Saturday, January 24, 2009


It's the summer of 1999. Joni Mitchell's Blue is playing on the tiny record player that sits atop of Karen's refrigerator in her apartment on Summer street. She and her two roommates have turned their living room into a third bedroom to save money, to all live together, so the tiny kitchen is where they congregate; where they entertain friends when they come over. And the kitchen is tiny, and usually cluttered with dirty dishes that they are usually warring about.

The weather is perfect. Just outside the kitchen door, we smoke cigarettes on the fire escape with Karen's neighbours and friends and we look down and across at the graveyard while Kitty's meows compete with Joni Mitchell's voice and the sunlight to try and figure first in this memory of this perfect summer day.

Everybody Karen was friends with was a student then. Everybody except me. But I would finish work at two in the afternoon and have free time like students and I was student-age, so I reaped some of the benefits of living within this young city, this enormous student ghetto, without actually having to write essays or study for exams or owe the government tens of thousands of dollars.

I was friends, then, with a ridiculous number of people who suffered from mental illness and/or substance abuse in very pronounced ways that were very new to me and also, I must sheepishly admit, very exciting. I was also friends with a lot of hippies. Like, serious hippies. The kinds who live off the land in places called things like Gandhi Farm. (Honest. To. God.)

Karen and her friends, maybe because they were in school and had that focus, were a lot more stable than most of the other people I was hanging around with then. And believe me, they weren't that stable. Karen would have gotten along wonderfully with most of my friends from Toronto, but I know she thought that Butterfly and Kenova and Skylark were all pretty weird, and I don't think she quite trusted any of them.

Karen stole my boyfriend from me, is how we met. Some months later she approached me at a party we were both at and invited me out for a "coffee" at the Grad House. I went because I was totally curious, and knowing Karen now, I am sure her own curiosity is what initiated her request. We drank beer instead, and the rest is history. A very significant chunk of my history with Halifax and its people can be traced back to that meeting.

I really liked Karen - immediately, intuitively - from the first time I met her through our common ex, in the slightly glorified rooming house they were both staying in above Bob & Lori's Food Emporium. But it took me a long time to really trust her.

She was such a King's student. (For non-Haligonians: King's College is a university in Halifax that's affiliated with Dalhousie. Its Foundation Year program is one of those Great Books things, and all first year students skim very quickly through many of the texts considered canonical in the western world. A lot of King's students come from private schools, and a lot of them come from Ontario. They seem to like to talk really loudly about how smart they are. A lot of them dress like hippies and have the kind of naive sense of social justice that is borne out of having lived a very privileged and entitled life. To be fair, they are also, usually, eighteen years old.) Karen would throw around a lot of big names in a way that struck me as being kind of obnoxious and intentionally intimidating. It also made me feel incredibly insecure.

But Karen was no hippie. And she was no entitled private school kid. And she was not easy. I know she struggled with a lot of personal issues. And she did some pretty unconventional and interesting things, like taking a semester off to go live in Yellowknife, NWT. Stuff like that surprised me about Karen. We spent one Valentine's Day at a strip bar (The Lighthouse, RIP). In fact, for a month or two we hung out there once a week, 'cause we thought it was a pretty funny thing for us to be doing, until it just got depressing.

Karen was also a gossip, and maybe that made me hesitant to trust her. She was fascinated with other people's lives and wanted to know everything.

But all of these concerns, every last one, are ones that I have about myself.

I think that, a lot of the time, I felt kind of together and responsible around my really messed up friends, and I think I sometimes felt like kind of an aimless fuck-up around Karen.

Mostly, though, Karen was remarkably easy to be around. We liked the same albums and books. We laughed at the same things. The same kind of curiosity about people that made her talk made her remarkably easy to talk to. Her education and intellectual curiosity inspired me to further my own education. So many hours over beer or coffee, conversation into the wee hours of the morning, and it's hard to imagine how we fill these hours in other places with other people we didn't used to know then, but so it goes.

The building Karen lived in on Summer street was torn down several years ago. They left the facade up, but it just makes the building look so shallow; it's depressing. I know the building was creaky and old and expensive or impossible to repair but who wants to live in a building without character, or quirks, or history? Not me.

A couple of months ago Karen came back to Halifax for a visit, from her home in Japan, and she brought her new husband and these weird Ramen noodle-flavoured caramels. We didn't have much time together, because there is never enough of that - time - but what we had was perfect. I could count on my fingers the number of people I trust completely as friends, as constants, and Karen is certainly among them. It was like those years in between didn't matter, or were inconsequential, to the fact of this unlikely, unavoidable friendship.

Carey - Joni Mitchell

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldn't sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey
But it's really not my home
My fingernails are filthy, I got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy french cologne

Oh Carey get out your cane
And I'll put on some silver
Oh you're a mean old daddy, but I like you fine

Come on down to the mermaid cafe and I will buy you a bottle of wine
And we'll laugh and toast to nothing and smash our empty glasses down
Let's have a round for these freaks and these soldiers
A round for these friends of mine
Let's have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town

Come on, Carey, get out your cane
I'll put on some silver
Oh you're a mean old daddy, but I like you

Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam
Or maybe I'll go to Rome
And rent me a grand piano and put some flowers round my room
But lets not talk about fare-thee-welis now
The night is a starry dome.
And they're playin that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the matalla moon

Come on, Carey, get out your cane
And I'll put on some silver
You're a mean old daddy, but I like you

The wind is in from Africa
Last night I couldnt sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here
But, it's really not my home
Maybe it's been too long a time
Since I was scramblin down in the street
Now they got me used to that clean white linen
And that fancy french cologne

Oh Carey, get out your cane
I'll put on my finest silver
We'll go to the mermaid cafe
Have fun tonight
I said, oh, youre a mean old daddy, but you're out of sight

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