Narrative

A Remedy for Living: What Fair Trade in an Edmonton Cafe Taught Me

“CHANA MASALA!”

Remedy Café seemed like an informal language school as Indian and Pakistani food orders were increasingly yelled out.

Sohail Zaidi, better known as Zee, is Remedy’s creator. He sat calmly before me, clearly used to all the noise and bustle. “The orders are yelled out because then you hear it and you learn how to say the names. People become educated and they know what dahl is instead of calling it lentils,” he said.

Abra King makes a chai at Remedy’s downtown location on Jasper Avenue.  Many employees have worked at Remedy for years. To Zee, his employees, like Abra King, are the next generation of business leaders. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

Abra King makes a chai at Remedy’s downtown location on Jasper Avenue.
Many employees have worked at Remedy for years. To Zee, his employees, like Abra King, are the next generation of business leaders. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

He continued to tell me about the café’s most popular feature, its worst kept secret: Remedy’s chai. “My chai is made from thirty-five spices,” the coarse spices struggled to slip through his fingers, getting caught as he passed them from one hand to the other. Chewing on a dark brown bead of cardamom, Zee encouraged me to follow his lead. It tasted unexpectedly like mint as it dissolved in my mouth. Zee continued his lesson, breaking down his chai’s ingredients even further.

“All of the herbs are organic, no preservatives,” he began. “The teas come from Kenya, India, and Bangladesh. I always make sure it’s Fair Trade and organic.” The use of Fair Trade and organic products encourages customers to share in creating a better world in Zee’s opinion.

***

Days earlier, I had left Blush Lane Organics (a grocery store specializing in global Fair Trade and Albertan organic produce) for the first time. Both hands swung bags full of Fair Trade and Albertan organic produce like Holy Crap: the world’s most amazing breakfast cereal (pun intended), Cheeky: Be the Sassy Banana salted toffee and banana organic dark chocolate bar (perhaps no pun intended?), and a couple of green mangoes the size of the Hulk’s fist.

A profile of Michael Zelmer, an activist for Fairtrade who explains the connection between buying local and Fair Trade products as this: “When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think ‘it’s from nearby so that makes it local’. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.” Photo:Fairtrade International Canada

A profile of Michael Zelmer, an activist for Fairtrade who explains the connection between buying local and Fair Trade products as this: “When you’re buying local it’s not fair to think ‘it’s from nearby so that makes it local’. Buying local is about security—making sure we have the necessary infrastructure to grow our own food and to support local farmers. Those same principles are in play when it comes to Fair Trade.” Photo:Fairtrade Canada

When I visited the store that day, I’d chastised myself for not bringing reusable bags with me. But in the end, there was no need for worry. The paper bags they provided me with were certified triple threats: renewablecompostable, and recyclable. Those words and all the ones which stood out on boxes and containers in the store, spoke of a current movement to change the world by producing sustainable, healthy, and overall fair food. As I criss-crossed through narrow aisles, I couldn’t translate the language I was reading all around me. How did the words fit within the narrative of my own life?

A few days later, an appeal for me to not give up on Fair Trade stood out from a chalkboard sign, arguing: Buy Fair Trade because it will improve the world! The words were proudly displayed by the front doors of Ten Thousand Villages on Whyte Avenue for all to see.

In the late 1940s, an American named Edna Ruth Byler — the founder of Ten Thousand Villages — felt that it was time for the principles of business to change after she’d travelled to Puerto Rico and saw unfair business practices put into place there. Edna returned to her home with a vision of how business profits should be used to make people stronger and to weaken injustice and poverty. Edna began a business selling the crafts of artisans from around the world in her basement, and large profits were sent back to the original creators.

Now, Fairtrade International [which is different from the term “Fair Trade” as this refers to the movement to buy products created through sustainable, fair business practices and “Fairtrade” refers to the organization itself] follows a similar message as Edna. Fairtrade works to decrease the power of the middleman who plays a part in getting products from the farmer’s fields to our kitchen table. By decreasing or even eliminating the middleman’s role, farmers and artisans worldwide can have a larger share of the profits they earn with their products.

Messages like the one in front of Whyte Avenue’s Ten Thousand Villages are promoted throughout Edmonton businesses. The owners are people like Edna with a vision to make their community a better place. I was rushing to meet one of them, who owned a cafe with “Edmonton’s worst kept secret” as the businesses’ twitter account boasted.

***

The world had been brought into Remedy café with images of nature on its vibrant walls. The pictures were close ups of purple and yellow Hawaiian flowers taken by Zee himself. At other times in the year, local artists have exhibited their work on his café’s walls – just another way that Zee supports local business.

Remedy’s interior décor is also a reflection of Zee’s worldly experiences. This became clearer as he continued talking about his life moving through dusty alleyways in Pakistan, to cramped apartment living in Germany, and finally, dreaming big while looking at skyscrapers from the driver’s seat of his yellow New York taxi — all these experiences eventually lead him to settle down in Edmonton, Alberta where he bought a sandwich cafe and turned it into Remedy.

While we laughed and contemplated his coming of age story, Zee explained why he loved to travel so much as a young man. “Travelling teaches you so much…when you see how people live elsewhere, you’re thankful for your life and the people in it.” Zee has been drawn to the Fair Trade movement’s philosophy because he himself was once less fortunate. “I know what poverty is and how hard people work, so I totally support Fair Trade.”

Talk of poverty soon turned to his disappointment in inequality between people in the world who are all trying to make a living. After all, as he expressed, “we all bleed the same”.

***

Despite our common trait of being warm blooded humans, it doesn’t stop people from taking advantage of one another.

Michael Zelmer, an activist and communications coordinator with Fairtrade Canada, told me excitedly over the phone a couple days after I met Zee that Fair Trade is meant to help people live lives where poverty doesn’t dictate the quality of life they lead. I asked Michael if he thought being involved in Fair Trade made it less likely for a farmer or artisan to be abused by unfair business practices. The answer wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

There’s no clear way of knowing, Michael responded. However, there was a silver lining. Michael then explained that Fair Trade could never become a new “dictator” to farmers and artisans like the middleman by controlling farmer’s resources and opportunity to one day become powerful in their own right.

Butter chicken and rice with a cup of Remedy’s chai. With Fairtrade’s help, profits from plantations and farms where the teas and spices are cultivated are shared equally amongst farmers. Wages have to be either equal to or higher than the regional standard. It’s hoped that the regional standards will be improved and influenced by the Fairtrade model. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

Butter chicken and rice with a cup of Remedy’s chai.
With Fairtrade’s help, profits from plantations and farms where the teas and spices are cultivated are shared equally amongst farmers. Wages have to be either equal to or higher than the regional standard. It’s hoped that the regional standards will be improved and influenced by the Fairtrade model. Photo: Becky Hagan-Egyir

“The key thing to understand,” Michael stressed, “is that it’s [Fairtrade’s mission] about allowing farmers [and artisans] to become powerful above and beyond Fair Trade…. The relationship to people… is that we’re supporting them, and not in a charitable manner with donations, but by making smart choices. We may be paying a bit more for those smart choices but they support all these transformative things that are happening out there in the world.”

At Remedy while witnessing smiles and laughter shared over hot drinks and food, I could already see some of that change happening.

The café was its own community. The world was reinvented once you entered through its front door. Hipsters, Chanel accessorized women sitting next to proud mothers of soccer kids, solemn studious types intently staring at glowing laptop screens — all of them surrounded me, eating food made with Fair Trade and even local organic ingredients. Regardless of whether or not the customers knew that they were tasting Fair Trade inspired recipes, they were still supporting a farmer somewhere in the world simply by consuming Remedy’s food.

I finished my visit to the café by drinking some chai and eating butter chicken. During the meal, my idea of Fair Trade shifted from the thought of making the world a better place to the practice of living better in the moment.

As the scents of garlic and cumin wafted towards me and the taste of minty cardamom lingered in my mouth, some of Zee’s final words crossed my mind: I think people appreciate the little things we do.

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YEG Represent: A Look Inside Edmonton’s Hip-Hop Culture

“…[It began as] the voice of people who didn’t have a voice. Today, it’s our news channel — how someone from Edmonton can communicate with someone across the world.”

I’m hearing a revelation about hip-hop that’s very different from what I learnt as a girl.  Hip-hop was the anthem of “people with bad morals” as some teachers said.  But Sonny Grimezz, a DJ and member of Edmonton’s hip-hop music group Politic Live, tells me about hip-hop’s power. He’s one of many in Edmonton who understand the world better because of hip-hop. Critiques on society, politics, economics and neighbourhood events are all channelled through hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop (culture) began in New York as a reaction to injustice in the 1970s. Breaking away from carefree disco culture, hip-hop looked at the lives of marginalized people and used their struggles to create gritty, in-your-face emotions through DJing, rapping, breaking, and graffiti. Today, hip-hop uses its traditional roots and our modern commercial society to communicate to people across the world.

Hip-hop artists in Edmonton know that the culture has its problems and that people tend to focus on its darker side with glamorized violence and risky morals. “A lot of people get it confused. Many [hip-hop] artists rap about their experiences and what they’ve gone through… They don’t endorse certain negative things like violence, but other artists do.  Rap has both sides of the spectrum,” rapper Jo Thrillz confirms.  But the Edmonton hip-hop community believes that there’s more good than bad to hip-hop, and as the rappers of Locution Revolution told me, “there will always be people to school”.

Recovering hip-hop’s past

Taking the public to “school” begins with a connection to the past. This doesn’t mean Edmonton hip-hop artists rap rhymes like Grand Master Flash “…Don’t push me ‘cause I’m close to the edge…” or dress up in velvet tracksuits, rocking their b-boy moves to oversized boom boxes. Instead, they connect with the message that’s been there from the beginning — empowerment— and share it with the city.

In 2001, hip-hop culture was recognized for its goal to empower people with the Hip-Hop Declaration of Peace. It was signed by artists and agencies like UNESCO and the Temple of Hip-Hop, and was presented to the United Nations. To further this, the Declaration named the third week of May Hip-Hop Appreciation Week.

While Edmonton artists may not have signed the Declaration, many are fully committed to it. Hip-Hop in the Park, created by Locution Revolution’s iD, occurs the third week of every May to honour Hip-Hop Appreciation Week.  An event like this one, which just had its sixth running, not only showcases the culture to the city, but allows hip-hop to become “beauty in its purest form” as expressed by breaker Pharush.

Other artists, like painter Lorien Mahieu, agree with Pharush’s statement, saying, “[Hip-Hop in the Park] is a great place to watch, learn and build confidence as an artist.” The public also gains confidence in hip-hop artists when they see their passion as they perform. Mitchmatic, who has performed there four times, adds that it “works really well for changing people’s perception [about hip-hop]”.  The negative ideas people have about hip-hop change when they hear and see stories of ordinary lives becoming extraordinary.

“Imagine the strength, ‘cause momma there must be
The humility that must accompany begging for money
Stripped of all pride, but your baby’s hunger
Gives you the strength to be just another number.”

This verse from Wanty Wanty on Politic Live’s album, Ellipsis, helps listeners empathize with situations they might not live with, like welfare.

“…There are a lot of stories that aren’t being told,” says Politic Live’s Arlo Maverick.  He reflects on the Edmonton hip-hop community’s desire for us realize that we can empower each other by putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes — like the hip-hop artists before them.  He continues, “Hip-hop is very much about where you’re from. We take a lot of pride in our city. Politic Live’s Dirt Gritie finishes, “Being community-minded is a big part of who we are.”

The art of individuality

Many artists develop as individuals by sharing their talents with the community. “Why wouldn’t you share something that helped you find your identity with other people?” Pharush remarks with confidence, referring to dancing with his crew, United 1ne, fellow hip-hop dancers and DJ and mentor, Creeasian, at Churchill Square on Thursday nights.

Pharush’s identity as a breaker began with his determination to prove that breaking involved just as much skill and discipline as studio dances like jazz or ballet. He founded his crew United 1ne along with fellow dancer Poppin Fresh.

Pharush says, “People don’t understand the roots of b-boying — a b-boy or girl is their own person.” When he dances, he mixes breaking moves with other dance genres like salsa, First Nations grass dancing, and even ballet, to help people see the unexpected in breaking. Being open to other dance forms and cultures has taken him across Canada, particularly to help youth be comfortable with their identities. “Everybody has a creative potential — dance doesn’t limit you. You get to a point where you’re not thinking [when you’re breakdancing], ‘cause you’re in the moment.”

He’s seen many moments where youth feel proud of their dance accomplishments while working with friend and mentor, Conway Kootenay, who’s a member of Red Power Squad. The Squad uses hip-hop to empower inner city youth. Kootenay taught him about First Nations culture, and with this knowledge, Pharush began doing workshops in schools with United 1ne and Kootenay in Edmonton where he says they demonstrated “culture and not just steps” to students.

Edmonton hip-hop’s future?

Lorien Mahieu’s paintings aren’t what you expect when you think of hip-hop art or graffiti.

“Graffiti has always been a hard topic for me to discuss. I’ve often heard the stereotypical saying of how it’s not art, it’s just vandalism, but I love graffiti! In my opinion, it’s as beautiful as a Dutch landscape or impressionistic painting.” Mahieu admires graffiti’s form and style, but he doesn’t see himself as a graffiti artist or street artist even though his work is appearing at more hip-hop events like Hip-Hop in the Park.

Ideas about what hip-hop can be, like what defines graffiti, are changing. Technology plays a role in promoting this change.

The future of hip-hop lies in the past for some artists. Mitchmatic’s comedic 2013 Edmonton Music Award nominated song Why Don’t You Know? uses a track from the ‘50s to create a sound that’s distinctly fresh and different. Other artists like Jo Thrillz, who has wanted to be a rapper since he was six, capitalize on social media sites like YouTube to make childhood dreams a reality.

Five years from now people will either love or hate hip-hop — as it’s always been. But no matter how people feel, hip-hop will never stop being an experience that people react to. Locution Revolution’s Khiry Tafari believes people should always react to how artists work to improve hip-hop. “Hip-hop allows me to use my voice to do valuable work,” he says, “Maybe we don’t have a lot of people listening, but at the same time, what’s more important is making the effort to get them to listen.”

http://issuu.com/markermagazine/docs/marker_issue2_final_webissuu/19?e=7748819/3934922

Black Magic + A Narnia Bar = A Brew for Curious Connections in Montreal

“Excuse me. Were you talking about black magic?”

Before this moment, my friends and I were sharing in a satisfied silence, sharing in the memory of the drinks we just consumed. Feeling the weight of the empty glass in my hand, I can still taste a bitter hint of the strangely named Irish Car Bomb lingering on my tongue. The moment is forgotten as my friends dive into a conversation. But I’m consumed by my own thoughts until a peculiar question in an unexpected male voice jolts me back to reality.

I take a good look at the man in his late thirties who has approached me with this strange question. He has shoulder length dark hair which falls down in twisted, wavy strands and he wears a warm smile on his thin lips. I don’t know how to respond to the intense curiosity buried in his dark brown eyes.

I wasn’t directly speaking about black magic. Rather, I was remarking on an interesting conversation about it which my friend had started while we waited for our first round of Irish Car Bombs—a concoction of Baileys, Guinness, and whisky.

This conversation begins with a discussion about the best reasons to live in Montreal, which eventually leads to a story about a sinister college roommate. The memories of this nightmarish character clearly continue to have an impact on my new friend, as I watch her hands slice through the air with frantic arm gestures, calling forth chilling memories of her school year in Toronto.

Now here stands this man dressed in layers of black, waiting for me to tell him about the details of our conversation about voodoo dolls and murmured spells. Is this a new method for picking-up women or is it the start of an honest conversation? There is only one way to find out…

“Yes I was.”

I feel the thrill of expectation as I wait to hear what he will say next. He studies me with interest, and I watch the corners of his lips expand into an intrigued smile.

“And do you believe in it?”

“I’m not sure,” I begin, “But, I do know that there are some things in the world which are definitely hard to explain and so we look at it as being ‘magical’.”

“So you don’t practice black magic?”

“No! Do you?”

I wonder, would he believe me if I said “yes”?

For a moment, I think I see his eyes light up before he chuckles and with the undertones of a French accent, he says in a clear, confident voice, “No I don’t.”

As we begin to talk, he tells me that he overheard parts of our conversation. He explains that he has an interest in what he calls ‘unexplained forces’ in this world. It suddenly feels a bit chilly. But it’s not the effect of this conversation, instead, it’s from the cold air blowing through the room.

I’m beginning to feel strangely at ease with this stranger, and like all those around us, we’re enjoying the easy going vibe of the bar we are in: Sainte Elisabeth. Its brick exterior is tucked away west of the popular neighbourhood of Saint Denis.

After the last show of the Jazz Fest in the Quartier des Spectacles of downtown Montreal, my friends and I journeyed to this bar where we expected to hear more live music, which did not occur. When we arrived at our destination, we were faced with the unimpressive exterior of the bar. All that would change in a few short moments, as my apathy transformed into wonder. Laughter and the clinking sound of glass echoed from somewhere inside the warmly lit bar. It came from an open terrasse which completely transfixed me. Walking towards the intimate, busy, and crowded room I noticed that the brick walls were covered with dark green vines twisting and crawling upwards towards the square ceiling which was not made of bricks or wood, but of a patch of night sky.

I became C.S. Lewis’s Lucy stepping through a “magical” wardrobe into a spectacular other world. Here in this giant wardrobe (with a black lamppost smack dab in the middle of the room), I am having the most open conversation concerning individuality which I’ve never experienced in a bar.

As my friends carry their own conversations with a group of men at the table next to us, I learn about my strange new friend, whose name he still hasn’t shard with me. Through our conversation, I learn that his hometown is Quebec City, but he has lived in Montreal for many years. I arrived the day before and yet, we both agree that Montreal challenges people to experiment with their identity, and most importantly, to do it freely.

A second Irish Car Bomb slips into my hand, as we continue chatting in air tinged with cigarette smoke. Soon no amount of magic can stop me from dreaming of warm blankets and sleep. My friends agree that it is time to leave.

Before going, my new acquaintance tells me to contact him if I am ever in Montreal again. “You have an interesting perspective on life. I like your energy,” he tells me as we part. I smile and thank him for the card and for the conversation.

I’ve never been told before that I attract positive energy before. As I walk down the street from the bar and look up at a pair of blinking stars, surrounded by the cold night air, I briefly look back. It’s hard to see Sainte Elisabeth now, but I imagine I hear the clinking of glasses once again and the rising sound of laughter.

Something Different: A Day of Frenzy in Montreal

July 1, 2012.  This is the day of the Nation’s 145th birthday.  While the rest of the country is taking advantage of a nationally sponsored day for sleeping in, today a celebration of a different kind is taking place, bright and early, on the streets of Montreal. 

By 9:00 AM I have settled into my room at Concordia University’s Grey Nuns Residence.  Groggy, but ready and eager to explore, I want to gleefully dance through the streets–but instead, wanting to make a good first impression on the city, I opt for normalcy. Heading towards Atwater and passing the imposing Canadian Architecture Centre, a Canada Day parade is in the works.

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There’s no excessive red and white invading the streets.  Instead, I can tell that a parade will take place from the marching of workers frantically commanding each other to place neon pylons and tape at chosen spots.  Crossing the street I follow the lead of a perky dog walker. 

With each step, I’m hypnotized by the bright green light beckoning walkers to cross into another world. I quickly learn that in Montreal you cross streets at green lights instead of red.  At the other end of the street I can see that despite their frenzied planning, the volunteers I left behind seemed confident that their efforts would pay off.  As I would come to observe, it wasn’t just the parade volunteers who seemed cool and confident.  It was the whole city. 

I head west, relying on my curiosity to act as my guide.  A couple blocks away the first unexpected event occurs.  I stumble across an old mattress lying comfortably along the side of the road.  The abused mattress seems out of place on the historic beauty of the streets. 

A few minutes later, I observe a couple struggling with large moving boxes while shakily placing them into their vehicle.  Blocks away there are more piles of beds, some are stacked on top of each other, others lie solo along the sidewalks.  Is something wrong here? 

Taking a good look at the houses on the street, I apply my x-ray vision to the exterior of the homes. I’m drawn in by the way that these elegant old bricks are splashed with bands of pastel oranges, purples, and greens. Nothing appears to be wrong.

But, it wasn’t just the one neighbourhood that seemed to be turning its homes inside out, it was all of Montreal.  July 1st is also a fiesta declared as ‘Moving Day’ by Montreal.

It’s a designated time for people to move on to something different. 

 

Live Cafe

Exiting the double doors of the Provincial Building facing Main Street, I walk down the concrete steps stained with purple and brown hues of (hopefully) once upon a time beverages covered in patches of sticky, frothing spit.  Crossing the driveway, I leap over the knee-high rusted bar separating the parking lot of government vehicles from public transportation on the opposite side.  I linger and hide behind a bus as I wait to dash across Main Street, when it’s clear of traffic.  I should use the Franklin Avenue cross walk, but my destination is right in front of me.

The sky is a stark grey.  Just like yesterday and the day before.  Soon rain would pour down from above washing the hard working buses clean.  The last bus pulls in.  Here is my chance.

Traffic is clear, but I still hustle across the street with my olive green carrier bag in hand.  I feel it bounce off my left leg, as I half walk, half jog to the other side.  Finally, feeling the safety of the sidewalk underneath me, I reach for the door in front of me.  The handle is always surprisingly heavier than it seems.  Feeling a drop of rain plop against my neck, I swing the door open and enter Live Cafe.

My eyes briefly linger on a group of three lounging to the right of the door.  I don’t give them much thought as I weave in and out of mixtures of wooden and plastic tables to get to the front.  Under the dim lighting, I stand at front waiting to see three familiar faces behind the counter.  Instead, I’m greeted with the back of the customer in front of me.  Waiting for a couple of minutes, I’m able to switch between observing her body language and the display of cheesecake sitting in a bright round cake dish.  The cheesecake looks tempting.  The woman in her purple floral shirt seems tired.

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

In response, her floral back slouches forward as she struggles to find change in her purse.  Shaking her head and mumbling words which most likely mean “no”, she turns away to walk to the end of the counter where her caffeine fix will soon arrive. Moving forward, I see two familiar faces smiling at me.  One is clearly in her twenties with a face which would be perfect for a Neutrogena campaign.  The other is older, but it is hard to tell by how much.  But their smiles both made them appear eternally youthful.  I couldn’t help but to smile back, as always.

“How are you?” the older woman asks.

“Good!” I respond, “You?”

“Good thanks,” as quickly as she appeared she disappears.

I step forward to speak with the younger barista.  Waiting in line, I had decided to get a white chocolate mocha—skim, no whip cream.

“What can I get you?”

I place my order.

“Would you like that with whip?” she asks with her head down scribbling madly on the paper cup in her hand, already knowing the answer.

“No thanks.”

One day, I will surprise her and order whip cream, I think to myself.  As if not believing in my answer, she asks whether I would like to try something new.

I listen attentively to her description of the new version of a white chocolate mocha and somehow miss everything she says except for the words truffle and nut, heard above the loud grinding of the coffee machines behind the counter.  I tell her that I have an allergy to nuts.  “Have you tried it?”  I ask feeling a bit guilty about my refusal to order something new, despite my allergy.  Her head vigorously nods.  I smile at her enthusiasm, “Well I guess I’ll have to live vicariously through you then.”

The till beeps.

After effortlessly paying with my debit card, I walk off to my right, following the trail of customers waiting for their orders.  Once again, I’m staring at the back of the lady with the floral shirt and the tired slouch.  “White chocolate mocha!” a man’s voice calls out from behind a series of coffee machines.  Avoiding eye contact with the woman who ordered before me, I move to the front of line, feeling her eyes watching my own back.

Above the steaming cup covered in black scribbles, I meet two piercing deep blue eyes.  It reminds me of the hue of the Mediterranean Sea.  Clutching my hot non-truffle mocha, I allow myself to dive in and take a holiday.  It works as well as the picture of the Coliseum waiting for me on my desktop at work.  But this method is slightly better.  Turning right, I walk a few paces to grab a lid from the tray behind me, where the slouchy woman once stood.  I steal a glance at my appearance in the mirror covered in strange blotched stains, before deciding that it isn’t as exciting as staring at the reflection of people sitting behind me.  I don’t stop to reprimand myself for staring openly–it’s not rude to look at a reflection of a person after all.  Forcing a lid onto my cup, I look into the mirror again, but this time, for a free seat.

Sliding into a seat in the middle of the room with the wood chipping away in places, I comfortably watch the world pass by.  I smile at a few people as they pass.  Without realizing it, the world is narrowed down to one person who’s absorbed by the newspaper spread on the table below him.  The table is much too short for his frame.  His face is partly hidden beneath the shadow of his red baseball hat.  As far as I can tell, he doesn’t notice me at all.  Why is he so interesting?

Trying to focus on something else, I’m drawn to the bright glowing platter of cheesecake.  My mouth slowly begins to water, but it stops.  Does the sign in front read $4.50 a slice?  Not possible.

My cheesecake fantasies are interrupted by shouts.  But I’m not worried as it’s only the sound of the radio overhead.  It forgets as always, that blaring out ads will not necessarily convince people to buy the products it’s selling.  The loud ads are replaced by two tenor voices fervently discussing the dangers of helicopter flying on a local talk show.

Despite the loudness of the radio, the cafe is still calm.  It has its own rhythm.  The buzz and whirring of the coffee machines at the front.  The subtle clinks as the baristas pick up cups from table tops.  The muted conversations of customers mixed with occasional bursts of their laughter.  The sound of fingers lazily hitting keys on laptops….

Carried away by the rhythmic noises around me, I unconsciously steal a glance to my right once again.  The man in the red hat is gone.  Startled, I realize that he reminds me of someone I once knew…despite the fact that half of his face was covered in darkness.  Suddenly, I worry about the time.  Is lunch almost over?  Searching for the time, I smell a hint of bleach, and a mop swirls by in front of my table.  According to my blackberry, there are twelve minutes remaining until I have to cross Main Street, walk into the Provincial Building, and sit in my blue and lavender desk chair.  I mentally prepare myself to go back to work instead of observing cafe rhythms and cheesecake.  I look down at my cup.

I haven’t taken a single sip from it since I’ve sat down.

A Game of Words

I sit within the emptiness of the Young Adult section in the Fort McMurray Public Library.  Teenage books about the dangers of plastic surgery and fantasies involving angelic vampires keep me company.  I have come to the library in the hopes that its environment would inspire me to write.  As I experiment with several positions in my four-legged chair, I drag it along and leave the marks of my struggle for all to see, scrapped against the hardwood floor.  My hope for inspiration was slowly being crushed with each passing minute.

Beyond the door behind me, the library is full of bodies hidden behind piles of notebooks and sleek laptops.  Here is a typical scene for any library, but there is a particular vibe felt in the air of this library, and it can even be felt occupying homes on every street in the city.  The ‘Fort McMurray Dream’ inspires and drives residents to believe that success is given to those who work hard.  Hard work leads to satisfaction and happiness (until it’s time to pay your imploding rent or mortgage bills).  I passed by many tired minds sitting throughout the library focusing on unlocking the secrets to this happiness with searches for jobs on computer screens and throughout classified ads in newspapers.  Images of big yellow tanker trucks packing oil rich soil beam down at us all from walls above the polished cubicles and spacious table tops.

A rush of cool air brushes against my neck as the door opens.  The room quickly fills with more bodies.  A young woman whizzes by as a blur of fuchsia (the effect of her bright cardigan) while jangling a box of pencils and paper.  Soon after, a mother walks in with her two children and leaves behind one of the two— her son.  He is a skinny adolescent, who looks even thinner under the bagginess of his brown T-shirt.  I watch him sit before the woman in fuchsia with surprisingly excellent posture, as his back sits upright in the chair before me.

The two swap tips as they converse about the latest and greatest X-box games.  Silence builds as the conversation dies.  It is now time to begin what they are here for—perhaps a peer-mentoring session.

The energy of the gym seen from the window stretching behind the woman, captures my attention until I hear, “I’m sure more people will come eventually, but we can start.  Which game would you like to play?”  Her face is cheerful but her voice lacks genuine excitement.  I imagine this exact line has been said before to other boys and girls.

Under faded lights, he looks at his choices, pauses for a brief moment, and apathetically declares, “Scrabble is good.”

Letters rattle and shake.

Looking at the bag of letters she asks, “Would you like to pick out a letter and figure out who goes first?  Whoever gets closest to ‘A’ gets to start.”

The boy reluctantly reaches out a hand to grab a letter.

“Oh, you get to go first!” She sounds hopeful that her “student” will be just as excited as her to begin playing.  If he is, he does not express it.

As words materialize on their game board, I look at the glaring blankness of my laptop screen.  My empty thoughts are interrupted by, “Oh that’s a good start.”  There is reservation in her soft voice, as if she wants to say more, but she is holding back.  Instead, unspoken encouragement is given as she smiles at his efforts.

No one else has come to participate in this battle of words.

“You can’t just start a random word. Here’s what you can do,” her reserved nature begins to crack as her fingers point to possible solutions, but she leaves his word intact and prepares for her turn.  Afterwards, she jots down a few notes before perching her chin onto her clenched fist.  Her eyes challenge the boy to make his next move.

“Nicely played!  That’s a triple score.”

The congratulation is taken in their customary silence.  My ears are buzzing from the increasing volume of silence spreading throughout the room.  As they sit they both radiate an intensity which despite their quietness forces you to look at them and watch their next move.  And in that moment, I suddenly feel a surprising revelation.

I realize that the two are playing a disguised game.  It still involves words, but the game is directed by one significant rule.  Only speak when necessary.  It is not a straightforward game as it seems that the two are carefully calculating their every move, including their use of speech (or lack of) with one another.  I hope their hard work pays off.  In the meantime, they both seem to agree that it takes more than a conversation to get to know a person.

The game goes on.