In which the author shakes out a new world order
1989 was the year Spike Lee released “Do The Right Thing,” a perfect movie. I’m just going to leave that right there.
That fall, I turned 21 and spent September-December in Ottawa, working in the Communications Branch of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources. Jake Epp was Minister; Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister.
I was in the second year of an undergraduate degree in English: Rhetoric and Professional Writing (Co-op). It was the co-op part that brought me to Ottawa, just as it was the co-op part that convinced me to go to the University of Waterloo.
Get a degree, get job experience, have the latter help pay for the former.
My first attempt to get a co-op job, though—well, it was a struggle. In early 1988, I should have lined up a job for the summer, but I didn’t. The university had a system of interviews with employers, but I didn’t land anything.
So I took a job as the canoe instructor at Fraser Lake Camp, an overnight camp near Bancroft. Run by Mennonites, the camp hosted many underprivileged kids from Toronto, subsidized by I can’t remember exactly how. Not sure I ever knew.
I had gone to that camp as a child, not in a subsidized spot, though.
Canoeing I knew how to do. I had taken canoeing courses as a teenager with Scouts groups. Gone on some river trips with my family. I thought I could easily teach the basics to kids. I could. I did.
But the camp didn’t start until late-June. My school term finished in April. So I sought temporary work in the meantime.
This is going to get back to Ottawa, don’t worry. I’m setting something up here. A contrast. Because what that position in Ottawa, 1989, represented, was my first office job. The first job where I got paid to sit in front of a computer. And I had to learn how to use a fax machine, which I had never seen before.
In the spring of 1988, I signed up with a temp agency, and they sent me to dig a hole in somebody’s backyard (they had work to do and couldn’t get any machinery back there). The agency sent me to a warehouse to move around boxes. I had a short stint at Canadian Tire pushing a mop. Ditto at a downtown hospital. I spent a week at a print shop, taking pamphlets off of a machine and stacking them in boxes.
My print shop boss came back from lunch noticeably drunk. He was a haggard man and later I thought he wouldn’t have been out of place in a Charles Bukowski novel.
For six weeks that spring I also worked at a gas station on Front Street, by the Toronto Sun building. The place had three eight-hour shifts, and I worked each of them, pumping gas. Most memorable was the overnight shift, 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., where one could see the rhythms of the night. A busy flow of cars came after midnight, but then the streets became quiet, until the Toronto Sun vans started to arrive, stacked with the day’s papers, heading to out to stuff newspaper boxes around the city.
The drivers were also selling drugs. More than one asked me if I was interested. No.
One morning I arrived for the day shift and a pair of high-heeled shoes was on top of one of the gas pumps.
“What’s this?” I asked.
A car had pulled up in the night, my colleague said. A prostitute and a john. Some sort of altercation happened. They left, but the shoes got left behind.
“Can I have them?” I asked.
I knew a girl at school, notorious for her shoe collection. Later, I added to it.
The place was also robbed while I was there, but not on my shift. Or maybe it was robbed. Because the truth was, the ownership of the station had changed hands just before I arrived. A White family owned it and sold it to a South Asian family. One of the original owner’s sons continued to work there, pumping gas. He’s the one who claimed to have been held up. The South Asian owner was a young man, not much older than me. He could see I was a university kid, different from the others, and he asked me what I thought: Did I believe this story?
As I was writing this, I remembered something else. One of the dudes I met at the gas station remembered me from public school.
“Are you Michael Bryson? From R.H. McGregor?”
I was. I am.
He told me who he was, and I thought, Holy shit. Yes. I knew him, too. He was a massive troublemaker, but I didn’t say that. (A troubled kid, surely.)
“What have you been up to?”
He looked about has haggard as my boss at the print shop. He had three kids, he said. He’d been doing this and that. Of course, he asked me what I was doing, and I said I had just finished my first year of university.
We had been kids together, but our lives were, even at that stage, very different.
I later wrote a short story, “The Hit,” about two guys a bit like that. It includes this:
I remember one time when we were fifteen, smoking cigarettes in the bleachers behind the school, looking out over the barren track and football field.
“We’re different,” John said.
I stubbed out my cigarette. “How so?”
“We’re going to turn out different, you wait and see.”
He said I was going to end up working in an office and he was going to end up doing he wasn’t sure what.
“You can do anything you want,” I said.
“No. That’s you,” he said. “You’re going to do something big.”
He handed me another cigarette.
“Like shit I am,” I said.
“Like shit you are,” he said.
As the story moves to a conclusion, there’s this:
I noticed then he hadn’t shaven in a couple of days. He held his hands together in front of him like he was praying. They were shaking. I lit my cigarette. Offered him one. He waved it away. He asked, “Is it me or has the world gone crazy?”
“The world’s not crazy.”
“It’s just falling apart.”
“It’s not falling apart.”
“It’s fucked up.”
“It’s always been fucked up.”
“Ah, shit,” he said. “I never wanted much, you know.”
“Just the simple things. That’s all I wanted, the simple things in life.”
Isn’t it so? The simplest things are sometimes hard to find?
Anyway, speaking of Bukowski. In 1987, the movie “Barfly” galvanized me. I trekked to the university book store and found Burning in Water Drowning in Flame (1974). In the movie, Mickey Rourke’s bowery bar room poet character is “rescued” by a rich woman (Alice Krige), who offers to set him up the suburban palace of her dreams. But he can’t do it. He rages against her “gold bars,” as if he were her caged bird.
The bar room is where real poetry happens, is the message.
My bar room in 1988 was the print shop, the warehouses, the hallways in need of mopping, the lonely overnight gas station surrounded by the empty glittering city. But it was my childhood school mate who was the true Bukowskiesque. I was soon off to camp, where I met JB, a great kisser, and fashioned a beach body and a world-class tan.
Then in November 1988, my father, 51, had a massive heart attack, and he very nearly died. If not for his younger brother, PB, who was doing his residency in Toronto at the time, but that’s a story for another time.
Here I just want to say, I was back in Waterloo in the fall of 1988, looking forward to another chance at a more formal co-op job in January 1989. Maybe even heading to Ottawa, where I knew the federal government offered many positions. But when my father had a cardiac event, I knew I needed to be close to home, and I took a job that would get me there. I learned how to complete income tax returns, and I sat at a booth, alone, in the Cumberland Mall, 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., writing poetry most of the time, watching the world go by.
I was doing an English degree, and here I was, working with numbers. WTF?
“You’re going to do something big.”
He handed me another cigarette.
“Like shit I am,” I said.
I remember my father came to visit me one day, after he’d recovered from his by-pass surgery and was well enough along in his rehabilitation. He wanted to see what I was up to.
Yes, we are going to Ottawa now. But first, “Do The Right Thing” came out. I saw it. It was great, and so was Public Enemy and their great, great song: “Fight the Power.”
You’ve got to party for your right to fight!
You remember the fall of 1989, don’t you? The world fucking changed. Right?
We thought so, at the time.
In August 1989, I went to England to visit my grandparents, who were divorced. My grandfather lived in Upminster, east London, and my grandmother lived in Hastings. I travelled with my mother, who grew up in England, but I also took a solo trip to Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Dublin. Again, a story for another time.
Here, what needs to be said is, I asked someone I barely knew to arrange a place for me to live in Ottawa, because I left the country for a couple of weeks. He did, thank goodness, and in September I arrived and meet fellow Waterloo Co-op students, Steve and Gerald, at our apartment for the fall, which was above a Bukowskiesque convenience store at one end of the Glebe, next to the freeway.
Years later I would learn that my future wife was also in the city at that time, living about six blocks away. Though we were the same age, Kate had skipped a year and completed high school in Montreal, so she’d started university in 1985, two years before me. In the fall of 1989, she was finishing off her degree in Art History and English and about to start full-time work at the National Archives of Canada.
She said, “Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have met and hooked up way back then?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I would absolutely in no way have been ready for you!”
I had some growing up to do.
My cousin, DW, also moved to Ottawa that fall, along with his girlfriend who was attending law school. They also found an apartment in the Glebe, which just seemed natural. In early September, we found our way into a Frosh concert at Carleton University, featuring The Pursuit of Happiness.
Led my Moe Berg, TPOH had an indy hit with “I’m an Adult Now,” which burst onto TV screens in 1986 with a low-fi video of Berg slashing at his guitar on Queen Street West, a favorite hangout of mine in those days.
In 2002, I shared a car ride from Toronto to Hamilton with Berg. We each had a story in an anthology titled, Grunt and Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work and Sex (Boheme Press, 2002). I told him I’d seen the band at Carleton back in the day, and he said he didn’t remember too much from that time, “because of all of the drugs.”
I laughed, but he said, “I’m not kidding.”
That fall, I went home to Toronto for Thanksgiving, and my roommates decided to drive to Florida and back. By the time they got there, all they had time to do was turn around and come back. The driver side door on the car wouldn’t open, so the driver had to climb out the passenger side, which was a problem when they got pulled over in the Deep South and the passenger got out only to find himself facing down the barrel of a drawn gun. “Get back in the car!”
The University of Waterloo had a lot of co-op students in Ottawa, and someone organized a bus to take a whole crew of folks to Montreal on a Saturday night. It was a typical yellow school bus, which seemed okay on the way there, but after an evening of wandering around downtown Montreal, popping into half-deserted discos and pub crawling, the homeward bound journey full of bombed out nearly-teenagers was a petri dish of bacteria, let’s just say.
The Rolling Stones also came to Montreal that fall, and my house mates decided to go. My cousin hitched a ride to Montreal with us, and he convinced the driver to let him take the wheel as we headed into the city, since he knew his way around. He was pointing out sites from the highway as we rounded a corner, slammed on the brakes, and skidded into the car in front of us. Not enough damage done to stop us from continuing on, however. The Stones were terrible, but we were at the opposite end of the “Big O” from the stage, so whatever. It was winter now, and we had a long ride home. Halfway to Ottawa, the driver said, “I think we are going to run out of gas.”
“The gauge says we’re out of gas.”
It was like minus 20 outside, and I was not dressed for an extended pause by the side of the road in the post-midnight snow. We made it to the next truck stop and filled up.
Another thing had happened in 1988, when I was away at camp. Something that also changed the world. Wayne Gretzky got traded.
It’s no shock now, but at the time it was …. WHAT?!?!?
In September 1989, Gretzky was a member of the Los Angeles Kings and also an owner of the Hull Olympiques, who have their home arena on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. That September, Gretzky and the Kings held their training camp at that arena, and they held intra-squad games that the public could pay to see.
Not knowing how to get tickets for these games, I walked across the bridge to Hull, through the working-class neighbourhood around the arena, and through the front doors to the ticket booth. But there was no ticket booth, or no one in the ticket booth, so I started to wander around the arena. I finally crossed paths with someone and asked where I could get tickets for the Kings’ intra squad games. The woman I asked looked at me with incomprehension, so I asked again. Nothing. Then she spoke to me in French.
It was my turn to know nothing, but I knew one word might help.
We worked it out. I got tickets for three games in three days, three days of Gretzky at the peak of his career, playing against his mates. They played fast and hard.
Gordie Howe also visited Ottawa that fall. He had a memoir out and did a book signing. I took extra time off at lunch and boarded a bus downtown to see him.
My mother came to visit me in Ottawa, my father did not. I remember asking her about a story she had told me a couple of years earlier. I remembered that it was important, something about the family, but I’d forgotten the details.
“My grandfather committed suicide,” she said.
Her maternal grandfather, circa 1927, father of two daughters, aged 12 and 10, put his head in a gas oven, leaving his family without a provider. His wife, as one does, apparently, put the younger daughter (my grandmother) in an orphanage, for a spell, until she found her feet, then retrieved her. She was never the same, according to my mother, who has a photograph of her mother as a child, shining happy, before her life was ruined.
Years later, I asked for copies of my great-grandfather’s records from World War One and discovered that he’d been at Ypres. Been gassed. Been hit with shrapnel. He was in the Royal Engineers and built bridges. His military papers are full of medical reports, indicating his unfitness for duty. He lost his officer’s commission and thus his pension. After the war he built railway bridges in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and also India.
And then he killed himself. No one knows why.
One weekend my housemates and I met up with others at a house party. I made a mixture of lemonade and vodka. We hung out at the house party. Gerald started kissing some girl he’d just met (later: “I liked her”; us: “we noticed”). Then someone said what someone always says in Ottawa: “Let’s go to Hull!” We went to Hull. But not before I finished off the bottle of vodka. I remember being at a dance club in Hull and realizing I was going to explode. I found the bathroom and exploded, but that didn’t help at all. I just had to get out of there, and I did. I left, alone, and began the slow walk home to the Glebe. I stopped under a bush near the Supreme Court of Canada, recalibrated, then continued to shuffle home. Collapsed on the couch. Never touched vodka again.
My colleague at work, LD, was in my program at Waterloo. We shared an office cubicle and became familiar.
One day a bouquet of flowers arrived for LD. A big bouquet. Mon dieu! It turned out that the flowers were from a young francophone who worked down the hall and around the corner from us. LD, though grateful, declined his attentions. Later, I had a conversation with her would-be paramour, and he asked me: “Why do you hate us?”
“Us? Hate? Who?”
The English, he meant. The Canadians. Why do they hate Quebec? The French?
“No one hates anyone,” I think I said. Which, of course, isn’t true.
It’s a moment I wish I could have over, but I just wasn’t ready for it then. There’s just so much misunderstanding, I wanted to say, but it’s simple, really.
It is what it always is.
In one version of my story “Hit,” I ended it this way:
He said, “Just the simple things. That’s all I wanted, the simple things; they’ll do me fine.”
I lit my cigarette. “I know.”
“Money, sex, power,” he said. “Nothing complicated, nothing hard.”
Then he smiled at me. I grinned back.
“We’re not so different,” I said.
He said, “No, sir. No, sir, we’re not.”
“Money, sex, power,” he said.
I said, “Nothing complicated, nothing hard.”
I still love that ending, the sharp edge of it, cut with hope. But an editor convinced me I needed to change it, make it more ambiguous.
DW introduced me to Kerouac. I read On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958). Oh, joy! The romantic fantasies of youth! I was intoxicated. Maybe it was that fall, or maybe it was another time, I was in Montreal with DW and he introduced me to one of his old friends. We visited a house that was home to a father with two boys. The brother of the friend had a bedroom coated with photographs of naked women clipped from Playboy and what-have-you. Years later this brother committed suicide. Today he would be a well-known incel. I remember discussing Kerouac with the brother and he recommended Thomas Pynchon to me. Why? Because Pynchon was mentioned in the liner notes of an album by The Cars.
Eventually, I made it to San Francisco and stood by Jack Kerouac Way, outside City Lights Books. It seemed like one of those impossible places that couldn’t possibly be real.
Earlier in 1989, I had seen The Who at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. In 1983, the band had played their “final concert” in Toronto – and I don’t think I even knew who they were then, but I remember the sensation of that concert. When the band re-formed to play at Live Aid in 1985, it was something I had to see. To see them in person, when it was possible, was simply necessary. I bought a t-shirt, and I was wearing that t-shirt when I saw my grandmother for the last time in Hastings that August.
She said, “The Who? That’s a rock band, isn’t it?”
When I got back to London, after Hastings, my grandfather asked about his ex-wife. How was she? She seemed okay, I said.
“She’s had a hard life,” he said. His empathy, even then, struck me.
In On the Road, Kerouac is all about Charlie Parker, king of bop, and his buddy, Dizzy Gillespie. One weekday (November 24), I stopped, stunned in front of an Ottawa Sun box. On the cover of the newspaper was Dizzy G! He’d played the night before! Right in Ottawa!
The movie of The Who’s rock opera, Quadrophenia, had a character, played by Sting, who rumbled with the Mods on weekends, and worked in office by the week. This seemed to be a representation of the life I thought I was living. Except I didn’t own a moped, and I never touched pills.
Still, when I saw a reflection of myself in the glass of the office tower, dressed in business attire, I thought: What am I doing? (Paying for school, surely.) Playing a role, not really sure what it was.
My boss decided to take me to Toronto for a business trip. We went by train, first class, if I’m not mistaken. She stayed in a hotel; I bunked with my parents. I met her downtown the next morning, a little late, and she was frantic. We were going to miss our appointment, except we didn’t. I thought, I’m not cut out for this. Give me the open road. Maybe an isolated fire watch tower, where I could practice Zen.
I had no idea what I was doing.
In 1981, Lech Walesa, an electrician by trade, cofounded Solidarity, the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc. After Poland declared Martial law, Solidarity was outlawed, and Walesa arrested. Later, he helped secure semi-free parliamentary elections in 1989, which a Solidarity-led coalition won to become the first non-communist government in the Soviet bloc. In 1990, Walesa was elected president.
As Remembrance Day was a holiday for federal workers, I had the day off, and the new monument was a short walk from my Bukowskiesque abode, I went to see the man. The audience was way smaller than I expected, especially since the Berlin Wall had fallen only days earlier.
We were young, and we witnessed the end of an era on our TVs, the collapse of a political stalemate that had defined our whole lives and that we thought would last forever. Suddenly, anything seemed possible. Day by day, new borders fell. We had discussed when would the shooting start? But it never did.
Was a new wave building? I went with my housemates to Barrymores, a bar/concert venue near our place, where we saw a new Canadian band I had vaguely heard of. The Tragically Hip. Gord Downie had long, long hair that he shook like Jim Morrison. New Orleans was sinking, man, but he knew how to swim.
Oh, to live on sugar mountain, Neil Young sang.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it? To be young. All of life was ahead of us. A new decade soon to dawn.
On December 6, 1989, 14 women were murdered at École Polytechnique. I was at home in bed with a raging fever. The night before I’d gone to see Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) at the Bytown Cinema, because I just had to, because when else would I be able to, even though I knew I was coming down with something. Then I really came down with something. I was just right out of it, when I heard the tone of the news on the television in the other room.
They told me. OMFG.
Addendum: Adding a little extra to this to keep the history consolidated. After I wrote this I remembered that one my housemates that fall brought home a kitten. So we had a kitten terrorizing the place. I wrote a letter home to my parents describing the vodka night, and my mother (?) wrote back asking if I was “sowing [my] wild oats.” I guess. Not sure either of those letters survived. Finally, there is another story from the gas station, which I will not tell because it’s horrible. It involves two customers who met over the gas pumps in the middle of the night and exchanged dark misogynistic tales. I remember what they said, but I won’t repeat it.
I brought my skates to Ottawa that fall, hoping to take a spin on the canal once it froze, but it didn’t freeze enough for the skating to open before I left for home in mid-December. I still haven’t skated on the canal.
Second addendum: Another memory. In the fall of 1989, my office held a fundraiser for the United Way, and folks thought it would be cute to dress up the co-op students and have a fashion show. So I did that, including participating in a mock wedding. Cheeks were pinched. There was something pink.