Wednesday, January 21, 2009

These are the shadows of things that have been.

Author's Note: the following comes solely from my own meandering experience. There are no doubt inaccuracies. I humbly beg your forgiveness.

When I was a boy, my mother worked as an auctioneer's assistant, along with a plethora of other jobs designed to keep us in health and home. It should be said that my father also worked this form of labour, but in my mind it is linked with my mother. She, harassed and flustered by her gregarious employer, would dart about the auction house doing whatever it was that needed doing, while I, grossly short for my age, would often lose sight of her for long periods of time.

The term auction house is a bit of misnomer. My childhood was spent in the small provincial town of Creemore. The town was situated in an primordial lake bed, as demonstrated by the picturesque valley surrounding it, and the predilection of local home's basements to flood. one of many former railroad and mill towns that dot the landscape of Southern Ontario. In my youth it was a tired old town, by the time I left it in the early stages of puberty, it had its fancy Bistro and was already showing the signs of it's Lovecraftian re-animation into the shambling monster of place it is today. The presence of the brewery allowed Creemore to survive the death of the railroad the was the doom of many of its peers. Today, however, that same brewery has spelled out the doom of Creemore village life. Already filled with tchotchkes and bored teenagers, it is like a sleeping gorgon awaiting the kiss of princely subdivision to whisk the town into a world of banality and the mundane.

But I digress.

Bellow the hillock that the Junior Junior High-school was built on (Grades 4-8. Make of that what you will) were two long, warehouse like buildings of astonishing similarity. I can only assume they were built by the same developer back in the fifties, but that is only speculation. Each warehouse was sided in wide aluminium panels and ugly concrete blocks. One, the arena, was green. The other, a colour that can only be described as nicotine yellow, was the legion. It was in that building that John Simpson held court.

In those days, less than twenty years ago, it was still an acceptable practice to smoke indoors. It's comical to think back of it now, but everything in the legion was stained by it. The grey concrete, the hideous faux wood paneling, the display cases, the chairs, the fluorescent lights- it was all dyed by a yellowy-green patina of exhaled nicotine. On auction days, you could find all sorts looking at the wares. Young couples looking to purchase conversation pieces; old ladies come to reminisce or complain about their childhood; brass, arrogant nouveau rich who descended from their Olympian chateaus to act like caricatures from seventies sit-coms. Beer-bellied, moustached truckers whose presence there was never adequately explainable. I suppose even truckers occasionally desire miscellaneous turn-of-the-century gardening tools, or 1970s issues of Vanity Fair.

There were also the people who came there because they presumably went there everyday the building was opening. They were the ones responsible for the fine coat of yellow bequeathed to the building's interior. I suppose these men were nominally the veterans the legion was created for, but I can only ever think of them as the epitome of their generation of Farmers. In the words of James Lileks, these were the men who spent their Sundays in church, staring out the window and thinking about coffee. They were almost uniformly burly, and rarely over 5'10. Ruddy, red faced, with thinning hair cut very short, usually greying. They always wore a combination of worn denim, lumberjack shirts and the ubiquitous baseball cap. They spoke in that patois unique to rural Southern Ontario and the Maritimes, a drawl that will suddenly speed up, peppered with “you know” and “right” and “see”, such as “Oh, you know the Litmin's place up on the ninth concession near [insert relevant hamlet here], right? Well, I was down there on Monday, see, and seeing as there cow was sick, I thought...”

These men would sit, filling half the seats, and converse with each other with all the solemnness of Torah scholars, occasionally punctured by a deep laugh. They never bought anything, they were simply there because they had nowhere else to be. These men were serviced by the legion's bar, a filth ridden hole-in-the-wall in the back of the hall. I can still remember the taste of their sandwiches, the tuna and egg-salad that always tasted sweet. I can only assume that it was the poor quality of mayonnaise in their manufacture. When not at the legion, these men would spend their days smoking outside the post-office, or eating in the local greasy-spoon diner (God, how I miss that diner). The grubby tables, the faded white curtain gauze that hung ineffectually in the long bank of windows. The fare was what you'd expect, various undercooked, watery eggs, bacon dripping with fat, crunchy, overcooked home-fries (the best kind). But on auction days, at least a few of these men would dutifully make an appearance.

If it was a particularly hot day, the best place to sit was the floor. The cool of the concrete could be felt through the palm of the hands, bringing relief to a small child sweating in the heat. Mum would often leave me in the care of the lovely cash-box lady who sat at the back, near the snack bar. I have long since forgotten her name, but she called me munchkin, a name I still loathe. For some reason, whenever I think of her I am immediately greeted by a visage of a pull-string Urkel doll, which I cannot explain. To placate me into not nicking antiques and running amok, my mother would on occasion buy me donuts from the aforementioned Snack Bar. These were blobs of yellowy dough, covered with a horrendous, gut destroying icing sugar and sprinkles. One bite gave you your monthly sugar intake, and I almost never finished my donut, because by the second bite, I was already disgusted with the very taste of those saccharine monstrosities. Looking back on it now, I can easily see that my mum was in her element in all that chaos. Though she'd probably disagree, it is my mother's drive and will that drive much of the family forward, and amongst that madness that is an auction, orders to get one item, hand off another, organize this and that and the other, I have no doubt that she handled it with the the same inimitable skill with which she approaches everything else.

Outside the legion, mounted on a hideous concrete pillar, was a fighter jet. At a guess, I'd say it dated from the Korean War, what with it's silver body, reminiscent of an Airstream, and general air of decrepitude. It was the dream of every kid to somehow manage to climb the tower and sit in or on the jet, but I have no idea if anybody ever managed it. From on that jet, you'd have a good view of the surrounding town. At the foothill in front of you, you could see in the distance the long road that led up to the map-marker of Cashtown Corners. On that road sat the town's two gas stations, Shell and a place that I believe was called “Sunny's” or some such. These gas station were within a kilometre of one another, and they were locked in an eternal struggle to take away each other's customers. Behind you rose the edifice of the century old, three story schoolhouse, with its bell tower and ancient maple trees. You could no doubt see the steeples and bell towers of the town's four churches- Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and the sinfully ugly Baptist church, which had to have been built in the fifties. The Catholics had to go outside of town for their religious needs. And right in front of you was the arena (I'm fairly sure I haven't reversed the buildings in my mind).

I never, ever played hockey as a child, but nonetheless memories of that place persist. There was an acrid smelled that filled the air that became quite harsh once you went out onto the ice. I believe that the arena may also have had an equally atrocious snack bar in the observation area, but that may be a false memory. I can recall, with stunning clarity, the helmet that my parents purchased to protect my fragile brain pan. My mother being the economically minded person that she is, purchased it second hand from somewhere or other, and I was required to wear it whenever I went on the ice. Like most things from my boyhood, my head was too small for it, and I looked ridiculous wearing it. It was a black hockey helmet, scuffed somewhat, with a white line going around the circumference at the base. There was a dirty white strap that seemed dangerously thin, and in order to keep the damned thing on my skull it was always so tight as to slightly choked me as the helmet jumped around on my head. I remember walking out to the ice, very careful to walk only on the rubber matting because I had been taught that to step on the concrete would destroy your skates for eternity. I was, at best, a horrible skater, barely past the stage whereby you sort of hobble/walk along the ice. My father was always graceful on the ice, prepared for it by an adolescence of hockey and an adult life of dancing. I was always seized by jealousy, as he would talk to me face to face, effortlessly gliding backwards. I remember too the horror of tying my laces, wrapped twice around in a desperate attempt to get them to somehow fit my tiny feet. It always hurt, afterward, because the side well of the skate had dug into my narrow ankles. I always loved the way the ice looked, slick and wet after the Zamboni had gone over it.

But it is the legion that I remember most clearly. In later years I would deliver a speech there that would be totally panned by by the judges, to which I still remain bitter. It was in that legion that I first joined the cub scouts, of which I'll no doubt return to in some later work. But I often missed that pseudo-pastoral childhood. I still do.


Jerry Prager said...

What a beautiful bit of writing. You should do a lot more of this kind of thing, it tempers your air of acidity with genuine understanding and compassion. I wish I had been around longer to teach you to skate, and yet I remember those times on the ice with you, they are fused with memories of my own father teaching me how to skate.
There was a snack bar in the arena.
And yes, I was an auctioneer's assistant too, in fact I have a poem called that, but I moved the furniture and held things up for the crowd, I set up the paintings, emptied houses of their contents etc, your mom worked for him longer. In fact, it was John Simpson who gave me a ride to Toronto when things fell apart for your mom and I, he drove me down to very near your college. we emptied a house and loaded things onto his trailer and then he dropped me off at the Long Brach streetcar stop.
Keep writing this kind of thing.

Jerry Prager said...


childhood liar said...

Wow. I am speechless. This is brilliant and evocative and a wonderful depiction of our life in Creemore. I wouldn't worry about inaccuracies, as this is your truth. Besides, you have it pretty well right. Yes, there was a snack bar at the arena, and I am surprised you don't remember the vile rancid grease smell that lingered, or the shrill mob of our friend's children begging for hot dogs (that horrific steamed weiner odour). Perhaps you don't remember because, mean single mum that I was, Iforbid you to eat there!
Jamie- this piece is thoroughly enjoyable and I eagerly await more. You have a distinct voice and style- you are a writer! (we'll we already knew that, your dad and I) but this....this- I love it!

twobitgig said...

I concur. This is a great piece of writing! You evoke people and place with such clarity and detail. I can really see and smell everything.
In my late teens. I often went with my dad to a horse auction in Stouffville. An odd mixture of people, rich horsey types, weather beaten farmers with huge hands, and these bored looking men in crisp dark jeans. They had no love of horses these men. Waiting for the old and infirm ones to enter the ring, these men bought horses for their meat. The Dutch Toko in Guelph sells horse meat sandwiches but I think the horses from the auction mainly went to dog food companies. Though ours was not a religious home, I prayed every time I was at an auction, prayed that someone would take pity, and save the horses from such a terrible fate. I tried to convince my dad to buy one once but he said something like, what would be the point in paying to keep a horse like that.
See what can happen, Jamie! It was your writing that made me think of that. Thanks.
Oh..just in case you didn't know, it's Morvern