ARE YOU FOR REAL…

Are you for reeeeel? asks Bill, a big brawny guy who was probably gay. Well, I don’t know, I tell him as we sit around after work. Not that I pay much attention to him. More theatrical than reeel, Bill doesn’t spare anyone his question. Don’t know if anyone ever really answers him, or even thinks about it that much.

What’s for real here on the backstretch anyway, amongst the horse shit and the straw? Maybe what’s real is getting kicked in the stomach or bitten as you’re walking a ‘hot’ because nobody warned you that that horse, the one that just got a hold of your shoulder and shook you around a little bit, is a bit of rogue, a bit nasty.

Maybe it’s just getting up, day after day, at five or so, feeding the horses, working off the litres of beer that you drank the night before, smelling the shit. Not that the smell is bad. In fact you sort of get to like it after a while, let’s say a year or so. But then you probably don’t even notice it after a while, let say a year or so. The others, the ones that don’t work back here, probably do though, judging by their faces.

On the backstretch. Cleaning out the stalls, eating doughnuts by the dozen and drinking coffee by the jug when it’s bitterly cold outside. February in Toronto, in the open, when the water freezes on your hands. Your hands break open, but gloves don’t work, you can’t feel through gloves. The horses breathe steam and everyone stays out of doors only as long as they need to. Head to the tack room, or your room, which is the same but different, full of saddles. Your room has no saddles, no tack, just an iron bed, the smell of liniment, the smell of your boots and heat that would cure tobacco in two hours.

A while back I lived in the room next to old Jack, or Mr Meoff as we used to call him when he wasn’t around. He had worked with the horses for years, liked to talk about the good ones. Couldn’t get the names right most of the time, but we knew what he meant. We found him dead one morning. Got a bit too drunk and choked on his own vomit. Not that it was that unusual, dead that is. There were others, jockeys like Avelino Gomez who went down when his hose fell in a race. And then there were those that didn’t hit the headlines, the ones who died from injuries on the backstretch or the living dead, the kids who did too much stuff, the would-be jockeys who wanted to go faster than their horses, the kids who liked the wind in their face.

Avelino’s nephew, Victor, was a would be jockey, a would be champion like his uncle, or if that wasn’t possible, just a jockey. He was friend of mine, a lanky kid from Mexico, well sort of from Mexico, he may have been born just down the street from the race track for all I know, but that didn’t seem to matter much at the time. Victor had the blood and that was what counted. Avelino was a hero, the champ, the best. Victor wasn’t the best, he was just too big, to lanky and heavy, a sort of Mexican Lester Piggot but without the drive to win. Victor wanted to win in order to drive; life was to be enjoyed on the way to stardom, just in case you didn’t make it. He didn’t.

Victor had a pal, Rubén. Rubén was Mexican too, a real Mexican, from Mexico. We used to hang out together, Victor Ruben and I. Ruben taught me to swear in Mexican: Chinga a su puta madre cabron!!!!!. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I guessed it wasn’t something to say to your girl friend. Ruben was a good guy, and one day he told me he was going to Mexico and was going to bring back hand made riding boots. Did I want a pair? I wasn’t really interested in riding boots. I didn’t see myself as a cowboy, they didn’t have them where I came from and I couldn’t ride. Shit sack was what we called the bad jockeys. Most likely they called me plain dangerous.

But to get back to Ruben. He asked a lot of people, people who were riders or thought of themselves as cowboys. He collected a lot of money. Of course, we never saw him again. I liked him though; he was always smiling.

WHAT’S HIS ADDRESS?


May 2011

I’ve known the man for a while, although I couldn’t say with any certainty where I first met him, or even tell you his name. I have to admit that most of the time, certainly up until recently, I tried to avoid him. In my defense I should say that he’s almost stone deaf, consequently shouts a lot, and has moments that can only be described as lunatic. For instance, there was the time he collared me in a café and started on about Rafael Correa, the president, his favourite subject, the man he loves to hate.

“He’s sold the entire Amazon to the Church,” he tells me, shouting in my ear. “I want to denounce it, it’s a disgrace, someone’s got to do something about it.” “I hadn’t heard about it,” I tell him. “Where did you read that?” “It’s in the papers,” he says. “We have to do something about it. I want you to help me.” I look at him with a mixture of amusement and terror, trying hard to keep both under control. “I’d like to check it out before I do anything,” I say. “Tell me where you got the information, and I’ll do a little research to make sure I’ve got my facts right.” He snorts, dismisses me with an imperious wave of the hand, and marches off.

I should add that the conversation was not totally happenstance. The man knows that I was once part of a now disappeared local newspaper that achieved a certain level of standing amongst a sector of the left wing, unemployed, coffee drinking and café haunting population, and that has now assumed an almost mythical status, at least amongst those of us who once worked there. So his asking for help wasn’t totally out of line. Of course, the newspaper no longer exists, and after the debacle of the international media centre in the Ministry of Political Coordination, which I won’t go into, no-one takes much notice of me anymore.

The point is that the man seems to find me whenever I‘m in the vicinity. He seems to have a radar screen with my name written on it, in very large letters, and over the last year or two exchanges have consequently become relatively frequent. Most recently he’s been after me about one of my partners in the newspaper, the editor, who is now a high up in the Foreign Office and is relatively well known amongst the previously mentioned set. Somehow the man had got wind of his new post and wants to talk to him. As usual he’s desperate, and shouting in my ear. “I know them all” he says, citing a few names. “I know them all, we go back a long way. So what about this friend of yours? Do you see him often?” “Only from time to time”, I answer, “but less so these days”. “Well”, he barks, “do you know where he lives?” “Not really, somewhere in the valley”, I respond vaguely, although it’s true that I now don’t know where he lives, and that saves me from lying. “Maybe you know the house?” “No”. “Have you been there?” “No, I haven’t been there, he moved just recently.” “Then what about the telephone?” “No, I don’t have his number”. This time I’m forced to lie. “It must be in the book” says the man. “I suppose so.” “Then what we need is his address. Do you know the house?” “No”. “Have you been there?” “No”. Now he seems to lose interest, and wanders off to sit by himself.

The next time I bump into him, the routine is the same: “See him often?” “No”. “Address?” “No”. “Know the house?” “No”, and so on and so forth. But this time it occurs to me to ask him why he wants to talk to my ex colleague. “I know them all” he says, “I know them all, and I’ve been thinking that I could do with a job. It’s not that I want to be an ambassador, that’s probably out of reach, but something in an embassy, that would be fine. I want to talk to your friend, I know him well”. “Then why don’t you go to the Foreign Office”, I tell him, “after all it’s just up the street. This time he really surprises me. “I’ve already been”, he says, “but they wouldn’t let me in”. “Perhaps you need an appointment”. “They wouldn’t give me one”, he says, “they told me he was very busy”.

A day later I see him on the street, he looks like he’s in a hurry. I wonder whether I should say hello. Finally I decide that, why not, he’s amusing, even if he is a bit crazy. “Do you know how to use a computer?” he asks. “No problem” I tell him. “Then help me to find this address in Chile”. “Fine” I say, “let’s go to the nearest internet place, and see what we can do”. It’s more complicated than I imagine. We find the directories for Chile, but for some reason the Santiago section doesn’t work, and he gets angry, at the machine, at me, and as he leaves, at the owner who wants to charge him for the time we’ve been using the computer. He refuses to pay and storms off.

I last saw him a week or so ago, sitting in the café drinking his coffee. He signals me to come over and sit down. “Read this,” he says “I’m claiming compensation, but they’ve told me that I have to write it all over again, that I didn’t do it properly”. I begin to read. It’s the story of how as an Ecuadorian student in Chile he got caught up in the aftermath of the Pinochet/CIA coup in 1973. He and some others were able to take refuge in a church, but for some unfathomable reason left and were immediately arrested. My friend was driven to a basement somewhere, where they questioned and beat him for a number of days. One of the others was shot. The rest were then taken by boat to an island, where he was thrown onto the beach with his hands tied behind his back. He was beaten again for a number of days, but somehow, with the help of the United Nations, was eventually released.

“I lost seventy percent of my hearing when I hit my head on the hard sand”, he says, “but at least I didn’t die”.

ABOUT THE TIME WE WENT WEST FOR A COUPLE OF WEEKS

It’s late January. I’ m ‘seasonally unemployed’ as they say, drawing the dole until the race track opens again in February. Paul is heading off to Edmonton to a job in a therapy centre for handicapped kids. It seems like an opportunity. After we arrive I’ll head over the mountains to Vancouver and see all my old friends for a couple of days. I’ll be back in two weeks.

We leave on a snowy morning, sent off like Shackleton’s heroes in Paul’s ’65 Chevrolet, a monster of a car which has room for everything, including his house plants. I have just got my licence, for the second time, and am confident, more or less, that I can share the driving. But for some reason we don’t pay much attention to the fact that the car is heavily loaded behind, the weight distribution uneven, not calculated to improve road holding.

Heading North from Sudbury around the northern shore of Lake Superior, I begin to realise that I am terrified by the possibility that on a tight slippery curve the back loaded Chevy, and I, just can´t handle, we might, just might, drift into the path of one of the monster trucks that are travelling all too frequently in the opposite direction. The conditions are not like they were in Liverpool. The road is two-lane and narrowed constantly by drifting snow that tends to cover the slick patches. The car’s power steering makes me feel like I´m driving on skies. And I can’t ski. To complicate matters my feet are being chilled by the wind that’s whistling in through the hole in the floor we have only recently noticed. Twice we, that is to say I, drive into a ditch. That we don’t die is something to be thankful for. We get out somehow and head off again in a sort of Laurel and not so Hardy prairie adventure. Paul drives the rest of the way.

After making up for time lost in ditches, we stop around midnight in a National Park on the North shore of the Lake Superior. “Wow man ! look at those stars. Let’s pull over and smoke a joint”. We do. We walk across a frozen lake admiring the glittering night sky. “Wow Man !”. The night sky is a jewel, but as we walk back we realise that the car is axle deep in the snow. “Wow man, heavy duty”. It’s past midnight in an isolated park, North of nowhere, and we haven’t seen a single car drive by since we stopped about half an hour ago. We’re worried. We’re really worried. Worried that we don’t have the blankets or candles or any of the other things they tell you to take if you don’t want to freeze to death on a lonely highway north of Superior. “Oh shit man”.

I don’t know what we do, or how we do it. Perhaps we dig with our hands or put branches under the tires. We certainly pray. I keep thinking about stories of mothers who wrestle cougars or crocodiles to death, or lift cars over their heads to save their children. It feels like the same kind of mystical experience. I know Jesus is on our side. On the third try we get the car out.

It begins to dawn on us that we’ve been optimistic about the time it will take to cross the prairies in the middle of winter. Optimistic about the amount of money we need and optimistic about the ability of the house plants to survive. When we finally arrive in Edmonton, the snow is piled five feet high and the house plants are dead. Thankfully we are still alive, but we have no money. We stay the night in a room in the therapy hostel, and in the morning I borrow five dollars from Paul, who borrows it from someone else, and buy a bus ticket to Vancouver. I leave the next day. We wish each other good luck.

On the other side of the mountains the weather is much better: the grass is green and the cattle are fat. But one thing doesn’t change, money is still a problem. Thankfully there are refuges for those who don’t have any: shelters for the needy, which I have never considered myself to be, at least until now. After convincing those who needed to be convinced, that, Canadian citizen or not, I’m stranded with no money or place to stay, I’m given a bed in a men’s hostel close to Pigeon Park, where the pigeons are outnumbered by the drunk and homeless. There I see the first person I know, ‘Max’. We had met a few years ago picking strawberries in Abbotsford, about twenty five miles from Vancouver. I’m glad to see a friendly face. I call out. He looks at me blankly and wanders unsteadily into a grim looking hotel.

At the hostel they give me vouchers for meals in the White Spot Lunch, a greasy spoon with its complement of cigarette mouthed waitresses, men who would not be out of place in a 30’s Bowery film, and an owner with a drooping moustache and an enormous belly covered by a grease stained semi white apron who looks like he has seen his best days, but might still convince himself to cut your throat if you don’t pay. I eat well. At night, back in the dormitory, I sleep soundly, with wallet and knife under the pillow.

After waking and checking that I‘m alive and documented, I set off in search of a more comfortable place to stay. I hunt through telephone books and anything else I can think of in search of friends, anyone I might know. But like the history of the men in the hostel, no trace is evident. Then, on the third day, salvation calls. My heart leaps when, sitting in a bus stopped at a traffic light close to the Burrard Street Bridge, I notice a Volkswagen passing in the opposite direction. There she is, a vision of a clean room, conversation, and perhaps more. In a Zhivagoesque scene, I shout and wave frantically, Sandy, Sandy, Sandy … while she, oblivious, drives off slowly in the other direction.

I give up on my invisible friends as a source of shelter, and head to the race track in the Pacific Exhibition Grounds. I know the season is to start around February or March, and I hope I might find a room in exchange for work. But fate doesn´t seem to be on my side. The scene is desolate. Apart from the seagulls shitting on the Greenpeace boat forlornly exhibited in the winter rain and the few hardy ducks that sit contemplating their navels, not much seems to be going on.

Of the few people braving the rain, no-one is interested in giving me work. I go back the next day, and then the next, until finally I manage to persuade someone to take me on. Wayne, a thin, dapper man with a Clark Gable moustache and an affable manner, seems like a decent type, and appears to be doing well enough. He has some good horses, he says, they’re in California for the winter…he’ll give me a 5 by 5 concrete block room complete with thin mattress, iron bed and burlap sack over the window, some horses to look after and, best of all, money.

It rains all the time. I feel like I am living on like Noah’s Ark. But nothing lasts for ever. Soon the spring leaves begin to appear. I begin to enjoy life. My little room becomes a refuge. Each morning I step out to look across the river onto the coastal mountains and breathe in the smell of the cedar mills down in False Creek. I am as happy as I have ever been. Spiritual revival, the Tao, Lotus Land. I am walking on air. I meet Laura. She works walking ‘hots’, is interesting, and is interested in me. So we sleep together, do acid in Stanley Park, talk horses, drink wine and watch foreign films at the somewhat unfortunately named “East Vancouver Cultural Centre”. But nothing lasts forever.

Tony is my co-worker, we look after about eight horses each. He has a couple of his own in the barn and is an experienced worker with aspirations of sorts. Tony definitely does not walk on air, nor is he interested in the Tao or the East Vancouver Cultural Centre. He likes to play tricks on me. He talks of animals suffering from ‘rain scalds’. I suppose I bother him. I work hard and don’t complain, and Wayne promises me one of the good horses that are to arrive shortly from California. Maybe this is the key, no way to be sure, but I’m certain that something is wrong when Tony accuses me of giving “needles” to his horse. An absurd idea perhaps, but Tony’s sense of the absurd is not that well developed. He isn’t keen on his “hippy” co-worker, so the long hair, and the needles, have to go.

The confrontation starts. Wayne stands by but says nothing. Tony goes a little berserk and hits me somewhere. Surprised, I do nothing. He hits me again. This time I fall back against the wall. He stands back shaking, neck bulging, face purple, fists at the ready. This is his mistake. He lacks the killer instinct. At least I can say that for him. Or perhaps he is just so certain that hippies high on love and peace don’t fight back. As he comes for me the third time I hit him a good straight left, and that’s that, suddenly it’s all over. I see him the next day in the racetrack kitchen. He has a black eye. “It was his ring” I hear him say. I tell them at the barn that I was once a boxer. I think some of them believe me.

I quit. Going back East, I tell Wayne. Just like that. It seems unfair to Laura. I like her, and but for the unforeseen would probably still be here, working. It even seems a little tragic, but for reasons I’m not able to define, I’ m determined to go. We sleep together for the last time, and then go down to Central Station. It is early May. I board the train for Edmonton to see Paul, the 65 Chev, and the duck he now has living in his bathroom.