Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A State of Mind

I am in awe today.

The Blackberry is leading me on merry adventures, through twisting office passages, up barren stairwells, and through mazes of cubicles. I pass the Minions, pecking away at their computers, gossiping lightly or taking nourishment out of steaming styrofoam cartons of gruel.

My disguise is nearly complete. I have managed to find a black cashmere trench coat from Holt Renfrew at a local Salvation Army for $14.99. Now I can walk confidently; one of them. As I approach the secretaries, a look of uncertain fear can be seen in their eyes, an expectation of an important meeting they had no knowledge of. Relief floods them when reveal I am only there to attend to their printer. They can relax. I am not important after all. But I look the part. As someone who was once mistaken for a homeless person by homeless people, I am now mistaken for an executive. Fluidity, adaptation. Be the role.

I am free.

Free to move around without attracting attention, silently walking among what can only be described as chaos built on unfathomable layers of human folly.

I plunge into the passages of the underground, walking between towers. Crowds of tunnel dwellers move nimbly through the brightly lit, marble labyrinth or sit, eating slop ladled out by smiling uniformed attendants from colourful establishments.

Christmas shoppers struggle with their bags of wrapped trinkets, chatting lightly in anticipation of material elevation. Stern businessmen stand in groups facing each other, contemplating abstract numbers with grim consternation. Enormous flashing televisions bark an endless stream of nonsense from the walls thrumming out a deep baritone over the constant staccato of insect chatter.

As one tower underbelly transitions into another, a brief respite from idle luxury materializes in the form of a subway entrance. The floor is covered in streaks of grime and puddles of melted, salty snow that has slid from high, fashionable boots. Bearded men wearing strange hats and necklaces play guitars while briskly walking people offhandedly toss change into the empty cases without stopping to listen. Silver airtight doors are constantly nudged open as the unceasing mass sweeps through to the bowels of yet another tower, identical apart from a new shade of marble.

I am ushered along, in amidst the flow. There is no need to navigate, every time I try, I find myself alone in a dead end or cul-de-sac where well dressed people sit on benches enjoying a brief rest from the swarming, endless line of walkers.

I am carried along to my destination, keys cards flash out to unlock the elevator, and doors. I nod to the secretary, and enter a huge room of cubicles. Strange green shoots grow from pots on ledges. I can’t identify the species. Curious, I stop, reach out and touch one. Fake. Plastic, wiped down occasionally by uniformed late night cleaners to remove the dust that would shatter the illusion. What can grow under this harsh, unnatural fluorescent lighting?

Rows of them, tapping at their keyboards, secured in their cubicles adorned with teddy bears and photographs. I pass, some lift their heads, most are too involved. In the kitchen I find my printer and set to work.

The Blackberry gives a buzz, and I turn onward to another destination. Another walk through the tunnels, more doors to beep open with my card. Another office.

I am in awe today.

I am a stranger here.

I have returned only to continue to travel.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010


There have been an astonishing lack of entries lately, please forgive me and allow me to present my feeble explanation. Shortly after posting the last entry, I rode the train of broken faces and crushed spirits to my blackberry job, only to find that my computer had been disconnected from the network. Apparently spending all day writing blog entries is frowned upon at this institution, as well as some kind of violation of network security. This development forced me to endure a day of tedium, strolling listlessly around downtown, and waiting in vein for a printer to break.

Indignation rose in me. This was a clear violation of my sovereignty, and my God given right to loaf at work. I resolved to rectify the situation. The next day I brought along my laptop. Entering the building, I proceeded to my now useless desk, collected my key cards and Blackberry and made my way to the nearest Starbucks where I sat all day, surfing the net, playing strategy games and drinking endless cups of coffee. This has become my new daily routine, I'm at 'work' at the moment.

The absence of the pain of sitting in an office all day sapped the inspiration that fueled my writings. I was comfortable, and could escape the office environment and play video games.

The friendly staff at Starbucks got accustomed to my presence in ‘my office’ and kept me well fed with free samples of coffee cake and whipped mochas. Life was grand, but the blog has suffered, that is, until that faithful day when events took a turn for the worse.

“We are pawns of the Gods” the ancient Greeks had proclaimed, and so it seemed to me when one day the Blackberry finally rang. My peace was about to be shattered.

I took a moment to stare at the cruel and discourteous thing with surprise and trepidation. What was this? A broken printer? Would I lose my seat at Starbucks if I went and attended to it? Hesitantly, I answered.

It was my boss.

The clamour of the Starbucks environment could be clearly heard in the background. I tried to sound breathlessly busy and professional, but I knew deep down I wasn't fooling anybody. The hammer is about to fall, I thought. After a cheerful greeting, my boss addressed the point of his call.

“I just wanted to tell you that you’re doing fine work there, and we are going to be offering you your own site, along with the appropriate benefits and full time wages”



A Job.

This wouldn’t do at all.

Granted, the girls at the office are very pretty and flirtatious (when I bother to be there which is very seldom), but they wear big sunglasses, and anybody that follows fashion gets little respect from me. There is no way I can see myself living this life.

Now, I’m not complaining. It’s an easy, well paying job in a bad economy and I am thoroughly uneducated, unqualified and all but useless in the Western World. I’m aware that I should feel lucky. But the only way to really live is on the keen edge between life and death. And so, after saving a bit of dosh, I plan to quit and fling myself again out into the void.

I gave myself a piece of advice a long time ago, which I have yet to really adhere to. “If it starts to feel like home, it’s time to leave”, and I am rapidly approaching that point now.

The long and the short of it is that I am once again in a disturbed enough frame of mind to inspire some new writing.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the staff has just presented me with a sample of their “Holiday Turkey Sandwich” which I will now turn my attention to.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Crossing the Veil

My bunk was soaked with seawater. I reluctantly crawled in, pulling the thin, damp sheet over my body and recoiling as I felt the cold, soaked mattress against my skin. Everything below decks was damp, and encrusted with a thin layer of salt. Fleeing cockroaches could be caught with the eye on every surface. We had been at sea for weeks, and the vessel was taking on water. Only the ceaseless exertion of the electric bilge pump kept us afloat, our lives hung on its twelve volt little engine; made in China and available at your local Wal-Mart for $12.99.

During the day I had hauled my mattress out into the cockpit and tied it down where it could receive the blessing of the sun, and dry out. I had done this already; allow it to bake in the equatorial heat, only to be met with chilling damp as I flung my tired body down after my first night watch. The Captain had observed my previous attempt, saying nothing. Today his strained patience for my ignorance ran dry.

“It’s not going to work” He barked sharply, with an annoyed, flinty glance in my direction.

I stopped what I was doing, I had long ago learned to submit and listen to The Captain. His word was irrefutable law. He held my life in his grasp with his superior knowledge and assumed the role of God-King in our unstable, fifty-four foot little world.

“The salt in the mattress will just draw in more moisture as soon as the sun goes down, if you want it dry, you have to get the salt out of it, what you are trying to do is useless” He explained impatiently, annoyed that I hadn’t figured it out after my first attempt had failed.

I had been corrected sharply, and felt a bit foolish that I hadn’t thought it through myself, but I was surprised at how damp the mattress became, so quickly after night fell and the temperature plunged dramatically. I risked his anger with a foolish question.

“How do I get the salt out?” I winced as soon as I asked, knowing the answer half way through my question and compounding my diminished standing in The Captain’s eyes.

He smirked, “Fresh water”. It was useless. We could spare little water, and certainly could not afford enough to soak a mattress. I abandoned hope, and hauled the mattress back to my stateroom, depositing it, dejected, back on the bunk.

The ship carried two tanks of fresh water, each a hundred fifty gallons. As the potential to be at sea for months existed, none could be spared for anything but drinking. There was to be no showers and no washing, these were impossible luxuries when our lives depended on a limited supply of fresh water.

The tanks were ancient, as old as the vessel, and had spent a good amount of time on the sea floor after the ship had gone down in a hurricane. The inside of the tanks were covered in rust, but under decent conditions the water ran reasonably fresh. These were not decent conditions. The wild seas we had survived imposed a constant, violent thrashing on the vessel which had miraculously endured so far. The rust had worked its way loose and into our reservoir of salvation, fouling the water to such a degree it was undrinkable under any reasonable condition of basic survival. I could only bring myself to reluctantly drain it into my throat when I had reached a near crazed point of water starvation.

I had finished my first watch of the night. The weather was calm for once, offering a respite from my usual desperate struggle to navigate through the surging seas. I spent my time sitting in the cockpit, alternating my view between the breathlessly engrossing view of the stars, and the mystic glow of the bio-luminescence that curled into little wisps in the wake of our passing. When the third hour stuck, I went below, did my log entry, and stuck my head in The Captain's stateroom.

"Captain, time" I said softly. We had long grown accustomed to the schedule by now, but a gentle nudge was still required to rouse our exhausted bodies from slumber. The Captain shook himself awake, and pulled himself out of his bunk, climbing the companionway to take my place on watch. I stumbled my way to my berth in the dark belly of the heaving ship and threw myself into the salty, wet bed.

I lay there, tossed around on my bunk by the relentless pounding of the vessel as she was driven by the howling wind, cutting through the mid-Atlantic sea. The roar of the water could be heard through the sweating hull; beads of moisture running down, and being absorbed by my cursed mattress. I had three hours to sleep before I was woken by the gruff voice of The Captain for my second night watch.

We were heeled over to the starboard and from my position on the port-side I would often be furiously hurled from my bunk as I slept. I would wake suddenly, hanging four feet in the air, with just enough time to realize my position, and brace myself for the inevitable plunge to the floor.

The crashing motion and penetrating rumble of the passing water rendered sleep difficult, but weariness can overcome all distractions. I began to sink into sleep.

Somehow, a hidden process that is normally beyond awareness was revealed to me this night. I was fully conscious as I began to drift away, my mind alert, able to fully analyse this mysterious transition between worlds.

I lay, braced against the movement of my bunk, sinking deeper towards full sleep. As I descended, the movement lessened and the rushing clamour of the water began to sound as if I were hearing it from a distance. Fully aware, I was amazed by the sensation of approaching sanctuary from the hellish world that held me. I continued until I hung, floating alone in an endless void of pitch black.

There was nothing, only stillness and peace. I was conscious of nothing but my own thoughts which I had full control of. I had to explore this further. Turning back, I slowly crept tentatively towards ‘reality’. It began again, almost undetectable on the edge of my senses. I could barely hear the crashing sea and feel the lurching of the vessel. I continued all the way back and again felt the full intensity of sensation, even to the point of cracking an eye open to reassure myself that the world was still there.

I preferred the blackness, so carefully and easily I returned to the void, again, fully aware of all physical stimuli melting away as I made my descent. I floated for awhile, enjoying the peace. This was amazing. I felt nothing at all. There is a deep mystery here I thought, with the blunt realization that there is more to reality than the physical world. I continued to practice, making the journey a number of times.

I was in awe of what I was doing, and felt it was time to explore more. I could not sink any deeper; the black void was at the very limit. Something else was required. I knew what to do, but I could not understand it, it was beyond my power of reason.

Bracing myself, I warbled over the barrier.

With a flash of sudden, astonishing intensity, a world of full, vibrant colour created itself around me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Tubal Cain

I had long suspected it, but I'd never found any proof. There had to be mysterious shortcuts along the endless trudge up the Ziggurat. Secret handshakes or whispered, cryptic passwords were the only way I could bring myself to explain some of the vapid characters I had encountered in my odd brushes with high society. On this day, the sun was to rise like any other, but today I was to discover a secret.

It was a happy time, and I was occupied with the best job I ever had. My work was graphic design, and my duty was to arrange a single event poster on a daily basis. It required, at the very maximum, ten minutes of light toil. The rest of the day could be spent wandering the underground pathways of downtown Toronto, and flirting with the pretty blond girl who worked at the coffee shop below my place of employment.

I was satisfied. Life was good, I had enough to easily fend off all material needs, which have always been few. Had I continued in this way I may have inadvertently slipped into the Minion lifestyle, and ended up a carbon copy, indistinguishable from the business casual standardization that so stunts the natural growth of the spirit that resides deep within us.

My work was finished. I had grandly presented my poster to the reception of showering praise from my boss. How I managed to produce a poster every single day was an overwhelming mystery to him, and he never grew weary of expressing his gratitude. Another day gone by, and a job well done. I walked out to a radiant summer evening, and proceeded to my destination on foot. The Toronto bus station.

I enjoy bus stations in all countries of the world. There is something about the prospect of cheap travel that attracts the more colourful personalities of those that walk among us. And the Toronto bus station is no exception to this prevailing axiom.

My friend Megan had found gainful employment in the bar that served the thirsty travellers. Megan was a beautiful girl, of Ukrainian decent, touched with the slightest dash of Mongol. A product of the great swath Genghis and his boys had cut across Asia and Eastern Europe. I would often joke that, far back in her lineage, lurked a Mongol barbarian, whose recessed genes had reemerged, and that was the explanation for her feral instability and voracious forbidden appetites. She was a party girl, and her life revolved around alcohol. I had done my best to gently lead her into the Minion fold, but she defended enduringly with a feisty resistance. We had dated for some time in high school, she had left me wounded and heartbroken, but the lacerations had eventually healed and we had managed to maintain a solid friendship.

Passing the surrounding band of homeless, I entered the building, the sudden intake of air swirling torn bits of paper into sullied recesses. I climbed to the second floor up the majestic old staircase, a throwback to the days of yore, when bus travel occupied a more exalted position on the social pyramid.

Megan was busy slinging booze to the howling demands of the encircling ring of disheveled patrons. She took the time to greet me, professionally dispensed a beer and I sat down on a stool to wait for a lull in the enthusiastic drinking.

The character beside me was drunk, that much was clear. His clothing was ruffled from long travel, and a stained yellow cap perched atop his head from which hung curls of greasy, matted hair. He turned and engaged me in conversation.

After a few inquiries about his destination, we turned our attention to the eternal Canadian pastime of complaining about the government. Taxes were too high, inflation out of control, dollar was too low, NAFTA had ruined the country, it was damn hard to get ahead these days, we both agreed.

"You know what you should do?" His voice took on a whispered, conspiratorial tone, cocking an eye over the mouth of his beer glass.

"My uncle works for CSIS, financial division"

I replied that I had no idea that CSIS, the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service, had a financial division.

"Oh, they do, they do!" He exclaimed, raising his voice, pleased to correct my ignorance. "And you wouldn't BELIEVE what goes on in there"

"What?" I asked.

"Oh I can't tell you!" He gibbered. "But what you should do is this" His voice dropped to a whisper again.

He presented the name of a common and very large banking institution in Canada.

"You gotta go in there, go in there..any branch" The effects of the alcohol forcing a drooling stutter. "Go in there and ask for....Excelsior Class Bonds"

I replied I would surely try it, and spent a few moments trying to disengage from this deranged lunatic when thankfully, Megan returned. I turned my attention to her, and the odd fellow, after finishing his beer announced he had to catch his bus and walked off.

"Don't forget!" He called to me over his shoulder.

Ignoring this sage advice, I proceeded to write off the entire incident as the drunken ramblings of an unkempt madman.

One morning, weeks later, I awoke early having some mundane business at the bank to attend to. Waking early was unusual for me, but the fact that I wasn't required to be at work until one in the afternoon, relieved some of the distress that this usually caused. Upon rising, Excelsior Class Bonds came unbidden to my mind.

I went to my computer, called up the bank's website and did a search. I found several classes of bonds, but nothing named Excelsior. What was I doing considering taking financial advice from a demented alcoholic in a seedy bus station watering hole? I got dressed for work and made my way to the bank, mentally chuckling at myself on the way.

On impulse, at the teller, once my business was concluded, I hesitantly ventured that I was interested in their "Excelsior Class Bonds".

The teller motioned to the location of the investment manager, sitting in her cubicle; the eternal habitat of the Minion. Upon entering and sitting at her desk, she inquired if she could help me, splitting her attention between her computer and I, which she was feverishly tapping away on.

"Yes, I'm interested in your Excelsior Class Bonds" I ventured hesitantly, preparing myself to be dismissed and my ignorance of high finance exposed.

The clattering of her keyboard ceased immediately, she stiffened, correcting any slight imperfections in her posture and her eyes flashed to me as she paused in stunned appraisal. A moment passed as her eyes hung on me. "Minimum ten thousand dollar investment..." I said haughtily, gaining a bit of confidence and repeating what the bus station lunatic had told me.

I had her rapt attention now. She apologized profusely, and informed that that she could not help me at this particular branch, I had to inquire at the main branch downtown. She proceeded to call up my file and shocked my by saying "In the meantime, let me upgrade your credit card."

I handed over my card, reserved by the bank and reluctantly given to extreme credit risks such as myself.

"Hmm" she clucked. "I'd advise you to apply for a platinum card, we have the applications here or you can do it online, in the meanwhile, let's raise the limit on this"

She raised me immediately from a thousand dollar limit, giving me an additional seven thousand dollars in credit, the maximum the card would allow.

I walked out of the bank that day, in shock and full of amazement.

Although I have never followed up on it at the main branch, I posses the security of knowing that I hold one of the passwords that will launch me directly upward into the privileged class, should I ever choose to employ it.

I doubt I’ll ever need it. Heights make me dizzy, and the Ziggurat looks just fine from my lounging position here at the bottom.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

In Good Company

"Yeah, I know them. They're Gooks! GOOKS!"

I cringed, sheepishly looking over at the table of Koreans beside us. Barry was a very large man, and even when he wasn't drunk and bellowing, his normal speaking voice could probably be heard clear across the bay in Puerto Galera proper. The horrid scowl he was aiming in the direction of the Koreans didn't improve the already tense atmosphere.

It was New Years. I was staying in a beautiful little resort a couple kilometres outside the town of Puerto Galera in the Philippines. At my table was an eclectic mix of individuals, all of them at least 20 years my senior.

Greg, a hardened New Zealand Navy cook stared at his plate, saying nothing.

Greg lived in a house on the resort grounds with his Filipina wife. He spent every other month at sea and, when back, usually polished off a bottle of vodka before noon on a daily basis. That was just to warm him up.

"I spent a lot of time in Russia" He would explain with a toothy grin when questioned about his drinking prowess. I had heard the story; he had been stationed in some god forsaken place in Siberia with no company but a few Russians who couldn't speak English, and an endless supply of vodka.

"GOOKS! GOOKS!" The Koreans didn't react, I was sure that most of them could speak English, and even if they didn't, it was well known as a derogatory way to address them.

"It means 'Post Office'" Barry said, glancing our way with a grin.

It didn't. But I was not going to contradict Barry, and incur the attention of his unpredictable wrath. He had spent time in Korea, Songtan in fact, with the US Military. But, not as much time as I had. I knew their language far better than he.

As I had been a fixture in Songtan for the past few years, it was a pivotal area of our friendship. In his more sober moments, usually in the morning, we would sit and recall fond memories of the place. He had been there almost two decades before I, but it had changed little it seemed, as we exchanged stories of our exploits up and down Aragorn Alley and The Strip.

"Barry..." The Colonel said softly, trying in vein to quell his growing senseless anger.

The Colonel was famous in these parts. An elderly, dignified Filipino war veteran, he had single handedly stopped the rebellion against Marcos. Being a crack pilot, he had strafed the hordes of angry Filipinos gathering outside the palace, killing an unknown number, and sending the rest fleeing for their lives. It was an experience he wasn't proud of, but he was a soldier, and defending the corrupt Marcos had been his job. He was a war hero, and men of his stature were held in very high regard here, even though Marcos is universally hated to this day.

The Colonel was also a figure of infamy in Puerto Galera. He was well known for getting drunk, pulling out his .45 pistol, and shooting people.

"He's shot 5 people here in the last 4 years!" Greg had exclaimed, beaming. "Don't worry, he caught them creeping around here at night, this place is one of the safest places you can stay in the Philippines, EVERYBODY knows The Colonel!”

And so it seemed, but that had not stopped the assassination that had taken place a few months ago.

"It was right over there" Greg had said, motioning with his chin as we were sitting in the dining area one beautiful morning. The man had come in, and ordered a beer and light meal. Upon finishing, he got up, walked to the order desk, and shot the owner's brother in the head. After firing two more shots to make sure the man was dead he turned and politely addressed the horrified diners. He apologized profusely for the inconvenience, and urged the diners to finish their meals. Then he paid up, and casually sauntered down the kilometre of unpaved dusty jungle track that connected to the main road.

"No, you're safe here" Greg had reassured me after noting my expression upon hearing this. "I've got my 9mm, The Colonel is a crack shot with his .45, and Barry! Barry is armed to the teeth, and everybody around here knows it!"

Yes, I was in good company.

"Gooks! I know them! Suck your dick for two bucks!"

Barry had completely destroyed the pleasant dining atmosphere by now. Greg, tired of this behaviour, had gotten up and walked off, joining his family at another table. The Colonel slumped in his chair, and I remained silent. It was uncomfortable, but I didn't want to abandon the table just yet. Despite his off moments, which were frequent, I enjoyed Barry's company.

"I know Gooks! I know...SOJU!" His deafening voice taking on a sly tone.

A couple of the Koreans looked over.

"Yeah, now I got their attention! Soju! Soju!" He continued, cracking a wide grin. The Koreans smiled back.

Barry had the uncanny ability to carry an impossibly fearsome scowl at one moment, then suddenly transform his face into an impishly disarming grin. It was something to behold, and it had worked on the Koreans, temporarily relieving the tension.

I picked at my food. The evening had started off well. All the guests had gathered in the restaurant for the banquet that the staff had prepared. Spirits were high, and the Filipinos joined the residents while The Colonel stood up and made a speech. After the applause Barry had leapt up and cut into the lechon pig, presenting it to The Colonel. "The Colonel gets the first taste! He's the Patriarch!" He shouted to the cheering diners.

But now, the party was nearly over. Several of the guests had already fled back to their rooms. Barry was impossible to ignore, and he had single handedly ruined New Years.

I took advantage of the momentary lull, and abandoning my plate, returned to my room. As I sat at my laptop, I could hear Barry engaging in a loud argument with Adella, Greg's sister in law. I really liked Barry, he was great company when he was sober, but famous for this type of behaviour when drunk. I felt like a bit of a traitor for abandoning him.

"He has no friends - except us" Greg had told me later. "He does that all the time, until everybody leaves and he ends up drinking alone"

I thought about Barry in my room; a sad, lonely old man, emotionally crippled by his experience in Vietnam. He lived alone in the Philippines, moving from one place to another when those around him made it clear his presence was intolerable. He was a tragic figure.

It was starting to approach midnight, and the firecrackers that had been going off in town became a constant roar. I walked out of my room through the darkness, passing the open air restaurant. Barry was there, sullenly sitting alone, drinking in the now fully abandoned restaurant. I made my way to the beach, lit a cigarette and watched as the first streaks of colour exploded up from the other side of the bay. Smoke was rising from the town, and cheers could be heard above the constant sound of the firecrackers.

"Don't look there, look here!"

Barry had come up behind me, and pointed in the direction of the small isthmus that connected our island to the mainland.

"They do this every year, and spend a lot of money - wait for it!"

Just then a barrage of light split the darkness. Fire roared up into the sky and burst into colour.

Barry went wild with delight; he began to prance around screaming "I love you FIlipinos! I Love you!" I watched his huge silhouette against the back drop of exploding colour.

It was a fantastic show, made all the better by the brushfire that almost immediately sprang up on the hills.

"It's burning, it's burning!" Barry screamed with abandon.

The show continued, and in cadence the flames rose to a height of thirty or more feet.

"Watch out! Shit's coming down! Shit's coming down!" Barry was laughing hysterically. We were being bombarded with the expended, burning casings. I flung my arms up to shield my head and began to laugh uncontrollably.

We stood there and watched the crescendo, the sky lit up with a frenzy of explosions, smoke rising in a pillar from the town, our connection to the mainland cut off by wild brush fires, all the while being peppered from above by burning bits of cardboard. Barry screamed with delight "All for us! All for us!"

It was a moment I'll remember forever, Barry had been transformed as if the fire had burned the bitterness and anger from his very soul. I felt renewed, charged with pure energy. It seemed, somehow, like my entire life led up to witnessing this very instant in time. I became profoundly aware that there was a pure spirit deep down in every one of us, and no matter what was done to shroud it; it would forever burn with the intensity of that moment.

Finally, it was over. I walked back through the darkness to my room, overcome with emotion and in deep thought. Reaching my door I looked up and saw that for several miles up and down the coast, the flames of wild fires were licking the sky.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Business Casual

It’s an interesting life, and the adventure continues.

I am working downtown, in the very heart of Minionization. Deadpan eyes surround me, dressed smartly in business casual. My job is to be electronically tethered to a Blackberry, following its commands through a rat maze of offices until I reach my destination; a printer that needs to be attended to. I catch snippets of mundane conversation which I try my best to tune out. When it gets to be too much, I close my eyes and daydream about what I was doing a couple of months ago – swimming with whale sharks in azure, calming blue water. Silurian blue.

I was walking home the other evening when an ambulance pulled up to the sidewalk in front of me. With an air of casual joviality the paramedics lazily climbed out and, chatting lightly, made their way to the object of the call; a half dead homeless person blocking the entrance to a mall. A security guard barking into a radio hung over the sprawled figure. People walked by, going about their business, unconcerned.

This morning, coming to work the subway pulled up to Rosedale station, which is hardly ever used. Rosedale is the home of the Elite Minions, rich, luxury car driving folks with no need to lower themselves to the crude shoving that subway travel entails. As we pulled up, I saw somebody on the ground, thinking it unusual that a homeless person would be sleeping at this particular station. As we got closer I noticed the uniform – business casual. People looked on with concern, and several rushed out of the subway cars to lend assistance. The subway driver eventually appeared, and an announcement rattled through the speakers that our journey was to be delayed because of a medical emergency.

I started thinking about the discrepancy between the two incidents. Both were human, and both needed medical attention. What exactly was the reason for this? If it had been a homeless person sprawled at Rosedale station, the subway would not have stopped, and people would not have lent a hand. Some might have looked on, with curiosity, but nobody would have helped. Why is one life valued so much more than the other?

Some people might say the homeless are hopeless, drunks, drug addicts or crazy, this might very well be true, but why would that reduce the feeling of empathy upon seeing one?

Could it be the answer is economics? The woman’s uniform presented her as being more valuable to the system, and therefore in greater need of attention. Perhaps we should start donating business casual clothing to the homeless.

My lunch is over. The Blackberry has been sending me alerts, but I have discovered that if I simply reply with a text saying “Issue Resolved”, it stops bothering me.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Well Timed Blessing

Late one night, at a friend’s house I was ushered to go home. I know when I have overstayed my welcome, and being a layabout, I had no business to attend to the next day. My friend Rob, however, worked in the corporate world.

I have always been fascinated by the corporate world, but utterly incapable of functioning within it. What I find most interesting is how people adapt themselves and their personalities in congruence with our economic system. When I go to a store, and walk to the checkout counter I am greeted with a friendly smile. This friendly smile is a job requirement, and not genuine. The clerk at check out is told to smile, in order to emotionally manipulate the buyer, make them feel welcome, and come back again. This showing of false emotion, which becomes habitual, is something I find most distressing. I can’t imagine a check-out clerk being that happy, I certainly wouldn’t be working at that job.

It seems to me that in order to be more successful, and to rise higher in the system, more sacrifices of the natural state of humanity must be made. The interview process is a dance of lies. You are judged by how convincingly your scripted answers match up to the scripted questions. Working in an office, I would see nothing but deranged personalities all around me. Marketable personalities gushing nonsense. I knew there were real people in there somewhere, but their development had been stunted in accordance with the system in which they had to survive and flourish.

I was put off by the light chit chat, always prompted by the three major stories featured in the free papers that people read on the way to work. Expressing any sort of opinion outside this realm seemed to be frowned upon. Whenever I managed to get a job in an office, I learned to keep quiet, lest I build up a reputation of unorthodoxy.

Rob, however, was a master operating in this environment. I found his abilities remarkable. I was in awe of the way he could beam out his fake smile, and engage his fellow minions in the ritual of daily, nonsensical chatter. More than this, he was somehow able to manage to take, on average, three sick days a month. How he got away with this was beyond me. He had the aberrant ability to appear excited and interested in company meetings, and conducted his presentations with a dashing aplomb.

It was late, and I had to get out and let him sleep. Being an unsuccessful, uneducated and unemployable deviation from standardized humanity, I had always travelled by bicycle. I could not afford a car, and no matter what the snow load, would be forced to brave the extreme elements. I found biking, in any what the weather, to be a cathartic engagement. The act steady rhythmic pedaling always cleared my thoughts and with my eyes fixated on the road I would often fall into a trance.

It was in this state of mind that I received a rude comment shouted from a car behind me. Sometimes I am not sure what posses me to do things. Without thinking, I swung my bike around, and pedaled back toward the offending vehicle. I was not upset, or angry in anyway, it was a reflexive, unconscious action.

Seeing that the rear window was open, I rode up and stuck my head in, still mounted on my bike. In the car were four very large, aggressive looking black men.

All eyes were on me, even the fellow in the passenger seat had twisted his head, and was peering at me from behind the headrest. I fixed them with a stern glare, saying nothing. There were a little taken aback, not used to being challenged in this way. I could see that they didn’t know quite what to expect. Did I have a gun? Was I crazy? Tension was building up.

I remained silent, and just kept glaring. It was a standoff. Not knowing what would inspire the courage to motivate a lone man to put himself in this position, they remained still, but tense, ready for anything.

A long moment, passed. Tension was building to incredible levels. Something had to give. Any instant, violence was going to explode, bursting forth from that car. Something had to be done. I had no plan, but for some reason, I had absolutely no fear. I was still in the strange unthinking fugue that hard pedaling always granted me.

At the last moment, at the peak of unbearable pressure, finally I spoke, softly but firmly.

“Jesus loves you”

The looming threat of violence suddenly vanished, replaced by total confusion. The alteration of energy was immediately apparent, although nothing at all had changed. I still had my head in the window, and they sat, unmoving, staring at me. But the threat of brutality was gone, dispersed instantly upon the utterance of my magical phrase.

They had just been ready to spring into action, and now their target had morphed into something entirely different. They were faced with a glaring contradiction and had no idea of how to resolve it.

Knowing that I was safe I pulled my head out of the window and pedaled off, marveling at the power of ideas and perception.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Charity Case

The apartment was barren. Gone were our appliances and furniture. The dust that had collected behind them stirred up in the wake of our footsteps. The stereo, of course, remained unmolested.

Two, easy chairs lingered, set up haphazardly in front of the system. Beer bottles lay strewn about the floor. The phone was disconnected – unplugged but still functioning. We never answered it. When it rang, we would stare at it with paranoid suspicion until it stopped. Our attempt to get an outgoing line only was met with incredulity by the operator upon request. “We don’t……have those anymore sir” she said in bewilderment.

Our doorbell was broken, the only contact we had with the outside world was to be had when somebody actually made the effort to come by. They were required to find a small object lying about on the ground, and throw it repeatedly at our second story window. It was a vein hope that we would be lucid enough to notice, or even hear, over the loud music that would play all night. Surprisingly, some people still actually undertook the effort.

The shelves were empty, a bag of rice and a few boullion cubes were all we had for sustenance. We were broke, and it was obviously our last month in the apartment. Like a fool, I had quit the best job I ever had in my life. And this was the disastrous result.

In the early afternoons we would wake, collect the beer bottles, and look for something else to sell. Our desperate need for beer had to be fulfilled. The thought of sitting there, throughout the evenings, with our mental faculties fully intact was unbearable.

We had somehow always managed to be successful, but on this day another crisis arose. We were out of food, the rice bag was empty. Something had to be done. We sat and pondered. Money was left unconsidered, that was for beer. No, we had to find another way.

“The food bank!” Lee suddenly looked up at me, his eyes glinting with delight. It was a fine idea. I was glad to have a man at my back like Lee. He had saved us for another day, maybe several.

Excitedly, we looked up the address in the phone book, and began to prepare. “Well, we’re not really poor”, I said to him with a hint of reluctance in my voice. Lee dismissed my hesitation with a beleaguered wave. “All that’s needed is a bit of careful preparation, dress poor.” he explained. I went upstairs to find something to wear.

We emerged from our rooms, appraised each other and burst out in wild laughter. I had adorned myself in an old pink ladies hat and scarf, tattered jeans, and three old cotton checkered jackets, each one of them fully stripped of buttons. I wore socks on my hands as gloves and had put on one of my old pairs of broken glasses. One of the lenses had been shattered, and one arm, twisted beyond use, jutted out from the side of my head. Lee was dressed in a similar fashion. We looked ridiculous, far worse than any street person I had ever seen. We were ready.

It was a cold winter’s day. We must have been an odd sight, pedaling down the road to the food bank, on bicycles easily worth over a thousand dollars each. It was a good distance, but the socks functioned better than I had hoped, and kept my hands from going completely numb. But the button-less jackets couldn’t be closed, and my torso was taking the brunt of the merciless, frigid air, driven by the harsh unrelenting wind.

Finally we arrived. We looked up at The Food Bank. Here was our salvation. A reconverted old factory warehouse, with crumbling bricks and broken windows, it towered above us, framed by the gray and sunless sky. We carefully locked our bikes up out of sight, worried that if we were spotted, our precious food would be confiscated. We had no idea what to expect, we had never been to the food bank. I was only vaguely aware that places like this existed.

We paused long enough to scrape up some dirt from underneath the snow and smeared it on our faces, completing our disguises.

Seeing a loading dock, we entered the warehouse and were greeted with a welcome sight. The place was enormous, and there was row after row of canned and dried goods, neatly stacked and arranged. The warehouse seemed abandoned, dead silence hung in the air. We looked at each other in delight. “I guess we just take what we want...” I ventured. My voice echoing through the stillness.

Noticing some empty boxes from the loading dock, we began to fill up on supplies, shouting out to each other in excitement when a favoured item was discovered. I began to praise that such a wonderful service existed.  We hauled our bounty up on our shoulders and began to walk back toward the entrance.

As we were just about to exit the building, a door opened and a man walked out. He saw us and stopped dead in his tracks. We froze as well. We studied each other for a long moment.  I could see him recoil slightly from our wretched appearance.

“What are you doing here?” He asked harshly.

Something was wrong, but what?

“We’re visiting the food bank” I responded, thinking that such a conclusion should by blindingly obvious.

The man, still guarded, but slightly relieved, told us that a process had to be followed. We were to go to the waiting area, on the other side of the building at the proper entrance. There we were to register, show identification, have proof of address and receive our ration. Dismayed, but not undaunted, we left our boxes and trudged out. The previously open door slammed behind us, and we heard the distinct sound of the lock engaging.

Steeling ourselves to the fraud we were about to commit, we opened the door and walked in. The other recipients of charity were there, seated in chairs and sipping coffee, all eyes turned to us and silence suddenly cut through the room. We regarded each other in mutual shock.

These were completely normal people! One man sat primly wearing a business suit, reading the financial section of the newspaper. There is no hint of poverty here, I thought, as I scanned the room.  I moved to sit down.

The entire room unconsciously edged away from us. Nervous whispers could be vaguely heard. Our decrepit appearance was regarded with surprise and disdain. I could see the thought in their eyes “What are these poor people doing here?”

We waited, accepting an offer of hot coffee from one of the staff who rushed over, with concern written on her face. “You have to fill this out” She told us softly, and hesitantly added “Do you have an address?”

I filled in the forms and showed my identification. Lee had luckily thought to bring the only piece of ID he had ever owned, a crumpled birth certificate. That is still all he has to this very day.

We were given a box. It contained some laundry soap, a few cans, some Kraft dinner, powdered milk, and a few other paltry items. Hardly the cornucopia we had in our hands at the warehouse.

We were satisfied. It would be enough to soak up the beer in our stomachs tonight.

We left, and I stood outside and watched as the man in the suit gingerly carried his box to a parked BMW, got in, and sped off.
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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Scams of David Viner, Part 2 - The Investigation

Click here for part one.

I was furious. Not only did I feel outsmarted, but Viner had befriended me, and betrayed my trust. He has stolen my book, and being a micro budget traveller at this point, was counting on reading to pass some of the duller moments. The near nightly ritual of longingly watching friends go out to places that were well beyond my meagre financial resources.

Five hundred baht is not a lot of money, but it was to me at this time. It could have paid nearly a weeks rent or bought endless amounts of precious water needed so desperately in the tropics. Just recently, I had been delighted to discover a water machine hidden in the bewildering market across the street that sold a litre for 2 baht, if you brought your own bottle. The book has cost quite a bit as well, I thought, as I tallied up the damage Viner had done to me.

The more I thought about Viner the more curious I became. Here was a man of obvious intelligence, with all the hallmarks of an upper class education and upbringing. What was a man of his pedigree doing, wandering around the backpacker's slums scamming travellers for the equivalent of $15 dollars each? I started to get very interested in finding out as much as I could about this mysterious man.

I began to wonder if he might be a wanted criminal, on the run for executing high level confidence tricks among the English elite. Perhaps he was being pursued by Interpol, hiding amid the labyrinthine streets of Bangkok, forced to lower himself to conning backpackers to survive. Or maybe he had already worked the richer areas of the city, and was resting on his laurels, keeping his skills sharp, waiting for the heat to die down.

Also considered was the possibility that he was a murderer, affiliated with some kind of mafia or a human trafficker. He could have been operating a boiler room - the possibilities were endless. It came across my mind that he could be a very dangerous man. Sometimes, it's better not to inquire too deeply into the reasons a man chooses to live in the nether regions of Asia.

Admittedly, the trick he had pulled on me was a crude one, and upon reflection, I felt a fool. But he had done it so smoothly and effortlessly that I was sure he was capable of much greater feats in his unusual choice of occupation.

Nonetheless, I had a great deal of confidence in my own abilities, and was determined not to be outsmarted again. I had, by now, ceased to be angry and was driven by curiosity. I wanted to know his story.

I went out to look for Mike, who I hadn't seen since I had met Viner. Perhaps he could provide some clues. It turned out that Mike had gone, and his urgent business downtown had actually been another one of his futile attempts to re-enter Burma, and return to his beloved Mandalay.

I decided to go to the guesthouse where I knew Viner had stayed. In Thailand, to check into any hotel, a passport is required; your details are taken down and are sent off weekly to the police. This was the law. But rules in Asia are seldom followed, especially in Bangkok, whose underbelly of crime was rotten to the core. If one has the money, anything is possible, legal or not.

I walked past the festering mattresses lining the alley leading to the filthy guesthouse that Viner had previously occupied. On entering, I was greeted by the owner who was working the desk. I politely asked if I could take a look at his registry.

“Why?” His eyes were suspicious.

I relayed the story, which seemed to amuse him greatly. He cackled with delight at my determination to track down a man for a mere 500 baht. Giving me a big grin revealing blackened, uneven teeth, he tossed the registry my way. I eagerly opened the tattered book, flipping through the yellowed pages, and scanning for Viner’s name. There, about half way down, on the last page I found his entry, and more importantly his passport number!

I was delighted. Borrowing a pen and scrap of paper, I took it down. I examined his signature, a dignified, looping script carefully penned with a steady hand. I committed it, as much as I was able, to memory. My broken toothed friend was looking on, interested now and eager to help. I asked him if he remembered this man, and described him. He confirmed that he did.

I proceeded to extract the following information from the owner. Viner had checked in with an expired, British passport, which had the corner cut off. The excuse he gave upon checking in was the same story he had told me. He had been carrying a simple plastic shopping bag, and nothing else. He had been a model, quiet tenant, and caused no problems. He had left no information about where he was going, but he had mentioned that his previous lodgings had been on Rambutree, just off Khao Sahn road.

The owner seemed delighted in these proceedings, and was of eager assistance. It amused him to no end that this unusual guest, staying at a place that only the down and out frequented, turned out to be a confidence trickster. He wished me the best of luck, and I left with his jabbering laughter following me out the door.

Armed with this new information, I proceeded to walk to Rambutree. The bus was too expensive, as saving two baht could buy me a litre of water. I didn’t mind, I was pleased to have a project, which cost me nothing, to occupy my time. I strolled down Samsen Boulevard over canals, and past the shops in the sweltering heat. The canals in Bangkok were always of interest to me, as they simultaneously appeared to be choking with both pollution and life. Buying a small steam bun for lunch, I stopped on a bridge. Tossing in a few crumbs of bread and watching the surface explode with hungry fish vying for a meal, I marveled at the sight.

Walking on, I passed what I had nicknamed “The Mysterious House of Purple Stained Cats”. A place owned by an ancient woman, selling unknown dried substances out of large jars. There were always at least a dozen cats outside this establishment, patched with inexplicable purple blotches. I never did find out what she was selling.

Eventually, I reached Rambutree, and started checking guesthouse registries. Most of these guesthouses were staffed with young, overworked and underpaid Thais. They were unconcerned at my request to see the registry, and would hand it over without trouble. I scanned for Viner’s name, and passport number, finding nothing in the first few guesthouses. This didn’t take too long, as I knew his check-in date at Broken Tooth’s. It was easy to follow the entries, and select the appropriate page. However, as failure mounted, I started to get discouraged. Perhaps he had other passports.

The heat was draining me, as I finally stood before a guesthouse that I knew was infamously populated with heroin junkies. I hesitantly walked in; passing a few of the emaciated, hollow eyed denizens, and opened the registry that was sitting on the abandoned counter. And it was there, that I found the name and unmistakable signature of my target, David Viner.

“What are you doing?” shouted the voice of the owner who was returning to his station. He slammed the registry shut. I raised my eyes to see a seedy looking Thai man, who was eyeing me with suspicion and distrust. A few of the residents who were slouching in the lobby looked up listlessly. I attempted to explain my plight to no avail. “I don’t give information on our residents, get out!” I knew that there was no arguing. This man knew full well knew the nature of his guests, and both he and I didn’t want any difficulties. Any further pursuit along these lines could get me in deep trouble, and easily in over my head. There was a distinct probability that this guest house was owned by, or had direct connections with the Thai mafia. There was nothing to do but leave this distressing environment. I walked out, dejected, with the empty eyes of the hopeless inhabitants silently following me.

The trail had gone cold, and there was nothing for it but to splurge, and treat myself to a frosty beer Chang to reward myself for my efforts, and quell my thirst in the unrelenting heat. I had known for a long time where the cheapest beer on the street was sold, and turned heel to the alcoholic equivalent of the heroin guesthouse.

This place was usually busy, and I was forced to share a table with one of the many drunks who could be found here from opening until closing. Sipping my beer, my new companion engaged me in conversation, and I started relaying my tale.

“Viner!” an angry voice exploded from the table beside me. I looked up to see a decrepit, crippled old man, seated in a wheelchair with fire emanating from his suddenly lucid eyes.

“That bastard!”

I had found another victim of the notorious David Viner.

Check back for Part Three - The Confrontation
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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

A Side Dish of Cockroach

We were having dinner below decks, The Captain and I. It was a risk, as we had left the cockpit unmanned. Nobody was present to watch for oncoming merchant ships, but it was our nightly ritual to sit down to a proper dinner in an attempt to interject a bit of civilization into what was a thoroughly uncivilized affair.

The Captain was a gruff old fellow, a no nonsense type of red blooded American with the old can-do attitude one rarely finds in the breed nowadays. Through our journey he had managed to repair or jurry-rig everything that had broken down on that tired old vessel. And a frightful list of things had gone terribly wrong already.

The Captain had purchased the ship for a mere six thousand dollars. A 54-foot sailing ketch that he had picked up in the Caribbean; it had been all but been destroyed in a hurricane. He had proudly showed me some pictures of his new acquisition during our initial first few days at sea. It had a hole in it the size of a Volkswagen bug. It was afloat, and he had somehow patched the gaping wounds and restored the lines of the hull, but it was not much improved from its original condition.

We had had several dangerous encounters with merchant ships already. When you are on a collision course with an oncoming ship, a great number of things have to be considered quickly. As a sailing vessel, We were the slowest and least manoeuvrable thing on the ocean. The law of the sea granted us the right of way, and these giant behemoths were obligated to yield, and change course to avoid us. This had not happened once. Attempts to communicate had failed, every time.

There is precious little time to make a decision upon first spotting an oncoming vessel. From the moment its light becomes visible, you have between three and ten minutes to alert the ship, or fall off course. It was hard to believe when staring out at that endless expanse of horizon. But horrible, crushing death can come upon you that quickly. And we we running dark, without a radar reflector. It was in The Captain's infernal temperment to consider lights and radar useless.

On one occasion, early in the journey, I had spotted an approaching vessel. It was night, and I had misread its trajectory, believing it would pass behind us. Almost too late, I realized my mistake. I flung myself below and scrambled to the radio.

"Merchant Ship! Merchant Ship! We are on a collision course, fall off, fall off!" I was met with silence on the radio, no matter how many times I repeated my desperate message. My cries into the radio had awoken The Captain, and shrugging off sleep, he dashed through the companionway to assess the situation for himself. Immediately grabbing for the ten million candle power beam, he shone it up to illuminate the voluminous expanse of sail. The white sails lit up, reflecting the light, creating a beacon that could be seen from horizon to horizon.

We waited.

Still the Juggernaut plowed through the sea toward us.

"We have to fall off!" The captain shouted.

We had no choice and no time to spare, I could now make out the hull of the ship in the darkness, and hear the sea parting as the great weight of the thing pushed relentlessly forward.

He leaned on the tiller, turning hard to port, mindless of the now wildly luffing sails.

There was always a chance that the ship could change course, or respond to our message too late, creating a new collision course, but we had no option at this point, the beast was upon us.

The roaring of the parting water of the ship's passage could now be heard over our own engine. I watched as a black monolith blotted out the stars to our starboard. It couldn't have been more than one hundred metres away. As it passed I stared up in amazement, shocked at this trespass of the unbroken horizon I had looked out upon for so long.

It left us wildly bobbing in the turbulence of its wake. The powerful engines creating a deep, throbbing hum that sent a violent vibration through our tiny vessel. We watched silently as its roar gradually softened, and it eventually disappeared from view.

"Goddammit!" The Captain cursed. "Asleep at the helm! Or more likely playing cards and drinking below decks!"

"If he had hit us, we'd have been done for!" The Captain exclaimed.

"Well," I asked, "wouldn't he have come back and searched for survivors?"

"Are you kidding? They'd have run us down and never felt a thing!"

Our dinners were hardly a relaxed affair, with this omnipresent threat lurking deep in the inky night all around us.

A large cockroach scuttled across the floor. The Captain paused his meal long enough to lean over and kill it with the flat of his hand. He stabbed at the corpse with his fork, picking it up and scraping it off onto the side of his plate. Undaunted, he turned his attention back to the remaining portion of his food.

“Damn things eat each other and just keep breeding” He grumbled.

It was true, the cockroaches were an invincible force of procreation, and no amount of slaughter could slow their ever increasing numbers. However, it was in The Captain's nature to never give up.

I finished up my meal, and made my way out into the frigid night, to watch.
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