Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Ceremony

I was helping Anton move. He had been living in the basement of a house that was allegedly close to York University (“One bus away!” the landlord had told him, neglecting to mention that the bus was hourly and didn’t run after 7pm) and was moving further south to Yonge and Sheppard where a combination of three buses could get him to class faster than the one he'd used before.

He’d had an amicable breakup with his girlfriend Carla (who was also helping us move) and had enlisted me by saying “Mike, I’d like your help on Saturday. It’ll involve lifting and carrying and nothing else. Probably can't even afford to give you pizza. I can maybe manage some stolen booze.”

He wasn’t kidding. His landlord had proven to be an interesting variation on the absentee landlord model; he wasn’t around often but had sent legions of relatives to watch over the house in his absence and collect fees above and beyond the agreed-upon rent.

“The water heater had to be replaced,” explained one uncle, “and it’s a lot of money. But it’s only going to cost you two hundred bucks. You’re welcome.”

Anton's basement apartment included the water heater. He had not noticed any maintenance. “It looks the same,”he said.

The uncle shrugged. “The insides. All new. When you were out.”

“Then why do I still barely have hot water?”

A brief pause. “But it’s good water. Good. Better.”


Anton didn’t have two hundred bucks so the point was moot. Voices were raised, threats to call the police filled the air (the alleged water-heater-replacer would have accessed Anton’s apartment without notice) and the flesh-and-blood landlord intervened by phone from Wisconsin to helpfully pro-rate the 200 bucks into an additional twenty dollar charge on Anton’s rent for the next 13 months. Thanks to an understanding of basic math, Anton decided to move.

The booze in question was stashed in oversize Tupperware containers under blankets behind the contentious water heater. The landlord had owned (or had taken occupancy of) a few small restaurants in Whitby and was stashing surplus bar booze, perhaps in lieu of rent. We found Macedonian brandy, vodka from generic pre-glasnost Soviet republics and whiskeys you’ve never heard of from distilleries in out-of-the-way locales (the Nebraska Fine Spirits Company supplied whiskey and gin in the same oddly shaped rectangular bottle with faded red, green and gold labeling).

Anton and I hefted boxes into the back of a cube van, his ex-girlfriend would shift them into something resembling order and we’d help ourselves to bottles of cheap booze on each trip, sneaking them into the boxes. “At least two hundred dollars worth,” he’d instructed me, “and not conspicuously.” We probably shouldn’t have worried. The blankets on top of the boxes had years worth of dust and the basement was barely lit at the best of times.

We each had acquired around 12 bottles (mine shoved carefully into two backpacks) when the basement was clear and we were emptying the megre contents of the fridge. There was a one-quarter filled bottle of flat Pepsi on its way to the sink when Anton intercepted it and said, “We’ve got to have a Macedonia. Tell Carla we’re having a Macedonia. Tell her to come in.”

I headed upstairs to tell her. She stood at the car, shuddered at the offer and said “It’s all yours” while rolling her eyes to the sky.

I went back to the kitchen and saw Anton opening one of the brandy bottles, looking delighted. He said “It’s got to be just so, you know? We need some ceremony.”

He opened the Pepsi and held it around a foot under the brandy bottle, where it received a good three shots worth of brandy poured from above, mostly not spilling too much. He then swirled the contents like a wine goblet, poured it up the wall of the bottle to judge the viscosity and its reponse to light, sniffed it, and offered me the first swig.

I drank. If you want the experience described the same way that you’d judge wine, it goes a little something like this; the fructose of the flat Pepsi served as the base note to a waft of polyethylene terephthalate,which accelerated the almost-medicinal, almost kerosene flavour of brandy into a cocoon of chemical cold and fermented heat that simultaneously caused my teeth to itch and my throat to simply relent at the sheer potency of the booze. Then it hit me between the eyes for a few seconds before my ears started ringing.

I handed it back. Anton grinned, took a deeper shot, steadied himself and started laughing. “This was my first experience in farm life in Macedonia," he said. "This was breakfast for the guys who worked the tractors. They drank wine the rest of the time. But this got them to work. Always mixed in the bottle, ‘cause it was faster. No waste,” he shrugged, “better for the environment.”

We threw out the rest of the fridge contents and headed to the van. Carla asked if I liked the drink and I shuddered. The rest of the move involved dropped boxes and swearing and a descent into another North York basement, this time with fewer stairs and a landlord who ran piano and guitar lessons out of his garage. He was, by all accounts, a non-drinking Baptist. If the clinking bottles offended him, he kept it to himself.

January, 2012

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