A short reno tale

Today I found myself uttering a string of words I never expected to say in a sentence outloud, in public, with no embarrassment to a middle aged man : " I need a good stud finder and some extra long screws."

Of course, the guy was wearing the orange bib of Home Depot where everyone talks about studs and screws and male and female parts of all sorts of equipment without blinking an eye. He just smiled and said "Sure, right this way.

Soon he was equipping me with the $29.95 deluxe automated stud finder and the 2 1/2 inch carpenters screws which he tells me will do just fine to mount ( ah those words) the corner wall cabinet that I just bought off Used Victoria.

After almost 20 years in the same house, we finally did the kitchen reno, a right of passage for any homeowner it seems. I remember how I feigned interest when other moms at the preschool playground told their reno tales.  How could sensible, bright people get so consumed with paint colours, faucet design, and the headaches of knob and tube wiring in Victoria's otherwise lovely older homes? Surely there must be more interesting things to talk about.

Of course, in my head I had my grand reno plans -- the open concept, the moving of walls and windows, the french doors out onto the back deck, the integrated kitchen and dining room with a second deck out the side. But as the years passed it became clear that big, hugely expensive dream was never going to happen.

And then over the past few years I began to just want simple things: cupboard doors that were not falling off their hinges, a broom closet,  lights that didn't zap and explode, a fume hood so that a fine mist of grease would not be dispersed over everything on the main floor, no matter what we cooked. I became reluctant to entertain because our kitchen was becoming progressively more embarrassing and non-functional.

And then, this summer, we risked losing our house insurance, or having our rates jacked sky high because it was found that, despite the appearance of updated wiring and a good breaker box, we still had fragile, disintegrating knob and tube in our kitchen ( hence the zapping lights and hot switch plates.)

I set out to do the $10,000, cheapo kitchen reno. Could it be done?  Well almost. First it started with Bob Bourgeois, our handy man who did our bathrooms a few years ago. He just happened to have two sets of white kitchen cabinets he bought off used victoria that he would give me for a song.

We started in mid August. I had grand plans to blog and post pictures through out but I soon realized three things: 1) no one wants daily updates because it is boring to everyone but those actually doing the reno.  2) It is not like Extreme Make Over where the whole process is over in five days, it goes on and on and on and it is at times like watching paint dry or writing about paint drying; some days nothing happens at all. 3) On the days that unexpected things do happen, the days when Bob phones and says: "you better come home, we've got a problem" you are so busy dealing with the problem that you don't have time or inclination to write.

I did learn one thing that surprised me: having a lack of choice when choices abound is actually rather freeing in its restrictive way. This point was first made to me way back in 1990s by a palliative care doctor in Holland about euthanasia. He ran a lovely hospice in which euthanasia was not allowed in a country where it was readily available. He said: "It removes the pressure of a profound decision... it is more simple for them in their dying days when they know choice is not an option here."

Applying that philosophy to my reno is one of the bigger writerly leaps I have made in my life, but in a way it was true. We had very little choice about what we did and therefore the choices were easy. I actually had fun.  Bob had a set of cabinets so that was what used. He had them only in certain configurations so we had to try to puzzle that out. I was keeping to a strict budget so all kinds of choices of counters and flooring and fixtures went by the wayside. I never fretted a moment about the choices I had to make ( which those who know me will know that is rather unlike me) because either there was no choice or the choice was between the few range of items in the price point we could afford. Voila, this one looks better. This is it!

And we even have a few laughs from our limited options. One drawer cannot be opened without first opening the oven door. If we had customed ordered all the cabinets this quirk would never have happened. But it was the only set that could go there. Now we know that is the drawer where we will keep the chocolate, the halloween candy and the credit cards -- you have to think twice and go to extra trouble to get at it.

I even began to delight in finding deals. Kate and I found a great cheap tile that was less than the linoleum we thought we would be forced to buy and they had just enough left to do our floor. I decided that we would do all the painting ourselves and was delighted to find that Kate was a natural with a real talent and perfectionist streak.  Maddy has a great eye, but is definitely going to be in management - she could see all the places we missed and was very good at direction, but not so keen on the manual labour herself.  I was spackling and finishing, I even worked as Bob's assistant, learning handy tips about mounting cabinets.

We were going to live with an odd gap in  one corner -- we had run out of wall cabinets. The kids said it looked stupid and Bob and I decided we would build a small book case there to fill it ( which still would have looked odd.)But for the last week I was scouring craigslist, used victoria and kiiji looking for the right cabinet to fill our hole.

Yesterday I finally found it -- the perfect corner cabinet in exactly the same design as Bob's used one. It was in Duncan. I drove up there this morning at  7 am, arriving at a beautiful farm. I wanted only two pieces -- they wanted me to haul away all 10, but we bargained and I took three. And I am going to mount them myself. Bob is now off on another job.

So we are almost done - six weeks and about double my $10,000 cost, but not bad for a complete overhaul. The counters don't come until mid-october and the fridge comes next week -- and when it is all in place I will post a picture.

But at least now we have a working kitchen. I will no longer bore my self and others with reno tales.  And last night I made a meal and turned on the fume hood. It was lovely.



Posted on Sunday, September 27, 2009 at 07:53PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment

Marking a significant day

Let us  pause for a moment, May 4th, International Chicken Appreciation Day, and give thanks to chickens.

I, for one, definitely appreciate chickens. In fact, I love them. Chickens are the most comical, cost-efficient,  and entertaining of all the barnyard animals -- not that I know other barnyard animals very well, but I do know chickens.

From 1999 until 2002 we had three free range chickens in our urban backyard in Victoria: Penny, Rita and Lucy. The gals - as we called them - were a nattering, clucking, fussbudgetting hoot.  I could watch them for hours as they bustle-wagged about our yard munching on everything. And Keith and I often did sit and just watch, sometimes with a cup of tea sitting on a lawnchair in the sun, sometimes on a summer evening with a cool tall G&T.Penny, Rita and Lucy eating spaghetti

They were handsome hens. Penny was a lovely salt and pepper Barred Rock. Rita was a deep ginger Rhode Island Red. And Lucy was a coal black ( with blue green shimmers in the light) hydrid, we think with strains of Andalusian. We often asked people to guess: "What is the common link in their names?" And the sharpest would answer in seconds: "Beatles Songs!"

Victoria bylaws, from time immemorial, allow backyard chickens even in the heart of the city,  maximum six, no rooster. In our downtown community of Fairfield small coops are common. Our neighbors down the street, who had a fantastic organic vegetable garden, had a clutch of six and I covetted them for years, especially the daily treasure of warm, freshly laid eggs. 

I was writing from home, obsessed with my organic vegetable garden and I began to feel I must have chickens, too,  as part of the complete organic cycle: hens eat weeds and garden pests, poop in soil, guano fertilizes soil, soil produces healthy rich veggies ( and weeds),  hens eat weeds, etc.

I designed a tiny coop, with laying box, and a chicken run to occupy an unused, shady side of our house ( about three feet from our west wall and about 9 feet from the next house, the placement of which turned out to be a mistake.) We researched what kit we needed ( heat lamp, watering dish,Designer coop feed tray) and bought the items at farm supplier Borden Mercantile and set up a lovely little home. And then on a spring day in 1999 my two daughters and I went out to the Saanich Christmas Tree farm ( and chicken hatchery)  to get three chicks. We were told we could buy day old, un-sexed chicks for something like $5 each. But if we waited two days for them to be sexed, it was a few dollars more. On account of the rooster ban, I didn't think I would have the heart, or stomach, to kill and eat any males so we paid extra. I never did learn how one could sex those teensy-weensy chicks, but I guess it was simply turning them upside down, peering between their legs to look for something even more teensy-weensy.

We brought home the three cheeping yellow fluffy feather balls in a cardboard box, with towels and a hot water bottle and set them up below a heat lamp in a corner of our dining room and they rapidly grew and took on their distiinctive plummage. Kate, then about 10, and one of those kids who speaks animal, never left the box. Like a mini-Konrad Lorenz, Kate became their imprint and they would stick their little heads in both her armpits and elbow crooks for warmth for hours on end. When they were older, they would follow her around the yard, right at her heels, altering their direction with her moves like wind shifts over a field of grain. It was a highly entertaining show, particularly on a summer night with that G&T. Also amusing was feeding them spaghetti ( they loved all left over pasta.) Two chickens would each pick up an end of a strand and eat towards each other, oblivious, until they knocked beaks in startled surprise. Sidesplitting every time.

Kate aka Konrad cuddling chickensAt three weeks of age we moved them out to the coop with the heat lamp and sometime around the mid summer, when the gals were about 4 months old, the first egg was laid. It was a tiny misshapen, soft, thin-shelled thing -- and we are not sure which one was the first to lay. But the three of them were all so excited and proud of their accomplishment ( and so were we) that it was like we had opened the laying box to discover the Mona Lisa. That marked the beginning of their prolific laying career.  

From then on, almost ever single day, three perfect brown eggs would be awaiting us somewhere around mid-morning. We could always tell when, because the gals would, one after another, make a series of laying screams each one more intense: Bawk, BAWK, BAAAWK! (From the sound I am convinced it hurts a chicken to lay an egg.) And then, when the deed was done, she would chatter so excitedly to the others as if to say: Look what I've done! Look what I've done! Oh my, LOOK WHAT I'Ve Done! She would get out of the box and the next would go for it.

When all the ruckess had settled, there in the box,  still beautifully warm and flawlessly smooth, would be three biological gems of nature. Nothing beats taking it right into the kitchen, craddled in the palm of your hand, for a breakfast omelette or french toast. The yolks were brilliant orange because the gals had the roam of our yard throughout the day, eating grubs, buttercup and chicory and grass and weeds ( and anything, really, that was green and succulent or bug-like.)  At first our daughters refused to eat bright orange french toast and bright orange omelettes but the taste, even to an 8-year-old, was out of this world and worth the startling colour.

Each night, as the sun was setting, the three of them, moving together like synchronized swimmers, would head back to the coop. If we forgot to open the door, we would find them huddled on the roof in the dark, almost purring like cats, waiting to be let in. I found it fascinating that in winter the light-sensitive photo cell of their tiny little brains was set to exactly the same lux as the photo cell in the automatic timer for the Christmas lights. Just as the lights turned on they would be at the coop - the reproduceable precision of xmas lights on/chickens home to roost was scientifically fascinating.

We had to ensure they were locked in at night because the resident racoons would have made short work of them. Dogs were their enemies too. One day, in mid summer, our friend's boisterous golden retreiver, Lewis, came bounding into our yard when the gals were out roaming. Our backdoor was open and in a flash he had chased them up into the house. Kate and Maddy and Chya (Lewis's 8-year-old owner) were screaming. I came into our kitchen to see a blind blur of Lewis chasing Rita and Lucy round and round our main floor kitchen, dining room and living room, feathers flying. Penny was up on the window sill in the front hall squawking her head off and flapping her wings. When we final caught Lewis by the collar and locked him outside on the front porch, we gathered up the chickens in our arms. Their tiny hearts were beating so frantically I feared they might die of fright. But we carried them back gently to the safety of their coop. They survived but didn't lay for a few days. I will never forget, however, the insane sight of the dog and chickens roaring round and round my house. My life, it seemed, had become something out of an Erma Brombeck column.

Make no mistake, chickens are work. We had to clean the coop at least weekly, lay in fresh straw,  feed and water them daily, make sure they were safe at night. But the feeling of self-sufficiency, the closeness to nature, was empowering. We could have gone on happily like this for years except for two things. Lucy was a flyer and she would regularly fly the coop, learning by the third year to exceed our six foot fence. We would have to go around the neighborhood searching for her, asking, "Anyone seen a black chicken?"  Once she got a street over. Kate would have to carry her or lead her home. She regularly did a bee-line for our next-door neighbor's prize garden, eating once a whole swath of his succulent plants. He was not amused and even some lovely fresh eggs did not help. And on the other side, right beside the coop, the noise of their daily cluckings and egg laying screams grated on a new tenant ( the previous one had been raised on a farm and she told us she loved the sounds.) And when rats moved into that big old house, the exterminator pointed across the fence at our coop  and told them: "There's your problem: chickens attract rats because the grain give them a free food source."

We got a note that night in our mail box kindly requesting, for neighbourly relations, the removal of our lovely gals. We didn't want to start a fight and I couldn't imagine eating them for dinner. We arranged a lovely home for them on Salt Spring Island. We tearfully said good bye one day as they were hauled away in cage in a truck. Kate was almost inconsolable. Maddy, a french toast fanatic, mourned not only the loss of her feathered friends but of her favourite breakfast.

We never called to see how they were doing as time went by lest the new owners told us, when the gals no longer layed, that they had been boiled up for some chicken stew. I like to believe they lived out their life in the idyllic surroundings of the rolling farm and died of old age.

One of these days, I swear, I will have chickens again. I loved their simplicity and functionality. They made me very happy. So have a toast to chicken appreciation day. I think I may go home and raise a G&T to Penny, Rita and Lucy and fry an egg.


Posted on Monday, May 4, 2009 at 06:00PM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments1 Comment

A presidential visit


Obama's whirlwind visit to Ottawa has me reminiscing about another presidential visit and my tiny but rather memorable role in it.

It was March, 1981 and I was in the one-year journalism program at Carleton University. Ronald Reagan was coming to town. ABC News contacted the school asking for three reliable students to assist them as gophers over the visit. I was dispatched with two classmates to the Sheraton Hotel early on the first day.

The ABC News team had taken over an entire floor of the hotel with a crew of at least 40 people - camerman, editors, reporters, graphic artists, administrators. Cables were running from room to room. One room had been converted into a mock news room studio with a mahogany desk, fake backdrop and a bank of cameras; other rooms were dressing rooms for White House Chief Correspondent Sam Donaldson and the glamorous Lesley Stahl. I was awestruck by these oversize personalities - their dominating physical stature, their symmetry, their confident demeanor. I was an insignificant shrimp beside them. And I dare say they didn't even notice me. I remember tobacco smoke permeating the entire floor as editors and reporters  puffed on ever-present cigarettes.

Others rooms were for the two or three other national correspondents who were covering different angles of the visit. One room was the breakroom, filled with a huge assortment of refreshments, iced pop, always fresh coffee and buffet. At least two rooms were editing suites. One room, where I and the other two Carleton students spent most of our time, was the logging bay.

We sat in chairs two at a time, the third on relief, watching video monitors, logging the feed that came in. Each section had to be carefully numbered and annotated. Tape #1, 1 min 15 secs, Ron and Nancy emerge from Air Force 1, descend plane steps; 2 min, 30 secs, on tarmac, RR shakes Pierre Trudeau's hand.

We filled page after page of yellow legal pads with feed annotations. Then the editors would call us in. "We need a good shot of the US Ambassador." We would all scan through our sheets. "Go to tape 5, starts at 3 minutes and 20 seconds" one would say.

"Okay, now a good shot of Nancy Reagan in her travelling outfit."

A rustle of pages: "Tape 1, starts at 6 minutes 43 seconds until 6:54."

It was an intense but mentally numbing activity, followed by lulls when the dignitaries were in closed door meetings. We'd go to the food room and pig out on the Sheraton's impressive buffet, then be called back to the logging room for more headache-inducing staring and scribbling.

At 11:45 pm, after all the stories had been filed to the late night news, Sam and Lesley had chatted in the Ottawa "studio" to Peter Jennings in New York, we were told we were done for the day. The money man, a short and stocky fellow with horned rimmed glasses, met us at the elevator and pulled out a huge wad of American bills. He seemed to have no idea what he should pay us but just reeled off 20s  until our eyes grew so large, he knew it was time to stop. He said "Thanks. Be back at 8 am."

I had something like $200 in my pocket. We laughed and squealed in the elevator. We just thought we'd get a good recommendation for our resume. It was really big money to us back then, and made the monotony of the logging more than worth it.

The next day began much the same, except that overnight the news had broken that the visit corresponded with a few days earlier Reagan's sudden scuttling of a Grand Banks bilateral fishing treaty. Canadian dignitaries and particularly Atlantic Canada officials were extremely pissed off and it had come up in the talks. A reporter and cameraman had been quickly dispatched to Lunenburg while others on the floor were piecing together just where the hell the Grand Banks were and what this arcane treaty was all about.

In one of those rare synchronicities, I just happened to know. The year earlier I had graduated from the University of Guelph with a Bachelor of Science -- I was the only student in the journalism program with a science degree. One of my fourth-year courses was Fish and Wildlife Management, with a section of the curriculum on international fishing treaties, particularly the one covering the valuable but fragile resource of the Grand Banks.

The crew seemed astounded that the j-school kid in the logging room knew details about a fish treaty.  Soon I was elevated from mere logger to research assistant on the piece. In the days before the internet, there was no way to quickly get facts and maps. I sat with a graphic artist as we sketched out a map of the maritime coast, shading in approximate locations of the Grand Banks. I dictated out key points of the deal.

By 8 pm, the correspondent and cameraman had returned from Lunenburg. Alas, I can't remember his name but I will never forget his face, a handsome All American golden boy in his 30s. Nor will I forget that he was the father of two young kids he wished he could see more of but the job was so demanding he kept late hours and they were asleep often by the time he got home. He and the cameraman had had a hellish 12 hours of renting airplanes and cars, dealing with soggy maritime weather and a fever pitch of reporting. But they got the scenic shots of the Atlantic coastline with fishing boats, quaint Lunenburg clapboard houses and of course the archetypal fishermen in the heavy wool sweaters bemoaning the treaty's loss.

The images were perfect but the audio was distorted. Somehow -- they couldn't figure out how or why -- the camera's mike malfunctioned and the result was a scratchy, staticky mess of unusable sound. The correspondent was cursing and tearing out his hair. The day was a loss! Then he realized he had used his tiny tape recorder as back up on all the interviews. Momentary celebration. But it soon became clear it recorded at a different speed than the video. While the editors painstakingly tried to sync and dub his sound over the video images, he and I worked on the voice-over script. New York kept calling - -" is the Treaty piece in or out?" As the clock ticked down to 11 pm, and sweat dripped from us, we cobbled together a  minute and a half package, bringing in the graphics, maps, a fishery official, the odd-sounding fishermen who no one knew sounded odd because his audio was slightly out of sync. At 10:59 pm we were still putting finishing touches. New York was yelling down the line, " Where is the f**ing piece?"

Like something out of Broadcast News -- including a hair-raising sprint down the hotel hallway with the videotape edit -- we finally fed the finished package mere seconds before it was to air. We collapsed in adrenalin fueled-exhaustion, our shirts literally drenched in sweat, as we watched it playout as if nothing unusual had occurred. The room applauded.

But when the moment of exhileration passed, the correspondent began to vent, a dam-burst of pent up frustration. His outburst almost seemed to me to be the male equivalent of tears. And he pulled me aside.

"I have been doing this job for 15 years, working my way up first in newspapers, then tiny  regional
TV stations just to finally get to the big network but it never fucking changes. No matter how good you get, how high you get, you have shit like this --your audio crapping out, tapes breaking, something fucking up -- and you bust your ass, have a heart attack, for a mere 90 seconds. I can't take it anymore. I am never home. I am a stressed-out wreck. I have made it to the top and it is still always like this! Listen to me, don't ever go into television. You seem like a smart kid - -look at me. This is what the life is like. Don't do it. It never gets any better than this!"

I remember feeling dumbstruck; not knowing what to say to a grown man who seemed on the edge of a nervous breakdown. The other class mates had been sent home early when all the tape logging and editing had been done. It was midnight when I left. But that night when the money man met me at the elevator and counted out the bills I didn't have the same feeling of elation. It was the first time in my life I realized that money could not always compensate for the hell a job can put you through.

Over the next few months I watched ABC news for the correspondent. I never saw him again. I wonder to this day if he quit that night or shortly after.





Posted on Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:24PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment

A Valentine's Thought

I am in my office today, Saturday February 14th, finishing an article about organ donation for Reader's Digest. It features the story of a Burnaby single mother, Simone Harty, who on June 14th, 2007, made a parent's most wrenching decision to turn off the life support of her only child and son,  17-year-old Elliott, and to donate his organs.

Elliott's accomplishments in his short life are the sort that would make any parent proud -  award-winning pianist and musician, passionate photographer, inventive cook, avid reader, aspiring videographer, a handsome highschool bon-vivant who was everyone's best friend.

A little over a week before he died he had earned his motorcycle licence and with money he saved from two jobs at restaurants, he bought a 750 cc Kawasaki - a very large bike for a growing kid. In the 7 days he'd had the bike, he'd driven it short distances to his school, to his job at a restaurant on Burnaby Mountain, to friends' homes. On the day of his accident it had been in the garage all day because it was raining. It was the final weeks of school. The next day Elliott had his Grade 9 piano exam. He cooked a curry dinner for 20 friends at his home and when his mother went to a dance class, he went over to friends. He and his mother last spoke on his cellphone at around 11 pm when he said he had a couple of beers and he was getting a ride home with a friend who was sober. He sounded fine. She went to bed. He came in just before midnight.

Simone thought Elliot was safely asleep when the RCMP knocked on her door at 1 am.  A motorist had reported a street light down across the Barnett Highway. When the police investigated, a mortally wounded Elliott, with a massive head injury, and his smashed motorcycle were found in the ditch near the busted lamp standard. It was about 3 minutes from his home. Simone will never know what really happened but assumes Elliott must have taken the bike for a quick spin just after midnight and lost control on the still-slick pavement.

Stories like Elliott's are painful for anyone to hear, young or old. We all know of teenagers whose lives ended far too soon. We ache for parents like Simone whose grief we can only just imagine. When I was growing up, I knew at least eight in my peer group who died before adulthood, including five members of our highschool football team who died on their Grad night. For my husband, it was at least 6 in the school years from Grade 8 on. One in particular I still think of from time to time -- one of the most beautiful and popular girls in school, Cheryl Bull, who died on the night of her 18th birthday, the passenger of her older brother, who also died.

But I am also the mother of a 17-year-old and a 15-year-old and these are scary transition years as we try to get them through the minefield of cocky, over-confident adolescence, tempering their swaggering invincibility with pleas for caution and common sense. Kate, my eldest, has already lost three in her peer group. I pray that that may be her final tally when she looks back. You do a lot of praying when you have teenagers, not just for them, but for their whole bevy of exuberant, vivacious, exasperating, blossoming friends.

For Simone, two things now give outlet to her grief. She is lobbying for changes to motorcycle licensing in BC, urging the creation of a graduated program similar to that for car drivers and for restrictions on motorcycle size for new drivers. And she wants more people to register to be organ donors. BC has one of the highest registration rates in Canada, but still only 17 per cent of citizens have registered. The rate in the rest of Canada is around 12 per cent. It is not near enough. Some 250 Canadians die on the waiting list for transplants each year.

For Simone, the fact that Elliott's organs saved three other people's lives gives some solace to her grief. She treasures an anonymous thank you letter from the person who received his kidney. "I will cherish and take care of my new kidney and treat it like a baby," the note said. She hasn't heard from the others but they are constantly in her thoughts and she hopes they are doing well. She knows it is hard to write a thank you note to someone whose loved one's death enabled you to live. She is not judgemental.

But on Valentine's Day, with images of hearts and love all around, I think the most meaningful way we could emulate the giving spirit of the saint whose name we celebrate, would be to register as an organ donor. In BC, it is very easy. Just go to BC Transplant Society, www.transplant.bc.ca, and click on the online registration where you enter in your care card number.  Other provinces are in various stages of getting online registration. Just google organ transplantation combined with your province name and you'll find the process in your jurisdiction.

Of course, it doesn't remove the tragedy of an untimely death like Elliott's, nor remove the midnight fears of any parent whose teenage child has not yet come home, but it does do something.  As a writer, I'm reluctant to end on the cliché of a bumper sticker, but in this case it says it as good or better than I can say: "Don't take your organs to Heaven; Heaven knows we need them here."



Posted on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 01:40PM by Registered CommenterAnne | CommentsPost a Comment

Kindness of Strangers


It has been months now and I have to admit it: I probably was scammed.

I have been hoping, almost expecting, that a letter with $45 cash and a heart felt thank you would come from the stranded British chef whom we helped one night on a New York City street. His story of theft of his wallet and suitcase was so convincing and his dilemma of being penniless in New York at night was such a pickle it would make any fellow traveler empathetic.

When I gave him the money and my business card to help him get to friends in Philadelphia by train, he promised he’d repay me. For a long time I expected that letter to come.

Wouldn’t you, too? Here is what happened:

It was a hot July night this past summer and my 15-year-old daughter and I were walking back to the Vanderbilt YMCA on 47th.  ( A cheap place to stay in NYC at a handy locale. )

We’d been in the Big Apple five days, bonding as mother and daughter, seeing the sites, taking in Broadway shows, going to museums and window shopping. We were leaving early the next morning. We’d had a fabulous time.

We were waiting for the light to change at 3rd Avenue and 50th, talking about the revival of A Chorus Line we had just seen. I liked it, as I had when I first saw it 25 years ago; Maddy thought it was lame and dated.

Suddenly right in front of us a bicyclist in a t-shirt – with no lights or helmet on the dark night -- came roaring up 3rd Avenue. He was a dark blur of speed, but two other cyclists were crossing 50th right in front of him. They were dressed in blazing white with three or four white plastic bags of groceries hanging from their handle bars.

The collision of bicycles happened so fast that Maddy and I had couldn’t tell whose fault it was, but the result was a crazy mess of tumbling bodies, tangled bikes with bent wheels, spilled cans and scattered produce -- and then a loud fracas of accusations.

The t-shirt man was yelling obscenities about stupid foreigners. The cyclists in white were yelling back and trying to pick up their groceries. The T-shirt man looked like he was going to beat the crap out of them. He picked up his broken bike pedal and hurled it at their heads. They ducked. The pedal scuttled across the asphalt and landed right at our feet at the curbside. The three started to tussle and push.

“Hey, hey! Stop it!!,” I yelled, horrified to see such violence break out in the middle of the street only a few meters before us. Maddy grabbed my arm: “Don’t get involved Mom!”

Other pedestrians near us watched the disturbing melee. One said out loud, in a British accent, so that all could hear: “I hate New York. Don’t you hate New York? Violence and rage always just below the surface. I just want to get out of here.”

I turned to look at him. He was late 30s, clean, tidy and bearded with a yarmulke on his head. He was wearing a green t-shirt with the name of a Jewish religious charity across the chest and carrying a small Starbucks bag with a thick book in it. He engaged our eye and shook his head as if dismayed and despairing at the violent scene -- precisely what I was feeling.

As the bicyclists limped off – the white clad duo with bloody knees dragging their now mangled un-rideable bikes while the green t-shirt man rode off with only one pedal cursing loudly – we began to talk.

“I have been walking the streets for five hours and I just want to get home. You will never believe what happened to me today.”

His appearance, manner, and accent made him seem honest and truly distressed. We had to ask: “What happened?

He told us his story of a horrible day in New York. His name was Ari and he was a chef in Britain – he gave us the name of the restaurant. He was visiting the US, volunteering with an orthodox Jewish religious group based in Philadelphia for a month. He had come into the city for the morning to read passages of the Torah to a member sick in hospital with cancer but in the afternoon, as he was getting out of the cab at Penn Station to head back to Philadelphia, the cab had driven off, taking all of his possessions, including his wallet and passport. All he had was his Starbucks bag and his science fiction book – which he showed us. He’d spent four hours at the police station to report the robbery , but they wouldn’t give him any money or help him get home and by the time he had left the police station the British Consulate was closed. He had to walk the streets until they opened the next morning at 8 am. He’d been asking people for help, but no one would help him.

Was he conning us? From our daily wanderings Maddy and I knew the British Consulate was just a block up the street. His story was so elaborate, but something about him made it seem real.

“How much do you need?” I said, unprompted. His face lit up in astonishment and gratitude.

“I can’t believe t. You would do that? You would help me out?

“Well, within limits... how much is the train ticket?”

“Forty five dollars... that would be fantastic, that way I could get out tonight.”

I gave him $45. He was effusive in his thanks. He went on and on about how kind Canadians were -- “Never met a Canadian who wasn’t kind and trusting... New Yorkers are so suspicious of everybody—They think everyone is conning them!”

“Well,” I said still harboring some doubts. “You may in fact be conning me, but if it is a con, it is a good one.”

“NO, no! Listen, I tell you, I’m for real. Give me your business card and I will send you the money, I promise. You’ve been so kind, I can’t believe it. I’ll pay you back.”

I gave him my card. We shook hands, exchanged final pleasantries. He was heading to Penn station right away, he said. He could get the midnight train. He again thanked us profusely. And Maddy and I left the encounter feeling decidedly good – as if we had truly helped a traveler in distress.

But as we got closer to the Y my mind was going over his elaborate story line and some of its implausibilities.

“What do you think Maddy? Was it a scam?”

“Well, he didn’t ask you for money, you offered it! And there is no way he could stage that bicycle accident...I think he was real.”

“If not he was a really good actor – we paid for street theatre.”

“Yeah, better and cheaper than some Broadway shows,” said Maddy.

If anything, we had a story to tell and over the course of the next few weeks we told it to family and friends. Most felt that even if it wasn’t real, I did the right thing. But not all.

“I can’t believe you fell for that!” said my L.A.-based cousin, who rolled his eyes at my gullibility.

But I am not embarrassed about being gullible. In fact, I am proud of it. It means I am trusting and empathetic –qualities that I want in friends and family – and qualities that we are all lucky to meet in fellow travelers.

In fact, as I told my story, many told me of kind strangers who had helped them out of a jam – my sister rescued by a kind couple in the south of France who gave her a meal and a place to stay for the night; a girlfriend who, en route from Europe, became sick with the flu in the Halifax airport and was nursed at a couple’s home for two days until she was well enough to continue flying home. “If they are reading this, tell them Katherine from Kitchener has felt terrible for 22 years because I lost their address and never thanked them!”

I, too have been helped. I was crying in the Wurzberg Germany train station one night in the winter of 1982 when all the youth hostels were closed and I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. “You are in trouble. Can I help you?” said a young woman. I spent a wonderful night in her university dormitory, sharing tea, cookies and stories with her and all her colleagues. Since that time I have always tried to help travelers in need.

So I don’t feel bad about giving “Ari” $45 on the streets of New York. I had the money to give. And I would probably do it again. Rather, it is the clever con men who exploit the kindness of strangers who should feel bad – but of course, being sociopaths, they never will.

I am not naive, nor some untravelled Canadian hick. I know there are plenty of con-artists out there. But I have made a conscious choice: I will not live my life nor travel the world as a distrustful cynic believing others with a hard luck story are out to scam me.

And I’ve decided: Ari must have lost my business card.


Posted on Friday, January 9, 2009 at 04:41PM by Registered CommenterAnne | Comments1 Comment