Ghost Pine: All Stories Trueby Jeff Miller
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Jeff Miller has published the zineGhost Pine (originally Otaku) since 1996. Whether documenting his youth in suburban Ottawa in the late 1990s, travels across North America or his current home of Montreal, Miller's autobiographical stories isolate the small moments and overlooked details of everyday life. His stories are equal measures funny and sad, nostalgic and unsentimental, punk rock and grandparents. Ghost Pine: All Stories True (Invisible Publishing) collects the best stories from the zine's first thirteen years as well as over fifty pages of new and previously unpublished material.
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- Age Range:
- 17 Years
Read an Excerpt
UNTITLED DIALOGUE BETWEEN ME AND ME AT AGES 16 AND 20
I WAS HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, TRACING THE PATHS OF MY STUPID younger years late at night. Walking the streets I travelled as a teen brought back old thoughts and they rolled around in my mind like candy in an empty dish. The claustrophobia of the suburbs flooded in with each step. I promised myself, as I had done every night when I had acne, that soon I would leave this place forever.
Soft relief spread over me when I realized that I had transplanted my life from here years ago. The suburbs are a time-fuck. Never changing. “I’m just home for Christmas,” I thought, and then began to enjoy the night for what it was. An empty calendar square at the end of a busy year.
The weather was fucked up. It was mere days until Xmas but it was raining instead of snowing and the atmosphere felt strange. So I wasn’t surprised when I saw the nihilist Champion hoodie’d waif emerge from a bank of mist. He seemed very familiar.
He approached me with caution, having never encountered anyone else walking these streets after six p.m. When he took off his headphones I introduced myself. “Hi,” I said. “I’m you, or was you.” He stared at me.
For reasons I can’t explain, I suddenly felt it was my duty to infuse some hope into the youngster. “Listen,” I began in a sage tone, “just hang in there.”
“Are you really suggesting I listen to that clichéd piece of advice?” The teen was immediately spitting mad. “Fuck you, man. ‘Hang in there’? That’s what the poster in the guidance office says. The one with the cat hanging from the rope. You asshole.”
“Jesus, do you have to be such a punk?” I asked the little shit. Then I remembered how much fun I’d had getting under everyone’s skin, back-talking math teachers, the vice-principal and my parents alike. Being a righteous prick was my hobby at that age and I was convinced that everyone in my vicinity deserved an equal dose of my snotty vitriol. The kid, with his shaved head and acne on the chin, was ruining my misty night Hollywood time-travel moment.
Next he hit below the belt. “I can tell you’re not punk anymore.” My long hair and plaid shirt garnered me the derision of the teen. He was disgusted to the point of doubting that I was indeed his future self, and yet somehow he knew it was true.
“I bet you even lost edge!” he said, with something like a sob wound around his voice.
“You bet,” I said, enjoying the look of disgust on his face. “Broke edge as soon as I turned nineteen and was legal to drink. My advice is don’t get any ‘True ’til Death’ tattoos.”
“God,” he whispered. “At least tell me you don’t smoke weed?”
I shook my head and made the ‘sucking from an invisible roach’ motion; touching my right thumb and forefinger, bringing them to my mouth and sucking in air.
“Argh! You’re just like those asshole skaters who smoke up in the park. Fuck!” He continued the assault, “And what’s with the hair? Are you into grunge, asshole?”
“Listen, you little prick. I just need you to answer one question: what the fuck are you so mad about anyway? You never worked a day in your life, you get an allowance for Christ’s sake! C’mon, refresh my memory.”
He began to explain himself. He said “It’s just...” but then shook his head and stopped speaking. He clamped the plastic headphones onto his ears and pulled a black hood over his head. Before disappearing back into the mist, he extended his middle finger and waved it in my direction.
(Ghost Pine #10: Wires, 2006)
THE SOCIAL JUSTICE CLUB
THE KITCHEN TABLE WAS TOO SMALL TO SIT ALL FOUR MEMBERS of my family at once so we worked through breakfast in shifts, as in the galley of a crowded cargo ship. As I sipped the last of my orange juice, my father was already walking across the snow-bound park to the bus shelter. My mother, unable to sleep past five a.m., was at work in the basement laundry room and had been for hours. Upstairs my brother, the university student, was still asleep and would wake only an hour before his late afternoon class, the lucky bastard.
Drowned in milk and glittering with crystals of brown sugar, my bowl of porridge sat half-eaten on the newspaper splayed across the table. My blurry eyes scanned the black marks on the long pages. The paper was a fixture at the breakfast table; as I flipped through it full colour images of destruction caught my eye and I sleepily puzzled at the logic behind ingesting news and food at the same time.
My family kept abreast of the daily disasters not only by reading the paper at breakfast, but also by watching the six o’clock news every night. We ate our dinner on TV trays with faux wood-grain tops so we could see the story of how the world survived another day. It was narrated by men and women with perfect teeth and corporate backers. Served up over meat and potatoes the news was a kind of black gravy covering everything on our plates. No wonder half the advertisements were for heartburn medication.
My father preferred the wobbly trays to a proper table. When he was a kid his family sat at a crowded table at dinner and whenever he said anything wrong his father boxed his ears. On those rare occasions when my family ate at the large dining room table, we sat far enough apart that no one was within arm’s reach and my father often leaned back in his chair.
I tried to look for stories in the paper but all I saw were shapes and pictures, the pages broken up into rectangular blocks or long columns. None of the items connected to those they shared the page with and I could never figure my way through their labyrinthine twists and turns. My eyes were fuzzy since I hadn’t wiped the sleep from them.
After reading the entire comics page without laughing once, I gave up and tossed the paper across the table. I didn’t believe anything the corporate stooges at the Ottawa Citizen published anyway, not even Peanuts. I had recently seen the documentary about Noam Chomsky and knew that the media doesn’t actually report what happened but instead served its corporate owners by manufacturing consent. That I knew. That and everything else in the world.
[DIARRHEA AND POMPOM]
What porridge I managed to eat sat heavy in my stomach. It was February and I was sick of the winter breakfasts that my mom prepared. Since the end of Christmas holidays breakfast had been nothing but porridge and the occasional bowl of cream of wheat.
My mother emerged from the basement stairwell, dressed in a thick floor length nightgown, decorated by a dainty bow tied over the heart.
“Mom, what is this, Oliver Twist?” I asked crappily, referring to the bowl of gruel in front of me.
“It’s good for you,” was her cheerful reply to my familiar youthful insubordination. She ascended the stairs to the second floor to retrieve the laundry hamper and passed through the kitchen again as she returned to the basement. “Sticks to your ribs!” she said, driving home her pro-porridge message.
Gruel was easy on my intestinal tract, an organ that had proved itself quite unreliable in the past. My body metabolized porridge effortlessly, the thick wheat grains or whatever the hell it was descending slowly into my stomach, unlike the raisin bran I ate the rest of the year. That breakfast cereal occasionally caused me violent bouts of diarrhea on the walk to school.
It would hit me halfway up the street. At first I would ignore my gurgling stomach and the waves of nausea, but within seconds I would be clenching my butt cheeks and running home. By the time I arrived the length of my stride was reduced by the squishy feeling in my pants.
“Oh Jeffy. You shit your pants!” my mom would say sympathetically. “Well, I had the runs plenty of times. Ugh.” She scrunched her face. “You just feel so awful when it happens, eh?”
After setting my pants and underwear to soak she would drive me to school and compose me a note, inventing a phantom doctor’s appointment so I might be admitted to class without a late marked next to my name.
I scraped the remains of my breakfast into the garbage before climbing the stairs to the bathroom. As I brushed my teeth I looked at myself in the mirror, cataloguing my flaws. My shaggy hair stood up straight in several places and a few new zits had appeared on my chin. In the winter months, when sweat was staved off by frigid weather, I rarely changed my clothes and showered only once a week, if that.
Stomping downstairs to the vestibule, I pulled my oversized parka from its hanger. Once it sat on my shoulders I activated its safeguards, snapping the inner belt and buttoning the flap across the front, to protect myself from the wind blowing up my coat or sneaking through its clenched zipper teeth.
I pulled on my backpack and stepped into knee-high black winter boots. After tying a scarf around my neck I reached into one of the boxes high on the closet shelf and grabbed my final protection from the bitter cold.
The bottom half of my toque was much like any other, white crossed by multi-coloured stripes. But what sat atop it was a piece of unrivalled artistry. While most pompoms are discreet, no larger than a few centimetres in diameter, this magical toque was crowned by a giant radiating puffball larger than the winter hat below.
Pulling it over my ears I remembered how I laughed at its sheer absurdity when I first came upon it. Before the week was out I had a change of heart and began wearing it on the walk to school. It was another month before I had guts enough to wear it inside the school corridors. The mighty pom of red, blue, yellow and orange I wore each day was a beacon of colour in the bleached winter landscape.
The hat, like all the clothes I found in my parents’ boxes of seasonal accessories or in the basement, was strange and from another time. At first I wore their old jackets and shirts as a joke, but after incorporating them into my wardrobe I developed a genuine fondness for them. Kids at school called me a freak for wearing my mom’s baby blue wool sweater or one of my dad’s large polyester shirts. But what they didn’t grasp, what they couldn’t possibly understand with their puny brains was that I wasn’t trying to shock anyone with my wardrobe. I genuinely liked the clothes I found in the basement.
When fully assembled, my winter ensemble resembled a space suit, albeit one with a wolf-fur fringe around the hood. My only exposed skin was seen through the eye slit between the top of my scarf tied tight against my cheekbones and the bottom of my toque just above my eyebrows.
I inserted my walkman into the breast pocket of my parka and clamped the large black headphones over my head, taking care not to intrude on the pompom’s airspace. Layers of cotton, flannel and down protected me from wind and cold, but it was these headphones that wove the magical force-field around me, one that allowed me to strike out valiantly, despite doubts and an insufficient amount of sleep, into the valley of darkness that was my morning walk to school.
[PUNK ROCK AND SNOW]
Opening the front door, my lungs filled with a breath of sharp cold air. Pressing my walkman’s Play button I quickly pulled on my mitts. After a moment of silence I was enveloped in a scream of guitar feedback. The tape holding the soundtrack to my trek across the barrens slowly began to unwind.
The world of homes and streets had disappeared under a desert of white. The half metre of snow erased the borders between lawn and grey asphalt. Overnight the wind had carved the powder into dunes with sensuous curves but now it rose from a brief slumber to undo its night’s work, fiercely whipping the snow into the sky.
The houses lining my neighbourhood’s streets were built from three different floor plans. For the most part they were distributed evenly in sets of three, but occasionally two of the same sat next to each other. The only difference between such twins was the colour of the ornamental shutters hanging on either side of their second floor windows.
As a kid growing up in my suburban neighbourhood, I liked it okay enough. But that like had long since soured into the blackest hatred. Blame punk rock. When I started going downtown to buy records at Birdman Sound or to hardcore shows at 5 Arlington I was amazed by the diversity of architecture and people. Each block was thick with apartments and storefronts, so different from the binary of homes and lawns on my suburban street.
I didn’t just come to hate the suburb I grew up in, but all of them. They became to me the symbol of everything wrong in the world. My whinge went beyond the uniformity of the houses or lack of sidewalks; I had a problem with everything about them.
People didn’t share. Everyone had their own lawnmower, sitting unused in the garage six days out of seven. Most of those were gas lawnmowers run by engines that coughed grey clouds of exhaust and whined like a giant wasp. Houses and stores were segregated and so to survive a car was needed to get to a grocery store kilometres away. Once you were there the produce you bought had travelled by truck even further, probably from B.C. at the closest. Suburbs are sprawling holy cities devoted to one god, oil. They are environments built with the express purpose of making life impossible for those who travel by foot.
I could go on forever, and often did, ranting about how the place my parents had chosen to raise me was stifling, oppressive and just generally sucked. There were even books on the subject that agreed with me. I hadn’t read any of them, but it still meant something to know I wasn’t alone in my disdain.
The dull sky opened into a flurry and the air grew dense with snow. Clinging to my lashes, large flakes refracted a rainbow of kaleidoscopic colour in my eyes as they melted. The horizon disappeared and the white on the ground merged with that in the sky. The path behind me was erased and what lay ahead was reduced to a point of hope.
“Man,” I thought, “this is nowhere.”
My boots found traction only in the parallel strips that had been dug into the snow by car wheels. It wasn’t long before a horn penetrated my headphones and I grudgingly stepped out of the furrow, climbing up a tall snowbank.
In the blizzard the guitar, bass and drums in my ears seemed closer, they surrounded me. The snow would have sung me its own music if I had cared to listen. But the squeak of snow under my boot was cancelled out.”
“This song, that song, love song, hate song / You’re so bored,” sang Justin Trosper. “Anything, everything, everywhere, nowhere / You’re bored.”
In my bedroom I had a collection of LPs that, when placed in a row, spines out, was only a few centimetres thick. Each of the black disks were engraved with my favourite kind of music: hardcore punk rock. After Christmas and my last birthday I had taken my accumulated gift money to the bank and purchased American money orders. Six to eight weeks after sending my order away to a small record label, a cardboard box would appear in the mail. These boxes bore the postmarks of such alien locales as Brattleboro, VT, Goleta, CA and Arlington, VA.
I pulled out my father’s road atlas and used the index to locate the towns named on those postmarks. I stared at the place names on the maps intently, as though if I looked hard enough I could somehow understand what they were like. Rather than guess from what dark psychological recesses this screaming, crashing, pounding music emerged, I thought of it geographically, wondering about these bands’ hometowns.
From as early as I could remember I had imagined life elsewhere, or in the same place but transformed. In the first grade my teacher had read aloud to the class portions of a children’s novel in French about kids who built a time machine and visited various moments in the past and future. Only one chapter of the novel made an impression on me, one where the children turned back the clock five hundred years to visit the land where their suburban homes now stood. Once there, they were amazed by the sight of green firs, frolicking deer and a wide river in place of telephone poles, driveways, roads, stop signs and parked cars. Despite the language gap, the children came across and befriended the local people who showed them around their longhouse.
This story burrowed into my six-year-old mind and I turned it into a game to play while waiting for the bus. Staring at the gradual slope of my street I would try to peer through the veil of time to see how it looked before. I knew that before the houses were built the land had been a cow pasture. But before that, hundreds of years before, I figured a verdant untouched forest must have carpeted everything and in my mind I replaced the street and its houses with trees. In my dualistic understanding of nature there was only city and forest and any stretch of grassland or treeless swamp must have been made that way by people. The world, I thought, began as a forest: a green and brown mass of trees stretching all across the globe that had slowly been cut down.
I found out about another way of looking into the past when one night my brother told me ghost stories. They were from a book designed to appear to gullible children as a credible scientific study of the paranormal. “Ghosts,” my empirically minded brother explained, “are people who had a bad time in a place.” He consulted the book for the scientific term. “Trauma.”
“Even though they’re dead, they can’t leave. Their,” he again referred to the book, “‘psychic energy’ stays around. And does stuff.”
I knew, because I asked my parents repeatedly, that no one else had inhabited our house before us. So there could be no spirits of former residents locked in the walls, creaking over floorboards, opening drawers and refusing to leave the place where they had come to grief.
But there were other stories in the ghost book. Ones about Indians. At six years old what I was most afraid of was that our home was built on sacred land where Native bodies lay. I feared the possibility of living on hallowed ground, soil left in peace for centuries until disturbed by the bright yellow machines that dug our home’s foundation.
Walking to school at the age of sixteen I thought of how valid my childhood fears were. Even if my house wasn’t sitting atop resting bodies, I now knew that the continent of North America is one giant mass grave. Now I wished that ghosts could somehow work to undo what began five hundred years before.
In the white out I couldn’t see the intersection until I walked out into it. As I squinted my eyes could barely discern the outline of the green street sign attached to the lamppost. Even though I couldn’t see it I knew it read INDIAN ROAD.
[THE NIGHT ROOM]
Beneath my snow-encrusted scarf I let out a long yawn before rewinding the tape to the beginning of my favourite song.
The night before I had listened to it three times in a row, getting more jacked up with each consecutive listen. As I quietly screamed the few lyrics I could make out I played fevered air-bass on the blue rug in the centre of my bedroom floor before alternating to air-drumming
I couldn’t sleep at night. Grabbing a paperback novel and climbing into the metal-framed bed I had slept on since the age of six, I would try. My hope was that reading a few pages would help my lids grow heavy, but entire chapters would fly before my eyes. Eventually I would put the novel aside in favour of listening to music on headphones and writing in my black journal. I loved the feeling of being awake while the rest of the world slumbered. Because of it I rarely got more than three hours of sleep before rising for school the next day.
My stereo, on loan from the depths of my grandfather’s cellar, sat on a shelf in front of my bedroom window. Every time I pulled the needle onto another side I would look out onto the world below. The windows of nearby houses stared back at me. Under a pink winter sky the world was lit by streetlights and the lamp posts in front of each house. They burned through until dawn even though the street was empty of human movement.
Deciding to dub the record I was playing compulsively, I rummaged through a pile of cassettes on the shelf below the turntable. I tried to read the layers of scrawl on their labels. Owning only a dozen tapes, I dubbed and re-dubbed them until their magnetic ribbons grew thin and the ghost voices of the previous recording could be heard in the gaps between songs. The stickers affixed to the tapes were a dense amalgam of band names, each one written over the last. With each consecutive dubbing the inked names ceased resembling letters and words, becoming instead an illegible black mass of lines. If each thin layer of ink could be stripped away one at a time each label would provide a precise archaeology of my adolescent tastes and their constant revision.
From the heap I plucked an embarrassing relic from junior high, one of the last tapes from the days when my affinity for pop music caused me to record hours of hit songs off the top forty radio station, Energy 1200. It was during the summer following grade seven that I learned the tricks of piracy. After pushing record I waited with my finger on the pause button, only lifting it once the annoying DJ finished dedicating the song to a listener or announcing a contest. Once the recording was underway I waited tensely, ready to hit the stop button when an ad or station I.D. interrupted the final notes. What I didn’t learn, however, was to keep track of my spoils. Without cataloguing the songs as I stole them, they were retrievable only by a long process of fast-forwarding and rewinding.
Jamming the pop-stained tape in the deck, I pressed play and record in tandem before dropping the needle lightly onto the record. There was a moment of clicking in the headphones before they filled with music.
With the buzz of punk in my ears, my path back to bed across the creaking floorboards was carelessly loud. The circuit from bed to record player that I completed over and over was only one of the paths my heavy feet travelled at night. Long past two a.m. I would often have great ideas about how to re-organize my room: lugging a filing cabinet twice my size from the basement up two flights of stairs, or making my oak desk and metal bed trade places. When not re-decorating I was either typing on my mother’s old Underwood or jumping up and down in time to the music, more concerned about the record skipping than waking my sleeping family. On the occasions I went downstairs in search of food or a book my feet would often slip on the green carpeted staircase and I would crash into the table at the foot of the stair.
When these sounds reached my father’s sensitive ears at the end of the hall, nine times out of ten he grumbled under his breath, rolled over and went back to sleep. But the tenth time my father would rise with a swift indignance, bursting through the tightly shut door of my bedroom.
“JESUS CHRIST! I’M TRYING TO SLEEP!” he would bark. His nighttime wardrobe was a pair of pyjama bottoms, the waistband so old and worn that he was forced to hold it with his left hand to prevent slouching in the back.
For the first few moments of his practiced dooming of my deviant sleep schedule, my father appeared to be singing along to the record playing in my headphones. When woken he possessed all the fury of a hardcore growler. His face turned a shade of crimson and, like the vocalists who fronted many of the tougher bands of the HC scene, he always performed shirtless. The illusion was broken with the concurrent unclamping of my headphones and the realization that style-obsessed hardcore front men would never wear jammies that revealed their hairy asses when they flailed about.
“I HAVE TO WORK TOMORROW! WHY DO YOU STAY UP SO LATE?” he continued, genuinely baffled.
“I don’t know,” I would say, trying not to laugh. “Sorry dad, I didn’t mean to wake you.”
It was amazing to see my dad’s nocturnal transformation from a calm drinker of beer, listener of jazz and reader of the newspaper into a ball of fire.
“COULD YOU AT LEAST TRY TO BE QUIET WHEN I’M ASLEEP? PLEASE!” When he began pleading, the tantrum neared its end.
“I’ll try to be quiet,” I would lie.
With this promise dad would return to the master bedroom, exhausted from yelling. He would fall back to sleep content that he had shared the misery of being woken prematurely with everyone else in the house.
Marching through snow is strenuous. With each step my boot sank into a white quagmire that held my foot for a moment before letting it go. After twenty minutes of trudge I left the residential streets through a hole in the fence. Climbing down a steep incline I fell into a waist deep pile of snow. Freeing myself, I crossed the parking lot and pulled open the back door of the mall. A gust of warm air surrounded me as I stamped the snow from my boots. The lights were dim and plastic shutters hung before the gaping mouths of stores.
As I walked down the hall the swinging arms of a grey-haired man, moving at an incredible speed, nearly clipped my shoulder. At this hour the shopping centre was not open for business but used as a track by the senior citizens who lived in the condo tower across the street. Mall management encouraged the morning power walkers to use pedometers to track the distance they covered each day. At the end of the month results were tallied and the walkers told how far they would have travelled had the distance covered been outside and in a straight line. Magic marker script on a Bristol-board hanging near the information desk paired each walker’s name with their distance. Recent joins had only made it as far as Ottawa Valley towns Pembroke and Bancroft, but veterans with two or three years under their belt had already journeyed to such exotic locales as Lima, Peru, and Baffin Island without ever having left the Merivale Mall.
The walkers were the first of hundreds of seniors who congregated in the mall every day, sitting on the stools of the chain café or next to their shopping bags on the uncomfortable benches. I wasn’t afraid of the aged, but was worried that despite all the energy I put into hating my stupid suburb I would end up spending my twilight years like them, sitting in front of the Cotton Ginny waiting for a familiar face to walk by.
Another fast moving grey-hair in a sweat suit nearly collided with me before I removed my headphones. It was unsafe to be hearing impaired while the sexagenarian speed freaks circled the mall.
Exiting through a side door after crossing the concourse, I noticed the falling snow had retreated into the low hanging clouds. Here my daily path met Merivale Road, four lanes jostling with big box stores, mini-malls and fast food restaurants separated by gulfs of parking and undeveloped land.
Each year when the snow melted, a local ecclesiastical church mounted a re-enactment of the Passion of Christ. Gathering in the parking lot of the Loblaws further down Merivale, the audience watched as a shirtless long-haired Caucasian was crowned by a ring of plastic thorns and saddled with a cross.
The gathered crowd was usually a mélange of parishioners and friends of the actor playing Christ. Several in attendance were attracted by the bloody full colour posters advertising the event. Pinned to the community billboards of local grocery stores, the images of a bloodied king of kings seemed, at first glance, to promote a horror film.
As advertised, Christ dragged his burden along the sidewalk, past the mall and below the underpass to the parking lot of the Canadian Tire. There he was crucified and later revived to enjoy orange drink and Timbits from the makeshift breakfast buffet set up on a plastic table.
Surveying the mall’s parking lot I noticed that snow plows had already pushed aside the blizzard. The morning’s snow now sat piled high in the far corner of the parking lot, blocking my path to the crosswalk and my school on the other side of the road. Approaching the mountain of snow, I pulled off my left mitten and read my watch. Realizing I was already late, my pace slowed; no point in hurrying now.
From my pocket I grabbed my walkman and flipped the tape. The air was growing frigid without the insulation of snowfall and as I pressed the play button I wasn’t surprised that the cold was sapping the batteries. The music slowed to a speed that rendered the song unrecognizable, but I left it on anyway.
As I climbed the freshly erected precipice of snow, the now lugubrious voice of a young Ian MacKaye encouraged me on. “IIII ccccaaaann’tttt kkkkeeeeeeeepppp uuuupppp / oooouuuutttt oooffff sssstttteepppp wwwwiiiittttth tttthhhheeee wwwwooooorrrrlllldddd!!!!”
Twenty minutes before homeroom and following at five minute intervals, the bell warned the students marching from buses to their lockers that the school day was creeping ever closer. When the final bell signalled the beginning of homeroom the hallways emptied, locker doors slammed and shoes squeaked across the waxed floor.
The bell made a sound similar to two buttons on a touch tone phone being pushed in quick succession. This bullying sound rigidly maintained the schedule each student received on the first day of school
Homeroom was but a tiny sliver at the top of that schedule. Consisting of attendance, the ritual standing for “O Canada,” and the morning announcements chirped over the P.A. by the student body’s highest elected representatives, the poorly named and eternally perky Head Boy and Head Girl, it was all over in ten minutes. I was glad to have missed it as I waited in the long line of students signing in late in the school’s office.
“It’s Miller, isn’t it?” one of the secretaries asked me. “It says here this morning was your eighth late since the Christmas break.” After accruing ten lates in a semester a detention was handed out. I was playing it pretty close to the line.
“I had to climb a mountain of snow to get here!” I said, in a fake cheery voice, before she handed me a late slip. “Fucking asshole,” I muttered as I pulled the office door behind me.
This was the year I finally gave up on high school. After what happened in the fall I had withdrawn any involvement in the official life of school. No more assemblies, dances, plays or watching football. Definitely no more clubs. Now I knew that school was nothing but a game to be played. Nothing more than classes and report cards.
Although not previously a beacon of school spirit, I had engaged in activities sanctioned by the administration during my first two years of high school. My pimply visage had appeared more than once in the group photographs found in the ‘clubs’ section of the yearbook.
My first flirtation with the official extra-curricular scene occurred two years before when my brother convinced me to join the debating team. He had argued at several tournaments held on southern Ontario university campuses and was billetted in dorms. As a result he was convinced that it was a good way to see the world. The bulk of his teammates had graduated the summer before and the squad was desperate for fresh blood. Starting a membership drive, my brother drafted me and a few of my friends.
The first meeting was held in a classroom during lunch one early September day. In the first practice debate I was pitted against Eric, who lived in my neighbourhood and against whom I was forced to argue for the continued prohibition of the psychedelic drug known colloquially as ‘pot.’ Eric had the unfair advantage of a subscription to High Times magazine and a history of using said psychedelic that I did not.
“It would be good for the economy,” Eric argued in favour of legalization. “Just think of all the money that could be made from selling hemp rope and clothes. And studies show that pot has,” he stared off into space for a moment, “...uh, incredible health benefits for its users.”
“But...” thirty seconds into debate I was already stymied. “What about, uh... families?” I asked, unsure of what my question meant. My brother watched attentively, eating his sandwich at a nearby desk.
“Think of how many families are destroyed by the current draconian,” Eric smiled, remembering the word from an opinion piece in his favourite magazine, “draconian measures the government takes against drug dealers. Some people go to jail for up to fifty years. That tears apart families.”
Eric was more informed on the subject and thus I deferred to his point of view.
“Okay, well... legalize it.” I said.
“Thanks,” Eric said. “I will.”
“There’s still a minute left on the clock! You have to keep arguing!” My brother spoke frantically, pointing at his watch. Bits of tuna salad stuck in his braces were revealed as he attempted to coach us on the most basic tenet of debate. “Never concede to your opponent!”
“But he convinced me.”
“It doesn’t matter, you gotta keep going!”
“I don’t want to,” I said, stubbornly.
After abandoning the debating team I wrote news pieces for the student newspaper, but when they published my poorly informed yet passionate article about Indonesia’s illegal twenty year occupation of East Timor, whole paragraphs were missing and I left my position as International Correspondent in a huff.
When I entered grade eleven that fall it followed a summer of attending hardcore shows. I thought being a punk would somehow disqualify me from the universe of school clubs and activities. Unfortunately that year marked my most intense involvement with a club yet. One which, of course, ended in disaster.
Walking to my locker I passed Mr. Michel’s classroom, catching a glimpse of him through a small window set into the door. Things were different between us now, but I didn’t have time to worry about it as I continued down the empty hall.
(2004-07, previously unpublished)
THE SOCIAL JUSTICE CLUB
Part Two: Recruits
TWO WEEKS INTO THE SCHOOL YEAR I WAS BOLTING DOWN THE HALL, late to class again and feeling bad about it. The year before I had failed three of my ten classes. Two of those, Math and Computers, were not difficult to explain to my mom. She was sympathetic to my poor grasp of numbers.
But this went beyond just numbers. “Writer’s Craft?” she had asked beguiled, when she perused my report card. “How the hell did you fail Writer’s Craft? All you ever do is fill up that notebook of yours.” I hung my head in shame.
After nearly burning a hole in my forehead with concentration I actually passed Grade Ten Math in summer school with a solid B. That victory, coupled with the many hours of labour volunteered to my grandmother’s overgrown half-acre garden, set me on the path of redemption. Now that I was back in school I was actually going to try. For my mother’s sake. But first I needed to get to class on time.
The bell rang as I rounded a corner. I broke into a full sprint.
“Jeff,” Mr. Michel said, sticking his head out of a classroom door.
“Okay. No running in the halls.” I replied, slowing my pace to a speedy walk.
“Can I talk to you?” he called after me.
“Sure. When?” I asked without looking back. What could he possibly have to talk to me about anyway? He wasn’t teaching any of my classes this year.
I turned to face him for the first time since our exchange began, talking to him from halfway down the corridor. “But, but...” I pointed to the ceiling, attempting to signify the bell that rang a minute before.
“I’ll write you a note.”
He had me. Notes from teachers offered a rare window of time that couldn’t be tracked. I never used them to do anything devious, I just enjoyed walking to class slowly down the empty hallways and taking some extra time at the water fountain.
“You’re not teaching this period?” I asked, as I passed through the door of his classroom. The tall window of the far wall framed a sky freighted with the high clouds of late summer.
“No, it’s my spare period. I’ve got a hundred quizzes to mark. Lucky me.” he said, picking up the thick pile of paper from his desk and fanning himself.
While the school’s other English teachers were all hairless faces and drab sweaters, Mr. Michel wore a well-groomed goatee and a multi-coloured vest. Despite his unorthodox wardrobe he was an English teacher at heart, as evidenced by his penchant for long digressions. The most memorable of these occurred one day the year before, when his instruction of Macbeth veered into a prolonged explanation of the tape worm that his intestinal tract hosted when he lived in South America and how he rid himself of it.
“Ten minutes after I took the anti-worm pill it felt like there was a bomb going off in my stomach,” he said. “I had to run to the toilet, and when it came out—”
He stopped mid-sentence and said “I shouldn’t really be telling you guys this,” a tacit reminder that what he was about to divulge did not fall within the provincial education guidelines and, as such, could never leave the room. A chorus of “C’mon!” and “We won’t tell!” from my classmates prompted him to continue.
“It came out in three big pieces,” he said finally, stretching his arms as far as he could to demonstrate the lengths of parasite. “And it came out fast.”
“At the last school I taught at we had an environmental club,” he began as I sat down in front of his desk.
“Uh huh.” I wondered what he was getting at.
Most teachers at my high school were old guard and as they closed in on retirement they had less optimism with each passing minute. Mr. Michel, however, was still young enough to hope. Every year on the first day of class he prepared an elaborate blackboard message encouraging students to buy post-consumer notebooks and loose leaf, including directions to the stationer that sold recycled paper downtown. If he was disappointed when students arrived the next day with reams of paper made from virgin clear-cut purchased at the big box office supply store he didn’t show it.
“That club went really well. We got the school to double its paper recycling in just one year! Above even our targets!” He paused to let the numbers sink in. “Now, I know school participation isn’t really as high here as at my last school.”
Despite the wide variety of clubs offered by at Merivale High, smoking dope behind the arena and playing “Come As You Are” on acoustic guitar were still the most popular lunchtime pursuits. Fighting and/or watching a fight in the parking lot came in a close third.
“I read the political articles you and your friends wrote in the school newspaper last year and I think we could do some good stuff if we started a social advocacy club here. We could take on some human rights issues and raise money and awareness.” Noticing me nodding, he took this as an affirmative to his proposal. “You think so? Great!”
“But I—” I tried to explain that I was actually just agreeing with his earlier comment about the lack of school spirit but he cut me off.
“Why don’t you tell your friends about it and next Thursday at lunch we’ll have a meeting here in my classroom. Okay,” he said, smiling as he handed me my note. “See you later!” He grabbed a quiz from the top of the pile and began marking it with a red pen. I sat across from him for a moment, but he refused to look up from his work.
I stumbled out into the hallway wondering what I had gotten myself into.
[THE NON-COMPETITIVE LEAGUE]
Near the end of lunch that day I saw my first potential recruit. I was walking down the hall when I noticed a charged-up green mohawk emerging from one of the school’s more secluded bathrooms. The sleeves of the mohican’s jean jacket were skillfully removed and as he turned down the hall the lyrics to a Crass song transcribed in liquid paper across his back were clearly visible. The band’s logo, by far the most geometrically complex of any punk band, was painted above the lyrics.
An assortment of spikes and silkscreened patches also adorned the vest. One held the image of a giant fist punching a fractured swastika while another read “Fur is Dead” over a grainy black and white image of what I could only guess was a mink pelt. The vested punk’s face was a constellation of acne covered by the long blonde whiskers he considered a beard. I called his name and as he approached I saw his mouth was drawn into a sneer. I had heard the rumours, but hadn’t believed them. After being expelled for the third, and many thought final, time the summer before, Alex had somehow been re-admitted to Merivale High School.
I first met Alex in grade nine when we were both sentenced to the same obligatory gym class. It was taught by Mr. Nugent, a jolly imp of a man standing no more than five feet tall. Each morning he walked across the gymnasium dressed in shorts and a t-shirt singing to himself, “Born Free / free as the grass grows.” He alternated between crooning and whistling the melody of his personal theme song.
Dwarfed by many of his post-pubescent students, ‘the Nuge’ was genuinely excited and happy to be a physical educator. He had no sadistic aims to whip us into peak physical shape comparable to a squadron of Hitler Youth. Instead his mission was the promotion of physical fitness through a series of team sports, with a strong emphasis on fun.
Despite this noble goal, after the first month of teaching our class he witnessed a disturbing trend. The class was evenly split between jock and spazz and as such often degenerated into a desperate blood sport of the latter running from the former across the football field.
Early in October the Nuge gathered the class into a semi-circle on the waxed wood planks of the gymnasium floor. He sat on a red rubber ball, a whistle hanging around his neck. “I’ve decided to divide the class into two leagues,” he said soberly. “The first will be for the guys who really take sports seriously and want to play hard—” Here his speech was interrupted by the howls and high-fives of ravenous jocks.
“The other league is for the…” he paused to consider his words.
“Geeks?” a jock muttered to a crony, loud enough to be heard and ignored.
“For the guys who just want to have fun!” was how we, the blossoming freaks with matchstick limbs, were dubbed by our miniature teacher.
If someone had had the foresight to document the games played by the Non-Competitive League over the remainder of the year it would have provided fodder for the ultimate sports bloopers video. In our quest to ‘just have fun’ we committed a truly awesome array of crimes against sport, be they foul balls, errors, off-sides or just a profound inability to throw a football. Without the pressure of playing with the task-oriented jocks, we let it all hang out. On the field or in the gym we were safe, protected by the patron saint of freaks, a gym teacher who had the benevolence to segregate.
We ignored each other in the halls between classes, each of us ashamed of our profound collective failure as athletes. When we did acknowledge each other with a nod, real communication was avoided as we each considered ourselves higher on the social ladder than the other.
In the intricately ordered, nearly lupine hierarchy of grade nine gym class, none were lower on the totem pole than Alex, the future punk. He simply refused to adopt a strategy to avoid the jocks’ derision. The extra large Star Trek t-shirts hanging from his spindly frame instantly called attention to his Omega status. Despite this, Alex stood tall, he was a geek and somehow proud of it. He didn’t speak often, but when he did it was without any sense of embarrassment for what he was.
The joy, or at least lack of shame, he took in his position as gym class untermensch drove the jocks insane. In the games of dodgeball played before the class was partitioned, Alex was often at the epicenter of the opposing team’s volleys. During one such game he was struck just below the clinging waistband of his jogging pants.
In an unwritten rule of gym class, being hit below the belt was an event that called for a certain dramatic flair. If a ball in flight struck anywhere within thirty centimetres of your genitals it was expected of you to writhe on the floor, emitting moans approximating a death rattle. Even the writing of a will on the gym floor was not uncommon. This is because at the age of fourteen your balls are obviously so big and so fragile that you could die if they were somehow broken in gym class.
While a chorus of jocks let out a howl of “OOHH!” at their classmate’s suffering, Alex refused to pretend to be in pain when he wasn’t. He shrugged off his groin hit, bending forward and taking a breath before standing straight and resuming play.
“That ain’t right,” one of the jocks said, shaking his head in disbelief.
At the end of grade nine the Non-Competitive League disbanded. A year later, all of its former members were punks, Alex being the first and the de facto leader. Before anyone else had the guts to shave their head Alex already had a charged hawk, a customized jean jacket, and wore a dog collar he shoplifted from the pet store at the mall. He had also been soundly beaten by the jocks of the higher grades for these reasons more than once. As a punk he refined his gym class aloofness into an extreme cool. When hockey-haired boneheads called him “faggot” he’d look right through them. Or worse, he’d smile. That really pissed them off.
One day he took me to his locker. The inside of its door was decorated with anti-police propaganda and photos of Rancid cut from Details magazine. “I know they’re sell-outs,” he said of the million-selling Berkeley pop punk band, “but when I put these pictures up this girl who has the locker next to me said ‘Ew, they’re so ugly,’ so I left them up just to fuck with her.” He looked like a rat when he smiled. “Fuck pretty people. I like ugly.”
“How did you get back into school?” I asked, stunned to see him, and yet somehow not surprised.
“Well, it took a couple weeks, but I finally had a meeting with my mom and Baird,” he sneered when he mentioned the name of the hated vice-principal.
He twisted his voice so that it had a saccharine quality, “I told them I’d try really, really hard this year.” He blew air through his teeth and snarled “Fuck it.”
“Well, lunch is over. I got Biology but I fuckin’ hate it. I’m skipping to meet Tops at Rockwell’s.” The punks loved hanging out in the mall’s family restaurant, named after the painter who invented the suburban pastoral. They equally enjoyed the free refills and the shocked looks of the blue-haired grannies who were the restaurant’s only other afternoon clientele. Basking in the scowls, they paid for their drinks in mountains of dimes and pennies, stiffing on the tip every time.
Before he left I told him of Thursday’s inaugural meeting of Mr. Michel’s club. A raspy “Maybe,” was the closest he would come to confirming his appearance.
As Alex walked down the hall to the door, I saw a new addition to his black jean vest. Another silkscreened patch, this one was located just below the Crass lyrics. It read “I HATE JOCKS.”
The true business of high school occurs at lunch. After a morning of being driven from one class to the next, the unstructured forty-five minutes that the administration had the nerve to call lunch ‘hour’ was a panacea.
Fights were fought, drugs dealt, games of asshole played, french fries from the cafetorium consumed, and the parking lot lined with students marching to the mall, going home or smoking cigarettes. At lunch most of the freaks chose to sequester themselves in the school’s more protected alcoves.
Those with gothic tendencies, which, as far as I could tell, consisted of occasionally wearing black, reading thousand-plus-page Victorian novels, and drawing little black curlicues next to their eyes in tribute to some Egyptian death goddess, chose to ensconce themselves in a sunny hallway by the art room.
Those with aspirations to be punk stationed themselves in front of my locker in hallway D. Most were also interested in metal, despite Alex feeding them a strict diet of the canonical works of DK, OP IV, and Crass.
It was Monday and I was trying to convince the ten or so boys congregated around my locker to come to the first meeting of Mr. Michel’s club. As with the goths, whom I had petitioned the Friday before, I received only a tepid response.
Tops grunted and pulled a Sepultura tape from his pocket, jamming it into the tiny ghetto blaster. The harshness of Brazilian thrash was the musical equivalent of the chemical burn of his daily lunch: bright yellow onion-flavoured rings chased by a litre bottle of generic cola, both purchased from the dollar store in the mall.
The small tape player was plugged into one of the wall jacks that were in every hall of the school. This availability of electricity had prompted Alex, in the few days since his return, to commandeer an empty locker nearby. Now it held a coffee maker saved from the trash, a can of ground beans and a box of filters. Jacked in, the machine brewed a cup in three minutes and a pot in ten. The lock’s combination was widely circulated and the door to the coffee locker swung open at least a half dozen times a day.
Some who hung out everyday at lunch weren’t into punk or metal, which sometimes caused difficulties. As the abrasive riffs poured forth from the ghetto blaster, Beamish stood up and said, “Man, I’m sick of this shit. Why don’t we ever listen to my Archies tape, huh? Or we could tune into Oldies 94.5 ?”
“No hippie shit!” Alex sneered authoritatively.
“I’m not a hippie, man,” Beamish said, pushing his floppy hair out of his eyes. “I just like a melody every now and then. I’m sick of always listening to the same three fucking metal tapes. Christ!”
Chris, a recent transfer from another school with long hair that was black, except for the skunk-like blonde stripe on the top of his head, spoke up sheepishly. “I’ve got Amebix? Nailbomb? Bolt Thrower?”
“Fuck you guys,” Beamish dismissed Chris’s help. “I’m going for a smoke.”
“Oh come on, Nailbomb have some incredibly melodic parts!”
Among those who rebelled most against rebellion was Mikey Thomas, a self-described ‘cowboy’ from ‘the sticks’ who for some reason hung out with us every day. He wore cowboy boots and a white straw Stetson when it got hot. When the ghetto blaster was off, he played “Ocean Front Property” on his acoustic guitar, singing to us in a clear voice. One day he showed up to school with his lasso, to show us punks how good he was getting at roping steer. Instead, we tied him up and six of us dragged him at incredible speed down the freshly waxed hallway of the school’s second floor. His screams turned to laughter as he began to enjoy the ride, until we approached a stairway. “Not down the stairs! Don’t drag me down the stairs!” he yelled, before a teacher stopped us.
“Wait, Beamish, I’ll go with you!” I called after him down the hall. Having already visited both freak enclaves to recruit for the club, I now set out to tell others. I sought those who didn’t want to be affiliated with either group, choosing instead to spend lunch walking the halls, hiding in the library or disappearing entirely.
“Sounds good,” Sundar said after I told him about the club. “We should raise money for Northern Cree land claims disputes.” He was skinny, wore shoulder length hair, glasses, and spoke in a manner that was serious, but offered occasional glimpses of hilarity. Once he told me that he was so into heavy metal as a kid that when he heard there was a song called “Twist and Shout” he immediately assumed it must be about torture.
We had met only a week before, when I heard a voice behind me ask “Were you at Fugazi last night?” Turning to see who spoke, I saw a spindly twelfth grader dressed in well-worn jeans and a button-up shirt.
In the days after rock concerts the school’s hallways were always peppered with people wearing identical oversized band t-shirts. Sometimes it was jocks with earth-tone shirts bearing the name of Can Rock superstars The Tragically Hip. Other days it was headbangers whose black shirts were adorned with images of carnage and unreadable logos. These shirts were not only souvenirs but also a way of seeking out kindred spirits.
Fugazi didn’t sell any such identity defining clothing, or anything, at their shows. Instead, they had written a song about the evils of hawking rock souvenirs. After being weaned on intense merchandising as a child, when cartoon shows were also toys, a pair of pyjamas, a colouring book and a fast food meal, I now agreed with Fugazi’s stance against graven images. It was incredibly righteous to be sure, but the fallout was that without t-shirts there was no way of knowing who your allies were. That is, unless, like Sundar, you spied a fellow student and then talked to him at school the next day.
“Weren’t they so... fucking... awesome?” he accentuated each word by jerkily flinging his forearms up and down. As with his first question, my response was a nod. He looked as if he was about to spontaneously combust.
In the few minutes we talked he told me that he lived in Barrhaven, a far-off suburb, and that he played guitar. We swapped the names of the records we owned and vowed to tape them for each other.
“Shotmaker RULED!” he said of the opening band. “That was the first time I saw them.”
“I was at their record release show in May at 5 Arlington. It cost seven bucks. And,” I delivered the clincher, “the LP came free with the show.”
My motivation was not, I swear, to come off as cool. I would have been the first to admit that I didn’t know anyone in ‘the scene.’ No, instead of coming off like an insider I was as awed as Sundar when I repeated “Seven bucks for a show and a record.” The words weaved magic about us both.
“Awesome,” Sundar whispered, as if to himself, as he shook his head. “Fucking awesome.” And it was.
I had found someone at school who understood that punk had progressed beyond the bands on Alex’s patched vest, which had all come and gone almost a decade before. What was happening was happening now, and if it wasn’t in the suburbs it wasn’t that far away; it was getting closer by the day.
“I’ll see you Thursday,” Sundar said gravely, clamping the lid on his re-sealable sandwich container and throwing it into his open locker.
“I went door to door campaigning around here, and Jesus, it was just so fucking disgusting,” Matteo said. He had volunteered for the NDP during the provincial election in June and every day when we walked the path through the rowhouses behind the mall he railed against their inhabitants’ political leanings.
“I told them all the programs we were campaigning for. More money for welfare. Taxing the rich to pay for the poor. Whatever. Then after my whole spiel they’d tell me they were voting for Harris!” We sneered in unison at the mention of the Conservative premier, “Because he was giving a hundred dollar tax refund to everyone, even the fucking richest people!
“God, I hate being such a bleeding heart liberal. Having to fight for these poor morons... ” He was incensed, but I took issue with his classism.
“I know, I know, I might as well be a fucking Tory for all the shit I say about poor people. But it’s true.”
Matteo had never been afraid to say what he felt. We met in junior high school when I was an unpopular eighth grader and he was in the grade below. The school we attended consisted solely of these two grades, so that by the time a student reached the senior year, interacting with those a year below you was severely frowned upon.
As a loser, the highly policed lines between grades did not apply to me, so I didn’t push Matteo from the black vinyl bus seat onto the floor that first day he sat next to me.
“I watched The Boys of St. Vincent last night,” was the first thing he ever said to me. I wondered if he was attempting sophistication by mentioning the controversial CBC mini-series about buggery at a Catholic Newfoundland boarding school.
“I though it would be sexy, I mean, hello, the guy who plays that priest is hot. But really it was just fucking boring,” he said. “Jesus Christ, where were the sex scenes?”
For a moment I stared at the skinny preppy sitting beside me in total shock, my mouth agape. Then I began laughing hysterically. Matteo’s sense of humour, despite our crucial disparity in age, was far more sardonic than the typical Saturday Night Live re-hashes my fellow numbskull eighth graders were engaged in.
“Monsieur G. is such a fag,” he said the next day, as the bus weaved its way through the suburban streets, “and Mademoiselle M. is a total dyke. Obviously.” He used ‘fag’ and ‘dyke’ in a way that was somehow different than the way my idiot friends used them.
Everything Matteo told me on our morning bus rides to school, like that some teachers might not be straight, were things I had never thought of before. He opened my eyes to a world that existed right below the surface of the everyday, a secret knowledge there to discover, if you cared to look.
It only dawned on me that he was gay months later. After I figured it out I set aside some time to try to think about how his homosexuality made me feel. I hadn’t even had my first wet dream and didn’t know what sex really was, so I found it difficult to form an opinion. The main shocker was that he was sexual. From watching television I knew there were no indifferent opinions on the subject so, in the end, I figured I was probably homophobic. I tried to think about it some more, but was distracted by one of the comic books on my bedroom floor. The next day Matteo and I rode the bus together as usual.
Later, in high school, we walked home from school together almost every day, usually catching up with each other by the hole in the fence that led to the rowhouses from the mall parking lot.
Of the hundreds of conversations we had while walking together I only remember a few, and they’re hazy in my memory. Once he told me about attending a convention of the youth wing of the NDP in a hotel downtown. After discovering that the Liberal youth conference was occurring a few stories below, he and his fellow delegates ordered buckets of fried chicken and attacked the adolescent Whigs with volleys of wings and thighs.
Another story involving thighs included D., who starred in Merivale’s production of The Wiz. One spring night he and Matteo were caught fucking in the back seat of his parents’ car in the Toys R Us parking lot.
“I was on top when the cop knocked on the window. He had his flashlight on and said ‘Can we see your girlfriend’s face?’ When he saw D. his whole attitude changed.
“He was like ‘Oh...’ for a minute, but then said ‘Don’t worry. You just need to move the car out of the parking lot. You can’t really do this here. I’m not going to tell your parents or anything.’ And then he just let us go.”
“Yeah, you could tell he’d had his sensitivity training.” Matteo let out a loud “HA!” He actually said ha when he laughed.
“I can’t be in your club.” Matteo said. It was Tuesday and I was starting to worry if anyone would be at the meeting. “I’m sorry, I’ve got track and field practice on Thursday. You know I can’t say no to a locker room full of hot teenage boys!” he smacked his lips. “Mmm.”
“It’s all about sleep-overs,” he had once told me, elaborating on his modus operandi for sexual adventures. “You’d be surprised what you can get a horny fifteen-year-old ‘straight boy’” he air quoted, “to do. Mamma mia!”
“I’m so excited about the Madonna ‘Egos and Icons’ tonight!” he said, changing the subject. Matteo’s fandom for The Queen of Pop was lifelong and deep. The previous summer he had gone to a fan convention held at a motel in the Detroit suburb the diva grew up in. Admission included a bus tour past the Ciccone family home.
Even after I went punk and refused to listen to even Green Day because they were sell-outs I gleefully accepted the glamorous Madonna CDs Matteo foisted on me. That they came from Matteo somehow made it okay. “Ugh, why do you listen to that ugly music,” he had asked once when I put my walkman headphones on his ears.
“God, I hope my grandma isn’t watching porn when I get home,” he complained. “She orders pay-per-view porno movies and then denies ever watching them and tries to blame me for ordering them when the bill comes,” he ranted. “I just wanna be like, listen grandma, I’m a fag. I’m not ordering straight porn from fucking pay-per-view.”
We arrived in front of his family’s large home, the exterior covered in white stone. Matteo kissed me on both cheeks, making an exaggerated “MWAH” sound as he did so.
“Don’t forget to watch the Madonna special on Much Music tonight!” he called after me.
Walking down the hall the day before the meeting, I saw the one person I hadn’t yet tried to recruit for the club. Leaning against a wall in the school foyer he was holding court, surrounded by his dour-looking homeboys and four giggling girls.
I waved and in a minute he came over to talk to me.
“Jeff man! What’s happening?”
I told him, but he had to decline. “United Colours of Merivale meets tomorrow at lunch, yo,” he came in close and whispered in my ear. “We’re doing a fashion show this year. You should get in on this club, it’s where all the fly honeys are at!”
“Damn,” I said.
“You know!” he slapped my back. “That’s my boy-ee!”
Tipping the scales at well over two hundred and fifty pounds and with a face of acne and wire rim glasses, one would think Omar would have some major liabilities in the universe of teen popularity. Despite these potential setbacks he played on the football team and was always sweet-talking young ladies.
He was born in Bethlehem (“Like Jesus!” he’d say with a smile) but always identified himself as Lebanese. While the school’s large pan-Arabic student body were referred to by the racial epithet “Leb” by their detractors, Omar spun the term around, often proclaiming “I’m Leb and proud!” in conversation.
He made teachers uneasy. Some believed him to be the kingpin of a Lebanese gang, but I never thought that he could be into any dirty business.
But there was that one day at lunch when I saw him looking upset in the hall and asked him what the matter was. His reply was “There’s this rumour that me and some of my boys are going to roll up on Laurentian High in a white minivan with some gats to take out some suckas.”
I mumbled my condolences, unsure of what to say. High school is the centre of the most scurrilous libel. Someone can joke about having a water gun and wanting to spray a teacher at lunch and the next thing the cops are breaking open his locker. Broken telephone is some dangerous shit.
“Yo! I know. A white minivan? Who the fuck do they think I am? I ain’t driving no white minivan.” He shook his head and then said “I gotta get outta here!”
I met Omar in Drama class the year before. On the first day we played a game where a student picked a famous person and then everyone else had to ask questions and guess who it was. Omar’s celebrity pick stymied the class until we eventually gave up. “Who is it, Omar?” Mrs. Ruby asked.
With his trademark wide smile, Omar said, “It’s my hero, missus. Biggie Smalls, the Notorious B. I. G.!”
While the class argued that they had never heard of Bed-Stuy’s finest, whose first album had only just been released, one of Omar’s friends called “BUP BUP!” in appreciation.
His friends wore their shirts tucked in and hair slicked back. None of them understood why he associated with a freak such as me. Despite this, Omar was positively giddy whenever he saw me and I was glad to be in his good graces. His connections had come in handy back in the earliest reaches of high school, during my brief career as a brawler. One day at lunch I was sitting in the gym bleachers watching intramural basketball when, from behind, my toque was grabbed from my head.
“Hey!” I swivelled. I had never seen the person behind me before. “Give me my hat back.”
“What hat?” he said, having somehow hidden my toque.
High school was shot through with such incidents, random acts of unkindness. The antagonism at the hands of absolute strangers for no reason is something I’ve yet to understand.
“Give me my hat back,” I repeated and he again countered with “What hat?”
Who pushed first in my first and last fight is lost to the sands of time. My battle was minor league compared to the marquee fights that happened out in the parking lot at lunch or after school. Those fights were instantly surrounded by jostling spectators that formed into a tight circle. All that passers-by could see was a wide crowd crammed together, all wearing jackets with sports team logos across the back.
Whenever I saw a big fight I walked in the opposite direction. The howls and chants carried on the wind after me. I felt if I tried to catch a glimpse of the beat-down I would be sucked to the centre of the vortex. My voyeurism would implicate me in the violence and I would be forced to fend off punches from a larger opponent, while trying to avoid the sharp jabs and kicks from the first row of spectators.
After pushing each other, our fight was broken up a minute later by the gym supervisor.
“I saw what happened.” Suddenly Omar was at my side. “This is bullshit what they’re doing to you! That motherfucker started it!” After consoling me he gave his eyewitness account to the teacher in an attempt to exonerate me.
Under the school’s zero tolerance policy on violence the punishment for fighting was a one day ‘in school’ suspension. Two weeks after the fight I was paired with another miscreant and forced to rake leaves. Another task was collecting garbage from bins and taking it to a dumpster, something that proved a harbinger for my working life, which has often consisted of moving garbage from small to large receptacles.
I wonder how they got this by the janitors’ union. I imagine the negotiations went as such:
Carleton School Board: So we figure that your job is really worthless and so inherently demeaning that we’re going make bad kids do it in order to humiliate them and potentially scare them straight, and if not, they’ll learn vital skills in a terrible profession which might keep them out of the criminal class.
Janitors’ Union: Well...
Carleton School Board: Okay, great!
While I mopped the cafetorium floor that day, Omar approached me and whispered “If you hear anything about there being a hit on you from the Mexicans, don’t worry. If anyone touches you they’re going to have to deal with the Lebs, okay? I told ’em that.”
The previously cheery Omar was gone and the boy in front of my mop was strictly business. He tensed his right hand into a fist and I did the same, meekly touching mine to his.
“A’ight,” he said. “I’m going to get some fries, I’ll see you later on.”
It was Wednesday afternoon and Omar was a long shot and the last person on my list of potential recruits. With his rebuff I mentally prepared myself for a meeting the next day that involved me sitting awkwardly in an empty classroom with Mr. Michel.
(Ghost Pine #10: Wires, 2006)
THE FIRST MEETING OF THE SOCIAL JUSTICE CLUB
I ATE MY LUNCH BAG IN THREE MINUTES FLAT, STARING AT THE hands of the clock. Nothing happened. Mr. Michel sat at his desk leafing through the newspaper. He unscrewed the top of his thermos and poured soup into a mug.
“I told everybody,” I confessed.
“Sure,” he said casually.
He only acknowledged the empty classroom a few minutes later, looking up from his paper and joking nonchalantly “Pretty small club, eh?”
I nodded and managed a small smile, but “Fuck you” was what I was thinking. My brain whirred with despair. After all the running around I did to start this club, it’s not my fault that no one showed up, I thought. That’s what I get for getting involved with this shit.
Yes. Fuck extra-curriculars, fuck high school, and fuck me for a being fool enough to believe, in my most optimistic moments, that my fellow students could be united into the vanguard of a suburban revolutionary congress. No one was coming. Fuck.
Then Sundar walked in. His shoulder length curls bobbed as he greeted me. “Uh, hi,” he said.
“No one’s here,” I said. “No one’s coming.” If people hadn’t come in the first ten minutes of lunch break I figured they were obviously never going to come. I was ready to throw in the towel and go back to sitting in front of my locker, being laughed at by my friends.
But the sun was out. Maybe I would walk out past the football field, instead. Slipping through the gate that opened onto the soccer fields next to the industrial park I could sit there in silence, stare at the clouds and wonder yet again how the fuck I was going to survive two and a half more years of high school.
“I just talked to some people in the hall. They said they were coming. People are coming,” Sundar said, completely sure. He sat down at the desk next to mine and pulled a package of sesame snaps from his pocket, offering me one after he tore open the plastic.
Each minute following brought a few people through the classroom door, and then more, until groups of four and five were clamouring for the few remaining seats. Some sat on the floor while others stood or leaned against the walls. The room filled with the great excited chatter of people arriving on the threshold of something unknown together. We chatted as if attending some teen cocktail hour and all the while people I hadn’t told about the meeting arrived with others I had never even seen before. The ugly room that housed hours of sedate pedagogy was alive in a way I never imagined it could be.
Oh, and then the goths arrived. The goths! Really. I hardly knew them, but had guessed that their wardrobe of nihilism and black eyeliner was just a costume. They arrived in black capes of gloom and pants stitched with graveyard mist, but I knew with their arrival that they loved, not hated, the world.
The room twittered with the excitement of individuals realizing that maybe, unexpectedly—although they had hoped, always hoped—they had found a fellowship, a step above a gang, mightier than a clique. And into all of this joy came the punks, dark clouds tied to their mohawks. They sat in the aisles between desks, crossing their legs like oversized kindergartners. Alex stood next to me in front of the blackboard, detailing his latest encounter with the school administration, only to be interrupted by a throat-clearing that cut through the room’s conversations.
“It’s twenty past,” Mr. Michel said. “I think you’d better get started.”
“Okay.” I said. And then, all confidence suddenly drained, asked “How do we do that?”
“However you want. It’s your guys’s club, I’m just the supervisor.”
“Uh,” I said. As much work as I had put into recruiting, I never for a moment considered what I would say if people actually showed up at the meeting.
“Okay,” I said, “Welcome to the first meeting of the Social Justice Club.”
“Yeah, welcome,” Alex parroted.
“We’re all here because we believe that the world is a pretty messed up place. The idea behind this club, I guess, is that we can somehow make a difference for the better.
“So to begin, I guess I would just like to know what, uh, everyone is interested in working on…” I was overwhelmed. “There are a lot of issues, but I think we should work on the ones that we can all agree on. A democracy...”
“So call ’em out and we’ll write them down on the board,” Alex said, handing me some chalk.
“Okay, I’ll write down a political issue I’m concerned about for a start.” I brushed off the remnants of white from the board and then wrote ‘East Timor,’ the nation illegally occupied by Indonesia, on the board in the clearest script I could manage.
As I wrote the ‘i’ of Timor Sundar suggested we look into Native land claims and before I had enough time to write that out in full someone else called out “Vegetarianism,” and so it went. After five minutes of writing on the black board, the suggestions slowly came to an end. My hand was cramped and the board was covered with problems. Stepping back and looking at all the white chalk lines, I was amazed at the breadth of our grievances. Every problem we could think of was up there, an alphabet of dissent from Animal Rights to Women’s Issues.
“Okay,” I said. I took a deep breath, letting it sink it. The world was fucked. “Maybe we could divide into small groups that work on an issue that’s important to us. Then each committee can bring their ideas to the rest of the club and we can talk about what to do. And then we’ll do it.”
Desks creaked as they merged into clumps of three or four, small islands of talk.
In fifteen minutes Sundar had already planned our first action, brought it to the group and had it approved unanimously. In fourteen days we were going to sell fair trade coffee and chocolate in the foyer.
We were running out of time. As the electronic bell sounded, final questions were asked.
“Can we be on more than one committee?”
“Yes!” Alex called.
“Do we need a leader?”
“No! We’re Anarchists!” he pronounced.
Mr. Michel looked up from his from his paper, having sat in disinterested silence for the last half hour. “Oh, that reminds me, you need to elect two leaders to represent you.”
“It’s policy,” Mr. Michel shrugged.
“I nominate Jeff,” Sundar called.
“Alex!” a voice called.
I wrote both Alex’s and my name in the small space on the board that wasn’t covered in scrawl. “Okay, who else?” I asked, prepared for a deluge similar to our rapid diagnosis of the world’s ills.
The class was silent. I looked to Sundar; he was probably the smartest person in the room, but he was staring out the window, suddenly entranced by the birds flitting outside.
“Well, I guess we don’t need to have a vote,” Mr. Michel said, wrapping things up. “Congratulations to club presidents Alex and Jeff!”
“Co-coordinators, maybe?” I suggested, uncomfortable with my new title.
“Four more years! Four more years!” Alex yelled, holding his arms over his head in celebration. The punks howled their approval. Alex ran to Tops, his right arm outstretched for a high five. Instead of congratulating his friend, Tops simply picked him up, hung him over his shoulder and carried him out of the room.
(Ghost Pine #11: Crows, 2007)
The Social Justice Club
sundar was waiting for me by the rusted bike racks in front of the school, his breath rising into the pale sky.
“Is that the—?” Sundar looked around cautiously; even if there was no one else around our plan was secret. “Is that the thing?” He pointed at the six foot tall white cylinder I had carried to school.
I nodded and discreetly handed him a canvas bag. He peeked inside and smiled.
“Well I guess,” he said.
“We better...” I nodded.
We walked into the empty foyer and up to the row of brightly lit vending machines. Sundar handed me a roll of packing tape and placed a flyer in the top right corner of one of the machines. As I pulled the tape across he put the next flyer in place beside it. We worked patiently, affixing our message of dissent.
The first month of the Social Justice Club was a triumph. A garage sale raised money for a local women’s shelter. I consigned fair trade coffee, tea and chocolate from the OXFAM store downtown and we sold almost all of it one Friday afternoon.
We got permission to organize a political lecture series in the basement auditorium. Our first speaker was a hardcore kid affiliated with Ottawa’s chapter of Food Not Bombs. He showed up with an envelope full of PETA propaganda and argued for veganism by describing the torturous lives and horrible deaths of livestock.
Attending the lecture allowed kids to miss class, so he had a large audience for his extreme opinions. In question period students tried to devise a way in which he would condone eating meat. “What if it was organic?” “What if you knew it was killed humanely?” To each of which he replied adamantly that it was still murder.
Sundar asked “What about leather?” The vegan didn’t blink, despite his work boots. “I’ll only wear used leather,” he said, “but I don’t feel good about it.”
Our second guest was Bella Galhos, who had escaped her native East Timor. She spoke on the rape and genocide of her people at the hands of the Indonesians, who had occupied the nation since she was a child. After addressing crowds demonstrating outside the Indonesian embassy, her voice was strong. She detailed the forced injections of birth control and described the 1991 massacre in the city of Dili that she barely escaped.
After forty minutes of speaking and another twenty of answering questions, the square white light of an overhead projector appeared on the screen behind her, and we saw the shadow of a hand placing a transparency on its surface.
“This is the freedom song of my country. Please sing it with me.” Then, accompanied only by the member of the East Timor Alert Network she had arrived with, she began to sing. The teenage audience tentatively voiced the words on the screen. “I’m still fighting,” we sang lamely, but the passion of Galhos’ rough edged voice impelled us to sing, to really sing.
Halfway through the song the bell rang; we had five minutes to get to our next class.
When we reached the end of the song she called “Again!” with tears streaming down her face, and we sang it again, even louder than before.
At our weekly meeting I suggested we do another OXFAM sale. Mr. Michel spoke up. “We can’t do that. When I got clearance from the office it was one-time-only.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well,” Mr. Michel said, “the school doesn’t want to breach their contract with the company that runs the vending machines and the cafeteria.”
“PepsiCo?” Sundar asked.
“No, a local distributor.”
“But these are different...” I began. The chocolate bars were fair trade and cost five times more than those in the vending machine.
“So the school wants us to drink crappy coffee and eat bad candy AND NOTHING ELSE?” Alex said.
“They make a lot of money from it,” Mr. Michel said.
The bell rang and as we gathered up our lunch bags and headed toward the door Alex muttered under his breath, “The system cannot be reformed.”
A few days before this meeting Sundar had told me how he and his sister Sheela had spent their Friday afternoon. They got out the Yellow Pages and picked a Pizza Hut location at random. At the Fugazi show a flyer was circulated by the Canadian Friends of Burma. Singling out PepsiCo as the main corporate investor in Burma, it decried their support of oligarchy and urged a boycott of their galaxy of products and franchises, including Pizza Hut.
With the glee of someone who had never worked, Sheela called a franchise and pestered the voice on the other end with questions about Burma until she was transferred to the manager who gave her a number at headquarters before hanging up.
They climbed the corporate ladder via telephone. Each individual they spoke with professed to know nothing of their mothercorp’s dealings with the small fascist-run Southeast Asian nation. The last person they talked to was a Regional Manager or perhaps even a Vice-President of Customer Relations (Canada) and when they professed to know nothing about Burma, Sheela finally became dramatic. “You don’t KNOW anything about Burma? You don’t THINK the house arrest of AUN SUN SUU KYI is a problem? SHE’S A NOBEL LAUREATE FOR PEACE!” She began laughing as soon as she slammed down the phone.
“Politically it was reactionary,” Sundar told me. “We just angered and alienated several working people.” He paused, thinking. “It still made for a fun Friday afternoon.”
Two weeks later a coupon for a free pizza arrived in his mailbox. It said, “We’re sorry your last Pizza Hut experience was unsatisfactory. Please try us again: On the house.”
The day after my proposed OXFAM sale was shot down, Sundar and I had a strategy meeting in front of his locker at lunch. The physical fact of the vending machines was bad enough, we decided. They took up the places where the benches once sat. But on top of that, the products they sold propped up the Burmese oligarchy.
The local and global suddenly aligned; it was an activist miracle. It was then that we came up with this plan, the first stage of which was now complete.
The four vending machines were quilted in black and white flyers, held in place by packing tape. The flyers read, in large type, SUPPORT BURMA! BOYCOTT PEPSICO! The evidence was listed in smaller type below a graphic of the Pepsi logo with a cross through it.
“Yes!” we said, both hyper despite our lack of sleep.
We took one last look at our work. “That’ll totally stay up.”
By now more school buses were arriving and a few people were sleepily puzzling over the adapted vending machines.
We handed out the few left-over flyers before slipping away. I grabbed the giant cylinder and took it to Sundar’s locker.
He unrolled it a bit, revealing the red and yellow on the inside. “I can’t wait.”
I walked to my locker and slumped against it. The hallway slowly filled with snowboot-wearing teens. I pulled on my walkman and listened to Ian MacKaye shout: “You tell me that I make no difference / At least I’m fuckin’ try-inn’ / What the fuck have you done?!”
A half hour before homeroom I was seized by a desire to return to the scene of the crime. The halls were now packed and I had to push against a tide of parkas and licensed sports-team jackets to make it back to the foyer.
I was expecting a smattering of students to have noticed the flyered vending machines and gathered around to read them and consider the evidence. Instead, what I saw made me instantly go mental.
Instead of finding a legion of newly politicized teenagers throwing the vending machines to the floor in a rage, I found the vice-principal, Mrs. Baird. Clad in a purple pantsuit, she was single-handedly dismantling our act of defiance, easily peeling off the dollar store packing tape that I’d put so much of my faith and allowance into.
“What are you doing?” I asked in total disbelief.
“These posters weren’t stamped by the office.” she said matter-of-factly. “They’re not official.”
“But—but!” How could I explain that the importance of this day trumped the petty rule that all posters put up in the school be approved by office staff.
“Also, they hide the products,” she said, pulling off a section of flyers to reveal the rows of cookies and candy bars behind the machine’s glass front.
“It’s Free Burma Day,” I said, and then corrected myself. “International Free Burma Day.”
She looked me in the eye and said “I don’t care.”
My mouth went dry. How could I explain to her that for one day out of the year the struggle of the Burmese people must trump teenagers’ right to access candy? As a sort of moment of silence on Remembrance Day kind of thing? I couldn’t.
Soon, all our flyers were knotted in a giant ball of tape and thrown into a garbage can.
“Could we just put one up next to the machines?” I sputtered, willing to negotiate despite all my rage.
“But,” I tried to reason “Aun Sun Suu Kyi—” I began.
“I don’t care.”
She didn’t care about the imprisonment of the legally elected prime minister of Burma. She doesn’t care, I thought. And then, if you don’t care about Aun Sun Suu Kyi FUCK YOU.
When I was in high school I was often unable to control my emotions. For example, a year and a half before this incident I became extremely depressed when I heard Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. I couldn’t stop myself from playing the three tapes I owned by the band over and over. At one point I placed one of my stereo speakers in my bedroom window so the whole world could hear my grief. Angst was broadcast over the beautiful spring day, but because of my crappy stereo it was barely audible to the neighbours at work in their gardens.
The vice-principal threw another ball of tape and flyers into the steel garbage. “Get to home room,” she said.
As she walked away the white hot rage coursing through my veins shaped itself into these words: “YOU’RE GOING DOWN BAIRD!” Which I then shouted at the top of my lungs.
She halted suddenly and turned to face me. My stomach sank. I thought of the consequences of what I said and felt nauseous. Nausea was soon replaced by the giddy feeling that I might just have ruined her morning.
“What did you say?”
“You heard me,” I said, suddenly cocksure, despite my poor choice of words. At least the sentiment was correct. As she turned to face me I noticed that the kids passing through the foyer had stopped to watch.
“Come to my office. Now.”
“That’s it, you little...” She stopped short of saying what she wanted. “You’re suspended for three days. Get your stuff and go. If you’re still here in fifteen minutes the police will be called and you will be arrested for trespassing.”
I had my riposte ready. “I don’t care.”
Behind my high school sat the municipal soccer fields and skating arena. Beyond was a warren of streets lined with grey and brown buildings, each bearing the name of their occupying company on the side. From these names alone it was impossible to infer what, if anything, these businesses made or did.
For the first two hours of my suspension I skulked around these streets, killing time. I finally settled down on one of the soccer pitches and ate my lunch, waiting. I watched the grey clouds and hoped the rain would hold off.
As 10:30 approached I moved closer to the fence, near the stile connecting the field to the school property. The fence was overgrown with vines but I could clearly see the track that ringed the football field.
From the school’s doors a trickle and then a stream of students dressed in their grey gym t-shirts and sweatpants emerged, converging on the gravel track. Little pockets of dust erupted beneath their feet as they began to run, wheelbarrow walk, walk backwards or, for the most part, walk in a normal way around the track. It wasn’t enough for ‘The Grind’ to be the school’s annual fundraiser for the United Way; someone on student council thought that it would be even more fun if wacky walks were encouraged.
For what seemed like a very long time I watched small groups walking around the track, nervous until I finally saw a blur of yellow and red appear at the far end of the track and begin to move toward me at a steady pace.
Our secret weapon was in action. Seven people held it and walked together. The banner that I had carried to school unfurled to a length of ten feet. It bore a message of solidarity with the Burmese people and encouraged the boycott of Pepsi.
As they got closer I noticed the faces of the banner-holders were all appropriately solemn. It was a smattering of punks, goths and even Mikey, the cowboy. I watched them go by and waited for them to make another revolution before I pulled up the giant hood of my jacket and hoped no one would notice me casually walk out onto the track from the bushes and next to Sundar.
“It was fucking brilliant,” he said of my outburst. He’d heard about it in homeroom. “In protest of our flyers getting pulled down the punks ripped down every flyer in the fucking school.”
I laughed. “Isn’t that reactionary?”
“I kind of screwed the club.”
“We’ve been talking,” he said. “We’re going to disband the club and regroup out of school, because this is just fucking bullshit.” I nodded.
After securing the lodging of the banner in Sundar’s locker for the duration of my three day suspension I dropped back and thanked the banner carriers. I received high-fives and smiles.
I noticed Mr. Michel walking alone ten feet behind. I dropped back to talk to him.
“Did you hear?”
He nodded, unimpressed. “I don’t know if that was the best way to handle the situation.”
“No,” I said, his disapproval making me feel ashamed for the first time.
“I don’t see you,” he said. “You’re trespassing. I was told to call the police if I saw you.”
I nodded and spun away, running to the property line.
The foyer was transformed. There was a seething mass of pogoing and skanking bodies all the way back to the vending machines.
Standing on some risers assembled into a makeshift stage, with large speakers on either side of me, the sweaty palm of my right hand gripped a microphone.
The song ended. Behind me, Sundar strummed an open chord as the crowd filling the school’s wide entryway howled in approval.
“Ready?” Kevin asked, standing to my left.
“Yeah,” said Eric, anchored behind the drum kit.
In my hand was a flyer with the lyrics Bella Galhos had sung a few weeks before.
I told my mother I was going to the library for a few hours and pulled the hood of my parka against the wind. It was the hinge of the season. Two days before it had been warm enough to wear only a sweater, but today a dusting of snow covered the lawns and fallen leaves lined the curb.
When I reached the school I weaved through the lines of idling yellow buses. Sundar was waiting for me in the smoking section. He said hi and led me onto a bus. I followed him all the way to the back. When the bus finally started moving ten minutes later I caught a glimpse of Mrs. Baird standing by the doorway.
Sundar and I talked about punk rock and existentialism, neither of which we knew much about. He pulled a Tupperware container from his bag and offered me half a sandwich. I stared out the window as I ate, mouth full of peanut butter. The bus turned onto a long road. To the left was forest and to the right were farm fields.
The day after I first met him, Sundar had sold me a ticket to see his band play at an all-ages matinee. The appointed Sunday came and I took the bus downtown, walking from the Rideau Centre bus stop to the club nearby.
The Pit was a basement dive at the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie. It hosted all-ages matinees on the weekend. At least ten, sometimes as many as fifteen, bands played in a single afternoon. Teen music fans would emerge in the dwindling light of evening having dutifully watched all the local bands their five dollars would get them.
“Hi. We’re Insanity Starts at Lake Erie, a shitty band from the suburbs,” said the other guitarist of Sundar’s band when they took the stage. The drummer nodded and the music began.
Their set was a whirl of feedback, pretty melodies and weird discordant shit that raked the hall but kept me rooted a few feet from the stage. They didn’t have a singer or a bass player, just two guitars going in different directions, glued together by the drummer.
When the last song ended, the guitarist and drummer joined the meagre audience and watched Sundar as he crouched over his guitar and grabbed the butter knife sitting on his amp. He violently rammed it through the strings of his fake SG, pulling up and down the neck, producing sounds closer to those of the natural world than music. Roaring waterfalls, cicadas singing and the sound of the wind through the trees all came out of Sundar’s black amp as he worked the knife. In a trance, he hit the guitar slightly for percussion and occasionally turned a knob on his distortion pedal.
Finally he stood up and turned off his amp. The sound still poured out of it for a moment before dying away. He stepped from the stage and walked across the floor and up the stairs.
The other guitarist hopped onto the stage and spoke into the microphone, “We need a...” when he realized the mic was off he paused for a second and then spoke un-amplified. “We need a singer and a bass player. So come talk to us.”
Sundar returned and before taking apart his gear introduced me to Kevin, the other guitarist.
“I really like your band!”
He smiled. “Thanks, but I think we suck and need a bass player.”
“No, the fact that you don’t have one is cool.”
“Well, thanks,” Kevin said as he rolled up his patch chord.
The bus dropped us in a distant suburb far from the school. Sundar pointed out his house, a large one on the edge of a park. He led me past it to a small block of rowhouses and knocked on the door of the second last one.
Kevin opened the door. “Hey,” he said to Sundar and then turned to me and mock-yelled “You’re going down Baird!”
I laughed. “You heard about that at Confed?” My poorly-chosen words of rebellion had resounded through the halls of more than one school.
“Oh yeah, man.”
Kevin handed us bowls of Kraft Dinner and we sat on the couch until Eric, the drummer, came in with a cymbal bag over his shoulder.
“You’re going down Baird!” he said when he saw me sitting on the couch. He went to another high school too, not even the same one as Kevin. I groaned.
We left our empty bowls next to the kitchen sink and tromped downstairs to the basement where the amps and drum kit coexisted with a laundry line, washing machine and freezer.
Sundar wrote out the lyrics to the one song they had taught their last singer before he disappeared. It was called “Prole Feed.” They played it through once and I figured out where the words went and then they played it again and I barked the lyrics into the microphone.
All week I had expected the International Free Burma Day protest to go smoothly and my audition for the Insanity Starts at Lake Erie to be gruelling. They were an actual band. Sundar had given me a practice tape recorded on a boombox and I rehearsed in my room with my headphones everyday. But when your pissed-off mother is downstairs, you have to scream quietly.
After a third run-through of “Prole Feed” Kevin said “Sounds good. You got any words for other songs?” I nodded and pulled out the notebook I’d been writing in for the last few months. Somehow my teenage writing, neither poetry nor prose, fit with the pretty chaos of their songs and we spent hours matching my words to their music. When the next-door neighbours started banging on the wall we turned the amps off and went upstairs.
The last light of day had disappeared. As we scheduled our next practice I realized this wasn’t an audition; I was in the band. Kevin tried to explain the city bus routes back to my suburb until Eric offered to drive me home. I pulled on my boots and followed him over the icy sidewalk to his car. Once I was sitting shotgun he said “I’ve only got one tape in the car. One side is Miles Davis and the other is Minor Threat.”
Earlier that day I directed the janitor to place the risers against the wall in between the boys’ and girls’ washrooms and supervised the AV club as they set up the small PA. All the while I thought it was amazing that my suspension hadn’t voided my position as organizer of the second stage at the annual Band Warz competition.
“My fuckin’ band is going to rule,” Alex had promised me after I asked him to get a band together for the show. “The poseurs won’t even be able to deal with it.” The name of his band and its personnel were all kept secret until the day of.
Disgruntled, the band Alex had cobbled together from the dorks who hung out in front of my locker were actually pretty good. Alex was a surprisingly capable front man, with a sneer cemented to his face and a powerful delivery of “Banned from the Pubs” and a few other covers plus an original song or two. The crowd ate them up and Alex convinced me to give them a second set later in the evening. No one even noticed the songs were the same and skanked with the same fervour across the foyer floor.
And now I was on stage with The Insanity Starts at Lake Erie. “We sing this song in solidarity with Bella Galhos and the people of East Timor!” I yelled. “This song is called ‘I’m Still Fighting’!” As teenage punk rock exploded all around me I began screaming.
Many years passed by
Many more to come
Surrender? No never!
Two hundred thousand
Timorese have died yet
Ramelau is as strong as ever
Oh... I’m still fighting
In my mountains
In my jungle
In the villages
In the prisons
I’m still fighting!
In my mountains I feel free
In my mountains I can smile
In my mountains my song I can sing
In my mountains I can dream
In my mountains I can be me
That’s all I want
I want to be free
That’s all I want
I want to be me.
Months later, on the coldest day of the year, I rode the bus downtown after school in the dark. I got off at the University of Ottawa and found my way to the offices of CHUO. I sat on a couch until the host appeared and led me into the studio.
It was a half hour interview show and the Social Justice Youth Collective (formerly known as Merivale High School’s Social Justice Club) were the subject of the first fifteen minutes: our campaigns, what we accomplished, our beliefs, our ages (no one in the collective was over eighteen as a rule). The middle-aged radio host asked soft questions, impressed by our youth and our concern. At the end of the interview he pulled out the one tough question. “Do you really think you can change the world?”
I paused for a long time. Did I really think we could change the world? In the thick of scheming, planning and organizing it never came up.
“Even if,” I began unsteadily, “we can’t change the world, we can at least change ourselves.”
The interview was over; I shook my questioner’s hand as the new interviewee was ushered in. When I got home my mother told me she had listened to the interview with her mother and they both liked what I said about changing ourselves rather than the world. Then she served me spaghetti with meatless tomato sauce.
I don’t know what, if anything, we changed. Fourteen years later Aun Sun Suu Kyi remains under house arrest. All I know is that when I was hiding in the bushes and saw the giant banner making its way slowly, solemnly, around the track I felt victorious. We had accomplished at least this, come together, worked hard and taken our beliefs seriously, even if we left no trace, no dent in the evil to which we were opposed.
All that’s left is this story, and a mention on a long-dormant website:
The BurmaNet News: November 8, 1995
Issue #273: SPECIAL EDITION–OCT 27
Meanwhile, the Social Justice Club at Merivale High School used our giant banner.
“Our protest was very... noticeable and it seems we have received quite a bit of attention for our cause, your cause. I support you completely, and it’s honourable that there still ARE people who DO care... I am in the process of writing to Beaver foods who own several Pepsi machines in our school. I also intend to make complaints to many Pepsi-owned franchises.”
(previously unpublished, 2007-09)
Sloan, Twice Removed (murderecords/DGC, 1994)
AS THEY APPROACH THE NINTH OR TENTH GRADE WHITE HIGH school students are drawn magnetically to the pole of pop culture that is The Beatles. One day they find themselves in the basement looking through their parents’ record collection lodged in a particleboard bookshelf. There they inevitably find Red and Blue by The Beatles and become suddenly obsessed; buying posters, t-shirts, and countless books of Fab Four ephemera and being so smug that their favourite band is quantifiably THE best pop band ever, and aren’t the lyrics just so meaningful and let’s talk about it all the time.
Beatlemania hit my shitty friends in my shitty suburb thirty years late and I didn’t buy into it. Yeah, the songs were catchy and insanely orchestrated, but so what?
I grumbled when my friends Beatle’d out, but what did I have? I didn’t have shit—a Sex Pistols tape from the Music Mart discount bin was the only weapon in my arsenal and I didn’t even know what it meant. “God Save the Queen”? Were they joking? Like the Queen? That woman that does nothing and who no one cares about is the target of your vitriol? Really?
The day Twice Removed came out I walked to the mall, my walkman hungry for a new tape. They were just a one hit wonder from Halifax in the age of grunge long since past, but the Ottawa Citizen Entertainment section advised me this new record was pure sweet pop and an imperishable classic.
It was a step in the wrong direction. I wanted to be punk but I didn’t know how and needed to listen to something in the meantime. Plus, I couldn’t get the single that played all the time on Much Music out of my head. It had this plaintive guitar line that was so melancholy and was such a perfect fit for mid-August when I hated my friends and school loomed on the horizon like an iceberg to my Titanic summer self.
Walking home through the rowhouses, the music washed over me. All these sad pop songs about funerals and brothers and snowsuits and pen-pals. It was a perfect slice of Canadiana moulded into pop and caught in the amber of magnetic tape.
(A few months later at their show I nervously asked the drummer if I could interview him for the crappy zine I was making. I didn’t even have a tape recorder, just tried to write down the things he said on some bar napkins. He was nice and when he discovered I’d never heard The Descendents he strongly recommended I find a copy of Milo Goes to College. I did.)
(Ghost Pine #9: Bees, 2005)
Meet the Author
Jeff Miller has published the zine Ghost Pine since 1996, selling nearly ten thousand copies through independent channels. Miller’s zine has received strong reviews from various underground media outlets over the past decade. His writing has also appeared in The 2nd Hand, Broken Pencil, Zine Yearbook and The Art of Trespassing (Invisible Publishing). Born and raised in Ottawa, he has lived in Montreal for the past decade, where he continues to write.
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