Murphy’s Wake

It was the last time I would go to Finn, I swore to myself as I searched for him in the Elmdale Tavern. He was around one of the regular spots. I needed to see him fast.

At the Carleton Tavern I found Finn with a quart and money coming out of every pocket. I sat down with him, ordered a pint. It was still early in the day.                          I hit Finn up for fifty bucks to pay Murphy. Finn charged a fee for even handing you the loan. It cost sixty to borrow  fifty for a week, but it would be worth it.

Finn copied phone numbers and odds as he readied himself for a busy day ahead. Sunday, of course, was his big day because of the NFL betting. This was Saturday when college football and pro baseball took most gamblers’ attention.

I finished my pint, said goodbye to Finn, caught Murphy at the Prescott Tavern, gave him a lift to Mary’s.

Murphy and Mary had been engaged for twenty years. He still visited her little flower shop every morning. We stopped so he could pick a bouquet of flowers for her in a city park.

Murphy didn’t believe in paying for flowers. When they were in season, he helped himself.

It was a bone of contention between them.

Murphy believed that flowers were given to man by the good Lord, shouldn’t be bought and sold.

Mary believed that people gladly paid for the little ray of sunshine they purchased with a nice bouquet of flowers.

Murphy had a friend named Calhoun in Montreal who could, for a price, buy a block of tickets in a provincial lottery which would produce winners.

All I had to do was give fifty dollars to Murphy. I didn’t follow the whole scam back to the actual score, but I questioned Murphy enough to know that it felt like a winner.

He assured me that fifty dollars would produce five thousand for me. Added to some others and passed through the right hands, it would yield twice as much, for him.

This guy, Calhoun, had an in, was sharing the wealth.

Murphy did it for me out of the kindness of his heart and good business sense. He didn’t have to include me, but he saw me as a good luck charm.

I dropped Murphy off, went home to a weekend of sports on t.v. and too much beer. It didn’t cheer me up, to hear, on Monday morning, that Murphy had died on the weekend from a heart attack.

I drove to Mary’s which was above her flower shop. It isn’t decent and polite to speak ill of the deceased, but getting lottery tickets was another matter.

He always wore the same suit, his best, for giving and taking payments, more taking than giving, it always seemed with Murphy as he did his weekend rounds, careful not to exceed his booze limit.

The lottery tickets had to be in his suit.

Mary was in her shop with a short, dark, Scottish lawyer named Jack Scullion. She introduced us without mentioning if the man even knew Murphy. I listened with polite sadness, shook my head regretfully. Mary described Murphy’s last moments.

It seemed that he died in her arms. Just after they had named a date. They had been engaged now for twenty years, so they were celebrating the twentieth year by marriage. She was as good as his wife anyway, Mary said.

I agreed and inquired about Murphy’s “effects” as diplomatically as possible. Perhaps it was a little too vaguely phrased. Mary didn’t respond.

Jack Scullion walked around the shop like he was looking for something suspicious. He kept an ear cocked in our direction though. He was trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in.

Margaret, Murphy’s sister, appeared with her husband, Ralph, a used car lot owner. It was safe to say that the vultures were circling.

I managed to find out that Murphy would be dressed in his best suit tomorrow at Ralph’s showroom.

They were having the wake there. Ralph told me, in confidence, that it was his idea. It seemed a bit greedy for Ralph to take advantage of the crowd of potential customers which would gather to send Murphy off, but I wasn’t one to judge.

There didn’t seem to be much of a chance of getting at Murphy’s suit pockets until the next day so I drove home and waited.

 

I joined the line of people entering Ralph’s showroom.

The place had a western theme, the staff were dressed as cowboys and cowgirls. They wore black armbands while Ralph himself was resplendent in a black western suit with tie and boots to match. He had probably considered wearing his black, ten gallon Stetson, but decided against it in case of misinterpretation by the mourners.

There was a good mixture at Murphy’s wake. A crowd of children were the offspring of Murphy’s family. The older ones were  Murphy’s cousins, uncles and aunts. When Murphy had mentioned his family at poker games or at the end of late night pub crawls, he gave the impression that he was the black sheep. His own opinion was that the family disliked him because they were jealous of his money and freedom.

The people grew  noisier as the booze flowed freely. Their presence was welcome. I needed as much attention diverted as possible while I sought the tickets.

Most of the sniffling and crying came from Mary and Margaret.

As I shuffled along toward them in the line, I could hear Margaret declaring that Murphy looked like himself.

Mary’s voice rose over Margaret’s, in grief stricken tones, to tell someone that her brother had called to extend his condolences. He added that it was nice to think about old Murphy finally laying quiet with his big yap shut.

People in the line who heard it at first looked puzzled, then made clucking noises. They agreed that it was a down to earth, honest assessment of the deceased, rest his soul.

I eyed the coffin, snuck a peek at Murphy within.

He did look like himself, I will say that.

The dark, pinstriped suit, Murphy’s best, with the vest done up, decorated his  body. His face was pinker than normal, but I only saw him in bars or restaurants so maybe this was what he really looked like. He had his hands folded peacefully over his pot belly and, all in all,  looked like he had just exhaled and forgotten to inhale.

There was no doubt about it, the life had gone out of Murphy.

I could smell the gin on Margaret when she hugged me and the rye on Mary’s breath as she looked at me with red rimmed eyes and running mascara

I managed to nod sadly and escape her while giving Murphy another quick, visual once over.

Jack Scullion hovered in the background, watching everyone, especially me.

There was plenty of drink and some sandwiches which the ladies had made. I helped myself to the food, found the coffee. It would take a clear head, whatever I did.

Ralph was giving a sales pitch to a couple beside a beat up old clunker which looked like it had recently been retired from delivering pizza. He made the mistake of leaning a little too hard on the front bumper when he pushed it to demonstrate the shocks. The bumper fell off, barely missing his cowboy boots. Ralph never lost a beat. He made a note to see the mechanic about “bodywork problems”,  kicked the offending bumper under the car. The pile of sawdust beneath it was turning black, absorbing oil.

Jack Scullion approached me with a beer in one hand and a smoke in the other. He had jet black hair, scars on his nose and around his eyes. He bore all the signs of a fighter feeling no pain. He stood spread legged in front of me and asked if I was in Murphy’s will. When I told him I didn’t think so, he seemed to relax. As much as a short, Glaswegian lawyer can relax. His shifty eyes wondered how I could benefit from Murphy’s death. He turned and stood by my side with a wide stance. He gestured alternately with the beer and the smoke while he surveyed the room.             “Ach, it’s a right shower here, just noo, Jimmy”

I nodded, but I didn’t really know what he meant. He didn’t notice, went on with his monologue, sometimes addressing the room, sometimes confiding to me.

“Aye, they’re aw here noo. The vultures’re here. Look at em circlin, look at yersels, ach. See em? They’re after his money. The poor old boy isn’t even cauld yet. See em? They’re a right shower a bastards”

No doubt, like most of his race, the Scottish lawyer was a little crazy and extremely violent. Rather than point out that he, too, was in attendance for strictly financial reasons, I managed to escape back to Margaret and Mary.

I was getting desperate.

Mary and Margaret had been absorbing the alcohol at a rapid rate. They had run out of tears. Their mutual hostility emerged with each drink.

I addressed them with an eye on the coffin.

“Well, ladies, it must be tense waiting for the will to be read. To see who gets what of Murphy’s. I understand that Mary here was just about to tie the knot with poor Murphy”                      Margaret frowned and produced many heretofore unseen lines in her face.

“Hah” She blurted out with a laugh.

“Tie the knot. He’s been engaged to her for twenty years”

Mary reacted with bug eyed indignation. Her truthfulness about Murphy’s last moments was being questioned.

“We were like man and wife. He didn’t spend time with his other family” she said before she found another glass of rye.

Ralph had finished his pitch, but had no takers. He threw regretful glances at the bumper as he approached us, beer in hand.

“Anyone got a few words to say?” he asked with a kindly smile.

“Ha. Family’s family. It’s his blood in my veins” Margaret asserted.

Jack Scullion had joined us. He had a fresh beer, stood spread legged with shoulders back. It was as though he was bracing himself on a heaving deck.

“The will overrides everything” said Mary pugnaciously in Margaret’s direction.

This hostility caught Jack’s attention, it was right up his alley. He looked around for an opponent, saw Ralph about to speak.

I sidled toward the casket as Ralph began what he thought was sort of a eulogy for Murphy, but which he never finished. He never really got it started.

Mary took offence at the look which Margaret gave her, hit the dead man’s sister with her purse.

Jack saw his opportunity, gave Ralph a Glaswegian handshake which could be heard all over the showroom.

There was evidence of Jack’s nutting ability the next day in the taverns; quite a few black eyes and bandaids sported by the mourners who clashed with him

He made up for his lack of height by jumping straight at the other man’s face, applying the head, around the hairline, into whatever features were available.

With Ralph sitting in a pool of the blood which was spouting from his nose, the women shrieking as they rolled around in front of him, I made it to the casket.

Jack was taking on all comers. He seemed to be enjoying himself.

I searched Murphy’s vest and trouser pockets with one hand, the other still holding my coffee cup. I was about to try his jacket when the lights went out.

It wasn’t dark, but it turned everything in the showroom shadowy. The struggling figures in the brawl were being joined by others, the children shooed to the office. Maybe it was one of them who was responsible for the half light.

I checked one side of Murphy’s jacket pockets and found nothing. The noise of fighting and breaking glass became louder. I tried the other pocket, felt cardboard.

I pulled the lottery tickets out of Murphy’s pocket, squinted at them. They were the right ones.

I was saying a prayer of thanks to my dead chum and the good Lord when I dropped the tickets. They slid down on the other side of Murphy.

I panicked for a moment. Placing my cup between Murphy’s folded hands, I used one of my hands to shift his weight, the other to feel for the tickets. I grasped them just as a bottle crashed against the casket and a sliding body took my feet out from under me.

Ralph had provided a fold out table from the lunch room upon which to place Murphy’s casket. As my weight shifted,  the casket slid off the table.

Murphy sat up with my coffee cup in his hands.

Crawling toward the door,  tickets in my hand, I glanced back.

Murphy’s sudden rise from the prone to the sitting position, had caused a pause in the fighting.

I  heard various opinions of this phenomenon.

“It’s a sign”

The words “miracle” and “resurrection”were mentioned  several times..

When I joined Finn, the next day, at the Carleton Tavern and paid him back, cheerfully, he gave me a curious look.

He was totalling up the weekend’s action over a quart, asked me if I’d been to Murphy’s funeral after the donnybrook at his wake.

I confirmed that I’d attended the burial. It was a sad and solemn affair for all involved including Murphy’s family and everyone’s legal representatives.                                                            We drank a  memorial toast to Murphy that day before I bought everyone a round and placed a few bets.

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Inside Bottom Oil

 

Paul sat watching the snowflakes drift by his living room window. They accumulated on everything. The large evergreens in the neighbour’s yard were turning white. He stared at the pad on his knee.

‘Is benzene exposure enough to prove guilt?’

He looked at the words, tried to see the answer, but he really didn’t know. That’s what they paid lawyers for.

Paul couldn’t afford a lawyer who could handle the dimensions of this case. This was bigger than Small Claims Court.

He returned his eyes to the snow, remembered Alberta.

 

 

The world was a different place then. Everyone had trucks, cars, stereos, apartments, money, in Edmonton, in the late seventies. On tv, they were showing the rigs lined up at the US border to escape down south, where drilling was cheaper. That was one of the images Paul remembered from the time when he was leaving Alberta.

He thought of his first day on the drill floor. The big, unshaven farmer from the last shift, standing by the driller, looking at him sceptically.

“Wonder how long he’ll last?” he spoke to the driller with a smile.

There was machinery on the floor which could blind, cripple or kill a man instantly. The pain and effort of the twelve hour shifts sorted the workers from the wannabes in short order. Some men lasted only one shift or a week.

Paul witnessed the sadism of some drillers and their schizophrenic kindness. There was talk of bar fights, in the old days, ones in which one company’s drilling crew took on another’s. Government safety men, if they dared to approach an isolated rig, were regularly beaten up behind the mud tanks.

He thought of his old toolpusher whose company had to hire a special driver for him because he’d wrecked so many four by fours, the roughneck on the other crew who had been caught in a fire in a Sudbury mine and had run through a wall, the little derrickman who worked so hard, he puked, the eight hour return trips on bush roads to the nearest bar which sold takeout beer, the hungover shift the next day, the exhaustion at the end of the two week hitch.

Paul remembered hoping that if he ever had to go to war, it would be with men like these. He saw feats of inhuman strength in Alberta’s oilpatch. The power of strong men’s determination to do anything. He witnessed pink dawns after long, hard overnight shifts, killing time until his crew was relieved, which made him wish that someone, anyone, back home, could see what he was seeing, could feel what he felt.

 

His driller, near the end, Johnny, turned sour when the judge sentenced him to time in jail during his weeks off.

In Alberta, rotations for drilling crews were, two weeks in the bush, one week off, in town.

Johnny had to go straight from the rig camp to jail. He took out his anger on the crew.

Neither Johnny nor the toolpusher on that particular rig were fit for normal society when they emerged from the bush. They drank at all hours of the night and day, no matter what.

Johnny, a family man with a farm in BC, was given this sentence the fifth time he was picked up driving drunk.

Then the toolpusher shot the bear and that pretty well finished it.

The motorman had been leaving food scraps at the end of the catwalk, so the crew would have something to watch while they worked.

A mother with cubs fed there every day.

Inevitably, mothers, cubs and hungry males were attracted to the galley.

The toolpusher waited, sitting in a chair, shot a bear through the side door of the accommodation trailer.

Paul remembered being hauled out of his bunk, ordered to drag the bear carcass down to the rig, one man on each leg.

It was strung up on the catline, stripped of its hide, during the night shift.

Paul remembered how human it felt as he dragged it, how he swore to leave the Alberta oilpatch after the bear episode. Johnny’s constant, bad tempered screaming finally did it.

OilCanada had been created a few years before. It was using the billion and a half taxpayer dollars with which Ottawa had started it off, to make a big corporate takeover. There were a few OilCanada rigs appearing in the oilpatch when Paul left Alberta.

 

 

He looked toward the front door to make sure his old OilCanada coat and boots were ready. He’d let it snow a little more before he started on the laneway. He watched the snowflakes again and thought of the forty mile an hour fog on the North Sea.

 

There were hundreds of rigs drilling offshore when Paul did Europe. When he was broke, he used his experience in Alberta to get a job.

Years flew by. The excitement of chopper flights was sobered by the helplessness of being confined on a platform somewhere between Scotland and Norway. The hard, scary work, foul weather and boredom of those years were a blur. The fear of landing on a helideck was dulled by the sight of Scotland’s coast on a return flight.

Paul was onshore, two weeks at a time, with money. There were the inevitable women and booze problems, but all in all, the North Sea was an enjoyable experience for him. Who ever heard of a fog which moves over the ocean at forty miles an hour?

He lived in Aberdeen mostly, with stints in London, Great Yarmouth and Amsterdam. The North Sea schedule was more forgiving than that in Alberta; two weeks on, two weeks offshore. The money was good enough in Europe, in the eighties, to eat and drink heartily. The dangers and pay were increased by working offshore.

The big oil companies had their own rigs or shared platforms.

The Piper Alpha platform was the first which Paul worked on. Years later, at home, in Ottawa, he read that the Piper had exploded, killed one hundred and sixty men.

Every time he went offshore, the drilling rigs held new wonders, new fears.

 

Every rig in Alberta used spinning chains. In the North Sea, they were outlawed for their unfortunate tendency to blind and cripple men. But most rigs had one stashed away, in case. The bravado which went with working beside imminent death was real. The money was good

Paul continued to work hard and play hard.

There were riding belts run by compressed air which took a man to the top of the hundred and twenty foot derrick or anywhere else between the floor and the crown where he was needed to do a job. In the background, there was the ever present threat of the wild North Sea.

He was living in Amsterdam when Paul realized that he had to go home. Letters with news of close relatives’ deaths interrupted his time off. He was working through an agency with its head office in Monaco, its recruiters in Scotland, on an American rig which was drilling in Dutch waters. He paid less taxes. It was exotic and European, the fleshly delights had almost seduced him completely. But he gathered his resources, headed back to Canada.

At this point, in the mid eighties, OilCanada had grown into a big Canadian player on the taxpayer’s dime. They had taken over parts of a rival and were about to declare their interest in a big offshore project on the East coast.

 

Paul rose, stretched, walked to the front door. The laneway would take a half hour, the exercise would let his memories percolate.

He donned his boots and coat; the lined leather gloves from an American oil company, the toque from his first rig in Alberta.

 

He swept off the step, shovelled the soft, white snow at the end of the laneway, where it met the road. He had beaten the plow to the spot, he could push most of the snow out, to the side, so that it would be swept away.

 

Paul couldn’t be expected to know that the job at the pipeline terminal in Ottawa would lead him into the downstream of the oil business. “Upstream”, the discovery and recovery of the hydrocarbons, “downstream”, the manufacture and distribution of the product to the customer. The words meant nothing to him, then. He didn’t know and didn’t care.

The agencies had a hold on the unskilled labour market. There were no rigs anywhere near Ottawa.

Paul worked at labour jobs with educated immigrants, ex cons, students, labourers older than himself. The agency sent him, finally, to the pipeline terminal.

The key to understanding the downstream of oil companies was the Exxon Valdez disaster.        Big, smart companies avoided liability by regularly upgrading their equipment.  They used agencies to provide cheap labour for the pipeline.

But profits were hurt by the Exxon Valdez disaster. The company name had been dragged through the mud. “Exxon Valdez” became synonymous with oil spill disasters and the uncaring oil companies which caused them.

The man who was now Ottawa’s boss, in Toronto, had once been in charge of the Exxon Valdez cleanup. Orders were issued that environmental and safety measures were important, to be given a high priority. Managers should see to it that terminals complied with laws, rather than avoiding them. The Exxon Valdez disaster had happened in 1989. The orders trickled down to Ottawa, at the time Paul was there, in the late nineties.

 

His main job was to “take tenders” on the pipeline. The gasolines and oils were sent from the refineries in Montreal and Toronto by means of a pipeline. Each “tender” or volume of product, designated to a specific terminal, was directed into the appropriate tanks by means of a manifold. Paul opened and closed the valves in the manifold shack as he took tenders.

Coastal, Shell, and OilCanada were receiving tenders on the same pipeline. The product would be loaded from the tanks into B-trains or fuel trucks, delivered to gas station or furnace tanks. The city had a week, at most, to function normally if these terminals ran dry. Gas stations would be empty: first responders would take priority.

Private oil companies scrimped on human comforts, but made an effort toward safety and environmental responsibility. It was still interference, still got in the way of making profits, but it was cheaper, in the long run, to meet the standards than to ignore them. They’d have to pay fines as well as meet legislated standards if they got caught not meeting them.

There was no immediate danger in the downstream day to day work, compared to the life Paul had lived on drilling rigs. There was the same sort of fatalism about the explosive and toxic possibilities of the products, but the safety and environmental concerns were mostly taken care of.

Paul recognized a profound difference in the people of the downstream oil business.

Men demonstrated little of the drive that he had seen in the upstream. Their enthusiasm had been steadily depleted by ongoing, never ending, cost cutting. Private oil companies had fired all the drivers, used contractors to boost profits. The remaining employees felt used and betrayed, but beyond basic safety protection, well paid jobs, good benefits and pensions, they couldn’t expect more of the company.

 

In his first job the actual switching of the valves of the pipeline manifold, using a telephone, clock and electric counter, gave Paul little difficulty. He pushed buttons, enclosed in an air conditioned, heated booth, beside the outdoor, electric valves. The hours were lousy, lots of graveyards, the agency was making money on every hour he worked, but it was steady and he was good at it.

Later, when Paul got the job at OilCanada, he naturally expected that standards would be high. He was finally going to work for OilCanada, a Canadian company, in his home town, Ottawa, the capital of Canada.

 

Whether it was a hangover from the arrogant, government controlled days when the bottom line didn’t count, or the inevitable result of combining several companies to make OilCanada, the atmosphere at the Ottawa terminal was poisonous. Both literally and figuratively.

Literally, because OilCanada’s old, manual manifold valves leaked vapour and product into the enclosed space of the tender shack where the men worked.

When Paul pointed the leaks out to management, a reply, in an email, revealed the truth. Management answered that he shouldn’t worry about leaks, which were normal around a terminal, not much product was being lost. They either completely missed or intentionally ignored his complaint about the vapours. Management didn’t have to breathe vapours. Men had done it for years. It was his problem.

 

The employees Paul worked with every day at OilCanada, hated the private oil companies where he first worked. Because of their enmity, they refused to listen to anything he said. The drivers at OilCanada had never seen the pipeline and the men who worked on it wouldn’t admit they were years and millions of dollars behind their private competitors. They actually didn’t know about advances like remote switching systems and outdoor valves which had been installed in the others, years before.

Paul felt the contempt of the OilCanada employees and management. To him, it was like talking to stone age people about how things could be better with modernization. He was considered by them to be a troublemaker from the private oil companies.

It became obvious to Paul that the company’s ignorance was intentional.

After his first shifts, taking tenders, Paul’s wife smelled gasoline on his breath when he got home after a forty minute drive. The warnings about the toxicity of benzene, an ingredient of gasoline, were posted prominently on the OilCanada website. He noticed a tremor in his little finger, bought himself a respirator, consulted a doctor. Blood tests showed no indication of benzene overexposure.

Two years before Paul replaced him at OilCanada, Dave, a pipeline worker, had complained to the safety man about breathing vapours. He was diagnosed with lung cancer a year after he started and died while Paul worked there.

Paul was breathing too much vapour. The other men did it without questioning it. Why should they question it? They had good jobs, benefits and pensions. To the other employees, rocking the boat was not an option, long term industrial disease wasn’t even contemplated. Anyone’s courage, who wouldn’t breathe the vapour, could be questioned.

Paul did his best. He protested, complained and demanded through email and safety committee meetings. Like Dave before him, Paul kept doing the job, unwilling to quit, unwilling to give in to the sour resignation he felt around him..

 

He hated the OilCanada uniforms from the beginning. There were so many facades: nothing was as it seemed to outsiders. The management and employees seemed, to Paul, to enjoy breaking laws, getting away with things. His protests accomplished nothing, management watched him more closely.

The atmosphere at the Ottawa OilCanada terminal was poisonous figuratively, too. They couldn’t even have a Christmas party there, some employees hated others so much.

Paul had nowhere to turn. He knew that if he made an issue of the vapours with the Ministry of Labour, he was done. OilCanada might not fire him immediately, but they would get rid of him, eventually. So, he went ahead and did his job for the money.

In the end, his one year contracts weren’t renewed, OilCanada paid him off before his Small Claims Court wrongful dismissal suit went to trial. Paul felt partially vindicated, he figured it was finally over. He parted ways with the company which had disappointed him so much, which exemplified all the things which were wrong about the oil business.

His wife was relieved that he didn’t have to breathe any more vapour and that his obsession was quieted. He got labour jobs through agencies and by word of mouth.

 

Paul swept the snow off of his boots before he entered the kitchen. He threw his snowy hat and gloves down, undid his boots, placed them on the cellar stairs. He hung his coat on the back of the kitchen chair.

He took a mug of hot coffee into the living room, put it down on the table by the window. He placed a log on the orange coals of the wood stove and sat down.

The tumour. That was the last part.

Paul picked up the pad.

‘Is benzene exposure enough to prove guilt?’

 

Large, fluffy snowflakes, few and far between. Paul watched them, settled back in the chair, pad on one knee, coffee beside him on the table.

His wife would pull up the lane in an hour, when it was dark.

The bright side was that he didn’t own anything of worth so that he was safe from attacks by OilCanada’s lawyers. He had nothing to lose in trying to get them.

Rudimentary research on the internet proved, in Paul’s mind, that there was a strong connection between benzene exposure and tumours.

There were regular announcements in the press about OilCanada’s worldwide investments in the upstream, belt tightening in the downstream.

What really bothered him was that he was sure that they knew. Someone, somewhere at the top, made the decision not to follow the other companies in upgrading their pipeline valves. They did it with the knowledge that it could endanger the employees. Instead of deciding to protect them, they decided to risk them. It happened because of someone’s diligence to keep under budget.

Paul stared at the pad on his knee.

‘Is benzene exposure enough to prove guilt?’

First question for the lawyer.

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Penang Blues

We sit watching a young Chinese guy getting drunk in the restaurant on Penang Road where they serve fried eggs and chips. I feel weak and sick. The past few weeks of high speed travel and junk food combined with the humid heat and heroin is causing my stomach to flare into violent nausea. Every quick movement, each meal, causes it. I=ve lost so much weight after four months in Asia, I spear another greasy chip, rub it in the yolk and force it down.

The Chinese guy drinks his beer with a flourish and makes a show of smoking his Pall Mall. He plays western rock on the juke box. He sits with his elbows on the table, stares at the bottle cap twisting between his fingers and casts pugnacious glances at the surging noon hour crowd around him. Like thousands of other young Asians we=ve seen from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, he wears a neat white shirt, stylish dark pants, leather shoes, well groomed long hair and shades.

We rise to pay for our breakfast and make our way back to the hotel. The Chinese guy orders another beer.

When we reach Chulia Street, the clamour of trishaws and blaring cars and trucks which assaults us from every direction on Penang Road, changes. It becomes a less frenzied throng of Indian and Chinese pushcart vendors, labourers carrying huge loads and children playing in the street.

Food wagons strung along half the length of Chulia Street display bowls of rice and noodle soup, deep fried snacks and roti. They waft food smells over us mixed with the ever present tang of boiling coconut oil. My stomach begins to erupt when we pass by the small crowds seated at rough tables which surround the more prosperous wagons. We hurry to the far end of the street, our refuge in sight.

The old Chinese custodians glance up from their newspapers in the lobby of the Yeng Keng Hotel to watch us make our way into the courtyard and on to our ground floor room. The grey day bursts into a violent downpour.

I lay gingerly on the bed waiting for the nausea to pass while Joyce goes to get some cold soft drinks. The old Chinese manager appears at the door with a quiet knock and a handful of Sumatran weed, tied in sticks. We haggle. I pay for them, and lay down again to sip a Fanta and watch Joyce roll a joint.

We smoke the joint watching the ceiling fan turn slowly. The lizards dart after flies on the walls. The marijuana helps.

It started a few nights ago when we stepped out of the Yeng Keng and walked up to the first trishaw driver we saw. He hadn=t even begun his spiel, the spiel every trishaw driver in Penang sings softly from the side of his mouth, on every street corner, near every hotel which lodges Western tourists,

AYou want to smoke opium? You got any problem? You need something? You want smoke? Buddha? Number one! You want smack? You want to smoke opium?@

As he opened his mouth to begin his pitch, we stepped into the trishaw.

AWe want to smoke opium@

He hesitated, surprised and broke into a wide grin as he hopped onto his bicycle seat. He pedalled in slow circles around some busy, bright streets as we negotiated the price. It was a little higher than what we expected, but still cheap.

We stopped in a dirty back alley. It was lined with small, crowded hovels built of boards, signs, sheet metal and tarpaper. The driver jumped down, greeted by a throng of young children and dogs.

He looked over the crowd, chose a little ten year old girl, charged us a small fee for the ride and left us with the child.

She led us, by the hands, to one of the ramshackle buildings where we were greeted at the door by a teenaged Chinese boy. He informed us of the prices in a bored, professional manner and showed us into a fifteen by twenty foot room.

We sat on a wooden bed without a mattress.

This opium den was made of tin and tarpaper. It was lit by flickering kerosene lamps and contained a tidy arrangement of meagre furnishings. There was a small wood stove, some dishes on a bench and the bed we were sitting on.

In the darkness, at the rear of the room, two ancient Chinese men reclined on a large, wooden bunkbed. They were withered up, old, opium addicts with shocks of white hair and emaciated faces. They indicated, by their manner, that they were the bosses.

When the boy spoke to them, they produced a wooden box from the darkness and put our money into it. They spoke to him quickly and lapsed into silence, not uttering another word while we were present. Occasionally one would light a large, old pipe for the other, but neither moved from the bed.

The opium came on small squares of paper across which it had been painted like an ebony brush stroke. The boy indicated that we must lay down, one at a time, on the bed. He produced a wooden head rest which looked like a miniature pulpit.

Joyce laid on her side first, head propped up on the slanted board. The boy scraped some of the gummy opium from the paper with a small stick. He held the stick over an ancient kerosene lamp until the opium began to bubble and move. A cloying sugar smell filled the room. The opium pipe, rubbed smooth by use, had a glass bowl stained yellowish brown and a long, dark, wooden stem.

When the opium reached the proper temperature on the stick, it=s constituency a delicate balance of solid and liquid, not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to work with, the youth placed the pipe stem in Joyce=s mouth, the bowl upside down. As he rolled the stick around the inside of the bowl, all she had to do was lay still, steady the pipe with one hand and inhale.

The opium peeled off of the stick onto the inside of the bowl. He lit the stick on the lamp flame, held it to the bowl and told Joyce to smoke. He got three pipes from each paper.

Joyce smoked two pipes, I smoked two papers.

It became easier to draw on the pipe the second time around. I elicited the only reaction from any of the Chinese that night as the two old men smiled with the teenager when I got a good enough hit to burn one whole pipe without pausing for breath.

I waited for him to make the sixth pipe. The small lamp burned black and orange, feet from my eyes, the sugary smoke filled my lungs, a lethargy settled through me, a feeling of well being. A flickering tar paper shack in a remote Asian city. Coleridge came to mind.

It was at this moment that a young Malay woman appeared at the door and began talking to Joyce. She had beautiful, brown eyes and a radiant smile, despite large holes in her front teeth. She was the mother of the little girl who had led us there, asked if we would like to smoke some smack.

I finished my pipe, Joyce inspected the vial of white powder and tasted it. The woman borrowed a cigarette, emptied the end, refilled it with a tiny amount of heroin and twisted it closed.

We were already stoned on the opium but a few puffs of this legendary China White produced a weakness in the knees and a tingling in the groin. We decided to buy a small amount of powder from the lady and bid our inscrutable hosts farewell for the night.

As we left with the young woman, she whispered to Joyce that we should return to her place next time. She said that she gave better prices for smoking and buying.

Back at the Yeng Keng, we smoked a small amount of the white powder. Greed made us snort two little lines each. The euphoria of the opium and the venerable reputation of this particular kind of junk made us collide at the sink in our room at least four times. We were vomiting and spewing all over the place. I lost count of my own retches at an even dozen and fell into an exhausted sleep.

The next few unsteady days were spent fasting, mailing home letters and presents and doing a bit of wobbly shopping. It was time to push on to Sumatra. We decided to pay one more visit to the smiling lady.

By now we had realized that the circuitous route which the trishaw driver had taken on our first visit ended up a few blocks from the Yeng Keng. We walked slowly through the dusty streets in the tropical night. A trishaw bearing a western couple passed on its way to the opium alleys. Another came from the alleys carrying a couple. We acknowledged their knowing smiles with a wave.

A crowd of children descended on us when we reached the alley. They tried to take us by the hand as they imitated the sales pitch of the trishaw drivers in their musical, broken English. The little girl from our last visit dragged us to her door. We were greeted with open arms by the smiling lady. She hugged Joyce like a long lost sister. Her husband appeared in the doorway behind her to welcome us with a hearty handshake and a glowing smile.

Their one room home was too small to accommodate more than two visitors. We got the chairs, the lady sat on a box, the man on the bed, an infant asleep beside him.

We sat in semi darkness for a time, their kerosene lamps barely working, listening to stories of the many western friends they had entertained. They said they had done business with a lot of westerners and showed us a collection of snapshots and visa pictures with, >To my friends=, >Love= and >Thank you for everything= written on the backs. We couldn=t see much until one of the children who had been scampering in and out produced a bright kerosene lamp.

They wanted us to smoke some opium, but my stomach was still in a shaky state. Joyce didn=t want to spend the money on opium so we bought a vial of white powder. The lady apologized for charging what she considered a high price, but explained that the dope came from the old Chinese men next door. They were her landlords and forced her to charge high prices to tourists on the threat that she and her family would be evicted. The prices were low by western standards.

We had to have a sociable smoke before we left so the man made a joint with one of Joyce=s cigarettes and her dope. He recounted stories of the trade. We found ourselves charmed by his sincerity and open smile. He spent long minutes telling us he liked foreigners, tourists, westerners, always did his best to help them out and tried to keep his dealing fair and square.

They talked of the black American who lived with them for some months while he was stranded in Penang with no money. A short time after he arrived, he hit up the white powder against our friend=s advice and was unconscious for days. He slept in the chair on which I was sitting and was treated like one of the family. They had, just that day, sent him a shipment of junk back in the States.

My system wasn=t ready for more dope so I declined the joint after one hit and sat watching the others smoke it.

The lady had a great fondness for Joyce and rummaged around at the back of the dark room to find a bunch of clothes which she gave her. They were Chinese in style and didn=t fit Joyce so she never wore them.

The idea of accepting gifts from these people while we sat in the smallest house we had ever been in, in the midst of the worst poverty we had seen, seemed logical at the time.

When the joint was finished, the man announced that we were lucky because we=d arrived just at the time of day when he fixed up. He offered us a hit but added in the same breath that he didn=t want us to partake because he knew we wouldn=t be able to cope with it.

We declined, grateful for his honesty and watched as he unrolled his outfit. He cooked some powder in an old, battered spoon, cleaned his eyedropper squeeze syringe with water and a cigarette filter and tied off his right arm.

The dark room filled with that electric silence which descends when a person ties a band around their arm and pumps their hand to swell the blood vessels. The meticulous, gentle care he takes in finding a vein and pushing the needle in, the blood drawn back into the tube of the syringe, the careful surveillance of the two liquids. The whack, bang, crank which follows.

We watched the dark vein pierced, the concentration and perspiration on the dark brow.

The smiling lady smiled with her arm around a small girl. The baby, the only son of the family, breathed softly on the bed beside his father. The tiny room was heavy with the smell of burnt heroin. He began to tell us again of the many foolish tourists he had seen shooting the drug, coming close to overdosing or dying, full of confidence before, switching to smoking or snorting after.

Then, in the sad, soft light of the kerosene lamp, his eyes glazed over. He stopped in mid sentence to allow his moment of ecstasy to rush through him and forgot what he was saying.

I thought frivolous western thoughts of Clapton and Neil Young.

We sat in silence in the sweaty Penang night.

We left their house amid fond farewells and walked back to the Yeng Keng. I was still too sick to do any heroin. I smoked a joint of Sumatran and laid on the bed.

The little green lizard darts like an arrow and gobbles up a lazy fly with a lightning tongue.

A peal of laughter rings from an upstairs room of partying Australians.

The ceiling fan turns slowly.

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Journey to the East: Kathmandu

 

I am walking across Ratna Park in the middle of Kathmandu on this early, sunny morning, the smell of beadies in the air, the sounds of broken mufflered vehicles in the distance.

I step around a pile of shit, not dog shit, human shit.

This city is just an adjustment for the people of the mountains. Some of them shit here as they would in the meadows and hills.

“God made man, man made money, money didn’t make man, don’t think about money” chants the fortune teller.

He is a student of the occult from India. Dusty, dirty, selling glimpses of his truth to lazy, stoned Western travellers in sunny Ratna Park.

We sit down on the grass, cross legged, facing each other.

He presses a glass bead into my palm.

“It is from Kashmir. Never let any but your loved one see this and it will bring you luck”

My loved one.

 

We stay outside of the city in the Chobar Valley in the second story of a house owned by a family who lives on the first floor.

Last night, like most nights, we smoked a chillum with the father, man of the house and his smiling wife.

By candlelight they giggled in disbelief when we told them that it was against the law to smoke hash in the West, that they put you in jail for it, went to great lengths to stop people from doing it.

The husband and wife talked Nepalese to each other, gave us looks of sad commiseration when they concluded that we were telling the truth.

On the road, in front of the house, we can catch the bus a few times a day. It takes about a half hour to take us to the centre of Kathmandu.

The fortune teller continues his singsong spiel for ten rupees, his eyes unclouded by freeways, supermarkets and luxury.

“Your heart is open and sometimes goes up and down. You will live to be eighty four, no sickness, no disease, no hospital, eating and sleeping, good health until you die”

His stare holds my eyes.

“Now, pick a number below five, sit properly, do not lie down”

He presses a piece of paper into my hand.

Led Zep music comes floating across the park from Freak Street.

“Four” I pick.

“Another, please”

“Three”

“There, I will write them down”

 

He takes the paper from me, writes on it, gives it back to me.

“Now, blow on the paper. If it is the same number, you will pay my fee?”

“I already paid ten rupes, ten rupes is your fee, that’s it”

It’s not hard to be firm and suspicious when you’ve been in Asia for six months and had almost everything stolen.

The fortune teller is exasperated by my attitude. He decides to give me a break.

“If the number is the same, you give me what you like. Don’t think of money. Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think of money”

He takes back the paper, unfolds it. It reads thirty-one.

“There, you see, the same. It means long life, happiness, a large family”

“But they’re not the same, I picked forty three”

He points to some other pencil marks on the piece of paper.

“See, forty-three, the same. Give me what you will”

He holds out his hand, waits.

Some men near us, sit cross legged facing the barbers who shave them with long, straight razors. Kids wander over to us.

A small crowd begins to watch.

I give the fortune teller five more rupees.

In better days, somewhere in the South, in the huge, teeming world of India (who knows how he got here?), he didn’t feel the humiliation of poverty and begging. He didn’t think of selling his truth to sceptical Westerners worried about rupees.

I rise, make the namaste sign to him, walk toward the street.

 

There is rice and milk to buy and the bread’s only available in the mornings.

We’re meeting at the Tibetan restaurant where they make good lassi.

Once we saw the smile on the Tibetan woman there, an unforgettable, beaming smile, we made that restaurant our regular rendezvous.

Tomorrow we would begin our trek to Annapurna.

Joyce has become friends with a Canadian girl, one of two sisters, who stay in a youth hostel on Freak Street.

Shirley confides to Joyce that she is having an affair with Jay, the Nepali who runs the place.

I hear later that the Nepalis do everything else in a crouch, on their haunches, so why not sex?

The half sitting, half crouching position becomes comfortable after a while. It is not normal for North American knees, but becomes natural with practice.

The feet splayed, tip of the rear grazing the ground, the convenient knees to lean on, quite natural after a few times.

Seems a bit strenuous for sex to me, but to each their own.

There are two main treks in Nepal, the one to Everest and the one we were taking, to Annapurna.

The birthplace of Buddha is just a few miles away.

The small, walking path winds upward through rhododendron forests, past spectacular waterfalls and impossible terraced paddies.

Our eyes bulge at the sight of the huge burdens carried by the Sherpas. We look away from their thick, muscular legs as they pass us when we stop to wonder at the little building beside the path.

It is a Nepali version of a Legion for Ghurkas.

 

The silent, fearless killers, so admired by the Brits, deserve a Legion. Just didn’t think I’d see one here.

Some travellers hire the Sherpas to carry everything so their hands are free to take pictures. They can’t survive without toilet paper and corn flakes with milk in the morning.

The Sherpas are stolid beasts of burden.

At the far end of the trek, as far as you can go, unless you intend to climb Annapurna, there is a windswept airstrip on a plateau.

The same travellers who hired Sherpas to carry everything, take a plane back. They have other destinations to photograph, no use wasting film walking back.

We stop at Pokhara as we descend. Many Western travellers just go there and stay there.

The shore of the lake beside Pokhara sports restaurants with ‘Western Chinese Food’ and stereo speakers mounted in the outdoor dining rooms. The rock n roll never ends.

Hostels are full beside the beginnings of a hotel there.

The attraction, though, is the silent beauty of calmness, peace, as one floats in dugouts rented by the locals, by the hour.

On sunny days, in the middle and all around the lake, float silent dugouts, some with two occupants, some with one.

Snow capped Himalayas rise on all sides of the lake, descend from grey to brown to green. Valleys which end in the lake are carved by tributary streams descending from the hills.

Giant white clouds float above terraced paddies built with patient hands and mud.

Like some times and places in the Rockies, moments there are perfect.

 

Back on Freak Street, in Kathmandu, we meet Billy Bob from Kansas City. Every year he manages to get his holidays and enough money to spend two weeks in Nepal. It is always coordinated with the arrival in town of the famous Manali hash from Northern India.

This straight looking, short haired American was the stonedest of the stoned.

He shared chillums with all who approached his gregarious presence on Freak Street as he spent his two weeks enjoying the stories of the travellers, the news of old, Nepali friends who he saw every year.

He didn’t hesitate to demonstrate, with his passport, that Billy Bob was his real name.

We had never met one before, must’ve blurted out our curiosity in a Led Zep soaked burst of coughing laughter as the chillum passed.

Where the Bagmati River has flowed for ages in its journey to join the Ganges, a valley has been produced. The valley is below our house.

When we sit on the balcony attached to our room, we can watch every day activities on the road in the distance, see the green, yellow, brown after harvest colours in the fields below, watch the cow and goat blink at the hawk circling above them.

I was reading Henry Miller’s, Night of the Assassins, then. A combination of what he wrote and what I was thinking at the time, convinced me that constantly pursuing experiences so that you weren’t only thinking and talking about the world is, in the end, useless. As useless as the attitudes of people who think and talk about the world, but never experience it.

Sitting on our rough balcony, getting ready for our imminent departure to Goa in the far South, I realized that I had come all this way for nothing. I was convinced that all the travelling, the learning, the questioning, was a waste of time.

As addictive as it was, there was no more value in it than in staying safe and secure at home, watching it on television.

 

Krishnamurti had something to say about that, too.

It was a little surprising and humbling, but it made sense there, at that time.

We stop in the Tibetan restaurant on our way to the train station.

The smiling woman gives us lassi.

We walk down Freak Street, saying goodbye to old and new acquaintances, cross Ratna Park.

As we leave the park, I see the fortune teller again. His words rise above the Led Zep and muffler sounds,

“Man will die, God won’t die, money won’t die. You think too much. Don’t think about money”

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