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Confessions of a Prow’d Man

Coastal Toronto

by DAVID Ker THOMSON

The problem with getting a job, I’ve always admonished myself sternly, is you have to work.  Plus in order to count for cultural capital—not to mention real capital—jobs have to come in integers.  What’s with that?  Who wants a whole job?  I noticed a political writer recently calling for “jobs, jobs, jobs,” which in my book is at least six jobs.  Save me!

It’s such sentiments that got me out on the river this week or last.  So by Monday morning or thereabouts I’m hard at work on my second cup of coffee, my feet up on the canoe.  Type A’s are jogging by on the Humber pedestrian bridge nearby, taking photos of me and yelling things like, “you’re one man in a million,” which could be subject to various interpretations.  For example, isn’t that what the cuckolded man’s wife told him?  And speaking of the math of self-respect, have you ever noticed how two twenty-hour jobs aren’t the same as one forty-hour one?  And for your roofing jobs, would you rather have a fifty-year-old guy like me or two twenty-five-year-olds?

The sun’s hot and the lake’s a mirror showing two versions of everything.  It was guilty of a wild tumult last night but here it is with its hands in its pockets whistling like it would never, ever do anything rambunctious.

I invite an old guy with a loaf in his hand to come through my campsite to feed the gulls.  After a while he says, like he’s finishing a conversation, “yeah, my wife and I watched you from the living room all evening yesterday.”  Maybe those fifty-story towers above me are residential, now that I think about it.  Something that high up, you tend to discount it, like it’s the semitic storm god or something.  I vaguely remember peeing in the rhododendrons.  Plus there was that tempest threatening to kill me.

There were three hundred yards of the Humber left as I came downriver last night and my overloaded prow was already shoving its snout into the swells like a bottom feeder.  The whitecaps out there on the lake itself were looking pretty white and cappy, while I did rapid re-calculations on total payload and whether I’d have to chuck the beer.

So there I am on the Humber under the Gardiner Expressway in the present (i.e. vivid) tense of yestereve, not even really near the lake yet, and my tub of a bark, with its much-vaunted eleven-hundred-pound carrying capacity, is expressing ambivalence about its desire to float.  Are you with me?  At the point where the river comes out into Lake Ontario, the Humber hasn’t been granted the luxury of a delta.  Instead it’s trussed into a firm girdle of concrete and from a god’s-eye or luxury-tower view the river and Humber Bay are a pipe at the bottom of a funnel.  A moderate southeast wind is pushing waves into the top of the funnel, where the hand of man takes care of bundling and compiling the waves into tight clusters and feeding them into the bottom of the funnel.  As they enter the river girdle the waves echo off the walls in recursive patterns, presenting themselves to the prow of my boat as a set of provocative questions about buoyancy.  Shit, I think.  Now what?

The scene is lent some dramatic heft by the nature—I use the term advisedly—of the seawalls flanking the river mouth.  These are absolutely flat and are at a perfect right angle to the incoming waves.  Three-foot waves are thus echoed back precisely as three-foot waves.  Losing none of its energy, each repulsed wave runs back till it hits the next incoming three-foot wave, and the lateral energy of the two is converted to vertical, with the result that there is a sudden appearance of a six-foot wall of water.  Not even noon and we’ve had math and physics, while the rest of the herd’s off reading articles on Obama.  Yet a third three-footer then runs through this: a six-foot temporarily motionless wall with a three-foot wave coming through it like a ghost.  Lather, repeat.

As I come abreast of the seawalls I have a brave moment that lasts three paddle strokes where I think I can get through to the deeper water past the echo effect.  Echo effect.  Then I chicken out and reverse hard.  There is a long moment where I take the incoming waves on my starboard bow, then beam, then quarter, a long roll where everything’s undecided, and finally I’m running scared back the way I came making Three Stooges whoop-whoop noises.

I find a place behind a pylon and pull out.  I stick the canoe up on a set of wheels and toss my week or two’s worth of supplies into it, and I set off with this cornucopia down the bike path to the pedestrian bridge, where I stay dry and where I get some rice and beans going on the Coleman.  I pull out my ageing ’puter, which for no reason I can divine has email, and I send out the satisfied missives of an old troll once again safely in his habitat under a bridge, while gruff Gortex-clad billy goats traipse by above, the Hamilton GO train muscles past, and homeward-bound workers complain to each other on the Gardiner in the re-morse code of angry honks.  It’s the last day or two of summer.

Above me on the bridge in the darkness are stainless steel etchings of the history of the Humber, from aboriginal times through to Fred Gardiner.  The power, the glory, and Fred.  Frederick Gardiner’s the Moses of Toronto.  The Robert Moses, that is.  He is Siva, the destroyer.  He is the barbarian at the gates.  He and his kind are the reason people have gates in the first place.  Yet instead of putting people like him into prison, we put people into prison who puff on peace pipes, or we put the idea of prison into people.  Funny old world.

On the etchings, Gardiner is banging on into perpetuity about how he can move this hill here and that river there.  The sayings aren’t treated as the ramblings of a madman nor as the confessions of a hardened criminal or terrorist, but as something worth repeating in polite company.  The Gardiner Expressway set up for business the month I was born, and with the dust of its smashed neighborhoods hardly settled, Gardiner participated at the opening ceremony of the Gardiner without even having the decency to die before bestowing his name on the obscene project.  The story has often been told, and I wish to add to the long sad saga of Toronto being cut off from its waterfront only the urban voyageur’s footnote about echo effects.  Beware the hardened coast!  Beware the mirroring seawall!  Selah.

In the night the booming of waves calls me from sleep.  I get out of the tent and peer down from the rocks, and the water from the echoed waves is lofting to fifteen feet.  I hunker down and return to sleep.

As luck would have it, it’s democracy time in Toronto again.  Good time to get out.  Toronto or T’onto is an Algonquian term meaning “place of the silly white man.”  My neighbors’ lawns are all rectangled up with photographs of the common dork, and we’re urged to go support the system that destroys our coast and shits continually in the precious fossil water of the lake.

A local outbreak of democracy in North America might be the time to remember everyone’s favorite politician, FDR.  He’s the guy who not only promised to put America to work, but followed through on the threat.  Everyone got either jobs or, if they had almond-shaped eyes, prison camp.  This stick-to-itiveness is why to this day every lefty has a warm spot in their heart for the old bastard.

Unjobbed as yet (though storm clouds are amassing) I watch the lake.

The water in its current configuration is ancient.  It is pure glacial melt and hardly any of the fossil trove is replenished by seasonal rain.  Once it’s gone it’s gone.  When it comes to protecting such treasures, the green parties are the worst, with giant budgets at the federal level for killing people overseas, and links with local green parties for perjuring themselves by participating in the system of murder and mayhem.  The green parties reek of gratitude for being allowed to participate in a system that tolerates them only if they agree to forfeit realistic opportunities for power.  Green democratists sideline the people most likely to take action.  Join the green party and get more “hits” and preach to the converted.

Democracy is the great distraction, nicely co-opting the urge to resist and enlisting those who might otherwise have been willing to fight. For thousands of years our people have been dealing efficiently with those who have attempted to destroy our water, which is to say our life.  We are stern people who can handle the back end of a canoe.  But democracy is here now, and the people have surrendered and given bandits the right to “protect” us.  My friends and I shut the Gardiner down for an hour once, but our real work—our vocation—cannot be committed to the internet.  Neither boast nor plea will tell you about our way in the world beneath democracy.  The tao that can be said is not the tao.

Still the sun shines and the seawalker sees a blue causeway stretching out to forever on the wide inland sea, and anything might happen and anything surely will.  Autumn is upon us.  I break camp, load my frail vessel, and set my prow to infinity.

David Ker Thomson is currently between.  He lives in the country of ’nada.  dave dot thomson at utoronto dot ca