Ottawa Street is to fabric shopping as West 47 Street, New York, NY is to diamond shopping.
By Mark Fenton
Published November 08, 2007
When I first came to Hamilton the only person I knew here took me on a tour. I remember Ottawa Street well. It looked like the establishing shot for a documentary film about Hamilton.
Or rather, an establishing shot of the image non-Hamiltonians (myself included) had of it: a city built for a steel industry with a hodgepodge of utilitarian 19th and early 20th century architecture.
The best part was that it terminated in the well-titled gateway to Dofasco:
If I don't go into what brought me from Edmonton to Hamilton it's not because I'm being evasive. It's just that the circumstances, motives (non-motives?) and twists and turns that finally landed me here make no sense even to me.
While I have no interest in deceiving people when they ask, I've found subsequently that no two versions I tell are similar.
I often feel like K. in The Castle by Franz Kafka. He's simply sent (by whom? We never know) to take on a position of Land Surveyor in a strange town. When he gets there, no one can connect him with the job.
The administrative and judicial powers are housed in the "Castle" which looms over the city, and which - for K. at least - is strangely inaccessible.
I am not a land surveyor - I'm still not entirely sure what a land surveyor does - but I too can't remember who I was sent by, and I've often felt that I exist in a similar relationship to the Hamilton steel mills.
They are a focal point of the city and are what outsiders still associate with Hamilton. Yet I've lived here for 17 years now and have never been inside one of them. I've never gotten closer than K. got to the Castle.
Years after I "relocated" in Hamilton, I was working - via email - with an old University friend in Vancouver to develop a pilot TV show set in Hamilton. One quiet Thanksgiving Sunday I approached the factories to shoot some videotape that I could then, I guess, send to her to give a sense of Hamilton's "vibe." Turns out I was:
A hefty guy with a buzzcut drove up and jumped out of a company SUV, a vehicle whose scale I thought a little excessive for the job of apprehending me, unless they planned to throw me in the back with the dogs.
I apologized for being on his road, etc., and told him I'd just leave and wouldn't be bothering him any more, at which point he said, "Can't leave. Sergeant's got to talk to you."
Then, after a pause of studied irritation, he added, "...now," as though my response had escalated matters to such a crisis the higher ranks needed to be called in.
I don't know if he would have forcibly restrained me, but this potential had no time to be tested. A similarly marked vehicle (a modest sedan in this case and presumably standard issue for a sergeant who spends much of the day at his desk, pondering incident reports and zaprudering surveillance footage on people like me) was coming towards us. A small amiable man leaped out and took over the Q and A.
When asked why I was filming the property, I replied that I was just doing some location shooting for a possible CTV pilot.
(This was true as far as it went, and I've learned that peppering my defense with recognized corporate abbreviations goes a long way to convincing authorities that I'm neither a vagrant nor a serial killer, although there's no particular reason that being able to iterate the three letters of a TV network should be incompatible with either.)
He asked me which building I was interested in and I pointed and he said OK, but not to film it in the future. Evidently I hadn't photographed the building with the secret formula for steel or, more likely, one emitting byproduct in violation of government standards.
He released me and reminded me I was on a private road. The hefty guy had stood sullenly behind him the whole time continuing to stare at me, as if to say, "You might fool the sergeant, but you don't fool me."
I returned the way I'd come, but for the life of me I couldn't find the sign identifying it as a private road. As far as I'm concerned, without an obvious gate or very prominent sign - like, say, the one for Dofasco on Ottawa Street - a motorist assumes an organic connection from the road he's on to every other road on the continent and shouldn't be penalized for traveling a private road he's just supposed to know about. But then I've never understood how things work.
So part of the reason I like to go to Ottawa street is that it's close, but not too close, to my personal trespassing danger zone, the unreachable essence of the city.
As readers of these essays know, I often ask someone to accompany me on these tours. This time I was joined by Jennifer Dawson, a cultural anthropologist deeply involved in issues of sustainability for the city of Hamilton and beyond.
I thought I might be out of my depth, but she quickly put me at ease with her grasp of pragmatic facts of urban development.
Here's an example.
I thought this was a striking instance of a transient business, and a great way to get consumers actually onto a commercial block. "Basically," I told her, "it's to a barber shop what a hot dog stand is to a restaurant at a fixed address."
Jennifer informed me that to her eye it wasn't a place where a barber arrives daily with lather, strop, straightrazor, combs, and mirrors and shaves customers as they sit on a stool amidst the bustle of pedestrians. No, It was merely a warning sign not to proceed into an alley that barred traffic with vertical poles.
Red diagonal lines are a kind of universal warning. Her elucidation was friendly but so assured and articulate that despite our having moved to first names, I decided I wouldn't get so familiar as to call her "Jen" anytime soon.
It was about this point that I discerned her ulterior motive for coming down here. It wasn't just to take part in a photo tour. Her skill set is multifarious enough that she was going to be making Halloween costumes for her children, and as Ottawa Street is to fabric shopping as West 47 Street, New York, NY is to diamond shopping, this was the place to get the fabric.
Since she was doing her own thing for a bit, I took advantage of a momentary burst of fall light to capture the street in its essence.
My orgy of photographing was brief and intense. I feel that a fitting approach is to catalogue it in a manner resembling Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre".
If you haven't read it, do. But essentially the poem records the impressions of a delirious narrator adrift on a surreal ocean.
(Written when he was 17 and now possibly the single most famous French poem of the 19th century, it sure makes most of us wonder what we were doing with our vast disposable time in Grade 11. Let's all run to the basement, open that storage container, pull out that folder of teen angst poetry we haven't had the heart to recycle and just see what gems we might unwittingly have hewn from our pain!)
I won't quote the whole of "Le Bateau Ivre" but it's full of stuff like this:
Je sais les cieux crevant en éclairs, et les trombes
Et les ressacs et les courants: [...]
(I have come to know the skies splitting with lightnings, and the waterspouts
And the breakers and currents;)
J'ai vu le soleil bas, taché d'horreurs mystiques, Illuminant de longs figements violets [...]
(I have seen the low-hanging sun speckled with mystic horrors.
Lighting up long violet coagulations,)
J'ai vu fermenter les marais énormes, nasses
Où pourrit dans les joncs tout un Léviathan ! [...]
(I have seen the enormous swamps seething, traps
Where a whole leviathan rots in the reeds!)
--translation Oliver Bernard, 1962
You get the idea. My visions were urban, but no less immediate and strange. Here goes.
I have seen tall chimneylike projections
which no furnaces burn beneath and from which no smoke rises.
I have seen vintage art deco theatres
which no longer illumine a silver screen with vanished elegance.
(But might be what you need for those more mundane but necessary home-reno projects.)
I have seen signs as featureless
as a face lacking nose, eyes and mouth.
I have seen a wedding of vampires
so bloodless and inert they hunger for
the wedding night of the undead: to gorge upon the living.
I have known chickens, roasted and risen from the dead -
Angry - Entering taverns to hear songs their kind have sung.
Starved for an avian ideal of continental dining.
I have read the Bible
and have not the slightest clue what this sign is referring to
(truth be told I only skimmed Leviticus, so perhaps
therein these statements are explained.)
I have seen feral wildcats
Ready to spring upward onto the streets of Paris
(Actually, those words might appear somewhere in the Rimbaud oeuvre, so I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and credit him here. It's been a long time since I referred back to my dog-eared Complete Rimbaud, which I devoured surreptitiously under my desk in Chemistry class when I should have been paying close attention to Mr. Holden's explanation of benzene rings.
To his credit (Rimbaud's, not Mr. Holden's, though I'm sure I'd have found Mr. Holden a really good teacher if I'd bothered to listen), his poetry is the only reason I passed grade 11 French and am able to speak any French at all.
Granted, 19th century surrealist poetry only got me puzzled stares and laughter on the streets of Quebec City. Knowing Rimbaud almost by memory has never been any help communicating that I need a bathroom.)
I have wandered into to shops and seen antiquated images like these. This one
reminds me of Wallace Stevens' neglected, posthumous poem, "Piano Practice At The Academy Of The Holy Angels."
The time will come for these children, seated before their long
Black instruments, to strike the themes of love -
All of them, darkened by time, moved by they know not what,
Amending the airs they play to fulfill themselves;
Seated before these shining forms, like the duskiest glass,
Reflecting the pibald of roses or what you will...
In the past, this poem has seemed too insipid for me to admit how much I like it, so I guess that says something for the trust I feel with you people. (Thanks for that.) If I were to buy this picture I would print the poem in an elegant script and frame it similarly and hang them together.
I have - finally - seen an image of lovers so close, and yet ... strangely ... so apart.
At first they reminded me of the lovers on Keats' urn who are forever close to consummation but frozen in time, ever in anticipation, eternal in art:
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
--John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
What I find maddening in the photo is the fact that their noses are separated by about two millimeters of negative space!
It would be better if they were either overlapping, or else at a reasonable distance. It really bothers me! It's like holding my two forefingers as close together as I can without them touching. It's just makes me anxious and jittery and if I do it long enough I shriek.
As I look at them longer, these two robotic figures have more in common with the artwork for late 70s Kraftwerk
No, there's nothing Keatsean about my anonymous, Kennedy-era lovers. Even my vampire bride and bridegroom exhibit more sensuality and desire.
When I got back on the street Jennifer had all of her fabric and was bemused at my Quixotic findings on Ottawa street. She quickly pointed out what I should have discovered for myself, a row of shop windows with the strangest apparel. All of it things I will never wear.
I recall this figure enjoying a certain vogue a few years back but can't remember his name. I'm really hoping that tie-nub thing never becomes a fad.
I don't follow sports but, surely, this isn't the official mascot!
Don't even want to comment on this, although the Cyclopean eye of the metal ring seems to be gazing at more inquisitively than I am at it.
I only put this picture here because Jennifer seemed to indicate that it would be absurd not to document it.
And finally, the scariest.
First of all, it's disturbing for me that this was the only shop window where the angle and the light placed my reflection next to - and sort of gawking over - the subject.
There is something about a single female undergarment on a leopardskin chair that seems to challenge those of a certain fetish predilection (a set to which I resoundingly do not belong) to enter the shop and just try and resist handling it.
Our journey ended here, which, as it happens, is across the street from the first ever Tim Hortons.
Some days later I ordered a multigrain bagel from the Tim Hortons across the street from where I work. It was a busy morning and when I got back to the office and unwrapped the item, it was not a multi-grain bagel, but this!
I don't know what it's called but it contained a powdery, eggish layer, melted processed cheese and a thin tile of reconstituted and particularly sebaceous animal matter. There was no way I wanted to go back to that crowd, nor did I want it to be wasted. Soooo...
I ate it.
Some hours later I felt logy and unsettled and found an empty office space to lie down in.
In my dream I was following a chicken - a rooster in fact--out of the aforementioned CD Sports Bar Pub Café. He was angry. No one got in his way.
He crossed the road to get to the worlds first ever Tim Horton's, leapt onto the counter and cockadoodled an order for a French vanilla cappuccino. A radio tuned to an oldies station was playing a famous Willie Dixon blues.
Dogs begin a barkin'
Hoooounds, begin a howl.
Dogs begin a barking
Hoooounds begin' a howl.
Watch out stray cat people.
Little Red Rooster's on the prowl.
To which he strutted and jerked as though the song were written specially for him.
Things faded out for me but the next time I looked over Little Red Rooster was sitting with the two security guards from the steel mills. The ones who had apprehended me years ago. And Jennifer was with them! She must have been in on it all along!
They were examining a series of surveillance photos of me taking photos around the lingerie shop.
I couldn't make out what they were saying, but from one of them - it don't think it was Little Red Rooster - I distinctly heard the work "pervert."
There is a blackout and then, in dream logic, I'm back running across the street to the shop - it seems to take hours to get there - hoping to explain this whole mess to the owner.
But the window is empty. Nothing is as it was. A sign in some faux-Asian calligraphic font urges me in with an arrow.
But I knock and knock and no one comes.
And the conflicted message formed by the faded afterthought of the word "Don't," floats in front of me, in and out of focus.
Someone is poking me in the back. Thinking it's a co-worker I open my eyes, expecting to be delivered from this nightmare.
But it isn't a finger. It's a beak.
Little Red Rooster. One red chicken eye staring relentlessly into mine. A stare so intense and penetrating it would crack my psyche like an egg.
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