Vanitas

vanitasby Jodie James Elliott

Originally posted March 2013

The bumpy transition from street to parking lot is completely devoid of any attempt by hired contractor to merge the two planes seamlessly. Instead, there is a gap chopped out of the pre-existing curb only to be confronted by a newer, lower curb about two and a half inches high. In the centre of this entrance/gap, the municipal side of the awkward border dips just enough to compel water, and anything else that moves, into the direction of a storm drain, covered by a grate designed to keep anything wider than a bicycle tire from entering the city’s bowels.

Pockmarked by the thousands of carbon-coloured blotches of discarded chewing gum, empty 8-ball pouches, patches of green glass-shard remains of the beer bottles that were crushed under the tires of passing Audis, littered by the scatological indexes of Buggs, Yorkipoos and Pomapoos, this relatively youthful street already shows signs of hard-lived leisure upon its face.

I cross this phrenography in Chuck Taylors, setting out to cover the 2.3 km distance between home and bike repair shop by foot. There are other, nearby repair shops I could patron if I felt any urge to save time, or had any tolerance for the fashionization of dirty work; these dark, elegantly-lit repair shops with in-house DJs and plethoric selection of glossy industry magazines. Instead, I seem to prefer the cigarette-dangling condescending assurances of grease-monkey cycle chicks: “Well, if you really can’t figure out how to replace a rim by yourself, I can have it ready for you by Friday.”

The people in this neighborhood go for lunch every day like it is a fashion show. Watch how they populate the sidewalk. They walk erect, all with heads turned sideways, uniformly mesmerized by their reflections in storefront windows. Eventually all neighborhoods gentrify without the consent of their most loyal proponents. A neighbor, who was the drummer of a rock band that once coaxed the tearful screams of teenaged girls by the thousands, made the neighborly suggestion we hang out sometime on Yonge Street. Yonge Street? Based on his appearance and idiosyncrasies, it should come as no surprise that 1984 still echoed in his skull with such resonance. Ever wonder what happens to rock stars of bygone eras? They usually just wear jogging pants now and lie on the couch watching Ellen.

There are two possible routes to my destination. The first is pleasant on the surface, a winding tree-lined street with speed bumps, populated by people who should have moved to Oakville but have found instead a nice similar neighborhood downtown, just a stone’s-throw away from Clubland. They are unmarried and play videogames on 52”-inch screens. How do I know? Take a walk along this route after sundown and the whole street is aglow with Gears of War or Fallout 3. The second route is more direct but is a bit of a neverland stuck between a hotel that probably claims to have a glamorous past and the recurring vet/dry-cleaner/eyeglasses comic strip. Neither option is particularly sexy.

But then there is a woman wearing a dress that quite nicely compromises the gap between office apparel and summer humidity. She looks up from her texting task as we pass each other on the sidewalk. I allow myself to smile and she smiles back.

* * *

The cigarette-dangling cycle chick wants me to understand how simple it was to replace the rim. She doesn’t tell me this so that I can prepare myself to pay less than expected. She wants me to re-think my life. She’s also taken the liberty of adjusting the height of my seat. She could tell by looking at me it was wrong. I spent too much for my bike. She thinks I need to know this too.

Her shop is a garage at the back of a house. It smells like oil, cigarette smoke and stale beer. Scattered about her counter are her tools, all of them have been well-handled by greasy hands. Her iPod, once white as snow, is similarly blemished as it plays L7 through an old poorly balanced stereo.

As she lifts my bike from its mount, her flexed arm reveals a perfectly-rendered tattoo of a skull resting upon a closed hard-cover book – a sign perhaps of someone who has studied Art History long enough to know there is no longer any point in studying it. I’m tempted to comment, to let her know I share her feelings and maybe an unlikely bond would forge. But I have somewhere I need to be so I say nothing. She tells me I owe her fifty bucks but I give her sixty before riding my bike out of the garage and into the residential back alley.

“Hey,” she calls after me without taking the cigarette from her mouth, stuffing the twenties into her back pocket, “keep on keeping those hands clean!”

I ride south, past towers with skin that sparkles in sunlight. Occasionally these towers succumb to architectural psoriasis, shedding glassy flakes of their epidermal layers to the streets below. Unlike the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, The Gothic masons or even the Modernists, the architects behind the urban landscape we know today will be long forgotten before this century comes to its end. I zip through traffic dodging sole-occupant cars. They change lanes without signaling, I dodge without signaling. A woman tries to cut me off to take an opportune opening but I take it first. She leans on the horn and I look back, allowing myself to scowl. Sure enough: she scowls back.

The cyclists and joggers who harmoniously navigate Coronation Park are mutually tormented, and thus united by their common enemy, the off-road e-Biker – those plump little gadgets that clumsily swarm the city’s bike trails, unaware of the imposition they present to an otherwise graceful commute. But I manage to pass one and as the path winds near the water’s edge I look out at the moored boats where skippers trim their sails for the race.

This path leads me to another street and I’m nearing the place I need to be except there appears to be another traffic jam. I weave ahead until I reach the clearing and stop at the edge of a wide-open space where, in the middle of the street among the silent chaos there is a single, well-worn work boot.

509The construction site is on the north side of the street. An empty shell that will soon be a habitable condominium rises from behind a plywood barrier plastered with posters announcing new films, new phones and lost pets. About a dozen construction workers are standing here. They stare silently toward the centre of the street where the limp body of a man lies face down near a car that has slammed into the side of the 509 streetcar. The street is slick with blood.

I don’t know when the distant sirens started approaching. They could have been waling all morning but I didn’t hear them until they were right behind me, nudging me to clear the way and so I move in the only direction I can: towards the body. His empty knapsack lies open on the ground. Its contents – a textbook, a bottle of V8, an apple and a foil-wrapped sandwich – have been thrown across the street into the direction he was heading.

I pick up his textbook, a hefty volume called MCAT: Biological Sciences Review. The pages are densely flagged with yellow Post-its; each labeled by hand, Circulatory/Lymphatic, ejection fraction, Digestion/Renal, and such. Throughout the book, portions of text have been highlighted and he has added his own marginalia neatly printed in fine point lead.

On the south side of the street there is a small, intensely manicured park with a network of paved paths leading through the cool and shady foliage. This is where the construction worker would unwrap the foil from his sandwich and eat his lunch while studying Chapter 8 on muscle and skeletal systems, which, incredibly, is still bookmarked. A police officer is asking me if I saw what happened but I can’t tell her anything. There was somewhere I was supposed to be and for some reason I tell her this but I can’t remember where. She asks if I’m okay, if I’ve been hurt. I tell her I just got here and I try to give her the textbook but she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t understand I just want to show her who he was. It seems important that he didn’t want to be a construction worker anymore but I suppose it doesn’t matter now.

 

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