fifteen. vangroovy

Toronto in April is grey, cold, flat and hard.  Vancouver in April is green, blue, pink and delicious. You’re going to love Vancouver, one of my classmates promises.   It’s so you.

It’s opening night of The Matchmaker. We’re in the dressing room getting ready when I ask the Mistress of Speech and Dialects if I may borrow her John Barton videos for the week. I want to brush up on my Shakespeare before heading to Vancouver. She coolly refuses me.  Wow, she really doesn’t like you, says the actor playing Dolly, eyes wide.

It’s closing night. Our last performance as student actors. As we take our final bow I notice a tear sail from my eye, catching the light as it arcs into the audience.  It’s relief, not sentiment.  Get stuffed.  I made it through.

At the after-party, the Poet asks if he can write once I get settled.  He says he is going to miss me. He tells me there is a lot he needs to say.

Four days after finishing theatre school I pack my life into a duffle bag. What’s left fits into a few boxes that will squat indefinitely in my dad’s storage locker.  I decide to leave all my music behind. An experiment: new life, new tunes.  But I pack ten postcards that connect me to the past. I’ve been collecting them since high school, favourite paintings from the NSW Art Gallery.  Sydney Long’s Pan, a few from the Heidelberg School, a Brett Whiteley landscape of Sydney Harbour.  They can decorate wherever I end up living.  It’s still up for grabs.  The Grandfather has wangled me a one-way ticket to Vancouver as part of my contract, but accommodation is my responsibility.

I am picked up at the airport by the sister of a friend of my dad.  Her daughter has just bought a new condo in Surrey, and needs a roommate. My eyes pop as we drive from the airport past lush pine trees and rolling green meadows. This is Vancouver, my dad’s friend’s sister says smugly. We try to keep it a secret.  The air is sweet and warm.  I can feel my sap running.  Springtime comes to Vancouver weeks earlier than it does to Toronto. It hasn’t been blanketed in slush and frozen, dirty snow for months – a lumbering cold carrying depression on its back.  Vancouver has slept in damp, chilly darkness, but always holds the promise of green.  March tulips nudging the moist earth are the first hint of spring in Vancouver.  Thawing dog turds are its herald in Toronto.

I stick my postcards up in my empty bedroom, careful not to mar the fresh paint. It’s my first experience of condo living. The whole building smells like new carpet and silicone sealant.  I attempt a trial run of getting into to town for work. A forty minute walk to the Skytrain station, and another forty five minutes into Vancouver.  I can shave fifteen minutes off the walk if I cut through a large, wooded plot of undeveloped land.  I only have to do it once to realise that Surrey is a tough town. Going off the beaten track might not be a good idea.  I’ll be rehearsing six days a week and then performing till eleven at night.  I need to find a place to live in the city, fast.

One of my classmates from theatre school has moved to Vancouver as well.  She doesn’t have a gig, but the weed in Lotusland is cheap and plentiful. My postcards come down and I decamp to her couch in Kitsilano. After my first day of rehearsal, I walk across the Burrard Street Bridge and marvel at my good fortune.  It’s a miniature version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  I claim it as my own. Cyclists whizz past me through the warm sweet night.  Sail boats babble softly in their sleep.  Oil tankers glitter on the horizon under the diamonds sparks of North Van.  My own mini harbour bridge.  This city is all mine.  I have no relatives, no friends, no knowledge of this place.  But I have a job acting Shakespeare for the next five months.

I find a basement apartment just north of Broadway.  The young couple who own the house have converted the basement into an illegal flat to help cover their mortgage.  I’m on a non-Equity contract and extremely conscious of the fact that I’m on my own. There isn’t anyone here to bail me out.  The flat is the cheapest place I can find.  They seem like a nice couple – very eager to have me live beneath them.  It’s not until I move in that I realise that the kitchen they have constructed lacks a sink.  I have to do all my washing in the laundry basin tucked behind the monstrous furnace.  Instead of an oven, there’s a hotplate. The second-hand fridge leaks coolant, contaminating my first load of groceries.   My landlady is rake thin.  She’s just given birth to their first baby.  She is a long-distance runner, but she ignored her doctor’s advice to stop training in the last stage of her pregnancy.  While going for a jog in her thirty-sixth week, the baby’s skull cracked her pelvis. She has to use a rolling office chair to move around the house while her bones knit together again.  I lie on my air mattress listening to her roll back and forth above me on my days off.  They have a huge German Shepherd that likes to paw the basement door open and crouch in the doorway, watching me silently with huge, glittering eyes.  I break the lease after three weeks and demand they return my bond, threatening to report them for operating an illegal suite.  I have discovered self-righteousness.  They give me my money back, shame-faced and abashed.

My postcards come down again. I find another apartment in the back of a huge old boarding house off Denman Street.  All my worldly goods fit into the boot of a taxi-cab.  The driver arrives at my new home, but won’t let me have my belongings.  He wants to take photos of me first.  He pulls out a camera with a telephoto lens and demands that I pose for him in front of his cab.  I refuse.  He has all my stuff.  I don’t know what to do.  A man in his early thirties with a goatee and bright blue eyes approaches. Is there a problem here?  Yeah, this asshole won’t give me my stuff.  His blue eyes go very hard as he stares at the driver. A twinkle of crazy behind them.  Give the lady her stuff, pal.  I’ve been rescued.  The man helps me carry my bags to the tiny furnished apartment at the back of the building.  He’s an actor who lives in the garret of the same boarding house. An American who has moved to Vancouver because the film industry is booming.  Big fish in a friendly Canadian pond.  He’s writing a screenplay and shlocking another film he has already written, produced and starred in.  Rescued by an actor who makes a living playing crazy bad guys. Welcome to Vancouver.

My apartment is so small that I can carry my telephone on its extension cord from the bedroom, through the kitchen and into my bathroom.  I could talk in the bath tub, if I had anyone to call.  I paint one wall salmon pink because the apartment is mine, all mine, and way out my budget but I love it.  I become friends with a squirrel who leaves nuts for me on the windowsill.   I feel like Cinderella until he starts wandering into the kitchen when I leave my door open.  He’s cute when he’s outside, but indoors, he starts to look like a really big rat.  My postcards are up, and I even have a little TV that came with the furnished apartment, but I realise that leaving my music behind was a big mistake.  I have never thought of myself as a muso, but suddenly realise that familiar tunes can make anywhere feel a little more like home.  I am lonely.  I have never lived on my own before.  I didn’t know there were so many hours of silence available to a person.  I buy a cheap guitar and that helps.  I write my first song.

Ode to Joni Mitchell

I’m not a writer,

But I wish I were.

To be quite honest,

I’m more of an editor.

I could tell you I’m a painter,

But I’m afraid you’d scoff.

I can do a nice liking

But it won’t be to your liking, cuz

I’m no Van Gogh.

Do you think you could love me?

There’s not much to see.

I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict, but,

It’s just not me.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of troubles too.

But they’re not anything that could make a record like ‘Blue’.

I’ve never given up a baby

I’ve never even had one

But you know when you’re sensible and sexually responsible,

It’s just not done.

 

I’m a product of the 90’s

I’m really so PC

The only thing left to fight for

Is saving the CBC

 

Do you think you could love me?

There’s not much to see

I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict but

It’s just not me.

three. an adventure, and an interruption

This is the story of how I got into theatre school.

My plane descended into Toronto on April 1st, 1992.  April Fool’s Day.  If Sydney on take-off was a Jackson Pollack painting – an exuberant spray of terracotta roofs, green football ovals and turquoise swimming pools—Toronto was a tired Mondrian. A study in greys and browns, dissected into orderly right angles by highways, roads and residential blocks. Good grief, what have I done? I had invited myself to spend six months living with my father and his new wife in their compact, two-bedroom apartment.  I didn’t know what I would do in Toronto, but I hoped a gap year would give me an opportunity to gain ‘life experience’, that elusive requirement for acceptance into NIDA, and spend some longed-for time with my father.

The day after I arrived, I sat in their tiny kitchen and leafed through the Yellow Pages looking for acting schools.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Sound of phone being picked up and a person drawing back on a cigarette.

Male voice: Toronto Studio Players.

Me: Um. Hello. Yes. My name is Tiffany Knight and I’m interested in doing some acting classes.

Pause.

Male voice: Tiffany Knight.  Now that is a name I could put on a marquis.

Hook, line and sinker.

I caught a two buses and a subway to Pape Station. The funky east side of the inner city. Toronto Studio Players was a tiny black box theatre-cum-acting school converted out of a meatpacking warehouse. The stage, wings, bleachers and booth had been constructed from materials ‘acquired’ from the discarded set of The Fly, a 1980s horror movie starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. The film tells the story of a rogue geneticist whose experiments in teleportation go horribly wrong. I saw it in a Honolulu hotel room when I was twelve, at the end of my annual visit with my dad. It was the first time my brother and I had returned to Canada for Christmas. Normally my father would spend three weeks with us in Australia, but celebrating Christmas with my mother and stepfather must have been wearing a little thin. He had travelled as far as Hawaii to make sure we made the transfer between flights safely.  It was meant to be a great adventure, but Hawaii was a sickly-sweet nightmare,  a delaying tactic to avoid the farewell we all knew would be agonizing. Watching The Fly on our last night together should have been a treat, proof that I was a big girl now.  But the sight of Jeff Goldblum’s fingernails sloughing off and his teeth dropping out as he descended into madness still gives me an involuntary shiver. I remember how, his transformation into a fly complete, he silently landed behind a huge translucent window. Suddenly it shattered and he stole away Geena’s sleeping form. I spent a vigilant night staring at the glowing hotel window as the air conditioner hissed.

The day I arrived at TSP its founder, Hersh Jacob, was sitting in a darkened office, his overgrown beard and greying ponytail illuminated by the light of a single, crane-necked lamp. He was wreathed in a cloud of marijuana smoke.  Hersh was a visual artist, the creator of whimsical, surreal cartoons that filled the walls of the theatre.  He was the artistic director, sole acting teacher and visionary behind a company that had started through the goodwill of government grants and continued to function on the occasional student’s fees, Hersh’s charm, and the smell of an oily rag. By the end of our meeting I had been recruited to design and run lights for the weekly Friday night cabaret, and was prepped to apply for a provincial grant that would pay me $350 a fortnight to work for the company. And work I did.  I bought a C-wrench and learned how to design a lighting plot from a book on theatre production I found in a second-hand bookstore on Queen Street. I learned how to hang and focus lamps from the resident lighting designer, Dwayne.  Dwayne was a twenty-something guy with albinism, which meant he was legally blind—somehow the contradictions inherent in a blind lighting designer just seemed to work at TSP—and by Friday night I was in the booth ready to tech my first show.  Nobody turned up. True to Hersh’s principles, we hung the Sold Out sign on the door and did the show anyway.

During the six months I worked at TSP I performed, taught acting classes, directed a Harold Pinter play, stage managed a tour and produced a summer festival. I also helped to keep the photocopier in the office, participating in an ingenious scheme Hersh had developed.  It worked like this: you contact a large photocopier company and express an interest in buying a machine.  Explaining that this is a big investment for a small, not-for-profit organization, the company is persuaded to lend you a demonstration model to see if it will suit your needs. You take advantage of the fact that your unmemorable little theatre company can easily slip through the bureaucratic cracks of the multinational organization, and have free use of the photocopier for several months. When they eventually get in touch to see if you like the machine – and if not can we please have it back – you assume the identity of a hapless administrative dogsbody who doesn’t know anything about the arrangement, and promise to investigate the situation immediately. For the ensuing several weeks, each time you answer the phone you do so as a different character who again pleads ignorance and promises to look into the matter. Apart from being a thrilling exercise in character study (I know for a fact that at least one nom de plume endures as a result of this scheme), TSP had excellent printed resources for years, and as far as I know only abandoned the project when the photocopier eventually broke down.

Hersh Jacob was a scoundrel and a pot-head.  He was also a master of charm and an inspiration.  He gave me my first piece of acting advice, which I still—

The screen door slams. I’m jolted out of my reveries about the bohemian world of Toronto theatre and back onto the front porch. “There you are Mum!” chimes Oscar, the dog cradled in his arms. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” He snuggles into my lap, my almost eleven year old boy. I have to fold all his limbs in to make him fit. It’s a student-free day, which once again I’ve forgotten about.

He’s standing beside me right now. Hovering politely, waiting for me to engage. “If I’m not there, how do I know that Tokyo really exists?” Silence. I write. He’s just put a live caterpillar, rescued from a spider’s web, on the blank page next to where I’m writing. Delicately lifts the blank page so the grub will roll toward my hand. “Do grasshoppers have eyes?” Sweetly oblivious to the fact that I’m TRYING TO WRITE. “I wonder what kind of bug he’s a larva for?” Deliberating as to whether he should put the rescued caterpillar in the potted geranium he’s been tending so diligently since I showed him how to grow it from a cutting. The previous interruption – the one I tried to write about when he interrupted me this second time – turned into an episode of quiet, heartfelt sobbing in my lap, because I suggested he play with his bow and arrow. He hasn’t touched them since Christmas, when he broke the rules and let a friend shoot without parental supervision.  A hole through the shed wall, which so easily could have been a hole through a ten year old skull.  Evidently the heat of my wrath has ruined the entire experience of archery. Cheer up buddy, it’s my fault – I should have known you and your friends aren’t ready for that kind of freedom yet. I’m not used to having a big boy, you know. I’m figuring these things out too. Come on lovey, give me a smile.  Will you teach me how to shoot today?  He refuses to be coaxed into happiness.  Go inside to make him French toast, trying earn his smile back – bad mother, damaging mother, irresponsible mother – but there’s no maple syrup. “Don’t worry Mum I’ll just have plain toast.” My wee martyr. Lucy is watching ‘Annie’ for the seventh time. Lucy, turn it down. LUCY TURN IT DOWN! “What are we going to do today?” she moans into the blissful silence. What am I, the tour guide? Figure something out. Boredom is the…struggling to create a metaphor involving dirt and flowers as I make toast. “Boredom is the garden in which creativity blooms.”  She stares at me, deadpan and suddenly sixteen in her 8 year old body.  “What are you talking about?” Go outside and play.  

Mum must engage. Mum must entertain. Why don’t they hover around their dad, waiting for him to “do something” with them? Is it because I almost always drop everything to play, to feed, to cuddle, to boss? Because, as our lives get busier and they get more independent, it seems that is how more and more of our time together is spent. Bring the bins in. Get the eggs. Clean your room. And they do.  They are lovely, helpful little people. But the playing together has been increasingly replaced by working together, and if they play while I work, I feel guilty.  If I’m writing, I feel their sweet, discreet presences waiting for Mum to see them, admire them, and a voice inside me whispers, “They won’t want you to play with them for much longer now.  You will be replaced by lovers and friends and careers before you know it. Grab it while you can.”  But when I put the pen down, or the book down, or the dishcloth down to just be with them, the other voices whimper “Feed me! Feed me!”