I have writer’s block, so I’m just going to tell you some random stories from life in order to keep myself limber in the event that my muse one day returns. Ready? Today’s theme concerns moments of intersection between vice and innocence.
Let me first take you to Belgium. I’m sixteen. My Serbian travelling companion and I have gone our separate ways after a spat. In the Parc de Bruxelles I sit on a shaded green bench and paint a sketch of an eighteenth century orchestra gazebo in watercolour. It is a beautiful summer’s day in the park – dappled sun, birds, pretty girls, and so on. Flemish accents all around me sound alien and vaguely aquatic.
Now let’s step backward for just a moment. We’re in Canada and these are the glory days of Trudeau’s bilingual dream. Socialist public television is haunted by a creepy hobo-clown named Sol who has the ability to freeze time in order to rehash any given moment in either English or French. All the kids at kindergarten agree that Sol is the scariest thing on TVOntario, except possibly for that show where it’s always cloudy and giant pepper-shakers shoot lasers at people. Such things can be baffling when you’re five and Canadian.
But when you’re sixteen years old and you’re in Belgium you probably figure you’re past all that – didactic clowns and British tele-serials simply no longer have the power to creep you out they once did.
At least, that’s what I think.
I think this right up until the moment when a real hobo-clown slinks up and claims a seat next to me on the green bench in Parc de Bruxelles. “Ah-ha, you’re a painter,” he croaks in gutteral French.
I look up. He wears an overcoat wrapped over rags, like Harpo Marx. His drawn, stubbled face is crudely smeared in a cartoonish frown. He has a teardrop symbol hanging from one eye. He smells abhorrent. I haven’t said anything yet because I feel five again. He wears a threadbare tie over a bare chest, just like the horrible time-stopping clown from TVO.
“You speak French?” he prompts.
I nod dumbly.
His grin is yellow and has many gaps. “You have great talent.”
I manage to mumble, “That’s kind of you to say,” and then turn back to my watercolours. I try to go on painting but I can feel him hovering. His weight on the wood shifts as he slinks closer. “You’re travelling, hah?” he rasps, too close to my ear. “You’re a visitor to Brussels?”
“Yeah,” I reply, eyes on my brush.
“You like money?”
I blink and turn toward him again. “Pardon?”
He grins once more, inching closer. “Money? You like money, hah?”
I shrug, pulling my elbows in closer. “Sure, I guess.”
“You want some money?”
Something is very wrong with this. I shake my head slowly. “No thank you.”
He slaps me on the back affectionately. “You’re crazy. Everybody wants money.” He wheezes and gurgles when he laughs. “Hah? I’m right?”
“Look here,” he leers with a conspiratorial wink, nodding his grizzled chin toward the paper shopping bag on the ground between his shoes.
Reluctantly I lean over slightly to look. He pulls the flaps of the shopping bag apart to show me that it is brimming with crumpled Belgian franc notes of various denominations. “You want some of this money?” he coos in a strange, rough but singsong voice. “You can have it. Come on.”
I lean back again and begin packing up my paints. “No thank you.”
“Come on. You’re crazy. This is real. You want some?”
“No thank you.”
I’m standing up, slinging my satchel over my shoulder and trying to stuff in my bottle of murky paint water. It won’t go in. I keep trying, all the while drifting away from the bench. I look up to see that he’s up and ambling after me, the paper bag in one hand and the other out-stretched to implore. “Come on, hah? Don’t be crazy. Don’t be stupid. Just come over to the bushes with me, just for a minute. I have lots of money for you, artist.”
I walk faster. As I reach the path that leads around to the great fountain he shouts, “Fuck you, queer!” and gives up his shambling pursuit.
And then I’m at the fountain – babies in prams, couples hand in hand, people stooping to scoop. An activist handing out leaflets. Bird-streaked statues and chuckling pools of water. And kids. Young boys. Running between the trees and in and out of the bushes. Making friends.
They don’t know their park is haunted by a hobo-clown with a bag full of francs. This is a chilling realization. I feel numb and weird. In an attempt to be civic-minded I head back toward the Royal Palace where I recall seeing the reassuring sight of mounted police. I hurry, because a perverse part of my mind is convinced that at any moment I will hear Sol the hobo-clown’s voice sound in meta-narration as he rewinds time, “And now the complete sketch again.”
On the palace steps I tell my story to a Flemish constable but I’m not sure he understands my French. I certainly cannot understand his, which seems to be a version of the language as rendered by some kind of Scottish mermaid. It seems like he wants to know if my passport has been stolen, and whether my money is in the form of travellers’ cheques. When it becomes painfully clear that we are at an impasse of mutual incomprehension he helpfully directs me toward the nearby American embassy.
I go back to the hostel, instead. I have a cool scary story to tell the Serb.
In retrospect, I can see that I have squandered a superhero moment. Instead of rushing off to visit that hot girl from art class who moved to Louvain-La-Neuve I could have stayed in the city a day or two longer. I could have made an appointment at a police station and made certain it was understood that there might be a sexual predator roaming the park. Such acts were well within the art of the possible, but I did not commit them.
If you were ever in Brussels and had an encounter with this man more unfortunate than mine, I am truly deeply sorry that I didn’t do more to help stop him. I can see now that I should have.
* * *
Six years later, back in Ontari-ari-o. I’m home for Christmas from school in Nova Scotia. It’s New Year’s Eve and I’m palling around with my high school buddies, crashing hotel parties with my camcorder and claiming we’re part of the photography service. We grab free drinks at an open-bar corporate event and then take the elevator up a floor to dance the Macarena with a bunch of sophistos in tuxes and ball-gowns. We retire then, my friends and I, to a wide balcony overlooking Toronto’s gleaming core and pat our pockets to find our cigarettes.
A light flurry is falling, the airborne particles providing a medium for the skyscrapers to project volumetric light up onto the clouds. I draw deep, swaying a bit in my boots.
A middle-aged man in a tuxedo approaches me, and asks for a light.
I offer a Zippo. Snick.
“That’s some pretty fancy camerawork you were doing there, I saw,” he says as he cups his hands around the flame to light his smoke. He speaks very quickly. “You’ve got some moves.”
“Thanks,” I say.
“You a camera man?”
I shake my head. “No, I’m just recording the party.”
“Do you know John?”
“Who’s John?” he asks, furrowing his brow. “Are you a student?”
“So it’s some kind of project?” he asks, sniffing and wiping at his nose.
I shrug awkwardly. “I’m just screwing around, really.”
He gestures with the smoke to the apparatus strapped around my shoulders. “What is that you’ve got going on there?”
“It’s a Steadicam JR.”
“A Steadicam junior?”
“No, a JR,” I correct, then add lamely, “It’s a mini-Steadicam set-up. A kind of…junior version of the full rig, I guess. But they call it the JR.”
“Sure,” he agrees easily. “That’s very cool. Listen, so you’re a student, right?”
“Yeah. I’m at art college in Nova Scotia.”
“That’s great. So are you looking for a summer job in TO, or what?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it yet.”
“Let me give you my card,” he says, slipping out a card. “I’m a producer, you understand? A film producer. I’m always on the lookout for good camera men. And you’re slick. I can tell.” He presses the card into my hand, then sniffs again and wipes at his nose. “Call me, okay? You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
I hold up a hand. “Honestly, I’m not really qualified to be –”
“Don’t be a pussy. Just call me. You’re good.”
I nod dumbly.
The next day the card is passed around. The Internet existed back then but it wasn’t useful yet, so I ask around to see if the producer’s name rings a bell for anyone. The Serb isn’t sure but he thinks the name “might be someone big.” My friend Red has never heard of the guy. My father and uncle both quickly agree that the name is very familiar but that they can’t quite place it. My mother is tickled that I might be discovered by someone of influence and taken under their wing, and urges me to call the producer without delay. I do. He asks me to come to his house for an interview because he doesn’t want to discuss his business on the telephone. My mother offers to drive me, but I take the bus.
The producer’s Hoggs Hollow home has a long driveway that winds between artfully manicured topiaries and trees, the most sensitive of which wrapped in burlap to protect against winter’s salt. I trudge up the driveway in my boots, leaving a trail in the slush. He meets me at the door, so I figure there must be security cameras. “Holy shit, how are you?” he says, grinning from ear to ear. “Still hungover? Come in.”
The house is ornate. Marble flooring, tapestries, a cold echo. He leads me to his study and invites me to sit in a leather chair. “You want to smoke a joint?” he asks, gesturing to a set of pre-rolled marijuana cigarettes on his glass desk. On the wall behind him are large prints of erotic art, a stylized vulva surrounding his graying pate like a halo.
“Okay,” I say. He lights it up and passes it to me. I take it, inhale, cough. “I really feel like I should tell you that I’m not a film major. To be honest, the reason I brought my camera out was just so we could sneak into parties and say we were supposed to be there to film.”
“Don’t you think I fucking know that?” he asks with an edge, then cuts it by laughing at himself. “Relax. Who gives a fuck? Smoke some weed. Let me tell you about what I can do for you.”
“I’m shooting a number of pictures this summer, and I need a good camera man. I think you’re him.”
“I’ve never even handled a film rig before –”
“Film? No, no. I shoot on VHS, VHS.”
“You should movies on VHS? I thought all movies were shot on film.”
“These are straight-to-video, you understand? There’s no reason to dick around with film. This is VHS. Straight-to-video. You heard of that?”
“Sure,” I say, putting the joint aside. “Um, what kind of movies do you make?”
“Action movies,” he says, smiling like salamander.
“Yeah, action, action. You know? Straight-to-video action. You understand?”
I shrug awkwardly. “Well, I’ve shot weddings on VHS before.”
He grins and leans forward to squeeze my elbow. “Exactly. Right? Attaboy. That’s what I’m talking about. You know your way around a camera. It’s all about angles, am I right? A camera man’s got to have a sense of angles.”
“Sure,” I agree. “Composition.”
“Right. Fucking composition. You’re a genius. I can tell by the way you talk. So are you in, or what?”
I blink, stymied. I try to think of an intelligent question to ask. “What’s it pay?”
He fishes around in a drawer and produces a one-page contract that outlines a meagre flat-rate “per production” fee and states explicitly that I can be fired without explanation or pro-rated remuneration at any time without notice. I look up from the paper. “This amount is ‘per production’?”
“Sure, but that’s like – what? – a week, tops. Think of that as a weekly, alright?”
“You shoot a movie in a week?”
“This is action, you understand. It’s go-go-go. It’s bang and boom and it’s done, you understand? Fucking action. I need your eye on this. Just sign it. Don’t sweat the pay; there are a lot of fringe benefits, okay? You understand that – fringe benefits?”
I nod uncertainly. I have no idea what he is talking about. All I can think of is how someone could make action movies – even straight-to-video ones — if they’re paying the crew peanuts and threatening to fire them at the drop of a hat. Would it be safe? Would there be pyrotechnics on set? Guns shooting blanks? I looked up again. “And you can fire me anytime, without cause?”
“That’s just legal shit. Don’t worry about that, my man. Just sign. We’re going to do great things together. Am I right? Come on.”
“I should probably show this to my dad first…”
“Are you mental? Don’t pass this up. This shit is for real, kid. I’m giving you an opportunity here, but the offer’s good for today or forget it. Just sign it, and we’ll smoke another joint. Come on. Don’t be a pussy.”
I pretend to look over the contract again. I feel weird. I’m not accustomed to being in the presence of grown men who call me “pussy.” A trickle of sweat runs down my side. I don’t know what this guy’s game is, but I know for sure that it smells…wrong. The look in his eyes is as hungry as the hobo-clown’s.
So I clear my throat and say, “No thank you.”
His smile drops away. “What the fuck do you mean?” he snaps, suddenly angry.
“I guess I just can’t commit to this right now.”
“Are you fucking crazy?” he cries, sneering. “What – do you have a girlfriend or some shit?”
I furrow my brow. “What would that have to do with anything?”
“Jesus fuck,” he says, leaning forward aggressively. “Do you want to make some money this summer or don’t you?”
“I’m going to have to say no thank you,” I stammer.
He glares at me, then sniffs and stands up. “Whatever. You’re being an idiot. Stop wasting my time. Get out of here.”
I don’t say anything. I sweat as he walks me out. “Faggot,” he mutters as the door slams behind me. I take the bus home, stunned and confused.
* * *
I had no way of recognizing his business. I had no idea that there existed a healthy and thriving market for straight-to-video “action” movies that had no on-set pyrotechnics whatsoever. I could not, in my innocence, conceive of what subject matter could be so cheaply produced, nor what “fringe benefits” such subject matter might entail. I only had a 28,8 modem, after all.
What I did recognize was the gleam of evil in the producer’s eye. His rapid speech, his oblique and paranoid references, his easy profanity, moods that spun on a dime. I knew it harkened something rotten. My instinct told me to flee, and I don’t regret it one bit through I felt like a coward at the time.
“I just can’t place where I know his name from…” my dad kept saying.
* * *
Persuasion. Its presence makes me nervous.
When it’s tainted by sin you can smell it on their breath, and see it in the whites of their eyes. Some people hunger for human prey. And I’ve seen it.
I want you to do something, but I don’t want to tell you what it is.
We miss you, Cheeseburger Brown.
Thanks for giving us some thoughtful, colorful documentary in the meantime.
Nice work, CBB. I like how you wove together these snapshots from real life. Good luck on the writer’s block.