Thursday, May 29, 2008

7-West -- A Restaurant Review

I don't review bars and restaurants like regular critics. I don't call and make a reservation for such and such a time and this particular table. What I've done for the last decade or so, while not writing or reading or socializing myself, has been working in service industry. I've worked in almost a hundred different establishments, I think. I've done this work on two continents and most all provinces of Canada. And so this was the last shift in another cafe in Toronto, the overnight, 11 - 8 AM. It's a cafe called 7 West. Here I am serving an empty restaurant. It's 2 AM....

Sometimes I take the little packet of sugar and just barely open a corner. I pour out all the sugar. Then I take the lid off a salt shaker and gingerly pour into the empty sugar packet until full. Then I fold over the packet and put it back, as neatly as I can, amongst the others (a little time bomb waiting for someone to put in their coffee). That should be a gauge on the "love-of-people measuring stick" for how long I've been in service and for how much I like working overnight.

Then I have a rush of late night couples come through. Let me tell you how I think about customers, from the waiter's point of view. I believe the best service is invisible. I think I've done my job correctly if I'm barely noticed, so that when the customers leave what was most memorable was their night, their company, and the space (lastly). Anyway, why should we intrude on your evening? Then there's customers who seem to want to interact with the staff (probably worked in the industry, like the Australian couple on table 9).

Then everyone's gone. You look in the mirror and everything goes blurry. The caffeinated buzz and closeness gives way. All the candles are still lit but daylight is creeping into the window, above the glass and concrete housing the people who come to this cafe and put coins in my pocket. And this our space, just a little-old brick house held by people like me (who are themselves held up by coffee and cigarettes). Maybe I should do some cleaning. The boss likes it clean (I've been in hospitals less clean than this cafe).

I suppose any proper review of a restaurant should mention food... so, what I can tell you is 7-West has great food (even the staff eats there). I particularly like the Virgin pasta (I tell customers that there's no meat in it but it's seductive anyway), the primavera, chicken penne, and the nacho platter. Every chef does these dishes a little different, but they all come out in good portions and hot. Do me a favor and don't order the chevre or the Moroccan bean soup. I have a hard time bringing those dishes to people at the tables without apologizing. It's not that they don't taste alright. They just look a bit... well... presentation is everything, right? Also, I should mention that table 10 on the first level is the choice seat in the house. Table 10 has a secret for the discerning eye (the lines I left in the drawer there reads, "If you've got a curious mind, if you've have a curious heart, if you're the kind of person who likes random writing in hidden places, then leave some words in the drawer at table 10").

And now the sun is up and my time here is at an end. The server coming in to let me go is a half-hour early (thanks Alex). That's the nicest thing about this industry. It's real and it's human and all these other servers, just like me, I've worked with over the years are still present in my mind. It's what I most love about this work, and it's just why you should check out 7-West. Delightfully urban. Staff nocturnal. Hearts and umbrellas at dawn if you've worked with us.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A little meta-fiction

I thought I'd write up a story and put it in a bottle, and then maybe throw it in the ocean... or Lake Ontario... or maybe just a puddle somewhere. I hadn't gotten too far with the plot up to then. All I had was, 'story in a bottle.'

And I thought, 'Well, seeing as how I don't have a story yet I might as well get a bottle... of Jack Daniels.' Then being left in the predicament whereby I had a full bottle when what I needed was an empty one I did the only reasonable thing and got ossified, as any self-respecting artist would, until I found myself babbling away to the walls as though they were sentient beings.

Anyways... I almost had my empty bottle and was about to start in on the story to put inside when I started to get hungry. I figured that I'd best get something into my stomach to soak up all the booze. I thought about going to the corner store until I realized that I'd spent all my cash on the bottle I'd almost drained. I stumbled over to the kitchen to see what I could find in the way of food there... opened the fridge to find plenty of condiments but no food. 'Drat,' I thought, 'The curse of the single man!'

I got a spoon and had a few scoops of mayonnaise... then I had some mustard and some ranch. My insides started to turn and curdle. I checked in the freezer and found some hot dogs in an open package. I would have microwaved them if I owned a microwave, but as I didn't I just bit into one of them. It was like eating a Popsicle, except it didn't taste like sugar and fruit... it was more like a meatsicle... a crunchy crystalline bland substance mixing with Jack and mayo and mustard. 'The hell with this,' I thought.

I went back to my room and sat at my desk. In my drunken stupor I'd taken half of the uneaten sausage with me. I poked it into the empty bottle. 'Now there's a story for someone to try and figure out. If that washed up on your shore you wouldn't have the first clue how it'd all happened... how it came to be like that. But that's the beauty of a story... that sometimes it's the not knowing that makes for the twist in the tale... makes the imagination work.'

I thought about what it is to be a storyteller... thought how you can't trust people to tell their own tales and how everyone gives you a necessary fiction... like a defense mechanism against the unflattering things that we do and the way that we want others to see us instead of as we truly are. I thought about telling a story where fact was less important than fiction and then I wrote these lines... in the hopes that you'd know better than to believe a word I said.

Thursday, May 22, 2008


There are some people who live their lives according to great mantras like, This Too Shall Pass, or Everything Works Out In The End. They'll tell you a catch-all phrase, Accept Loss Forever, or, Don't Pine Away Over Old Flames, but when I bite into them they're all just lemons, they all taste the same, and I can see them coming a mile off like the tightening feeling in the back of your mouth before you eat salt and vinegar chips. They wait for you to say amen, like they divined some great and mystic truth and curled it into six syllables or less, when the complexities and intricacies of life can't even be encapsulated in all those religious texts. Life is such that wisdom is not knowing and folly is to presume to know, but I don't tell them because I'm not sure and because I think they should believe whatever may bring them comfort. And what do I believe? Ask me one day when you're not feeling so good.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

You can't eat the air and you can't drink the sea...

(This photo was gaffed from The Independent, a newspaper in Newfoundland. I'm sure the by's won't mind at all.)

I'm from a sleepy little place on the East Coast of Canada called Newfoundland. My people (like most peoples) are very proud of where we're from and it's becoming a tradition, in the capital city St. John's, that each summer a group of enthusiastic youth plant the flag of the republic in a prominent place overlooking the city. I don't capitalize republic because Newfoundland has never been a republic and probably never will. We have an "accepted" flag already. This one is more like a banished flag from long ago, a flag that was flown by rebels when our province was administered by Britain.

It's good for tourism and the local vendors sell piles of T-shirts and hats and replica flags to those visiting the island. I always like to tell people that we're the only place tough enough to put pink in our flag (don't think you'll find many others) and that it's not something that should be taken too seriously, just a gimmick, and that Newfoundlanders aren't too interested in divorcing ourselves from Canada. We've been screwed over by some of the deals we've made with the country and the other provinces, especially regarding resources like hydro and fossil fuels, which sees other regions making huge profits because of technicalities. For example, there's a deal in place whereby Newfoundland provides electricity to Quebec at rates which seemed reasonable in 1972 before the oil shocks. Now Quebec re-sells this power to New York State at a profit of roughly 4 billion dollars a year and Newfoundland can't renegotiate the contract until 2042 or something ridiculous like that. Even a billion dollars a year would mean that a province like ours with a population of less than 500 000 people would be a wealthy little place. But that's just sour grapes as far as I'm concerned. Why should Quebec or the rest of the country be responsible for stupid deals our government made decades ago?

For the last number of years a debate about this flag and the prospect of independence has been raging in the local papers. "What's wrong with the flag we've got?" some say. "Why would we want to strike out on our own?" say others. In many ways I have to agree. Not because I'm unpatriotic or anything, but because the world we live in is much more complex than that. It's a global community we live in now and by choosing to accentuate the differences we have with others would be to isolate ourselves, to become an island adrift, and counter-productive. I think it's important that people are proud of where they're from, but nationalism, in any guise, is a dangerous thing, and harping on about the republic that's never been as though it's inevitable is sheer folly. We're a lost people, wandering in search of ourselves and our identity, the things other than hardship that bind us together, and many rational thinkers in the province are boiling over because we seem to be merely treading water.

A big part of this comes from the fact that so many Newfoundlanders have been forced to move away from home, to leave our quite place for the big cities of mainland Canada, like Toronto and Edmonton, in search of work and in search of a future. Even though things have never been better in Newfoundland it still has the highest rates of unemployment in the country and our main industry, fishing, has all but disappeared due to over harvesting the stocks (something else we must take responsibility for instead of blaming the federal government in Ottawa for mismanagement). I'm one of the people who's left home. I've been on the move for almost a decade now, trying to find my place in this world and yet trying to hold on to where I'm from at the same time. This is a shared experience of our people. That we must all go away and hope to one day return, called back by the sea and the stone, by the ruggedness of the landscape and the people, the sense of community and belonging that we don't find anywhere else.

Some days I find myself yearning for home. I look through all the pictures in my shoe box -- my friends and family, the ocean that was in my backyard, the gulls and the whales and the icebergs, the music and the pubs. But more than anything what I long for on these days is the feeling of being there, the way I'm a part of it all and not an outsider as I am in these huge smoking cities filled with people watching the time and markets. I miss the stillness of my town at night, how I could walk the streets and hear only the lapping of the waves, a distant fog horn. I miss the way the sun hit the water. I miss that feeling that all Newfoundlanders know, and why we kiss the rocky ground each time we return. I miss home.

(all the images in the clip below are from in and around St. John's. Ron Hynes is one of our best known bards and his song has been in my mind all day)

Monday, May 19, 2008

I write these words only for myself... I write the whole day through... letters and fiction and truth (as true as true can be)... I try to tell the story that's eluding me... the one that got away... and all I have left to go on is this hook... bent into a ring that's never going to be a circle... I've got a pen and some paper... a clipboard that says... HOW ON EARTH DO YOU LOSE 5 BILLION PEOPLE... when all I can think about is how I lost one... how I lost myself and I write the whole day through... a dream beyond hope that you would come back... as some would count beads on a rosary I count the syllables on this page... a pagan prayer to no one... instead of alone...

Friday, May 16, 2008

Falls 2

I'm writing you this letter today with loose leaf on a clip board and a pencil.
I've been wandering around Niagara Falls, watching the mist rising to meet the precipice of the escarpment.
There are thousands of birds, some I've known and many whose names I can't say, and I wish you were here.
When I walk above the swirling waters and hear the thundering tumult in my ears I feel drawn into it
It calls out from that last moment, the space between the stone and the surface where the edge shows through,
ever replenished, ever replaced, to the bottom and into the undertow.
I'm set adrift, an umbrella turned upside down, caught in the eddy current and cycling and circling.
Its handle holding my hand.
I'm standing on the shoulders of a giant and all this water is held up by some fabric over a thin metal frame.
I've been walking around thinking about you and your time here,
about the inspiration for a shape poem that's traveled so far and so well.
The water falling like hair.
The bridge like a cord spanning a great distance.
It all comes back and the wish is that I had someone to share all of this with,
someone who could have shared the journey.

I sat and had lunch in The Secret Garden.
On the way out the door I noticed on the last table a book,
The Book of Answers.
I don't know if you remember it from before.
It asks you to hold it in your hands,
to think on your question for a few moments and then just open it up to a page.
You must know the question I asked.
When I flicked to a spot on the first try it said only two words:
Move On.
I closed it again and walked out, thinking, 'I can't,'
and how all this day you've filled my thoughts
like the light rain now falling on this page would fill that umbrella to the brim
and my heart beating like mad and I think, 'Yes... yes I would,'
I feel lifted by the elements around and the wisdom they speak,
for we love what we love, not only what loves us back.

Thursday, May 15, 2008


I see these elements upside down














step as the rain comes up
to empty this bowl to the brim

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In Brackets

I walk outside and see a tree (one of many trees), a late bloomer. It is still shedding its last leaves from Fall and is budding red blossoms when all the other trees are green, pushing for Summer and Summer's bounty.

A man runs to my greening lawn. Seeing me on the porch he stops running, as though I would judge him for his hurry, trying to save the face of a stranger, and once he thinks he's out of my sight starts running again.

But I don't really care. I think (in truth) he should slow down and miss his bus. He should take time to be late for work and watch the starlings come together in pairs.

I think about editing. I don't want to write first person, don't want to say Summer or Spring when for me it's Winter or Fall. What I want is to say to you all that there's more to this than just Roman script and lettering, more than just the words can describe.

This is about heart. This is about reason. This is about finding ones place in a fragmented world and how at times words of fiction are more important than fact and science (matters).

And this story, that goes no further than the front steps where I see Spring and Fall and humans running, is what it is.

Friday, May 9, 2008

She never said anything out loud,
the words seethed under covers.

She spoke with her eyes,
with her air her

fist mark left to be found in a pillow.
When there was something to be said

there was nothing she could say,
so she didn't speak in anger

as she didn't speak in joy
that first time I said, Love,

just smiled and turned
the flowers on the bedspread to a heart.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

maybe all life is born of the same one soul

each like an ember thrown from the fire

looking for salvation alone

burning brightly in the sky for just a moment

before becoming ash

and falling back to earth

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Yom Hashoah

Today is Yom Hashoah, The Jewish Remembrance Day of the Holocaust. I wanted to write a little background on the poem that's below. I'm a Newfoundlander. Our province was an independent state until 1949 at the close of the war when we joined Canada. The main industry has always been fishing. At the outbreak of WWII many Newfoundlanders volunteered (there was no conscription in the state), in a lot of cases because it was a good paycheck at a time when our economy was in bad shape (still is today). People actually signed up because it meant that they'd get a new pair of boots, a luxury very few Newfoundlanders had known. Some of the first Allied soldiers that helped liberate the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen were from my home and it left quite an impression on them and on the collective memory of our people. This poem is based on accounts I've heard of that experience. This piece was posted a little over a month ago but I was inclined to repeat it today, and was encouraged to do so by a friend of mine, Lynn. I hope anyone who stops through here today will take a moment to think about lessons that we should learn from a terrible time in human history, and how we can all be more aware of atrocities that persist up until this present moment.



We were fishermen
from a quiet place.
Poor, but strong --
we'd seen holds
bursting with the catch,
snow-shoe hare
snared, wrenching,
begging for a cracked neck.
We'd seen remnants of caribou,
paunched, quartered, putrid.
We'd seen Normandy,
been butchered and exploded,
smelled detritus in our nostrils,
heads leaning to the hail
raining down
like lightening zippers.
We crossed country
wearing half-khaki grime.
We saw bombed out cities
painted Kilroy.
We died and we cried.
We killed and we died.
That our journey should end
with so grisly a sight
writhing before our eyes
like cod below deck,
how can we go to sea again?
We were fishermen.

A Path by the Water -- for B.B.C.

Waves rolling on the shore; simple, unashamed
of etching arcs and curves on the coast.
Its language is all its own,
different from mine;
not full of conjecture;
meaning no harm
and no good by
lapping shanti,
lapping shanti,
air and sea spray;
a flowing infused mist
rolling seemingly gently like
hundreds of horses on cobble-
stone paths the high water mark
lined with beached driftwood and twine.
Waves rolling on the lucid shores of time:

shanti, shanti, shanti.