I’m back. Whatever that means.
It’s been a runaround for the last month and a half or so, I’ll tellya. Always picking up and going, never really arriving. For a guy like me, who’s spent roughly the last decade spending five months a year perched on the deck of a cabin in the trees — doing not too much except fill up notebooks, and lose track of time — it’s an uncomfortable return to a certain part of my early twenties when I was always in motion through having no other choice. Through having no other place to be. Until, unexpectedly, I finally just wound up somewhere, that I can never quite say if I actually somehow chose, or just left unchosen for long enough that it became inevitable.
For me, this unexpected winding-up was symbolized by the Hot Pepper Cafe, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver’s East End. A greasy spoon across from the Park Of The Hippie Drummers, it had two breakfast specials on offer, Breakfast “A” and Breakfast “B”, which you could eat while peering out the foggy bay windows at the various boho types who infested the place, coming and going like tide-rip. To this day, Commercial Drive is still my city’s Little Italy, and still our main bohemian-type district…but back then, for a time, it was our Little San Francisco too. Circa 1968, I should judge. But anyway.
It all goes back a little deeper than that.
When I was in Grade One, I was a precocious reader. Problem! Because they ran out of things to give me to do, in the Grade One classroom. So they got some old Phonics booklets from — somewhere — and tried those on me, which worked great until I ate ‘em all up, and then they had no other notion but to send me to the library. And in so doing, they sealed my fate.
I had never been all by myself, unsupervised, in those big elementary school hallways before, you see. It was trippy. Behind the closed doors of the classrooms, voices like ghosts, voices out of the fairy fort, shadows behind frosted glass. Through the door of the library: nobody home here, either. I guess now that the librarian was out having a smoke, or getting another cup of coffee, maybe carrying on an affair with another teacher in the lounge. Who knows? But anyway the library was totally deserted. “Hello?” I whispered, afraid to call…
If you knew about me as a really little kid, you’d laugh at this. But never mind. I spent as long as I dared in there, but the librarian didn’t return, so I…
Checked out a book.
And then it just happened to be, in a strange way, the wrong kind of book. That’s all. It was a book about some kids with an over-rich fantasy life, secret tunnels and motivations and masks, hidden identities and purposes, and no adults to be found anywhere. I left the library then, book in hand, like a kind of space-traveller — down the deserted hallway I floated, through the toppled elevator-shaft-like tunnel, all untethered — until hand met door, found by decoding the symbols on the plates on the top of the filing-cabinets they called classrooms in those days — and then BANG! Sound and light, and people.
I was back.
But not in one piece, I fancy; at least, I wasn’t quite the same kid who’d left.
Because when I just got a little bit older, I discovered something really bizarre: that there was an entire species of literature devoted to plumbing the strangeness of my long walk to and from the library that day. When in future I would read The Magician’s Nephew, I would recall peering at the nameplates of all those alternate-universe classrooms, trying to figure which was the right one…when I would see 2001: A Space Odyssey, the feeling of floating down the hall from this lost twenty minutes of my life would slam back into the active parts of my brain, demanding to know who’d been reading its diary. But of course it was very far from ending there: it didn’t even have to be science fiction or fantasy per se that got me after a while, so thoroughly was the motif worked into, or drawn upon by, the popular entertainment I could lay my hands on. The Poseidon Adventure worked the same magic on me as Rocket Ship Galileo did; Tom Sawyer carried almost as big a charge as The Hobbit. The Three Investigators inhabited much the same world as the Swiss Family Robinson, when it came down to it; and if they did, then didn’t that mean even the more conformablility-based stuff like the Hardy Boys did too? Kind of? I mean, if you really looked at them closely? But then it didn’t stop with the Hardy Boys either: the wider my attention spread, the more I saw how this stuff was everywhere. After a while, it was like standing in a hail of tuning forks. I wondered how other people managed to miss it. What made all my fellow genre geeks hear it, when everybody else seemed shockingly deaf to it? Did it, perhaps, all come down to taking a walk to a library unescorted one day, at a sufficiently young age?
Anyway here I am. Back. September 15th, and the main part of my summer is just beginning now, finally. Time at the beach, soaking up sun and salt water. To a guy who likes swimming in the ocean as much as I do, these September days are all like perfect little snowflakes — each day the water is a little clearer and a little colder, and there’s a lot to miss if you let a day slip by you. And it’s all utterly without supervision, unless you count the sun as a supervisor.
Still, on occasion one has to wonder how the hell one ended up where one is, after all. In high school, the effect of my walk to the library years before bore the tremendous fruit of me skipping all the classes I could, just to see what other unsupervised people were doing with their days. Old ladies arguing in coffee shops, young Chinese guys working for their uncles in grocery stores, mechanics going to McDonald’s to get lunch. Twenty-year-olds smoking pot in back alleys. Cops. On one notable occasion, the Queen of England. It wasn’t quite the cool green shade of the mountain that Tom Sawyer thinks about while he’s trapped in school, but it was pretty damn interesting anyway. Compelling. Hypnotic. I practically fell into it; it was like living one of the books we had to read for CanLit. I mean there it all was: life, as it’s lived when nobody’s watching.
It’s a common thing to hear people describe certain of their experiences as “like a movie”, by which they clearly mean that the sense of super-vision is sometimes very strong, without quite crossing the threshold into an actual deja vu experience: going to a new school, graduating from that school, getting a job as a janitor or as a corporate Santa Claus, bumming around scenester parties, attending university…in each case you can practically hear the James Brown music swelling in the background, easily anticipate finding that your psychology prof is Robin Williams or something, see yourself as if from above sifting through crowds looking for the love interest that you know must be there, because that’s how movies work…I was never particularly interested in this little cognitive quirking, though. The essential musicality at the heart of the near-deja vu experience, the sense of being subtly guided from scene to scene…not that it couldn’t be pleasant, not that it wasn’t stimulating, because it was, but to me it wasn’t quite as cool as the other stuff, the shocking sense of being not guided, not coaxed into hitting the proper mark, but just thrown out of context, and into content. A few years later, eating Breakfast “B” at the Hot Pepper and wondering how to find a job — while the hippies beat their bongos across the street — I found myself breathing a sigh of relief despite the money worries, because all at once it became apparent to me that I was offscreen again, and possibly this time for good. Musicality was replaced by the clanking and rattling of a steamy kitchen, and the direct squort of ketchup going onto eggs. It was exactly not like all my synaesthesia, weird perceptual distortions, that week in Grade Nine where I had four blazing deja vu attacks a day, it was just like: life, when no one’s watching.
And very pleasant it was, too.
And now I’m back, after all the interminable milling about on ferries and buses, in cars with dogs and girls, and walking on railroad tracks to noplace in particular. Like I’ve suddenly jumped all the way from my twenties, back into my forties. My forties? Now, something about that just doesn’t sound right, does it? So I wonder if I have just wound up here somehow, in the same way I wound up at the Hot Pepper all them years ago, skin tingling as the sausages sizzled and the hippies danced. The life I lead is something of a strange one, I occasionally think, moving in epileptic fits and starts, a Zeno’s paradox of “now you’re here”, “now you’re here”, “now you’re here”. Arrows fired at the target, hanging frozen in the air wondering when and how and by whose agency they will arrive, if indeed they ever do. And now I’m here. Starting summer in September, on sunny Bowen Island. It seems impossible.
Where on earth does the time go?
It just floats up into the sky, or something. Weird, huh.
Okay, excuse me, Bloggers: I’ve got a beach to attend to. More on this story as it develops.