Shelf Life

Shelf Life

moldy tub 

back of the fridge shelf

saved to save money

now lost to decay

so much food

we can’t eat it fast enough

bought in bulk

to save money

money is lost

when we can’t eat fast enough

when we eat fast enough

the time we save

is spent shopping for more

 

nothing that lasts

and when it does last

it can’t be used anyway

dispose don’t save

all those empty containers

take up more space

than we have to store what we need

they’ll come in handy

 

well if it hasn’t come in handy in a year

it’ll never come in handy

the surplus is comforting

but not profitable

share don’t save

the money you save

only pays off someone else’s bills

 

we reduce reuse

never have enough in the long run

while those that produce

what we have to reduce reuse

get fat bonuses 

and the prices keep going up

to cost us more than we save

 

when we run out

the planet gives its last gasp

don’t blame me

save your breath

even if there’s no profit 

in saving it

that is

if anyone can still breathe

on the back shelf

A neighbour recently cleaned out his garage and offered me two large boxes for jars & lids. All types of jars, glass, plastic. jars that had held jams, peanut butter, mayo and the like. He had kept them expecting to use them one day. When he ran out space in his basement he moved them to the garage. One box had 1995 written on the side, the other said 2010. He just hated to see them go to waste. I hated to think of what else he was still keeping for that someday when it would come in handy.

I identified with him though. I do have a drawer full of elastic bands mixed with bread bag clips – stopped buy bread in 1999. So this piece is about packaging and the hold ‘stuff’ can have on us.It also touches on  the fear of not having enough in a consumer culture in which having too much is seen as prosperity, while have enough is a compromise.

In Toronto we sort our garbage for recycling but I just don’t how much gets recycled – I’ve never seen a program that shows what happens to all those newspapers, tin cans, jars that we put in the right bins. Though I did see a news item a few years ago about how the cost of warehousing the city’s pick up of recycling is greater than is recouped by selling it so they were giving it away to some company and paying the shipping costs. I’m sure some executive got a nice bonus for facilitating that solution.

Toronto Hydro has a push for us wasteful consumers to reduce our power usage. More efficient lightbulbs, refrigerators and best times to lower the strain on the network. What about the strain die to sleep loss doing my laundry at midnight to save money? I wonder how energy efficient the Hydro offices are? solar powered computers? 


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Coal Dusters Chapter V

Chapter V

Lillian Sets The Table

“Now you remember that today is the day the union men are coming to speak with me.”
“Yes Unc … I mean Father Pat. I baked two pies last night.”

“Apple and rhubarb.”
“Yes, as you requested. I also made some of the chicken soup you enjoy.”

“Not too meaty I hope.”

“No.”

“Good. We want them to know the Lord is bountiful but also that we aren’t foolish with his bounty.” He wiped the last of the egg yolk up with a crust of the bread.

“This is very good bread, Lillian. You have learned very quickly. I’ll never forget that first loaf.” He laughed as she blushed. “I’m still using it as a door stop at the church.”

“God finds a use for everything.” She forced a laugh. It was all she could do not to run from the room to cry.

As he got up, she took his plate for her own use. Once he was gone, she sat at the table with her egg on a thin slice of bread. She held her breath till she heard the gate swing shut. This meant he was gone. She looked down at the yellow yolk of the egg and screamed. She beat the table with the palms of her hands.

She stopped abruptly and ate her breakfast.

There was much to do before the union men arrived for their lunch. This would be first time anyone had been into the house other than Mary Francis who would bring them fresh vegetables and milk once a week. 

She didn’t know what her father had told her uncle but it was clear she was not to leave the house unaccompanied. He would walk with her to his church where he did trust her enough to help with the children in the Sunday school rooms.

She took her mop and pail into the dark dining room. The window faced St. Agatha’s Church and very little light came through at any time of the day. No matter how much she cleaned, the house was never clean enough for her. Coal dust from the mines would be caught up by even the slightest breeze and get into the house. Even as she washed and wiped things down now, she knew by lunch time there would be some grime to catch her Uncle’s eye.

She continued from that room to the front parlour. Not much could be done to the over stuffed settee. She took the doilies off it and the other arm chair and shook them in the sun. She wiped the mantle piece and the sideboard twice. There was a rough wooden crucifix with a gleaming silver Jesus over the mantle where a mirror might have been. On one end of the mantle in a less-gleaming silver frame was picture of Pope Pius XI in white vestments. His hand raised in blessing. She lifted it gingerly to wipe behind it. Before she continued she genuflected before the portrait. 

She then dusted the heavy legs of the dark wooden chairs that flanked the front window. The window looked out on Upper Victoria Street. The window panes had been imported by a previous parish priest. They were thick but clear with beveled corners. Lillian looked forward to cleaning them to enjoy the refraction of light that came though the bevel angles. This room was the most ornate in the house. 

Father Patrick kept their private quarters as if they were cloister but here, where he might receive members of the parish, he allowed some ostentation. The furniture had been shipped from Boston from the estate of an aunt who had willed it to him. 

Was it her fault that her father had money while all Patrick had was religion? Was it her fault she had been brought up with servants – a cook, housemaids – who did all the chores in their home so she never had to do them herself. She had never cooked, washed a floor, or even had to worry about doing laundry. Now here she was doing all these things.

Now here she was having to be careful that her private things weren’t seen by anyone. Washing her undergarments in secret, as if sunlight might reveal them to be what … she wasn’t sure. 

The memory of her uncle’s reaction to them when he examined the contents of her trunk was even more shaming to her than her first attempts to bake bread.

The morning passed quickly. Lillian found she worked better without the help of Annie. Not that the local girl was slow but Annie never had the hurry or the need to please as deeply as Lillian did. Her uncle would rail at Annie for small things and she would stand there blank faced and nod and keep on doing what she was doing the way she wanted to. After two months it was deemed that Lillian had the skills to do what was required and Annie had been reduced to being used only when needed.

When her uncle railed at Lillian she was fearful. She didn’t want bad reports going back to her father in Boston. The better she did here the sooner she hoped she would be able to return to her comfortable life. Her brothers’ letters were full of events and people she longed for plus there was the tantalizing suggestion he might be getting married in the fall. Surely she would be allowed to attend the nuptials.

She had made a simple chicken soup for the lunch. There was enough for several people as she wasn’t told how many were expected. Soup was easy to stretch out with a bit of water and a pinch of salt if there wasn’t enough. There would be sandwiches. 

She carefully buttered the bread. If there was too much butter spread, her uncle would chastise her for being wasteful. Bread was good on its own, he told her, but for company he requested the butter along with thin slices of hard cheese.

She slipped a wedge of the pale yellow cheese into her mouth. This was another of the foods that were rarely served in the house. Even with its lack of taste the cheese delighted her. She was grateful that the meals her uncle enjoyed were simple and did not tax her limited kitchen skills.

As the soup simmered she went back to the dining room to make sure the table was set properly. One skill she had brought with her was the ability to set a table for guests. Knives, forks, wine glasses and soft linen napkins all in their proper places. The china and silverware were the few expensive things her uncle owned. 

The china was from a Royal Worcester set that had come into her family and been split amongst her aunts and uncles. Her uncle had a serving for six, almost, as over the years various plates or bowls had been broken. The ten-cup tea pot was serviceable. It pleased her to run her fingers over the thick roped gold edging of the soup bowls. The soup tureen she had to use wasn’t part of the set though, but she trusted no one would notice.

“Lillian!” her uncle called as he came through the front door. “Lillian!”

“Yes Father Patrick.” She put the soup bowl carefully back on the table and stepped into the parlour.

“Here is some wine from Mrs. Donati.” He handed her a glazed earthen ware jug.  “You did clean the wine glasses.”

“Yes.” Did he think she would neglect his pride and joy.

He followed her into the dining room. He took the wine glasses off the table and set them on an oval silver tray around an empty crystal decanter. These had been left by the last priest.

“We’ll only need, let me think, three, no four including me.”

“There’ll be four for lunch then Father Pat?” She began to remove the unneeded place settings from the table. “You won’t be crowded.”

“These are a wonder.” her uncle held one of the heavy crystal glasses up to the window to admire it in the dim light. “Father Guinness had an eye for good crystal. Such a wonder.” 

A wonder to keep clean she mused. “Is there anything else I should tend to? Before your guests arrive?”
“No. I’ll pour this wine into the decanter. Bring me something to strain it with. Mrs Donati’s wine is delicious but the sediment can be distracting.”

She brought him the piece of cheesecloth she often used. She knew it was porous enough for the wine.

“Those pies smell heavenly.” he said taking a deep breath. 

“Thank you Father Pat. I put them to warm as you suggested.” 

There was a knock at the door.

“I’ll let them in.” Her uncle took the tray with the glasses and wine into the parlour and set it on the side board. “Don’t come in until I call for you.”

 

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Coal Dusters – Chapter IV

Chapter IV

Lillian McTavish Makes Breakfast

Even though the chill of spring was over Lillian shivered under the heavy woollen cover. It wasn’t even a blanket as far as she was concerned. It kept the heat in but she was cold. The sheet between her and the wool wasn’t thick enough to keep the coarse fibre from chafing her feet.  The cover was the same as everything in her uncle’s house. Coarse. Homemade. She tried to picture the parishioner who had made this and brought it as gift to her uncle. It was meant to be a rug. Under it she tugged her mother’s shawl tighter around her shoulders. The shawl smelled of comfort, of the life she had left behind to come here to this clumsy backwater coal mining town.

Lillian pushed the stiff cover off her and swung her feet to the floor. They recoiled from the cold. She should have left the rug where it was but pulling it over her in the night was the only way she could think of to keep warm. Her uncle had offered one of the quilts but she had refused. The tattered rag-patterned comforters looked even more homemade than the rug.

Lillian put on her slippers and wrapped her dressing gown around her. The dark blue silk was embroidered with small pink flowers along the hem with larger ones on the pockets and lapels. It was one of the few things her uncle had let her keep when she arrived. He believed her Boston clothes were too good, too impractical for someone living his house. He didn’t want anything to be a distraction for his parishioners.

“Such gaudy goods are a sign of a lack of faith. The Lord wants us plain when we stand before him not gussied up as peacocks.” He had said this as he went through her trunk shoving all her pretty clothes aside and picking the ones he deemed suitable. “The trunk be in the attic till you are fit to leave us. Your father thinks he’s made a man of himself but he never knew the meaning of decorum. I’m not surprised you arrived so ill-prepared.”

Her tears made him impatient with her. Now here she was dressing in rough, colourless, shapeless pinafores, coarse linen shifts that gave her no shape. She wondered if he was more concerned with her being a temptation to him than a lure of Satan to his parishioners.

Her room didn’t have a mirror. She hadn’t seen her face clearly since she arrived three months ago. There were no mirrors in the priest’s house and certainly none in the small church.

She splashed cold water on her face. Her hands were red and chafed from the housework she was now responsible for. Learning things here that her uncle said her father and mother had failed to teach her. How to be a woman who could serve others, not a wonton who only served her own pleasures.

She sat at her dressing table to brush her hair. More than her clothes, she missed the lotions and creams she could use to keep her hands, soft, to keep her hair radiant. All she had been allowed some Castile rose soap. She stared at the space on the wall where a mirror had once been. She knew that by the discoloured, and water-mottled rose wallpaper around a clean rectangle of red roses.

She tugged the brush through her hair trying to be gentle with the knots that always crept into it overnight. She resisted the temptation to pull harder, not wanting to break it off in clumps. She longed for a long, hot bath but that wasn’t possible in this house. Too much work to heat enough water for a bath. 

One snag pulled painfully at her scalp. She began to cry. This was unbearable. All she had wanted to do was get married. At twenty-two it was time for her to get married yet her father was always on the guard for young men who wanted his money, wanted her for his money. At the same time her mother was wary of men who might not respect her as a woman. Men who would corrupt her with their unwholesome demands.

When she had met David Henderson two summers ago, she hoped she had found someone to please them both. Older than her by five years, David came from an equally prosperous family. He was modest. The two of them had signed temperance cards. They had never been together unchaperoned expect when they walked to church together.

Yet when he asked her father for her hand in marriage her father had said no. He forbade her to ever see that ‘Henderson man’ again. When she pressed him for an explanation her father told her she was only to obey. At church the next week she was told that David had been sent to England by his family. His family also claimed this would be an unwise match. She later learned the the problem was that David’s mother was Jewish. 

That was when James Dunham came into her life. A dashing and very rich man in his thirties who charmed both her mother and father. James had no family in Boston and was there to establish himself in banking. A man her parents trusted and whom she was allowed to be alone with to go to the theatre.

Only he didn’t take her to the theatre every time. He would make a great show of it to her parents and then whisk her back to his rooms at the Lennox Hotel. There they would dine in private. He was eager to show her what ‘unwholesome demands’ meant on two occasions. On the second her father arrived at the door unannounced. The hotel manager thought it wise to alert her father as to what was happening.

Cape Breton was where she had come to from the bright promise of Boston. Her father was about to become a senator and here she was exiled in shame is this dirty coal-mining slag heap of a village. At least she didn’t end up in a home for wayward girls. Even though she had miscarried she was deemed unfit to be seen as member of the family in Boston society.

Her father’s brother, Uncle Pat, whom she was now to refer to as Father Patrick, had agreed to take her in. He needed a housekeep, as his letter proposed. Housekeep! All she had here was an occasional kitchen helper. She was sorry she hadn’t died when she lost the baby.

“Lillian. Lillian are you about.”

“Yes Uncle Pat. I will be down momentarily.” She gave up with her hair. Without a mirror or the proper pomades there was no point in trying maintain it. 

She shrugged her smock on over her head and tied a dark blue rag around her hair to keep it off her face.

In the kitchen she was relieved to see that her uncle had cut wood for her. Most mornings he left that work to her. He had even started a fire in the stove. He sat at the small pine table in the one chair in the room.

“Thank you Father Pat for getting the fire going.” She had learned quickly that her uncle expected gratitude for every thing he did around the house.

“It is my pleasure to be of service.”

She pumped water into the kettle and set it on the stove. 

“Tea will be ready shortly.” she told him. “Would you prefer the Ceylon or the English?”

“The Ceylon I think. Yes, it’s definitely a morning for the Ceylon.”

Lillian put the iron skillet on the stove and greased it lightly. It was quickly hot enough for the one egg and one piece of bacon that her uncle ate every morning with one thick piece of bread. She was to prepare his before she could eat anything. She wasn’t allow the bacon. 

Her uncle had come to Cape Breton several years ago after two years in a monastery. There he enjoyed an austere life of silence free of concern about, what he now called, objects. Yet he found the solitude taxing and decided that he was more suited to being of service with humanity in a more direct way.

The kettle whistled and she poured the water into the tea pot. She was allowed to have a cup of tea with him but was to remain stranding. He claimed eating in the morning together would be unseemly. Too similar to what properly married Catholics would do.

Lillian crossed herself at the time as he did before he said grace.

“Lord for the food we are about receive I humbly thank you. We also thank you for keeping Pope Pius in good health. Amen.”

Lillian said the amen with him. She served him his breakfast.

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Hip To Be Them

 

Hip To Be Them

because of my entitlement

pronouns are irrelevant

but to some 

every he his him

in a text is an attack

on their identity

they feel discounted distanced

 

I could think

don’t be such sensitive

cry babies

who feel every thing in life

that doesn’t kowtow to your comfort

is an attack on your sense of self

but I accept this sense

of being made invisible

being treated as a non-person

not included 

not seeing yourself represented

in a meaningful respectful way

 

I grew up as a queer boy

who never saw otherness of any kind

represented except in a sneering way

that equated gay with feminine

setting the standard

that anything not masculine 

was not valued

 

if it wasn’t represented 

it didn’t exist

or merely wasn’t worth representing

I began to realize

that mens’ fragile masculinity

wouldn’t allow anything

to reflect on that fragile masculinity

so buddy movies always had the

culturally acceptable romance subplot

so no one could sense any homoerotic 

shenanigans were possible

between the men

 

pronouns have become relevant

definition creates awareness & possibly change

but because it’s irrelevant to me 

what pronouns anyone chooses

that doesn’t keep me from respecting

its relevance to you

I sometimes forget who has opted to be a them. I find it awkward to do a review of a poetry reading when there are assorted pronouns to deal with which them is them referring to? I try to stick to names as much possible particularly when it isn’t clear who is a they from the outset. At the Playground Conference people were given stickers to chose from – he, she, they, or ask me. I chose the ask me, but no one did. At my age one is no longer considered sexually viable & are rendered invisible – so pronouns are my irrelevant.

 

Gendered neutral language is still so tentative that using it is a political statement. I wonder if sometimes people are looking to be argumentative rather than self-defining – a sense that use of pronouns covers the itch to get into a intellectual slap fight. If one chooses to use the pronoun that goes with their cisgender, regardless of how supportive they are, they become the enemy for not shedding culturally imposed grammar.

I like the way that gender roles are being challenged by something as simple as specifying a pronoun. The reactions to this have mainly been cisgendered heterosexual men who are intrenched in their right to decide just how you are to demonstrate your gender – i.e. all gay men are limp wristed feminine punch lines to jokes. Any challenge to their entitlement turns them into self-righteous victims of the very people they want to victimize.

Fragile masculinity forces these men to say things like ‘no homo’ rather than express some sort of affection towards another men. They respect a bully and elect proudly womanizing presidents. Imagine if that president wanted to be called they – I half expect him to start using the royal we. Personally I have chosen “it” or “that” for use in my bio, or, when given the opportunity, at conferences or readings.

   

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Coal Dusters Chapter III

Chapter III

Birk Teaches Clancy Sinclair A Lesson

When he was back in his spot Birk chopped faster, sent larger chunks of coal down to Clancy. He didn’t worry about making them smaller as he had for the first load. Let Clancy break ‘em. Call him a monkey would he. Time to show that soft arse how hard mine work was.

When he knew there was enough for another load he scrabbled back to Clancy. 

“Gettin ‘re done b’y.” He peered at the scree. “Not bad.”

He pounded hard with the head of his pick to reduce the larger chunks. The smaller the pieces the more the cart hold. The more they shipped up the more they would get paid.

After the third load Birk got his lunch pail from the niche by one of the support staving. He hunched with his back against the wall and opened it up. Clancy leaned gingerly against the wall, his legs stretched out as far as he could in the space they had. He rubbed at his back.

“Being big’s not always good, eh?” Birk said. “Some never gets to stand up straight after a a few months down here. You’ll see’em hunched wherever they go in or out of the mine.” He took a swallow of his tea. Didn’t taste right without a bit of sugar. He rinsed his mouth with it and spat it out. Cleaning his mouth of coal dust as best as he could before biting into his lunch. Bread with some grease drippings spread on it. Today he had a thin piece of the wedding cake. His sisters had already picked the icing off it. The bit of sweetness left almost cut through the taste of the coal in his mouth. The cake was as tasteless as the bread. He wondered if he could dissolve it his tea to sweeten that some.

“Done?” he shut his pail.

“Yep.”

“Back to it then b’y.”

“Yep.”

“That all ya got ta say?”

“Not much of a talker.”

“Couldn’t shut Manny. Talk the head off a rat given the chance.”

“Yeh, well, its bad enough t’work with one let alone wanna to talk to one while I’m eatin’.”

Birk twisted around. 

“I’m a rat, eh? Monkey ‘s bad enough, ya snotty main lander.” He swung at Clancy and slipped on the uneven ground at the same time.

Clancy was on top of him, batting at Birk’s ribs then ears. 

“You half-size rat giving me orders all day. Think l’m going to put wid that.”

Birk got one knee into Clancy’s stomach and pushed him off. The tunnel wasn’t high or wide enough for either of them to stand and take punches. They wrestled each other to his knees. Head butting when possible.

Birk could taste blood in his mouth.

“Yer a tough guy for a rat you know.” Clancy had his forearm under Birk’s chin. “Smell worse than one, too.”

Gasping, Birk hit Clancy as hard as he could in the side.

“Christ, breakin m’ribs.” he rolled off.

“Ya stay there for now laddie.” Birk leaned against the wall. “I got work to do. This way yer not underfoot.”

Birk went back the face he was working on. Each blow of his pick axe was a blow into the grinning face of Clancy. No one pushed him around. At eighteen he’d been in the mine for five years now. He knew what he was doing and how not to take anything from anyone. If you took it yer were on the losing side. 

He could hear Clancy raking away the scree. The need to prove he was the top man here was as important as making sure they got enough coal loaded.

They worked the rest of the shift without speaking. Eating their supper in separate nooks in the shaft.

It was night when they came to the surface with the rest of their level’s day shift. Birk headed straight to the wash up room after he hung his work clothes on their hook and pulled them up to the ceiling.

This was when he moved as fast as he could. The first in got the cleanest water. He wasn’t sure where the blood in the wash bowl was from, then he recalled the dust up with Clancy. Showed him this little guy can’t be dealt with that way. 

He took a straight razor out of his lunch pail, lathered his face as best he could and began to shave under his chin. He glanced up at Clancy who was opposite him splashing water onto himself. He was trying to wash the grime out of his red hair.

“Yer hair will be black fer’ver m’son.” He stopped shaving a moment.

“Only those don’t know how to wash proper have that problem.” Clancy replied.

Birk finished his shave, rinsed his face off. The skin was always fresh to the touch when he’d done that. He ran his hand long to make sure he got most of his whiskers. Without a mirror he did as best he could. At least he missed a different spot each time.

“Get a move on,” one of the waiting miners shouted. “Some of us got dust to wash outta our arse hair too, you know.”

The miners laughed.

Birk dried himself quickly and got back into into his overalls and shirt. He could smell the clean of the shirt. His body ached for that big bed. Ah, yes, that almost made the day bearable now that he had that all to himself. Something to look forward too. No snoring Geo to deal with ever again.

“Same time tomorrow, soft arse.” Birk gave Clancy one last shove. “Keep pissin’ on them hands too or ya won’t last the week.”

Jake was at the exit gate waiting for him. Birk couldn’t wait to to tell him about the new guy he was breaking in. 

“Main landers always think they know it all.” Jake said.

“Thanks to the union we have ‘ta let ‘em work then act as if we’re the ones doing them a favour.”

When he got home he tugged off his work boots and socks. The cool air was always good on his bare feet. He tossed the socks and his face rag into a bucket and poured water over them. He’d scrub them out in the backyard later.

Blackie was home sitting at the kitchen table.

“Gotta another new guy. Why do I always get’ em. A big mouth main lander. Manny got that sweet job in the train yard. When’s the union gonna do something for me beside taking dues. I shoudda had that spot, you know. That Red Mac never considered me much.”

“My fault b’y.” Blackie nodded his head. “Should a been a mick. Not yer fault he takes his direction from the priest. Manny ‘s the priest’s pet. You know that. Probably told Red Mac the devil would get him if he didn’t do right by Manny.”

“What about right by me. I’s been there longer ‘n him, too. But I showed that new guy his place fast enough.”

“Whose his father?” Blackie asked.

“He’s outta Stellarton.”

“His Da’s probably a train man then. Wonder why he ended here and not the trains. Good money in that.”

His mother came in from the backyard with some carrots from their garden.

“Jus look at these.” She held up a some stunted roots. “Soil here’s so bad nothing grows. I tries every year and it’s the same.”

Maddy followed her in with some daisies.

“Thank you little miss.” Birk reached for them.

“They’s for Geo.” she hid them behind her back.

“I should a guessed. How long for we eat?”
“When they get here. Sheila bringing a fish stew she made to thank me for the cake I baked.” His mother wiped at the table.

“I’ll be above.” Birk went to the stairs. “How’s Sal?”
“Same. Sat up for a spell to look out the window. Weather’ll be fine soon to take her outside for awhile. Sunshine’ll fix her up fast.”

Birk went up to his room. Before he went in he looked in on Sal. She was propped up with a couple of pillows stroking the hair of a rag doll his mother had made for her.

“How’s my sweet sister today.” He said gently as he sat on the end of the bed.

“Don’t” Sal flushed in alarm. “Don’t get that dirt on dolly.”

“I … ” Birk stood and walked out of the room. “T’ think I shaved special for you. That’s all the thanks I get, eh?”

He flopped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. At least his room didn’t want to be rid of him the way his sisters did, or his new workmate did. It was a change to not have to put up with Geo hounding about the smell of his feet, as if Geo’s feet smelled of roses. Good luck to Sheila getting Geo to clean up better.

He drifted off to sleep to be wakened by loud laugher from below. His brother had arrived with his new wife. Same old Sheila but new all the same. He went down to the kitchen. 

Someone with his back to Birk was talking to Blackie. The someone turned around. It was Clancy.

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Falling Rocks

Falling Rocks

thinking for yourself

is a good thing

thinking only of yourself

isn’t the same good thing

 

I appreciate originality of thought

but not of disruption

when it seems

all you are interested in

is disruption

 

shaking things up

by destroying them

is not productive

not conducive to growth

when we spend more time

repairing or building anew

as opposed to building 

on what we already have

 

if what we already have

is so unsound

it will fall of its own according

and not

according to your judgement

so you can stop

jumping up and down on the earth

you may dislodge a few rocks

you can’t bring down the mountain

and those rocks 

will only fall on you

I’ve been involved with groups in which someone will come along with a great idea to improve things but only if the group does them without this someone having to take the action themselves. When the group resists or things don’t go as predicted the ‘someone’ blames others & rarely examines their initial suggestion for flaws. There are enough empty apartments, condos, & townhouses in Toronto that no one needs to be homeless. Property value trumps homelessness. Maybe housing isn’t the solution for homelessness.

I don’t pretend to be a paragon of unbiased virtue & easily see myself on all sides of this dichotomy – wanting change but sometimes unwilling to pay the cost or put in the effort to sustain such changes – particularly in the face of so many others who resist or even deny the need for change. We’ll solve homelessness by criminalizing panhandlers or by refusing to create a social system for them and sending them to where there is such a social system. Then gripe about all the panhandlers in downtown Toronto.

There are those who want the welfare system tightly controlled to eliminate fraud so only the truly deserving get the benefits of their tax money that fund that system, while they have clever accountants making sure they pay the least amount or if possible no taxes. I’ll end here before someone reports me to Canada Revenue to send those rocks down on my head. 

 

Political events in the USA were in my mind when I wrote this – people voting for Trump because of the smart changes he promised to make in the health system to give people greater freedom of choice that once he got in, they discovered their vote resulted in that they didn’t have the financial ability to enjoy the freedom of choice of accessing the benefits that had been enjoying. Ouch! Falling rocks 🙂

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Coal Dusters Chapter II

Chapter II

Birk Nelson Gets A New Rake Man

The sun was rising over the steaming mounds of slag coal. The mound never got any smaller no matter how much was carted away to the wash plant. Coal was already being loaded into a rail car to be transported to the dock.

They went into the change room and lowered their work clothes from the overhead hangers. 

“Birk Nelson!” Red Mac, the shift foreman, called to him.

“Yeah.” Birk grabbed for his brass counter. 

“Birk,” the foreman nodded for him to come over to the small office. “This is Clancy Sinclair. He’ll be your rake man.”

“Manny was doing okay.” Birk squinted at Clancy.

Clancy looked to be a head taller than him, a lot wider in the shoulders with blond almost brown hair. 

“Not my say so,” Red Mac shrugged. “Orders from above. Manny’s moving on to the scuttle yard.”

“Fuk,” Birk spat. He had hoped to get that position. Scuttle yard was where the coal was loaded into the rail cars. It was as hard work as being under in the mines but it was above ground. All the miners longed to work above ground.
“I know you wanted it but yer too good. Yer a lucky chap Clancy. Birk Nelson is one the best we got.”

“Yeah sure. Sticking me with this skinny rat. He must disappear down there.”

“Whose yer father?” Birk asked.

“Scott Sinclair.”

“The Bras D’Or Sinclair’s?” Birk said.

“Nah, Stellarton.”

“Main lander?” Birk said.

“What of it?” Clancy replied.

Birk grabbed Clancy’s left hand. Clancy pulled it away.

“What you up to?”

“Checking to see how tough your hands is. Skin’s too soft this job.”

“Least we’ll know when my hair ‘s clean. You black as coal already.” he sniffed the air. “You sure you washed ‘for you came here?”

“Mac, you stick me with puddin’ boy here and I won’t make enough to pay for a pint let alone our tic at the pluck me.”

“Soft! Least I’m full size.” Clancy stood as tall as he could. “Not some half-sized hairy mine monkey.”

“Who you callin’ a monkey, you soft arse.” Birk launched himself at Clancy and landed two solid punches in quick succession. One to the side of Clancy’s head and the other to his stomach.

Clancy staggered back and was ready to punch back when Red Mac pushed stepped between them.

“Nuf of this. You want beat the dust out of each other do it out of my yard.”

“Then stick this soft arse with someone else ‘cause only one of us is coming back up and you know it’s me.”

“Both of you will come back. Listen and listen good Birk Nelson. You have sisters who need what you put on the table. Next time to want to take a swing at someone keep that in mind, ‘cause the next time you take a swing at me you’re out of here. You understand that.”

Birk snatched his lunch pail and rammed it under his arm.

“And you Clancy. You’re new here. You gotta learn to mind your tongue. This isn’ a place to run off at the mouth with guys you don’t know. Some here wouldn’t be as gentle wid ya as Birk here was.”

“No one calls me soft.”

“Who is to say.” Red Mac pulled himself up to his full height – a head taller than Clancy, two heads taller than Birk. “Only a soft arse would let himself get riled up this easy. And that goes for the two of you. Birk you take him down to the face with you. I’ll be down soon enough to make sure you’re acting the way men should and not school kids. Understand.”

“Yes sir.” Birk glared at Clancy. “Follow me.”

“I’m not taking orders from him. You’re not paying enough for that.”

“You want to work or not. I git plenty looking for work here me son. Plenty. You can go back to …”

“Christ! I’ll give it a try.” Clancy cut Red Mac off.

“Come along then,” Birk grunted and added under his breath, “soft arse.”

“What you say?” Clancy snapped back.

“I said come along we got a long way to go. Level Ten.”

They got into the cage with a dozen other miners. Adjusted their head lamps as it rattled down the shaft. The shift car pushed the men back and forth. Each time Clancy was forced up against Birk, Birk roughly shoved him away. 

The smell of earth got stronger as the cage descended. Earth and coal. The dampness increased. As the cage passed some levels Birk could hear water dripping, or blasts as new seams were opened. The levels spread out from the elevator shaft. Some for a few hundred yards, others went for miles. Some, such as the one on Level 10 went under the ocean. Birk still expected his pick would punch right through to the sea bed above.

Total blackness quickly enveloped the men but not all of them turned on their lamps. It was better to let the eyes adapt to the dark as quickly as possible. Birk could find his way to the face he was working on without light. 

“Stick close now or yer arse is going get hard fastern than you want it.” Birk said when they got off the cage. He took a deep breath. “Better take a breath while you can. That’s the last of the fresh air you’ll get till we’re ready to head up.”
“Get moving.” Clancy give Birk a slight shove.

Knowing his way Birk moved quickly over the uneven surface to the crease where he was working. He could hear Clancy stumbling behind him. That’d teach the big mouth who was the big man.

“Watch yer head here.” He muttered as they came to the final turn. He ducked down and then up avoiding the staving joist that was holding the ceiling.

“Oof.” 

“Y’d think y’d never been in the dark before.” Birk chuckled as he heard Clancy bump the rafter.

“Never down this deep.” Clancy was trying to catch his breath.

“Better get used to it quick, as yer going t’be spending most yer awake time in the dark, same as in your sleep time. Day light’ll not be your pal again.” He stored his lunch can behind the upright paling that helped to support the weight of the ceiling.

“Thanks.” Clancy gasped.

Birk stopped and Clancy stumbled into him.

“Watch it.” Birk pushed him back. “Tight nuf in here ya know. Here’s yer rake. You know how to handle one.”
“Christ yeh. I rake, pile and when pile is big nuf we shovel it in into the cart, when the cart is full we get it to the line to dump it into the shuttle.”

“Trick is to keep up wid me boy.”

Birk tied his face rag around his mouth and nose, tuned his headlamp on and starting hammering with his pick axe at his crease. As the shards and chunks of coal loosened he pushed them behind him for Clancy to rake away. 

After a few minutes his shoulder muscles loosened and his mind stopped thinking about anything except what he was doing, how fast he was doing it. Steadily he deepened the vein as he followed it along. He could feel the change in vibration in his pick as hit different types of rock, sulphur, granite, different strata of the vein, even different hardnesses of the coal itself. He had no sense of time but of quantity. Once he had dislodged enough coal to fill the hopper he wriggled out to help Clancy push the cart to the main line. Before they dumped into the shuttle he relived himself on the coal.

Clancy was about to do the same. Birk took Clancy’s free hand and peered at in the light of his headlamp. The skin on the hand was rubbed raw, bleeding along the thumb.

“Just as I thought soft. Piss on it.”
“What?” Clancy tired to pull away.

“Yeh it’ll help toughen the skin faster. Took me a week before m’hands could take it.” He watched as Clancy rubbed his hands in his own urine.

“Christ feels okay.”

“Don’ think I forget what ye called me up there but don’t want you to slow me down any either. You un’stand.”

“Yeh.”

“Do ya think ya can keep up wid me by?” Birk muttered.

“Nothing to it.” Clancy wheezed.

“You gotta learn to breath down here.” Birk said. “You breathin’ too deep.”

All they could make out of each other in the dim light of their head lamps was their eyes. Their face coverings were coated with black dust.

“I’ve been keepin’ a bit slow. Two more of these and we take a wee break for eatin.” He began to shove the cart back to where they were working. 

“Oof.” Clancy bump hard into the low rafter.

“Listen an learn. Not goin to warn you every time m’boy.”

“I’m not yer b’y.” Clancy snarled. “Keep goin’ ya damned monkey.”

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Chubby Emitt Blossoms

Picture this – your lead singer is such a drunk your label fires him after recording your first album, the album is a smash, you have hits with songs he wrote. But you can’t get him back because he committed suicide after being fired. Hollywood fiction? No, this is the story of The Gin Blossoms. The album was New Miserable Experience. I still have a review & write up about the band that was published in Entertainment Weekly.

With all that drama I expected Experience to be dark & brooding but instead it was light, cheerful. Songs were about breakups & romantic difficulties. Their sound was very Byrds – sweet guitar, strong harmonies. Comfortable. They followed it up with ‘Congratulations …I’m Sorry’ & later ‘No Chocolate Cake’ They’ve released other lps but these 3 are all I needed. Later albums are solid pop music, easy to listen to & lyrically they remain in that angsty sweet romance territory.

Also on this mp3 collection is music from the late-60s Emitt Rhodes. The Merry-Go-Round Live: the band he started with; then 3 of his solo lps Emitt; Mirror; Farewell To Paradise – by solo I mean he does everything. Plays every instrument. This was a thing back in the day & it was done without GarageBand 🙂 The group album is another Byrds/Cyrcle sound of radio friendly pop. 

I had the first two solos as lps then eventually replaced them with mp3. He sounds a like Paul McCartney (who also did a couple of I-play-everything lps). The songs are sweet, full of domestic playfulness. More a curiosity than compelling music. This I-play-everything has been taken up by Stevie Wonder, even Prince.

 

To span decades & styles I also have The Best of Chubby Checker here. He’s before my time but I do enjoy this r’n’b James Brown lite stuff that sold millions. He was part of the dance craze craze with songs here like The Fly, The Twist & even the Mashed Potatoes. Finally to bring things into this decade is some Nosaj Thing: Drift – fun electronica. All music you can dance to so – everybody do the peppermint twist.

Party in Pink

‘Do you think it’ll work? I mean does it suit me?’ The woman stood in front of the mirror holding a shapeless, pink lace blouse in front of herself.

‘Looks great. Good colour for you. What do you think David?’

‘Humm.’

Tracy always called on him for these final moments with a customer who had been worrisome. The woman had been in the story for about thirty minutes. The longer they took the less likely it was they would buy.

‘It’s for a party I’m going to. It isn’t too, you know …’

‘It’s fun but formal.’

‘I don’t want to look like a … ’ her voice dropped, ‘slut. You know what I mean.’

Dave wanted to laugh. Slut. It would take more than a blouse to make this mousy woman look like a woman let alone a slut.

‘No.’

‘I’m not sure. Let me look at that other one again.’

Tracy handed her a shiny silver pull over with small mirror beads sewn around the wrists and neck.

Dave went to overcoat section where a man had been taking coats down.

‘Can I help you, sir?’

He had been reluctant to go over as overcoats was Mr. Oaks speciality. No one sold these overpriced, dead weight coats as well as he did.

‘I was wondering …’

‘Yes?’

‘Are these waterproofed?’

David pulled a tag out of the sleeve of one of the coats.

‘Yes. It says here the wool has been treated to be water resistant.’

‘Water resistant is not waterproof.’

‘True.’

‘At this price I would expect it to be waterproof.’

‘Not in wool.’ Mr. Oaks joined them. His cologne was stronger so Dave knew he had been off for another visit to the facilities. 

‘Top quality is never waterproofed. You know what that does to the fabric. Destroys it. Absolutely. Oh, it looks fine but after a few rains you’ll be sorry. Stretches out. Looses its shape very fast, it does. Thanks to the waterproofing. Now these are the finest Alpinea wool, naturally water resistant. 

‘You know what that means? Water resistant? Water beads and rolls off. Simple.

‘Water proofing causes the fabric to hold water on the surface longer, it doesn’t just roll off but rather clings and drips. You have to hang to dry. Water resistant – once quick shake and its as dry as it needs to be.’

‘What do you think, dear?’ The man called over to the woman who was looking, once again, at the pink lace blouse.

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Taking Sides

Taking Sides

it is a matter

of what is relevant

of what I think

I can bring to the situation

without creating
even more a divide

when neither party

is willing to hear the other

 

they are each so invested

in the rightness of their opinion

of their interpretation of things

each sees the other

as an attack of fundamental values

of their personal wants & needs

 

in fact each side says things

that I once said & felt

but didn’t see the value in holding on to

harmony became more important

than forcing things to my view point

compromise was a sign of willingness

to change

 

which why I was willing

to keep my mouth shut

neither placating or explaining

people who don’t listen 

aren’t worth my time

 

Part of my past was the need to prove my ‘depth’ but getting caught up in arguments – or were they heated discussions – to demonstrate my insights, my articulate precision & also how right I was. Often these were issues that meant nothing to me – hockey violence – who really deserved that Oscar. 

Along with that was a need to be a placater – someone who could smooth things out between people & in the process show each side that neither was really right. The result was usually that I was sticking my nose in where it wasn’t needed. Which of course allowed all of us to feel unappreciated and giving us targets to vent our intellectual scorn upon.

I know that if I have to convince someone of anything then I’m wasting my breath. I can tell when someone isn’t listening, or open to listening. I see this in the ‘real’ world a lot – the teens against guns movement in the USA makes for good press but the people who need to listen already have fortified themselves against hearing anything with ‘these teenagers don’t know what they are talking about.’ Wanting to go to school without the risk of a massacre is seen as just a youthful, anti-capitalist folly caused by listening too much nasty hiphop.

I have an acquaintance who is pro-Trump. Pointing out the press about his actions – actual news footage that shows him saying thing he denies saying they just look at me as if I’ve been deluded. Last time she brought up Trump I changed the subject saying ‘We differ and there’s nothing to be gained.’ I become the one with closed mind because I don’t agree. Such is life. It isn’t worth my time trying to open it.

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Coal Dusters Chapter I

Chapter I

Birk Nelson Enjoys His Bed

Birk could hear his mother downstairs in the kitchen. Singing “Bringing in the sheaves” as she clanged the stove top covers. This was how she would wake them in the mornings. “The sheaves” was her favorite hymn and she would sing the same four words over and over. Her voice reaching as high as her rusty soprano could go. On Sundays she would change it to “We shall come rejoicing.”

He rolled onto his back into the sag in the middle of the bed and stretched his arms and legs as far as he could on either side. There was no one there with him. He had the entire bed all to himself. This had only happen once before when he sick with the measles and his brother George had been forced onto the small couch in the living room.

A bed all to himself. He didn’t want to get up. For the first time in his eighteen years he had slept alone. He didn’t have to pull the covers back on himself, didn’t have to push an elbow or a knee from his back. He’d dropped off to sleep quickly without Geo struggling to get comfortable in the bed because of his sore back or some other excuse.

The bedding still smelled of George though. He’d have to wash them himself to get rid of that. His Ma had enough to do without washing sheets on his whim. Would she let him air the mattress on the back fence?

When George had told them he was marrying Sheila his folks weren’t happy. It was hard enough for them to keep the family fed on what they earned in the mine. One less pay meant everyone would have to work harder, do with less. But Birk didn’t mind a little extra work as it also meant he’d have more in the long run. A bed of his own, a room to himself. His folks wouldn’t put either of his sisters in with him. That he knew for sure. A room where he could shut the door and be by himself. He could get accustomed to that.

“Birk! Birk!” His mother shouted up to him, the sound of his sister’s bare feet pounding up the stairs underlining the call for him to get out of bed.

The bedroom door was thrown open and Maddy leapt onto the bed.

“Where’s Geo?” she pulled the blanket off him. “Where he hiding?” She looked in the shallow closet.

He pulled her nearer to kiss and she shoved him away. “You too scratchy.”

“Geo’s not here anymore, Maddy. Remember.” Birk grabbed his clean shirt and overalls and put them on. “He’s married now. He’s living at Sheila’s house now.” Living there because the rules said to keep procession of their company house a man working in the mines had to live there. Geo was now the man of that house as Sheila’s dad had been killed in an accident last month.

“Oh,” Maddy frowned. “I didn’t think that’s what that meant. Why couldn’t he live here.”

“Yeah and where would I sleep? You’d share your bed with Sheila’s sisters? And brothers?”

“Don’t care.” Maddy ran down the stairs and Birk followed. His two sisters were always fonder of George than him. Even after a hard shift in the mines Geo always had time to play with them. Birk was glad to leave them to his brother.

“About time you got yer lazy legs outta bed.” His mother slopped the thin oat porridge onto a plate for him. “No sugar today. None for the rest of the week.”

“Yeh. I know.” The remaining supply of sugar had gone into the wedding cake. “Not bad without.”

“Get use ter that. Without the bit from George we’ll be pretty skint for special, you know.”

“Yeh, I know. I know. Blackie gone?” He rubbed at his chin. He’d have to give it a shave after his shift. He’d learned that doing it before a shift would cause bumps to start where the coal dust settled on his freshly scraped skin.
“Yer father was up and out here ages ago. No snoring away and getting up when he pleases. He cares more ‘bout those boilers than he does ‘bout us. Here’s yer lunch.” she dropped his lunch pail on the table.

Maddy opened it up. “Doesn’t eat as much as Geo does he. Guess he doesn’t work as hard either.”

“You little … ” Birk wanted to smack her.

“Watch yerself,” his mother glared at him. “There’ll be more come pay day.”

Birk shrugged. He knew that at eight Maddy didn’t know what she was saying. 

“How Sal?”

“She sleepin’ ” Maddy stuck her tongue at him “I’m the big girl now who gets to help Ma in the mornings. I packed yer lunch.”

“Fair.” his mother sat opposite him. “Company doctor says all she needs rest and fresh air and better food. Thinks we can afford better food on what the company pay. Besides them pit doctors don’t know what to do when there isn’t an arm or a leg to cut off.”

Sal was a year older than Maddy. The two girls were often mistaken for twins and loved to wear their thick red hair in similar braids. Both the same size they swapped clothes often, sometimes during the day at school so the teacher never was sure which of the Nelson girls they were talking to. Sal had developed a fever during the recent cold, wet spring.

“You better get goin’ Birk.”

“I know Ma.”

“Can’t afford t’have you docked for bein’ late or worse not get yer shift.”

“They won’t dare dock me Ma. Even Blackie knows I’m the best they got on the face.”

Being small for his age allowed him to fit in spaces bigger miners couldn’t work in. One of the few benefits of his size. When he started in the colliery five years ago they didn’t think he’d last but he did. 

Birk grabbed his lunch pail and stuck it under his arm, pulled on his cap. He folded the rag he used to cover most of his face from where it drying in the window. He put it in his back pocket. 

“I’ll say Hi to Blackie for yer.” He kissed his mother on the cheek and leaned to the same with Maddy. 

“I told ya too scratchy.” She gave him a playful slap. “Get that ugly away from me.” She pulled away.

“Yer loss.”

The back door shut quietly behind him. The dew was still on the grass and he headed to the lane to the mine. He waved to a couple of the other men on their way to their shifts.

Jake Malone who lived in the house opposite walked with him.

“How’s yer Da?” he asked.

“Blackie’s doing fine. Sal’s still poorly though.”

“Pity,” Jake coughed and spit a thick gob into the ditch. “One of our little ‘uns much the same. Nothing much we can do bout it though.”

“Yeh.”
“You’d think what they dock the pay for medical would help some. But not a bit. Jim Spot lost a hand last week, yer hear bout that?”
“Yeh. Ma says those docs only know to cut off. Anything other that that they always nod and say feed’ em better.”

“True. They coudda saved the hand if they had the right medicals. That’s what I heard. Damn union can’t do much for him. Almost bled to death.”

“Gotta be careful. All the time.”

“Sometimes can’t be careful enough when the time it takes to make things safe cuts into the time you get to work and they only pays by what we digs out. Not what we makes safe.” Jake coughed and spat.

They walked in silence the rest of the way. The lane branched into Pitt St.

“I always thought this was called Pit, wid one ‘t’.”Jake said.

“Tisn’t?” Birk looked at the tilted street sign. “So tis.”
“Yeh ‘cause we take it to get to the pit ya see. But Pitt is some prime mucky-muck in Britain.”

“At least it got a name. Mudside don’t have many street signs.”
Over the years Castleton Mines had become divided into two areas. The side closest to the colliery, where many of the miners and their families lived had become known as Mudside. It was separated from the rest of the town by several business that were on Chestnut Street. 

Chestnut backed along the waterfront. The docks there were used for loading the coal, some fishing boats and the Dingle Dandy, a ferry that stopped at several of the small towns along the coast.

#Toronto #coalmine #amwriting #Wordpress #gayromance #lgbtq #nanowrimo #CapeBreton #novel #Ontario

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