Sunday, March 1, 2009

Left and Leaving

I have such a heavy heart these days. If I think about it too much my eyes tear up and I have to find a corner to hide in. And I can't avoid it; I stand on that street to smoke, I walk down it to get to and from. I think about places I could go to eat my lunch, places I could sit and read when my work day is done. I wonder where or if I will meet my friends. A lyric from another Weakerthans song hits me over and over: "A spectre's haunting Albert street." If anyone loves a city like I love Halifax, it is John K. Samson (Winnipeg). And Barrington street, like Albert street, is haunted by the things that it has been. Worst of all, there is nothing I can do.

The block of Barrington street between Prince and Sackville streets is my turf. It is my neighbourhood more than any neighbourhood I have ever paid rent to live in. And of course it is not the buildings but the people within them who create community, and when the buildings are left vacant, there is nothing to foster that community, is there? Brick and wood are assigned the characteristics of the people who inhabit them, and it is such a tragedy to look through tears in paper covering glass, to reveal empty spaces that used to be filled.

I first got to know Barrington street in the fall of 1997, when I worked at United Bookstore. The manager of United Bookstore, Dave, is still one of my favourite people in the city, and we still see one another nearly every day, for brief moments that never cease to brighten my day for our easy familarity; his relentless and fond teasing. We talk about music and books and people we both know. When I first moved here and only knew a handful of people, he invited me to spend holidays with his family. He told me stories about his own history in Halifax, a transplanted Torontonian himself. He still tells people about how he taught me how to change a light bulb. United Bookstore does not only sell books. They also sell junk food and cigarettes and bus tickets, so there were customers we would see every day; friendly faces from the offices upstairs in the Roy Building, who became part of the scenery; part of the community that I was also a part of, of people who spend their days in down-town Halifax.

When I moved back to Halifax in 2001, after my brief return to Toronto, I spent a couple of months waiting for Sean, my then-boyfriend, to join me here. He sent me a series of mix tapes during this period, that each included at least one song from The Weakerthans' recent album, Left and Leaving and at least one song from Sarah Harmer's recent You Were Here. It's remarkably coincidental that both album titles so explicitly refer to space and time. And if it isn't intentional, both records nevertheless feel like concept albums, exploring the respective speakers' personal spaces. I always placed You Were Here alongside of my relationship with Sean, from the basement apartment he inhabited on Woodbine Avenue in Toronto (the apartment that always smelled of bleach, as described in "Basement Apartment") to the eventual knowledge of his infidelity ("Coffee Stain") , and all of the good stuff that came between and after; like it was written for us. And while You Were Here seemed to have a lot to say about my interior life, Left and Leaving spoke to my surroundings and my ideas of "home." These songs were wonderful gifts, through the mail, from the town where I was born, to the town where I chose to live.

It is funny, because I have always had the strangest relationship with Left and Leaving. Sometimes, I swear it is the best album ever written. And on other occasions I am so irritated by its intentional cleverness. All last week, I kept singing those songs to myself.

The Barrington street location of Sam the Record Man closed its doors on February 20, 2007. I worked there for a couple of years. Sean hired me, several months after we broke up, and I maintain that it was the best possible thing for our relationship. It helped me slide into a friendship, our relationship changed necessarily by our new boss-employee relationship, and by seeing each other, all the time, in this brand new context. The store's closure was sudden and shocking, but I could hardly say entirely unexpected. Everyone who worked there knew it was pretty amazing that we all still had jobs. Record stores were on the brink of disappearing. It was a hard blow for everyone who cared about music. The building was a landmark, and everyone who grew up in Halifax seemed to have recollections of purchasing favourite albums there or seeing local bands performing in-stores. For a week my co-workers and I put merchandise in boxes and boxes on trucks and congregated, afterwards, next-door at the Granite Brewery to grieve over pints of Peculiar. If we were not all friends, exactly, we were all familiar, and of course nothing was ever going to be the same again. We would see one another infrequently. We would miss and be missed, and it was so sad, saying good-bye.

There are things about working on Barrington street that seem inconsequential but that are actually enormous. Buying cigarettes from Dave; buying my coffee from one of several people whose first names I know, at Just Us! coffee roasters; the deaf man rumoured to have been a former boxer, who asks for change at the corner of Prince and Barrington, who tells all the women he loves them, and jokingly threatens to fight all of the men. And until its closure one week ago, there was the Granite Brewery/Ginger's, where I not only worked the door in exchange for beer on many nights when there were performances upstairs, but which I also relied on to be a meeting place or at least a place where I could spend my lunch breaks in warm company, with coffee and a book.

There is another entry for the Granite, and surely one for Sam's, because they are too big on their own. But they are also inseparable from my experience of Barrington street. I was introduced to a lot of friends in that bar, and I got to know a lot of other friends more intimately there. It was wonderful to walk into the bar and see staff from United Bookstore, Sam the Record Man, Just Us!, Neptune Theatre, and JWD (where I now work), all enjoying the personal relationships they had with that space, and watching relationships develop with one another. Of course the alcohol helped foster much of the camaraderie, but I haven't had a drink in over seven months, and I still feel like a piece of my heart is being ripped out and trampled on.

I love my job. I work in the coolest used bookstore in the history of ever. But I worry about my security there, about the security of that street and the small businesses that make my neighbourhood what it is. I worry about the paper-covered windows; the buildings that stand vacant for months and years.

And I don't know what to do with myself. I feel aimless. I know I can call people on the phone, but it isn't the same. I miss the organic nature of the community that the Granite Brewery allowed. The best things about this city are vanishing. I miss my friends already, and I feel like my home is slipping away.

Left and Leaving - The Weakerthans

My city's still breathing (but barely it's true)
Through buildings gone missing like teeth.
The sidewalks are watching me think about you,
Sparkled with broken glass.
I'm back with scars to show.
Back with the streets I know
Will never take me anywhere but here.
The stain in the carpet, this drink in my hand,
The strangers whose faces I know.
We meet here for our dress-rehearsal to say " I wanted it this way"
Wait for the year to drown.
Spring forward, fall back down.
I'm trying not to wonder where you are.
All this time lingers, undefined.
Someone choose who's left and who's leaving.
Memory will rust and erode into lists of all that you gave me:
a blanket, some matches, this pain in my chest,
the best parts of Lonely, duct-tape and soldered wires,
new words for old desires,
and every birthday card I threw away.
I wait in 4/4 time.
Count yellow highway lines
That you're relying on to lead you home.


Steph said...

That's the song that's been on repeat for me, personally, for the past two weeks.

I can't wait for our next coffee.
I can't wait for your next post.

Tor Hershman said...

Have you ever 'eard Lord Sutch's "Blinking Lights?"

Ryan Patey said...

I still work seconds away from all of these places, and I still know a lot of the people in the area by name.
I lost a venue/gathering place that I worked at as well, and Sam's will always be a big empty space in my heart now. It hurt to walk back down that block when I came back from Winnipeg...
If only the Tim Horton's had shut down before any of the places that now lay empty or replaced by a damn sub/pizza shop.

Amelia Chester said...

Tor: I haven't heard that song! Thanks for the heads up, I'll look into it!

Steph: A much belated: It was great to see you! Again soon?

And Ryan: Holy smokes, have you seen how they've gutted the place? They have totally gutted Ginger's. At least they're doing *something!* I have such fond memories of the ceilidh connection, too, especially as I was working across the street at united when it was around. They were all regular customers. That Barrington street community is so amazing. Thank god for just us! If that place gets starfished I don't know what I'll do.