Bredda Pancho came walking down the sidewalk towards me, red hat, red scarf, massive navy overcoat. It reminded me of the stories my Dad had told me about his first days in the Peg after he stepped, fresh off the plane from Trinidad (figuratively speaking – it was actually a bus from Brooklyn), into a fridgerated world . He got himself one heavy-ass coat of the Hudson Bay fur trader variety, said he got plenty jokes (or mamaguy, as Trinis say), but he kept warm.
Must have thought, at the time, the winter of no end was near.
An Iranian fella who was in one of my ESL classes once told me that Canada has two seasons: Winter, and July. The whole class, Latin American, Persian, South East Asian, African, cracked up mightily: they could relate.
Pancho was Bajan, dressed wisely warm, yet colourful, in that particularly Caribbean way, straight posture, a very neat and polished-looking guy overall.
“Yes, bredda Antony. What’s happening?”
“What’s going on, Pancho,” I replied, glancing down in order to avoid wiping out on patches of ice.
“Jus coming back from work,” Pancho told me. Pancho’s usual facial expression, not an expression so much as a look of cool contemplation, consisted of a smile that seemed to hold back the weight of much pressure, kind of resigned, too. Like that feeling when you jus have to smile, cuz things are so stressful and out of control that you might as well jus give up and accept that that’s the way it’s always going to be, no matter what you do. Consequently, I was always curious as to what he did, exactly. I knew he worked for the government, but that didn’t provide any clues: pretty much every second person I knew in Ottawa worked for the government, and I had no idea what they did.
“Where you heading,” I asked.
Before answering, Pancho ducked into a doorway to get out of the rush-hour sidewalk traffic. Sidewalk traffic was quieter than road traffic, cuz people lacked horns to tell you to get out the way, and lacked the courage to be as obnoxious as the protective shell of a thin layer of sheet metal and glass allowed them to be while driving. But, sidewalk traffic had its horns, too – the how-dare-you-slow-me-down glare of grumpy, stressed 9-to-5 types with too much tiredness, and too little time to get where they were going anywhere near on schedule. The city was collapsing under the weight of its own busy-ness, I thought, and soon, everyone would realize no amount of scurrying to beat the clock would get them anywhere, no amount of new roads, subways, express lanes, extended hours, or flextime would do them any good, time would not flex to compensate for the crowds, the clutter, the gridlock. Then, they would sit down and give up. Just sit right down wherever they happened to be when reality hit them, on the sidewalks, highways, parking lots, in their cubicles, apartment balconies, and bus shelters, and give up.
I joined Pancho in the doorway shelter from the raging river of sidewalk traffic, and we took timeout for a lime.
I could trust Pancho, nine-to-five guy though he was, to have at least a hot second to spare for a lime. So, we chilled and talked.
“How’s the work going?”
“It’s alright. Busy.”
“What are you working on these days?”
“A bunch of things.”
“I heard the government is hiring these days”
“True.” Pancho smiled one of his weary, knowing smiles.
“Listen, man, let me send you my CV. Maybe you could pass it to somebody.”
“Alright. Just send email it to me, and I’ll see what I can do.”
The exchange was pretty typical of not only Pancho and what he did for a living, but the whole phenomenon of bona fide work, as far as I was concerned. How did people get decent salaried jobs, the type with benefits and promotions, with guarantees that you won’t be laid off any day, where you actually made use of your education and french-fry baskets were not part of the equation?
Of course, it was the dawn of the third millennium, nothing was guaranteed, not even that the tallest buildings on earth would be there to dominate the skyline at the centre of the Northern hemisphere.
I thought of a story another public servant friend of mine had told me: Joe was a close talker. The type who had to be inches from your face and holding onto your shoulder to make his point. By all accounts, he was a kind, friendly, and gentle man. One day, a person who had worked with him for fifteen years brought a workplace harassment charge against him. It ruined his career. Not that it resulted in him losing his job, but he never got over the charge: he couldn’t understand why the person was so offended. Did they just get up out of bed one day in a shitty mood? Or, was it something that was building and boiling all those fifteen years? Whatever, it made the permanent employment classification used by the feds, “indeterminate,” sound just like it meant: there was no way to determine when the blade would fall, and whose hand would let it drop.
And I knew all too well, cuz my alter-ego Skred, who lived only in digital memory and somewhat in my own, was axed well before his time. Somewhere in the time it took for a floppy disk to mutate into a diskette to an interactive DVD/CD, he had disappeared in a puff of smoke, extinguished. Somewhere in the binary space between 1 KB to 1 MB to 1 GB, in the near blink of an eye it took for obsolescence to become a daily operation, Skred had been hotly deleted. And the more I searched for him, the more I began to forget. As my dreams were laid off, as my sleeping was shortened, as my own vertebral disks flopped and crumbled from sitting in front of a computer screen inputting pointless data, writing manuals for electronic products no one would ever use, Skred had vanished.
Which is how I became a gadget archaeologist. I say gadget, cuz I hated the artefacts I unearthed, saw no truth or honesty in their value, except indirectly, in helping me resurrect Skred.
Skrizzle, my nizzle. Ice grill, typhoon temper, scattering loud dust. Bilious like forever, exploding assumptions, control freak, mo contradictory than duets by Slim Shady and Elton. Nicknamed Lumpy. Nearing the conclusion of all things infinite, launching wordkites caught in wiry tension strung across brows furrowed like frown lines, pigeonshit common, inskredulous. Gone.
I knew my mail arrived at around 9 AM, so I decided to make my way home to meet Mohammed, my mailman. I was expecting a package, a Tandy machine circa 1981, one step closer to recovering my novel. It was an epic, though I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, despite being partial to Homer, King Arthur, Roland, Hobbits, and Sundiata. I guess it was because the age of heroes had passed, and all we had left these days was second-string villains. Skred had no one to battle, no journey as such, no hopes and dreams of a nation riding on his success, seeing as he was a failure, and nations didn’t stand for much compared to the more compelling power of big macs and blockbusters, pop stars and santa claus, coca cola and cancer sticks. Those were Skred’s little elves, ancient demons overlaid with effects to appear as cute aliens. And my story would live again, fire be damned.
The rain turned to ice the moment it landed, transforming the world into glass and silver, an ice palace imprisoning the wise to the point of cabin fever, and breaking the limbs of trees and the slipping foolhardy. By the time I shuffled down my block, Mohammed was three houses away from mine, coming up the street with his mailbag frozen stiff and glassy.
I waved to Mo, and he either waved back, or flung up his hand in an attempt to catch his balance. The shine off glittering telephone poles and wires, meshed tree branches silhouetted in ice, and an impotent sun glaring off the frozen shells of ice-encased cars, made it hard to see properly. It was as if the landscape was draped in cellophane.
Prelude to Episode 1
Back in 85, I was finishing off a Bachelor of Arts degree, without a clue as to what I would do next. While taking courses, I was making ends by making pizzas in a wood-burning oven, those trendy kind of pizzas with artichoke hearts and shrimp and sun-dried tomatoes and such, in a restaurant/bar in the market.
I remember that restaurant vividly for two things: the time me and Tim were opening up in the morning, the only two people in the place, and he got his hand stuck in the pizza dough-rolling machine. I remember his screams, his hand mashed up between the two merciless, stainless-steel cylinders of the contraption, as I searched in vain for a release switch or some other way to help release him of its crippling grasp. The paramedics had to use a blowtorch to free his mangled hand, but by the time it was free, he was softened up enough from the morphine drip to bring his screams to the level of low moans.
And I remember that night me and Blair closed down the restaurant, me with ominous twinges threatening my lower spine as I hauled endless bags of garbage, stuffed with so much casually discarded food, to the industrial bins outside.
“Alright, let’s make a move, B!”
Blair was part First Nation, and had the quiet, reflective style characteristic of those folks. Few words. Which was fine by me – tired as hell, I couldn’t be bothered with small talk.
“O.K. You catching a bus?”
“Nah, it’s a nice night, why bother waiting. Might as well walk.”
Blair lived not to far from me, in Centretown. As we walked along the purplish summer-night streets of the city, we shared a smoke, complained about this one particular fool of a manager, joked and laughed, till an acrid scent hit our nostrils.
“You smell that, B? Gotta be a fire not to far from here.”
“Uh-huh. Look, you can see the glow. It’s over there, near Somerset.”
“Shit, that’s around where I live,” I said, thinking it looked dangerously close to my spot.
I started to run, and Blair, heavy guy though he was, kept pace.
“God-DAM! That’s my street!” I shouted, as the glow got closer and the billows of smoke denser.
And as we rounded the corner of my block, “THAT’S MY PLACE!!”
The squat apartment building where I lived was half burnt down already, and the firefighters had yet to come. I stood there and gazed, not knowing what to think or do. A crowd of people had gathered, and some of my neighbours – most of whom I did not know, except to exchange a quick hello or nod as we passed in the lobby – came and asked me if I knew if anyone was still in the building, if I knew how the fire started, had anyone called the fire department, a thousand questions. Kinda shrill, blurred, voices all panicky, talking more out of a need to be consoled than anything else. But only one thought occurred to me: my story.
My story, or Skred’s story, or more accurately, our story, had no end. And the remains of the apartment building and the ashes of my former belongings suggested that might remain the case. And the more I stared at those ashes, the more I scrambled mentally to go away from this mini apocalypse of a present and into the ordered chaos of Skred’s world. His past meant more to me than my own, almost. I mean, his past stretched back like one’s reflection in two opposing mirrors, accordion like. An infinite number of selves existing simultaneously, but visible only around the edges.
Skred, with an ego hard and fast like ice on an outdoor rink, bold enough to skateboard-grind on the edge of a halo, windsurf in the midst of a monsoon, blaze in the shade of sunspots and blow smoke rings round Saturn, hypnotic, drinking bush rum to blindness like the choice of a new generation gone bazodee, sampling sacred Xhosa songs for SUV commercials. His chorus was a customized cellphone ring, downloadable, his laugh a jingle, his eyes were slogans, his mind a recyclable waste container with multiple compartments labelled with incomprehensible diagrams.