If you are in a lobby, you'd rather be somewhere else, or have no place to go, or have reached a psychic limit and have found a momentary sanctuary midway through life's journey.
By Mark Fenton
Published October 06, 2006
'Contemporary fiction,' I said to Jimmy, 'is either pod or ped. Left-hand rack, you'll observe, begins with J.G. Ballard, SuperCannes. Pod-meister. Suburban solipsism: world in a windscreen. Right-hand rack is ped. The walkers. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Rings of Saturn. Sit at your PC as you sit in the car: pod person, Lose yourself in the rhythms of the walk: pedestrian. Stately prose, Sebald.'
'Pod. By instinct. He tries to walk down a road, a redneck runs him down. Know your limitations. Stick to genre.'
'Pod. Outing to flint church. Body in ditch.'
The vision was sharp: Jimmy and I, stooping forward, superimposed over the glossy books in their display cabinet. It went all the way back through literature. Peds: John Cowper Powys, Gerald Kersh, D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Dickens, De Quincey, Bunyan, Blake, Rousseau. Pods: DeLillo, Updike, Flaubert, Proust. No precedence. Different strokes. I was far enough gone to appreciate the conceit, too sober to write it down. Another inspiration that would never see the light of day.
- Iain Sinclair, from Dining on Stones
Readers of my essays in previous editions of Raise the Hammer will correctly identify my work as excessively ped: a slow shuffle at dawn over the roof of an inner city mall; an aimless meandering through a vacant lot on Hamilton Mountain; a near fatal and possibly illegal crossing of six lane traffic in a new suburban development.
The reasons are twofold:
That all changed on September 17 of this year, when I was offered a ticket and a ride to see the great and reclusive musician (hereinafter referred to as TGARM) in Toronto and, better still, I was to be driven to see TGARM. Therefore I am, for the duration of this essay, almost exclusively pod.
Having worked in publications I have a strong moral sense surrounding rights and permission and have just not had the time to get the permission of the friend who was nice enough to take me to see TGARM. Rather than naming him and using the photo I took when he came to pick me up, I have come to a compromise. I will refer to him as M. and instead of a photo, I will supply a sketch.
At the risk of namedropping I have had, thanks to my ongoing connections to the art world, a lifelong relationship with Knet Marnof the celebrated Iceland/Canadian sculptor/lithographer, who was generous enough to supply me with an original sketch of M., from the photo I emailed him.
M. (Photo Credit: Knet Marnof Fine Arts 2006)
Making its debut this month in RTH, Marnof describes it as a mere trifle, but this is surely just modesty. I could imagine it being released as a numbered edition in the near future.
OK. so here's what happened. We headed out with me in the front passenger's seat, nervous but excited to capture pod images.
A stark development on the edge of the 401
As a ped observer I often miss stark developments like this on the edge of the 401. As we all know, Canada is one of the largest land masses of any country on earth, and still most of the country crowds into a little region around lake Ontario, because supposedly that's where the work is. So Canadian population maps always look to me like one of those parties in a huge sprawling, multi-storied house where everyone crowds around the kitchen so they can be near the beer.
I think of what it must be like for a young person who arrives here from somewhere in the Canadian hinterland and gets a job in a place like this and has to commute through three municipalities, via multiple buses of two transit systems to get here from his apartment in, say, Markham:
Markham apartment (Photo credit: gsrentals.com)
and how that person, during the commute - knapsack: peanut butter sandwich, chips, a Coke, and the latest issue of Archie - might see his/her workplace from 40 feet away but not actually be able to get to it until two buses and 50 minutes later; and I further imagine that the photo I took of BD is a postcard designed by the company's PR department and available to employees, and that the new resident has written a message on it for his folks back home.
I'll assume they're farmers or a fishing community or something - I'd rather leave that undefined so as not to perpetuate regional stereotypes - and that these poor provincials live in some picturesque rural community whence people need to leave to be deemed ambitious.
On the back of the postcard I imagine our regional immigrant writing something like this (a heartfelt message, alas, never to be sent because there was never a mailbox near one of the transit stops and the postcard becomes progressively soiled, crumpled, torn, and ultimately lost underneath BD's shredder by the time my imagination finds it and our new Ontarian has been robbed of $00.51.and whatever time it takes to write it).
A postcard to the folks back home
I took a bunch of equally drab photos until I finally snapped this fairy tale-like skyline. Magical. A place I've never been and maybe never will be, and which evokes a time long long ago in a galaxy far far away:
It's all spires and citadels seen through an archway of lamp standards like brontosaurus heads. M. tells me he's been through it and that it is a savage place to try and get a coffee: that they're all inhospitable and drive-through and ped unfriendly.
I have a great idea for an updated version of Romeo and Juliet set in this community, in which the young lovers meet on the Internet and realize to their amazement that they live in facing buildings, even residing on the facing sides and at the right height (of course they still can't see each other because of the mirrored glass).
They are only 14 so they can't drive and there's no possible way to get across the street on foot, and there are no buses in and out, and to get a cab would require the cab driver to drive out of the area, onto the 427, get turned around on a cloverleaf and come back, and the fare would be $55.00 which they don't really have.
There's no extra money in the house because the parents are mortgaged to the hilt for these condos, which require both sets of parents working two full time jobs each, and whose absence from the home explains why Eros naturally fills the emotional vacuum of our players at so early an age.
(Readers, I promise you, the email exchange is hot! Written in loose pentameter lines which discover beauty in a middle-class Mississauga young-person dialect; rhymed couplets thrown in unexpectedly to underscore a climactic moment of sensuality and longing.)
Our hero and heroine aren't star-crossed lovers; they're highway-crossed lovers. Eventually they plan for Juliet to make a break for it across the street, but the apartment lobby is locked down and Romeo mis-keyed one number when he sent her the buzzer code (which is multi-digit alpha-numeric and really cryptic, for the sake of security).
Romeo then gets a breaking news email that Juliet's been killed in a pedestrian accident but it's a different Juliet (OK, this is a stretch, but Bill Shakespeare's play gets pretty contrived too with all the near misses at the end.)
Desperate to confirm the truth, Romeo hacks into the building facilities website and discovers an underground tunnel between his building and Juliet's, although he's so overwrought by this time he gets trapped behind a self-locking door for five days and almost perishes.
Juliet, reading of his disappearance, in despair, throws herself in front of an Out-Of-Service bus whose driver is heading for the Starbucks (easy corporate financing for the film version; logo exposure good regardless of corporation's role in the story) next to her building as it's the only drive-thru wide enough to fit the width of the bus.
Romeo is rescued, but obviously his condition is critical, could go either way, but the knowledge of Juliet's fate sends him into decline and quick death, fittingly at the same hour in which Juliet's parents decide to shut down her life support, as there's no hope of recovery.
(I always thought the two suicides were too much of a good thing in the original - too symmetrical - and it's at this point I begin to prefer my version to Bill's.)
I also think there should be a general lament at the end by the Montagues and the Capulets who curse their materialistic life, and wish they'd figured out a way to have a block party in their lobby, which they could have chartered buses for to get the neighbourhood together.
Oh, and the Mercutio character would be a custodian who works both buildings - he'd have all the good soliloquies about urban sprawl and the curse of the motor-vehicle; too busy ranting about suburban development to tell the kids something useful like “there's a tunnel between the two buildings.” - but he dies half way through servicing an elevator (“a plague on both your high-rises!!!” shouted as he plummets down the shaft).
He would have called in a professional to fix it but he has an ongoing vendetta with the elevator company who, years earlier, forced his Dad into early retirement, so that now his Dad just sits in a chair all day watching cooking shows on Satellite TV.
Hwy 401 approaching Pearson International Airport
Who would believe this is the 401 approaching Pearson International Airport? I am remind of how my father (more confidently pod than I will ever be) has the ability to shoot photos while he's driving and paint from them.
Photo Credit: Terry Fenton; used with permission)
Then again, he's shooting his photos mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which I would say involves less pod risk than doing it on the 401.
Hey. Suddenly we're in Toronto!
The vital gestures of big city living
I'm struck by how both the woman and the ad and the passenger at the back of the bus exhibit the vital gestures of big city living. At this point I should really start loading up on caffeine.It is around this time that M. passes me the ticket for the show.
Ticket to see the great and reclusive musician
I wanted a shot of it in its full form, before the perforated end had been torn off. There is an urge I suspect I share with others to prove that I actually saw TGARM, as though just having that proof confers some sort of authority on me. It's a bit sad really.M. and I dumped the car at his apartment and hopped a subway and then a streetcar. I included this picture not because it's very descriptive - too pod for its own good - but because I used to live a few blocks from here when I first moved to Toronto. (I didn't want to get any closer to the window and creep out the guy with the neck.)
Paradoxically, the Toronto subway spends some of its time above ground
It's looking South on Gerrard Street East over the Don Valley Parkway. It was my favourite Toronto view at the time, a cubist collage of billboards and smokestacks and I loved how, with its Parkway, rail lines, and Don river, it offered the potential for three forms of transport, none of which I ever took. You can't see any of that here, though because it's a lousy picture.
This one isn't much better.
Through a glass blurrily
It's the block I would walk down to enjoy my favourite view (Yeah, well, you'd have a lot of time on your hands too if you'd just moved 3,000 km from home to the big city). While the people in this photo obviously aren't street people, but productive citizens with groceries and knapsacks and classes and jobs to go to, 15 years ago, on exactly this corner, I wandered into a group of scruffy men who surrounded me and asked for my change.
I try to help the needy where I can, and in this case it would have been particularly prudent, since there were about six of them and they had me surrounded. But I resisted, because the toothless one in torn denim, who appeared to be their leader, greeted me with the words “Hey Archie,” at which all of them laughed.
In my twenties I had (naturally not by design) very orange wavy hair and no doubt the look of the over privileged white suburban kid that I was, and, lamentably, I'll admit that I probably bore a superficial resemblance to Mr. Archibald Andrews.
Archie Andrews (Photo Credit: archiecomics.com)
While I've never had strong feeling either for or against the iconic teen-age cartoon character with his silly car and his low-level libidinousness towards Veronica, this was a bad morning with no prospects of a job and no idea how I was going to be feeding myself in two weeks let alone these gentlemen, and there was no way I was going to be bullied out of my change while being called Archie!
I muttered something about not having any change, tried to affect a mean, brooding and weathered expression that would be the very antithesis of Archie's carefree glee, at which point their leader walked up and said not to worry about it and gave me a big hug, and after a few moments of utter terror I felt small and sheepish and stingy, contemplated shaving my head, and was, for the next half-hour, just a bit jittery.
Obviously Archie never had to deal with homeless people because except for walking from class to class in his high school Archie is the ne plus ultra podmeister. He'd probably drive that car the opposite direction around the block to visit his next door neighbour; being, as he is, a euphoric and ageless poster boy for the golden age of fossil fuels.
I don't currently have a subscription so correct me if recent Archie issues have morphed him into an environmentally conscious Archie who drives a solar car or a recumbent bike.
And so M. and I arrived painlessly at the event itself. TGARM had lowered his no photos policy from no photos to no flash photos.
The great and reclusive musician himself
Not much help in a dark room. This was the only one I took, and I'd forgotten that my camera, even with the flash turned off, sends out a beam of red light which I fear unsettled TGARM and interrupted the near trance-like state of the reverent audience, none of whom I saw taking photos.
I've always found people who approach celebrities for autographs rather pitiful, as their need for a brush with greatness only spotlights their own ordinariness. And yet here I am needing, pathetically, to prove I was actually at TGARM's concert. What is wrong with me?
I did slightly better with the shot I got of the audience leaving the venue.
The audience leaving the venue
It's remarkable that we all came, individually or in small groups, took our seats discretely and quietly, and then left. For years TGARM has been embraced by a small but highly devoted Internet community, many of whom had driven hours, or days, or even flown in (as I later learned from going on-line) and I realized that I'd actually corresponded with some of these people, and I'm sure many others had spoken together on line.
Yet faced with the possibility of face time we all just took our seats and ignored each other. This is something those of us who enjoy the virtual life might want to examine.
So I want to end it quickly now that I've come to the part of the evening where the show is over and it's just time for M. and me to go back home. The return journey from any event is always a downer. Even thinking about how much you enjoyed the show doesn't help that much during hour and a half on the road, particularly on a Sunday night, with the impending prospects of an early Monday morning. As Francesca says to Dante in the Inferno:
Nessun maggior dolore
che ricordarsi del tempo felice
ne la miseria.
You can find this at the end of Canto 5 of Inferno, if you don't want to trust me on it, and it sort of translates as: “It's a major drag to remember happy times when you're really bummed out,” although I'm aware that it's worse in Paolo and Francesca's case, condemned as they are by God to eternal damnation for committing adultery, whereas M. and I are just condemned to an hour on the Q.E.W. for indulging in a Toronto concert - way more congestion than there should be at 10:00 pm on a Sunday, and too dark to take photos.
The trip back was a time of big endings as well as small, since M was in the process of moving out of his Toronto Apartment and moving to a house in Hamilton, raising the Hammer a bit further (Way to go M! Glad to have you with us!). Here's a parting shot of the lobby to his apartment lobby:
M.'s apartment lobby, featuring chairs on which no one will sit and decorations at which no one will gaze
I've always been fascinated with lobbies, the great indeterminate space of public life. No one ever wants to do more than pass through a lobby, and yet there are always chairs, and attempts at decoration of a kind that could never exist anywhere but a lobby.
If you are sitting in a lobby you'd rather be somewhere else, or else you simply have no place to go, or have reached a psychic limit and have found a momentary sanctuary midway through life's journey, and are trying to determine where to go next.
Lobbies are sad and strangely evocative places, captured most vividly for me by the first great observer of the disaster and inadvertent beauty of public space in North America:
Edward Hopper, Hotel Lobby 1943 (courtesy of artchive.com)
I always envision Dante's limbo (that place where the Greek philosophers are forced to hang out, because they were good enough people but unfortunately not Christians) as a dilapidated hotel lobby. Plato and Socrates thumbing through months-old National Goegraphics and playing a lot of Sudoku puzzles from yellowed Newspapers.
You can't, after all, talk about an ideal Republic or the nature of reality all day long.
The older gentleman in Hopper's painting might show up occasionally as a realtor trying to sell Aristotle some good property in the Fourth Circle (none of these guys had tenure so they probably can't afford anything higher than that).
I imagine the woman in the red dress talks incessantly about the schedule for the airport limo which never comes. Can't think of a role for the blonde woman. For some reason she reminds me of Betty from the Archie comics right now.
Perhaps lack of political engagement in an otherwise wholesome life puts her in limbo. It would be fun to have Betty as a participant in a Socratic dialogue.
Before getting back in his car, M. let me in to view his empty apartment:
An empty apartment
And this was my last image of it.
A final look around
(I don't know what that desktop file holder on the windowsill is, but I hope it isn't something M. left behind and needs.)
I had almost no illumination for this shot, but it seems fitting that we're leaving the empty rooms of the old apartment in darkness. Podding our way back along 400 series highways while imagining the empty rooms of M.'s new Hamilton house in sunlight.
Edward Hopper, Sun in an Empty Room (Photo Credit: WebMuseum, Paris)
Just as it was going to press I received permission from M. to include the photo I snapped before we set out. So I now feel compelled to end with it. While it has more accuracy, I don't feel it captures the true essence of M. as well as Marnof's, “interpretation.” You be the judge.
The essential M.?
If you see him, say Hi. He's new in town.