The Life of Cities

Everywhere, we are a stranger arriving into light

✎  Wayne K. Spear | April 3, 2018 · Essay

subway

EVERYONE IN A CITY is a unwritten message, a scriptless actor, a hidden quantity suspended between two moments of familiarity: the known they have left behind, and the known toward which they rush, through the tower atrium where calèches and footmen once passed. You are the next in the line, the subsequent fare, a neuron of commerce passing the bill, to a woman who pretends she is happy to see you. In a city, you befriend alleys and skylines, the shadows cast by skyscrapers, and the smell of foreign shops. You embrace the philosophy of the crane, its iron doctrine of destruction and rebirth, and you peer into the bones of a gestating condo, where love will take root, or not, among strangers of the future.

In a city, you wear your anonymity like a childhood sweater. We are all theoretical, without sin, mute yet plenipotentiary, emerging into the rush-hour light with undeclared purpose. Mere inconvenience compels us toward the sterile momentary intimacy of crowded subways. A portal disgorges us, severally, seeds to the wind. I have never seen you, and I will never see you again. The life of the city is the purest form of grace, a work of love, a perfunctory cohabitation without grievance or jealousy, without expectation or agenda, without the unbearable sweetness of hope.

We meet in moments of city inconvenience, with our burdens and propositions. You provide directions, hold the door open, carry the stroller down the stair, lend a stranger the charger for your phone. You feel embarrased to ask for these things. It is an imposition, perhaps even a mild trasngression of the unspoken compact. In the city we are, all of us, unto ourselves. We go out into the world with the requisite provisions, mindful of the hazards. The city is a living, unaccomodating beast. We accept this and get on our way.

A city is a bookshelf in a house where everyone writes, but does not read. The idea of reading, a vision of the forever- unread and unreadable, intoxicates us. But in the village, everyone has memorized the stories. There are no secrets and no strangers in the town. In town, you are an open book, a fully parsed sentence, always Mary or John or Maria. You have only one face, and you wear it wherever you go, to every human purpose. In town, you give the cashier an accounting of yourself, obliged to the currency of human curiosity, tethered to the law of ceremony and consanguinity, forever reconciling the ledger of entanglements.

The city is not better than the town. Nothing is better than another thing. Everywhere, in the skin of the earth, there are cracks and crevices. We call this place by one name, and by another name we come to know another place, or we think that we know, but nothing truly has a name. Everywhere, the road we are on will one day end suddenly, like the wrinkles of a palm. Everywhere, we are exchanging bits of data and drawing from our accounts. Everywhere, we are between two places. Everywhere, we are a stranger arriving into light.

Life, edited

Would I even notice the absence of cream in my coffee, once my mind had let go the idea of it?

✎  Wayne K. Spear | January 18, 2018 • Essay

IN THE MORNING I make my coffee, sometimes I walk to the nearby cafe. When the barista sees me coming, she, or he, begins to make my drink: a large Americano. It is a routine whose origins I am unable to summon. There was a first time that I ordered an Americano at this shop, a first time I drank coffee. I don’t remember these firsts, I only know that they are so. Just as there are lasts.

My earliest memories of coffee are of the church basement where we gathered after service. An enormous stone building, with stained glass windows and many rows of pews, benches for the choir, a pipe organ, a vaulted ceiling. And below, a gymnasium, a Sunday school room, a large kitchen. For years we attended church on Sundays. There must have been weddings and funerals also, but I have no recollection of them. I have seen sun-bleached photos, of aunts and uncles, the happy brides and grooms whose future self will divorce and remarry, or perhaps not, retaining across the decades some small semblance of this person frozen in time, covered in wedding confetti, surrounded by those I remember as once living among us.

We went to church, as most others did. Afterward we gathered in the basement to drink coffee made in enormous steel percolators, or tea from mismatched cups and saucers, donated by kind ladies with blue hair. The same ladies who made the trays of triangle sandwiches. In one palm, the adults balancing a cup and saucer, in the other hand a wedge of sandwich nested in a paper napkin. The women in polyester dresses of harvest gold, the men in rayon jackets and chocolate brown slacks, shirts with enormous collars, the indistinct voices of grown-ups punctuated by the laughter of children. The kind ladies with blue hair appear from the kitchen, take note of the trays, and retreat. One imagines them forever baking, forever replenishing the silver trays with triangle sandwiches, even now.

One day we stopped going to church. Why, I don’t know, any more than I know why we started. Nothing was said about it, to me at least. We went, and then we didn’t. As the last of many other things arrives, must arrive, the end comes but without fanfare. “Goodbye,” you say, and “see you later,” to someone you will never say hello to again.

How does a ritual become a ritual? I used to drink my coffee with cream. I would often find myself without, sometimes on cold mornings, the coffee already made, me in my pyjamas not wanting to go outside. I couldn’t bear coffee without cream, back then. I found it too bitter, undrinkable, nasty even. And against this, the going out into the cold, to get cream from the nearby convenience store. First I would have to dress. Or at the least put on a coat and boots. I would hope to find enough change in the laundry dish. If the dish was emptied of laundry money I would have to use the bank machine. It was a scenario I grew tired of repeating.

I read that a person can learn to like something they find unpleasant, like black coffee. The article said it takes, on average, fifteen attempts. I think of the first time I drank Guinness, in a Kingston pub, on a cold December night. I found it disgusting, and yet the next week I was back, drinking another. And another after that. I became curious to know what black coffee would taste like to my re-calibrated brain. Would I even notice the absence of cream, once my mind had let go the idea of it, as it had let go so many other things? Habits, lovers, misguided notions, the many sordid details.

At first it was unpleasant. But I was surprised at how quickly I was able to edit the cream from my morning ritual and not miss it. I oughtn’t have been. After all, one day I disliked Guinness. And another day I sat in the Wellington, my back to the stage where Gerry O’Kane played his guitar and sang, drinking my Guinness at the windowfront table with my friends, walking home later in the clear December air, holding the hand of a woman to whom I was not romantically inclined when we arrived at the pub hours before. Life before and after, coffee with and without cream, love and loss, weddings and funerals. Sunday arrives. I drink my coffee black, my routine simplified, no need of cream or of choirs, of expired passions, of the rows of creaking pews, the moulding hymnals, or of kind old women with blue hair, gone but not to heaven.

What if I am not real?

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My face was an inch from the wall and I was shouting my lines as fast and loud as seemed possible. “Faster,” came the command. “LOUDER!” I sent a hand down my red, television power tie, took a deep breath, and shot my lines as if I’d just landed on the French coast and either had to repel the Germans with my words or die on this horrible beach. I would have gladly had death.

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A Picture. A Thousand Words.

Fort_Erie_High_1933

OTTAWA, 1999: my partner’s uncle shows me the program of a reunion, several years earlier, of Fort Erie Secondary School. Leafing through, I see a photo of a rugby team, taken in the year 1932-1933—the fourth of the school’s operations. In the background, the familiar school building. I discover my grandfather, Alfred Spear, in the front row, second from the right.

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Of Domestic Science

apartment

YEARS AGO, there was a subject in my high school that was called Home Economics. There may still be such a beast out there, for all I know, but in any case it was a discipline mandated for the girls, so I never experienced it. In the field of domestic science, I’m entirely of the self-made category of man.

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Above All Else, Keep Failing

skateboard

WHEN I LOOK over my life, I see failures. You’ve heard the sayings: “success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm” (Winston Churchill), “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” (Thomas Edison), “we are all failures – at least the best of us are” (J.M. Barrie). The only alternative to failure is to not try, and once you’ve made that decision you’ve placed your chances of success in the realm of absolute certainty, at zero percent.

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Your Writing is Not Like a Barry Manilow Song

barry-manilow

AT DINNER, my good friend Adrian M. Kelly (author of Down Sterling Road, which can he purchased here. Only one copy left!) observed that it’s difficult to make a living from serious writing.

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The Case for Olympic Writing

racing

I ASK MYSELF: if writing were an Olympic sport, who would be its 2014 gold medalist? Alas, we may never know. Of course, we are free to speculate, and that can be good fun. Would it be Mark Helprin? J.K. Rowling? The (help me out here) Fifty Shades of Grey person? Malcolm Gladwell?

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Is Llewyn Davis a Loser?: The Coen Brothers’ Comedy of Error

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THERE’S A STORY about Mike Dubue of the Hilotrons that goes something like the following:

Mike plays a gig in Ottawa. An ex-girlfriend is in the audience, and she loves the show. So she takes out a scrap of paper and writes WOW, hands it to Mike. When he reads it, it’s upside down: he thinks it says MOM. Well now Mike’s freaking out, because he’s got his ex-girlfriend pregnant and he has no idea what he’s going to do.

The story ends with laughter, the imagined scenario having been a case of simple miscommunication. But these things do happen, and if you’re Llewyn Davis – the principal character of the latest Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis – they happen a lot.

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Furniture, of the Mental and Physical Varieties

turk_secondhandstore

IT MAY BE that you are aware of a weekly program of mine called “The Roundtable.” The table to which this title refers, and at which the show is recorded, was purchased in 1992 at a Kingston, Ontario antique store called Turk’s. Over the decades many have sat and drank and discussed and argued over this late 19th century furnishing. But even these twenty years are as nothing measured against the life which had similarly transpired (or perhaps dissimilarly: I shall likely never know) over this same table before I arrived to Princess Street one Spring afternoon, the requisite ninety dollars in my pocket.

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Why Do People Say Like So Much?

AT LEAST A FEW of you, dear readers, weren’t yet born thirty years ago when Frank Zappa and his daughter Moon Unit recorded “Valley Girl.” At that time I thought it was a clever piece of work, but that it must be an exaggeration, maybe even a fabrication, of San Fernando Valley speech. I’d never heard anyone talk that way in the small Canadian town where I grew up, and I expected I never would.

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Going to the Antique Market

I DON’T KNOW when the antique market first got underway, but I suspect that like everything else the notion of an antique is era-specific. Mass industrial production of commercial consumer goods is an innovation whose origins are of slight remove, both geographically and historically. Before 1900, there were relative few objects to be bought and sold, near all of them hand produced in small number and bartered outside of the production and marketing cycles which now seem as inevitable to us as breathing. This is not to suggest that the idea of mass production had not yet occurred by the twentieth century. In textiles and food and furnishings and housewares, and a few other lucrative industries, industrial-based fortunes were amassed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the antique, which by necessity requires time to develop, is a modern idea. And that is our present topic.

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In Which I Lose My Passport and Very Nearly Also My Mind


I discovered some days ago that my passport wasn’t where I was certain I’d put it. I had just moved one and-a-half miles, crossing the border between Hull, Quebec and Ottawa, Ontario. I needed that passport to transfer my life (car registration, driver’s licence, and other various bits of ID) to my new-old place of residence. No ticket, no laundry. Thus begins what is for me a too-familiar recurring scene, in which yours truly is cast into the leading role of the identification theatre’s latest production.

Continue reading “In Which I Lose My Passport and Very Nearly Also My Mind”