Boy meets fist in Vancouver's downtown eastside and finds some clarity.
I wandered around Vancouver for about a week with my guitar and battery-powered amp, looking for a suitable street corner from which to launch my rock and roll career, before somebody punched me in the face. I want to say until somebody finally punched me in the face like it was the whole reason that I’d moved out west. I was a lame kid with smooth skin and extensive orthodontic work. My lashes were long and my lips were bee-stung. A few years earlier at summer camp, I had been mistaken for a girl. I was in serious need of messing up. I can’t tell you how much I needed to be hit. Years of living in my parents’ basement back in Ottawa had plunged me into a state of dire lameness from which few suburban rec-room dwellers recover. Typical of my pasty-skinned tribe, I led an active fantasy life equal parts lust, alternative rock, and patricide. Equally typical, I was a really considerate person with dozens of beautiful girls calling me up all the time to complain about their asshole boyfriends. This was all going to change once I got to Vancouver because, you see, it was the tree-lined parkways, the civil servants, the tulips on Parliament Hill, the twins next door who studied highland dancing, the coma of winter, the humiliation of down parkas, and my part-time job at Canadian Tire that were holding me back.
Somehow, though, the 71-hour bus ride across the continent made me even more lame. I was okay until about Saskatchewan but then the world went flat and I started to seriously lose it. As if to make up for this lack of verticality, my body sprouted a day-long erection which I tried to bury under a pile of gas station snacks. The large woman next to me – almost certainly somebody’s wobbly tower of unqualified love and forgiveness – had a shelf of bosom I wanted to climb onto or under. I finally slipped into feverish dreams of multi-limbed chrome fuck machines that pummeled and invaded me with pneumatic regularity. I woke up an hour later, gooey and spent, suitably repelled by my seatmate’s loose middle-aged flesh. However, along with my hard-on, I had also lost all sense of me-ness. The world outside the darkening windows was an alien flatland populated by an army of sinister wheat, the world inside the bus was packed with various lumps of humanity, each solidly riveted in its personal brain space, and there I was without an “I”. By the time the bus pulled into the station, my resolve to fill the streets of Vancouver with a raw and blistering explosion of electric rage was completely gone. Nevertheless, I got a room at the Y and dutifully lugged my stupid amp and my cheesy guitar all over the city, looking for a place that would remind me of myself.
I finally did find a patch of pavement that spoke to me. It was on the edge of a parkette that contained two benches set at a polite distance from the sidewalk and a row of shrubs defining an arc of performance space behind them. I celebrated my discovery with a trip to a 98-cent pizza joint. When I came back there was a homeless man in a wheelchair parked in my spot. He had two puppets from different puppet worlds. One was a Muppet with a matted blue pelt and the other was some child’s star spangled ankle sock that barely covered his hand. The puppets were arguing in the old man’s gravelly voice. The sock was losing.
The puppet show didn’t make me feel very good. I went back to the Y and watched TV in the lounge for the rest of the day. It was Thursday, the day I usually saw Liz, my therapist back in Ottawa. Technically a child psychologist, she had agreed to continue to see me through my troubled adolescence and would no doubt have held my hand well into old age had I not left town. I was her oldest patient. Her office was decorated with crayon drawings made by mentally ill children -- all angry black spirals, anguished streaks of yellow and tiny stick figures flying into the maw of various monsters. She had the pictures up along the edge of a blackboard, held in place by cute animal magnets. The other kids disturbed me. Despite having ordinary-looking suburban moms, some of them behaved as if they had been raised by rabid foxes. They terrorized the waiting room, climbing all over the chairs and tearing the magazines into little heaps of hamster bedding. These fierce, canine children made me feel like there was something wrong with the way I moved. I had outgrown the stealth of boyhood but I hadn’t acquired a shred of adult power. Sometimes it seemed to me that the moms in the waiting room were the only thing that kept the children from all pouncing on me and stabbing my face with their blunt little crayons until I was blind. Each of these "special" kids was the wild ape at the center of his own wilderness, screaming, punching or masturbating when it pleased him to do so. I, on the other hand, felt like one of those no-longer-cute grown-up child actors whose life was in a booze and drugs-fueled shambles. People like McCauley Culkin or Edward Furlong just didn't make getting high and trashing a hotel room seem cool. They just looked like really tired, oversized versions of their childhood selves, up way past their bedtime.
As the kids in the waiting room stared at me with steady, animal watchfulness I used to wish there was some way for them to know why I was there. I don’t mean the ADD or the glue sniffing or the cuts on my chest. All the cliché teenage crap. I’m talking about things that I did when I was twelve years old, back when I was still capable of some originality. Somehow being in a strange city on a Thursday brought it all back. It was my first Liz-free Thursday. I missed her all day but as I dozed in the armchair, I dreamed of myself as I was when I was twelve, scurrying through other people’s backyards like a raccoon, box of matches rattling in my hand. I made fires in hidden places. Tool sheds full of jars of paint thinner and gasoline for lawn mowers. I tore open bags of leaves. Dropped a burning sock through a car window. Lit up people’s mail. I rode my bicycle for hours looking for some dry hay in a barn. I told no one and I still do not know how they found out it was me. My sentence was the plastic chair in Liz’s office. For the first year I didn’t talk at all. Just pulled down on the hair at the front of my head, forming a little curtain across my eyes, waiting for the hour to tick by. Eventually I did start talking and slowly turned into just another dickless teenager. It all came back to me, sitting in the lounge at the YMCA watching Donahue. I wondered why I had come to Vancouver and it occurred to me that it wasn’t merely to play music on the street. It was to be twelve again, completely out of my head, squirming around on the sidewalk with total carefree pre-adolescent abandon, not at all bothered by the disdain of latte-wielding, fleece-vested passersby.
The only way I was going to be able to really let loose at the age of 17 was if I found some kind of windowless booth in which to play. There would be a small slot for quarters. When money tumbled in I would play for some advertised period of time. Inside the box I would be naked and wear glitter all over my face. There would be no roof. Sunshine and rain would pour down on me. People would think I was completely sheltered but actually I would be exposed to the weather. Hidden from view but exposed to the weather. Why did that sound so great? Only Liz could explain it. Liz, who was on the other side of the world. I had run away from my child psychologist! What a complete moron I was. Yes, she had talked me out of my childhood but she was also the one remaining thread connecting me to the bold maniac I once was. Who else would let me – actually encourage me – to regress to my former self?
It was vital that I give up the whole busking scheme immediately. I needed to do something – anything – else. I needed a new plan. Something that would not involve traveling back in time. I put down my can of Dr. Pepper on the coffee table with a loud bang, such was my resolve. One of the old guys in the next armchair gave me a look.
“Sorry,” I said. He loosened some mucous in his throat and re-crossed his arms unhappily. I guess it was at this moment that I totally lost my train of thought. I was so close to doing something normal with my life. I was just on the verge of making some really practical life plan but that ugly little rattle of disapproval in the old man’s esophagus fucked everything up. I went up to my room and got into bed, totally pissed off. I was going to play my freaking guitar really loud outside the old man’s window. I was going to kill his whole family with wave upon wave of art-rock.
When I woke up the next day, I was faintly aware that I had made a decision not to be a street musician. It was a difficult, mature decision that stood in the back of my head like a dog barking soundlessly in a dream, glimpsed momentarily from a fast moving automobile. I had forgotten about the old man’s hostile cough. I was too busy getting dressed, donning the special busking T-shirt that advertised my future band: Infant Mortality.
I ventured into Gastown, where there were cobblestone streets, postcard stands, and expensive Inuit soapstone carvings in boutiques lit by delicate strands of halogen. There were already a couple of street performers there: a white man with dreadlocks playing reggae on an acoustic guitar, a young man in a University of British Columbia Library Sciences jacket playing mournful blues on a harmonica and a white-faced robot mime with an annoying whirly-gig whistle between his lips standing next to the steam-powered clock. None of these were even in the same solar system as my brand of artistic expression which I liked to think music magazines would one day describe as a “trance-inducing industrial grindcore-style of entertainment for people with impulse control issues” or perhaps merely “ambient disaster music.” As I knelt on the cobblestones, I tried to derive the courage to perform from the appearance of my equipment. Both the amp and the guitar were quite battered, scarred and even charred. Back in Ottawa, I thought that the rough condition of my equipment might distract pedestrians from the indoor softness, the dewy puffiness of my face. I had hoped that people would look at my fucked up amplifier and assume that it had been tossed in and out of vans; abused by overweight roadies in the grips of a meta amphetamine tantrum. I believed it was possible that people would look at my guitar and imagine it had been the ashtray of a hundred wild nights of low rent rock star abandon.
It was the first time I had opened my guitar case out of doors, and I had to admit that under the pale late-afternoon sunlight
the dents and burns and scratches that decorated my equipment did not look like they had been incurred in the normal course of band touring. It looked more like the guitar had been used to put out a fire somewhere. In Bosnia, say. And then after the fire was completely out it had perhaps also been used as a shield against snipers. Strapped to some kind of military vehicle and strafed by snipers and low flying aircraft.
The truth was the guitar had never been on tour. It had never traveled before taking the bus to Vancouver, except to go from the music store to my bedroom, where I had lain it down on the soft blue-white pile of my carpet and delved into its surface with the sharp point of a math compass, a bic lighter, a screwdriver and miscellaneous other tools of destruction. I had covered over the backing with stickers and then driven a knife blade through these. I had experimented with kerosene, splashing both the amp and the guitar with it and then stepped back as they had ignited into flames as tall as my dad, who had run in as soon as he heard the 2 volt shriek of the smoke alarm attached to the ceiling immediately outside of my bedroom.
"Sorry, sorry," I said, slapping at the flames with a T-shirt.
“This can’t go on,” my father said. My mother pulled the battery out of the alarm and stood in the doorway. My sister was there too, combing her hair with a big pink brush and looking in with the mild sad look she wore around our parents.
"I’m just making it...look cool," I said.
They knew better. They had known me my whole life. They had watched me tear the arms off my Action Jackson and chew the heads off whole armies of plastic soldiers like some demented rodent. They knew I was in the grips of yet another irresistible compulsion to burn and destroy.
"Wow, it totally reeks in here," my sister said pulling the brush down through her hair slowly like she was stroking an animal that she loved.
"What are we sending him to that Liz for? What is that woman doing?" My dad had said.
Somehow opening the guitar case in the diffuse light of Gastown had popped open my Pandora’s box of familial dysfunction and I was eager to shut it again. It was dreadful to admit, but I was pretty much the same lame-ass in Vancouver as I had been in Ottawa three days before, only more so. I closed the lid and slunk back to the Y.