Day 7 – A song that reminds you of a certain event

Posted on: May 27th, 2011 by
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“Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” U2, Achtung Baby

I was not a good university student.  There are many reasons for this, but one of the reasons is that I have always been a procrastinator.  (The fact that I am posting this 15 days after my previous post should be a good indication of that.)  I’ve always been very easily distracted and while I didn’t live in residence during university, the last year my best friend Mike became the R.A. at Humber College’s new residences, so I had a proxy residence where I could go and do all the residence life things that didn’t involve schoolwork.

My last year of university was pretty much a wreck – I hardly went to classes, sometimes did the readings, and the only thing I managed to complete were the mandatory essays and exams.  While I turned in most of my essays on time, for some reason I delayed working on the last essay I would compose as an undergrad until the last day it could possibly be turned in and still count towards course credit.  I don’t remember the topic of the essay, but I remember that it was for Canadian International Relations, a course that probably would have been fascinating had I put the effort into it.

My essay writing was on the cusp of the computer age.  Many of my classmates were barred from turning in computer-printed essays because Windows printing was still spotty and professors hated reading the results.  I owned a Mac at the time, and thanks to its WYSIWYG printing, professors allowed me to turn in Mac-generated papers.  I was still living with my parents in university, and noise was a big concern when I stayed up late, so being able to write on a computer rather than a typewriter meant that I could pull an all-nighter without any complaints from my parents.

My usual habits around an all-nighter were that I would have my original research complete but no typing done in advance.  I’d stay up late typing, go to bed around 3:00 or 4:00, and get up in the morning and print out my paper.  For some reason on this final paper I was still doing research the night before the paper was due, so I don’t think I actually started typing until that same time I had usually gone to bed previously.  With my headphones on and my brain working at probably 25% of normal, I plodded my way through some aspect of history and politics, attempting to string together a cogent argument.  Dawn was just breaking, I felt like complete rubbish, and this song came on that just seemed to put a perfect button on the whole experience.

Six o’clock in the morning
You’re the last to hear the warning
You’ve been trying to throw your arms around the world.

I know that the song is about coming home after a night of drinking, and the “trying to throw your arms around the world” line is about that super-benevolent feeling you have sometimes when you’re drunk where you love everyone and want to give them all a hug.  It did seem very appropriate though for a university kid trying to write an international relations paper as the dawn was breaking and he’d been up all night.

I turned in the paper, passed the course, and managed to graduate.  Every time I hear this song I remember that long night and morning and think about the crazy ways I used to make life difficult for myself back then.


Day 6 – A song that reminds you of somewhere

Posted on: May 12th, 2011 by
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“No Quarter,” Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy

Growing up in the 70′s and 80′s, I didn’t get to enjoy the luxury of having a stereo in my room, and even when I did, I didn’t get a record player to go with that stereo until I believe my last year of high school. That meant that any time I wanted to listen to a record, I had to do so downstairs. I could buy blank cassette tapes and tape albums, but sometimes I just wanted to listen to one or two tracks and it was difficult to match up records and tapes. A lot of the time you couldn’t get all of an album on one side, and it seemed like a waste to put side A of the album of side A of the cassette and the same for side B. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but I did a fair amount of listening to music using headphones on the floor of my parents’ living room while they watched TV, or in the times after school between when I got home and when they got home. It wasn’t all that inconvenient an arrangement from my perspective – I taped my favorite albums for my room and the rest stayed downstairs.

On non-work nights, my Dad was a natural night-owl, and my parents didn’t overly care about what time I went to bed on the weekends. Up until my last year of high school I didn’t have a part-time job, so they didn’t care if I stayed up late on Friday and Saturday nights and slept in, as long as I didn’t make too much noise and keep my Mom up. Some nights if I was into listening to music, I’d stay up late, stretched out on the carpet, headphones on. They were the nice big ear-surrounding headphones, the kinds where you could close your eyes and the outside world seemed to melt away and you were just there with the music. I also used to love turning off all the lights when both my parents were asleep and listening to songs that were quiet but still had an edge to them – songs that seemed perfect to be listening to with all the lights out at 1 in the morning. I sometimes like to describe them to myself as the “creepy” songs, even though that’s really not what they are. I think maybe “Miami Vice” may have had an influence on this – I always loved the way they would combine moody, dark songs with the gritty action and stories on the show. In this category I put songs like “Faded Flowers” by Shriekback, “Brothers in Arms” by Dire Straits, “4th of July” by U2, “Indifference” by Pearl Jam, and many others.

“No Quarter” is the song that most reminds me of that solitary dark listening time. I think the first time I heard the song it was late at night, and it has always seemed like the perfect song for that time of night. The electric piano, the subdued clean guitar solo, Plant’s haunting vocals, and the image of some kind of Norse warriors on a mission all combined to set the perfect mood for a teenager and a pair of headphones in the dark. I’ve since grown to enjoy Tool’s version of this song on their out-of-print album “Salival,” but I still have a soft spot in my heart for hearing this song on original vinyl, headphones or no.


Day 5 – A song that reminds me of someone

Posted on: May 3rd, 2011 by
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“Planet Caravan,” Black Sabbath, Paranoid

When I was in my last year of high school (Grade 13 for you Ontario readers), I got to live out one of my major music fantasies by playing in a rock band. I bought a guitar on installments the summer before Grade 13 and started teaching myself to (poorly) play it. My best friend Mike was in the same grade as me and changed high schools in our last year so he could go to the same high school as his girlfriend and future wife. While at the new school Mike quickly made some friends and got a band together. Somehow Mike talked the rest of the band into letting me, a guy who had only been playing seriously for maybe four months, into the group. My role was pretty limited at first – playing single-note semi-bass lines to back up the guitar and playing some guitar effects parts (I rented a digital delay pedal along with the guitar).

One of the things I liked about the band was the wide variety of musical tastes and talents in the group. Mike and I were both big New Wave (what us old geezers used to call “Alternative”) fans. Our lead guitarist, Kevin, was an incredibly talented musician who had been playing guitar since the age of eight and could play Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan (his favorite) note for note. In spite of his monstrous talent, Kevin was incredibly modest about his skills and served as tutor to me as I figured out what I could play. Our drummer Brent was a huge metal fan, and had a huge Lars Ulrich-style drum kit to match. Our bassist Burt was a polymath, interested in a lot of instruments and things, big into 60′s music. Finally our keyboard player Mark was classically trained, having achieved the highest level of Royal Conservatory (a music certification program in Canada), but was interested in 60′s and 70′s music.

It seemed “on paper” like we would have a hard time coming up with any original music that would satisfy our varying interests. The best thing about the band, however, is that we all seemed to be far more interested in making good music than making any particular style of music. We played about a 50/50 mix of covers and originals, and while our originals leaned more towards 60′s music (Doors, Yardbirds, Stones), our originals varied widely from quiet folk pieces to full-out hard rock songs. Whatever the seed of the song was, we all pitched in to make it into a full song, no matter what style it ended up being.

I remember us having to switch up our practice venues a couple times, not because of any major parental objections that I can remember but I think mainly due to space issues. We started practicing at Burt’s house but at some point we had to do some sessions at Mark’s house. I remember Mark’s house being about a mile up an unpaved road (we jokingly referred to it as “The Road to Kathmandu” because it was rutted with potholes and barely passable during heavy rain.) I remember Mark’s house being a bungalow with a large basement, and the upstairs being “lived in” without being messy – I think Mark’s parents had lived there for a long time and so the house wasn’t one of those arid museum places, but a real home. I remember one night after practice we were hanging out in the kitchen and somehow “Planet Caravan” was playing softly on the stereo, I think part of a mix tape that Mark had made. While the details are a little foggy on when it was I can see in my mind’s eye all of us standing there while that music played. I remember being surprised to find out that it was Black Sabbath – I had only known them as the band who made “Paranoid” and “Ironman,” but I never bought the album and so never heard “Planet Caravan” before. Consequently, whenever I hear this song, I remember the first time I heard it and it makes me think of Mark and his parents’ cool house in the country.


Day 4 – A Song That Makes Me Sad

Posted on: April 30th, 2011 by
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“War on Drugs,” Barenaked Ladies, Everything to Everyone

I rediscovered the Barenaked Ladies after I started dating a woman who was a huge fan. When they were breaking big in Toronto in the early 90′s, it seemed to me they were everywhere because the greatest radio station ever, CFNY, was actively promoting them. I got a little burned out on them initially, but when I moved to the USA they slipped off my radar for a few years until they released Stunt and “One Week” was everywhere on the radio. By this point they sounded fresh again, and while I didn’t actively seek them out, I enjoyed hearing them whenever they came on. Then when I started dating someone in 2002 I picked up a Barenaked Ladies Greatest Hits CD and started appreciating the band in a way that I didn’t seem to be wired for in the 90′s. I really zeroed in on the talented musicianship and intelligent lyrics, and although late to the party was happy to be including them in my regular music rotation.

When Everything to Everyone came out in 2003, I almost immediately zeroed in on “War On Drugs” for a number of reasons.

The first reason was the beginning of the third verse: “Near where I live there’s a viaduct / Where people jump when they’re out of luck / Raining down on the cars and trucks below.” This was a Toronto connection for me – the Bloor Street Viaduct runs over the Don Valley, and owing to its height over the valley, its proximity to a number of less fortunate neighborhoods, and its low railings, it has become a site of a larger number of suicides.

The second reason was the chorus:

Won’t it be dull
When we rid ourselves
Of all these demons haunting us
To keep us company?
Won’t it be odd
To be happy like we’re supposed to be
But never seem to feel?

Throughout most of my adult life I’ve struggled with very mild depression. (The reason why I say “very mild” is that I don’t want what I write to reflect negatively on the many people who struggle with severe depression that is a real challenge to their lives. My depression has caused some challenges but I don’t want to have a pity party for myself.) I think that at times I realized that I had some kind of depression or at least what used to be referred to as “melancholy,” and I actually felt that I wasn’t destined to feel happy in my life. I also felt like that was some kind of badge of distinction that made me a “more interesting” person. I feel like many people who suffer from depression and who struggle with treatment options worry about how taking antidepressant medication will change who they are, and that they will somehow lose themselves in the process. There are others who are unsure about the long-term effects of antidepressants and who would rather take their risks without medication.

The third reason was the song’s un-named “She” who is talked about in the first two versus, and about the battle those around her try to fight to help her. I remember at times in my life trying to help others who didn’t seem to want help and the incredible feelings of frustration and helplessness that go along with that.

This song has taken on added poignancy since Stephen Page divorced his wife, was arrested for cocaine possession, and left/was fired from the Barenaked Ladies. Page has made no secret of his struggles with depression throughout the years, clinical or otherwise, and many of his lyrics were informed by this depression. When I originally thought of the Barenaked Ladies as a “silly” band, when I rediscovered them and gave a re-listen to songs like “What a Good Boy,” “Jane,” and “Call and Answer,” I saw a depth of emotion. While both sides of the Barenaked Ladies claim the split was amicable, I personally feel that it wasn’t and I’m sad that Page is no longer in the band.

The lowest emotional period of my life was my divorce. I didn’t have the emotional tools to handle the event, and I did and said a lot of stupid embarrassing stuff, stuff that was teenager-level. I don’t think I ever actively contemplated suicide during my divorce – at my worst, I wanted all my problems to be erased, and felt horribly alone, but I don’t know if I ever actively thought that the world would be better off without me, or that it would be easier to give up than keep struggling on. The lyrics in “War on Drugs” seem to speak to that emotional pit I was in during that period of my life, and I feel sad for the person I was at that time.


Day 3 – A Song That Makes Me Happy

Posted on: April 28th, 2011 by
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“Linus and Lucy,” Vince Guaraldi, A Charlie Brown Christmas

One sign that I’m old fashioned – I get highly irritated by the fact that the Christmas season seems to begin right after Hallowe’en. I feel like Christmas is a special time of year and it shouldn’t be stretched out indefinitely. For this reason I refrain from playing any Christmas music until Thanksgiving Day. When I do the first album I usually bring out is the excellent soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi and his trio.

A Charlie Brown Christmas took a lot of risks in its production, risks that probably wouldn’t be tolerated in today’s entertainment world. Risks included the strongly religious message, the use of children as voice actors, and the anti-commercial theme. One of the other risks the program took was in its choice of music. Rather than go with loud obnoxious “cartoon” music or sickly-sweet “holiday” music, the producers decided on cool jazz. As we know, the popularity of A Charlie Brown Christmas proves the risks were worth it, and the program’s legacy endures today. I know a lot of people who still refer to a sad-looking Christmas tree as a “Charlie Brown tree,” and I know tons of people who light up in joy whenever they hear the soundtrack album, which enjoys increased popularity due to re-releases by Fantasy Records in 1988 and Starbucks in 1997.

“Linus and Lucy” never ceases to bring joy to my heart when I hear it. I instantly think about all the positive energy in Christmas, and sometimes think about the segment in the animated special the music accompanies, which shows the kids dancing on the theater stage while waiting for Charlie Brown to arrive. There is just so much life in the song, and it brings all kinds of warm feelings to my heart.


Day 2 – Your Least Favourite Song

Posted on: April 27th, 2011 by
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OK so yesterday I complained about the difficulty of picking my favorite song, what with the range of music I enjoy and the great songs that are out there. Today’s topic at first seemed more difficult because there are tons of songs that I despise. I thought it would be amusing to go down the list of contenders before I get to my first place winner.

I actually have some selection criteria when it comes to my least favorite song – I’m not talking about the worst songs in term of actual musical construction.  I’m also not particularly concerned about songs that are horrible but I don’t get exposed to them a lot. For example, “MacArthur Park” is indeed a horrid song, but it never shows up anywhere, so I’m not forced to listen to it. That is a contrast to songs that appear on the list that are horrible and shoved down my throat at every bar, coffee shop, TV show or movie. “Friday” is too new to be on this list, but check back with me in a few years.

“Walk Like An Egyptian,” The Bangles

For me this is the epitome of the “do something” songs, like “The Twist,” “Dancing in the Street,” or “The Macarena” – rather than write anything at all that has any application to the human condition, let’s write a song that just talks about “hey everybody’s doing this, you need to do it too.” These songs are usually just a shallow attempt to create a trend and sell a lot of records. As an added plus the video is an homage to the 80′s with stupid live footage mixed in with “man-on-the-street” videos of people “walking like Egyptians.” For some reason this song seems to pop up in a lot of places so I still get to be treated to it almost 30 years after it should have died.

“Hangin’ Tough,” New Kids on the Block

Whoah oh oh whoah oh. When I worked for Ticketmaster as a phone sales agent, the New Kids on the Block were part of the flood of shitty pop music that infected the late 80′s before Hip Hop and Grunge delivered a one-two punch to temporarily drag music back into relevance. Every day when elementary schools in Toronto got out, our phone lines would be jammed with girls calling us to ask us when New Kids on the Block were coming to town, as if we were some kind of oracles with a direct line to Maurice Starr. One guy there got fed up and told an impressionable youngster that they died in a plane crash. He later got fired because said youngster supposedly locked herself in her room for two days crying. This song is just a horrible manipulative attempt to pander to young teens and like all other horribly manipulative attempts to pander to young teens it was wildly successful. When I saw NKOTB at the New Years’ Eve show on ABC I hoped the crystal ball would crush them.

“Tubthumping,” Chumbawamba

I swear I heard this song in my sleep in 1997, and it still is everywhere.  It pretends to be a serious satire of British pub culture but in reality it is a shitty song that was probably for a long time the favorite song in British pubs. I once saw an interview with one of the members of Chumbawamba slagging Bono for being some kind of charity poseur. Last time I checked, Chumbawamba hadn’t gotten $10B in third world debt forgiven. I’m sure that Chumbawamba put 100% of their proceeds from “Tubthumping” into charity.

Runner up: “What’s Up,” 4 Non Blondes

I think there has to be a law somewhere that every bar that doesn’t play house or country music has to play this song at least once a night. I think the best word to describe Linda Perry’s overwrought singing would be “caterwauling.” The lyrics of the song are pure meaningless mush that belong in a 15-year-old’s journal. When I saw that Linda Perry collaborated with Pink on her “Missundaztood” album I was shocked when I didn’t want to destroy the CD.  If you were a drunk college kid in the 1990′s  you thought that this and “Under the Bridge” were super-deep songs.

Winner: “Your Body is a Wonderland,” John Mayer

I want you to engage in a little mental exercise. You are picking colors of paint for the interior of your house.

“I’d really love to have a dramatic color, like red.”

“No, that’s too ‘in-your-face.’”

“Well what about a navy blue?”

“Too dark.”

“Orange?”

“Too loud.”

“Maybe a nice green?”

“This is too difficult. Let’s just get some off-white.”

“Your Body is a Wonderland” is the off-white paint of music. John Mayer, who is a talented blues guitarist and demonstrates himself as being pretty funny on a regular basis, seems to have set himself a goal to write the blandest song possible, and succeeded. This is a song that brings together twenty-something college girls who use lanyards as keychains and fifty-year-old soccer moms. Compared to this song, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” sounds like a Beatles song. I can’t figure out if Mayer is oblivious to this fact or in a fit of Machiavellian plotting knew that if he unleashed this song on the world he wouldn’t need to work another day in his life and could have indiscriminate sex with hundreds of women. This song is such an antidote to testosterone that if you locked Ronnie from “The Jersey Shore” in a room for a week playing this song he would come out as Perez Hilton.


Day 1 – Your Favourite Song

Posted on: April 26th, 2011 by
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I don’t know who came up with the list of the 30 Day Song Challenge, but asking me to start the list with my favorite song was like asking a sommelier to pick their favorite wine. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but if you were to pose that question to a sommelier, I believe the response would be “For what?” A sublime Pinot Grigio can be just as majestic a wine as a glorious Burgundy, but they are two radically different wines. I have a musical taste that (in my opinion) is as wide-ranging and variegated as the wine offerings in our world. Do I want to hear gorgeous instrumentation? Do I want to headbang? Do I want to hear a master at the height of his talents? Do I want to hear lyrics that make me just shake my head in wonder at the depth of emotion they’re able to achieve?

I pondered for quite a while and quite frankly I don’t even know if this necessarily *is* my favorite song or not, but I also didn’t want to spend days pondering the answer, so here it is:

“Please,” U2, Pop

Pop was much maligned when it came out. A lot of people felt that the trajectory that had brought U2 from The Joshua Tree through Achtung Baby followed by Zooropa was making the band irrelevant or a caricature of itself. As well due to an issue with Larry Mullen Jr. being injured, recording was delayed and ultimately rushed. While I wasn’t necessarily thrilled about the forced satire of consumer culture with the launch press conference happening in a K-Mart, when I actually got the album I soon wore it out. Buried under the radical instrumentation were songs with great personal depth and meaning.

I first started liking “Please” because of its quietly ominous instrumentation – the song wasn’t a soaring anthem song (nothing on Pop was, but this one was quieter than most), as well as its lead-in from “If You Wear That Velvet Dress.” I liked the bridge with the backups from The Edge. It was a song that came and went relatively quickly and didn’t make too much of a big deal about itself.

Then after a few listens through, when I started to pick up on the lyrics, I developed a deeper love for the song. “Please” is a song that reflects on terrorism in Northern Ireland, and as such makes a nice bookend to “Love is Blindness,” the final song from Achtung Baby. I love how “Please” talks about the narcissism of terrorism and political grandstanding – that everyone claims they are doing this for a higher purpose but they are so wrapped up in their beliefs and what they perceive as injustice done directly to them that they lose their humanity. Lyrics like “Love is hard and love is tough / But love is not what you’re thinking of” and “Shards of glass, splinters like rain / But you could only feel your own pain” reinforce this. In my mind I picture someone setting up a car bomb or shipping guns across country, convinced of the righteousness of their cause, wrapped up in the years and years of conflict, and not even conceiving of the innocent lives they will destroy.

Since 9/11 this song has taken on particular poignancy as again I am reminded about the selfishness of terrorists.

I’ve come up with my own acoustic version of “Please” that is one of the regular songs I play on my guitar. I have probably heard this song at least 1000 times and it still sounds as fresh and as moving as the first time I heard it.


Introducing the 30 Day Song Challenge

Posted on: April 26th, 2011 by
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OK so this is apparently quite old, but it got on my radar only last week, so I guess I don’t follow any hip people on Facebook or whatever. Anyway, seeing as how I’m looking for ways to get myself into the habit of writing on this blog on a more regular basis , I thought the 30 Day Song Challenge might be an interesting exercise for me. I’m crazy about music as well as being very opinionated, so I’m pretty confident that this could be the thing that could get me going on my writing.

Although the purpose is to write 30 entries in 30 days, with a baby due somewhere in May I can’t make any promises, but let’s just take things a day at a time.


Bread

Posted on: April 25th, 2011 by
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I moved to the USA in March of 1995.

My ex-wife St.Jon, whom I had met via the internet, had tried living in Canada with me for a while. We were having a hard time getting together the resources to get a place of our own (we lived with my parents, and because she had a daughter we couldn’t get any old place), and St.Jon was missing her family in Alabama. I had only lived away from home for eight months my whole life, and was up for an adventure, so I decided to pack up and move south. Three days of driving in a Toyota Tercel with a U-Haul trailer attached later, we arrived in Mobile Alabama and I had to cool my heels until the INS decided I could be allowed to work. That process ended up happening pretty quickly, and in July of that year I got my Social Security Card, my Conditional Permanent Resident status, and was legally eligible for employment.

It’s a measure of my naïveté at the time that I assumed I could find work similar to what I had been doing in Toronto before I moved south. I had been working in a mid-level support role with Ticketmaster doing fraud investigations, so I assumed I would be able to get work with a bank or insurance company. The reality, however, was that Mobile was still a post-industrial city and that service jobs beyond front-line stuff were hard to come by. I probably didn’t do a very good job of looking either. St.Jon actually landed a job before me, working as a night clerk at a hotel. Through that job she found out about a possible job for me. Executives from a bread company called Flowers Bakery were staying at her hotel, planning an expansion into Southern Alabama, and were looking for delivery drivers. St.Jon got me an introduction and soon after I was sitting in a meeting room at the hotel with about 15 other prospective drivers, learning about the bread business.

Our training was three weeks long. The first week we spent in class, learning the overall mechanics of the operation and how to operate the portable inventory computers that would be used for tracking our deliveries, printing invoices for stores, and placing our orders with the factory. I got way ahead on this early and spent a lot of the class in a combination of daydreaming and deep fear about what I had gotten myself into.

The company was structured as a series of independent franchises – a driver would work for the company for a while as a regular employee, but eventually would “buy” his route. The company would front the financing, but the driver would be an independent operator. When stores paid the company for the bread, the company would then pay the driver the difference between the profits and the cost of the route and the truck. While it seemed like a no-win proposition for the driver, it did have significant earning potential, particularly after the truck and route were paid off and all profits went directly to the driver.

Also the job was a seven-day-a-week proposition – five days you did delivery, but because our company was not the main distributor in the area, we had to put all our bread on the shelves ourselves. Not being the main distributor in the area also meant we had a miniscule amount of shelf space compared to our competitors, so depending on how busy the store was, you’d have to go back at least once in the afternoon to restock. You also had to go to stores on your non-delivery days to restock. If you wanted a Sunday or Wednesday off (your non-delivery days) you’d have to make a deal with another driver – he’d do your stores so you could have a day off, but then you’d have to do his stores for the next off-day. Vacation, or even a delivery day off, was very difficult to arrange.

Because most grocery stores cut off deliveries at 11:00 a.m., you usually had to arrive at the bread depot around 4:00 a.m. in order to confirm receipt of your bread, load your truck, and handle all the inventory steps in each grocery store (pull out expired bread, determine how much bread to put in the store, get the delivery checked in, and stock shelves) before the last store on your route closed up.

I was deeply afraid that I had bitten off more than I could chew, but at the same time I felt like I had a wife and child to support and if this is how I was going to do it then so be it. It seemed like a hard life, but Mobile didn’t seem to offer a lot of easy lives to people who hadn’t grown up there, gone to all the right schools, and knew all the right people at the right churches.

After our week in class we spent two weeks shadowing a driver on an existing route in New Orleans, which is also where the bakery that baked out bread was based. This was going to be another interesting experience – I had never lived with a room-mate that I didn’t know, and now I was going to be sharing a hotel room with a complete stranger who I probably had nothing in common with for two weeks. St.Jon and I only owned one car, so I decided to leave her with the car and rely on my room-mate Anderson to get me back and forth to work. Because most of the routes we were going to be working were to the north and west of the city, rather than staying in downtown New Orleans, we actually stayed in a suburb called Metarie. While we were technically still in the New Orleans area, for a guy with no car and no money other than a few dollars for meals Metarie might as well have been as far away from New Orleans as New York City.

The first morning we rolled out of bed at a ridiculous 3:00 a.m. It was August and New Orleans at 3:00 a.m. in August is still a humid soupy 75 degrees. We piled into Anderson’s car and made our way through New Orleans to the depot in Gretna where we met the drivers we’d be riding with. My driver’s name escapes me so we’ll call him Mike. Mike had been working for Flowers long enough so that he owned his own route and truck, and I believe he cleared somewhere around $3000 a week, which in 1995 and New Orleans was a comfortable living. Mike was a super-nice guy and did a lot over the next two weeks to make me feel like this was a job I could handle doing in spite of the weird hours and job structure. Mike didn’t look like the job had worn him down and seemed to have a good time going around talking to the various store staff he dealt with along his route. I tried to make sure I helped a lot with loading, unloading, and stocking so Mike wasn’t burdened by having me on his route. I remember one restaurant we’d stop at called Luther’s. It was a barbecue restaurant that would start their meat going at probably the same time Mike and I started loading his truck in Gretna. By the time we pulled in around 11:00 to load Luther’s up with bread and buns for the lunch crowd the restaurant was suffused with that intoxicating smell of slow-cooked pork that you’ll only smell in the South. I couldn’t believe the hunger it would raise in my stomach when we’d stop there, and unfortunately I never got a chance to eat there.

It turned out I didn’t need to worry a lot about sharing a room – Anderson disappeared a fair amount, presumably because he had a car and a motel room in Metarie had little appeal for a guy with a car so close to New Orleans. Mike lived a few miles from the hotel, and because the driver Anderson rode with kept a different schedule Mike offered to pick me up and drop me off, so I didn’t need to catch a ride any more. I couldn’t put myself to bed at the appropriate time to handle getting up so early, so I would go out for long walks through Metarie if Anderson was in the hotel – I remember walking up to Lake Ponchatrain one night and just staring at the water waiting to feel tired. Other nights I walked through neighborhoods that seemed perfectly quiet and didn’t seem to belong in New Orleans.

Finally my two-week stint in New Orleans wrapped up, and I headed back to Mobile to put what I had learned into practice. Fortunately I wouldn’t have to do it all alone – my first week (or couple of weeks, I can’t remember) I’d have one of the supervisors for the depot riding with me, who had already been a delivery driver somewhere else. There were some differences delivering in Mobile – my route was close to my home, and because I lived in an apartment complex in the west part of Mobile, most of my route was newer, cleaner grocery stores that were easy to deliver to. Some guys were stuck delivering in downtown Mobile to rough neighborhoods or stores that were impossible to get in and out of, or had long routes that had them doing 100 miles round trip a day. While Flowers was the big bread company in New Orleans, it was the new kid in town in Mobile, and that was reflected in the attitudes of the people we had to deal with at stores and the limited shelf space we had. Because we were new, we were also expected to promote the bread while we were in the store, handing out coupons and asking people to try a loaf. I then learned that there are a lot of people who have different budgeting priorities when it comes to their food – our bread ran $1.29 a loaf compared to $0.79 for store bread, and that fifty cents was either a lot for some people, or seemed like a lot to others. The good news was that if we could get people to try our bread they most often came back to it – I don’t know what the magic formula was, but the bread seemed moister and had better body and flavor than the typical store bread, and while store bread would go stale in two days our bread would keep for a week.

In addition to promoting the bread in the store, I was also expected to grow my route by getting independent stores, convenience marts and gas stations to stock our bread or “cake” products (think whatever Hostess makes). I sucked at cold calling (still do), so in my time with the company I only landed I think three stores beyond what had already been set up for me before I came on board.

Our first couple of weeks our business was like a revolving door – our orders were built for us by the company and we’d pull out almost as much stale bread as fresh bread we were bringing in. I learned a lot about how delicate a loaf of bread can be, how hard it can be to get a 15-foot stack of bread baskets the three feet from the warehouse floor to the tailgate of the truck ( because we were new in town, we rented a warehouse that didn’t have a loading dock,) and how you need to pack your truck properly so that if you have to slam on the brakes your bread baskets don’t go flying into the front of the truck and shoot bread everywhere. It was blisteringly hot inside a giant metal box without any air conditioning in Mobile. This sometimes worked to our advantage – we’d bring bread into the store that was so hot there was steam inside the bags and people would think we had just come from the bakery. It was back-breaking work that involved tons of hustling. I worked harder than I ever had in my life, because my hope was to get to that point in the future were I was making the kind of money that Mike made and provided properly for my family.

We had a hurricane threaten Mobile that fall. One thing you sell a ton of during a hurricane is bread. Our normal delivery schedule was Monday, Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday with Wednesdays and Sundays “off.” The hurricane was due to hit Wednesday afternoon. Tuesday was normally a light delivery day for us – not too many people shop Tuesday – Thursday so we’d put in just enough bread to keep the shelves stocked until Thursday. With the hurricane threat, we went out and did our first run, and when we got back to the depot we got a second delivery from New Orleans and we went back out again. I think I got to the depot at 4:00 a.m. that day and didn’t get back home again until 10:30. Wednesday we got up and the hurricane was still due to come ashore around Mobile, and they had sent us another delivery, so we went back around a third time. I got to three stores before they shut down, and I drove back to the depot in sheeting rain and fifty mile-an-hour winds, the roof of the empty truck sounding like a million ball bearings were pouring down on it. I gassed up my truck, parked it at the depot, and even though the forecast was still saying that the hurricane was due to hit, went to my mother-in-law’s house in a high part of the city and I passed out dead asleep. Luckily the hurricane turned and spared the city but I was so deathly exhausted that I wouldn’t have cared one way or the other.

The job wore on me as the months passed. I could never shake the sleep-deprived feeling that seemed to follow me constantly. I disliked the fact that when I finished my time on the road in my truck I still had to do more work later in the day. I hated that getting a day off was almost impossible, that if St.Jon and I wanted to take a day to go to the beach or over to Fairhope on the other side of Mobile Bay that I’d have to wrangle a deal with another guy who was feeling just as worn out as me. One of the ways I dealt with the stress was by eating the honey buns I carried around in the truck right behind my driver’s seat.

In some ways though I actually did well at my job and found ways to make it bearable. Since I was good with computers and numbers, I got my ordering down to a science and seemed to find a sweet spot in some of my stores between running out and bringing too much stale bread back. I found ways to work on my orders while waiting in line to get checked in at other stores. Since Mondays were my busiest days, I would go out to grocery stores Sunday night a few hours before they closed, take inventory and pull my stale bread to the back of the store so I could breeze through the next day. I would pre-build my orders in the warehouse before I left the depot, as it was far more comfortable to be stacking and organizing bread inside the depot at 4 in the morning compared to in a hot truck behind a store at 10 in the morning. I got a little battery-powered tape player and would listen to books on tape to help the time on the road go by. It wasn’t much, but it helped get me through the week.

Ultimately though I realized that this wasn’t going to be the life for me – I felt exhausted and I felt like I was missing time with my family. I longed for the chance to just have a weekend together. I called up my old boss in Ticketmaster to see if she had any contacts in the U.S. and she put me in touch with their Atlanta office. They were looking to hire a customer service manager, and a few interviews later I landed the job and I was done being a delivery driver.

While I wouldn’t ever want to go back to that life, I do feel like the time I spent in that job taught me a lot, both about what I had the capacity to do when I had to, and what I did and didn’t like about work. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” I also feel like I didn’t waste my time doing the job and feel a little bit proud of myself that I was able to survive it.


Coffee

Posted on: April 14th, 2011 by
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Me and coffee have this thing.

I mean, I’m not a coffee snob. I don’t spend $5 on an espresso drink every time I need a hot caffeinated beverage, although I do like the occasional fancy latte. I don’t turn my nose up at Dunkin Donuts when I need some caffeine, but if I have the choice I’ll get coffee elsewhere. I’ll drink the coffee at work. I can’t taste coffee like wine and get “notes” of anything.

I do admit though that there is a certain satisfaction I get from drinking a freshly brewed mug of coffee first thing in the morning that I can’t get anywhere else.

Because I grew up in Canada, and because I liked to emulate my Dad a lot growing up, I was a tea-drinker most of my high-school and university years. My Dad drinks a fair amount of tea, to the point where at times in my life I can remember a constantly warmed pot on the stove, the tea inside thick and dark. My Mom was much more the coffee drinker, but canned coffee back then wasn’t that great and I didn’t like the taste of the coffee she brewed at home – dark, bitter, and strong. Usually when I drank tea it was at college or at my part-time jobs with Ticketmaster or the various restaurants I worked at. I used to love Tetley Tea growing up – something mildly sweet in that tea compared to any of the others. I never got into herbal teas or even Earl Grey tea – always orange pekoe varieties.

I started my move over to coffee when I was in college. I used to drive back and forth between Toronto and a little town northeast of Toronto called Peterborough, where my girlfriend at the time was attending Trent University. Because there was usually a lot of late-night driving, I started drinking coffee to help me stay awake at night. I used to stop at a little town called Port Perry that was about halfway between Toronto and Peterborough and pick up a coffee (double-double) and a big chocolate cruller donut at a Country Style donuts in a strip mall. The store was open 24 hours a day and always had a couple customers no matter what time of night I came through. I couldn’t imagine what people in that little town were doing in a donut store at 2 in the morning, but I didn’t really stick around to find out either. The coffee was always fresh and hot, and I began to love that dark, nutty warmth that embraced me and helped me get through another couple hours of driving. I remember one night driving up there, with almost no one on the road, listening to CBC radio and hearing about the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin issuing ultimatums and chaos in Russia. I wrote a poem once about speeding along those back country roads, tempting fate with my speed, seeing lights on in country houses and wondering what was going on in those little isolated places that seemed like set-pieces out of a Sinclair Ross or Margaret Laurence story.

When I graduated from university, I worked in downtown Toronto for a year for Ticketmaster. One summer day one of my co-workers brought back lattes from a chain store that I had never heard of before, Second Cup. Second Cup was the Starbucks experience in Canada before Starbucks made it north of the border. I don’t remember now if the store was brand new, or if a new trend of getting tasty coffees had started, or it was just the first time I had found out about these treats, but it opened up a whole new area of coffee for me. These coffees were luxuriant, sweet with chocolate and whipped cream, but past all the sweetness I could also taste a robust coffee that was at the same time bolder and mellower than the chain coffee that I could get at Country Style or Tim Horton’s. I felt that I was starting to understand now that coffee could be this complex drink that had a rich aroma and flavor and could just be enjoyed on its own without being a morning drink used to wake me up.

A couple years and a whole ton of life changes later, I was staying at the Disney resort on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and got to participate in a coffee tasting course. It was free with my stay so I thought I would check it out. I was living in Orlando Florida then, and regularly enjoying coffee from a local coffee place, I think Barnie’s. The coffee tasting was actually very instructional – I learned what the difference was in roasts, how they contributed to the flavor, and what I liked in a coffee. Sometimes I wanted a French Roast – bold but clean finishing; while other times I wanted something Indonesian, softer with a longer aftertaste.

Soon after that I moved to Concord Massachusetts, and with a Starbucks less than a mile from my house lattes became a regular thing. I mastered my ex-wife’s drink order – Venti Breve Almond with whipped Caramel Macchiato – and would head down there Saturday mornings to bring back coffee for her. I used to love the hissing sound of the steam as they made the espresso and steamed milk and cream. I miss that now with Starbucks’ automated system they use. With that sweet blanket of coffee and cream I got hooked on $5 coffees. When we moved to Manchester NH I bought an espresso machine for Christmas so at least she could continue to have espresso drinks. By that point I was a regular coffee drinker, having at least a couple cups in the morning and even having one at night if I was out, without any major sleep issues.

When I started working at my current employer, I probably reached the height of my coffee intake. They have cafeterias in our buildings with free coffee service until 2:00 in the afternoon that was way better than your typical office coffee. I’d usually have one or two mugs of coffee in the morning before I left for work, and then another three or four coffees at work, as well as diet Cokes. I remember going over to a friend’s place one night after work – she was a nurse and I remarked to her that my hands were shaking mysteriously. When she asked me how much coffee I had drank that day, she was quickly able to explain the mystery of my tremors. I started drinking half-caf coffee and switched to Sprite for soda.

At some point soon after I discovered the joys of grinding my own coffee and cheap but delicious coffee from Trader Joe’s. I could get a big can of coffee that tasted just as good as Starbucks for probably half the price. I discovered a whole new level of flavor as I sometimes could grind my coffee right before I drank it – again enjoying that roasty, nutty flavor with some bitterness but just enough to be offset by some cream and sugar. I would brew myself full half-caf pots and spend hours gaming, the coffee helping me stay warm in a room in a Manchester house that I could never get above 60 in the winter. I still love the sensation of wrapping both my hands around a mug of coffee on a cold morning and letting that warmth suffuse my whole body.

In 2007 my wife bought me a coffee roaster for my birthday. It’s kind of like a hot-air popcorn popper, with a glass cylinder that has a heavy metal base attached to it. You can roast about a ¼ of a cup of green coffee beans at a time in it, and when you brew up some coffee with beans that you just roasted, or even roasted the night before, the taste is just sublime and can’t be beat. I was now enjoying coffee that was better than anything I could get in a store, because I could roast the coffee exactly as I wanted and grinding and brewing right after roasting brought maximum flavor to the coffee. I also discovered that coffee roasting produces a fair amount of smoke, and after my first misadventure roasting indoors, would roast out on the porch of that Machester house. When we moved into our current house, one of the things I tried to do as soon as possible was to put a range hood in the kitchen so I could roast indoors and exhaust the smoke outside.

My latest joy has been the French Press. While at first I didn’t enjoy French Press coffee, once I got the hang of it, a pot of French Press coffee is everything I love about coffee distilled to its essence – the bold flavor, the fabulous aroma, the dark liquid lightened with cream. Even though it’s tempting to use the automatic coffee maker and have hot coffee waiting when I roll out of bed in the morning, I do the extra step of grinding, boiling the kettle, filling the press, waiting while it steeps, and pressing the coffee to its final brew because what I end up with is my ultimate coffee joy distilled into a 20-ounce mug.

Like I said at the beginning, I’m not a coffee snob, and some of the pretense around coffee gets my hackles up as much as the next guy, but I think coffee can be one of the finer things in life, and approached honestly you can enjoy coffee that’s vastly superior to what most people drink for a lot less than what some hipster in a local coffee shop will charge you.