Strange to think of a place like this just being occupied by dead people. It could never happen in Toronto. A century crypt like this is just too tantalizing as real estate. You could sublet it in a heartbeat.
By Mark Fenton
Published August 06, 2009
It's a recession when your neighbour loses his job; it's a depression when you lose yours.
--Harry S Truman
In May of this year I was laid off from my job. This proved an excellent opportunity to explore places that I could either walk or ride my bike to. If you're reading this in Hamilton, so can you.
(Sometimes, after an essay drops, I conceal myself near the locations of my photos and watch for readers who can't resist following in my footsteps. Like an extortionist at an airport newsstand, surreptitiously regarding the man in the business suit as he places the envelope in the airport locker, turns the key, and leaves. Just like he was told to.)
Back when I still worked, I could often be seen measuring distances on maps in order to calculate the length of a journey by aircraft, which you can do if you also know the velocity of your aircraft. (Check your highschool physics notes. It's not all that hard really.)
I really liked that part of the job. In fact I often imaged I was another person coming into the room and seeing me do this. These were rare moments when I felt like I was someone with a skill set, the kind of person I got to see when Mrs. Bowerman, my Grade Three teacher, brought in films about serious careers requiring rigorous training: bland yet important vocations we could occupy with pride if we were among those wise young men and women who were prepared to work hard and stay off drugs.
Before I set out I consulted a map of the places I wanted to visit.
I plotted the location of my visits and then connected them so that they formed the outline of a quadrilateral.
If you become unemployed I think it's important to keep challenging your brain with complex tasks. To avoid falling into the "depression" that President Truman speaks of in the epigraph to this essay. I also figured this would meet EI's definition of keeping myself "available and ready for work," which is how they state it on the report forms you have to fill out biweekly.
To that end I transferred the quadrilateral to a blank sheet of paper and calculated the area within the quadrilateral which came out to 0.95 square kilometres. While I didn't actually traverse this whole area, I think that by delimiting its points and engaging with its two-dimensional span I achieved some kind of dominion over it.
FYI here's my work. (Mr. Shanahan, my grade 12 math teacher who said I'd never have a career in math, will be feeling pretty embarrassed as he reads this). You can see my mind wandered a bit and I did some doodling, but mostly I just stuck to the job.
I put the original in the envelope with my UI report card - so that they could recommend me to an employer looking for advanced math skills - stamped it, and put it in a bag with my gear and went out.
At each site I did a sketch first and then took photos. Later I examined the photos and the sketches to see which told the larger truth. In most cases I couldn't decide. What spoke a profound truth in one arena could be empty of meaning in another. Such are the ambiguities arising, to quote Satan's response to God (Job, Chapter 1), "from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it."
(I often think that what distinguishes me from Satan is that I'm able to channel my mischief making into benign pleasures like sketching and photography. Satan could've used some art therapy. No question.)
My first site was the hardest one to actually get to. As most readers know, Hamilton City Hall is in the process of being redone. So this moment is unique. It would not have looked exactly like this the day before or the day after. The chambers have floors and ceilings but no walls. The city can be seen in every direction, unimpeded even by glass.
One imagines city councillors climbing from floor to floor in wide-eyed awe: all the interests, all the suffering, all the needs of the citizens they are empowered to serve at once illuminated. I was imagining one of those Victorian fairy tales where a man of power and influence, grown cynical and possible even malign from going to and fro in the world and from walking up and down in it, is redeemed by magical intervention and he becomes generous and happy and everyone wins and maybe it's even Christmas.
It wasn't Christmas. I was beginning to get sunburned since a good angle on City Hall was surprisingly difficult to find in all the construction. I first approached it from the Board of Education Building grounds,
where I discovered a photo-gearhead who had gotten there before me and was using light-meters and attaching big lenses, and was probably a guy people pay to get really good pictures they can publish on nice paper. Intimidated, I wandered back to King Street and came up by Summers Lane,
a street name I've always enjoyed for its promise of fragrant meadows and sunshine, and which is the Hamilton street I'd most want to use if I were arranging a drive-by shooting.
(You'll note that it's "Summers Lane" not "Summer's Lane." Without the possessive it's not so much a Lane that you'll find most spectacular in July and August, but the plural form: a Lane with a whole array of summer vistas; endless delightful opportunities offered over successive summers. Nice.)
I was able to come up onto the second level AGH courtyard, but couldn't actually get very far into it, as it too is being deconstructed with slabs of concrete everywhere and it was barricaded with the dual purpose of preventing me from getting in the way of workers and also preventing me from coming to harm during my documentary frolic.
When I came back the next day to take photos they'd pushed me back still further with the barricades and one of the workers looked at me as though he remembered me from the day before and I was now confirming his prediction that I'd continue to be a problem.
He looked at me with that tired look I often see in the eyes of gainfully employed citizens who have serious responsibilities and wonder how they will muster the energy to deal with people who just don't want to work for a living and become pests to those who do.
I was in quite a bit of danger taking these photos, standing on the top of the wide wooden railing above Summers Lane.
I'm sure liability crossed his mind. As I was leaving I waved to him, gave a big smile and, in my best approximation of a native speaker, said: "Tut mir Leid." And a few seconds later "Danke," and turned and went away as I heard him put up the final barricade that would prevent me getting anywhere near the construction area tomorrow.
I doubt he bought the foreigner act, but it made me feel better. I dropped my EI report into a mailbox in Jackson Square and proceeded to my next site.
I first discovered this building when I had to leave my car at the Canadian Tire on Victoria Street and had an hour to kill. It was early evening in September and in dusk light Hamilton was the colour through which tropical fish experience the world from inside the tank. That night it was the east side of the building that yielded the best photos. Every 15 feet I discovered a unique and self-contained picture.
The infinite reflective colour and texture of individual window planes reminded me of certain Paul Klees:
The flattening of three-dimensional space into a grid
gave me the perfect rectangles of unpopulated shots in Yasujiro Ozu's films from the 1940s. Right down to the neat row of windowpanes in the periphery.
Like all models, buildings have days of generosity, during which they deliver on every promise of hidden depths. And then they have other days when they're closed and withdrawn and won't give you anything at all. This perfect summer day on which I arrived in the early afternoon was the latter scenario.
I asked myself if the building had changed or if I had, or if it was simply the dynamic between us (anyone who has engaged in relationship therapy will have been directed to run these painful queries through the data-base of long-term memory.)
I dumped the photos off my memory stick and sat and thought. Surely, I said to myself, a building that exposes an East face will, when craftily seduced, also expose a West face. And with some sly efforts it did.
I sketched it from across the street, standing in front of the Good Shepherd Centre. People looking more affected by the economic downturn than I paced back and forth
with an energy that rather than enabling solutions, perpetuates itself into a frenzy. None of them were staring at the building across the street and sketching it.
I was struck by the regularity with which gulls passed before the building,
casting shadows on its walls.
I know this is not an original image - I could probably have grabbed a similar and better one up from Google images - and I don't really know what possessed me to waste so much time on it, but there is a relevant exploration of the phenomenon of the photographic cliché in Don Delillo's White Noise. His characters see a sign for the most photographed barn in America, and observe a small army of people setting up tripods to do just that.
A man in a booth sold postcards and slides - pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
"No one sees the barn," he said finally.
A long silence followed.
"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
"We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
Cliché or not, the shadow of a bird on a wall is a whole lot harder to capture than a barn which is pretty much the definition of a large and unmoving target. As soon as you see a bird glide before the building and a shadow appear, you shoot and by the time the camera has deployed the moment is past. (I might have befriended the gearhead in front of City Hall, who I'm sure would have had no trouble capturing this tired subject. I would have had to panhandle from the people coming out of the Good Shepherd to pay him, though.)
I stood for the better part of an hour trying to get the shot and eventually satisfied myself with this, despite it being less a lyrical metaphor for freedom than what looks like a bird shot by a hunter falling out of the sky.
There is an inherent surrealism of capturing an animal in a photo, as wild animals are seldom stationary when there is enough light to render them with a camera. It's a kind of two-dimensional taxidermy that reminds us how our species bullies every other species into inertness and death (I am an omnivore so please don't read vegan rectitude into this paragraph).
Add another level of control when you choose to fix the shadow of an animal, shadows in real time being transient and vaguely defined and eerie in their elasticity, and you'll realize that in photographing the shadow of an animal you've entered into as contrived a record of reality as you can make and I was disgusted with myself for investing that kind of time in such an endeavour, and it was just at this point that people were beginning to ask me for change and looking at my open sketchbook with distaste.
As I walked south to my next destination I thought of the accidental atomic photograph of a house painter in Hiroshima, burned to a wall when the bomb exploded.
Specific. Mundane. Terminal. The thought of it felt like a horrific extension of what I'd been doing.
In "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde suggests that no one was actually able to perceive London fog until the impressionists showed us how.
Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows... At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.
Fog is an amorphous thing a person could be forgiven for not noticing. I have less of an excuse with the Century Theatre, but honestly, I never noticed it until I purchased a print of the theatre,
by Matt McInnes, last December. Walking South from the warehouse on Mary and Cannon Street I was struck, for the first time, by its stark silhouette. I must have passed it before, but central though it is to the city's core, it is the very definition of the dead elephant in the living room that no one acknowledges.
It was so much part of a vanished era and so exquisitely large, I thought of the line from Genesis, "There were giants in the earth in those days." They might have come here for entertainment. It's large enough to house them.
Though only a block south of my position in front of the good Shepherd, the passers-by were of a completely different milieu, most of them downtown workers bustling hurriedly with vital purpose (perhaps my haste to get somewhere important, they tell themselves, is what places me on a tier above the people moving pointlessly hither and thither around the Good Shepherd).
I was still wearing my bicycle helmet (mostly to give myself some protection from the sun, having locked the bike at the library two hours earlier.) There is a widespread belief that no person is ever more than ten metres away from his or her vehicle, and a woman approached me, looked me in the eye and said "I think someone stole your bike."
I meet this person a lot. This is the Person Who Notices That Things About Me Are Wrong (in this case a bike helmet but no bike). The PWNTTAMAW speaks with the stark assertiveness of incontrovertible common sense, and always maintains full eye-contact while doing so.
The PWNTTAMAW is the person who tells me I have a shoelace untied. The PWNTTAMAW is the person who tells me that it is not raining when it was five minutes ago and I haven't gotten around to collapsing my umbrella. The PWNTTAMAW is the person who tells me the walk light is now on, when I'm a pedestrian at a controlled intersection and am looking up at the roof of a building to decide if it's worth taking the photo of an approaching bird who might cast its shadow on the wall.
I know I am always supposed to acknowledge my transgression and thank the PWNTTAMAW for talking some sense into me, and I never do. On this occasion I nodded at the PWNTTAMAW and said that it was OK because I had lots more bicycles at home and the person who took it probably really needed a bike. I would have referenced Vittorio De Sica's Neorealist masterpiece Ladri di Biciclette, as an empathetic examination of bicycle theft in times of economic crisis, but PWNTTAMAW was already gone.
But now I'd become self-conscious standing there sketching. The PWNTTAMAW had left a palpable residue on the street corner, an accumulation of nameless energies. I was unemployed and mean-spirited and I hated her. I closed my sketchbook and walked up to the building.
The atmosphere changed yet again. There were no people immediately surrounding the Century Theatre. The quality of the light and the antique vertical sign
became the elements of a Hopper painting.
almost to the exact font and colour and lights in the sign!
What intrigued me though was that at street level the theatre was lavishly decorated with the elements of mid-20th Century Collage. Robert Motherwell springs to mind.
I could have photographed the Century Theatre artwork for hours. Here are samples. My edits are by no means definitive. Like cave paintings, the art of Century Theatre is undelimited. It doesn't form "pictures" in the modern sense of the word until a rectangle has been put around a particular section. You'll want to photograph them and crop them your own way, becoming not just a spectator but part of the artistic process.
Thankfully there's no admission charge here. It might be an idea to put up a pay-what-you-can-box, which, in this case, could raise money to restore the building and reopen it. The giants might even return.
The images have the effect of sealing up the building. After several minutes of shooting I began to feel there was no physical means of entering it, at least in any physical sense. When I tried to imagine the interior, all I could think of was the darkened rooms in The Tibetan Book of the Dead, with their terrifying instructions for moving towards the light, so easy to get wrong, thereby depositing myself back into in the cycle of samsara for countless more lifetimes.
In his introduction to a recent edition of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (Penguin, 2006, translated by Guyurme Dorje) His Holiness, The XIV Dalai Lama says: "...I somehow feel a sense of excitement when I think of the experience of death." [!]
OK. I realize there's good reason to expect His Holiness to be a more serene and receptive person when it comes to mortality than I am. (That, after all, is part of why he's XIV Dalai Lama and I'm not.) I nevertheless can't begin to imagine excitement at the prospect of my death.
I accept it as inevitable and I don't like it. I don't like it one little bit. Given the choice between repeated interrogations by the Hamilton Regional Police when I'm caught taking photos of public space, and being dead, I would choose quantity time with the Finest any day.
No, the prospect of my death does not "excite" me. The prospect of my death is the big dark interior of the Century Theatre. I know I should be excited by my own death, because the Tao Te Ching tells me that by not fearing death and embracing it I can stop fearing life and embrace it, and any time His Holiness wants to come to Hamilton and instruct me on how I can get excited about my death I'll be more than happy to buy the coffee and send him out with twelve pack of donuts for the ride back to India once he's shown me the true way.
This admittedly shrill meditation on mortality serves as an obvious transition to my last location.
The crypt is interesting architecturally as it's sort of embedded in a knoll with the entrance on the far side from what I've drawn. What's creepy is that when I went back at dusk, I noticed the gate to the crypt was ajar, which I don't think it was when I was sketching, or maybe it was but just hadn't been so scary under midday sun.
I went through the gate and looked in through the back window,
which in this light revealed that you can see right through the crypt and out the window on the other side.
I had just read an Alice Munro story called "What Do You Want To Know For?" which was relevant here. The narrator is searching out the history of a crypt she discovered by accident and gets this explanation from a local resident.
The last time they opened it up. It was for Mrs. Lempke... There was just room for one more, and she was the one. Then there was no room for anybody more. They dug down to the end and opened up the bricks. You could see there were coffins in there before her, along either side. Put in nobody knows how long a time ago...
And straight ahead of the entrance way a little table at the far end. A table with a Bible opened up on it. And beside the Bible, a lamp.
It was the list of homely domestic items that stayed with me. And it occurred to me that if I were to shine a light into this crypt I might see an entire family, doing the things families do. Heating up instant burritos in the microwave. Fighting over who gets the shower first. MSN-ing friends until parents say, "you're way over your daily internet allowance and if you've got so much time on your hands why not Google the Tibetan Book of the Dead and find a way to get us all out of here!"
Strange to think of a place like this just being occupied by dead people. It could never happen in Toronto. A century crypt like this is just too tantalizing as real estate. You could sublet it in a heartbeat. "There are other people in the crypt but you won't even know they're there. Maybe put out some fresh flowers out once in while if you think of it, but otherwise it's very low maintenance. The view is to die for."
There's no substitute for the Victorian death aesthetic. I often like to walk through the cemetery at dusk with my big black dog and a doom metal band playing on my iPod. Once I was playing Sunn O))), a band who favour grim robes not just for performing, but also, it would seem, as casual wear for going to and fro in the earth and walking up and down in it;
and I'd like to know where I'd get one of those robes because they never have grim robes when I ask at Mark's Work Warehouse and if I say so myself I think I'd look wicked in one of those when I'm walking my dog through the graveyard.) On the night in question the composition on my iPod was "Báthory Erzsébet", Sunn O)))'s musical tribute to the eponymous16th Century Hungarian Countess who was also a mass murderer.
I walked and listened on my headphones. For the first seven minutes the piece remained a low drone. But then, just as I turned westward to a view of Christ the King Cathedral - bathed in the redness of the day's last light -
Sunn O))) cranked their amps up to eleven and I nearly jumped out of my skin! It was a perfect graveyard moment. I don't know where these archetypes originate, but I can think of no better means of purging the day's stress than with fearsome jolts from the dark corridors of the subconscious.
Invigorating though these jolts are, they are temporary and ultimately dispiriting and unhealthy, like a drug that creates instant euphoria and then leaves the user fatigued and depressed for days after. And once again the thought of the crypt leaves me with a less than heartening picture of the afterlife. Thinking of my own family, four people in a six-foot-by-eight-foot concrete room doesn't bode well for family harmony over a weekend, let alone eternity.
My most enduring image of a crypt is Bernard Pierre Wolff's photo of the Appiani family tomb in Genoa which appears on the cover of Joy Division's Closer.
The reason I know it so well is because in the 80s I hung out with a goth girl who lived in a one room apartment with no furniture and her only artwork was this album which leaned perpetually against an otherwise bare wall. She didn't have a stereo to play it on; it was just there.
I didn't paint a picture of crypt life as fun on a Saturday night. In fact the first time I saw the album cover I thought immediately of a poem by James "B.V." Thomson, called "The City of Dreadful Night," published in 1874, which I was writing a paper on at the time.
Thomson was an insomniac who wandered the streets of London uncovering a nocturnal world of mental anguish and despair. My favourite moment is when the poet walks into a church to hear a despondent preacher address a congregation, who might be models for Wolff's crypt tableau:
Around the pillars and against the walls
Leaned men and shadows; others seemed to brood
Bent or recumbent in secluded stalls.
The preacher's advice is simple. Life is hard, but at least you have nothing worse than annihilation to look forward to.
This little life is all we must endure,
The grave's most holy peace is ever sure,
We fall asleep and never wake again;
Nothing is of us but the mouldering flesh,
Whose elements dissolve and merge afresh
In earth, air, water, plants, and other men.
O Brothers of sad lives! they are so brief;
A few short years must bring us all relief:
Can we not bear these years of laboring breath?
But if you would not this poor life fulfil,
Lo, you are free to end it when you will,
Without the fear of waking after death.-
Today both the preacher and congregation would be on maintenance psyche meds and would be encouraged to do a lot of Yoga while deciding whether to go back and do a PhD or open an organic food store. As a civilization we are advancing.
I turned and left. On a more positive note, I have long been impressed by the power of names on stones, like expression marks for the long sonata of the dead. The single surname is more primal and distinguished than trying to capture a life in an epitaph. However the deceased is judged or remembered, I know that someone cared to hew this name - and by extension acknowledge this life - in the most durable medium available.
It reminds me of the record of names in the last stanza of W.B.Yeats' "Easter, 1916." While not world-famous, the names of the Rebellion's heroes impress us, despite containing no further information about the individuals or embedding them into poetic flourishes. Rather it's the stark listing of them that makes them powerful. Their fact.
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
(Incidentally that's...um...my dog in the bottom right corner of the photo above. She's a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog. Google it. I am not making this stuff up.)
Shortly after drafting this essay I was recalled to work. So my layoff was more a kind of recess than a permanent depression. And I once again occupy with pride a serious career requiring rigorous training.