarettes. He laughed and agreed, and I gave a few puffs on it while the photographer took me and Henrietta’s picture. But once he was finished, I spat out that cigarette, it tasted like something a pig wouldn’t eat, purely disgusten!
So thanks to an almost chicken dinner, and the Devil’s nails, I found my Pa and never had to wear sissy clothes again!
[Tamara Kamermans is a Sociology Professor at Mohawk College who has worked in community theatre since 1987. For those in the theatre community, her last production was Over the River and Through the Woods at DLT. She writes for The View Magazine when times allow. She currently spends her days walking back and forth between the kitchen and living room and dressing up to go to the variety store. She hopes you enjoy her true tales which all take place in our very own Hamilton. “The Black Doll” was written as a tribute to her Mother.]
“The Black Doll” by Tamara Kamermans
It was 1970 and my mother was a “dirty hippy”. I know this because my grandmother made it very clear that only a dirty hippy would walk around with her hair down to her ass and braless. She also smoked pot, smelled like Sandalwood and hand painted a psychedelic paisley on her boyfriend’s car: All evidence of hippy madness. As I grew older, I also heard whispers of her heroin addiction. It was this addiction that brought me, by the age of 5 to reside mainly with my grandparents.
It was 1970 and my grandparents were racists. The kind of racists that watched Archie Bunker as an affirmation of their belief system NOT as social commentary on racists themselves. It wasn’t uncommon to hear cheering or cat calls of support for Archie’s social faux pas and even as a child I observed they might have missed the whole point. In keeping with the deep irony of life, they were also the kind of racists that lived on a street so diverse, that except for one house, they were the only white people who spoke English as their first language. My Grandmother’s way to distinguish acceptable and unacceptable in her neighbourhood was to simply add the word “dirty” as a prefix to anything out of her range of taste, which accounted for my mother’s designation as well. We lived next to the “dirty” Pollacks, who lived next to the “dirty” Portugese, to the “dirty” Italians, the dirty “Indians” and so on. There were only two associations that were seemingly separated. All Brits were “Snooty Chirpers”, and the worst of the worst, “The Ludwigs”, of no fixed racial heritage, were as my Grandmother said, “simply mongrels”. It seemed that despite the entire neighbourhood being essentially objectionable, she acknowledged there still was a certain class system in what she deemed a cesspool.
I was 5 and there I was between a rock and a “dirty” place wondering why everyone was so unclean??? It was September 9th, 1970 and it was my birthday. As always, I waited outside my kindergarten classroom for my grandmother to pick me up and walk me the three blocks to her house after school. But this time, my mother came instead. She said she came because she had a birthday present for me, and she wanted to give it to me before my grandmother arrived. In retrospect, I realized that my mother was probably “high” at the time, but I certainly had no idea.
She had a huge bag, and when I opened it up there was giant life-sized doll, the kind you could hold hands with and almost walk with. I was so pleased, and my mother asked if I liked the doll. I loved the Doll and then she said, “Do you notice anything different about this doll?” I didn’t really understand what she might mean, so I looked and looked but said, “NO”. She said, “Well, this is a black doll” and I looked again, and I could see what she meant but I didn’t understand why that would be important. She said, “Now when your grandmother comes to meet us, she will be very unhappy about this doll. She’s going to say a lot of bad things but NOTHING she says is RIGHT. Can you remember that?”
I said “Yes” but I couldn’t really understand why.
My grandmother arrived and the three us began our three block trek home: my doll, which I insisted on carrying and proudly displaying the entire way, and I, my mother — smoking a cigarette and probably braless (for once the least of my grandmother’s worries) and my grandmother looking like a petrified squirrel in the headlights — eyes the size of saucers but only able to really look at us from the side in frozen fear as if gazing directly at us would somehow make her a co-conspirator in the whole affair: Me, my very black doll, the dirty hippy and the Frozen Squirrel reluctantly bringing up the rear, in broad day light, past the dirty Pollacks, the dirty Portuguese, the dirty Italians, the dirty Indians…. I wave my doll through the ethnic patchwork of the street, my mother admires her design ( I can only assume) and my grandmother treads her own personal walk of shame as each porch we pass seems to have a waving friendly neighbour greeting us.
Once we get in the door of my grandmother’s house, however, the party is over. My mother soon leaves, and my grandmother instantly absconds with the doll: My mother is upgraded to a “crazy, dirty hippie” and I’m told not to worry I won’t have to play with that filthy doll again. I’m left watching Star Trek with my TV dinner. I remember what my mother told me, and it runs through my head all day as I listen to my Grandmother retell the story to every relative and friend that would listen. She casts herself as the hard done by heroine of the piece. On the phone with my aunt: “And if you can believe it, who should be right on her porch but that “snooty chirper” watching the whole thing looking down her nose at me. I’ll never live it down”, she sobs.
For a while the doll was kept hostage in her closet, but I was forbidden to access it. She would often bring her friends over and they would do short but dramatic tours of the closet: “Just go up and look at it. It’s sitting right there”. The closet door creaks and I can hear the gasps and exclamations “Jesus Murphy”, “What was she thinking that daughter of yours” and finally “How are you going to get it out of the house?”
Who knows how she eventually left our house but time passed and the story was rubbed out by a hundred more. My mother would drift farther and farther away into her addiction and I would live many more years with my grandparents, who were not only racist but abusive on many levels. I was reminded on a regular basis that I lived under her roof, that I should be grateful because after all “that good for nothing dirty hippie of a mother never did anything for you now, did she?” She always ended in a question and it wasn’t rhetorical. I was made to answer “yes”. She was administering a bitter pill and she wanted to make sure I swallowed it.
Was my mother there for my 16th birthday? No. Was she there on my 18th birthday? No. Were there gifts and cards and letters? No. She was there on my 5th birthday though, and she gave me the best gift: the permission to think for myself and know right from wrong. A gift so powerful it obliterated my circumstances and made me who I am.
PS. I want my doll back
The Novel by Bruce Edwards
We live in a world of miracles – not necessarily pleasant ones, either, which is why everyone these days goes around with WTF on their lips and screens half the time. Take the case of this neighbourhood kid, Doodles. Don’t ask me how he got that name, it certainly had nothing to do with artistic talent, at least as evidenced by the school artwork scrawls he brought home or the occasional sidewalk chalkings. It worked out for him, though, since instead of growing up a laughing stock with a dweeby name he couldn’t shake, he fortunately managed to morph into “Dude” by the time he was a teen, a pretty cool handle in the late sixties, with the result that he was one of the few guys I knew who really did get regularly laid.
Anyway, my point about Doodles was that one day when he was about eight he performed the usual lame-brained idiocy of running into the street to chase a ball and got hit in the head by a passing car. For those of you who remember, autos in the early sixties had door handles like wall cabinets sticking out from their sides and that’s what made contact with Doodles’ head – and flew off into the gutter. The handle, I mean. And instead of flopping dead alongside it with a concavity in his brush-cut noggin, Doodles bounced off the car and staggered back onto the sidewalk, admittedly dazed, but seemingly none the worse for wear either, not even a gash. I don’t know, do we get to call those “the post-war years”, almost twenty years on from the day our fathers marched home? Where did the nonchalance about mortal peril go, otherwise? Because the driver, leaping out to discover the blasted kid who’d darted into the roadway standing upright, merely inquired if he felt alright, took a passing look at the side of his head, shook his own, told the other kids who were standing by in a greater state of shock than Doodles himself to take him inside to “sit down for a while”, collected his door handle and drove off.
Within five minutes Doodles had a great goose egg to brag about to all the other kids who hadn’t been there to witness the crash. His brother Arty had already run in to tell on Doodles and, as an afterthought, on the old guy in the car. His mother screamed and ran to the window, which was pretty satisfying to Arty, and his father dutifully emerged from the house, but finding Doodles more or less unscathed and the driver vanished, decided that a quick examination of the by now impressive forehead lump and the road where the offending handle had come to rest would be sufficient detective work. With that accomplished, he headed back inside to watch Bowling for Dollars with a parting admonition to smarten up and stay off the road. WTF. See? Miracles.
But people just don’t care. Or maybe they don’t see, when it’s all too close. Jesus can appear on a slice of toast or the side of a donut shop or everyone’s clapping you on the back when you beat cancer and it’s all wonderful, thank God! but bounce a kid’s head off three thousand hurtling pounds of steel and you wipe a few beads of sweat off your brow and move on. How come? That’s what I want to know. Because I ponder my own miracle, my own mystery. The thing is, it sure lacked the dramatic “thunk” of car meeting skull, so I guess I missed it. Or maybe I’m simply like the others – too close to see when the moment came, if indeed it was a moment at all. There were certainly no intimations of immortality, no Joycean epiphany, no sense ever that I could make my way in the world as other than the superior and rotten little shit of Dovercourt Drive.
I gained the upper hand in my relationship with my mother at an early age, when she unwisely administered a spanking on my bare bottom with a flyswatter, causing a most unpleasant infection, owing I imagine to the presence of a squished and still juicy fly. In those days medical men were gods, and when Dr. Boddington tore an admission from my mother and scolded her, she was devastated. Medical ethics not then having been brought to the current state of precision by the tribunals of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, he took the opportunity to light-heartedly repeat his critique on the subject of beating children with insect-encrusted cudgels as I waddled at her side through the waiting room, past a frowning Mrs. Patterson the nurse, half a dozen gaping mothers and a retired judge. When we reached the car Mother collapsed into a mortified fit of sobbing that lasted for, well, more than a few minutes. During my convalescence she doted on me with a bitter resentment that was both off-putting and extremely satisfying. The ensuing emotional detachment we both felt was understandably liberating, or at least I thought so, and I became a student of its effect.
Only a month or two later, when I fell in the schoolyard and split my head open on a stone somebody had thrown down for the incessant games of hopscotch, Margaret Binch came to my aid. She was a pretty little girl with blonde curls and a lacy hankie always pinned to her blouse, for whom I had always dimly felt some sort of crush, and as she helped me to my feet and called for Mr. Dick, the Vice Principal, the thought suddenly took form in my brain that she must be blamed. It wasn’t simply the Freudian fact that I wanted to rid myself of the curse of my ambivalent feeling toward her; by and large it was my primordial and well-honed instinct of self-preservation that spurred me to a vicious response. The long shadow leaping toward us in the schoolyard alerted me instantly to a presence more self-righteous (and, alas, more troublesome) than a punctilious grade seven crossing guard: Dickhead, on the prowl.
Mr. Dick was an inexcusably insufferable man – tall, good looking, deep-voiced, in a position of authority – in the nineteen fifties enough in the way of credentials to deny him the slightest reason (saving his name, I suppose) to parade about the schoolyard, bullying children and showing off in front of the female staff, but that’s exactly what he did every day at recess, and indeed what virtually any male teacher I encountered in elementary school did to a greater or lesser extent. Of that, at least, I was acutely aware and had cause to resent. Earlier that spring he had whaled upon me in front of the entire school when he caught me committing the unpardonable act of kicking water from a deep pond-sized puddle at the back of the schoolyard at a circle of giggling classmates excited by the novelty of the game and my boldness. At the very moment of triumph, when I realized that I had single-handedly gathered the entire student body about me, Dickhead’s sternest voice boomed out from the loudspeaker that all students were to leave the vicinity of those most dangerous waters at once. With tolerant resignation to the interference of spoilsport adults, I blithely headed for the tarmac with the rest of my friends. I was unaware, however, that the vantage of the second floor, to which Dick had raced at the first sign of this incipient insurrection, afforded him a view of who it was at the center of what he recognized as an affront to the decorum of recess. Just as I reached the marshalling area where the rest of the guilty looking sheep were prematurely lining up in anticipation of the bell, Dick strode forward, atypically parting the columns of regimented children, rhetorically demanded what on earth I thought I was doing and promptly turned me over his knee.
My shame was considerably lessened a few minutes later in the washroom when, as Dick was gloating over the filth and slimy dampness to which I had reduced myself, I began as directed to divest myself of my dripping clothes. My careful mother, anticipating my recklessness and made fearful by the recent drowning of a school chum in a swollen creek, had prepared me for the conditions very well, and beneath my soaked snowsuit I revealed a new water-proof playsuit, a retail innovation that for once lived up to its claim and had left me pristine and dry underneath. Dick’s jaw worked feverishly for a few moments when I imprudently pointed this out to him, and I thought I was going to get it again, but old Mrs. McPetrie appeared to take the snowsuit, and the sorrowful shaking of her head as she carried it dripping upon one raised finger down the length of the hall past the classrooms of neck-craning pupils, with a gait that can only be described as funereal, satisfied his itching palm and I was spared. (At least for the time being.)
When I arrived home I discovered that my sister had bolted from school at the final bell, working up tears of humiliation as she ran to tell my mother just what had happened (apparently to her). My mother’s response was a predictable recital of possible excuses for my behaviour, but my uncle was another matter altogether, and when he arrived home from work and was informed of the shameful episode he instantly identified with Dick’s paranoia at the threat to authority and demanded to know whether the whipping I had received had taught me a lesson? I impulsively and inexplicably answered, no, it hadn’t hurt very much at all (perhaps recalling the stinging effect of the flyswatter and its aftermath), whereupon he asserted that it was clear that I needed another one. Stunned by my own idiocy I could think of no argument against him and he was tanning my hide pretty well when my mother’s cries finally dissuaded him and he left off in disgust and stomped off to his basement study to read and smoke.
So. When the hulking form of Mr. Dick the Vice Principal loomed over my bloody, staggering self and a concerned Margaret Binch, I could be excused for imagining that he would assume I had started a fight or engaged in some irregular lunacy that required the sharpest administrative retort. I blurted out that little Margaret had thrown me down and jammed my face in the dirt. The implausibility of this event had to be more than matched by my adroitness with a lie. I can’t remember now what story I told, but I do recall the disgust and shock in both their eyes and the necessity of more desperate elaborations on her wicked intent that I concocted as a result. Those of my coterie who witnessed this, for their part, responded as one with admiration at the audacity of my lies, but I later realized that they were also rather intimidated by my facility, as well as repelled in some half-sensed way by the necessity of supporting the masculine code and backing my claims to Dick, when they were actually rather appalled at my instantaneous abandonment of an innocent to the arbitrary justice of sadistic educators, and Dickhead in particular.
Not satisfied with the detentions and parent interview Margaret was forced to attend, I moved to cement my position with my compadres after school by peeling the bandage off my three stitches for their edification and wittily proclaiming my supposed assailant to be known henceforth as Margarine Bitch. This had the simultaneous effect of rendering the fiction of her attack into fact and binding them to me as enemies who must be kept close. I never read Sun Tzu, but years later at a university film class I sat transfixed in the cinema as the oily and transforming Michael Corleone explicated this philosophy in The Godfather, and a thrill of recognition shivered in my spine.
[Kathy Garneau writes: Born under an oil rig on a field near Edmonton, I traveled with my family in a covered trailer to the warmer, but wetter climate of Surrey, BC. As soon I could, I hightailed it out of suburbia, heading for UBC to study engineering, following in the footsteps of my brother so I could prove I was as smart as he was. After working for a few years as an Environmental Engineer, I did the sensible thing and went back to UBC to study filmmaking. Carving out a meager existence as an independent filmmaker for around 5 years, I managed to direct a documentary called Chore Wars for CBC Newsworld, and a feature film called Tokyo Cowboy, which screened at many film festivals. Whilst taking workshops at Vancouver Theatresports, I met my Lord and Master, Hugh, from Planet Improvia, who is on a mission to bring improv to earthlings. No anal probes, just workshops, and shows. Around 1996 I followed Hugh of Improvia to Hamilton where he began indoctrinating local wannabe thespians in the ways of the handles and games. Sensing a need to secure a structure to house these sessions, we co-founded The Staircase Theatre in 1998. My life has never been the same.]
“Shaun Nixon: Will the real Carrot Top please stand up???” by Kathy Garneau
As co-founder of a tiny live theatre in Hamilton for the past 2 decades, there have been many memorable performances. One that stands out, though, is the worst show we ever presented.
It all started in 2003, when my husband, Hugh, performed in an *****
“Who’s Carrot Top?” I ask Hugh.
“He’s a famous prop comic in the US,” Hugh explains. “You know. A comic who uses props as part of their act. The guy’s name is Shaun Nixon and he does the college circuit in the US but comes back to Hamilton to visit friends and family.”
Hugh tells me Shaun wants to book our theatre so his family and friends can see his act. A few days later I meet the Canadian Carrot Top, a pudgy 30 something man. He pulls out a stack of polaroids from his back pocket showing him standing next to celebrities. “I was the opening act for their shows.” he points out.
For years we struggled in obscurity. It seemed like no one in Hamilton knew about our little theatre. “I am with the Staircase Theatre” I would tell people. “What’s that?” They would ask. Try as we might to get the local newspaper, or radio stations to cover our weekly improv shows, we never seemed to capture their interest.
I tell Shaun I need his press kit so I can publicize the event. He tells me that it’s with his manager in the U.S. but I can get everything I need from his MySpace webpage.
I search the internet for Shaun’s MySpace page. It shows photos of him standing in front of his tour bus. The available material on him seems a little thin, but hey. This guy has a tour bus!!
Shaun tells me we should do 2 shows the same night so we can accommodate lots of people and whispers that his friend, Comedian Jim Carrey is in Toronto making a movie and may make a surprise appearance. I have never been so excited to write a press release. Emailing it out to every media outlet in Hamilton, I feel the pride that only a small theatre owner can feel. Finally, a show that will get us some attention and put us on the map.
A few days later Shaun mentions that we should put aside 2 hours after the show for autograph signing because that’s how long it usually takes.
I send another press release to every media outlet in Hamilton announcing the post-show autographing session.
To recap: Our small theatre has made a once in a lifetime booking of Sean Nixon, the Canadian Carrot Top. He is famous in the U.S. He has opened for many famous performers. He is best buds with Jim Carrey, who may show up. And he is so big he needs a post-show autograph session.
The night of the show I leave my kids with the babysitter and head to the theatre in time for Shaun’s second show. Approaching the theatre, I see the mobile unit for the local rock radio station parked on the front lawn, lights flashing. Taking my seat in the theatre, I look up and see Jeff Mahoney, arts columnist for The Hamilton Spectator, a few rows behind.
Hugh, who has just seen Shaun’s first show, walks on stage. His introduction is a little unorthodox. “He’s the worst comic ever. He has never done a show in his life. This show is absolute garbage. If you want your money back, we will be happy to refund your tickets,” he says. He pivots, and strides out of the theatre, heading for the lobby.
No one moves.
Shaun takes the stage. “I just came back from a comedy tour across the U.S.” he says, like a seasoned performer explaining why he has been away from Hamilton for so long.
“No you didn’t,” yells a twenty-something man sitting in the front row.
“You work with us at the Pizza Pizza call center,” heckles his seatmate.
Shaun runs around the stage talking into a mic not even hooked up to a sound system. He painfully lip synchs to a few pop songs then plays audio of Jim Carrey doing standup, using a portable tape player behind the stage, hopelessly pretending that Carrey is backstage, and they are talking to each other.
Beads of sweat pour from his brow. Shaun is pitiful, but he’s out of control and can’t stop spewing lies about his career as a successful prop comic. His millennial coworkers in the front row gleefully call him out on every whopper.
“The Canadian Carrot Top”’s only prop is a toilet seat drizzled with chocolate sauce which he licks.
When the audience doesn’t laugh, he scolds, “You guys are a tough nut to crack.”
“NOT funny!” someone in the audience shouts. When Shaun asks for some ideas to improvise with, people shout “Refund” and “Give us our money back”, heading for the exit.
I approach Shaun after the “show”. The mic he was swinging around is falling apart and dangling pathetically from his hands. I ask him why he told me he had opened for all of those performers he showed me in his polaroids. He explains that he DID open for them, by telling jokes to the people standing behind him waiting in line to get into the shows.
Finally, the Staircase had got the attention and press coverage we had been craving but I felt choked it was for an absolute dumpster fire of a show, and foolish that I had ignored all of the red flags.
At the same time, I was completely awestruck and fascinated with Shaun, a man who compulsively lied and couldn’t stop himself even when faced with the truth.
A few years later, Shaun made the news in the Hamilton Spectator again.
The headline was pure poetry: “Spammer from the Hammer back in the Slammer.”
Shaun was convicted of defrauding dozens of people by claiming to sell tickets for concerts and sports events on Craigslist. Unsuspecting buyers wired him money by Western Union but the tickets would never show up.
“Can you believe it” I said to Hugh, “How could anyone be fooled by this guy?”