My father’s store was what you’d get if poured a super junk heap, a vintage shop, an attic full of trunks and bookshelves, a shipping container of goods from who-knows-where and a high-end antique shop into a big martini shaker and gave it a good long shake. It carried stuff ranging from way-past-its-prime, should-be-in-the-garbage, third time around second-hand who-knows-what that is, through to valuable antiques, collectibles and works by local painters and sculptors. His store became a beacon in the city for treasure hunters and crazy collectors. Many of the regulars would spend all day in the store looking for stuff, oblivious to dust, oblivious to numbing winter cold and oppressive, paralysing heat — the furnace barely worked and he didn’t have air conditioning — oblivious to the leaks in the ceiling and sometimes oblivious to the exaggerated stories of provenance my father would tell about the items they found, including the ones he’d give to them free.
My father’s store was also frequented by some of the city’s strange, odd and interesting people who came in not necessarily to buy anything but to look around, or talk with my father. Or take a break. It seemed that time slowed down in my father’s store. An alternate universe in the alternate universe of Queen Street West.
Some of the strange and odd and interesting people had everyday jobs as nurses, doctors, teachers, restaurant staff, lawyers, architects, designers, transit drivers, or various white-collar roles. Some of the strange and odd and interesting people did not have everyday jobs: actors, pickers, antique and junk dealers, writers, musicians, artists. Some of the strange and odd and interesting people had no job at all, being part of some hidden sub-culture that only came out once a month, or were on welfare and came by when they got their cheques. Some were homeless or couch surfers. Some were just passing through on their way to other cities. All were collectors of something or another. My father, he collected strange and odd and interesting people.
Some other people had serious mental health issues (mental health institutions a few streetcar rides away) and seemed to find refuge at my father’s store which in truth was a business started by my mother some years earlier. She liked hunting for antiques and collectibles and having the bills paid so she opened a small shop with some clothing and collectibles and it grew from there. It became a little community centre, people dropping in all the time and my mother made some money, too. My father — a taxi driver — suddenly took a keen interest in my mother’s little business. His taxi was parked in front of the store more than it was out on the road, and in time he quit driving taxi and took over the little shop, bringing along grand ideas, intent on global domination of the junk and antique business.
They ended up having a number of stores. As sometimes happens, things change. The stores were closed. A fog of bankruptcy. My mother found a more stable job with a steady source of income that paid the bills. My father opened another store that didn’t exactly carry itself. As sometimes happens, things continued to change. My parents’ marriage ended. My mother headed for a more secure, if somewhat slightly staid life while my father went on to have a few more kids with a strange and odd woman that he met through his new store, followed by a few more financial disasters, followed by a new relationship with a few ready-made kids and a few more financial trials. Along the way, he developed a cult-like following among a large group of strange and odd and interesting people.
Over the years, when there was nothing to do, or I felt the need to be near some intangible essence of the city’s vast, invisible heart, I’d go to my father’s store. It was open every day of the week, at just about any time of the day. My partner would talk with my father, or more accurately, run interference for me so that I could wander around, look at everything and enjoy myself.
One of the people who frequented my father’s store was a tall, thin, sombre-looking, dark-haired Eastern European woman who exuded nothing but anger. Her movements were sharp and fast and she seemed impatient with everything. She had tight, thin lips and deeply furrowed brows. I spoke with her once and tried hard to ignore the energy of anger that pulsed in the air around her.
I asked my father about her.
“She’s an artist,” my father explained, as if that explained everything. He was unfazed by her. He was unfazed by everyone who was not family and in particular anyone who was an artist. He showed me some of her pieces on consignment. Large canvas paintings full of anger energy. Well executed. Ugly and Repulsive. He said she was good. That people were going to like her work.
We all said he would die in the store and he very nearly did: he was in the store when he was rushed to the hospital. He died two weeks later which was 11 months after my mother died. At his funeral, a whole community of strange and odd and interesting people, some of them quite famous, came out to pay their last respects to him.
It’s done. Once I hit the send button, my column will be jettisoned from my computer out into that vast network of wires and cable, travelling in its best dress of bits and bites of data — programming code to move it along into my editor’s email inbox along with a note of polite professional pleasantries and manners and the usual request to let me know of any revisions, edits, changes. On the one hand, I was relieved to have met the deadline. On the other hand, I was concerned: it was the shortest column I’d submitted in two years, pared down, edited to the bones. I fussed over everything — tone, approach, meaning. A kind soul even took the time to proofread it for me and I edited it some more. It was as polished as it could be. I pressed the send button and away it went.
It took me two months to write that column. Several false starts, down rabbit holes; writing and writing, trips to the library, hard workouts at the gym, music, movies, meditation. And all I had to show for it was a pile of words that didn’t hang together no matter how much I moved them around. During a small mental break I watched a promo for an American TV show that twigged an entirely different concept and so I started with a new blank page where a story unfolded that could work for the magazine.
Two days of writing and rewriting produced a concise and powerful column. Couldn’t argue with a word in it. But I didn’t like it. And I wasn’t sure the editor would, either.
It usually takes a few days for the editor to get back to me with feedback and less than a day for me to make changes. I had a plan and a schedule: I’d get the editor’s feedback within two days, do the rewrite and get the revs back in time to have final approved copy which would mean that I’d get on the plane for France free and clear, with no worries.
The editor didn’t contact me by the time I got on the plane which meant that I’d have to check my email while traipsing through the French countryside, strolling through Paris, or wandering around in England. Which I did, every two days. I sent another note to check in, requesting feedback. It worried me. I had visions of being hunched over my iPad in some cafe rewriting a column, losing a day of book hunting and visiting the markets. Some part of me kept my fingers crossed that if I did hear from the editor, it would be while I was in Paris so that I could spend a few hours experiencing the cliché of writing in a Montmartre cafe. The other part of me took many deep breaths late at night under the stars of a foreign sky to help stop worrying about it.
As it turned out, I didn’t hear from the editor while I was in France or in England. When I got back home to Toronto — after communing with the dogs — the first thing I did was open my email. And there it was. An answer. After a few professional niceties was the editor’s response to the column: “Great piece. Your best one yet. No changes needed.”
I sat down, relieved, yet unsure how to reconcile my unease about a piece I don’t like will be published with my byline. But I couldn’t have reconciled anything just then. I was tired in the way that only travelling for hours across time zones can make you tired.
I wrote the column leveraging a memory, that was itself connected to places I used to go, people I used to see and the two strange, odd and interesting people who started it all, who are not around any more.
I wrote the column in as mindful as state that I could muster, stepping back to observe the film of old memories, watch old feelings surface. I didn’t pick at too many memory threads I saw peeking out at the edges. Even so, my shoulders inched up, tightening my back and neck as I wrote. My discomfort with the artist’s angry energy emerged as I wrote and stayed with me through all of the writing and rewriting and after I sent it, all through France and England and doubly so on the plane back to Toronto.
But it wasn’t that I disliked my column. I was uncomfortable because I had crossed a line. I had done something as a writer for the first time: used something personal for my professional writing which gave rise to new feelings that I interpreted as dislike. In the end, I determined that I’ll avoid watching promos for American TV shows for the rest of my life.