Nietzsche lived in a world where you could expect to meet the enemy face to face. You weren't worrying about the surveillance cameras on your back.
By Mark Fenton
Published September 28, 2012
You know when a writer can tell he's washed up?...When he starts reading his old stuff for inspiration. - Raymond Chandler
I am prepared to risk it.
My very first photo essay was a short journey up a pedestrian stairway in the Meadowlands Power Centre. Rereading it, I'm struck by how it starts and ends at a location close to home. More recent essays have wandered from the greater Hamilton area.
Today I want to get back to familiar turf. Back to basics. Perhaps this is what the Rolling Stones felt when - after their foray into psychedelic pop - they cut Beggars Banquet and returned to their blues roots.
(I know the above photo of the album's gatefold feels like a vinyl-geek bragging about owning a first edition LP, but I promise it gets relevant later.)
I know exactly where I need to go. I don't even pack a lunch. I grab my camera, jump in the car, drive to Barton and Ottawa, and coast into ample parking.
Where I am is what used to be Centre Mall. I continue to hear it referred to as Centre Mall (Then again, the Power Centre in Ancaster is called Meadowlands).
The name that appeals to me most is the one dating from its metamorphosis: The Centre Mall Reconstruction Project (hereinafter CMRP.) What I like about this label is how it conveys a continuous process (what all cities are and should be). I also like its overlap with the term "housing project."
The first thing that strikes me is how hard it is to get a photo of anything at all here. The autofocus flails like a drowning man desperate to grab something solid.
Walking northward toward the Dollarama, I discover the CMRP centrepiece: an expanse of dead grass aggressively protected by chain-link fence painted black.
I am weirdly unsettled by it. It delineates nothing under construction. Neither is it a cultivated green space. And yet someone wants me to keep off.
I turn westward.
I'm fairly certain that taking this photo is what tipped off the authorities (see below). No sane and law-abiding man would point a camera at such a non-presence.
Can there be a larger unoccupied parking area during the hours of commerce anywhere in North America? Jet pilots have it as an emergency alternate on their flight plans.
And yet staring at it, I feel nothing. Sorry, Nietzsche: I gazed into the abyss, but the abyss declined to gaze back into me. You lived in a world where you could expect to meet the enemy face to face. You weren't worrying about the surveillance cameras on your back.
It is at this moment that I hit upon the difference between the CMRP and the Meadowlands Power Centre. The Meadowlands Power Centre is still slave to the overall form of the indoor shopping mall, albeit a mall blasted out of the single unit, the small fish dead, the big fish larger than ever and autonomous.
But like their 20th century model of a mall, the buildings stand more or less at the centre, with parking lot surrounding them.
The CMRP is an idea for the new century. It is the late 20th century power centre turned inside out. Parking lot centre stage; stores bordering periphery. It is a microcosm for the North American city in which the urban centre is an afterthought.
Old buildings collapse or are demolished to make way for...um...parking lots. The middle class rushes to the outskirts. As with life in the sprawl, the CMRP shows scant pedestrian movement between structures. If urban sprawl is the organism, mall sprawl is the DNA.
I enter into Dollarama and buy a coil notepad. The act does triple duty
I. It makes me a legitimate consumer rather than simply a spy.
II. I want my impressions to be immediate and need something to make notes on.
III. I want a tangible alibi. A purchased object with receipt in a branded plastic bag. Who can blame the customer if, to and from his car, he chooses to dally and snatch from eternity a microsecond of the scenery?
I am saddened that in past Septembers I bought school supplies like this for my children. Taking photos is less a way of recovering lost time than of distancing myself from the poignancy of it.
On leaving Dollarama, I walk behind the northernmost block of stores toward a chain-link fence identical to the one surrounding the dead greenspace (herinafter The Zone.)
Back when the CMRP was a boarded up Centre Mall being de-constructed, this fence had so many gaps it was easy to cross the railroad tracks into residental and industrial territory.
That's what I want to do today. Pass over the tracks and experience a Narnia-wardrobe sense of "how on earth did I get here from where I just was?"
But there is no easy way through now.
I turn eastward hoping to find an opening, or failing that to hop the fence. At this moment a Police Car pulls in front of me, about 100 metres away, and parks.
Random chance? This is ruled out immediately as a security vehicle approaches at two o'clock, passes ten metres to the left of me, and, based on my calculation of the audible duration of its movement, parks about 20 metres behind me.
I maintain my pace without making eye contact and pausing only to remove the receipt from the bag and scrutinize it as though making sure I'd gotten the sale price. If I say so myself, this flourish is deft and may be what averts a confrontation. I veer casually past the parked cruiser. (Hopping the fence impresses me as a bad idea at this point.)
I come full circle around Dollarama, walk past The Zone and back to my car. Turning my head 90 degrees left, and a minute later 90 degrees right, my peripheral vision picks up no moving vehicles. The intimidation tactic has spoiled my plan for an uninterrupted walking tour, but the Way is never without detours.
I get back on Barton, drive west to Ottawa street, north to Beach, head east and park a few hundred metres from where I'd been standing when the united front of police and security hastened my CMRP egress.
From what I can tell, no one has followed me. I am just west of Lloyd George School.
Lloyd George. British Prime Minister during the World War I years. What better monument to the former Upper Canada, than a derelict school named for the era when the British Empire began to crumble.
Seduced by its elegant detailing, I photograph it until a sign informs me that this
is not a good thing for someone already on the lam to be doing.
I head Eastward on Beach Street. (The name Beach Street becomes less surreal when you learn it was beach before the infill. Meadowlands Power Centre used to be meadow. Place names hewn into their tombstones.)
I hit the movie option of my camera to record the sound of the street. Layers of noise without clear borders. Varying pitches. In buildings and on the street. Texture without rhythm. Wind smearing the layers still further. Then organic percussion of hydraulics kicks in: "...shk...shk...shk." Next the hydraulics are overlaid with the binary "eep-eep-eep" of an oversized vehicle backing up.
The polyrhythm of the two I would like to see graphed. I have no idea what machinery the "...shks" and "eeps" drive, but stand on any block in the vicinity for a minute and you will hear these instruments in concert.
The stress of the last 15 minutes is just hitting me now. I crave sanctuary until the heat is off. And as though the city was constructed to grant me my wishes, Way Side Lunch materializes.
The dictionary definition of "wayside,"
describes it as an archaic term for the side of a road or a path, now mostly used idiomatically in the expression "fall by the wayside."
And the building does seem to have fallen out of nowhere, incongruous in form and materials to what's around it. Its walls at fractured angles to each other as well as to the already irregular angle of Beech Street. Idiomatically most of you would concur that "Way Side Lunch" scores over "Lunch Fail."
But there is a more positive spin on the name, since it is not quite "Wayside" but rather "Way Side." As in the Way. The Tao (道). The Journey as metaphor for life. All faiths encourage us to sometimes step aside from the Way and reflect upon it.
I enter and seat myself.
A server appears. She asks if I'd like a menu. To which I respond, "Sure, if you're not busy serving someone else." There is no one else. Nor does anyone else arrive during my stay. I sense no one has been here since Centre Mall turned itself inside out.
Inexplicably my lame joke has won her over. When she returns to refill my coffee she resusitates the joke, and we laugh good-heartedly like banter in a 40s film.
This leads me to imagine it as a place where Philip Marlowe - Raymond Chandler's iconic gumshoe from a mid-20th century LA in which structures like the CMRP couldn't have been imagined - might have found himself sipping coffee, alone, pondering his current assignment.
But it's more primal than that. It's like I've wandered into a Kafka parable, a restaurant that has been here since the beginning of time, stocked and staffed, but existing only for the day when I and I alone will enter.
I gaze out at the view and now the view does gaze back into me.
I am reminded of a dream I had just after moving to Hamilton from the prairies. In my dream I have just died. Conveniently, metempsychosis has provided me with a body much like what I had when I was alive.
I wander the empty streets of a moribund industrial city. It is a gray windy day in late autumn. I am looking for St. Peter. I come upon a wayside diner. Inside is a burly, rebarbative man who identifies himself as St. Christopher.
"I'm looking for St. Peter" I say.
"But you're traveling," he answers.
"Well, I suppose - "
"Then you're looking for me. Sit." He gestures decisively.
We eat deep-fried food and chain-smoke (Why not? We're already dead). St. Christopher finds my tattered and coffee-stained file. He reviews it but can't find much either of good or ill in the moral life I've just completed.
"And anyway," he says, closing the file and tossing it on a low shelf next to the recycling, "I don't admit people into heaven. I just show them on their way."
Though when I ask him which way to turn when I leave he only shrugs. A cat the colour of cigarette ash follows me out.
Clearly this was not a dream about the past, but about the future. Inside and out, Way Side Lunch matches the diner in my dream exactly.
Holding my camera under the table I record the ambient noise of the room which is different but structurally related to the ambient noise on the street. Sizzle. Scraping. The microtonal undulations of refrigerator hum.
The TV is on a very low volume, which can be understood because the subtitle option is on. It's a traffic report showing acutely converging roads which are the site of a horrendous pile up.
The shape of the intersection looks identical to the intersection Way Side Lunch stands next to. But there is no indication of an accident out the window. It's like a horror movie in which things are reflected in a mirror which have no correlation to what the mirror faces.
When the server comes to take my order, I have the brainstorm that I should act like a journalist. I ask her what their customer base is, to which she answers in a semi non-sequitur, that most of their business is take-out. "But I can't really tell you much. It's actually my first day." And she giggles coyly.
"I'm a journalist reviewing restaurants a bit off the beaten track," I reply. As soon as the words are out of my mouth I know they are idiotic. Surely a restaurant critic never reveals her identity.
No doubt it's an abuse of power, playing the critic card to get a better than typical meal, which won't be what readers get when they rush out for five star cuisine. I am ashamed of myself.
I order poutine and coffee. When it comes, it looks like this.
Clearly I have thrown myself into the deep end as a restaurant reviewer. I've never actually had poutine. In fact I'm not entirely sure what poutine is. Aren't there supposed to be curds? This poutine has a smattering of mild chedder grated over top.
I have no idea where it fits on the bell curve of Hamilton restaurant poutine. I have no idea how to evaluate it.
In the final year of my undergraduate degree, I received an award that had been endowed decades earlier for the top student in renaissance history. It was a small upper year class and by the final exam I was the only student who hadn't dropped it. But they gave me the award anyway.
By a similar reasoning, I have no choice but to give Way Side Lunch poutine a default 100 percent.
In contrast I have a huge personal sample group for restaurant coffee and so give Way Side Lunch coffee an informed 78 percent. It was delivered instantly so they couldn't waited until they saw me to start brewing it. Yet it was fresh and hot. (Could they have known I was coming even before I knew?)
In terms of visual presentation, the food and drink at Way Side Lunch is more appetizing than anything in the gatefold of Beggars Banquet.
DIGRESSION ON THE MESSED UP TITLE OF A CANONICAL ROCK ALBUM
I had always imagined the aforementioned album to be written as Beggars' Banquet, thus describing a lavish repast, with its attendant ritual and fellowship, granted to the impoverished. Re-examining the two circulating album designs it is clearly Beggars Banquet. No apostrophe.
This is not a "banquet of beggars." "Banquet" is a verb. Beggars in the act of ingurgitating and engaging with one another at a large table (in a manner, judging from the gatefold, transgressing conventional etiquette).
Analogously, this section of my photo essay should be described not as "Mark's Lunch," but rather as "Mark Lunches," and, no, I don't really imagine any of this digression is useful to you.
END OF DIGRESSION ON THE MESSED UP TITLE OF A CANONICAL ROCK ALBUM
The server leaves. As I enjoy my poutine I overhear the kitchen conversation, which confirms it really is her first day on the job.
Server: Is there anything I should do now?
Cook: You're pretty caught up. As long as place is clean. Sugar's filled up. Customers [sic] are happy.
Dining alone forces a unique kind of mediation. At the beginning of high school our English teacher asked us to write about where we would be in ten years (i.e. what we saw our career being.) As you can imagine, the prospect of having to get a job and be a citizen held little appeal.
I probably described being a personal injury lawyer or an obstetrician or a stuntman: something so preposterous for me that I wouldn't have to grapple with the reality of my future.
I now realize I should have written that my idea of vocational ecstasy was being an unpaid, self-directed gonzo journalist whose defining story culminates in a plate of poutine at an empty diner.
As I consume my poutine I surge with the pride of an actor stepping into the role he was born to play.
I'm pulled from my meditation by a snatch of cryptic dialogue in media res that, in conjunction with the view out the window, puts me in Season Two of The Wire
Cook: We'd see guys standing out there for twenty minutes. And god only knows what was going into those boxes. You know how busy it is around here (a knowing chuckle.)
By the time I finish my poutine. I realize that for several minutes I've heard nothing other than refrigerator hum, grill scraping, and sizzle. It comes to me with a chill. I had not won her over. How could I have flattered myself that I had?
That "first day" banter in the kitchen was staged to put me at ease. My camera tipped them off. They called the police. I matched the description of the guy in the CMRP parking lot. "Don't bring him his bill. Keep him in the restaurant till we get there."
I now know what The Zone is for. It's a great place to interrogate criminals. Fenced, yet exposed to the judgment of respectable shoppers. Sometimes they get a few of us at a time and decide to have a bit of fun.
Supply us with low level weapons to enact a Hunger Games battle down to a sole survivor. Patrons of the CMRP can enjoy the spectacle as they return to their cars. (You'll recall the Roman Empire jumped the shark with similar entertainments.)
But she arrives with the bill and I am at ease again. I'm clearly not meant for this front line stuff. I leave an 80 percent tip on a $5.22 bill. It is after all, her first day and how much is she going to get in tips if it's all take out? And she didn't rat me out. Though as I open the door to leave
I worry the excessive tip will make her nervous that I might be lurking out here when her shift ends. (I can't get anything right today.)
My car is where I left it. No one appears to have made me. I pull out and head a block east to investigate a green space that had caught my eye when I was walking along Beach Street.
Not St. Christopher's Park. No. St. Christopher Park. I puzzle at the syntax before deciding that "Park" is a verb in the imperative. And as with most commands, many of the words are understood, but I read it as follows.
St. Christopher is manifested herein.
Park, enter, and he will guide you.
And when have I ever been more in need of him? Deliverance from this most angst ridden of photo tours.
St. Christopher, Hieronymus Bosch
In my favourite version of the story, the hefty and strong St. Christopher has dedicated himself to helping people across a particularly arduous stream. One day he carries a child whom he finds inexplicably heavy. As though he were carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
When questioned, the boy replies that he is Jesus the Lord. That St. Christopher is carrying not just the weight of the world, but him who made it.
A gust of wind whistles around me as I turn to look at the park itself. There is no stream. There are no children. It's a sad, arid place that reminds me of my own children. One grown up and gone away. One soon to go away.
Should they come upon it, I wonder what anthropologists of a future civilization will make of:
I. a sign that denotes St. Christopher,
II. the surviving literature around Catholic saints recruited and discarded as the centuries saw fit (St. Christopher's status has been tenuous since 1969 when Pope Paul VI removed his feast day from the Calendar of Saints), and
III. this monument.
I return to my car and drive home without incident. And there are no messages from the authorities on voice mail!
I'd owed it to St. Christopher to park and regard his place for a moment. He had my back.