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Archive for September, 2007

Sketchy Stuff

I was drawing in my sketchbook today, something I do in fits and starts, and N. took a few pictures of me:

Then she came up with an idea: I should post the sketches on the blog. I don’t have a scanner, so I had to use a camera, which sometimes casts shadows on the page.


(more…)

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Allen: behind the mirror

Lately I’ve been thinking about Allen, my friend for 15 years before we lost touch. I’ve been thinking about much he changed over those 15 years, till he became something I could no longer relate to, and I’ve been thinking about how little I ever really knew him.

I met Allen in 1982, when we were both twelve. He was in my class in grade seven, which for me was the happiest year of all my public schooling. We both belonged to a small circle of friends, but I was better friends with a couple of other guys than I was with Allen. I don’t think he had very much patience for me; I probably struck him as a wide-eyed naive kid. He was more sophisticated than me. You could tell as soon as you saw him that he was different.

He was chubby and had longish hair. He wore a green jacket, much like an army jacket, somewhat in the mod style, and it had a greasy stain in one pocket where he’d put his pack of fish and chips. (They were still wrapped in newspaper in those days.) And he always wore t-shirts with the Beatles or the Sex Pistols or Marilyn Monroe or the cast of Leave It To Beaver on it. He was, as I’ve written elsewhere, precocious. He read adult literature and underground comics and wrote poetry and could speak intelligently about such things. That was the year Glenn Gould died. Gould had grown up just around the corner from our school, and when our teacher told us about him, he asked if any of us knew who he was. Only Allen did. He even had some of his records.

But he was odd, as well. He would wobble his one knee back and forth when he stood so that his whole body seemed to jiggle, and when he spoke, his sentences trailed off into a cross between an indolent mirthless laugh and a nervous mumble, even if there wasn’t anything even remotely funny in what he’d said. His vocabulary was advanced and often formal, especially with scatological humour. When asked about the grease stain on his jacket, he’d say it was a urine stain. He found proper words like “urine” and “excrement” much funnier than “piss” and “shit”, when most 12-year-olds didn’t even know what excrement was. It was as if by using these words he was deflating the dignity of the adult world and exposing the pathetic farcical nature that lay beneath the surface of it. I think he found the word “buttocks” the funniest word of all.

His strangeness could have an edge to it. The year before I met him, while he was still in grade six, he had belonged to the recorder club at school. (I still can’t picture Allen playing the recorder.) The club was supposed to perform for parents one night, and Allen didn’t want to. His teachers and his mother forced him to. So he got his revenge. When they were finished performing, he opened up his shirt and displayed a swastika that he had painted on the t-shirt underneath. His mother, understandably mortified, ran up and pulled him off the stage, trying also to pull the t-shirt off him.

Many of his friends were grown-ups. That doesn’t seem so strange now, but it did at the time, although I admired him for it, and liked the adults he knew. Allen was mature enough to hold interesting conversations with them, although I now suspect they were humouring him a little. The two friends that I’d met owned used bookshops, and one of these men, I later learned, was the son of one of Canada’s most famous poets.

The details escape me now, but gradually we became friends. In those years, I was a Beatles fan to the point of obsession, so when I saw the various Beatles t-shirts he wore I must have looked upon him as a kindred spirit. But as I said, that first year, we weren’t that close. I always felt he was mocking me a little. He was simply older than me in intellectual development.

I wanted to be a comic book artist at the time, and that was our first joint interest. He introduced me to good artists. Although I could draw quite well, it had never occurred to me to think of one artist as better than another. Allen collected artists though, not just superheroes. Through him I discovered the work of artists like Neil Adams, Frank Franzetta, Frank Miller, Robert Crumb, and Chester Brown (an Ontario artist whose self-published comics Allen collected). He read Zippy comics, Cerebus, Raw, The Freak Brothers. He had the Maus series in the original installments.

His record collection was interesting, too. If I try to remember randomly some of them, Miles Davis’s Round About Midnight comes to mind, or a couple of Richard and Mimi Farina records, or a red see-through record of Ginsberg reading “Howl” and other poems on the Fantasy label. He had a couple of Lenny Bruce records from the same label.

The first time I went to visit him at his house, I went to look at his comics, which he kept in mylar envelopes in acid-free boxes. (That was the first time I’d heard of acid-free paper, or even that normal paper had acid in it.) We sat around in his large spacious room and listened to music and talked while I also looked at the books on his shelves. His bed was just a mattress on the floor. He burned incense on a brick. He had a good stereo, too, and put on All Things Must Pass, an album I liked and wanted to get, although I never got round to hearing it again for another 23 years.

Some time towards the end of grade seven, I was riding the Queen Street streetcar with Allen and I — arbitrarily, it seems — decided to start collecting books like him. It seems strange to think that it was the object itself that drew me first, and not its content. (The desire to write came soon afterwards.) I announced the sudden decision to him and asked him to give me some recommendations to get me started. This was later in the day, leaning on a fence across the street from my house. I wrote down a list of authors he came up with on the spot: Kerouac, Burroughs, Orwell, Huxley, Joyce, Camus — a seemingly random selection of 20th century literature. And slowly I started spending my allowance on used books. And what’s strange, now that I think back on it, for a long time I would call him and tell him what I’d bought, reporting how my shelves were slowly filling up. It was as if I were an apprentice reporting to his master. Years later, when I was in university and my collection had long since surpassed his, whenever he’d come to my house, he’d casually look over my books, and if he saw something he hadn’t seen before, he’d take it out and leaf through it, often even asking, “When you did you get this?”

I must stress — and this is no exaggeration — that in those early years, Allen was my mentor, even though he was several months younger than me.

In grade eight (1983-1984), the small group of friends broke up a little in that we were in different classes. Only Allen was in my class, and this is how we became better friends. Grade eight was a very different year, at least for me. It was the beginning of a series of unhappy years at school. Peer pressure is always a problem when you’re a teenager, but I think those years, the Ralph Lauren years, were particularly conformist, not to mention expensive for our parents. (It’s no wonder that the image of Alex P. Keaton or the girls from Heathers come to mind as icons of that time.) For me those years were a tight-rope walk: I didn’t really want to be a part of it, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself; I wanted to belong and be popular, but I didn’t want to jump through hoops to be so. Allen did even less to belong, and paid for it dearly.

I don’t know why someone who never made any effort to belong should have suffered because his peers were not accepting him. Maybe something else was happening, which I never understood or even caught a glimpse of. At any rate, Allen became stranger and stranger as the year wore on. I don’t want to go into detail, but I’ll say that I was often embarrassed, sometimes even disgusted by his behaviour. One thing I will mention, which is not so strange, is that he refused to cut his hair. In the end I think he waited a year and a half before he got it cut. Although it wasn’t dirty, it just hung down. He could have tied it back or something, as so many men do now, but the way he did nothing with it made it seem like an act of rebellion, a deliberate act of negligence.

At this point, just as we were becoming better friends, I grew alienated from him, which no doubt must have made things worse.

In September 1984 we entered high school, which turned out to be a bigger, more intense version of the junior high school we’d just attended for two years. Whatever problems we’d had there also became bigger and more intense. I kept up my balancing act for the next couple of years, eventually leaving to go to another high school for the last two years when I could take it no more. Allen did not last even the first term of grade nine. He dropped out and refused to go back. His mother, a teacher, with whom he lived, was understanding and willing to wait till he found his way. His father, with whom he spent most weekends, had less patience and insisted he see a psychologist. He also wouldn’t let Allen watch Rumble Fish, one of his favourite films at the time, because he was convinced that it had encouraged him to be rebellious.

When the second term started Allen found his way. He enrolled in an alternative school with students who hadn’t fit into mainstream schools. It was at this time that we really began to be best friends; now that we weren’t in the same school together, no amount of strangeness on his part could embarrass me socially. The school he went to had a lot of interesting, eccentric and charismatic teachers and students, and I wanted very much to join him. My parents, however, wouldn’t let me because they didn’t trust it academically. In a few short years, a lot of the interesting characters who went to the school graduated or just left and it began to fill up with spoiled rich kids, probably because the school had become fashionable.

Allen cut his hair and started to dress differently, in a way more in tune with the times. (The way he dressed when he was twelve would become fashionable over a decade later.) In many ways, the people who had mocked him and found him odd two or three years earlier had caught up to him and could relate to him now. He became popular, started going to parties and clubs.

I had always kept a certain distance from everyone, seeing most of them only during school. But in 1987, the year I visited Greece, the year I found the Rimbaud pictures and my life changed, I withdrew completely from the circle on whose periphery I’d always been, and changed high schools. I never told Allen that he had to choose between me and the others, and never thought of things in those terms, but somehow he started to get tired of them too.

After 1987, something strange began to happen, although it took me some time to realise it.

I began to discover Greek music and literature and wanted to move to Greece. Allen shared these interests with me and also planned to move to Greece. I think he craved a feeling of rootedness, of tradition. Then he started to dress like me. The reason I didn’t notice this at first was because it was so gradual. For example, I remember looking at some photos of James Dean and thinking that I’d like an overcoat like the one he was wearing. We went down to the vintage clothing stores in Kensington Market and I found one that was a bit too big for me. Allen saw one and bought it too, even though he hadn’t been planning to. When we left, we put them on. My mother saw us coming up the street, dressed in these long black coats. “You look like a couple of pallbearers,” she said.

In the summer of 1988, Allen went to Greece too. Then, in September, when he got back, he transferred to the high school I had changed to, and it was only then, when someone pointed it out to me, that I realised he was becoming me. I didn’t dress unusually, but I did dress somewhat unlike people my age. I dressed like an older person then (nowadays I look younger than I really am), in a tweed jacket. And so did Allen. My mother, amused by all this, would often say, “If you shit purple, so will he.”

I suddenly got embarrassed by him at school again, and kept my distance from him for a while. I remember the day this girl I knew was commenting on all of this as we were walking down the hall. “I’ve created a monster,” I said as we turned the corner. Just then Allen was standing in front of me. I don’t know if he understood what I had been talking about.

He must have realised the transfer had not been a good idea, and soon he changed schools again. After that things were all right again. He slowly started at least to dress less like me.

Allen had been with me during those feverishly formative years between 1987 and 1990, during the Rimbaud fascination, the discovery of Greece and Greek culture, and he shared in all my enthusiasms. He took them on too. I had become the writer, not he. I was now introducing books to him. Slowly, our roles had reversed. I had become the mentor.

I wonder if my passions were too much for him. Something happened to him during those years. He lost something, his brilliance and his originality. A flame went out.

I graduated from high school with mediocre marks, but spent a year upgrading them, and just managed to get into university. Allen, who had always and effortlessly done well in school, also got admitted to university. We both started at the same time.

Whereas I flourished and enjoyed myself, Allen drifted with no sense of purpose and dropped out in the first term, early enough to get a partial refund from his tuition fees. He decided to try again the following year, 1991-1992, but the same thing happened, only more quickly. And that was the beginning of the end for him.

University had a powerful effect on me. It matured me intellectually. Allen and I were still best friends, listening to music together or watching films, but I couldn’t share what I was experiencing in university. He lost interest in books and could barely read any more. He’d start books and abandon them. He wasn’t interested in getting a good job; he worked in a teleresearch firm, and would save up enough money to float through periods of chosen unemployment. If I remember correctly, somewhere around 1992 or 1993 he went to Greece again. Although he never said so, I think he may have been disappointed somehow. His passion may have cooled, but he had nothing to replace it with, nothing to move on to. He still listened to Greek music, read Greek poetry, but somewhat half-heartedly.

He became lazy, without any direction or ambition or motivation. He’d sprawl out on the couch and watch TV all day. He got fatter. And he developed the annoying habit of yawning loudly at least once or twice a minute.

His mother sold their house around this time, and he had to move out. He rented a room from one of the adult friends he’d had back when he was twelve. Eventually, his mother agreed to let him move back in with her in her new house.

At some point in 1996 I found I couldn’t relate to him any more. I saw less and less of him. He depressed me and the yawning got on my nerves. In January 1997, on the night before I left to come to Greece, I called him to say goodbye. It had been weeks, perhaps even months, since we had last spoken.

I wrote to him when I got here, but he would barely respond. His letters were short notes written in block letters. When they stopped coming, I wrote to him and said that if he didn’t write to me as well, I doubted our friendship would be able to survive. (This was still two or three years before I went online, and I don’t think Allen has ever done so.) I decided that as his friend for all these years, I would be honest with him and tell him it was time he’d got his act together. His reply was brief:

DEAR TOM

I’M SORRY BUT I AM UNABLE TO RESPOND TO YOUR LETTER AT THIS TIME.

And that was it. He did actually try to write once more, a few months later, saying that he would now “BE ABLE” to write more often, though he didn’t explain why he was able to now, or what had prevented him before. The rest of the short letter was nothing more than brief notes about impersonal news and inconsequential information. The only thing I remember is his mentioning that John Fowles had recently visited Canada and was depressed by its lack of wildflowers.

I never heard from him again. I probably only wrote back once myself. In December 2000, when I returned to Canada for the first time since I’d left, I didn’t even call him. I didn’t have his mother’s new number. I ran into his younger brother one day and he told me nothing had changed: Allen just lay around on the couch “collecting static”. He gave me their number, and said, “You’ll probably have to leave a message first. He’s developed a habit of not answering. He just looks at the call display and waits to hear the message.” Hearing that put me off the idea completely. I visited again in 2003 and 2004, and still couldn’t call. By that time, too much time had passed.

Although Allen and I spent a lot of time together, we weren’t really close. We were the kind of friends who could sit around for long periods of time in silence, each doing his own thing, and I really enjoyed that. We were comfortable with that. But we never really confided in each other. As a result, I often wonder now, was something bothering him all those years? Something that had caused problems for him when he had dropped out and wouldn’t get his hair cut? I can only guess now. After all these years, Allen is a mystery to me.

* * * * *

Last year, I began exchanging emails with Paul, another friend from those early years in the eighties. We were reminiscing and I mentioned Allen. Paul started to tell me his view of Allen from the years 1987-1988, and how he had decided to keep his distance from Allen too.

A get-together at my house with A.S. and his girlfriend. Allen was so drunk, walking around my street in the middle of the night spinning his underwear over his head – that terrible naked appearance only a man can have – shirt on, socks on and nothing else.

Another time, it was New Year’s Eve. After this incident I wasn’t hanging around him much anymore. It felt like a dividing line for some reason. That could be because I am looking back at it. I have not thought about these things in years.

Anyway, it was a New Years party at Matt’s house and I invited Allen to it. I had just begun to hang out with a new group of people in the dramatic arts program, and was getting involved in that program more and more. Allen had this huge glass jug of either homemade wine or the very cheap stuff. The glass jug was huge. Like a jug from a hillbilly band…

Anyway, Allen was being his usual anti-social self and was drinking and spewing off things that I’m sure he thought were cryptic and Morrisonesque. They weren’t. I remember trying to get him involved in conversations – trying to get him talking to girls etc. At a certain point he became so loaded that he started pouring this cheap red wine over all of the girls’ heads. Not the boys. I found that strange at the time, but now I tend to think that he wasn’t so loaded that he couldn’t figure out that he would have gotten his ass kicked if he had. There were all different types of people at this party – dramies [i.e. people from the drama department], jocks, M.J. and all of her friends, older, big jocks.

He was stumbling around leaning on girls and trying to pour wine over their heads. They were all dressed up as well, seeing that it was New Years. He was wrecking their clothes. I look back on this and see that some of these kids had summer jobs and weekend jobs and bought their clothes – you know, worked for them. I think Matt kicked him out… but I can’t be sure of that. I am pretty sure that I got him home or he stayed at my place.

That was it, really. But I was trying to make a good impression and he fucked it up. People would ask me about it for months after. What’s wrong with your loser friend etc. I always felt a little sorry for Allen, but that was it for me. Allen had a way of really annoying the hell out of me. You know, pushing things too far. And after that – I may have hung around with him, but I was pretty much through.

Then the next year – we totally lost touch.

Did Allen experience any trauma in his childhood? I don’t want to speculate – maybe not. But if this whole double way of behaving and his ultimate 15-year couch-nap tells me that there is more going on than just a lazy poet.

I do think he had an aura of something different around him – but I really just think he was sick. And he never wrote anything from what I remember and he never really did anything. Never had girlfriends, etc. Just very sad. Very little living experience.

When I expressed amazement at how differently he acted around Paul, Paul wrote back:

It makes more sense in light of what has come to pass – that the real Allen was the drunk, incoherent, attention-seeking guy and maybe the fake Allen was the one you knew. Who the hell knows. See that was the last Allen I knew and then I hear what ends up happening to him and I am not at all surprised.

* * * * *

I met Allen twenty-five years ago. I last saw him ten or eleven years ago. In my mind, though, he lives in a place frozen in time, a place of arrested development. I want to break the silence, find his mother’s latest address and send a letter, or call, but it would be awkward. If I was in Toronto I’d be scared to see him. How has the past decade been to him? How obese will he be? How much will he have aged? If Allen had become nothing more than a reflection of those around him, what would I behold now? Would I recognise him at all?

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