Folks and epithets
It occurs to me now, following this first snowstorm of this Fall, when we first became acquainted and sensitive to each other’s needs and throbs—in the wee morning, as is often the case between new lovers—that the way I began to write to you, in that long, epic facebook correspondence we still engage in, was a mannerism of that correspondence; one I cannot, even willing it valiantly, incant elsewhere than in a facebook message box to you. And so, it becomes that everything my angular discipline required here has been copied from such a box.
Something, here, is now always for you, and seeing as you’ve never been to our privately endowed Centre for the performing arts—said Centre where I, heralded Prince of Ushering, work for bacon-and-egg money—I will tell you now its heating system is a jokester hellion, a carbuncular fiend from an ancient forlorn and ailing plain for which our ancient patrons would undoubtedly fit the old-as-Depression prerequisite required to have witnessed the birthing of its mischievous magic in the smithy of mid-century industry—should they have been occupied with something else than ledgers, law, medicine or the arts at the time. It, let us call it the Volcano Corps, is an unassailable, sensorless, irreparably complicated network of valves and requires a Doctor of Fire, certified demonic insight into aptly earthly sensitivities regarding levels of toastiness, to operate in such a way as to keep folks comfortable in the early, unpredictable months of winter. Yesterday’s snow, combined with the glass the Centre is almost entirely made of, gave the air in the place a sudden, wonderland crispness—one no old creeper, retired salesman, Florida-wintering podiatrist or Matzo-scarfing walker user would tolerate or, it pains me to tell you, avoid complaining about to me. The Volcano Corps had struck again and so I refused to peel off my coat when I arrived. I consulted the box office staff, all neck deep in sweaters and scarves, who provided predictable notions when I exclaimed:
“Pray tell, has it been this damn cold all day?”
“Is Lloyd, the man with the theoretical skills required to do something, anything, around?”
“Is Mariano, the custodial guru with whom I would have the opportunity to engage in a plaintive duologue on the matter, on shift?”
On that note, Frank—my old friend, the King of Ushering and all around Centre go-for—came out of his office with, of all things, a turtleneck on. I bowed upon seeing him and followed him outside, down the back ramp, for a cigarette. Paul was already out there, looking soiled and cussing his significant other, “Bitty” out on the phone. Frank and I just listened. The word “fucker” came up often, doused in that familial southern Ontarian lilt we were all so very tolerant of. When he finally hung up, Frank shot a look my way and said “You’re late, Paul.” Paul’s response, in his habitual London-dried haze—the very same brand of haze that had, a season or so ago, conveniently erased from his accessible memory the night he called me a “10,” lauding my “hidden muscles in places you can’t see,” and invoked certain puzzling, walk-in-closeted leanings of his that convinced me to avoid consulting the urinals at the same time as him in the future—was a burped up something that smelled suspiciously like a hot Karl might. He right palm up, clutched his right tit with the other hand, sighed and said:
“Ugh. Gotta leave early tonight, Frank,” staring beadily. He then tapped me weakly on the shoulder and hobbled by us and into the Centre. Frank, lighting my cigarette, said:
“I think I still hate my job,” to which I smiled the real smile.
And thus, I assumed the crux of my shift would be proficiently mitigating, though failing to solve, the bone-frosting watershed of the sticky valved Volcano predicament, one which Paul would most certainly not be helpful in tackling. Frank, meekly, and looking so very tired, seemed to concur. Let it be noted, however: pain or no pain in the backside, I would, yet again, be surprised, and I was wrong.
Such is often the case at the Centre, with regards to surprise. It’s expected, and is mostly recounted with ambivalence, which vacillates moodily from indifferent bemusement to gloomy glee. That being said, surprise is of interest here and worth exemplifying—if only for the sake of anecdote, the relating of which I know you love dearly, filing them away Dewey-style, like a grand, hermitic pooka at the library. Surprise will tickle your proverbial pickle like Sherazadian chimera feathers here (I know how coyly you are prone to giggle at mixed metaphors, especially those based in scripture); it is the ever-growing subtext of unforeseen lows our patrons can, seemingly on a whim, stoop to. Parenthetically, I will illustrate the following in line with the general intention of this story—i.e. to laud and keep your learned attentions on my acerbic hoodratteries and their auteur.
Beloved full-time groper of mine very exclusive biscuit: in the beginning, I bartended. I stood behind the ArtLounge bar on the lower level and stirred perfected juniper swill for sound techs in frumpy bottom drawer blazers. I peddled Boylan cherry fizz to amply mid-rifted and sweet-toothed production managers. I served bland, healthy soup and answered “No” to upwardly mobile community theatre ingénues’ questions regarding potential gratuities. I ignored whole lots of perfectly ignoble platitudes and smiled what we both consider an inappropriately high number of times I should have spat, though my boss-lady at the time would not have concurred. I worked the bar and the InterCoffeeMission café, the combo of which mostly consisted of an in-house cafeteria service for the artistically inclined and cheap, a decaf brew hub for the young at heart and titanium-hipped. I was not partial, but broke—and Frank was nice enough to put in a kind word—and so it was.
One of my later shifts, perhaps a month or so before moving on to recreational Usherdom and brighter vocational opportunities, something you may hardly believe occurred. It had, arguably, been an unpleasant shift already. I had been cussed out by my less than meningeally fortified boss-lady (a woman who says “somewheres” and refused to serve our diabetes-ridden patrons diet Coke for “health reasons”) for refusing to open the bar back up a day earlier, after it had been closed for the better part of an hour, so that a certain rotund head of production could get their fizzed-up fix. A woman called me “black boy” and offered to smack me for asking her to kindly excuse herself momentarily while I finished serving another patron. And a stocky little man, who begrudgingly accepted a water bottle from me after I informed him no other drinks were allowed in the theatre and subsequently cussed out the water bottle, said “Mind that mouth, asshole?” when I told him the show was going to start up again in a moment or two, should he be interested in viewing its remainder. All in all, none of that was all too fun, but surely no surprise. Colourful, but business as usual—the predictable settings of that workplace’s mood. What was a surprise, however, was this:
All five feet of a woman had just dragged herself up to me. I was wiping down the café bar following the second intermission and she had that low haunch which always precludes acceptance of a total lack of manners. She waved me down and I played along, with a smile—assuming she needed a strong, young gentleman’s arm— following which she pulled my left hand up, put a tissue, an entirely used one, in it, closed it, showed some fake teeth, and slumped away. All the while I just kept smiling, privately mortified. I discarded the thing and got a head start on forgetting the whole occurrence when a sateen-rapped lady, who had somehow witnessed the whole exchange, if such is what you can deem it to be, huddled on over, chuckling, and said:
“Dirty job, eh?” I couldn’t help but agree, and gave a nice fake laugh in appreciation of her volunteered pity. “My name is Gale,” she said, reaching her hand out. I shook it and gave her mine. She had a cold, soft excuse for a shake (classy stuff), which felt like expensive veggie cream and too much Purel. She went on:
“I noticed you at intermission. You are a very good looking young man.”
“Oh, thank you.” I smiled warmly, bored, but flattered. I started to turn back, but then she added:
“And I’ve got a daughter!” I paused.
“Oh that’s nice,” I said.
“You’d love her!”
“I believe it.”
“A nice Jewish girl, right?!”
“Excuse me?” I said. And that’s when she asked.
“You’re Jewish, right?”
“Oh, no, sorry, I’m not.” She looked vexed. She asked, hopeful:
“Oh. Well, where are you from, then?”
“I’m Canadian.” She rolled her eyes.
“But I mean, you know, what are you?”
“I’m dual.” She rolled her eyes some more.
“But I mean, you know, WHAT are you? Where are you FROM?”
And at her insistence I let her know. Told her something I’ve kept out of every discussion I could, something nearly everyone I’ve ever met has tried to bring into conversation, and which I’ve kept out of every piece of writing I’ve thus far written, with the exception of this very one. I told her my mother was French Canadian and my father was black, to which she insisted on knowing from where, to which I said Philadelphia, to which she insisted, you know, like, from where, to which I said he was Jamaican on my grandmother’s side and half Mic Mac and African-Canadian on my somewhat anonymous and mostly abstracted grandfather’s side—a man who, I specified, was a soldier passing through on his way to Korea from our very own culturally complicated New Brunswick, the last man my queer, child-battering grandmother ever slept with. And then she looked vexed—personally, unjustifiably vexed—glazed over and concluded:
“Oh. So you’re a mongrel?” rhetorically, turned on her abhorrent Chaneel heals and strode away up the stairs and back into the darkness of the theatre.
And so, once more, Surprise—temperamental hell-breather or not.
Once its doors were opened, the theatre nearly made one long for the comforting, dependable temperature of a fridge. The din of ensuing misgivings was deafening, but that was alright. Paul just watched the stage, chewing gum and nail, but Frank and I kept it all at bay, smiling and processing with the crowd and getting the emergency blankets out for those who would not be silenced. At some point, a man with the most expensive looking hanky I have ever seen demanded to speak to the Artistic Director, but was quieted with some free coffee and a stern hand. Everything, for a while, was going smoothly enough.
One very old woman changed that. Yapping away with an old acquaintance, she had huddled down in a fort she had confectioned out of her Canada Goose, right in the middle of the aisle on row D, and she was not budging. She had to move. I asked, I pleaded, but, with two minutes till showtime, the octogenarian said:
“Oh hush, little man. Do you not see how cold it is in here?” The mixed metaphor was not lost on me. Her face smiled a smile that insinuated nuisance, both implying mine and confirming hers. I wondered, looking at her, how hard her head had managed to remain under all those years and furrows—how easily it might crack. Needless to say, I maintained my usual alacrity and answered:
“Oh yes, but we just can’t have anyone sitting in the aisles like this.” She sighed. I smiled a little harder.
“But it’s even colder down there!” she said, pointing her ever-burgeoning nose a couple of rows down. “Don’t you know how old I am?” I assumed the query rhetorical, but played platonically along anyway.
“Oh, I couldn’t say miss.” She squeezed my pant leg with her sterling, twiggish hand.
“87 in March!” I vaguely smoothed my pants.
“Oh my,” I said.
“Yes, ‘Oh my’ is right. Now leave me be, yes?!”
By now Frank was staring and coming over.
“What’s the problem here?”
“She wants to sit in the aisle.”
He turned to her briskly and said:
“That’s a fire hazard.” She said:
“So??? Nothing’s burning!” He turned back to me, bit his lip, and walked away. She turned back to me, smiling her real smile, this time. Again:
“So we can’t have you keeping burning folks from leaving the building.” Then someone, whom I assume is her son, came up from his seat. Which got Paul interested, who then came up from his post on the stage, which now no one was guarding, however badly, to fake the semblance of support and eavesdrop. I sighed. The son involved himself.
“What’s the problem?” he sighed.
“She can’t sit here, it’s a fire hazard.”
“So?” I almost closed my eyes.
“So in the event of a fire people may trample her in their attempt to get out and away from harm,” I said, “or simply in a panic.” He smirked and broadened his eyes for effect:
“Is there a fire planned?” My mouth may have been conceitedly gaping. I mused privately about suggesting I set her on fire to demonstrate the general state of panic someone sitting in the aisle would most certainly add to. I said:
“No, of course not, but there is a fire code, which is in place at all times and must be adhered to. This, according with that very reasonable code, is beyond hazardous. So I’m gonna have to put her in her seat, or ask her to leave.” He did not look happy. He said:
“Oh yeah?” I said:
“Yes.” He said:
“Really?” I said:
“Yep.” Then he took what I can only vaguely gather was a feigned stalemate-appropriate pause, and finally said:
“And what if I sit here?” The game-changer. I blinked a deliberately long time. I said:
“Then that’d be a fire hazard with more girth and, consequently, more hazard.”
Now, by now, even his mother had somehow conceived that I wouldn’t take any kind of guff. Upon the queue of my tight-faced silence, she got up, headed for B and tucked herself down in her seat. In a matter of seconds, she was talking to someone else, pinching away at another thigh, forgetting. Her son, however, was not done. He pulled his very nice, wrinkled, white-after-labor-day slacks up and sat down very slowly. He nodded. I took a breath. He was a big, rotund man.
I could see Frank giving the thumbs-up a few stairs up, giving the house, then looking down at me. He mouthed “now.” I breathed it all out calmly, got my hands up, and told the son:
“The show’s starting right right now, so we have to either put you in B11, your seat, immediately, or take this outside, permanently.”
He was pinching his lip like it was neck, glaring. He rose, slowly, and started down towards me, till his face was close enough to smell egg on. And I’ll tell you he said something I will not repeat here, and told us plainly apart. Then he started walking down towards B. I gave Frank a look. He was horrified. He’d been close enough to hear. I turned and started after him. I said:
“What?” He kept walking down and I followed. I got closer. I said:
“What?” He stepped into the row and sat down. Pretended. He wouldn’t look at me, now. I looked around. Everyone else was staring. I made a fist. I saw Frank and Paul, staring. I started walking back up. And kept walking till I was up top.
Then Paul, that Ontarian hick of the last order, that oily-haired, trailer-trash abusing, homophobic and so very lacking-in-use douche, somehow derived something indeed implied in my eyes, and construed from what he had overheard, and touched me, touched me on the shoulder, lingered, smirked and said:
“These fucking people, eh?”
I looked at him. And low or no low, I hated myself for wholly, privately agreeing, even momentarily as I did, with his gist; and hated them, no inference at all, for somehow impregnating me with the dull wit to stoop and pick up what he put down. His hand just stayed on my shoulder. I looked at him in such a way as to suggest he had just made it required of him to permanently stop breathing and he laughed. Which made me want him alone to disappear. I said:
“Paulie, I will hate-fuck your hick skull with that hand till I can see it.”
And like magic, he removed his hand, backed up, and disappeared behind the velvet curtain I drew. The houselights, meanwhile, went down, the crowd went silent, and the show went up. I remember I shut my eyes a long, long time. And when it was all over, I went home and wrote to you.