My monitor is yellow with the years of nicotine having being blown at it through crumbling teeth and it's occasionally difficult to read the words I've typed-I often have to scroll the page down in order to get the letters out from underneath one dried squirt-stain or another. When the light hits me at just the right angle from the semi-opaque porthole my landlord likes to call a window, however, I see my face superimposed over the text-the past and the present. I used to believe I was in a movie of my life, which I of course directed-I would set up camera angles to find form in my actions and capture meaning in the frame. This shot of my mug I'm framing right now wouldn't be much good though-my visage is no longer marketable.
There was a time when I was healthy and attractive. There was a September day in 1992, in fact, when I had stood outside a film department building in Ottawa, warming my face in the autumn sun. It would have been the beginning of my third year in school, had I not just dropped out to gaily sample the more exotic and salacious fruits of life's bounty. The alluring possibilities I imagined laying in wait for me presented themselves only in abstract-they lost cohesion and turned vapourous if I attempted to drag them down into specifics-but this wasn't a concern. I was young and this was my time; there would be jobs and drugs and hooch and cooch and cars and credit cards and all the fast, shiny, glistening things that tugged at my young consciousness, and that scenario was as finely detailed as it needed to be.
I remember this feeling of potential and possibility now, as I sit here and type and smoke. I remember the excitement of knowing that anything was possible and that life would simply manifest itself in new and engaging shapes of my liking, according to my will. It was a powerful feeling in my stomach, a churning euphoria. I remember this feeling well, and it's surprising I do-it only lasted two weeks.
Jobs. The working life. The "real world," our parents called it-one made up exclusively of humiliating, illogical, destructive, morally skewed, ill-paying, life-consuming jobs. When it quickly became clear that, at $6.95 an hour, the most exotic fruits I would be pulling from life's basket were six-packs, I thought that maybe the mechanics of the workplace would show me the way; that some indicator of my genius (as yet to have emerged) would be naturally recognized by the right people and I would be shepherded past my sweating, belching peers to ascend a corporate ladder of great significance.
I waited for this intervention to take place, but there was no indication that this was how things actually worked in the "real world," despite what I had seen in countless movies. There was never a sense that I was going anywhere, building on previous knowledge or developing marketable skills. Take, for instance, the time I scored an overnight shift as a security guard-one of two guards that would be lording over a government building in downtown Ottawa. On our first night as a team, I figured out a way to steal chocolate bars from the machine in the cafeteria (using a length of thread, rubber cement and a quarter), and my partner literally shit his pants. What part of this is supposed to go on a resume?
The "realness" of this world occupied a different plane of reality than the one I was used to. In my mind, I was the centre of the universe-in the real world, I scooped puke out of urinals in an all-night bagel shop. The weeks oozed into years. I became angry at the world and at myself. I ate, I drank, and I did other things too. My anger began to focus, and I happily directed toward the workplace. I picked up a keen knack for getting spectacularly fired.
Forty-one jobs I held over thirteen years, though "held" is perhaps too strong a word. It only hurts the first fifteen times or so-after that, it just becomes scripted and predictable. I'd set up my imaginary camera angles as I sat in the boss's office; half-listening to him or her blather on about customer complaints, missing inventory and personal hygiene. How best to capture the boss's face, me, and the Successories poster ("TEAMWORK") on the back wall? I laid dolly tracks while the boss filled out the forms.
Job Loss & Me: Selections from a Legacy of Firings
1992-Mad Dogs & Englishmen Pub
Authentic British fare: cheeseburgers with fries and mozzarella sticks.Three-butt cigarette limit in ashtrays.
CUSTOMER: (drunk, laughing) Hey, waiter! There are four butts here.
WALTER: (removes one butt and throws it on floor)
1995-McGrath Canada Collection Agency
Only job to come with a standard-issue ashtray on desk.
WALTER: I'm going to Nova Scotia on Friday for Christmas. I'll be back January 4.
BOSS: It's only October.
1996-Royal Ottawa Hospital Psychiatric Hospital.
Tech-support calls amongst "Code Blues" and running nurses.
WALTER (at home, on phone): I can't come in today. I'm so hung over, I'm blind.
HOSPITAL: You're BLIND?
WALTER: Well, I mean ... it's uh ...
HOSPITAL: We'll talk when you come in tomorrow morning.
BOSS: Modems keep going missing-we've lost four this month. Do you know anything about this?
WALTER: No. Why would I?
WALTER: Hey, what happened to Jens?
LYNN: They let him go last night.
WALTER: They let him GO?! Why?
LYNN: They said he had a negative attitude.
WALTER: A negative ATTITUDE? What the FUCK? Of course he had a negative attitude-we have to raise our goddamned hands to use the BATHROOM! I'd just fucking LOVE for them to try and say something like that to ME!
LYNN: Shhh-keep it down, Walter. Someone's going to hear you ...
Demoralized, I gave up supporting any illusions of willpower as the nineties gave way to the new millennium. Whatever bad influence or habit wandered into my path I picked up and welcomed into my life. Logic and self-preservation, after all, were for the gainfully employed. I had resigned myself to the fact that it was all going to end in a wet heap-why waste my diminishing resources trying to maintain an illusion of social promise?
Don't get the impression that my endgame was a miserable, sulking affair though-I had, in fact, decided to use my impending crash to toast the Great Gatsby. I turned my lifestyle into a doomed garden party, where I spun and reeled as the tent poles buckled and the lanterns sagged around me. I would be in good company for this figurative shin-dig, I figured-the IT bubble had just burst and all around me I saw those poor, weepy stock-market saps drawing their fingernails down their cheeks. We shared something, I reckoned; there was a look in their eyes I had become familiar with in the mirror over the years.
There were others like me too, coloured in varying shades of defeat-people who weren't on the bottom, but were well on their way. In these last days before the present, I rode that party as long as it could support me, sampling from every plate and not caring whose cleavage ended up drenched in my White Russian. I laughed and sang and reeled and barfed until it all-finally-gave way; until the tent collapsed and the canvas caught fire.
And collapse it did. I wish you could see the internal movie I made of the event. It was shot on March 27, 2005, and I had set up my camera perfectly to catch me at my best. It was all over, and a medium-shot frames me lying there in the post-apocalyptic hush, blackened by the smouldering wreckage of what had been my life. I appear in that moment as I do now, reflected in my monitor: I'm 95 pounds overweight. My fingers are stained orange and bits of pharmaceuticals are clinging to my yellowing teeth. My skin is translucent-betraying my rotting organs-and something has gone seriously wrong with my left leg. My eyes are cracked and weary-they are pulled relentlessly downwards by the strain of having to support the veined baggage that hangs beneath them like two purple, throbbing scrotums. I am jobless. I have no money and have declared bankruptcy. I trail several bad habits and addictions behind me like a smell. My family has given up. My friends are either in the hospital, in jail or are looking for the money I owe them. My pets are dead.
I had failed, and I had failed fundamentally. I was unable to find my place in the world, and now I just wanted to leave it. I don't mean by snuffing myself, of course-suicide wasn't an option. Nobody would give a shit for one thing, and the sweetest plum of planning a suicide is imagining how torn-up and regretful everyone is going to be. But there was the next best thing to suicide ...
There is one place on Earth that can offer a potentially eternal sanctuary from the "real world." A place that is completely disconnected from nearly everything of value in contemporary society. A place that is absolutely autonomous; it has nothing to do with how the world works. A place where someone like me-staggering, drug-addled, coughing, loveless, jobless, homeless and penniless-could conceivably find purchase and potential.
There is school.
Next Week: "F" is for Fake