We spent the summer of 2003 sweating, laughing and selling our labour to a company who ruthlessly commodified what ought to be freely and publicly accessible – the Toronto Islands – for the paltry sum of about $7.25/hour. The Centreville uniform was a hideous combination of navy blue pleated shorts and a turquoize and royal blue polo t-shirt. Management got to wear classier, navy shirts. I didn’t think that was fair. Besides, at seventeen the thought of wearing shorts that found their way anywhere near my knees was unacceptable so I would roll them up as high as I could without pissing off management. I wasn’t particularly politically aware back in those days, but I already had a healthy anti-managerial streak that eventually got me fired. I wasn’t fired for the shorts.
I worked at the pony ride with ten wily but adorable little beasts as my charges. I would catch the early ferry from the foot of Yonge St., relish in the twenty minutes of goosebumps on the cool water, and arrive at the park when it was still quiet. I would clean out the pony’s ‘field’, a fenced-in enclosure far too small for all of them and mostly devoid of grass and shade. I fed them, and once they had eaten, would choose three or four to groom and tack up for the morning shift.
I always went about my tranquil morning work refusing to believe that mere hours later that little sanctuary would become a hellish, frenetic jungle of steel and clatter and childrens’ shrieks. One day there was a concert scheduled on one of the other islands and Treble Charger did a soundcheck at 8:00am, the sound of which echoed and bounced across the park, reverberating between those gaudy metal contraptions called rides. I saw you looking for a light, face painted cigarette white. You asked the cleanest boy you found; you couldn’t see me turned around.
The ponies worked in shifts, and selecting the right combination for the day was an ongoing challenge. It would be more appropriate to describe this process as a request. I’d sit down in the field amongst them and ask, ‘who would like to work today?’ They would deliberate. Eventually a few would resign themselves to the task. Like us all, they had good days and bad days. Some got along well and some would launch an impromptu strike if they felt overworked or underappreciated.
Nate often worked with me; he was one of the few who wasn’t afraid of the beasties and, quite the opposite, embraced the job. The days he was assigned to the ride (which was more often than not), I’d hear him coming from a hundred yards out, his skateboard rolling along the cement paths that linked each ride in a meandering pattern meant to evoke feelings of a small town fair. He’d spin around the corner, smiling ear to ear, and poke out his fake front teeth with his tongue. ‘Heya!’ he’d yell.
One night we went out for dinner at Tortilla Flats on Queen St. – the old location, not the new one. I had a pint of beer. My excellent fake ID was still a novelty. Nate told me about books he read at university and I nodded and thought gosh, he is smart, and he thinks I’m smart but I’m really not. We ate Mexican food and I remember the tenor of the conversation but not the words. He pushed me to think hard about things.
I think that might have been a date, but I didn’t know it at the time. If it was, it was a good one.
Nate died a few years ago, when I was in my fourth year at Trent and busy working on the first SAID conference. A few months earlier – or maybe a year? maybe even two? – he sent me a play he was working on. I never read it, was too busy, thought I’d get to it, thought I really need to chat with Nate, thought we had all the time in the world and it could wait. I was still hurt about my unjust dismissal from Centreville and I made an effort to keep anything connected with that job and those summers at arm’s length.
Our friendship was brief in a temporal sense. I went to the funeral and sat with the only person I knew -another colleague of ours who was amongst his best friends – and we cried for a long time. Now I’m thinking about Nate again and I’m not sure why. I do know I’m angry at myself, not just for letting the distance grow when I could have easily reached out to him, but because most of what I remember of him is peripheral. I could tell you which table we sat at in Tortilla Flats and I remember the look on his face when his dessert – a chimichanga – was unceremoniously plunked down in front of him. (He was ecstatic.) But I can’t remember his words, and I wish I could. I really, really wish I could remember everything he said to me and do his wit and wisdom a little bit of justice in the process.