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one year to the day

First I’ll tell you about the Mister Softee Bronx-Manhattan Rescue Mission of 2008.

We met Fausto The Disgruntled Ice Cream Man sometime in Spring. He asked, “How long do you think seven months is going to go?”

We didn’t get it. How long?

“You know, do you think it’ll go slow, or will it go fast?”

He had seven months of soft-serve cones, slushies, sprinkles, dips, pops and swirls ahead of him, and there was almost anything in the world he’d rather be doing this this. He drove down to Manhattan from the Bronx in his Mister Softee truck every day, as he had everyday for five long, seven-month summers. This was his sixth summer as a Mister Softee man.

“I hate my job,” he said. Every cone he sold brought him one day closer to October, when the Mister Softee season finally closes. I imagined him keeping count on a little calendar under the dash.

Most afternoons you can catch him just off Broadway, parked on 109th. He pulls down the street and around the corner at around 3 or 4 PM to a spot by the taqueria on Amsterdam. There the clientele shifts from chatty Columbia students, stone-faced girls with yoga mats, and young, middle-class families to Caribbean and Latino teens, girls in flip-flops and booty shorts, and older Dominican and Puerto Rican women holding their grandchildren firmly by the hand.

On one of my last days in New York, walking down Amsterdam, we spotted his truck. It was a perfect opportunity to grab one last cone from our man, we thought, and walked up. The truck was parked, running, window shut, and Fausto nowhere to be seen. The cook from the taquería waved to me from his window front and pointed down the block. Fausto was three doors down in Jumbo Slice buying himself lunch or dinner or a snack or something. One of those Dominican grandmothers was standing waiting for him already, a little girl’s hand pressed to hers. The child’s other hand was mashed anxiously against her mouth, anticipating the rainbow sprinkles she would soon be tasting.

We all waited together for Fausto to come out of the pizza joint to serve us. We didn’t notice a cab creep up alongside the truck, didn’t notice it sneak into the tiny space between the door and the curb, and didn’t notice the driver park and walk off. The cab blocked off Fausto’s door and part of the curb-side serving window–SHIT!–but the other door facing the street was still clear, so all good, right?

“Oh shit,” said Fausto. “I only have the key for this door.”

He struggled with his pizza box and drink, measuring the space between the cab and his truck with frantic eyes, his arms rising and falling at his sides as his sense of panic ebbed and swelled. The Dominican grandmother took turns complaining to me and cussing him out in Spanish too rapid-fire for me to understand. He just shook his head. “I can’t get in!”

I watched Fausto struggle to squeeze between the two vehicles, his belly getting in the way each time. The taquería guys had come outside to laugh by now, and Fausto was even more frazzled. “Now they think I’m fat,” he complained, “because I can’t fit.” Passers-by had gathered to watch the fracas, and they were laughing too.

It was damn hot out. I was wearing a dish halter dress, and nervous about the feeling of a hot car’s roof on my skin, but this was no time to hesitate: my MacGyver moment was up.

I slipped behind the cab, hoisted myself up onto the side, and pressed my legs and hands onto the Mister Softee truck to slide across towards the front. Fausto, looking hopeful, stretched his arm to unlock the door, I shimmied it open with my feet, and jumped inside. Success! Ice cream victory!

The little girl finally took her hand away from her mouth, smiled and hopped up and down a little bit, her other tiny hand still wrapped in her grandmother’s. The taquería guys went back to work. All was right with the world. Fausto finally served me my last vanilla cone — but yo, would you believe that dude, he wouldn’t even give it to me for free!

Damn Fausto. He really does hate his job.

banning the word

The MoMA screened a crop of new Canadian feature films all last week, and I skipped out on responsibilities for an evening to go see the latest work by one of my favorite (or in this case, favourite) directors of all time: Denys Arcand.

In the recent future of his “L’Âge des ténèbres“, the n-word has been banned. Some of this is lost in translation, lost in the nuances of Joual, and perhaps complicated by Arcand’s awkwardness with racism, racist lead characters, and supporting characters-of-colour that never quite seem to stand up for themselves (all of which may be on purpose). But, delicacies aside, any and all applications of the n-word in Quebec are inexcusably, unforgivably interdit. In one scene, the word nègre slips from the protagonist’s lips (dull, disillusioned, trapped in a lifeless and bureaucratic job, he says it during a snarky confrontation with his white boss), and he’s nearly sidelined by a workplace intervention. They are very serious, they explain, about enforcing legislation. When the sole Black man in the room tries to step up, they dismiss his opinions — what he thinks doesn’t matter. There’s no room for discussion.

But there *is* some discussion here.

The good folks at Cyberkrib alerted me to a recent TV piece by poet and style icon Clifton Joseph, where he explores the use of the n-word in Canada by way of hip-hop. (For those of us currently not based in Canada, the video can be accessed here — Windows Media Player alert.)

Clifton brings up some interesting and valid points, and I was happy to see that he went beyond the Usual Suspects(™) for his interview subjects, but I feel as though there was a huge chunk of the story missing: the context of the n-word in Canada. Tristan touches on this in his interview, but Clifton really only gets into it himself in the post-script to the segment:

I was born and raised, until adolescence, in Antigua & Barbuda, in the West Indies. I had never heard the word “nigger” there, and had no idea what it meant, until moving to Toronto in the early 1970s. Then, I was introduced to it thru books, popular culture and black comedians, especially one of my all-time favourites, Richard Pryor, as exemplified on his 1974 album “That Nigger’s Crazy”. I didn’t use the word myself, but listened to it and laughed at the jokes it was in.

But the frivolities around the word were wiped out for me in 1975, when white supremacist Ronald Steven Ryan shot and killed 15-year-old Michael Habbib around Fairview Mall in Toronto after declaring that he was going to kill “the first nigger” he saw. Habbib was working a part-time job in a merry-go-round set up in the mall’s parking lot, and me and my friends realized that it could have been any one of us, that we could have been that “nigger”.

There is no one central, unifying, dominant narrative of black identity in Canada, at least not in the way that one exists in the United States. Among the most distinct and prominent histories, though, is that of Caribbeans who migrated to Toronto and other urban centres in the 60s and 70s. Clifton fits somewhere into that story, as do many of the second generation friends I grew up with, and their parents.

I would have loved to hear the story of the n-word as seen or felt through that context, through that history. I would have loved to see an exploration of how elements of a dominant American black narrative have clashed with and influenced identity in Canada, how those clashes are affecting intergenerational relationships, how young people find justifications and reasons to relate, and how all of this plays out through music, art, activism. This goes far beyond simply discussing the n-word, it’s history, and its potential merits or offenses. Far, far beyond.


spring, you couldn’t come at a better time

Now listen here:

We are at the age when we have been through enough pain and enough joy, and we are no longer repeating our mistakes, to acknowledge and embrace each other’s wisdom and perspective. My friends (glorious!) and I really are looking out for one another simply by living our lives, and loving ourselves.

Miss Bee’s words are as refreshing as the springtime rain pounding against the concrete outside my window this afternoon. Not only is newness in the clouds and soil, it’s in the words and sentiments of the people around me. If you’re in my mid-/late-twenties age group, there’s a good chance that you feel it in your life too. You’ve had your bullshit relationships, you’ve hit your head against the wall, you’ve made your bad decisions. You still don’t know much about yourself, but you know more than you did before, and that’s enough. You’re humbler, hopefully. You understand the stakes a little better. You’ve found the words to explain what your gut’s been telling you all along.

Personally, I cringe at some of my past attitudes, past actions, and past company kept. I’m more careful with who I roll with, and even carefuller with those I let into my circle. Professionally and artistically, I guess I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t comfortable with any of the titles or labels or implied character traits that came along with my writing activities. I used to take great offense at the term “music critic,” and struggled for years to communicate just what it is that I do. Well, what I dewww is still changing. It’s more about people, less about personalities. More about living breathing art, less about entertainment. More about quality, less about quantity. I mean, the quantity has definitely gone down, but I guess I can’t promise too much as far as quality these days. I’m more comfortable taking on and fighting for topics that maybe no one else is interested in, but there’s a flood of stories inside me, and they’ve got to spill out one way or another.

That said — a lot’s been going on in the background on my end. I have something to announce, but I’m going to wait another couple of days on that. It’s been a long time coming. Which I guess means that I’m right on time.

New article on Marco Polo in issue #37 of Pound, out any second now. Seeeeeeeeeen.

This guy has recently re-vamped his site, as have these guys. There’s a brief mention of the former in the latter right here.

I’ve been listening to lots of old David Bowie in the afternoons and Alice Coltrane in the mornings. I’m dreaming of a new old bike (yoller if you’re selling) and summertime shows at Harbourfront. Good things within reach. Good things.

Back soon.

watched pots won’t boil

…until the fire’s hot enough.

Hi there. Yes, still alive. Let’s not talk about how much time has passed.

When we last left off, I was dragging you westward, somewhere between where the Canadian flatlands curve into Rocky Mountains. Much, much, much has happened since then, of course. Some day I may fill you in. For now, here’s a placeholder.

To those of you who insist on returning to this site on a regular basis: it’s very kind of you to check in, and don’t think I don’t appreciate your particularly stubborn brand of faith (or idle, repetitive curiousity). I promise I’ll be back with something substantial soon.

It’s cold outside, but so much has been bubbling and brewing.


winnipeg regina saskatoon edmonton calgary vancouver etc

Good people,

This week I am booking my tickets and finalizing the details of a trip
I hope to make during the first two weeks of August. I’m traveling
between Toronto and Vancouver (for the first time!) and hoping to stop
in as many cities in between as possible. Some of your have made this
trip yourselves. Some of you live (or have lived) in these cities of
which I speak. This is why I am reaching out for help, advice, hostel
recommendations, restaurant tips, etc. Tell me all about:


(Plus I’ll make detours to Medicine Hat and Tofino, where I will be
visiting dear friends.)

I will definitely be in Winnipeg at some point, and will definitely
spend at least a few days in Vancouver, but the parts in between will
be determined once I decide between taking the bus or taking the
train. Yes, I am ACTUALLY CONSIDERING taking the greyhound across the
country! Maybe I like the bus. So what. The absurd difference in price
is also appealing…

For those of you who don’t know, i received a grant from the Ontario
Arts Council to begin work on a book — an anthology of work by 2nd
Generation Canadians across the country. Part of my reason for wanting
to make this trip is so that I might connect in person with academics,
with writers, with actors, with painters, with poets, with dancers,
with comedians, with students, with community workers, with arts
activists, with dreamers, with rappers, with producers, with singers,
with musicians, etc etc etc. Basically, I’d really love to meet as
many potential contributors — and generally very cool, interesting,
thought-provoking people — as possible.

If you can think of any friends, relatives, acquaintances, community
heroes, academic bodies, or creative centres (galleries, bookstores,
live music clubs) I should watch out for when I’m in each of these
cities, please let me know.

A 2nd Generation Canadian (for reference) is someone like me —
someone who was born in Canada, or who immigrated at a young age, and
was raised within this North American context, but whose family roots
and fundamental identity come from elsewhere. There are so many
anthologies of creative and critical work by immigrants in Canada, but
practically nothing on the shelves that speaks to and about their
children and how they are shaping identity — how they are shaping
multiculturalism, how they are shaping music, the arts, journalism,
public policy, etc. It’s important to me that these stories be shared.
They are very good stories.

I’m finalizing the wording for my official call for submissions now,
and will be sending it out over the next day or so. I apologize in
advance for clogging your inbox with my name — I do this too often, I
know. Those of you with mailing lists and a good idea for how these
sorts of messages and documents should be circulated — please be in
touch and let me know how you can help. Goodness knows I’ll need help,
and plenty of it, over these next few months!

Thanks for reading.

Be well.