Sunday, March 06, 2011


Souza worked with me at two different departments in a past job. She brought me tins of Portuguese olive oil upon request and kept candy in a clear dish at her desk for passers by. She was out of town when I stopped working that job and called me when she found out I was gone. "It is what it is, right?" I told her, careful not to violate a confidentiality agreement. "But everything was resolved fairly and there's no bad blood with anyone at the company."

It didn't explain a lot (including my side of that particular story), but it was a factually accurate statement and was exactly the kind of thing to say after things have been agreed upon and papers signed. Souza was a nice woman who knew enough to understand that you didn't ask for other details. She said she wanted to keep in touch, and we do. I didn't tell her about that base instinct (the one that I don't want to trust on any intellectual level) that was telling me You don't have to worry about losing your job in a straightforward but still not-quite reassuring way. When I was interviewing and networking and hit with the standard worries - money, career, future, self-worth or absolute lack thereof - the instinct would return with You REALLY don't have to worry about this while sounding like the advice of somebody in the know.

I was optimistic, but didn't quite trust it. Then I landed a good job with far less angst than I'd expected. It's a good fit. Occasionally, I even think I know what I'm doing. It's patchy. But it happens from time to time.

I get to work on a Thursday and have three and a half hours to get things done before heading to a seminar about managing Social Intranets. In the time before I go, I manage to create profiles for new hires, write some news messages and arrange some security settings. I track what I'm doing move-by-move and occasionally write down new procedures to eventually establish best practices. I time the complicated, boring set-up stuff to see if I can get it down to a science and be able to plot out how long I'll take to finish a project. It's not exactly exciting or creative; I've not been asked to translate bullet-point lists into articles and write précis based on two or three different pieces. It's meat and potatoes communication and web administration, but it's a straight line of work that I can do and record and build into measurable results.

I leave the office at noon. An out-of-office message refers calls to my cell. I've got a stack of business cards to distribute if I'm introduced to anybody interesting. I walk to the subway past the intersection at Yonge and Eglinton where my father walked to his office for over 20 years (only a few blocks away from my own) and I'm listening to ancient National Lampoon Radio Hour broadcasts on a bluetooth headset. I'm amused at the fact that, in the office, I'm paid to work, to tinker with HTML code and security settings and intranet communications and embedded video and communication plans. Out of the office, asked to attend a seminar, I'm being paid to think on behalf of my company, to assess information and see what we can use for business. It's a good sensation. I get out at St. Patrick station to walk to the hotel feeling like a grown-up, a turn of phrase I've loathed since I was a kid. Even then, I knew it was juvenile. But it's the only honest one that comes to mind, right now.

The first symptom of realizing one's age; you can't walk around your city without flashbacks. 90% of them are benign and carry no more weight than simple recognition. 5% strike a chord that lasts for a few minutes, or days, but won't bring you down. The remaining 5% are part of a crapshoot as to whether they will inspire you or open an old would. In practice, they simply reinforce the fact you never forget the things which change you.

I'm walking from the subway to the hotel that's holding the seminar. I pass an intersection where I took a few days of classes on a web authoring tool for my former job, delighted and mildly surprised that they felt I should attend. It felt good being downtown for a change of pace, rather than in the far west end. Then that job was drawn to a close and I was downtown a lot, interviewing, feeling put-out but still hearing that same You don't have to worry about this statement from somewhere indefinable. That might just be another crapshoot on the part of my psyche - a few hormones to the left or right and I could have spent the same time hearing the voice tell me I was doomed and to invest in canned food and shotguns. But it didn't - I carried on. That's where the prologue becomes irrelevant, at least for this instance.

On the street leading to the hotel, there's a tall condo. I had two friends living together there when they were happy. Something happened to that happiness and they moved out. She eventually married in the conventional way and had two children. He found somebody and they declared themselves married without the usual trappings and it worked for them so who is the rest of the world to judge? All of it meant a lot at the time; it turned into past-history so gradually that the initial impact of it all has faded from most people, except maybe from the two friends themselves. Less irrelevant than my prologue. You can always trace where you are from where you came.

I am navigating by very old charts. The hotel that's holding the seminar used to be a Holiday Inn (I think) behind Nathan Phillips Square. I used to play a grand piano there when I was 14 or so, on Saturday afternoons when there weren't a lot of people around and nobody seemed to mind. Every so often some employee would figure out I wasn't a guest and suggest that it was time to stop and I'd leave. I met a moviestar there, a tough guy who was sitting with an even bigger, tough guy to his right on a couch in that lounge. I approached him and told him he was a great actor, especially in that movie where he wore the mohawk and carried the gun. He didn't look impressed at first, then smiled, introduced me to his (I assume) bodyguard and told me he was always happy to meet somebody who appreciated what he did. I eventually stopped camping out there on Saturday afternoons, I can't remember why. It was a distant memory by the time I was 16 and a better pianist.

The hotel is now part of U of T and appears to be doing double duty as some kind of student meeting centre. It feels like a dorm, despite the meeting rooms and good carpeting. It has always been a weirdly laid out hotel, with escalators dropped in unexpected places and long walks down hallways devoid of doors. I find the meeting room and spend 90 minutes listening to theories about managing a decent social intranet. You can Google the term yourself, but the session was interesting for the faithful and I reconnected briefly with a guy named Geoff who I met in a networking session between jobs. We'd talked about his idea for being a Social Media consultant for people who don't have the time or inclination to leverage the medium for their own business or publicity; over a business lunch it became obvious that we were looking at the idea from two very different angles that didn't quite jibe, but we parted believing that the other person was a decent enough guy and did know his stuff, maybe something could come together at another time.

Maybe it did- I chatted with Geoff for a few minutes about his new job and mine and agreed to compare some notes about what we're both doing. I'm mentioning it here because the notion of networking always made my skin crawl - I spent a few awkward evenings at so-called parties where people handed out business cards and acted like it was desperately important to learn everything they could about me for future use. That wasn't the case with Geoff, or with this seminar, and it felt good being paid to be in a room with people on the same wavelength. Some of the points I made in the interview for my present job came out of my discussions with Geoff, and I told him so. Credit where credit is due, and all. And a nod to the whole networking idea; sometimes the system works.

I also remembered doing very stupid in that hotel. I had attended a Parents Against Drugs seminar there when I was 18 or so, not as a speaker but as sort of a participant- I'd taken part in an anti-drug play in my last months of high school and that play had been filmed. Three cast members were invited to answer questions about it (the three who our drama teacher had been able to reach on short notice) and I was part of that lucky number.

By that time of the year, we were all sick of that particular teacher, of high school as a concept, and very sick of the show itself. So we arrived decidedly buzzed on a bottle of red wine that somebody had procured with their sister's driver's license. We weren't fall-down drunk by that point and had entered the headachey, this-wasn't-a-good-idea stage of coming down, nothing that a dark room with a video playing and lots of black coffee couldn't take care of.

I ended up being seated with the parents of a child - I think he was 14 - who dropped something mind-expanding after a concert and walked into heavy traffic to be hit by a car and killed instantly. It had garnered a lot of attention and everyone I knew seemed to know somebody who'd known this kid. I didn't intend any disrespect for the child or his parents, I was just buzzed and sitting at their table, wondering how this had happened and when were they going to start the video?

The child's mother had become a crusader for the drug-awareness cause. She was friendly, surprisingly lively and very actively working the table to see who was there and why. She moved past the other cast members and I rather quickly, offering sincere thanks for our efforts and letting us know that the show was groundbreaking. We weren't so sure, but we'd been doing it for months and were pretty much immune to any effect it might have on an audience. I was looking for coffee when the child's father spoke to me out of nowhere and quietly, not-sentimentally asked "Has my son's death made a difference?"

I don't know if anyone else heard it. He didn't look like this question was his conversation-starter, his wife was doing a very good job keeping the flame and he'd been rather quiet until that point. It was a valid question. I wasn't a good person to answer it. I wanted him to ask it to some kind of social worker in the room, somebody who'd give him an answer with statistics and interviews and case studies. I was very aware of the fact I was 17 and coming off a cheap-wine buzz and that I didn't come into the room expecting to be in front of that question. I didn't feel like my conduct was radiating the respect the situation deserved. It wasn't shame that hit me exactly (although it's here now) but a great sense of impropriety. I couldn't say We're here for a goof and to back up our teacher and didn't expect to find something so real, I'm sorry to a man who lost his son to the kind of dumb thing most kids do at that age. I wasn't the person he should have spoken to. I would gladly have confessed all and changed places on short notice if I could have thought of a better person to answer.

I was honest. I said "I think it's made a difference. I know a lot of people who are more careful now." I mentioned the people I knew who'd known or almost-known his son, how sorry they were. He nodded, not emotionally but thoughtfully. The lights dimmed and the video played. The child's mother spoke for a few minutes when it was over, and the cast and I answered a few questions about how it was workshopped, and it was done.

I have a son now, and the hotel brought it back. I did a few other truly dumb things in my adolescence (later to be supplanted by the dumb things of the early 20s), most of them only self-wounding. But that particular event convinced me I never wanted to be in that kind of position again, suddenly close to genuine tragedy after coming in expecting a quiet, we-got-away-with-it lark. Decades later, no disrespect was intended. That sentiment wouldn't have mattered when faced with a drunk teen, but it went under the radar. Mea Culpa.

I walked out of the hotel and towards Holy Trinity Church beside the Eaton's Centre. I was married there eleven years before and wanted to walk in for a few minutes. The doors were locked, which I attributed to the clearly marked hours of operation on the door rather than some divine statement, and thought about my wedding. My wife and I are still speaking to around 98% of the people who attended, an above-average ratio for such things in some quarters. There's been a lot of deaths - two grandmothers, my father, an aunt and an uncle and family friends. My mother's bout with cancer actually began almost a month to the day after the ceremony, and I can track the events after that with striking clarity. I try not to focus on it on the train ride home. Things were good at the wedding. It's enough to hold onto that on bad days.

I get to work the next day and am hit by the location again. I lived at Yonge and Eglinton, had friends who worked there, spent an inordinate amount of money at used CD chops there and visited my father for lunch there for before he took a job further downtown. I walked around the area in shock for the first few days, not unpleasantly but heavily. I've seen the store change for decades now. I still look for Edwards bookstore or Fran's. I had a girlfriend with an apartment and a pool nearby, I remember the route I'd take late at night sheepishly looking for the last bus home. When I told Travis where I was working, he said "That place is like the Mafia, isn't it? Just when you think you're out, they keep draaaaaaging you back in..." and he's not without a point.

I can't find anywhere I lunched with my father. Restaurants in Toronto turn over frequently enough that almost anywhere I think of as comforting and holding memories of him is long gone. One exception; the Granite Brewery on Mt. Pleasant and I can't set foot in it without wondering if he was nearby, maybe have a beer and a Caesar salad, a steak sandwich. I'd rather remember than be reminded.

There's better stuff too, of course. My son's afternoon school is at St. Clair and Yonge. I can meet my wife for a quick lunch or cup of tea after she drops him off. I called her from my cell on my first week at work around 1:30pm.

She said, "I'm just dropping off Matthew."

I said, "I'm looking down Yonge St."

She said "I'm on Yonge St."

She was two subway stations and around 4km away at the top of a hill, invisible to the naked eye. But I said "I can see you" and felt a great wave of relief. The interal voice said You'll be okay, as things past and present shape themselves into the foundation I stand on. And as stated earlier, sometimes I even think I know what I'm doing. It doesn't last. But I do.

March, 2011


James McNally said...

Lovely stuff, Mike. And you know I live at Yonge and Eglinton, and have lived in this area for 17 years now. The Granite has lots of memories for me, too. We ought to grab a beer there some night after work.

Tzivia said...

We're still here, well, Eglinton but a bit west, but passing Yonge a couple of times most weeks. For me, the really haunted old haunts are further north, around Sheppard and beyond. And east - Sheppard out past Bayview where I grew up.
My father worked at home, but because he biked everywhere, I still cannot pass a cyclist of a particular shape, anywhere in Toronto, without looking to see his face. He is nowhere now, and everywhere.

Patti said...

A really enjoyable read. I didn't grow up in Toronto, but lived there long enough with people who did, to recognize many of the places you mentioned. Of course, that triggered a few of my own memories.

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