Spring is sprung in a cold Canadian way. Canada geese tread water and shards of ice at our cottage. Getting ready to breed.
And they aren’t alone…
On my friend, Gail Hamilton’s farm, on a warm sunny day, you will encounter THIS!
Buried under the heap of writhing reptiles are some very bothered female garter snakes. ARGH!!
Important to remember though that garter snakes are not venomous and perform a valuable ecological service in keeping down the insect and rodent populations. More of them is a good thing.
Our daughter had a pet garter snake named Slither. Caring for Slither introduced me to Toronto’s strange sub-culture of reptile fanciers. Did you know that they hold fashion shows for iguanas? And that iguanas make intelligent pets? This knowledge inspired me to write my award-winning story, The Lizard, which appeared in Crimespree Magazine, Issue 52 and was reprinted in Kings River Life Magazine, August 2014.
There’s a darker side to reptile fancy, too, starting with “pinky”, the most delectable food that no snake can resist. And what exactly is pinky? A euphemism for fresh frozen baby mice. (Ee-yuck!) Snake hoarding figures in a story I’m drafting now, working title Snake Oil. Stay tuned!
Outside training for The Ride begins in mid-March. And yes, those bits of yellow and purple poking through the dead leaves are crocuses! And that’s my shadow snapping the pic.
I can’t lie, dear Readers, riding a bike in Toronto in mid-March is COLD. You start to pray for heavy duty hills to get the blood flowing, because unlike running, you never warm up on a bike. You slowly get chillier and chillier until your hands and feet refuse to move. If the wind is really bad, you seize up too much to climb off your trusty wheels to stagger into the warmth of that beckoning doughnut store.
But, hey, that’s part of training! On the upside, when biking, you FEEL the world, discover unseen treasures…surreal trapdoors…
This Sunday, layered in dorky bike gear, I headed out along the Beltline Trail. This defunct 19th century railway is now an 8 km trail used by runners, cyclists and dog walkers. Most people use the 5 km section of hard-packed dirt; only locals know about the 3 km paved section on the west side of the Allen Expressway. And that’s the pouffy part with historical plaques and stuff.
No signs, no nothingat the east end. To access it, you have to sneak past a body shop and down a narrow sidewalk bordering a townhouse. I stumbled upon the far west end by accident on an 80 km ride back from the Humber.
Winter has been hard on the trail. Gates are flaking rusty metal, the plastic covering on the map / plaques has splintered into thousands of cracks. Vandals have scrawled insults sorely lacking in wit or originality.
Then suddenly TREASURE! I adore Banksy and Shepherd Fairey. And here was my reward for braving the cold: a Toronto WOW. Amazing use of building fixtures – and abandoned scary trucks. Enjoy!
In Part 1, we narrowly avoided a debate about the best bullets for dispatching a neighbour’s pesky cats. Nine mm vs 22’s, you pick. We escaped into the truck bling on display at the World’s Largest Truckstop, but then this strange encounter actually happened.
A large, 60-ish lady materialized beside the rack of sheepskin covers for truck seats. She bore a scary resemblance to Large Marge of Pee Wee Herman fame.
“You like them sheepskins?” she asked me.
“Um, sure,” I replied.
“My little doggie had one of her own. Just threw ‘er in the washing machineand she come out real nice.”
Dog or sheepskin?
“And you know what?” The lady stroked the sheepskin fondly. “The day she died, her sheepskin fell apart. Put it in the washing machine and it turned into this big lump of fuzz.”
“Interesting,” I said, edging away.
“She was a good dog. A Pomeranian. A real good dog. Cute, too. Except when she didn’t get her beer. When I come home off the road after driving my rig, she’d be right there waiting for me. And if I didn’t give her that pint of beer right away, she’d be on my leg, growling, biting till she got it. Man, she loved her beer.”
“That’s nice,” I said, edging away further, but the lady stuck with us.
“She was a good dog. Why when she died, I just laid her out in the back of my truck. Hadda leave her there for three days but she never smelled. Not one bit. She was a good dog.”
“Probably pickled,” Ed whispered.By now we’d worked our way past the chrome exhaust pipes.
“That’s, um, sad you lost your dog,” I said. “But we’ve really got to get back on the road. We’re doing another two hundred miles today”
“Hadda funeral for her,” the trucker continued, undeterred. “Buried her in the back yard. My son helped and you know, while he was digging her grave, all the cats and dogs round our place turned up. Stood there watching, paying their respects.”
“Imagine.” We’d reached the shelves full of Doulton figurines.
“I couldn’t just leave her. Had to do right by my little doggie. So I buried a 6-pack of beer with her. My son was real mad, thought it was a waste a’ beer, but she was a good dog. Least I could do for her.”
“Of course, best thing.” We neared the ceramic eagles and John Wayne memorabilia.
“Got me a new dog now. Another Pom. Keeps my husbint in line.”
“That’s nice. We really have to go. We’re Canadian. Bye.” We fled into the parking lot.
“Well, that was weird,” Ed said, starting the Miata. “Care to bet how long that 6-pack of beer stayed buried.”
No I wouldn’t.
To quote Max Bialystock in The Producers: They all come here. How do they find me?
Big trucks! Big food! Big ceramic eagles – and even bigger truckers! You’ll see all this and more at the World’s Largest Truckstop on Iowa 80. For the unwary though some truly scary Surreal Trapdoors are lying in wait just for you.
You think I’m kidding? Read on, my friends, for the tale transcribed herein truly happened.
Ed and I were heading down to Santa Fe, New Mexico to attend the Hillerman Writers Conference. Hwy 80 took us through Walcott, Iowa where we spotted WLT’s neon sign. Hungry and tired, we pulled in and parked our tiny Miata sports car well away from the fleet of tractor trailers.
WLT covers 75 acres of land and provides parking for 900 trucks. An estimated 5000 visitors trek through the 67,000 sq ft complex every single day. The building sports 9 restaurants, a 60-seat movie theatre, a TV lounge with leather recliners, 24 private showers, a barber shop – even a dentist and a chiropractor!
If you want to bling out your truck, you will never find a better selection of lights and fancy exhaust pipes. Even art! In the 2-storey, 30,000 sq ft showroom, we admired the mural on the show truck as it spun round on a rotating platform.Its cab featured comfortable sleeping quarters, a DVD player, a microwave oven and a state-of-the-art navigation system: a trucker’s life looks pretty damn awesome!
Off we went to the cavernous 350-seat café which lay in perpetual twilight except for the bright spotlights on the extensive buffet and salad bar. Several solitary, weighty, middle-aged men were seated along one of the U-shaped diner counters. Feeling out of place – and wimpy – we slipped into two seats well away from them, perused a menu the size of a road sign and ordered.
As we waited for our burgers, it became apparent that the men at the counter were having a long-range conversation with one another.
“I don’t see nothing wrong with hitting my boy,” said the older, grey-haired guy on our left. “My daddy whupped my ass. Did me a world of good. No govermint’s gonna tell me how to raise my kids.”
“Damn right!” echoed down the line.
The waitress set a plate with a 5-inch pile of sliced raw onions down in front of the heavy-set man sitting on the opposite side of the counter directly in front of us. He wiped his black goatee with a paper napkin and dug into the crunchy offering.
“I wouldn’t want to ride in his truck tonight,” said Ed, not so sotto voce.I elbowed him, but Goatee wasn’t listening. The waitress had placed 5-inch plate of fried bacon down next to the onions.
“I gotta problem,” declared Old Trucker as Goatee tucked into his meal. “My neighbour and her cats. Damn cats keep coming into my garden to do their business, you follow? Only one way to handle things as far as I can see. My 9 mm pistol.”
“You don’t want to waste 9 mm fire power on a cat,” Goatee said between bites. “The cat’ll just explode. A 22’ll do the job and the ammo’s way cheaper.”
“Well, I got a 1000 rounds of 9mm just sitting round the house. Wouldn’t want it to go to waste.”
Ample evidence that our counter companions weren’t Democrats. I’d guessed right, go figure. Two timid Canadians down their burgers, paid fast and with cash then took refuge in the truck showroom.
Refuge? Hardly. One of the weirdest Surreal Trapdoors in my life was about to open. Tune in next Monday, Readers, for my tale of the beer-swilling Pomeranian.
My kid often leads me astray. She feels an overwhelming urge to educate me, an urge born out of anxious impatience with parental inertia with a soupcon of glee at my possible ineptitude. Despite feeling like a century-old sturgeon out of water at the things she’s shamed me into, sadly the experiences have enriched my life. Hell, I’ve survived dirt bike riding, horrific black diamond ski runs and now, drunken painting!
Drunken Painting is more politely known as Paint Nite. In 2012, two guys got the idea while partying at a friend’s art studio. Why not drink and paint at the same time? Let alcohol unleash your creativity. Thus the “paint and sip” industry was born. I mean, after one, two or ten beers: “Hey, man, you’re a nartist!!”
“Paint and sip” is win-win for everyone. Local bars and restos sell more alcohol and ladies get a novel girls’ night out. (Yes, 99.99% of the happy painters are women.) Not only do you get a scary bar bill at the end of the evening, you get to take home a scary painting, too!
Fearing my child’s wrath if I opted for no-show, I dutifully arrived at Proof the Vodka Bar . Everyone on my mother’s side of the family is an artist, but those genes merrily skipped over me. I landed a mighty C- in art in elementary school and wisely chose science as a career. I dove into the “sip” part of the evening straight away.
A tiny young woman was busy setting up 20 easels and blank canvases, covering the long table with green plastic sheets and depositing dabs of blue, yellow and white acrylic paint on paper plates. She seemed overwhelmed. We students donned aprons to protect our clothes from permanent souvenirs of the evening and took our seats, while listening to her dire warnings about rinsing off our brushes in our drinks instead of the cups of water provided.
“Can you see the painting?” the lady next to me asked.
“Um, no.” In fact none of us could. The set-up was proving less than ideal.
“First, paint the mountain,” the teacher announced.
“There’s a mountain?” several of us echoed.
“Yes, like this.” She painted two white breast shapes on the white background to demonstrate. “The mountain is masked by the trees but you must paint it. And make shadows. Lots of shadows to make a nice mountain. And the lake, too, in front.”
“There’s a lake?” I downed more beer.
“Now paint the northern lights. Mix colours. You must make green.”
Ah , yes, one thing I did remember from my C- art class was that yellow and blue make green. We all mixed and splashed away without benefit of further instruction. The northern lights soon proved to be everyone’s undoing. We looked at each other’s work and agreed that our efforts were irreparably cheesy. I ordered a second beer.
“Now make trees!” The teacher circulated with the black paint she’d forgotten to dole out.
That we could do. Trees were easy: lots of unfettered brush strokes. And more trees covered up more cheese. We asked for more black paint. The teacher got frustrated: she was running out.
“Now make stars!”
I kind of overdid the stars but making white dots was so much easier, I got carried away. Leaning back to survey my masterpiece, the teacher announced: “Now you must make shadows on the snow. Trees throw shadows in moonlight.”
Bad idea. Or rather no idea how to make shadows. I made a half-assed effort, then erased everything with white paint leaving smudges of grey snow.
By now my husband was waiting for me at the bar. I staggered over to show him with my masterpiece. “What do you think?”
“It’s good, um, good,” he replied, sounding like Banksy when confronted by his friend, Terry’s disastrously hopeless film in Exit Through the Gift Store.
My friend, Roz, was much kinder when she saw it. “I like it!” she said. “It shows a lot of emotion.”
Hmm, that must be the happy black trees, but more likely the two beers. My masterpiece now proudly decorates our upper hallway and even better, our kid no longer insists that I takepainting lessons.
This story is true. Strange things always happen to me.
Last Halloween, our friend, whom I’ll call Eric, invited us to a party at his place. It’s a gently decayed mansion divided into flats with high ceilings, narrow twisting corridors and connecting backstairs so that he and his friends have as much company or privacy as they want.
Eric is a software engineer by day but by night, he’s a gifted and well-known cabaret performer. His friends, whom I’ll call Fred and Mary, are musicians who play regular gigs in Toronto.
Costumes were de rigueur. Ed went as Tommy Wiseau , creator of The Room, possibly one of the worst films ever made. I went as a cat, aiming for so-bad-it’s-good. We were meeting Fred and Mary for the first time so knowing Eric, I expected the unexpected.
Fred and Mary’s flat was dark and crowded with denizens of Toronto’s demi-monde. Costumes ranged from drag to burlesque to clowns. Wine glass in hand, I wandered past dimly lit museum exhibits of fossils and stuffed rodents.
“That’s cool,” I said, eyeing one of the stuffed squirrels. “Very Halloween.”
“Oh, they’re here all the time,” said a fellow guest. “They live here with Fred and Mary.”
“Permanently?” I squeaked.
“That’s nothing. Did you see the stuffed dog?” He pointed to a shadowy lump on the floor next to a large potted plant. Sure enough, it was a remarkably life-like black and white spaniel.
Later Fred explained how he and Mary came by Charlie. In life, he belonged to a decrepit and eccentric acquaintance down the street. When Charlie exited this Vale of Tears, the elderly man had him stuffed. And he continued walking him along the street on a set of rollers.
“That’s creepy,” I said.
“Well, the guy came by it honestly. He ran the Toronto Explorers Club,” Fred said.
“There’s an explorers club?!” What an absurd Victorian anachronism, I thought.
“Yeah, there is. And the old guy acquired a load of stuffed trophies from the club. Legit or not, who knows? Anyway his house was crammed with them. When he died, his relatives rented a dumpster and tossed all the stuffed animals into it. Mary spotted it on her way home from work. It was really bizarre, looking inside that steel crate and seeing it full of deer heads and stuff.”
Fred took a sip of beer. “What was really sad was seeing Charlie lying there on top of all that. Especially since we knew him when he was alive. Mary didn’t know what to do at first, but then she decided to rescue him. The problem was that she’d biked to work that day. So she strapped Charlie onto the back carrier and rode home with him.”
Our friend, Eric, continued the story. “I saw Mary riding along on her bike with this cute black and white dog on the back. I thought, ‘Wow, Fred and Mary got a dog! And boy, is he well-trained. Look at him sitting still and riding along on the bike like that.’ But when she stopped, Charlie kind of rotated and stayed sitting still in the same position. That really freaked me out. I didn’t know what I was looking at.”
Now Charlie now stands guard in Fred and Mary’s home: the lonely sentinel.
I leave you with this clip from Monty Python about their erstwhile mountaineering expedition.
Vegas, Baby, where even the dragons wear rhinestones!
It’s Chinese New Year and the casinos are set to retrieve some of the $$$ lost to off-shore manufacturing. Everywhere are displays of dragons or monkeys since 2016 is the Year of the Monkey.
Gambling is a popular pastime in China. As a student at UBC, Vancouver, I remember hearing the clatter of mah-jong parlours in the not-so-hidden upstairs rooms of popular restaurants and seeing whole families picnicking at the race track. (So what if my friend and I were betting on the same Exacto.)
One day till we storm through the exhibits at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), so I end up doing another 20,000 Fitbit steps through this R-rated Disneyland.
First stop, the Cosmopolitan, a newer addition on The Strip. The décor is big, bold eye candy like the silvered T-rex head above. The décor materials aren’t cheap: the two-storey chandelier bar is cloaked in real crystal, though it looks like plastic. The overall effect to my mind is vintage “Scarface”, the cult classic gangster movie starring Al Pacino.
My favorite casino after The Venetian has to be Paris. Boulevard cafes crowd round the casino tables in a perpetual dusky twilight, the French signs are pure “Pepe le Pew” and the pastries look French but taste American. Even the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe outside are spotlessly sanitized. Love it!
Bellagio’s and Caesar’s Palace are the high end with a string of shops outdoing Rodeo Drive. Caesar’s was the first casino to feature Disneyland animatronics and fantasy boulevards where blue skies turned into glowing sunsets and starry nights. Once Caesar’s ruled the strip, but now crowds shun it and it’s in bankruptcy protection. I find it hard to understand why. The food and atmosphere are still great. I sip a nostalgic Americano beside the oversized Trevi fountain.
Old Vegas is almost gone. Darwin is in overdrive: billion dollar behemoths crushing under smaller places, like the Imperial Palace and the Hilton, their identities obliterated by white paint to lure in time share buyers. The veteran burlesque shows like Jubilee are hanging in, but for how long?
Vegas has a sleazy, dark side. The homeless camp out on the pedestrian skyways. A van circles constantly with in-your-face T&A ads promising girls delivered to your room. And elderly Hispanic women snap hookers’ business cards in your face as you plough through the crowds.
The A-list mingles with the B-team on the Strip, but the B-team can still be fun. My personal fav is Miracle Mile at Planet Hollywood, which features, I kid you not, a zombie burlesque and Popovich’s Comedy Pet Theatre, starring trained cats and dogs. Popovich is for children of all ages and I adored it!
And if you think cats can’t do tricks, watch this video!
Las Vegas: where the surreal becomes real. Where else can you eat a Nathan’s New York hot dog inside a pyramid while listening to a Mariachi band? All while deciding whether to brave the infamous Bodies exhibit or to see an actual piece of the Titanic wreck.
What makes the surreal become real? Money, Baby! Lots and lots of money. Billion dollar hotel complexes. More high-end stores in Caesar’s Palace than on Rodeo Drive. More Venetian glass in the lobby of Bellagio than in Venice itself. And to quote Bally’s, “thousands of rhinestones covering very little flesh”. The constant T and A does start to get to me though there are Ozzie beefcake shows for the ladies and gays.
The myth and promise of Vegas is captured perfectly by the crass statue at Harrah’s: all that lovely $$$ will eagerly flow your way. Erm, not exactly. The odds against are astronomical and so are the prices of everything. Even Starbucks. But you will have great fun losing your money.
BTW the Harrah’s statue gets my vote for “coyote ugly”. For non-noir fans that means waking up the morning after with a sex partner so appalling that you chew your arm off in haste to escape your own appalling lack of judgment.
Hey, I’m just miffed because the quarter slots devoured my $6.
Today, like Dan Simmons’ president character in Hyperion, I wandered the worlds, passing through Harrah’s to catch the monorail and tram to the farthest point, Mandalay Bay casino. Feeling a pang of nostalgia for management consulting, I visited its aquarium, Shark Reef.
Set in a Disney-like temple ruin, it sports beautifully kept fish tanks and a plexiglass shark tunnel though the sharks themselves are rather small. The guide tells us that of the 400 species of sharks only four, such as the Great White of Jaws infamy, are dangerous to humans who nevertheless are busy exterminating hundreds of millions a year of these creatures for shark fin soup.
What I really wanted to see though was the komodo dragon. Long ago, I sketched out an adventure novel where my heroes fought off one of these giant lizards. They’re hungry buggers, aggressive, with a nasty bite that includes venom and malicious bacteria to cause your wounds to fester even if you manage to survive a biting attack.
The KD of Shark Reef does not disappoint. It resembles a good-sized crocodile though with a lizard’s head. The yellow and brown colouring matches its dried mud habitat. To my surprise, I learn that it, too, is an endangered species.
To Luxor for my lunch of Nathan’s hotdog under the gaze of Ramses. And if you think I was kidding about the Mariachi band, the neon T & T on the right stands for “tacos and tequila”.
Inspired by Nathan’s, I take the tram back to New York, which boasts an impressive skyline and sizeable Statue of Liberty. Rain begins to fall. It comes down in a clammy mist rather than a downpour. It’s the first time I’ve seen rain in Vegas.
Taking shelter inside New York casino, I’m confronted by yet another replica of the Statue of Liberty: this time in jelly beans! Running late, I return to our hotel, having clocked 20,000 Fitbit steps, nearly twice the steps I count on running days.
Unusual things have happened to me all my life. Perhaps my friends are right: I possess a dark aura that attracts surreal experiences.
Last July, my son-in-law, Mitch, was in the throes of moving himself and our daughter to Montreal. Buried by boxes and worn out by the family dog, Pips, who’s mostly Jack Russell terrier, he seriously needed rescuing. The two of us escape up the street to the local Italian bakery for a much-needed café latte.
Standing by the cash register, I become aware of a mountainous presence and look up – way, way up into the kindly face of the largest man I have ever met.
Jerry Sokoloski, a true gentle giant, stands 7’8″ in his size 25 shoes. His fingers span 12 inches: he holds out his hand offering me a comparison. My size 8 hand looks like an infant’s!
Jerry is at the café to be interviewed. He sits at one of the elevated tables where ordinary mortals stand to drink their coffees. Mitch and I are struck by the difficulties Jerry faces in daily life: driving, riding the bus or streetcar, getting clothes that fit, attending a movie theatre. The list goes on and on.
Jerry trained with the NBA and recently completed filming David and Goliath. (Three guesses which role he played.) I invite you to meet this sweet and patient man in this Youtube video.
Mitch and I head back to packing. At 5’9″ I rarely feel short. Meeting unusually tall people, feels welcome, yet at the same time, somewhat overwhelming and intimidating. I tell Mitch this but he is having none of it.