Saturday, January 20, 2018
If you’ve never spent time on welfare during a Vancouver winter, you won’t understand my motivation. It can rain hard for three weeks at a time. You get wet no matter what you wear or how careful you are. The sky can be dark grey with massive clouds for more than a month with never a peek of sunshine. They say the suicide rate is the highest there. I believe that is the reason. Everyone who has lived there knows about the advantages of Vancouver, but the depressing winter rain is not mentioned so much. It’s hard to take, day after day. I had finally left the house in Kitsilano where the longest, poorest, wettest, greyest, most depressing Vancouver winter had driven the guys living there to desperation. We met the winter before on the False Creek seawall job. The bosses were permanent city truck drivers. They trucked in millions of boulders, needed them dumped by wheelbarrow down the sides of False Creek. Four of us lived in a house in Kitsilano. Soon we were broke. The winter we spent in that house in Kits was so depressing that, by spring, I knew I had to get out. I found a bachelor apartment on 16th Avenue. Les had worked on the Lion’s Gate bridge in years past, encouraged me to apply for the job. When I got up in the morning on 16th Ave., I could see the tops of the Lion’s Gate towers above the surrounding roofs, snow caps of mountains called The Lions, beyond. The pay, on being hired by the highway department, seemed astronomical after the past winter. Ron was the boss. He was a tall, slim, grey haired man with an English accent. They said he could climb like a monkey. He made a remark about “getting stuck with the choirboys” in the morning meeting on the first day. Apparently, the crew on the Second Narrows bridge had inherited more experienced men from the personnel department and he wasn’t happy about it. Apart from that he was civil to me. He only came up on the bridge once a day to see how things were going. The rest of the crew, having worked there for years, appreciated that. They put me with Tim, the sandblaster, for the first two weeks. He was a big, bald guy who worked in a three sided building where he sandblasted all day. He did plows, grader blades, all kinds of things for the department of highways. I loaded the sandblaster drum for him, moved things around until he got me doing the sandblasting. In the hot summer, with all the equipment a sandblaster has to wear, it’s not a pleasant job. No matter what you do, the tiny grains of silica get into every crevice and crack. The day finally came when they told me I was going up. I followed the rest of the crew up the sidewalk from the North side of the bridge. The view gets more spectacular as you walk. At the first tower you climb the protective barrier between the sidewalk and one leg of the tower. It is then that you first step across a little space which provides a clear view of the sunlight dancing on the water, two hundred and fifty feet below. My job was to prepare the steel for the painters to spray. They gave me a wire brush, a paint scraper and a needle gun. You plugged the needle gun into an airline wherever you needed it. You scraped the steel clean of rust before the red paint was applied. There was a lot of bird droppings. Some areas needed more work than others, but they all had to be done because when the spiders arrived from above, the painters wanted the surface cleaned and primed. The painters attached their spiders near the tops of the towers, descended to prepare the surfaces unreachable otherwise, then spray painted the whole structure with several coats. The logistics of the painters’ jobs, their five gallon cans of paint, spray guns, lines and spiders, make it a long process. No one can go onto the bridge to work if there is precipitation. They’re lucky to get one half of the bridge done in one summer. When we climbed up from the road level to the next work area, the men left their lunches, threw their safety belts into a pile in the corner. I did the same. The safety belts were too much trouble. Every time you moved, you had to unhitch the belt. Sun filled, windy days on the Lion’s Gate made you feel alive and strong and in the right place at the right time. The trials of life were always waiting when the day was over, but those summer work days were irreplaceable. The constant swoosh of traffic hummed below, ships sailed the Burrard Inlet, sun shone, ocean breeze blew. Snowcapped mountains stood in the distance. When you looked West, you stared straight out to sea. As the weeks went by, I repressed the unspoken fear of danger. I gained courage. I became used to the casual disregard for safety, took the others’ confident actions on the job for granted. They were sure they wouldn’t fail. They could do anything they had to on the job: there was no possibility of them falling to their deaths. Anyone who doubted them was a fool and this was no place for fools. I didn’t work at the top of the tower because it was done in the past summer but, some days, I climbed the ladder inside the tower to eat lunch with the painters. The towers at both ends are attached to each other by a steel walkway in an x configuration which spans the roadway. There are two walkways, the painters ate in the top one. I don’t know who saw me, Fred or Jimmy. I got a warning from Ron himself. My friend, Les, who told me about the job, was angry. It just seemed logical at the time. One day, near the end of summer, we had worked our way into an area in the middle of the bridge which was too far from the towers to go back to them for anything. We took everything with us. After needle gunning, scraping and wire brushing all of the rusty areas out in the middle, it was time to paint them with the red primer. After this they would be painted by the painters from bosun’s chairs. I carried my can of primer and the brush with me, doing what I had been doing all summer, crawling, climbing, struggling along the side of the bridge. The bulk of my work had been where there were a lot of girders to hold onto. I watched Les walk along the top of the bridge barrier, brush in one hand, paint can in the other. He moved along at a steady, relaxed pace, arrived quickly at the place where we were working. It would take me a long time to cover the same distance, my way. I decided to do it his way, climbed up onto the bridge barrier. There, standing up, with nothing on either side to hang onto, I started walking along the external barrier. The water below sparkled, the wind whispered, the sun shone warm on my back. The ledge was a foot and a half wide, a crisscrossed pattern of flat, steel pieces fastened to the big girders on either side by rivets.. I saw the blur of vehicles on the road to my right, twenty feet below me, the waves of the inlet, more than two hundred feet below me, on the left. I walked on, carrying my paint can, scraper and wire brush in the pockets of my coveralls, careful to avoid the rivets. A big cruise ship passed under the bridge at that moment. It emerged beneath me, on my left. I stopped to watch it. I was mesmerized by the slow motion. The breeze carried Les’s voice to me. He told me to move. I did. I made it all the way to the work area, but that hesitation got me into trouble. It created a moment of worry, a sliver of unease in someone. They told the boss. He gave me a lecture about not doing a circus act, just doing the work. It must have looked worse than it felt. It was either Fred or Jimmy who told him. Fred was an older guy who showed me how to hold a brush properly for that kind of painting. I found out later that he used to be a boss like Ron. He was demoted when he and the crew were caught playing poker and drinking on government time too many days in a row. Fred probably told the boss in a sincere effort to save my life. Jimmy was a big, tough biker who painted from a spider. He used to come to work hungover with his knuckles skinned from fighting in his favourite Surrey bars. He had a picture of his father doing a handstand on the flagpole on top of the Surrey city hall. Jimmy always had a smile and a laugh, even with a hangover. He probably told the boss because he thought I might fall off the bridge and embarrass the crew or cost them money. I left at the end of the summer, got hired onto a highway crew which replaced railroad ties on the bridges to Squamish. I saw Les later that month. He said that they’d had one more job after I left. Ron had taken a couple of the guys, climbed up to the very top of one tower, changed the light. When you look at the Lion’s Gate Bridge and see that red light at the top, that’s the one they changed. When they came down, after doing it, Ron told them they had done a good job, bought them a beer. There were a few men lost over the years. One conversation I heard was about the death of a man they worked with. Some said he shouldn’t have gone up that day, there was too much moisture. Others said he jumped into the Burrard Inlet because of problems at home and “bad nerves”. His body was never found so there was even a suspicion that he had taken the opportunity to disappear from his current life for mysterious reasons. The Vancouver rain started again that Autumn, winter approached. I tried to get a job on a freighter. I heard that there were regular shipments of lumber from BC to Australia.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
The dog’s name was Rocky. He was a Malemute pup who spent his first few months on earth travelling through the States with us, in the back of an old pickup. We left Vancouver early one morning and drove to Doug’s parents’ farm in the mountains of Washington. They said goodbye over the weekend before we headed south through the mists and seascapes of Oregon. I didn’t know it when we left, but Doug had stolen some plates in Vancouver and had a credit card in someone else’s name with a fifty five gallon drum for fuel in the back of our pickup. When we needed gas, Doug stopped up the road, we changed plates, sometimes filled the fifty five gallon drum, refuelled, stocked up on snacks and beer. He had the guy’s signature down pat. We were good at shoplifting, spent some satisfying nights by the campfire, frying stolen steaks, purchased mushrooms. We slept in our sleeping bags, camping beside the pickup, drinking black coffee, rolling our own Bugler’s. Siphoning fuel from the drum to the gas tank became a fine art after a few mouthfuls of gas. As a kid, Doug had earned money guiding elk hunters in the mountains. He simply changed the sites of his camps to urban or highway settings. I learned the tricks of living on the road along with Rocky while our tape deck blared Mountain and the Stones. We met some people as we travelled south who invited us to a party in LA where some of the company were offended at our looks and attitude. One guy called us “common criminals” We were attracted to the women, but when the crowd headed for the swimming pool to get naked, we couldn’t do it. There was something in us which stopped us. Were we really so free when we couldn’t be free like these people? It was a negative thought, not worth worrying about. We knew these people couldn’t live as we were. We landed in Imperial Beach; road weary, dirty, ready for a good rest. Imperial Beach, the furthest beach south, next to the Mexican border. In those days there was just a chain link fence topped with barbed wire over which Mexicans and Americans lofted packets of marijuana to someone else or to themselves, to be picked up later. We had come to see Danny and Jan. They were from Doug’s small town in Washington. Doug and Danny were celebrities, each in his own way. Doug because he did time in Walla Walla State Penitentiary for blowing up his principal’s house when he was a teenager. They said it was really only a cherry bomb thrown at the front door, but the cops wanted to stop Doug’s wild behaviour. Danny was famous in their town because he had successfully convinced the US military that he was a conscientious objector, unfit for duty in Viet Nam. Few fought the authorities through interviews and writing, to gain ‘conscientious objector’ classification. Jan was a tall, slim, blonde nurse. Danny was a balding in the front, long hair in the back, ex male nurse who played a mean guitar along with his version of Greenback Dollar. They had a comfortable, little apartment on the ocean. Danny had his weekly ounce of good weed delivered on a certain day. That day he’d heat up sake to drink while he sorted the weed in a shoebox. When he tilted the box, the seeds rolled to the bottom. The sake changed flavours as it changed temperatures. The only thing I remember from the trip to Tijuana with Doug and Danny, the three of us stuffed into cab of the pickup, is standing at a bar trying to match them with shots of tequila. Between each shot they would pluck a whole hot pepper from a glass of water in front of us, chew it with gusto. They’d see who could eat the hottest, stand the most pain. I couldn’t even compete. Doug won but had mucho trouble later because of his haemorrhoids. Years later I visited Danny and Jan in Washington. They had moved to an isolated farm with their three kids. Jan had gained a lot of weight and lost her feminine attractiveness. Danny, who had grown a long beard, wore only overalls, boots and a battered, old hat, had gotten even more radical and disgusted with the system. There were a lot of ‘Government Agents Not Welcome, Keep Out’ signs posted on properties in the mountains of that area. Lots of weapons. The people I was with, already disgusted by the dirty appearance of the farm, the kids, Jan and Danny, were horrified when Danny walked us to the car. As we stood saying our goodbyes, admiring the horses in the field behind the house, our host confided that the meal we had just eaten was made, primarily, of past horses which he slaughtered and canned himself. When I read Joseph Wambaugh’s book years later, I realized that we had worked in the very onion fields which the book is named after. We ended up there on our way east from Danny and Jan’s. In the Imperial Valley, the vegetable producer extraordinaire of central California, they were hiring labourers by the day. After spending what we had on fuel, eating meals left on neighbouring tables in freeway Macdonald’s, we picked onions there, gladly, for days. The gangs of Chavez pickers, who were doing most of the work, laboured in fields beside us. They were just smudges of colour in the shimmering heat. We were left alone in a gigantic field of shallots. We were so hungry by the end of the first day that we wiped off the dirt and ate the onions as we picked. At the eastern border of California, on the Arizona side, we discovered a reconstructed English village in Lake Havasu City. As we partied through the days and nights of Cinquo de Maio there, only a few were killed waterskiing on Lake Havasu and the Colorado River which divides the states. We were told that there were usually larger numbers of deaths of drunken boaters and skiers on this annual celebration. The Grand Canyon provided a Colorado Rocky Mountain high as we chugged up highways in the thin air and bright sunshine. The pair of girls who quit their jobs at the tourist restaurant overlooking the canyon to hitch a ride with us, left us to go home to Utah as we moved east. The kindly stranger who gave us peyote buttons in Arizona was fondly remembered that night at our desert campfire. It was probably a blessing that we couldn’t afford to try for the five pounds of steak and fixings which was offered for free if you could eat it all, at a truck stop, in the Texas panhandle. Who knew how our stomachs would react to that much food after the way we’d been living? Our long hair and old pickup drew unfriendly stares as we filled up. The period between leaving Texas and arriving in New Orleans is hazy. Doug ran out of the medication he took for epilepsy. Combined with our drugs and alcohol consumption, the heat, living in the truck and surviving on highway junk food, the pace proved too much for him. He completely freaked driving down the road, sheared off at least ten maiboxes, screamed insults at anyone we passed, black or white, until I forced him to stop, take a break, trade places, let me drive. We stayed with a friend of a friend in New Orleans. He happened to be confined to a wheel chair, paralysed in a car accident a few years before. The moss on the magnificent bowing trees. The music everywhere in the French Quarter. The smell of chicory, fish and perfume in the air. We refused to cut our beards and hair or we would have got a bit part in a Terrence Stamp western which was being filmed there. The bars were filled with beautiful dancing girls who turned out to be men. A bad experience, actually, a dumb, rube mistake with a transsexual and discovering Rocky at home, one drunken night, with our host’s full colostomy bags torn up all over the kitchen, got us on the road north. By this time we needed to stop for rest and work. Since we were on the East coast anyway, we headed for Ottawa, my home. Tuscaloosa, Alabama was where the old pickup gave up the ghost. When Doug stopped to fill her up beneath the canopy of a service station, some pieces of metal fell out of the transmission right there on the asphalt. There was no possibility of affording repairs so we sold everything we couldn’t carry to a kid at the station. We hitched north, consulting a worn map, singing Beatles songs, throwing stones on the side of the road. The image which is implanted in my mind is that of Doug, his cowboy boots, jeans and long hair dusty, pulling Rocky on a leash behind him, up another on ramp as I followed with my sleeping bag slung over one shoulder, the sounds of rock ‘n roll coming from our boombox slung over the other. In Georgia, a man picked us up in a new, air conditioned Cadillac. He said he had done some travelling in his youth, showed us the Bowie knife he kept beside him in the front seat. He pulled over, led us back to the trunk which contained a cooler of beer and the handgun he always carried. The message was clear as we sipped the cold drinks. He took us home where his wife washed our clothes, cooked us steaks and fussed over Rocky. We resumed our journey north with renewed faith in humanity and rednecks. In Tennessee we soon found out that hitchhiking is illegal. We were dropped off, had no way to proceed north without hitching. Doug found the credit card which we had used with the truck, in his pocket. He buried it and some other papers by the side of the road, just as a state trooper pulled up. He listened to our story, thought for a moment, looked at Rocky, gave us a lift to the border. His gesture seemed to lead us to the party with the marines in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina. We attended a party in a barracks full of stubble headed Marine recruits where Doug found fanatic Leslie West fans and the best weed we had encountered since the West coast. The last stretch seemed to take forever. An endless series of highways, freeways, taking turns talking to the driver while the others slept. A desperate scramble for the finish. When we had installed ourselves at my mother’s house in Ottawa, we discovered that Rocky, Doug and I had ticks. They’re like crabs, under the skin. Probably from sleeping in ditches on nights when we had given up hope of getting a lift. We had to undergo a rigorous treatment supervised by my disgusted mother, observed by my laughing sister. Doug and I had, understandably, gotten sick of each other’s company. He had a grand mal seizure at my mother’s breakfast table, broke his jaw. I said goodbye to Rocky, escaped, hitched solo back to Vancouver when I realized that Doug and my sister had fallen in love.
Saturday, January 6, 2018
The arm is outstretched, the eye level with the horizon and the base of the thumb. The sun is one thumblength above the sea. The bottom of the white circle is too bright to look at. It just touches the tip of the thumb nail. The waves roll in rows of three and five and break fifty yards offshore. There is a brilliant, golden path between the eye and the sun. The constant, deep rumble subsides for a moment. The silence is broken by spent surges crackling on the beach. The white cloud rides the line between the sky and the sea like a cotton brushstroke. The glare subsides to a yellow glow one half a thumb length from the sea. A pastel path of light with red and orange undertones is visible beyond the surf. Between the base of the thumb and the first knuckle, the golden ball becomes distinct. The earth’s gradual rotation lifts backward. The horizon clouds break up curved rays of light as the brush stroke changes to gray and mauve above the sea. The sun across the water squeezes fuscia from the wet sand. A half moon creeps up, silent and white against the powder blue sky. The earth rotates, the moon orbits in the opposite direction. The horizon glows rose. The sky turns deep blue. The moon hovers. The orange ball grows small. The sun becomes a half circle and bleeds into its crimson eclipse.