Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Zero Toleration

I firs met Bubba an Stone one midnight when dey was gettin chased across de Interprovincial Bridge by Andre St. Pierre an is karate club. Dey flag me down an I elp em out, giv em a lif. I booted er to Ottawa, lef a buncha drunk black belts pantin an cursin at de moon. What dey did in de tavern to piss off de karate club, I dunno, but I seen St. Pierre an is boys get some guys, after a few beer one night, an it weren’t no pretty sight. So I give em a lif an we ad a few beer in de Market. I never see em again till las mont when dey come in de club on Elgin Street where I work behine de bar. “Frenchie!” Bubba roar an crush my an like a big, drunk bear. E’s even bigger now dan den. Stone, got a black eye but, as usual, e got a good lookin girl wit im an cement on is boots. I don tink Bubba an Stone learnt much in school excep ow to drink an fight an play football. Dey could play football cause dey were real tough an Bubba strong like a bull an mean when e put on de pads. Stone, e was jus mean alla time. After dey cripple some guys in university ball an fail all deir courses, dey end up in de construction business. Stone learn ow to build ouses from is fadder, got is own company. Bubba started out as a labourer for de city. Now dey give im is own truck. Dey’re bot pissed off at de wedder dis winter an, like mos people, dey’re about to crack aroun de end of Fevrier. Dey want to go to Florida an look up an ole football buddy. Dey invite me along dat night at de club. An I say yes. Tabernac. Stone, e bin through a couple marriages an lotsa udder women an got some kids scattered aroun. E says e can handle everyting excep women. Bubba got no kids an e’s fightin wit is girlfrien. De one Stone call “de douche” when Bubba can’t ear im. I shoulda known better when Stone tole me to bring an extra suitcase. One of is wives got all deir luggage an Bubba’s girlfren got de cops to keep im away from de apartment. My brudder, Guillaume, e’s smart, but e’s stupid. Smart wit money, stupid wit women. E always know ow to make a buck but insteada bein appy wit a nice little business in ull, e get tangle up wit a good lookin woman from Montreal. E moved down dere an got busted wit six keys o toot. I figured my brudder won’t be needin is suitcase for a while. I get it from my mudder’s an bring it along. It was a Monday mornin, not too early. We bin on a tour of de otels upriver in de Pontiac since we lef ull some time Saturday mornin. So our stomachs not de bes when we jump in Bubba’s new Corvette an ead for de border. Wit me an de suitcase in de back seat. Bubba, e’s big and tough, but e loves is Corvette. Is girlfren’s mad at im cause e spent money on de car e was spose to spen on er. He yell an take a slap at me an Stone if we spill somethin in de Corvette. Bubba can eat tree family size bags o chips, while e’s drivin, witout spillin a crumb. E takes a big paw fulla chips an stuff de whole ting in is mout while we ‘re bootin it outta town. De boys are ungry when we get to Kemptville an we all need a beer so we stop at de otel dere to join de farmers an rednecks in de tavern. Dey make de good meatball sandwich in de otel in Kemptville. Pretty soon, Stone gets inna game a pool wid some rednecks. De waitress, Katie, she’s stoppin longer to talk to me at de table, every time she bring de beer. It ain’t so bad bein small an French wit de long eyelash. Women love de long eyelash an get real mudderly when dey’re bigger dan you an tryna speak French. So dey usually come onto me firs. Sometime, it work, sometime, it don. Dis one came onto me firs. Definitely. Me? I’m small, but I’m wiry. A lover, not a fighter. I never tot trouble would start in Kemptville. I get up to go for a leak an ear bullfrog noises. I look aroun to see Katie arguin wit some rednecks. By de time I see it’s me dey’re talkin about, a bottle’s comin my way an de fight’s on. A couple jump Bubba from behine, but dey’re flyin over de pool table in a urry. I kick one guy in de back, Stone breaks is cue on a guy’s ead an we make it to de door. Bubba spins dat Corvette tru de gravel a few extra times to spray dose farmer trucks an we boot it for de border. We stop at a gas station to clean out de car, ave a piss, get ready for de USA. When we pull up to de border crossin, Stone sees some guys over to one side watchin guards tear deir truck apart, an laughs. We answer all de questions from a young guy in a uniform an e says to wait a minute an goes to get an ole guy. Dis guy looks like a state trooper from Texas, almos big as Bubba, wit de gun an de badge an de sun glasses. E takes one look at Stone’s black eye, wants our i.d. I tink we woulda bin o.k. if Bubba din take off is sun glasses to look in de glove compartment. Dunno why e’s wearin em anyway, it’s almos dark. I’m watchin de ole guard examine de i.d., but I see e’s really lookin over top of dem at Bubba’s eyes, in de side mirror. I could see is eyes too. Dey were red, real red. In fac, dey look like dey avin internal emmorage. De ole guard put is big, fat ead in de window, smell a real deep breat an tell Bubba to pull over beside de guys Stone laughed at. Bubba takes one look at de guys’ truck gettin torn apart an de back of is neck gets red as is eyeballs. We’re all pretty cool cause we know we’re clean. We go into de office wid de president’s picture on de wall beside all de wanted posters an answer more stupid questions. Bubba’s lookin out de window while some guards look unner de Corvette wit mirrors, open up de ood. De ole guard keeps smellin real ard while dey ask us who we gonna visit in Florida an if we ever take drugs. He stops sniffin so ard when Stone rips a real loud beer fart. Finally, jus when I tink we’re finish, de young guard march into de office wit Guillaume’s suitcase an a look like e jus won de lottery. E pull de plastic on a little panel in dere I din even know about. De ole guard reach in wit is big, fat fingers an pull out a baggie wit is udder han on is gun. E looks at us wit a big, ugly grin an opens de baggie. Ten seeds fall out on de counter. Couple udder guards, in de room behine us now, got deir hans on deir guns. Bubba turns red, Stone turns to me. Everybody looks at me. I try to give em a shrug like Trudeau, tell em it ain’t my suitcase. De guards smell blood now. Dey take me an Stone to one room, Bubba to an udder one. De young guard gives us some pamphlets an leaves us alone. Stone’s blamin me. I can ear Bubba roarin. Stone looks at is pamphlet, looks at me. “Uh oh” Dese pamphlets about some new law dey made in de States, ‘Zero Toleration’ I agree wit Stone when e say, “Uh oh” Dis new law means dey can take Bubba’s new Corvette an keep er cause of ten ole pot seeds even my brudder forgot. Collis. I never knew my brudder could write. It never come up. I guess everybody can write deir name an address dese days. Dat’s what saved us. Guillaume wrote is name on de tags an inside de suitcase. Dey ask more questions an finally fine out dat my brudder’s in jail in Montreal. Dey bring us all togedder in a room to tell us what we gotta do to get Bubba’s Corvette back. Bubba’s real red an starin at us like e’s gonna explode so I stay behine Stone when we go in. I feel better when I see some guards wit deir hans on deir guns. Dey probably woulda let Stone and Bubba go back to Ottawa cause it was my brudder’s suitcase, but Bubba explode right dere. “You idiots” e yell an make a dive for us. E knock alf de guards down an roll aroun on de floor wit de fat one till one young guard it im on de ead wit a night stick. Stone jumps in an pretty soon dey’re cuffin dem an draggin dem away. Me? I jus stan dere. A young guard notices me an point is gun at me. “Resume dat position” e say. Stone uses is phone call to get a ten tousand dollar bond on de spot. I gotta go, according to Bubba’s call, back to lawyers in Ottawa to get affidavits signed dat we don know nuttin about drugs. Maybe it weren’t fair, in a way, but me, I was appy to catch de nex bus dat came tru de border to get away from Bubba till he cool down. So de nex day is Tuesday. Instead o bein alfway to Florida, I’m gettin off de bus at de station in Ottawa an lookin for dis lawyer, Kenny Nelson, who use to play ball wit de boys. Turns out, is office is in a big, new building on Elgin Street wit igh speed elevators an lotsa plants. My brudder, Guillaume, e don like lawyers an e always say be careful wit dem, but dis setup looks o.k. to me. Dere’s lotsa good lookin women, all dressed to kill. I talk wit a sweet, blonde receptionist till Kenny Nelson shows up. E takes me to is office an I tell im de story. E asks me some questions. E’s laughin so hard, e’s almost cryin. E phones some udder lawyers oo played ball wit de boys. Dey all laugh an finally e tells me to come back tomorrow morning, de papers will be ready. Me? I’m tres fatigue by now an dis blonde got me tinkin bout some relaxation. I go for a breakfas special in de unnergroun fas food joints where Theresa works. Theresa, she’s big, wit lotsa poing. She love de long eyelash an take real good care o me from time to time. Theresa got a real good job in de government building on top o dese fas food joints. She comes down for a coffee wit me an gives me de key to er apartment. I got to know er about a year ago when she came into de club wit er government friens. So I go up to er place after I pick up a few grams from de stash. I ave a sauna an a swim in er pool, get some relaxation till she comes home an we hit de sack. She cooks a nice Italian supper an I feel guilty when we’re sittin in fron de fireplace wit de wine an smoke an listenin to er jazz records. Guilty about de boys, I mean. Me an Theresa ave a good time an she ‘s tryna talk me into movin in wit er like she always does. I don tink she really wants me to move in, it’s jus sorta a game we play. We bot know it would spoil all de fun. In de mornin I see Kenny Nelson an e’s still laughin an phonin more guys oo played football wit de boys while I sign papers sayin I don know nuttin about seeds or dope. Finally, e gives me all de stuff we need an I get a bus back to de border. We musta got lucky cause one a de young guards was a Corvette freak like Bubba an dey spen lotsa time talkin bout em. Bubba’s mellowed out, but e’s still mad. E lets us in de Corvette when we get everyting straightened out. Pretty soon, we’re bootin er sout on 87, lookin for six packs. De boys jus don feel right widout a cold, American beer between deir legs when dey’re drivin in de States. De only words Bubba says to us, excep “Put on Van Halen”, was “You idiots!” Every so often, while e drink is first six pack, he looks across at Stone an in the mirror at me an shakes is big ead. After de firs couple o six packs, Bubba let Stone put on Dire Straits. I don pay much attention anymore. Since I met de bands at de bar, seem to me de guitar players are jus as crazy as ousepainters. Well, de trip goes pretty good after dat. By de time we get to de sout, we figure out dat we only got one day to stay in Florida if we’re gonna make it back to Ottawa on time. “No way!” Bubba says. “Red says toot’s thirty five a gram in Miami. We’re stayin for a vacation. We deserve it” Red’s deir football buddy. E runs some kinda tourist resort where dey specialize in parties. We ad a real good time, stayed for two weeks, till we ran outta money. Guillaume always says dat de only people dat party like Quebecers, is Americans. I believe im now. We end up alfway to Cuba wit dancin girls an gangsters an almos get shot outta de water by de coast guard, but dat’s anudder story. My brudder, Guillaume, he’s comin into de club for a drink tonight. Is woman in Montreal got im a good lawyer an dey trew de whole ting outta court. E’s comin in to pick up is suitcase, too. Nex week, e’s goin on vacation.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Work

We were driving around Kanata. Tension was building for Belinda as the end of my unemployment benefits approached. There was a similarity between Belinda with a thirty four year career, one federal government job, and me, whose longest job had been two years: work meant the same thing to both of us, money to pay the bills. Being without a job was unknown to her, familiar to me. My employment was on our minds. Belinda pointed out the ‘Hiring - Part Time’ sign in front of the grocery store at Kanata Centrum. I had never worked in a grocery store but in one of those damn grand gestures, I pulled into the parking lot and ran in to get an application. These gestures were made in mild anger. They were meant to go along with Belinda, to demonstrate that I was doing everything she suggested. She thought she knew how I should conduct myself better than I. She is often wrong but that doesn’t bother her at all. It was just another whim for her, a help wanted sign seen through the window of a moving car. Belinda’s been in management for many years and I have worked for very few places with good management. Most big companies, in my experience, have terrible management with no self respect or ethics. Morality doesn’t even enter into it. She and I have a fundamental disagreement. One advantage of living with a person who is in management is the opportunity to look at things through management’s eyes. Over a long, painful process, I learned to ask Belinda’s advice. She had heard there was a union at this store, that the jobs probably paid ten dollars an hour minimum. All of my life I’ve had self appointed experts telling me what to do about work. Like her, most of them have never had to do the jobs I have. I appreciated their concern but seldom found a job because of their help. I’ve often thought that stocking shelves, arranging vegetables, wouldn’t be bad work, but it was hard to believe that you could get ten bucks an hour for it. I dropped off the application at the Kanata Centrum store. Belinda couldn’t let it go. She was using guilt to motivate me. She knew that I wanted to work, but resented the fact that I was taking the time to try to find a decent job. This seemed to indicate that I was lazy and that I didn’t want to work. The next step in that reasoning is that all unemployed people should happily stampede Macdonald’s to take the jobs there. I was sending Belinda off at five - thirty in the dark every morning. She was squeezing every ounce of guilt out of it. Iris, from the grocery chain, called. She said that they had my application and asked if I would be available for an interview. She said that it was a union shop, that the starting pay was a few cents over minimum wage per hour. Their policy was that they only hired part time workers for a maximum of twenty-four hours per week. When I shopped at our grocery store in the next few days, I watched the staff out of the corner of my eye. The vegetable department didn’t look too bad. The shelf stocking and pricing looked downright pleasant compared to many of the jobs I’ve had. Inside, warm and dry, radio music drifting through the store, nice smells, downright pleasant. It wasn’t until I emerged into the parking lot in the driving rain that I stepped aside for the older guy pushing a line of shopping carts in the door. He had a wet, red face. I realized that this was probably where you started in a grocery store. You were the guy pushing carts around. What would former school mates and friends think, if they saw me pushing carts around a grocery store parking lot? When I told Belinda about my revelation, she started calling me “Bubbles”. I found the store in the mall on March Road and parked in the lot. I didn’t really want to work for a company which automatically enrolled me in a union but paid minimum wage to start. I watched a young guy with a stubble cut pushing some shopping carts toward the store. It was time for the interview. My attitude toward all paid work was the same. I figured most jobs were possible for me to learn. I had proved that to myself travelling around the world. “If they can do it, I can do it” had worked so far. I found the customer service desk, waited while a woman behind the counter used a phone to call someone on the p.a. system. I notice several white haired men in grocery store uniforms. The lady phoned Iris and directed me back into the lobby where there was a park bench. She told me to take a seat, Iris would be right down. How many people did you see sitting on those benches inside the automatic doors at the grocery store? I sat for a moment, got up to check out the bulletin board. Next to it was a board showing snapshot sized photos of the management team with their names and titles. There, at the top, was Eddy Laval, Assistant Manager. I knew Eddy and his older brother, Frankie, when they were kids at the rink where I worked in high school. They were rink rats like I was at their age. I had seen Eddy, years ago, stocking shelves at a grocery store. He must have stayed with the company all this time to become an assistant manager. Iris arrived while I was looking up at Eddy’s smiling mug, his tie befitting his position. Iris was an attractive young woman, polite and friendly.. To make conversation, to skate over the first few painful moments, I indicated the picture, explained that I knew Eddy when he was a little kid. We climbed the stairs to the offices. Iris asked what Eddy was like when I knew him. I told her that Eddy and Frankie were good kids, quiet, nice guys. At the top of the stairs, Iris opened a door, we stepped into an office with a big window looking out over the store. Iris stopped. “He says he knew you when you were a little kid” She spoke to the two people sitting at the table with lunch bags and newspapers. Eddy looked up from the paper with a worried frown. He had white and grey patches in his hair and moustache. He wore a look of bored exhaustion. Seeing me didn’t seem to help. His expression remained blank as he sort of nodded or blinked in recognition. I’m not sure if he said “Yeah” or “Hey” or just grunted. I didn’t notice him jumping across the table to pump my hand, welcoming me to the family. Then again, the way he looked, I didn’t hold it against him. Maybe he was trying to do me a favour. Sensing embarrassment, I followed Iris into another room. “But he was a good kid though” I managed. It was directed at the young guy, another stubble cut, who sat across the table from Eddy smirking at him. Iris remarked that she guessed Eddy wasn’t the same as when I knew him. She pointed me to one of two chairs in a tiny, cubbyhole office. She was probably twenty years younger than I, Eddy, ten years younger. I couldn’t remember the last boss I had who was older than me. A slim, white haired woman in a business suit sat at the only desk in the room sorting through piles of job applications. She smiled pleasantly, three feet away. “I’ll be quiet” “OK” I smiled. Iris got her papers ready. She wanted to ask me a series of questions. I indicated that I was ready. She asked me why I applied for the job. I appreciated Iris’ manner, it wasn’t intimidating or judgemental. I felt I could be sincere with her, but I couldn’t just laugh out loud. I glanced at the white haired lady. She gave me a reassuring look with a twinkle in her eye which meant that all three of us knew how stupid that question was. “I was looking for a job” Relief swept over us all. Iris went on to the next question. “Think back, to other jobs where you’ve had a conflict with someone, say a customer, over something. How have you resolved it?” I’m past being too honest in job interviews. For my jobs they wanted to hear you say the right things. I told her I’d never had a problem with a customer. It wasn’t a big lie. The next question was about multi - tasking. How would I cope with a lot of things to do at once. I had no answer so I referred to the last job. As it was outlined in my resume, a yardman in an oil terminal has a million responsibilities. I glanced at the lady with the white hair who was beginning to look more like a management type. She had the piles of applications all over the desk but the shuffling quieted when I gave my answers. Thank goodness it wasn’t a big, important job. I still couldn’t believe that they were going to these lengths for a buggy man. The final question was, even Iris admitted, a little strange. “Think of a product, any product from any store, which you bought and you’ve found it’s the greatest. Tell me about it. Explain why it’s so great” I was getting the feeling that the other woman was actually in charge here. Even if I graduated to sorting tomatoes I wouldn’t need to know anything like this. I wondered if they had me mixed up with a management candidate. All three of us knew that these were Human Resource questions which had to be asked because they were on the list which Iris was consulting. She was taking notes too. She was probably an ex cashier with a degree training to be a Human Resources person. Good for her. Someone in the human resources department had decided that these questions were necessary so that these jobs wouldn’t be squandered on just anyone. The only thing I could think of was my water barrel. It was a great acquisition. I recommended it to anyone with an eavestrough. Iris said she had an eavestrough. I did a double take when Iris straightened her papers and told me that I would be contacted in the future if I advanced to the next level. Another level, I thought. I left after shaking hands, saying polite thank yous. I was glad that Eddy wasn’t in the next room. Maybe I banned him from the rink for a week, but I couldn’t remember doing it. He and Frankie were good natured, dedicated rink rats. I know they coached little kids’ teams. Never any trouble that I could remember. Iris called again a few days later. She wanted to know if I was available for an interview at the Kanata store I had applied to. Of course I was. I mentioned Eddy’s non response at the interview. She laughed it off, said they didn’t pay much attention to Eddy, he was probably “in a mood”. When the day came, I parked in the lot. An older guy with a goatee pushed long lines of carts toward the door. He wore a hood against the wind but no gloves. I’d wear gloves if I was doing that. I followed a cashier toward the upstairs offices. I shook hands with a pleasant chap wearing a brown shirt and tie, no jacket, Mr. Fisher. His back was to the picture window which looked out over the store. I tried to be pleasant and interested, but he knew that I didn’t understand the system. I couldn’t figure out what Iris was talking about when she explained the part time, permanent, job status. In a nutshell, the only obstacle that he had with hiring me, on the spot, was availability. I had emphasized that my availability was wide open, nights, weekends, anything except graveyards. Iris had checked this twice. I thought that it was an advantage. It wasn’t. If you really wanted a full time job, it would take years there, so you would probably leave. It was a disadvantage to be too available. Mr. Fisher emphasized that they only hired permanent part time employees, not temporary. When you signed on, they paid for training and orientation, you committed yourself to certain shifts. If you wanted to change those shifts to nights or weekends for another job, you couldn’t. All the other workers in the store had seniority, students needed nights and weekends. You were responsible for your shifts, out of a job if you didn’t do them. He made it clear that it was the union who forced you to sign the commitment to your designated shifts. After a year’s worth of hours, the employees get some benefits. He said he needed people in the produce department from now till Christmas from six a.m. to noon. It would probably take two years for me to qualify for the benefits which sounded like they were designed to attract single mothers. Mr. Fisher had middle management hair and glasses. He steepled his fingers, read from the notes Iris had written on my application. “It says here you’ve haven’t dealt much with customers. Here, what we do with customers is make their shopping experience the best it can be” We both knew he could say nothing else. I wanted to look out of the big window behind him but kept remembering the interview tips I’d seen: books, magazines and newspaper columns all advised the interviewee to give good eye contact. The fact that Mr. Fisher was being nice while reeling off the cliches, made me feel better. The trouble was, we were in a serious discussion about a minimum wage job, maximum twenty four hours a week, minus union dues and taxes. He told me that he had no problem hiring me if I was willing to go along with the conditions. I had repeated to Iris several times that I was looking for a full time job. That didn’t seem to faze her. She said that, if I got one, I could still come in on weekends. I admitted to Mr. Fisher that I probably wouldn’t be able to continue the shifts which I took at the beginning when I got another job. He made it clear that the company didn’t want to pay for orientation and training only to lose the employee as had happened with one girl last week. I could see his point. He wanted a definite commitment. I couldn’t give him one. Even if I could do the job, I couldn’t live on the money. We shook hands. I rose to leave. There was a tiredness behind his pleasant smile. Probably, aside from the money, the buggy men and produce clerks were feeling better than this guy. Doing what he did all day must have been exhausting. He said he had a few more people to interview. Later Belinda told me that I should have lied and taken the twenty four hours a week for the moment. I don’t think even she believed that. I left the store after picking up a green pepper and some pita bread. I felt relief and gave a cheery nod to the stubble cut pushing carts past my truck. He looked miserable, hood up. That evening, I stepped outside to say goodbye to Belinda and her girlfriend as they left for the Bingo. She looked up at me from the driver’s window of her Mazda. She said I looked tired, no, depressed. “You don’t turn down a buggy man job, every day” I smiled. They drove off, laughing. The grand gesture was a waste of time. Belinda had long forgotten that she started it when we were driving past the grocery store in Kanata Centrum. I turned on the kitchen radio. A news break interrupted the drive home radio show: drivers, warehouse people and some cashiers were on strike at another local grocery chain. The issue: part time workers.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Lawyers and Poison Ivy

It was the sweat. The sweat did it. The sweat I couldn't touch with my hands. Little, black midges buzzed in my eyes and ears. The itchy drops rolled down my forehead and hung off my eyebrow. Even with a lot of head shaking, some of them splash onto your eyelid and cheek. So you lift your arm to wipe and scratch with your sleeve. You've forgotten that the poison ivy roots are longer than the rubber gloves, reaching past your elbows, under your arms. You try to gather the handfuls together while following the next root to pull it out of the sandy earth. The trick is to get them as long as possible. The more they break off, the more you have to go back. They break off where another root grows over top of them a few inches under the surface. That top root is bigger than the one you've got, so you mark the spot to save searching for it later or forgetting about it. Meanwhile, you are pulling up this root and its runners. The pain in your back, shoulders and legs increases as you search for the runners which wrap themselves around each other and the roots of other plants. Your itchy eyelid touches your sleeve which has absorbed some of the oil from the roots. You get poison ivy in the eye. The new lot, on the outskirts of the city, is cut out of the forest near the river. The builder bought a lot and built a bungalow on a gravel road. Our neighbours say this lot used to be like a bird sanctuary. A hillside of oak trees, poison ivy and wildflowers where no white man has ever lived. Sand and a few weeds surround the foundation and cover the surface of the front yard where the septic system is buried and the back yard over the well. Around the perimeter of the lot there is poison ivy, three small evergreens, a few poplars and thirty or forty oak trees. Not big old massive oaks but big enough. Forty to fifty feet. I waded into the poison ivy in shorts and sandals, thinking I was immune to it because I was when I was a kid. It turns out, according to the medical books, that you lose your immunity as you grow older. I got it all over my wrists and forearms and legs. I received enough money in an inheritance for a down payment on a mortgage which my wife qualified for because of her job. We had enough for new appliances, furniture and a wood stove to heat the place after we got rid of the agent. The real estate game was a new experience since neither of us had owned a home before. We moved from a two bedroom fifth floor apartment highrise to this ex bird sanctuary after visiting almost every bedroom community outside the city. The agent was a mutual friend, not a close friend, but someone we trusted by default. There was no reason not to. A few weeks into our search with the agent, I read a library book on inspecting your own home. My wife and I argued over our obligations to the agent. Finally, I confronted him on the phone. I was outraged that we had been cutting ourselves off from investigating private deals ("no agents") because we felt guilty about him. His patter remained pretty well the same in each house we visited. The home inspection book detailed everything from the foundation to the chimney which one should inspect and test carefully in estimating the real costs of buying a property. You deduct the cost of repairs or upgrades from the price. In the real estate system, such things as meetings between the buyers and sellers were discouraged. Two hour home inspections, crawling around the house with flashlight, measuring tape and tools were unheard of. There was no legal obligation by the agent to guarantee the quality of the property, nothing in writing which obligated us to use him. We later found out that an agent can only be held responsible for faults in your house if you can prove they had intentionally hidden them from you. The agent pockets a good amount of your money which could be spent on furniture or appliances, but in a year or two, if you run into huge expenses because of a problem with your property, he can drive away in his company car with your money in his pocket. He’s free of all responsibility. If you've taken the precaution of paying a few hundred dollars for a home inspection, that is all you have to fall back on. And we're feeling guilty about him. He didn't say "take it or leave it", but I could tell that's what he was thinking. When we happened onto the property we bought, we were alone. We realized that we could save $7,000 in agents’ fees, so we didn't hesitate. We called a lawyer, took possession and moved in within two months. Dealing with the agent while the O.J. Simpson trial was on CNN daily should have prepared me for the lawyer and the legal system. In one of the endless, microscopic, depressing Larry King explorations of the American legal system some expert said a rule of thumb for lawyers is "Never represent yourself". I did just that. I heard about a procedure in law which enables a private citizen to question a lawyer’s bill and request to have it lowered by the court for fifty bucks. It exists, but the public doesn't know about it. They don't advertise it, the lawyers and judges who are former lawyers. They have created a system which is like the real estate system. We can avoid the real estate system and poison ivy, but we can't avoid the legal system. This lawyer became our lawyer by default. My mom's legal affairs had been taken care of by a family friend who used to have his chicken track essays typed for him by my sister. I played football with him in high school. He was good to my mom. He had too big a heart to be a lawyer. Before my mother died, he called to say that he was retiring to take over the family bakery. I assumed then, know now, that he left the lawyer trade in disgust. His boss, a partner in one of the biggest law companies in town, called to get the job when my mother died. I assumed he would treat the administration of the will with the same care as my friend had. The legal process to challenge the lawyer’s fees was in motion at the same time as we bought and moved into the house. The final hearing was scheduled for early August. I came to challenge the bill, not for the money involved, but to protest the treatment of my family by the lawyer. I'm sure that if the equivalent had been done to the family in my father's time, he would have dragged this individual out of his fancy top floor suite of offices by the suit and made him back it up, man to man. People, these days, either kill each other or go to court. Lawyers’ insidious power creeps into every facet of our lives, witness pro sports and our political system. Common sense and honesty seem to be absent in all of the huge systems we have to deal with from day to day. The legal system, like poison ivy, will get you, one way or another, if you get involved with it. My aunt, in her mid eighties, was the executrix of the will. She had only good intentions in that capacity. She was overwhelmed by the mess which was created by this lawyer, preferred just to get it over with as soon as possible. My mom’s short, clear will took over a year to be administered because of the arrogance and ignorance of the lawyer and the behaviour of my sister. She objected to the will, the funeral arrangements, my aunt's executrixship and anything else she could think of. The lawyer, at first taken aback, confided to my aunt that he had met such people before, had one in his own family. He knew how to handle her. Of course, he was putty in the hands of my sister. He was soon bullied or conned into doing nothing. Finally, my aunt and I forced him to act by threatening to take the will to another lawyer. It seems that every family goes through turmoil when death visits. No one is ready for it. How many times does your mother die? I resigned myself to waiting for months to get the matter settled. The extra money the lawyer charged because of the problems which my sister caused was not the main consideration in having his fees assessed. It seemed to be the only way, short of making a splash in the media and risking slander charges, to question his competence and criticize the quality of his work, publicly. Ranting on the phone or through the mail is a waste of time. The assessment is done by a judge in a formal hearing with a bible and a court reporter. It's not much consolation if you lose, but at least you get to look the lawyer in the eye in front of witnesses on public record and tell him what you think of his work. By the time the poison ivy root pile had grown into a three foot by four foot hump at the back of the lot, I had tried every poison ivy cure known to man. From rubbing broken aloe vera leaves on the rash, to experimenting with expensive homeopathic remedies, to good old calamine lotion, I tried everything to control the poison ivy. I was still attacking the last of the big clumps. Nothing worked. I seriously considered taking the advice of friends who recommended a napalm like herbicide which would "kill everything it touches for three years". But I couldn't bring myself to do it. I continued to itch as I tried to write down my thoughts on the lawyer's work. I planned a space close to the basement window for the woodpile. August arrived. The big day approached. This was going to be my third time in this judge’s courtroom. The first two times procedural mistakes exploited by the fast talking lawyer caused delays. We got the call from the wood cutter the night before the court date. He would be arriving the next day with loads of wood, four in all, totalling ten face cords. I killed the tension by pulling roots furiously that hot afternoon. That was probably when I contacted my eye with the poison ivy oil on my sleeve. We drove into town early that August morning and had a greasy breakfast on the way. My anger at the lawyer had driven me to refuse an out of court settlement of $500 off the bill which he had offered by phone a few days before. We smothered our ham and eggs in ketchup. I agonized over whether I should have taken him up on his offer. My wife asked me why I was winking at her. A large tear ran down my cheek. My eye had begun to swell, turn red and itch as much as my ankles and wrists. The intimidating atmosphere of the formal hearing became exaggerated as I sat in suit and tie and studied my twenty pages of notes. They recorded the catalogue of insults the lawyer had heaped upon me and my aunt. Not overt insults, but an endless series of delays, mistakes and inexplicable charges. My eye ran. My voice sounded like a strangled crow as I tried to explain to the judge why I was questioning the lawyer's work. The structure of the proceedings, about which even the greenest cop and file clerk in the building knew more than I, threw me. Statements, questions, cross examinations which were second nature to the lawyer, spoiled the plan I had rehearsed. The judge and lawyer exchanged significant glances. The court reporter turned to examine me curiously while I sputtered and squawked emotionally about the injustice and lack of attention the lawyer had paid to the administration of my mother's will. I made statements when I should have asked questions and fumbled with my notes. The lawyer defended himself. The judge confronted me with a release I had signed in a meeting when my sister finally agreed to have the will administered as it was written. The lawyer simply blamed the delays on my sister and the mistakes on his assistant. He had delegated the details of the settlement to his assistant because it decreased the cost of his services. He charged three hundred dollars per hour for his time, only one hundred per hour for hers. He couldn't explain many of the charges on the bill and after a year of dealing with our family, he hadn't even been able to get my name right on the final papers. It didn't phase the judge. It became obvious that the exercise was carried through because I had paid the fifty bucks. They were humouring me. If I had known the procedure or had been represented by a lawyer who did, I might have had a chance. As it was, with anger and adrenalin tightening my collar, sweat and a steady tear rolling out of one eye, I was disposed of in short order. I was told by the judge that he would allow no further litigation on the matter, that the bill was fair. The consolation of knowing that I had, in three court appearances, wasted at least four hours of the lawyer's $300 an hour time, comforted me on the drive home. The endless technical details and procedures I watched millionaire lawyers manipulate on behalf of a millionaire defendant in the Simpson trial became more meaningful and more depressing. The woodcutter arrived cheerfully with the first load of wood. I struggled to keep up with my wife who had grown up on a farm. She taught me to crosspile the ends of the rows of 16" maple, beech and ironwood logs. We continued until darkness and exhaustion halted our labours. My eye had closed completely. The Arnprior Hospital took care of the poison ivy with a shot of penicillin. Some of the poison ivy still survives beneath the frozen ground of winter. The wood stove gives good heat. We heard later that the same lawyer had been taken to court again for the same reason. My original lawyer, my friend from high school, died of cancer. O.J. got off. We carry on.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Hockey Game

It started up around Fort Coulonge. We were ice fishing down past Quyon, when it got to us. It was a heated affair by then. Somehow, the boys in Portage du Fort had trained a moose to wear a bridle. He liked the hay and oats that the Walkers fed their horse, wanted some too. There was Big Herbie Walker and his brother, Silas. They were thrown out of the logging camps for drinking and fighting enough times, nobody would hire them. They tried their hands at farming, but it was too hard, so they did odd jobs around town. When they weren’t working, they spent half their time in the Campbell’s Bay lockup, the other half, drunk. The Walkers acquired a whole sled full of hockey sticks, probably stole them, said they were payment of a debt. They used the horse balls produced by Ned, their old sleigh pulling nag, as pucks. They tied the moose, named Gerald, to the rear of the sled, started a game. It might have been the wind that pushed them downriver, maybe they just yearned for freedom, we’ll never know. There were some farmers who weren’t logging and some ne’er do wells, who could skate, from Sand Bay, who joined the game where the river widened there. Baad Fred, from Shawville, happened to be hauling ice from the river when he saw them. It was said that he had an unnatural affinity for sheep. He always wore rubber boots. Whenever Baad Fred entered a bar or a pool hall, the imitations of bleating of sheep began. He never noticed, never caught on. It could just be a rural legend. The boys from Quyon would believe it of a Shawville native and vice versa, but that was just because they didn’t like each other. Fred became the number one goalie for the team going downriver. When the wind was against him, he’d play goal for the team going upriver, but moving backwards. They reached us the first night. The score had long been forgotten, initial fights were over, the group of them seemed content to skate down the river, some forward, some backward, passing jugs as they went. The boys were playing on teams which nobody could identify except the players. Silas Walker drove the sled, Big Herbie played defence. Gerald walked behind. They had Billy Aye on the right wing. Billy’s nickname was “Swoop’‘ because of his patented style, bearing down on goal. If you hit his stick with the horse ball at exactly the right time, he was sure to score. If you didn’t, he still swooped, made an impressive display, but never scored. One night, soon after we joined the game, Billy swooped, missed, disappeared. No one stopped to see where he went. It wasn’t till the next morning, we noticed Billy wasn’t around. The glass half full consensus was that he got bored, went back to robbing banks. The glass half empty held that he swooped into open water. We’ ll never know. By the time they got to us at Quyon, the game had picked up a life of its own. That night, the laziest man among us would rather play hockey than sit still. It was in our blood A whole gang joined the game around Arnprior, ice fishermen there on the river. The Boar from North Gower was there, in the pack of them from the Ontario side. They were like dogs, once the hockey fever seized them. The ones from Carp were crazed. There was a lot of blood spilled when the game arrived in a new town. Things eventually cooled down, but boys will be boys. The McGraws were known as the type of men who’d rather fight than eat. They were employed as bouncers, to clean up unruly bars. They could skate because they were from Quyon. They could fight because they were McGraws. It was always a help to us, to have them out in front when we approached the fishing shacks outside the next town. The St. Pierre brothers joined the game around Eardley, on the Quebec side of the river. They were known as the “crash line” because they kept crashing into each other. There was Rainy, Rene and Renny. Whenever you passed them a horse ball and yelled “Rainy”, they’d all hear their own name and go for it at once. It saved a lot of high speed collisions to pass it to someone else. They were fine when they didn’t have the puck (real pucks entered the game and disappeared regularly) but they were a danger to themselves and others when they got a pass. By the time we got past Aylmer, on the river between Ottawa and Hull, hundreds had joined the game. The Gatineau River contributed hordes from the towns on the Quebec side. Men in Hull and Ottawa looked south and north, respectively, saw the game, took days off to join. There was a lot of carousing and fighting when the game passed the Parliament Buildings. Taverns sent their staffs down to the river to take care of their customers, catering companies were run off their feet. Three days and nights passed before the game moved east on the river. The teams from upriver took the side of Quebecers in the large brawls. Some of the fast, little Frenchmen were big scorers. The Quebecers always came up with a good goalie. The boys slept, ate, drank, in shifts. Many from upriver, thought nothing of collapsing for a few hours on the Walkers’ sled. Gerald the moose enjoyed the attention of city folks who watched him eat the Walkers’ hay and oats, fed him sugar lumps and carrots. Teams grew and shrunk, one side dominated the other. There were open ice hits which everyone admired except for the man who got hit. If he had an appreciation of the game, he often admired it himself in the retelling. The fact that he was knocked unconscious, couldn’t have witnessed most of what he recounted, in no way diminished the awe in which he was held. Reputations grew over the years. Some men from the Pontiac drank on the stories for lifetimes, for free. Others, like Lyle Stiles, didn’t drink, went into denial. As the game moved down the river, teams and individuals came and went. Just past Thurso, Cy McBunn joined the game. He was accompanied by a bunch from Alfred. They wore striped uniforms, didn’t play long, disappeared. Cy’s specialty was skating backwards. He could skate rings around most of his opponents when they were skating forward. But his inability to skate forward was a major contributor to his lack of scoring prowess. He didn’t make it to the opposition net very often, skating backwards. Cy had a tendency to blow up, frustrated, not being able to score. He’d inevitably take a good, solid hit in the back, go sprawling toward his own goal. His outbursts took the form of powerful slapshots in front of him. Goalies hated playing for Cy’s team. He scored too much on his own goalie. The snow blew, the wind howled. The game moved downriver. They said Gros Pierre La Barge was from around Montebello. He showed up one snowy night when Ned got constipated and stopped producing horse balls. We’d lost the real pucks upriver. Gros Pierre felt like fighting since the game was grinding to a halt. Most men on both sides were sitting in snowbanks, resting, passing a jug. Gros Pierre swung his stick viciously at anyone who looked English. He terrorized teams too tired to fight. Someone directed him at the Pontiac boys. We were forced to wake the McGraws. They were passed out on the back of the Walkers’ sled, surrounded by restless men waiting for Ned to have a movement. Gros Pierre roared in the background while he chased another “maudit Anglais” around the river. The McGraws and Gros Pierre met at centre ice. They were still fighting when they disappeared the wrong way, upriver. It seemed safer for all concerned to let them go. We heard, years later, that someone saw the three of them drinking quarts in the Wolf Lake bar. We’ll never know. There was what only could be described as an epiphany, at L’Orignal. In the brawling and drinking of the hockey game, a native of the town saw Gerald. He was struck dumb by the sight of the moose munching hay from the Walkers’ sled. The French speakers told us that they were glad he was struck dumb, the man talked too much, anyway. The word “l’orignal”, in French, meant “moose”, in English. They had named a whole town after the beast. There seemed to be a much deeper meaning for the native of the town. He jumped onto Gerald’s back, headed east, toward the St Lawrence. The look in his eye told us he was going somewhere, only he could see. The French speakers told us that he’d lost his other eye fighting with the wife. The Walkers followed toward Montreal, Big Herbie on defence, Silas on the wing. Ned pretty well found his own way. He was back to producing horse balls for their games. The silent native of L’Orignal rode Gerald toward the dawn. We turned back upriver. It had been an enjoyable week, but there was still ice fishing left to do this season. The hockey fever had diminished. It was no mean task to skate upriver with the winds against us. It’s a good source of talk on windy nights. Slumbering by the woodstove in the fishing shack, a quart near to hand. It’s a fine memory to ponder, that hockey game.