Archive for the ‘Rambles’ Category

Words, words, words

Ten years ago, I calculated that if I could read a book a week, I would need thirty years to read all the books in my library. And when I thought about how long it actually takes me to read one, I realised how absurd the situation was. I already had more books than I could possibly read in the rest of my life, and I was still buying more.

What did I want them all for?

I brought most of them to Greece with me, thinking that it would be difficult and expensive to get them here. I sold or traded in the ones I didn’t want any more, and bought a lot of others that I thought I’d want or need here. In some cases it was a bit of a gamble; some of the books ended up not interesting me enough.

(I once contacted an acquaintance from a Toronto, a novelist and poet, and he mentioned in his email that he had once been browsing in a used bookstore and had found all the books of his that he’d inscribed to me. I had a bit of explaining to do.)

When I came to Greece I started working full time, and the number of books I read declined. I didn’t have as much time, and when I did, I didn’t have as much energy. Over the past year, I’ve been horrified to find myself drowsing after I start reading. My eyes close and my mind wanders. I’m awake, but my eyes are closed and I’m holding a book in front of my face. I have become something which a few years ago I would have mocked.

I should start getting rid of my books, I tell myself. I look at their spines and I think I hear them laughing at me. “You think you can write one of us?” they say. “You can barely read one of us!”

When we leaving Athens to come to Crete, I got rid of a few hundred of them, to make the move a little bit easier, and because we had agreed that they would stay in one room, here in my office.

(This was taken shortly after I filled the shelves. There are others, too.)

It was difficult, almost painful, getting rid of the ones I gave away to friend, and I know I didn’t give away enough. N. says I should put shelves up on the wall across from these two bookcases, but I don’t know.

And yet, I still want to read. I feel restless if I’m not reading something. I dip into them a lot, and sometimes read several books at the same time. This invariably means I won’t finish any of them. I cannot sleep at night if I don’t open a book and read at least a paragraph. I’ve even come home late at night, so drunk I can’t walk straight, and still tried to read a bit before I turned out the light. It feels like an act of self-assertion: one last attempt, after all the demands that were made on me that day, to claim my time as my own.

So why is it so hard for me to stay interested in a book? What has happened to me that I fail to enjoy all that I know a book offers me, that I fail to enjoy what I so much want to enjoy?

It’s not laziness, because when I look back at the books that I’ve enjoyed most over the past few years, I see that they have all been relatively challenging — not escapist stuff. They are books I found compelling and something of whose composition remained a mystery to me. I read all the Coetzee I could find and grappled with the question of how he achieved his complexity. Sebald was a revelation, and yet an impenetrable mystery. I loved DeLillo’s Underworld, and White Noise and The Faces, although I soon went off him completely. Roth’s American Pastoral was gripping, but when I finished The Human Stain, I’d had enough. Vollmann’s Europe Central. Chatwin. Herzog. All of which had some sort of authority of voice, which I wanted to master.

Part of my problem is impatience. Anna Karenina was one of the best examples of what I want in a book, but at some point I put it down too. I think its length daunts me: in the amount of time it would take me to finish it, I could read two or three of the other books that call out to me, and which in the end I don’t read either. I want that satisfying feeling of finishing a book — a feeling so enjoyable that I always feel I have to start immediately on another. I want to swallow the book, and often don’t have the patience to chew through it page by page.

Is it the feeling that so few books seem to live up to their promise? I don’t want to impute to books my own shortcomings as a reader. I know not to expect from a book something it can’t give me.

I keep buying books, although I buy almost as few as I manage to read. I have learned to resist the temptation. I don’t buy books if I feel they belong to a type that’s already well enough represented in my library. I bought Josipovici because I knew the two books I ordered were unlike any other I had. Next I will buy Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’ve been thinking of making a separate shelf for all the strange authors whose work sets them apart for me somehow: Zweig, Bernhard, Kadare, Gombrowicz, Svevo.

I have been putting off buying the Pessoa as I had put off buying the Josipovici books. It had ceased to be a desire and become a necessity. I bought them to rid myself of the nagging desire to get them.

I don’t know how to answer the questions I’ve raised here. Please comment, and share your thoughts, insights and experiences.

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When I was a young child I savoured the chill and pounding heart in that disorienting moment right after I woke and realised that whatever had been threatening me was nothing but a fading receding nightmare. I enjoyed describing it and trying to recreate the feeling for others, as if I were telling a ghost story.

My mother claims to have seen a possessed woman on Cephalonia in 1966 and to have witnessed her exorcism outside the church of St Gerasimos. My grandfather captured it all on 8mm film, despite warnings that he shouldn’t film it. Somehow the reel disappeared before he could return to Canada and develop it. My mother told other stories she’d heard about the saint, how during a drought on the island he’d put his hand on the ground to show people where to dig and find water, and how they dug a well there, and how a tree eventually grew next to it in the shape of a hand. (I don’t know how historically “accurate” this is; I was just a kid when she told me.) I loved stories of religious miracles — saints or the Virgin Mary appearing to people in their sleep with a message — because they were not only eerie but supposedly true. I would tell my friends about them, but I don’t think they were impressed.

Once I spent a weekend at my cousin’s house near Bass Lake just outside of Orillia Ontario, and across the country road they lived on was a provincial park. My cousin and I found an old abandoned farm house there and went looking around in it. I wanted to go upstairs, but I didn’t trust the staircase, and I wanted to check out the basement, but it was too dark. I was sure the house had a history, of the people who had lived their lives in those rooms where there was now nothing but dirty floors and peeling wallpaper. But nobody knew anything, or was very impressed by what we’d found. By the end of the weekend I’d created my own story and when I returned to Toronto I had an elaborate experience to relate to my friends, whom I swore to secrecy. It was about the ghost that I had seen there. (I was the oldest kid in the group, and could often persuade them to believe ridiculous things.)

There are dreams I vividly remember waking terrified from even though thirty years have passed since then. One of them was a black and white film of a goaltender on the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1930s or 40s. He was a figment of my imagination, but I can still remember his face. A distinctive feature of his appearance was that his oiled hair was parted in the middle. I had seen a lot of old footage of hockey games from that time on TV, and the film clip in my dream was full of realistic detail, down to the way the much skated-on ice seemed both black where it was smooth and white where the blades had scratched it.

The scene was very short. The goaltender was crouched in front of the net, poised behind his leather goalpads, right hand behind the square blocker holding the stick, his gloved left hand out to the side. The camera, my point of view, was right in front of him, near the blue line. Someone shot the puck at him, but weakly, so that it only dribbled towards him. Nevertheless, even though it probably would have petered out before it could go into the net, the goaltender feel dramatically on his side, stretching his goalpads flat along the ice. The crowds booed at this cheap display — they knew it had been an easy shot.

But something strange happened. The sound of crowds was slowed down and drawn out as if I were hearing thousands of cows lowing angrily. The sound terrified me and I woke up with my heart in my throat.

A lot of my night terrors were aural, and are almost impossible to describe. I have nothing but impressions, which I can remember only because they were recurrent. One of them is a fervent mental activity accompanied by an electric buzzing, the aural equivalent of TV snow. I was always partly awake during this. I seem to remember myself in bed experiencing it. (My mother told me once that I sometimes would wake up terrified of a fly I believed was somewhere in the room. I don’t know if there’s a connection between that and the buzzing.)

Another is of two voices perhaps arguing. Perhaps it was only one voice. I am not really aware of words being spoken, only of a certain tone of voice. Each “sentence” begins fairly normally, but increasing acquires an urgent hysterical tone of anger, over and over again, like someone trying to explain something, probably to me.

There was something trance-like about these terrors. My mother would come in and find me sitting up in bed, talking but not making sense. “Who am I?” she would ask me. At first the question would shock and embarrass me; I would laugh uncomfortably. “Who am I?” she would say again. The shock and embarrassment would gradually disappear as it dawned on my that I didn’t know the answer. “Who am I?” she would ask and I would become calmer and more serious. By the time I knew the answer, I was fully awake.

I enjoyed being afraid when I was young because there was always the moment when it turned out that the fear had been an illusion. I enjoyed the feeling of relief and safety that followed. I have lost that feeling. Fear is no longer something that visits my sleep and flees when I wake. It hovers over my bed and keeps me awake. It’s always before me, in the future, waiting and snickering, “Who are you?”

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Ten Years

Today is the tenth anniversary of my arrival here in Greece. Where has the decade gone?

(Why do we ask where time goes? Has something gone, while other things remain? Why do we think of time as passing? When we look around at what remains the same and think about what has changed, we must, I suppose, think that something has left — all those things that don’t exist any more — and we say that they have gone somewhere. To where time goes.)

It feels like only four or five years ago. But, really, what difference is there between five and ten years? In the long run, nothing. But in one’s life it makes a big difference, when you consider that life is too short. At the end of it, you would be glad to have another five. I wish I could go back five years and do some things differently, now that I’ve learned from my mistakes, or some of my mistakes. And yet in another twenty years I will look back at when I first came to Greece, first moved into this pokey little apartment, where so many important things happened to me, and where I was so happy, and I will say, “Was that really thirty years ago? It only feels like five.”

Once, years ago in Canada, I was discussing such things with G., an old friend. I wondered about how time seemed to be passing more quickly than it used to, and he said that, as far as how we perceive time is concerned, the amount that seems to pass until we reach nineteen seems equal to the rest of our life. In other words, that time speeds up in such a way that the rest of your life seems to be nothing more than another nineteen years.

Six of my first twelve months here were spent in the army. Roughly 180 days. It seemed like such a long time, a big chunk of my life. It was a formative experience, I know, but at the same time it’s only a dim, brief memory. As soldiers approached the day of their discharge and return to freedom, they would count down: “Seventy-eight and today!” “Forty-six and today!” Someone once told me, “Here in the army, the hours and days crawl by; the weeks and months fly past.”

So do the years, and not just in the army.

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When I go to the centre of Iraklio, I like walking through Lakkos, a poor area just inside the city walls by the Bethlehem Gate, by the Kommeno Bendeni area. The gate is actually seldom referred to by its name; people just call it Kommeno Bendeni. During the Ottoman Occupation it was also known as the Dark Gate (Σκοτεινή Πύλη), or Karanlik Kapi in Turkish. The traditional centre of Iraklio is a large fort or citadel, and the walls are still up.

Lakkos was traditionally a red-light district and a neighbourhood for refugees from Asia Minor, at least in the early twentieth century. N. gave me a book about the area written by someone she knows, and it has some pictures too. I haven’t read it yet. I can only imagine what the area was like even ten years ago, perhaps even five years ago. A lot of the low houses are being torn down and apartment buildings being put up in their place.


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Nodding on the bus

In ancient times, they had interesting notions about the body — mainly interesting because they're so different from ours.

For example, the word phren (φρην), midriff, also meant heart and mind, since the heart is obviously located in the torso, and they believed the mind was found in the heart. Later on, they believed that the personality was made up of different combinations of liquids in the body: black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. These ideas seem very strange to us now, even if remnants of these ideas still persist. Black bile, which has never been observed in nature, was too good a metaphor to give up. It's where we get melancholia. And although we don't believe the mind is found in the midriff, we still have words like phrenetic and schizophrenia.

There seems to have been in Homeric times the belief that strength had its seat in the knees. Probably this comes from the observation that when one is terrified, the knees give way.

"Aged sir, if only, as the spirit is in your bosom,
so might your knees be also and the strength stay steady with you" (IV.313-314)

"Come then, hold up your hands to Zeus, and let go an arrow
at this strong man, whoever he may be, who does so much evil
to the Trojans, since many and great are those whose knees he has broken." (V.174-176)

This leads, no doubt, to another custom which I find the strangest in Homer: the gestures in the act of supplication. When Thetis goes to see Zeus to petition in favour of her son Achilles,

She came and sat beside him with her left hand embracing
his knees, but took him underneath the chin with her right hand
and spoke in supplication to lord Zeus son of Kronos. (I.500-502)

I imagine they held the knees in recognition of the person's (or god's) power. It's hard to imagine this, especially the part about the chin, but it survives in at least one famous vase painting.

Nessus the centaur is begging Heracles to spare him, and is reaching back to take his chin. Clearly, he has no time to hold the knees.

But what did the chin symbolise? The question is too much for me, but I notice one thing: if the person or god agreed or consented to what was being asked, they turned their chin down towards the suppliant. If they denied their request, they turned their chin away. Homer even had a verb for each gesture. The first, κατανεύω (kataneuo), meant to turn the chin down, or to nod. It meant to give assent, or to promise something. The second, ανανεύω (ananeuo), meant to refuse or make a motion of prohibition.

She spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athene turned her head from her. (VI.311)

The curious thing is that these gestures still exist among Greeks today, after so many years. When a Greek says no, he nods upwards, raising his chin. Sometimes he will also raise his eyebrows. (Sometimes, if he is lazy — which is quite often — he will only raise the eyebrows.) Often, too, this gesture is accompanied by a clicking or tsk sound.

Growing up in Canada, I never made this gesture, of course. I would shake my head from left to right, like everyone else. Here in Greece, when I do this, people often think I'm saying I didn't hear them, and repeat themselves.

A Greek professor I had in university had told us once, "What separates us from Homer? Eighty grandfathers. That's all." It seems dubious, but an amusing thought nonetheless.

* * * * *

I really shouldn't, I know, but I get really annoyed when people stand at the bus door, or even get on, and ask people where the bus is going, or what bus it is. I myself never get on a bus if I don't know where it's going, or which one it is, but some people don't have time. People look absolutely stupid when they do it: they look around with a wide-eyed look of panic and say, "Is this the 203?!"

"It's a little late to be asking now, isn't it, you moron!" I feel like saying, but I can't be bothered. Most people ignore them, but someone eventually tells them whether it is or not. If it isn't, they get off at the next stop, and try their luck with whatever other public transport vehicle happens to stop near them.

Today I was going to work, and I was seated near the back door. We came to a stop on Vasilissis Sophias Street, near the Benaki Museum. A woman came to the door when it opened and shouted, "Is this going to Syntagma?"

No bus or trolley on that street goes to Syntagma, not exactly, and anyway she was close enough to walk. But no one was answering her. When I saw the beseeching, desperate look on her face, I felt nearly overcome with weariness. How do you explain such things to people like her? All I did was raise my eyebrows. I couldn't even be bothered to raise my chin.

And I thought, a moment or two later, how far I've come.

The translations are from Richmond Lattimore's Iliad, which follows the same line breaks as the original.

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Insight Ramble

A few nights ago during my lesson I had to explain the word "ratings" to my students, and then one of them mentioned that she used to work for a teleresearch company that also did the ratings for television channels here in Greece. Standing there in front of them, hearing her talk about it, I pictured what the workplace must be like, and remembered my years working for a company I'll call Polls R Us. (The only reason I won't reveal who they are is that, after having worked here in Greece for the past decade, they seem to have been pretty decent employers after all.)

I started working there in late 1989, and worked there on and off for about five or six years. I became a supervisor in the phone bank, but even then found time to work on the phones. The phone bank had 30 computers which dialled the numbers distributed by a central computer. We used the cati system, if anybody knows of it. We wore headsets so that we could type in the open-ended answers. Some interviewers were horrible one-finger typests. Once when I was supervising from the central computer I monitored a survey where the interviewer mumbled, "Jesus, where's that 'r'?" The respondent said, "You're a slow typist, aren't you?" and he said, "It's been a while since I was in high school."

Pollsters prefer to stick to closed, multiple-choice questions. One of the reasons is that open-ended responses need to be coded afterward, a tiresome job when what the respondent said or interviewer typed up doesn't make much sense. They prefer the answers to fit into the pre-existing codes, even to the point of telling interviewers not to volunteer the information that there is an "Other: specify" option. I was never sure if the purpose of the survey was to provide the client (usually a politician) with what they wanted to be told or to publish the results and use them to help shape the public's perception of an issue. At any rate, it didn't seem they were very interested in what the people actually thought.

And really, I can't say I blamed them. If you want to get an idea of how stupid the average person is, all you need to do is call them up at home and ask them their opinions about political issues.

Here's a typical exchange:

Thomas: On a scale of one to ten, where one is not at all impressed and ten is very impressed, how impressed are you with the Politician A?

Respondent: Impressed.

Thomas: From one to ten?

Respondent: Yeah, one to ten.

Thomas: Sorry, sir, could you pick one number from on to ten, where one is not at all impressed and ten is very impressed?

Respondent: Yeah, uh, six.

Thomas: All right, and on a scale of one to ten, where one is not at all impressed and ten is very impressed, how impressed are you with the Politician B?

Respondent: Pretty impressed, I'd say.

Thomas: From one to ten?

Respondent: Yeah, one to ten.

Another common type of question used to limit the possible responses to four.

Thomas: Would you say that over the past 12 months the state of the economy has improved significantly, improved somewhat, worsened somewhat, or worsened significantly?

Respondent: Sen – senificant.

Thomas: Significantly improved or significantly worsened?

Respondent: Worsened.

Thomas: All right, and would you say that over the past 12 months health care has improved significantly, improved somewhat, worsened somewhat, or worsened significantly?

Respondent: Senificant.

After a while the respondent got tired of trying to pronounce "significantly" and realised life would be a great deal easier for him if he chose "somewhat" instead, all the while answe ing with a seriousness that suggested that every response had been arrived at with scientific precision.

(I often wondered how many terrible politicians in Canada breathed a sigh of relief to discover that people only somewhat disapproved of their record, and all because the majority of them could not pronounce the word "significantly".)

Having to repeat each question two or three times meant that the survey I'd assured them would not take more than ten minutes was now going on for half an hour. Invariable the respondent would rouse himself from his question-answering stupor and ask, "How much longer?

It's all very fine, he was saying, to be able to take part in a democratic process — especially considering that so many governments throughout the world spend more time suppressing what people have to say — and to help shape government policy, but I'm trying to watch Wheel of Fortune over here.

Another thing I found particularly frustrating was that we were not allowed to explain anything to the respondent. The official response as, "I'm sorry, but I'm not allowed to interpret the question for you." Theoretically, this makes sense. I may interpret incorrectly, either through ignorance or through bias, and that particular question will no longer be the same one everyone else is answering. Plus, I don't know how many people answered it without understanding it. I only know which ones asked for clarification. But the alternative is pseudoscience. I tell them, "Answer the question according to what it means to you," and then we interpret your answer in whatever way is convenient for us.

We did a survey once about biogenetic engineering and I don't know how many people told me they were against it because they didn't want anyone putting chemicals in their food. And these people's responses carried as much weight as a biologist's.

In the early 90s, Canada was going through a tough time with its sense of national identity. The premiers of the provinces met at a resort on Meech Lake and tried to come up with a constitutional agreement that would satisfy Quebec's demands for "equal but separate" status. The debate divided the country and created a lot of bad feeling about Quebec, which most people in the rest of the country viewed as a spoiled brat. Meech Lake was in the news so much that people were absolutely sick of hearing about it. Eventually, the Meech Lake Accord, as it was called, collapsed, largely through the efforts of Elijah Harper, who came to be seen as a national hero by opponents of the Accord. One evening I asked a young gentleman, most of whose attention as on a hockey game, about the Meech Lake Accord, and he asked me:

"Where's that?"

I doubt if I knew then where exactly Meech Lake was. I don't remember now. That evening, however, I decided to break the rules and do a bit of interpreting, first pressing the key for "Don't know/No answer".

"Oh, you mean like something on paper," he said. ""I don't know anything about that. I live near Lake Huron, eh?"

One of the funniest memories I have of my years at Polls R Us is of one of the very young high school students who worked on the phones. We were doing a survey for some organisation involved in raising awareness about psoriasis. Knowing that interviewers would have problems pronouncing it, the company wrote it out phonetically for them. One kid, about 15 or 16 years old, didn't find it helpful. I heard him ask:

"Do you or does anyone else in your family have sorry asses?"

One of my favourite TV shows when I was a young child was Mr Dressup. Ernie Coombs, who played Mr Dressup, had two puppets on the show, a boy named Casey, and a dog named Finnegan. A child once wrote a letter to Coombs and asked him, "Does Casey know he's only a puppet?"

If you try to get your head around the logic of that question, you'll get an idea of the sort of confusion I felt one evening when a respondent interrupted my introduction to ask, "Are you a computer?"

In fact, I was stunned. It took me a moment to answer.


"Oh, good! I hate talking to those things!"

Years later, the same thing happened again, but this time I was prepared. The respondent asked me:

"Is this one of those recordings?"

"Would you ask a recording a question, sir?"

"Yes I would!" he said, angry and embarrassed, and hung up.

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Crad Kilodney Ramble

When I was thirteen or fourteen and my interest in literature was awakening, I used to go to my friend Allen’s house and look at the books on his shelves. Allen was precocious in his tastes and his habits, but I’m sure many of the books he had exceeded his understanding. Can you imagine, for example, a thirteen-year-old reading James Joyce’s Ulysses?

The books were mysterious things. I loved merely holding them, especially the soft, grey or green Penguins. Allen took me down to Toronto’s Soho district on Queen Street between University and Bathurst. The area was filled with used bookshops. I can still remember some of them: About Books, Steven Temple’s, Gail Wilson’s, Abelard’s, Letters. In the mid to late 80s, this strip of Queen Street started to get trendier and trendier, and as the rents went up, the bookshops went away. I don’t know how many of the old ones are still there. When most of them had gone, the city put new street signs calling the area The Fashion District (it was part of the traditional textile district) but most people just called it “Queen West”.

Used bookshops are what I miss most about Toronto, especially all those ones where I made so many discoveries and acquaintances. Shops of that kind are practically non-existent here in Athens. The few I’ve seen are more like junk shops with stacks of mouldy pulp. When I was preparing to leave Canada, I sold all the books I didn’t want to bring with me and bought anything I could find that I thought I’d want Some people we knew were sending a container with furniture to Greece, and we put all my books, at the time at least 1,200 of them, in 26 boxes and shipped them over.

Three books from Allen’s shelves caught my attention and have stayed in my mind. They represented the shocking, subversive quality that books had for me then. They were typed on a typewriter and cheaply printed.




Allen told me they had been published by the author himself, who also sold them on the street. His name was Crad Kilodney.

* * * * *

I don’t remember the first time I saw Kilodney himself. The earliest book I have is The Blue Book (1985).

Kilodney would stand on the busiest streets in Toronto with a small cardboard sign hanging from his neck. They would read

Pleasant Bedtime Reading
Putrid Scum
Slimy Degenerate Literature
Dull Stories for Average Canadians
Literature for the Brain-Dead
Worst Selling Author — Buy My Books
Rotten Canadian Literature
Albanian Chicken Stories

Crad Kilodney was born in 1948 in the borough of Queens, New York. He studied astronomy in Michigan and moved to Canada in the early 70s. In 1978 he set up his own imprint, Charnel House, and began selling his books on the street as his sole occupation.

His face was serious, even forbidding to some people who passed by and happened to make eye contact with him. I don’t remember ever feeling intimidated by him or if I spoke to him much the first time I saw him. Soon enough, however, I knew him well enough to stand around and chat with him whenever I saw him. He would complain about how bad business was and gape stupidly at passers-by who ignored him. I remember him once droning, “Hockey books. Hockey books. Get your hockey books.”

Once, a tough-looking teenager passed by as we were talking and shot him a glance.

“You know,” I said when the kid was about five paces away, “I don’t think he’s going to mention to his friends that he saw you today.”

“Are you kidding?” Crad said. “He’s forgotten me already.”

* * * * *

“If things go bad for me on the street, my mood deteriorates quickly. I’m apt to be simultaneously angry and depressed. My anger goes right to my stomach. I may make fierce eye contact with passers-by, which makes them even less likely to stop. I choose my most provocative or insulting signs to wear when I’m in the most aggressive moods because deep down I want to strangle these people. Most days I make less than $15 on the street. After paying for subway fares, snacks, and groceries, I may return home poorer than when I left the house. I wallow in self-pity. I have very confused ideas about success and failure, which I can’t sort out rationally. I look at the cartons of books at the foot of my bed and wonder how I will ever sell them. I wonder whether it’s worth continuing this way, year after year. Even if I were selling the greatest book ever written my immediate situation wouldn’t change. No book can change the world. No book can change these people. But these people can grind me down by their insensate banality, their stupidity, even their outright hostility. Man looks for hope wherever he can. I have a little hope left, just enough to let me face the street another day. But at this time in my life, hope is fading…”

Crad Kilodney, Excrement, 1988

* * * * *

Standing on the street all day exposed Crad to all kinds of abusive weirdos. At some point he began to wear a tiny microphone under his shirt collar so that he could record his encounters. I have the first two cassettes. (I think there was a third) On one of them he went to the business district and asked people why the earth has seasons. The answers are astounding.

Crad did not hide the fact that he liked to seek revenge when he felt he had been unjustly treated. In 1988 he published a story called “Who Is John Copping?” in which Kilodney claims to have been hearing the name John Copping everywhere he goes. A teenage girl tells her boyfriend that she is pregnant with John Copping’s child; a mother tells her child to do his homework so he won’t grow up stupid like John Copping; the owner of a strip club tells the bouncer never to let John Copping back in. One day he’s walking past City Hall when he hears the following exchange between two of Toronto’s most illustrious lawyers:

“As you know, Clay, I’m categorically opposed to capital punishment… With one exception.

“What’s that?” asked Ruby.

“John Copping!” said Greenspan vehemently. “He should be put to death!”

At a supermarket, he sees a sign in the meat-cutting room that says SAVE TAINTED MEAT FOR JOHN COPPING.

When he can stand it no longer, he asks a friend who this John Copping is, and is given a piece of paper. On it, and fully reproduced in Kilodney’s book, is a bad review someone named John Copping had written of three of Crad’s books.

In 1989, after having one of his stories, “Girl on the Subway”, rejected in the first round of a CBC short story competition, he submitted six stories, under pseudonyms and typed up on different typewriters, by writers such as Kafka, Faulkner and O. Henry. He went public with his hoax when every story was rejected.

Around that time he also typed up a manuscript of poems by Irving Layton, one of Canada’s most respected poets, and submitted them, again under a pseudonym, to publishers all over the country. They were rejected by everyone, including McClelland & Stewart, Layton’s own publisher.

* * * * *

As for Crad’s books, it’s difficult for me to discuss or assess them. I have a sentimental blind spot for some of them.

His style is very simple and draws no attention to itself, a sign that he cared about the writing and worked at it. The humour, for the most part, might strike people as immature. Certainly, it’s uneven, especially the later stuff. But there were times when he was brilliant. One of my favourites was “The Man Who Died Of His Opinions”, in Blood-Sucking Monkeys From North Tonawanda (1989), about two psychologists who are studying whether the human brain actually has a limit to its capacity for storing facts. They have a patient, an incredibly annoying bigot and philistine who cannot distinguish between fact and opinion. He has opinions on every conceivable subject, and rants all day long. Eventually, he overloads his brain, and dies. What makes this story so good is the discussions between the two doctors and the perfectly-captured voice of the patient.

Sometimes the humour was very satirical, as in “No Chekhov at Yorkdale”, in which he relates his findings after searching through one of Toronto’s biggest shopping malls for a book of stories by Chekhov:

You can buy an assortment of fruit-flavoured bubble baths at The Body Shop for only $17.65. You can spend $99.99 for a skateboard or $24.99 for an anti-theft device for your skis at Collegiate Sports. At Club Monaco you can buy authentic Club Monaco jeans for a mere $49. And at Classic China you can get a lovely bone china chipmunk for $95. But nowere in this Mecca of Mass Merchandising can you acquire a book of stories by the great Russian author Anton Chekhov, the greatest writer of stories who ever lived.

“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” seems autobiographical (except for its grizzly ending, to be sure). It details his dealings with a landlady so obnoxious you’re glad he’s killed her off in the end. There’s a febrile quality to the story that reminds you of Dostoevsky.

But his best works were his serious ones, which also tended to be autobiographical. Cathy (1985), is perhaps my favourite. It’s the story of a girl who comes to rent the basement of his parents’ house, and his doomed love for her. Excrement is based on his journals and his experiences on the street. It’s a nakedly honest, fascinating document. There was a follow-up, Putrid Scum, but by that time, Kilodney’s books had ceased to be enjoyable. The bitterness had got the best of him.

* * * * *

Although one wouldn’t know it from just looking at his books, but one of Kilodney’s biggest influences, by his own admission, was Henry Miller. He has none of Miller’s messy, vacuous philosophising. But he had Miller’s pessimism, and he had a sense of mission as a writer. Writing was very important to Kilodney, and he seems to have been very idealistic about it in the early days. Despite the underground feel of his work, he genuinely wanted acceptance and recognition and to make a difference in the world. But perhaps he also had fallen for the notion of the writer as a tortured, suffering soul. He was a glutton for punishment.

I remember him telling me once about having gone to Calgary for a few days. He had sold far more books on the streets there than he ever managed to in Toronto. Toronto was the worst place for him, and he chose the worst places to stand and sell his books: Yonge Street, with its hordes of consumers and suburban teenagers, and Bay Street, the city’s equivalent of Wall Street. It was precisely because Toronto was the least hospitable place for him that he stayed there for so many years.

In the late 80s and 90s, his bitter resentment had found its way into the writing and most of his later books made even some of his most loyal fans uncomfortable. (“I Chewed Mrs Ewing’s Raw Guts” was, despite its title, a successful story because he had let his material speak for itself. In the later ones, Kilodney is lashing out, often very offensively. There’s a strong undercurrent of racism in these stories, as well.)

In the end, you can’t help but wonder, if Kilodney had such a strong sense of mission, and took his art and his calling so seriously, why this seriousness wasn’t reflected more in his writing. Most of it was funny, but in an adolscent way, wanting more than anything else, to shock the reader with its outrageousness. No matter how funny it was, it never affected you the way Cathy and Excrement did.

* * * * *

In 1991 Kilodney was charged with “exposing goods for sale without authority” and later that year (ironically during Arts Week in Toronto), he was convicted in by-law court. Of course, there was no license available for what he was doing. He took the city to court, and lost. He appealed several times. In the mean time, he continued to sell on the street. It had been, after all, his sole occupation for thirteen years.

Then in 1995, Crad told me that his father back in New York had died, and that he had come into an inheritance. He gradually became more and more scarce, and then, without any fanfare, when no one was even paying attention, he was gone. He dropped out. He stopped publishing and stopped selling his books.

There were odd rumours. I read this totally inaccurate account on usenet:

I liked Crad Kilodney’s four-year experiment in Toronto of selling his books on the street. Of course he immediately became homeless. It gave his work a certain edge, let’s say. He had great placards: “Canadian Literature, Cheap. $4.” He was often highly rated and has a cult following, but darn it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the shrubbery.

In fact, Crad still writes from time to time, I think. He’s told me that he has a lot of stuff sitting around that he could still publish. Some of it can be found at his blog.

Since he gave up writing for a living, Crad has been playing the stock market. He enjoys it and it has become a passion. He does quite well. He’s given me tips from time to time, which have always been good. He also likes to compose logic puzzles. He remains very disillusioned with writing. When I was trying to get my first novel published, he told me that trying to get published was like buying a raffle ticket for a microwave; even if you win, your life won’t change much.

* * * * *

Postscript (15 April 2014)

Nine years have passed since I wrote the above post. I have cleaned up some of the out-of-date additions from over the years and adding what will most likely be the last bit.

Yesterday, after his third bout with cancer, Crad Kilodney died at the age of 66. I wrote to him last October, and he told me that he was seriously ill. I occasionally checked up on him to see how he was doing, and in my last email to him, I mentioned a very successful dichloroaceteate treatment a friend of mine in Toronto was undertaking. Crad’s response was characteristic of him:

I’m not going to hunt for some miracle like a million other desperate people who want to avoid death.  If my doctors had any useful ideas, they would have told me.  I’m 66 and have finished the important work of my life.  I’m not afraid to die.

Thank you for thinking of me.
My one thought about him now was that, since he had no family in Toronto, there might not be anyone to take care of him. Fortunately, he had a friend by his side throughout the weeks he spent at the hospice, the writer and artist Lorette Luzajic. She has written on the Facebook page she set up for him:
I have been with him every day; he is in and out of consciousness, disoriented, and weak. He is peaceful, in relatively little pain, and wants to go. We thank you for your well wishes and Crad thanks all his readers.

A few hours before he died, she added:

Crad has been more or less unconscious and I am surprised each day that he is still ticking. His wonderful nurses assure me that he is still comfortable and not conscious of the minimal amount of pain he might be feeling; he is still receiving pain management just in case. Crad continually expressed his gratitude for your well wishes up until he was no longer able to speak at all, and I know he wishes to repeat this now.

* * * * *

Crad told me in a letter once that he had given all his papers and his diaries to some university library, or perhaps to the National Library in Ottawa, I can’t remember which. The archive is not to be opened till after his death. I predict that they will be his greatest legacy. I have no doubt that, aside from their literary value, they will prove to be a fascinating document of what was a very unusual life.

* * * * *

Please go to Crad’s blog and read his final published work. It is beautiful.


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Fat Albert’s Ramble

When I was sixteen I started going to an open stage called Fat Albert’s. It was held every Wednesday night in the basement of the Bloor Street United Church in Toronto. It was started in 1967 and had seen the likes of Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bob Snider and Bob Wiseman. It ran there in the church for 36 years, when their rent was increased so dramatically that they had to relocate. Up to the very end, the stage, backdrop, sound system, tables and chairs never changed. It’s one of the few things I miss about Toronto, and wish I had gone more often in the 90’s.

One of the singers that I particularly enjoyed was Sam Larkin. He’s written beautiful songs and deserves to be heard more widely. His “Sally On” was briefly heard in Highway 61, and a few people have recorded covers of his “Mirabeau Bridge”. Sam’s a very funny guy, and his website gives you an idea of his humour.

For the most part, people sang and played guitar. There was a piano to the side of the stage, and I remember Bob Wiseman when he was still with Blue Rodeo playing with his fists and elbows and even with his hand in a roll of masking tape.

Sometimes people got up and read poetry, which was invariably bad. It was a fashion at the time, I think, to repeat entire lines in a poem for no apparent reason. I remember one woman reading something that could be likened to the experience of going from one radio station to another, and her reciting at one point the following line two or three times:

I’ll give you two kittens if you tape if you tape Lou Reed.

Although it may have been three kittens. I don’t know.

One singer I always thought would be heard more widely was Caitlin Jenkins, but if Google is anything to go by, she no longer sings. She was the younger sister of the singer and actress Rebecca Jenkins, who was a regular before I showed up, and who complimented me on my set the one and only time I saw her there.

I loved listening to Bob Snider. His songs were either hilarious or beautifully touching. One of the best ones I recall was “What An Idiot He Is”:

He hasn’t bothered thinkin’

Since he was ten

He’ll tell you he already knew

What he had to know by then

Anyone who disagrees with him

Should be in prison

All he wants is what is his

Even if it isn’t

You can talk until you’re blue

But you’ll never make him listen

To what an idiot he is.

Bob must have been in his forties. He was tall and thin, with a kind, weathered face. I believe he told me that he had come from Nova Scotia and had worked in construction. He had a beard and was missing a few upper front teeth. This gave him a distinctive way of pronouncing things, which added to his charm. I liked Bob a lot and thought him very talented, but due to his image and his age, I never even considered him becoming successful or famous. About a year or two ago I was stunned to hear a couple of his songs on the radio here in Athens. (In my seven years here so far, I have heard Joni Mitchell and Neil Young on the radio, but not Gordon Lightfoot.)

Pat Harper was, I believe, an actor or a comedian. He would improvise. I only saw him perform two or three times, unfortunately. I have one of his performances on tape. One night he got up and said a few mediocre jokes and then suddenly burst into a rendition of Mark Antony’s funeral speech from Julius Caesar with such wide-eyed earnestness that my gut was sore and tears were streaming down my face. I remember that only Sam Larkin and I were laughing. Most people didn’t know what was going on.

Another time he held a piece of paper and did a television news anchorman reading a report about the Toronto Maple Leafs (then in their 1980s doldrums) making it to the Stanley Cup finals because they’d had a sack of potatoes playing defence. In the last game, the sack tears open, the potatoes spill out, and the Leafs lose. Up until this, it was average, mediocre comedic fare. But then he added:

“General Manager Cliff Fletcher had this to say about the near future.”

Here he put the paper down and looked around the room with the same earnest expression and droned this poem by Baudelaire:

When the low heavy sky weighs like a lid

Upon the groaning spirit, prey to long monotonies,

And embracing all the horizon’s compass

Pours us a black day, sadder than our nights.

When the earth is changed into a dank cell

Where Hope flees bat-like

Beating the walls with timid wings

Striking its head against the rotten roof;

When the rain spreads out its endless trains

Like the bars of a vast prison

And a silent race of loathsome spiders

Come spread their nets deep in our brains.

Suddenly the bells ring out in fury

And hurl against the sky a fearful scream

Like homeless wandering spirits

That stubbornly begin to groan.

And long hearses, without drum or note

Parade slowly through my soul; Hope beaten

Weeps, and dreadful Anguish, despotic

Upon my bowed skull plants its banner black.

I was in even greater hysterics than when he did Mark Antony.

Pat lived with Bob Snider in a house whose previous tenants had been a punk band called Bunchofuckingoofs. Pat invited some of the regulars at Fat Albert’s to a Christmas party at his house one year. Some of us sat in the kitchen while he told us that the Bunchofuckingoofs had had a dog which shit in the house because they’d never take it out. They would hoover up the dogshit with a heavy duty industrial vacuum cleaner. When someone expressed disbelief at this story, Pat went down to the basement and brought the vacuum cleaner up and turned it on for us. Within seconds the whole kitchen stank. He said there was no way to get rid of that smell.

Pat eventually moved to Washington with his girlfriend.

There was another guy who came by every once in a while. He wore a black fisherman’s cap and carried around a black hardcover notebook. He lived in my neighbourhood, and I often saw him at the bus-stop in the morning with the same hat and notebook. I was in university at the time, and he looked younger than me. I figured he was a high school student, filling up his notebook with poetry he’d someday inflict on us at Fat Albert’s. But I never saw him get up on stage. He knew Sam, and would stand around and talk to him whenever I saw him there. He must have performed, but never on a night that I’d happened to come by.

* * * * *

Around 1992 or 1993, I noticed that Sam Larkin had stopped coming to Fat Albert’s. I tried calling him, but his number was out of service. I couldn’t find him in the phone book. I had been losing interest in Fat Albert’s and in the idea of myself as a singer or songwriter. The two guys who had been running the place since 1967, Ray and Ed, retired and passed it on to someone else, but by that time it had already started to decline. I don’t know if Fat Albert’s is still running. Wherever it moved to in 2003, I’m sure it had very little to do with the Fat Albert’s we had known.

For me, when Sam stopped going regularly ten years before that, it had already begun to fade away.

Even the kid with the cap and notebook went away. I no longer saw him on the bus every morning.

* * * * *

I graduated from university in 1995. I knew that soon I’d be moving to Greece, although I didn’t leave till January of 1997. It was a strange time for me. I felt I’d already left Toronto behind, but hadn’t moved on to anywhere. I felt like a ghost haunting the city. I’d look around me at things as though they were all in the past, as if I’d already left and this was nothing more than a memory. I lost touch with people I’d known in high school and university, and I often found myself thinking about Sam, even though I’d never really known him that well.

One day I found a copy of Now Magazine on the subway. On the front cover was the kid with black fisherman’s cap. I picked it up and read the article about him. It turned out he wasn’t a writer, but a singer. His name was Ron Sexsmith. He had moved to Tennessee. In 1994 he had released his first album, but it hadn’t done well at all till Elvis Costello plugged it in an interview and appeared on the cover of a magazine holding the CD. That turned the tide for Sexsmith. In the article, he talked about a friend bringing Paul McCartney to his house for a pancake breakfast one day, and how they got out the guitars and jammed.

I was stunned. I’d thought he was just a high school kid. I used to ride the bus with him every morning, and we’d had a mutual acquaintance. What a wasted opportunity that was! I could have got to know him. Now it was all too late.

I went to a record shop a couple of days later and looked for the album. The CD had sold out. I was in such a hurry to hear it that I bought the cassette. I loved it right away. My favourite song on it is “Wasting Time”:

The day is long, many hours to kill

It’s all right if we let a few minutes spill

Where’s the crime in wasting time with you?

I would listen to the album all the time on my walkman. Many of the songs spoke to the nostalgia I was already feeling for the place I hadn’t left yet.

Some months later, either in the autumn of 1995 or the spring of 1996, I was sitting in a cafe on Queen Street called the Roastery. This was across the street from Kew Gardens, which led down to the beach. I was sitting inside, drinking out of a paper cup, listening to the Sexsmith tape. Whenever I see a famous person in the street, I never talk to them unless I have something interesting to say. There’s no point being the thousandth person to say, “I liked your film” or “I like your music”. As I sat there, I thought that if I ever saw Ron Sexsmith again, I’d definitely speak to him. I started to consider what I’d say to him if he should ever find himself back in Toronto again, in his old neighbourhood, and we should happen to cross paths. I would probably ask him if he knew what had ever happened to Sam Larkin.

And then, just as I was thinking this very thought, Ron Sexsmith passed by the cafe and crossed Queen Street into Kew Gardens.

I froze. I felt both amazed and also as though I had actually summoned him. I put the walkman into the bag I had with me, put the lid on my paper cup, and went after him.

Catching up to him was quite difficult. He walked much faster than I did, and I didn’t want to run up behind him. At one point he bent to pick up a stick, and I thought he looked back and saw me. I followed him for about ten minutes, trying to catch up without running. Later on, in another part of the neighbourhood, he dropped the stick he’d been carrying, and when he picked it up he looked back again. I thought that if he had noticed me both times he’d think I was stalking him, so I put my coffee down and ran up to him.

I called out to him and explained that I’d been listening to his music when he walked past the cafe. He was surprised at the coincidence, even though I had decided not to mention that I’d been thinking about what I’d do if I ever saw him. We walked for a bit.

“You’re a fast walker,” I said. “I’ve been trying to catch up to you since you went into the park.”

“I guess all those years of working as a courier paid off,” he said.

I told him I remembered him from the bus and Fat Albert’s and he said I looked familiar to him too. I asked him about Sam, and he told me he’d lost touch with him too, and all he knew was that Sam had moved to some part of north Ontario. I asked him if he was playing anywhere in town, and I think he said he was opening for Sarah McLachlan. He was going to visit some friends of his that lived in the neighbourhood, and we said goodbye. I turned on my walkman again and watched him walk away.

* * * * *

Last year, Ron Sexsmith became the fourth Fat Albert’s alumnus that I’ve heard on the radio here in Athens. So far, he has released eight albums.

* * * * *

Postscript: I was very sad to learn that on Monday 28 October, 2013, Sam Larkin passed away.

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