Hitching through mid-1970s Canada usually meant Canadian Border Services stopping you, inquiring how much money you had on your person. If it was under $25 they’d refuse you entry, which meant hitching the long way round Lake Erie through Cleveland, which could take 3 to 12 hours longer depending on your hitching luck.
The secret: get a ride across the border with some reputable type, preferably a businesswoman who didn’t mind the adventure of lying to them – claiming I was her son or brother or something. Incredible how energizing telling a white lie to border cops can be for these types. Sometimes so grateful that you’d forced their hands into this type of emboldenment they might even buy you lunch somewhere or hand you a fiver as you part ways on the off-ramp.
Entering the US out of Windsor in the 1970s with the wrong hair [long and unkempt] meant the border cops – their mendacity directly related to ill-fitting uniforms – could apply the things they’d learned in Border Cop 101: intimidation, toy with your prey, use language beyond your ability to pronounce it, stare down detainees with a glare that betrays their god-given right to embrace the “Little Hitler” syndrome…
My ride had panicked, coughing up the truth under pressure. He’d picked me up along Highway 401 somewhere out of Duttona Beach[!]. The guards loomed and hovered in closer, giving me the whatever degree but came off like prison camp guard extras in a failed WWII comedy.
I had to “disembark the auto” and turn out my pockets, showed them everything, stood there with what looked like 2 rabbit ears on my hips, biting my tongue as they snicker, comment on my looks and, no, I didn’t do drugs – I’m a bad liar so luckily this was true, unless, of course, rapid consumption of beer counts as a working-class approximation of opium.
Amongst the lint and fuzzy peppermints, I was carrying $19.24 or something like that. My ride was sent along his way with a stern warning… And there I stood on the on-ramp to the Chrysler Freeway. Along came a souped-up SS-396, metallic red, mag wheels, spoiler, the deal. The 3 slackers stopped, apologized; they had to make 1 stop before they’d take me up I-75 part way to Flint up to Troy. We emerged from the Beer Depot drive-through as an Unstable Molecule, like it was missing an oxygen or IQ atom or something.
The Slacker must go through life avoiding hard labor and seek out any and all consciousness-obliterating mischief on this here earth. hey with their yellow teeth, dirty sleeveless Budweiser: Breakfast of Champions tee-shirts, leather headbands, singing – screaming! – along to Bob Seger as we laid a patch of rubber that obscured our vehicle in blue smoke, Marvel Comics style. We tore up I-375 to hook up to I-75, tailgating unassuming motorists obeying the speed limit as they chucked empties grenade-style out the side windows, mooning cars, flipping drivers the double-barrel bird, passing them like they were standing still.
They were “drinking” – actually shotgunning – cans of Carling Black Label [the rise of Heavy Metal, I propose, meant any beer with “Black” in the title sold well to these guys]. Plus it was cheap.
I sat in the backseat suspended somewhere between mortification and exhilaration like some Ralph Steadman illustration for a Hunter S. Thompson story, ripped to shreds and then glued to the fake leather backseat by the weaselly tag-along using his spittle in an entirely haphazard way and then begins grinning like a petty criminal as we’re topping 100 mph, with the 2 slackers in the frontseat hollering as if they’re communing, harmonizing with the insane metallic howl of the engine.
The driver, tore open his tee-shirt, poured a can of beer over his chest, threw one back to me and insisted I drink it. No thanks. DRINK IT! If I didn’t he was threatening to stop the car dead – Boom! – in the middle lane and just let me out there. I drank their beer. Two of them to ensure my survival.
The weaselly one with the awkward grin said “LOOK,” took an empty, pressed it against his forehead and then crushed it into his forehead with a wacked WHOOO-HOOO.
That I ever managed to overcome the associative trauma of beer to this furious ride is evidence that beer is special. It was in fact my conversations with Edmonton, Canada author and editor of Urban Graffiti’s Mark McCawley that stirred up this dusty tale of inglorious times in the Midwest.
McCawley is a literary outlaw in a land that assures it citizenry with the argument that at least their not Americans. His book of short tales Big Empty is unapologetically realistic, undermining all of the little lies we’re taught about life and writing about it.
bp: The gloomy “Scream Your Head Off” about finding the drugs you need to mitigate the pain caused by “the industrial accident, anhydrous ammonia burning away my sinus membranes” is definitely based on a lot of reality.
MM: All my fictions are based on some reality. Unlike Canada’s creative writing programs, which still cling dogmatically to the concept that “fiction is a lie which tells a truth,” the NY urban post-realists [see Sensitive Skin] I discovered in the 80s liberated my thinking regarding what fiction is capable of, and the subjective possibilities of one’s own personal narrative.
bp: Inspiring Canadians: There’s Leonard Cohen [loved Beautiful Losers]. K.D. Lang, Neil Young. Michael Ondaatje can be good. There’s William Gibson! Wyndham Lewis…
MM: Interesting writers. They’re indeed outlaws. Cohen had to leave Canada to be recognized as a songwriter… He is also the only writer ever to refuse the Governor General’s award for literature in Canada for his 1969 Selected Poems. Lewis is also a great outlaw, though a more intellectual one. His novels, poetry, and especially his criticism make him one of the most astute thinkers of his or any age.
My own entry for Sensitive Skin [with] the working title “Where the Exiles Are” ponders the idea not that Canada has no outlaw writers – it does – rather that Canada – as a literary culture – does not nurture it’s outlaw (read outsider) writers, poets and critics [like] other countries do. Look and you will find Canadian exiles everywhere. The writers you mentioned are also rugged individualists, which is why they thrived as they did in exile. Canada has always been far too insular as a culture, leaning towards group identity as opposed to the individual. Which is how one can feel like an exile within one’s own borders.
bp: You’re from Edmonton. Canada, at least up until its somewhat recent lunge to the right, was considered the reasonable or affable northern neighbor. I think you will seriously dispute that. Why?
MM: Because it is based on an image that Canada has long projected of itself: the friendly, peacekeeping, reasonable, and affable nation that has solved all its problems and is in a position to assist others with their own. The truth is Canada revises its own history, blotting out that which does not fit into the “reasonable or affable” view of itself, often actively refusing funding and airtime to artists and documentaries that illuminate these truths.
bp: Is Canada just as prudish as the US or as paranoid? Actually does the very nature of a national government mean that it is magnetically pulled toward maintaining itself at all costs?
MM: I suggest that Canada is just as paranoid as the US in its need to maintain itself, the status quo, at all costs. From spying on its own citizens, to special, secret deals with other levels of government and business. Check Secrets From The Past and Democracy Now!
bp: I notice I knew very little about Edmonton. Until our discussion of some months back I pictured a quaint post-cowboy mid-sized city, relaxed, oriented toward the great outdoors, hosting things like rodeos and country music festivals. Colorful, robust, rugged and individualistic.
MM: Some of that is true. Edmonton does host rodeos, though in all my 47 years I’ve never been to one myself. While rural Alberta can easily be described as “Big Sky Country” that harkens back to the days of cowboy on the range, that cowboy has gone through major changes. He’s still colorful, robust, and ruggedly individualistic. But his numbers are dwindling as small family farms are replaced by industrial ones. Those who are left battle with the encroachment of more and more oil derricks on their farms (Canadian farmers do not own mineral rights, etc.) and the environmental effects of byproducts they release such as the flaring/fracking of sour gas/hydrogen sulphide (linked to miscarriages in livestock and women).
bp: Your stories have a touch of Hubert Selby in them – set in Edmonton. It gives a thorough peek into underbelly life there. Who were your influences?
MM: Yes, Hubert Selby was one of my early influences. One cannot help but see oneself, one’s community in the pages of Selby’s novels and stories. They were so far ahead of their time in terms of his explorations of North America’s increasing social barbarism. Not just a peek into the underbelly of life, but where and how it breaks through so called civilized society. Mordecai Richler, Malcolm Lowry, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs were also early influences. I’d have to say that Jean Genet was a profound influence on my writing and the direction it took in terms of levels and degrees of individual transgression; Genet and David Wojnarowicz. Wojnarowicz influenced the way I viewed narrative and memory, or as he referred to it as “vision and memory”. Other influences included John Rechy, Bob Flanagan and Dennis Cooper. In terms of Canadian influences, yes, Leonard Cohen was a very early influence. Both Cohen’s writings and the writings of Jim Carroll got me through that difficult youth in the late 70s and early 80s. As did my discovery of the Canadian micro-press movement (of which I am still an active part). Each helped, I’m sure, clarify for me how the world was put together in their own way by bringing my own particular world view into fuller focus. It was a cynical view. A view without the pretense of the voodoo of hope. It was beautiful, it was ugly, it was passionate, it was real. It was not easy to look at. Nor should it ever be.
bp: I discovered Edmonton suffers from all the same ailments as any city – ugly architecture, poor urban planning, blight, social problems, crime and refinery pollution. Through your writings of aimless deprivation it looks something like Northern England’s post-industrial cities…
MM: Edmonton has it’s flaws – it’s dusty as hell, never rains enough to get rid of all the particulate matter floating in the air (a result of the petroleum industry), which gives anyone living here long enough chronic sinusitis.
bp: When I think Canada I think Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, this image of a progressive, healthy populace …
MM: Indeed, some areas of Edmonton are quite beautiful. For instance, at 7,400 hectares, Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River valley is the largest stretch of urban parkland in North America. Others, though, are sheer industrial with no concept of beauty whatsoever.
Edmonton is both a university and government city, as well as an industrial city. It is the most northern city in North America, located on the 53rd latitude (about equivalent with Scandinavia), and like most other prairie cities, is separated by empty prairie. Every city has a homeless problem, Edmonton is not immune. For a downtown core, Edmonton’s is quite vibrant and growing. It certainly is no downtown Toronto or Vancouver, yet has it’s own unique flavor.
bp: How did Canada mold you as a creative person? How would it have been different growing up in the US do you think?
MM: That is a very difficult question to answer. I suppose Canada, generally, molds it’s creative artist’s through subtle and not-so subtle modes of conformity – artistic communities, associations, guilds, etc; through the jury system of awarding grants to individuals, magazines, publishers; as well as the “great culture machine” of which creative writing and the arts are a very large part. I don’t imagine this would be very different had I grown up in the US. Having become increasingly anti-academic, though, I suspect I might have had an easier time of it, and faced far less opposition culturally. As an underground writer and literary outsider within the Canadian cultural context, one is snubbed, sneered at, ridiculed, or simply ignored altogether. Indeed, an early review described me as a “literary transvestite” right down to the ruby lipstick, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels. Little did the reviewer know about my transgressive literary tendencies. That said, though, I’m sure my heredity of coming from multiple generations of Irish alcoholics – and indeed my own recovered alcoholism – played as much a part in my development as a creative person as anything else, particularly growing up and living through continuous cycles of economic boom and bust, and how that skews whatever sense of values you happen to have or bring with you.
bp: How is it being a cultural resisting, contrarian?
MM: For as long as I can recall I have been a cultural resister and a contrarian. It certainly is not easy, especially within such a conformist culture as Canada. Indeed, the pressure for a writer or artist to conform to particular cultural and literary attitudes and values is overwhelming throughout the Canadian educational system right up through post-secondary studies. To take an alternate path of self-education – which for me was an absolute necessity since my interests in urban post-realism, transgression, and deviant culture within a Canadian context were unheard-of – was in and of itself an incredibly slow process. From the start, my views, my fictions, and especially my critical writings were in direct opposition to much of popular opinion… I’d say it takes fortitude to stand by one’s views and philosophy in the face of such overwhelming cultural opposition, and a steadfastness in one’s aims and goals since the rewards are so few. A steadfast belief in the works which you publish, the writers you support and promote — and trusting the brilliance that you see in them and their work that countless other publishers and editors have overlooked. It says something that over two decades of writing and publishing that I trust my own instincts more than any other Canadian publisher or editor. True, I am still without a book deal. Yet, I always did suspect there would be a high price to my cultural resistance, my contrarianism.
bp: Didn’t you go through a health bureaucracy fiasco with your foot? How did that come about and how is that symbolic of today’s health care and whatever else you want to add?
MM: Very symbolic. It’s interesting you ask, since I am about to reach my one year internment in my downtown flat since I was wheeled into Emergency in November, 2010 with an infected left foot. The May before I had stubbed my toe, and then went to see my doctor who then referred me to see an infectious diseases specialist. But for the next 5 months they kept sending the referral to the wrong fax number, and the specialist never received the referral until I showed up nearly septic in Emergency. Of course, this is an extension of an ongoing chronic pain condition resulting from a work injury in 1991 in which my sinus membranes were burned away.
bp: That’s documented in your factory realist story “Just Another Asshole” where the character works the dri-print machine called “widowmaker.” I quote:
The ammonia fumes the machine spewed out sunk into the cuts, burning like acid. With each breath I took, I felt the ammonia burning inside my nostrils, down my throat, and inside of my lungs. It’s only a matter of time and exposure, I thought, before we all become casualties. At first sign of trouble, I’ll quit, I assured myself. But by then it might already be too late.
MM: My entire experience with the healthcare system is based on whether it’s the public system or the private. The private system is atrocious. People are barely trained, and no wonder, they are right off the street.
bp: About beer: what drinks or beers did you turn to?
MM: I was a big stout enthusiast back in the day when it had to be imported by the keg and tapped – Guinness, Russian, Irish, Oatmeal, etc. But once the great European breweries began licensing out these stouts to North American brewers and bottlers they lost their magic. I mean, imagine a carbonated Guinness stout? Fuckin’ sacrilege! My spirit of choice, though, has been, and will always be, rot-gut Dark Navy Rum. Even now, 23 years clean and sober, I drool at the thought of a wee drop of the dog that bit me… even though it would kill me to do so… what a way to go…
bp: About beer and escape from mundane realities. An issue NEVER addressed in drug/alcohol [ab]use discussions is the issue that the architects of life – the politicians and business gurus – have created an unadventurous life and so escape from the tortures of ennui begins early by purchasing one’s way out via extreme sports, behavior, television – extreme escape in general. If life in this system is so good then why are so many people trying to escape from it? I believe beer [among others] is escape but also access to another plane of being. It’s a tricky trip – not enough means boredom and too much means veering off into the distractive minutiae of inebriation. Ride that fine line and you arrive at altered states…
MM: Indeed, bart, that is so very true. For the longest time, in my teens and twenties, I used beer and spirits, and whatever mind-altering drug I could get my hands on, to escape a culture I could not stand, whose artificiality was so obvious it was painful. Nothing was real anymore, or authentic, just endless cycles of superficiality. It might be cynical, yes, but damn, it was liberating.