The Java Shop

Many moons ago, I was a 20-year-old university student in Toronto, knowing virtually no places except TO.  And I knew this was a problem.  When I noticed cards advertising a summer jobs booklet, I wrote away to any employer who lived far away.  Three positions were offered.  Since one was a resort in Southern Ontario, there really were two to choose from.

There was the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta and The Java Shop in Fort Macleod, Alberta.  Research at my public library revealed a panoramic view of a Swiss chalet hotel standing on a hill above a long lake, with two rows of mountains framing the scene.  My God.  I was sold.  See you around, prairie coffee shop.

Indeed I would.  The bus bringing me south from Calgary made a stopover in Fort Macleod.  The Java Shop doubled as the Greyhound depot.  Awesome!  I’d get to experience what I’d missed in choosing the PW.

I walked through the door and felt the call of nature part two.  Too distracted to notice the pioneer ambiance, I highstepped to the washroom.  I reached for the cubicle handle, barely noticing the box hanging beneath.  The door did not open.  A sign on the box said “25 cents”.  What?!  Pay a quarter to poop?  What kind of place was this?

Girding my loins, I laid down on my back and started pulling myself under the door.  What awaited my gaze was a row of metal teeth welded to the bottom edge.  Oh my.  Take me home, country roads.

***

And so The Java Shop became a joke in my memory.  I thought of the place today and went to Mr. Google to see how it was doing.  A 2008 article in the Macleod Gazette told all:

A Fort Macleod landmark is closed.  The Java Shop served its final meals Friday after decades as a popular meeting place and destination.  “I think it’s a tragedy,” long-time Fort Macleod businessman Frank Eden said.  The distinctive building at the corner of Second Avenue and 23rd Street has long been a popular meeting and eating place, and home to the Greyhound depot.

On Friday customers returned to The Java Shop for a wake of sorts, to say their goodbyes and enjoy one last meal — on the house.

The Java Shop was an important part of life in Fort Macleod, cultivating its share of regulars like Chris Cheesman, the Town of Fort Macleod’s electric department superintendent.  “I had my morning ritual to come here every morning to pick up my coffee and my two daily newspapers,” Cheesman said.  Cheesman had another ritual associated with The Java Shop.  It’s where he would bring his daughter Sara for special father-daughter meals.  “Fort Macleod is kind of a hub, and The Java Shop is part of the hub,” Cheesman said.  “The spokes of that hub are now shattered.”  Cheesman also recalled special feelings attached with picking up Christmas packages delivered by bus, and meeting loved ones travelling on Greyhound.

Greyhound bus drivers looked upon The Java Shop as an oasis on the prairie.  “Coming through Fort Macleod, this was my supper break or this was my breakfast break,” said retired driver Al Douglas, who spent 35 years behind the wheel for Greyhound.  “You were dying to get here.”  Drivers appreciated the warm welcome and friendly service they received.  “It was great,” said retired driver Lorne Eremenko, who put in 38 years with Greyhound.  “You were always treated good here.”

Eremenko: “This was so busy you wouldn’t believe it.”  Added Douglas: “I can remember us having nine or ten buses lined up in the alley.  You won’t see that anymore.”  The two retired drivers agreed The Java Shop was a Fort Macleod landmark.  “It didn’t matter where they were from,” Douglas said of his passengers.  “People knew The Java Shop.”

Waitress Judy Thomas, who has worked on and off at The Java Shop for 23 years, spent Friday consoling her soon-to-be former customers, putting on a brave smile and handing out hugs.  “I’m going to miss the people who come in here, even though I always gave them a hard time,” Judy, as she is known to everyone, said with a smile.  “I’m going to miss the people big time.”

***

I would have been a Java Shop employee sixteen years before Judy arrived on the scene.  I would have been part of a longstanding tradition of welcome.  I would have been in the centre of the community.

But I chose elsewhere, missing out on an experience far greater than coin boxes and jagged teeth.

Goodbye Scarlet

I received word today that the insurance company considers my red Toyota Corolla a total loss after we were rearended two weeks ago. Ouch.

Yes, I have to find another car within the next few days and yes, all this will cost extra money, but that’s not the big story. For many years, I’ve developed relationships with certain objects in my life and none has been as profound as Scarlet and me.

Jody and I bought Scarlet in 2012, and even though she was officially our second car after Hugo, we tripped around in her a lot, mostly with me as the driver. I sold Hugo a year ago and sometimes afterwards I’d look over at Scarlet’s passenger seat to sense Jody in animated conversation with her husband.

Scarlet has taken me to so many concerts and sporting events in Toronto since Jody’s death. I remember one blinding blizzard on the way home. I knew we had to get off the 401 and I could only dimly make out the tall reflectors on the exit ramp near Guelph. I trusted Scarlet to make the curve and she pulled through for both of us.

The grand adventure was to Western Canada in the summer of 2015. I wanted to visit some old friends and spend time with a few of Jody’s relatives, some of whom I’d never met. Scarlet and I roamed all the way to Victoria, B.C., and I enjoyed being with my former wife Rita in Vancouver. The span of Canada west of Ontario rolled with our wheels, including a harrowing trip south of the Trans-Canada Highway in Manitoba to find the city of Steinbach in the pummelling rain. With the gas tank reading zero. Thanks again, Scarlet.

Then there was the fire near the Coquihalla Highway in British Columbia, which threatened to leap across the road. That was terrifying. Contrast that with the immense peace of Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island, and more sublimely, with the spirit of the fine folks I sat down with in every province from here to there. Scarlet and I were together through it all.

Today it ended, although Scarlet’s soul will remain with me.

I took out all my personal belongings at the body shop. And last were the piles of quarters sitting in the change container. It was time to say goodbye. Scarlet was up a couple of feet from the floor. I leaned over the driver’s seat and kissed her steering wheel, a padded one that was full of Bruce finger impressions. I stood in front of the hood, put my hands down onto the dust, and said …

Goodbye, Scarlet
Thank you

Day Twenty-Two: Belgium Briefly

As we collected our luggage in Brussels Airport, I knew a moment was coming. The family called Anja, Curd, Camille and Olivia would be taking a different van than us to get home. The same would be true of Lieselot.

I asked myself how I felt about these five folks whom I’d spent the last twelve days with. I had laughed with each of them. The truth was clear: I loved them.

Someone once said that the greatest “withhold” in life, what we avoid saying to another, is “I love you.” I’ve been in that place and it hurts not to be true to who I am. So … I said it to each of my friends. They all smiled as we hugged. Only one said “I love you” back to me. And that’s okay.

What’s supremely important to me is expressing – “energy out”. “Energy in” – what comes back to me – is marvelous to receive, but I don’t need it to be happy. I welcome love incoming when it happens. It’s a bonus. It’s not the essence of life.

***

After sleeping in to 11:00 am or so, I had a slow day at Lydia and Jo’s place. The big news is that after we four go to Italy for ten days in July, one kid from each family will fly with me to Canada for two weeks. It’s Baziel, Olivia and me! I get to be grandpa.

I’m thrilled that both teens are eager to explore some of Canada with me. I’ve threatened to focus on “old people stuff” but they’re too smart to believe me.

I’m looking forward to sitting in the Belmont Diner with Olivia and Baziel, at the horseshoe-shaped lunch counter. The regulars would love to chat with two kids from Belgium.

Then there are the grand events. Niagara Falls beckons. Plus Toronto. How about a baseball game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees? Baziel says he’s never watched baseball.

I was scouring the internet yesterday, searching for Toronto rock concerts in August. I found Iron Maiden, who the kids don’t know, but Olivia’s father Curd is a major fan. He’s wringing his hands because on August 9 Olivia will be rocking to their music while Curd consoles himself with an Omer beer in Belgium. Oh … the three of us will have fun doing this, that and the other thing in Canada!

I sat with Jo and Lydia in their living room last night. We took turns finding favourite YouTube songs for each other. Jo played some blues guitar. Lydia cuddled the family cat. We were together … in peace.

***

Now it’s today, and I’m about to get on an eight-hour flight from Amsterdam to Toronto. Stay tuned …

Just A Wave

I was returning from London this afternoon on our local freeway.  I took the off ramp towards Belmont and braked to the stop sign.  To my right were two lanes in my direction which merged into one a couple of hundred metres away.  To my left was the freeway overpass and I saw no one coming.  I pulled into the right lane and put on my left turn signal.  My side mirror showed a motorcyclist zooming along the left lane towards me.

If you were a fiction writer, how would you finish this story?  With a spectacular crash and heroic rescue?  A near miss?  The truth was far less dramatic.

I let the motorcyclist go past and then moved into the left lane.  He or she waved.

And I paused, feeling a warmth course through me.  I pondered the beauty and the simplicity.  It was a “thank you”.

***

About a week ago, I was driving to the school where I volunteer.  It’s way out in the country, surrounded by corn and soybean fields.  Almost all the students are bussed, but there is an exception.  I started braking in preparation for turning left into the parking lot.  I glanced left to the house beside the school and there was a girl walking down the driveway.  She waved at me.  The same warmth, the same smile.  Contact.

***

Three summers ago, I went on a road trip to Western Canada to visit some of Jody’s relatives and a few old friends of mine.  I stayed a couple of nights with a marvelous family near Kamloops, B.C.  We laughed a lot.  When it was time to say goodbye, I hugged everyone and got in Scarlet.  As I drove down their lane, I glanced in the rearview mirror.  Three human beings were standing in front of their house, each of them waving to me.  Ditto again.

***

Hi
Bye
I see you

Day Nine: Saying Goodbye

Is saying goodbye to dear ones different for me in Cuba, since I’ve only known these folks for days?  Yes and no.  The moment of meaning can be just as deep here as with someone I’ve known for years.  The time shines … or it doesn’t.

Hector is one of the attendants at the gym in the village beside my hotel.  He’s a young guy, very enthusiastic, without much English.  He’s let me know, however, that he’s impressed with me working out in my 60’s.  He figures that most Cuban men don’t lift a finger past 40.  Hector has helped me understand some of the strength training machines, such as how to adjust the torso twist.  All done with a huge smile.

Yesterday, he played American songs on his iPhone as I was doing yoga.  While lying on my back, I was singing Elvis’ “Jailhouse Rock”, with all four feet and hands dancing in the air.  Hector laughed.  And I’m pretty partial to anyone who laughs at me.

I had money in my pocket for a tip and something inside told me I needed to give it to him right then.  He was so happy to receive the gift, and then told me he was about to leave for a week’s vacation.  Thank goodness I followed my inner guidance.  I’ll miss him.

Last night, Elisabeth was serving me in the lobby bar.  What a sweet person, endlessly animated in the eyes.  She told me she was about to go on a week’s vacation.  Oh, the sadness.  I asked her where she lived.  She said Santa Clara, a three-hour bus ride away.  Six hours of commuting a day!  She talked again about her husband, and of Jody.  We both love our spouses so much.  Now she gets to spend a week with him.  We said how much we’ll miss each other.  We held hands.  We hugged.  We said goodbye.

Now it’s a day later, and I’m back in the lobby bar.  Celida, a waitress who’s served me several times, comes up and asks “Do you miss Elisabeth?”  “Yes.”  (So much)  Celida then said “She talked about you.  She loves you.”  I started crying.  How can a 20-year-old Caribbean woman move me so much?

Two young Cubans whose lives are very different from mine.  And just the same.