People often ask me what I think about all day—as a massage therapist you tend to have a lot of time…on your hands. It’s a solitary job, despite two people being in the same room. Just as you can choose a “silent ride” in a taxi, you can also choose a silent treatment. Clients are usually quick to say “I like to meditate during my treatment.” Or, they want to focus on their breathing. Or sleep. Which, is exactly what they are entitled to do. The flipside of the job with chatterbox clients is that I act as a semi-bartender/hairdresser/airline seat companion, listening intently, under the veil of an unusual and temporary shared intimacy.
So, this is what I think about, with the silent rides. I can’t speak to the majority of massage therapists, but they’d be lying if they said they were totally tuned in to your sternocleidomastoid for 55 minutes. I play memory games, my own personal version of Solitaire. Better than Suduko.
Most recently I spent an entire day thinking about all the streets I’ve lived on, chronologically, the houses (I can’t even remember the house numbers of half of them) and what I loved most. Midday I upped the ante and added a bonus level of reminiscing—what I loathed. Then I added a soundtrack—a specific song attached to that house and time. What I learned was that often, the actual bricks and mortar were not what my memory was affixed to at all. It was the feeling, the silence of the frozen river, a particular smell, Fleetwood Mac on the ghetto, the dogs or the blackberry bushes growing wild in the back alley.
Let’s scroll back.
Arthur Side Road, Brantford, Ontario: Peepers and Tobacco (1974—1992)
My parents built our house—a red brick ranch on a two acre lot with our own personal stand of pines to climb and make crappy makeshift treehouses in. We were related to everyone on our road until the Kus family bought and built, ruining the road domination.
My teen bedroom was my parents former master bedroom—the mauve walls and purple shag were quickly upgraded to grass cloth wallpaper (that smelled like a Sunday drive through rural Alberta), a full wall forest mural (not unlike those that you would find in 1980s dentist offices), my beloved waterbed cranked to Florida temps, the southern hemisphere at 10pm on a summer’s night depicted in glow-in- the-dark stars on my ceiling and, an actual floor-to-ceiling tree, a plug-in faux fireplace, surrounded by actual rocks as though one were seated around a bonfire. With carpet.
If you ask any of my family members what we miss most about that house, we will answer the same. The spring peepers. Just across the railroad tracks was a still pond pockmarked by lily pads and shadowed by leaning willows. The peepers were always deafening, they made April nights electric with sound. All our bedroom windows would be opened wide, even with the bracing night air, to take in their triumphant song.
And there was that sweet smell, so rare in these parts anymore. The smell of tobacco curing in the kilns. We all grew up anti-smoking (thanks to a puffarama great grandmother who turned us off with her rolling cough and yellowed plume of wispy white hair. My mom said Grandma Grunt’s wrinkles were from smoking—and, she looked like an old dehydrated apple doll from day one—a cross between Willie Nelson and Mother Teresa). But, the smell of curing tobacco—nothing like a lit cigarette.
And, to be honest—nothing says home to me like the heady smell of pig manure (courtesy of my grandfather’s pig farm on the corner).
Loved: Our home was three corn fields behind the Sunset Drive-in Theatre. Somehow we could pick up the sound from the movies on Kleenex box-sized walkie-talkies my mom found for us at a garage sale.
Soundtrack: I blame my sister for this one—“Mr. Jones,” Counting Crows. She played that damn song on her purple ghetto blaster every morning before catching the school bus until Dax stole her precious ghetto plug.
West 27th and Macdonald, Vancouver, BC (August 1992-1993): Blackberries and Stevie Nicks
Holy bohemia, Batman. I moved to Vancouver at 18, eager to strike out and explore my “emotional geography” as my mother once said. I wanted new. New came in the form of about 23 roomies, a cat named Sushi (who disappeared into the heating ducts at any given chance), another cat who slept in a shoebox (Rick’s size 11 shoes), and a living room with a 6-foot under-construction paper mache penis in the corner of it. But that’s another story.
I shared a room upstairs with Rick, his canvasses (he was a student at the Emily Carr School of Art) and the shoebox cat, Cypress. I owned ‘nothing’ but a sketchbook, an Ani DiFranco CD (without a player), an indigo blue Canadian Tire sleeping bag and army boots. Talk about being ready for the lesbian movement!
I LOVED the bohemia. I was living the dream, freelancing for a magazine called Cockroach and learning the secrets of artists: heating the kitchen with an oven on broil in December and using melted cinnamon hearts as sugar substitute for coffee in February. Here, if you climbed out on to the roof, you could see the mauve Grouse mountain ridge turn navy with nightfall. And, those wild blackberries in the alley—Godzilla-sized.
Soundtrack: Thanks to Rick, on repeat—“What is Love?” Haddaway and “Go Your Own Way,” Fleetwood Mac. Occasionally, roomie Shannon’s Cocteau Twins cranked from her bedroom
Monteverde Cloud Forest and Alto Cuen, Costa Rica (December 1993-March 1994): Trench Foot and Canned Mackerel
Totally off an flight-path, beyond any radio connection (because that’s the primitive GI Joe way we communicated with the head office of Youth Challenge International then—or not, because we never did find a connection).
My living quarters were actually tenths, not quarters. There were a dozen of us—Aussies, Canadians and two Ticos, a sack of rice, a pail of peanut butter, a dozen cans of mackerel and a hut with no walls, a palm frond roof and a family of boisterous pigs living underneath the raised floor.
Loved: Living by the sun, dependent on fire. Survivor-like before Survivor and the pleasure of being able to vote people off our island. This was House Hunters International: Off the Grid, but 20 years early.
Loathed: Trench foot, sour clothes (in a rainforest, the only thing that can be dry is your humour), parasites (everywhere—intestines, under your skin, in your feet).
Soundtrack: “Here Comes the Rain Again,” The Eurythmics
River Road, Dunnville, ON (1994—2000): Pickles and Pit Bulls
Dunnville is home of the Mudcat festival—an annual celebration of the catfish that involves drinking at various establishments around town, ie. The fire hall or Legion (pickled eggs for 75 cents). Inevitably, you would have more beer on you than in you at night’s end. Dunnville was also home to a Bick’s pickle factory (now closed)—on certain days, the whiff of gherkins was a pregnant woman’s late night crave dream come true.
Living on the river slowed life down to a poet’s pace. What I loved most was being so cosmically in tune with the seasons and the bird migrations. Every night a pair of green-backed herons would fly in and land in a skeleton of a tree. In the dead of winter, nothing was more brilliant as the darting burnt orange flame of a fox crossing the frozen Grand river.
Loved/loathed: the Croatian and Serbian couple who lived next door (yes, love against all odds!). Ziggy was always half-tanked on his homemade wine and owned a cranky pit bull that often escaped and threatened to attack. “If he attack, you do this—grab both his front legs and pull apart. It break his ribs and he no bite anymore.” The dog was all talk no action—but I preferred the African Helmeted Guinea fowl that Ziggy owned. They would race over, prison break style, and eat the stale cheezies and popcorn that I’d throw out on the lawn for the birds.
Aitkens Road, Dunnville (2001, briefly): One Wayward TTC Stop and 14 farm dogs (galloping)
This house was cool, but, wrong person, wrong time, wrong a lot of things. But, back to the house—it had an outdoor shower, a treehouse over the pond with a loft, and an old TTC streetcar parked on the property that was dubbed “Stealies.” It was soon filled with stolen beer glasses and other donations from klepto friends looking to offload guilt.
Loved: The laneway was storybook, crossing a stream and leading to the two storey home largely hidden from the road on a 14 acre chunk of land.
Loathed: the bike commute was tranquil and recalibrating except for the 14 farm dogs en route who alerted the next farm house to my upcoming arrival creating a non-stop chase scene, one colossal wipe-out on the gravel road, two broken shoelaces (from a dog tug-of-war) and punctured calf (and fancy spandex).
Soundtrack: “Closer to Fine,” Indigo Girls
Lighthouse Drive, Dunnville, ON (winter 2001): Sea Glass and Scrabble
Lake Erie in December is ghostly—frozen and fogged in, the earth seemed to end at the stairs to the beach. The fire here was always roaring—and the conversations that unfolded here led to many a splendored thing. There was a book on the old weigh scale table that you were supposed to turn the pages of daily. Each day had a thought, a musing. I’d read most of them before, but, it was something that we read aloud each day anew. Like a fortune cookie, a premonition.
I loved that Rene and Pat had stacks of dog-eared paperbacks and shelves of movies, Scrabble permanently at-the-ready and an “Elbow Room” full of neon signs, an ET figurine, sea glass, fish lures, carved shore birds, license plates, tiki lights, autographed KD lang posters and over 600 CDs. Rene’s son was a radio show host and DJ, and picking out tunes was like sifting thru the world’s biggest jukebox play list. Her impersonation of Macy Gray was head-shakingly good.
We ate a lot of shrimp cocktail and venison pepperettes listening to Shakespeare’s Sister and Amanda Marshall, challenging Scrabble words, comparing smooth jade sea glass finds after our walks.
Soundtrack: “I Try,” Macy Gray
Hyde Road, Burlington, ON (February 2001—September 2001?): Tom and Cruise
My brother had lived with Tom when he was on a university co-op placement. The rent was super cheap ($350) but everything else was annoying. Tom had a fox terrier named “Cruise” (yes) and that thing was a barking terror. Tom spent every Sunday preparing organic meals for the dog and organizing a month’s worth of supplements into daily containers—old film canisters.
He had terrible paintings, all lit with gallery lighting. My room came furnished and I had to take down the picture of the supped up Ferrari and galloping stallion oil painting. He smoked every night in the garage below my room—and thus, opened the electric garage door every night to do so. Around midnight.
There were notes EVERYWHERE in the house dictating how to behave. “Please squeegee shower after use.” “Please wipe microwave after use.” “Please do not touch thermostat.” He made all of these signs with one of those 1980s adhesive label maker things.
Loved: Kim. And, the TV in my room that had to be turned on with a screwdriver (volume adjusted the same way). Only highlight? Living close to Montfort’s and grabbing shawarma after ball hockey. We’d set up base camp on the bed with a bottle of wine (I had no other furniture and a French woman and an odd divorcee scientist monopolized the communal living room) to watch Queer As Folk with screwdriver in hand.
Soundtrack: “Save a Song,” Madison Violet (Mad Violet then!) and “Go West,” Pet Shop Boys (as I could never remember which GO train direction I was supposed to go to get home from Toronto).
Gloucester Street, The Village, Toronto (2001-2002? My years might be off): Sommeliers and Starbucks
My first real, live apartment. I bought the best sound system going and quickly received a post-it note from the woman who lived above me in the brownstone on the corner of Church. “Your sound system is very impressive, but also very invasive.”
Because I lived about 50 feet from the best girl bar at the time, Slack’s…I became the drop-in zone for pre-drinks on Friday nights. I felt like Hugh Hefner for a while. My friend Big Dave (big in height, not weight), lived on the other side of the horseshoe-shaped building. It was like Friends, with Claire living directly across from me. She was a sommelier-in-training which impressed me until the week before Christmas when she suggested we go to Sotto Sotto to celebrate. She wanted to choose the wine—and she also wanted me to pick up the tab. Ka-ching. Merry Christmas, $88 for a bottle of wine!
Soundtrack: Sarah McLachlan’s Trainwreck on repeat. Woe is me. And, Juice Newton’s “Angel in the Morning.”
But this makes more sense, this quote. Just replace NY with Toronto:
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last.” –Layne Mosler, Taxi Gourmet
Parliament Street, Toronto (2003-2004): Smoke and Mirrors
The former Czech maintenance guy of the high rise lived in this apartment for a few years and had it so tricked out that it surprised everyone who cringed a little on the scruffy elevator ride up to the 14th (really the 13th floor. Did you know that superstition overrides elevators? I didn’t). The kitchen had black marble tiles, there was hardwood everywhere else and a GIANT mirror over the bed.
The cat de jour, Gnu, spent every night parked in the tiny hallway between the bedroom and living room (the place was 500 square feet, maybe), meowing some god awful guttural sound to something or somebody who also ‘lived’ there.
Loathed: The gunshots, the marital wars on balconies. The kids who played marbles above, all night long—and then soccer, off the apartment walls. Fire alarms went off in this building every other day. It eventually did catch on fire and the woman I lived with at the time had to crawl out on her hands and knees and lived in a hotel for weeks while the fire damage was resolved.
Other loathe: the laundry room. This was the first (and last) time I was ever subjected to coin-operated laundry and wanting to strangle young children who opened dryers and washers mid-cycle. I would return to the basement level laundry room an hour later to switch the load, only to find it stopped prematurely due to some curious rug rat.
Soundtrack: Kelly introduced me to BET. I had no idea. There was a lot of Usher.
Earl Street, Toronto (2004): Cheerios and White Wine
Now this place oozed cool. The third floor was sun-soaked, I could tan in bed in the morning. I had a tiny balcony that was 20 pounds away from caving in, but I read here until dark whenever I could. Often my balcony neighbour would holler over (actually, no need to holler, he was RIGHT there) and beg me to join him for a glass of wine. I’d be just back from a morning run, eating Cheerios, but, why not?
The kitchen had a floating hutch—by unlocking a mechanism in the floor, I could swing the hutch and completely close off the kitchen. There was a Murphy bed and the bathroom door was almost five feet wide.
Loved: the walls were the colour of mushroom caps, the space just felt good and snug. I was a shaken , not stirred.
Soundtrack: “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” KT Tunstall
High Drive, Abbotsford, British Columbia (August 2005—August 2009): Oprah and Tetley, Mila & Bently
My urban nerves were slightly shot—High Drive was a welcome respite with a backyard, genuine grass, and birds that weren’t pigeons. There were Stellar’s jays, woodsy trails and lovely dogs.
Mila and Bently made this place. And Gillian, the tenant below. We’d throw dinosaur-sized bones to the dogs on the sunny days and sit with a pot of tea and chat about Oprah, Wayne Dwyer and Sylvia Brown for hours. Gillian was sixtysomething, skinny as a whippet and whenever I picked up date squares or peanut butter cookies—anytime of the day—she would put the kettle on and suggest we eat them immediately.
Loved: It was the smell there, in all of BC—wet cedar, earth, worms.
Loathed: It was too much wet. Even though BC brags about the balmy, I felt too soggy. I didn’t want tulips in February, I wanted 30 degree summers.
Soundtrack: Oddly, “My Immortal,” Evanescence. Gillian would sometimes blast this—unaware that I was home. It’s like slashing an artery and bleeding out. A dramatic take on how I felt living in Abbotsford. And Jann Arden’s “All the Days,” because I heard it there first and sobbed the very first time I listened to it.
The Chimp House, Lugard Ave, Entebbe, Uganda (September 2008-January 2009): Thunderstorms and Chapatis
Gin, tonic—and all of Lake Victoria still and distant before me. When I volunteered with the Jane Goodall Institute, I bunked at what was affectionately known as “The Chimp House.” I kept great company—three dogs (Scrappy, Levi, Tinker) and two cats (Juwa and Pops) and a slew of in-and-out volunteers from Poland, Australia, New Zealand and the states). My room was probably 5’ x 8’ but I revelled in having so little. A few changes of clothes, a few books, some dried mango, a DVD of Grey’s Anatomy season 3 in German subtitles and the sheer glow of HOLY CRAP I’M IN AFRICA! filling the room and pushing the walls even further apart. And when those African thunderstorms rolled around—picture those three dogs and two cats, all curled up like shrimps and shivering with furry fear in my single bed with me, under a mozzie net.
LOVED: Waking up to the total ruckus of African birds—plantain eaters, hornbills, sunbirds. I also woke up to the roar of the African thunderstorms moving across the lake and wind on full throttle at 2am. And the bats! Every night at 6:05 they’d start bumbling about in the attic and then stream out and pinwheel low in the sky in a feeding frenzy. Oh, and the JGI housekeeper—Ruth—her chapatis. Sigh.
Loathed: The grid would be shut down every Friday. The power would surge and spit. The internet ground to a halt. The electricity often out for days on end.
Soundtrack: “Since U Been Gone,” Tokyo Police Club
Lubumbashi, The Congo July 2009: Breakfast with the Chimps
It was only a month, but it counts because it shook up my world. I was volunteering at a chimp sanctuary owned by a Belgian couple (they were in Belgium at the time). I stayed in their 10-year-old boy’s bedroom and his tiny single bed with cartoon sheets, stuffies, rubber monsters and insects.
The electricity was dodgy here too and boiling water was an hour-long effort on the stovetop. But, the stories, bringing home a tiny rescue chimp each nite—feeding Mikai yogurt by the spoonful in the morning. It was so beyond my Arthur Side Road daydreams of what “I wanted to be when I grew up.” I was making breakfast for 23 chimps like a windblown Starbucks barista. Hot milk, bee pollen and just a bit of honey.
In our down time (after feeding the bushbabies a few boiled eggs and some fruit at sundown) Chantal and I ate the most divine frog legs, banana and ham pizza, goat testicles even. She found the best Belgian beers for me and savoury farmer’s pate. It was gourmand, soul-satisfying and the most nourishing place I had lived.
Loved: the exhaustion from sensory stimulation.
Loathed? Nothing. Leaving, I suppose.
Soundtrack: that buzz of happiness
“There was no disorientation, I decided, like the disorientation of reducing your possessions to a suitcase and a carry-on and showing up in a new place where your life had no pattern, no rhythm, no rots, no relationship to any other person’s life. And there was no way around it, this disorientation—no way to skip over it or rush past it. The only way was through.” ~ Layne Mosler, Taxi Gourmet
Dax’s Couch on Wellesley Street, Toronto, ON (6 weeks, August—September 2009): Floored
My kid bro kept me well-fed and well-drank as we watched sci-fi, shook martinis, listened to Lily Allen, Franz Ferdinand, The Beautiful South and bitched. By day I looked for both a job and a place to live, having just re-transplanted from the west coast. Are you following the bouncing ball? Anyway, Dax made the best stovetop burgs, balsamic reductions, pillowy pancakes and baseball-sized banana-choco chip muffins.
The cranky boyfriend at the time made me sleep on the floor so I didn’t ruin the couch. Three weeks later he relented (due to Dax) and let me sleep on the couch cushions, on the floor. Beggars can’t be choosers, but, my spine was never straighter. And, I had an ocean view. Of his 200-gallon salt water fish tank.
Soundtrack: I went for a 5km run through Cabbagetown with my ipod and stopped at Church and Wellesley to walk the rest of the block to cool down. I didn’t realize until that moment that I hadn’t even turned on my ipod. I had my ear buds in—but had so much white noise in my head that I didn’t even realize the music wasn’t on.
Winchester Street, Toronto, ON (September 2009—November 2010): Cabbagetown Chronicles
This place was so gorgeous that I convinced my ex long-removed to come live with me. It was $2000 and a stunner. Two brothers had renovated the hell out of the Cabbagetown Victorian and after seeing over 30 crappy rentals, this had to be it. There was a new shiny singing Samsung washer and dryer, heated floors in the bathroom, a claw foot tub to soak in and a magazine spread-worthy kitchen. There was even a bath tub in the backyard.
Loved: All except that shower curtain sticking to my body in the fancy claw foot tub. Dog-sitting Marlon Brando.
Loathed: Putting together an Ikea Billy bookshelf with a butter knife until the brothers saved me and I plied them with beer (enough to encourage them to help assemble the Ikea dresser as well).
Soundtrack: “Heart of my Own,” Basia Bulat
Dalton Road, Toronto, ON (November 2009—January 2012): Living below a Sumo Wrestler
I said I’d never live west of Yonge. And no way—I’d never live in a basement. Or in a place without a backyard. But, this place—it was a deal-breaker, or maker I suppose. There was a pot-belly gas fireplace and an exposed stone wall. That’s what sucked me in. The ceilings posed a problem for my brother and dad (6’2), but, they could sit.
I didn’t notice the rumble of the subway when I moved in, or the zero soundproofing between floors. Enter the tenant with cinder blocks for feet and her affection for Adele and YoYo Ma.
But, I was in the pounding heart of the Annex. Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, Book City, Future Bakery, Big Fat Burrito, shrimp chips and boiled chestnuts from Superfresh. Movie rentals at 7-24. The Wine Rack.
Loathed: No backyard. Cinder block tenant above. Those basement bugs that look like Colin Farrell eyebrows.
Soundtrack: Tucker Finn, on repeat. The best tunes to paint walls by.
Grand Ave South, West Galt, ON (January 2012—current): Tiger Balm and Crow Bars
Well, you know the love affair we have with our darling stone cottage here. We have been the caretakers of history. We have tended and calmed the Amazonia of the backyard. We have realized that we can spin a house around with a lot of sandpaper, Tiger Balm, love, trail mix, gallons of paint, Kim’s drill bits, CLR, crow bar, wood chips and beer.
Next stop: Prince Edward County. Though I’m really sucked into the listing for a $9,950 white clapboard church in Coleman, Prince Edward Island.
Soundtrack: That annoying House Hunters decision-making backbeat…”What will Kim and Jules do???”
Thanks for traipsing through all the neighbourhoods of my personal Monopoly board. You should do the same. It’s the best place to get lost in your thoughts.