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Arts and Culture

Americanface, Episodes 5-8

All this week's episodes rolled into one.

By Andrew Struthers 30 Oct 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Struthers is a filmmaker and writer in Victoria.

5: Waiting

Anne, my physics prof, was one of the very first radio astronomers, at Jodrell Bank in England.

Radio waves are a lot beefier than visible wavelengths of light, so they pierce the dust that obscures bodies like the Milky Way. Without all that dust, the Milky Way would appear as a river of light so bright you'd be able to read by it at night. Radio telescopes pulled back this particulate veil, a revelation that yielded glimpses of the Big Picture, including the massive black hole that lies at the heart of our galaxy.

After 10 years of breakthroughs Anne and her colleagues had a banquet to celebrate. There was a sheet of paper next to her. She picked it up and turned it over. On the back it said

IN PICKING UP THIS PIECE OF PAPER YOU HAVE EXPENDED MORE ENERGY THAN HAS BEEN STUDIED BY ALL OF RADIO ASTRONOMY SINCE IT BEGAN

Which reminds me of a joke. God walks into a restaurant and orders the chaos... oh, you've heard it already.

Anne also said that trying to figure out the universe with the tools we have is like trying to figure out what's going on in a city by standing on a suburban rooftop and looking at the distant lights downtown.

Something to keep in mind when you succumb to the notion that we've already figured everything out.

6: Conflict

The University of Victoria was a great place to hide from reality. Town was arboreal, quiet. You could barely tell where the oaks left off and the Tudor fascia began. Among the gabled treetops lived whole rookeries of artists, militant feminists and members of failed cults.

One of these, a crazy painter of naive art, lived in the attic of a Fairfield mansion, $80 a month, heat was not included because it was not possible. Winter rolled around, he checked himself into Eric Martin psych ward and returned to his loft and paints in the spring.

One summer day we lay on the grassy knoll of Beacon Hill watching freighters ply the Strait. A yacht passed with a dingy in tow. My crazy painter pal said, "Vancouver Island's like that dingy, Canada pulling us along,"

As soon as he said it I felt a tug, thought of Kundera's Life Is Elsewhere, although I had so far only read the title. Sometimes that's enough to start things rolling.

7: The Army

Leaving University left me with limited options. I had only two marketable skills: drawing, and whinging about the Social Credit government, who that summer floated a plan designed to turn the student body into free enterprisers -- the Start Your Own Business This Summer program -- a loan of two grand, no questions asked.

I schlepped my drawings round every graphics company in town, and they all said they were laying people off. The last guy had no furniture. His latest project was laid out on the shag carpeting. He said, "These drawings are cream. But ninety percent of this job is crap. You get through the crap, you get a taste of the cream."

The only guy who hired me was Brian, my math whizz pal who had just been kicked out of his own rock band for losing his hair at 22. He, too, was in the Start Your Own Business business. He used his loan to buy a box of spyglasses and a drill, and between solo gigs at the OAP hall on Government Street, where sadly aging hippie chicks whirled dervishes on the beaten fir dance floor, he skulked apartment buildings frightening old ladies into having a peep hole installed on the spot for twenty bucks.

But he couldn't bring himself to frighten his clientele sufficiently to make the gig pay, so he traded for a power washer and hired me to draw up a pamphlet he could stick in rich people's mailboxes.

HE wanted an Oak Bay mansion with the words A NEW LOOK FOR YOUR BEAUTIFUL HOME over top, but I got bored and put RATHOLE YOU INFEST, for a joke. I showed Gwen, she laughed and laughed, and I was going to change it but Ghostbusters was starting down at the Odeon.

When we got back the drawing was gone. Brian had climbed in the bathroom window and taken it to the printers.

A flurry of phone calls averted disaster. That night I had cold shakes. I was not set up for free enterprise, which come September showed its underbelly, which conservatives call "personal responsibility." Apparently I was supposed to have lived off that two grand all summer, plus made enough from drawing to pay it all back, and not just spend it all on a splendid Persian carpet for Gwen's birthday.

More fool me. Now I was really out of options. I had not intended to Start My Own Funeral This Summer, but that was the situation on the ground. A collection agency began calling. Where to hide? How about beautiful Tofino!

8: Union

Apart from the orange extension cord and green garden hose that snaked through the bush to Gwen's house, the cabin had no power and no running water. Also no rent, which was incredibly relaxing. And yet I was incredibly tense, worrying that my mind might snap again at any moment.

Working as a fry cook didn't help. On the top 10 list of jobs that strap you to the wheel of time, cooking is number four. You have to compartmentalize. Toast will be ready in 30 seconds, you have six eggs coddling for another minute and a pound of bacon frying in the background. And that's just for your before-work snack.

When the orders start coming in things get hairy, fast. Customers complain about the hair, but at least the food is coming up fast. One hundred entrees later it's time to go home, but first you drink a beer with your co-workers and relive every order in rapid-fire anecdotes. Then you cook another hundred dinners in your sleep. You try to ignore the orders but that makes you tense and you wake up. It's less work just to just keep cooking.

Jim, the chef, was two years younger than me, ran triathlons for fun and drank a case of Heineken with every shift. If a waitress complained about an order, he would use his grill knife to fire a frying egg into the wall above her head and shout "Don't jake me!"

Derek, the first cook, played jazz piano when it was slow, and showed up hung over on my second shift. "That's the last time I drink whiskey, I'll tell you that." But Saturday night he sat at the bar with the waitress on his knee, a glass of scotch marking rings on the paper tablecloth, his cigarette sending up confused smoke signals.

One hot afternoon in July 60 blue-rinses showed up on a bus, and everyone wanted crab. We went down to the live tank on the dock, which was pretty as a phonebook cover in the sunset, and Derek had a cigarette.

"It's an unwritten rule," he said as he enjoyed the rich, smooth taste in a way we no longer can. Then we slew dozens of crabs with our bare hands, at great risk of getting pinched, even though the bluerinses were from Britain and tipped a dollar between them.

In the aftermath, Derek used pieces of three different crabs to assemble a whole one. He zapped its shell with hot water and it clambered across the metal sink belly. Somehow all of this reduced my crab phobia. Then he showed me how to strategically place a towel over areas of chaos so we could leave them for the night cleanup.

A month later he got canned for strolling downtown during the lunch rush to buy a single bunch of green onions. After that, I was first cook, even though I had zero training.

Years later I saw Derek in the city eating chicken from a box, muttering, big as a house with long greasy dreadlocks, clearly homeless. You never know where the river will take you.  [Tyee]

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