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.