Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Best Job I Never Applied For

It begins with one of my favourite lines from a song that isn't actually part of the song:
I don't know, I was really drunk at the time—from Money by Pink Floyd on Dark Side of the Moon
I used to drink a lot in my journalism days. I even remember my first day in journalism school, when the teacher first walked into our classroom, looked around the room, and asked, "How many of you drink?"

Almost every hand in the room went up.

"And how many of you would consider yourselves to be alcoholics?"

Many hands dropped like stones. Some were lowered slowly. One hand went down, and then, a few seconds later, that hand went back up. No, it wasn't me: my hand went down with the second question.

"I give you two weeks," our teacher told us, "or you'll never make it as a journalist."

In the years that followed, I never became an alcoholic, but I sure did try my best. I came so close. At best, I learned how to hold my liquor. In my second year of journalism, I was what you might call a functional drunk. I could be too impaired to drive but I could walk and talk like I only had one drink in me.

Shortly after I started taking photojournalism and bought my Minolta X-700, I started working in a camera store to supplement my drinking habit. It allowed me to go out to pubs and clubs with my journalism buddies; it also allowed me to do something that I continue to this day: to sit alone in a bar and write.

Some of my best writing has been done in a pub. With a few drinks in me.

At the time, my favourite bar was also a restaurant, but I was always there after the dinner hour, when it was quiet. I always had the same seat, at a table for two, out of the way, off from the bar, near the washroom.  I wasn't easily spotted from this location: the only time you would see me is on your way out of the washrooms.

The place was Tramps, in the Emerald Plaza on Merivale Road. It's long gone, but when I was scanning slides I came across some old photos I snapped one night, after many drinks, during a snow storm, and it all came back to me.

Most of it, anyway. I don't know, I was really drunk at the time.

I was a regular at Tramps. All of the servers knew me. I was friends with one, who had previously worked at a small pub near my old high school. When he moved to Tramps, I followed him, even though he never served me. He always worked in the dining section, while I stayed closer to the bar. I would still always say hi when I came in, would chat with him when he wasn't busy, before I took my own seat. I sat where I sat because it was secluded, and that's what I needed when I was writing.

The server who covered my section was a beautiful woman named Christine. She had wavy blonde hair, bright, intelligent blue eyes, and a smile to die for. She quickly learned my name, would acknowledge me as soon as I came into the bar, and would have my drink ready for me before I asked for it.

I drank Pimm's and 7UP when I was at Tramps. It was a change from the beer I drank in the college campus pub, Bert's, and the wine that I often brought to house parties. Pimm's and 7 was sweet, could be sipped, and never gave me a hangover.

When Christine brought me my drink, I thanked her and got to my writing. I wrote short stories about Roland, who was still new. I wrote my first novel, JT*. Christine never asked me if I wanted another Pimm's and 7; when she saw that my glass was empty, she'd replace it with a fresh one. The only time I would speak to her would be to thank her for the new glass or to add, "This will be my last," when I had had my fill. I would wrap up my writing and savour my final drink of the evening.

I hit on Christine a lot. It became a ritual. She would see that I was finished writing and would come by the table to ask me how I was doing, how was school, and what was new. I couldn't count the number of times I told her she was beautiful. Every night, before I left, I would ask her if she would marry me.

She always said no. One time, she asked, "What would you do if I said 'yes'? If you're joking, you'd break my heart."

"Would you ever say 'yes'?" I countered.

"No," she smiled.

And so it went.

One evening, when I was at Tramps with a couple of my journalism buddies, we sat at the opposite end of the bar. It was a non-writing night, a time to enjoy ourselves. I wasn't drinking Pimm's and 7. It was a beer-swilling kind of night. And in short order, I had a pretty good buzz on. But you wouldn't know to look at me.

We were sitting close to the DJ booth, near a small dance floor. The DJ had just arrived: a tallish man it his 30s, with thick dark hair, permanent stubble, and a beer gut. He started setting up, turning on amplifiers, mixing boards, turntables, and other devices. The first thing that my friends and I noticed was that the music he put on was really bad. Being the 80s, it could have been any number of songs, but I don't remember precisely what songs were playing. Maybe Wham, maybe Rick Astley.

I got up and approached the booth: "You got any good music?" The booze had obviously got the better of me.

"Come on in," he said, "see if you can do any better. This is wired for sound, so I haven't start my set yet."

I flipped through the stacks of vinyl. Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, A-Ha!, Big Country, Wang Chung, Level 42. "If you were to start a set, what would you choose?" The DJ asked.

I stopped on one album, pulled the black disk out of it's sleeve. "This."

I had used mixing boards before. I was a DJ in high school, during lunch breaks, spinning my favourite records for the cafeteria crowds. Radio Woodsworth, it was called. Man, that brings back memories too, but perhaps I'll share those another time.

Without hesitating, I slapped the vinyl onto the turntable. As the less-desirable song faded, I switched channels, brought up the volume.

The song was In Your Eyes, by Peter Gabriel.

"Nice choice," the DJ said. His name, after more than 25 years, escapes me. Let's call him Rick. "What's next?"

I pulled out the next album, set it up on the other turntable. A-Ha! The Sun Always Shines on TV. The piano came in as the baritone voice of the previous song dropped off.

I stayed in the booth for a few more tunes. Rick showed me how to mix the turntables with the VHS players, some songs backed up with the music videos on giant TV screens over the dance floor and bar.

"Are you alright here?" asked Rick. "Can I leave you here for a bit?" The bar was starting to fill up. My friends gave me looks, letting me know that they were fine but were wondering what the Hell was going on. I shrugged my shoulders and nodded, letting them know that I didn't know what was going on but was having fun.

"Sure," I said.

Rick was gone for a half an hour, maybe more. I played If I Was, by Midge Ure; It's My Life, by Talk Talk; Everybody Have Fun Tonight, by Wang Chung. Dancing In The Dark, by Bruce Springsteen.

The server for that section, Nikki, continued to serve me, was wondering how I got behind the DJ booth, where Rick was. She wiggled her hips to the music.

"Wanna dance?" I asked her.

"No. Wanna fuck?" I had known Nikki pretty much since I had started going to Tramps. She sometimes worked in Christine's section when Christine took a night off. Nikki always flirted with me (she liked that I was a reporter and that I was writing a book).

"Um, how about we dance first, see how that goes?"

"You're no fun." Nikki walked away, feigning hurt.

When Rick returned, he offered no explanation for why he was gone for so long. No apology. Just a simple statement: "I talked to the manager. He's been listening. You're on the payroll."

"Um, I already have a job and I'm studying at Algonquin. I don't have time for another job."

"You're in here a couple of times a week, from what I've noticed. It would be casual work: you would be covering for me when I can't come in."

I considered it for a moment. "How much?"

"You work from nine to one: for four hours, you make $40." For 1986, that was pretty good cash for casual work.

"Okay, but on one  condition," I said. "I get to drink in the booth." It was a small demand: I had been drinking the whole time that I had been spinning the disks and no one had said anything. Certainly, Nikki kept them coming.

"As long as you don't get drunk, I doubt anyone would have a problem with that."

And so began the best job that I never applied for. For as little as it lasted. I didn't do it often: Rick called me in two or three times a month. Sometimes, when I came in to write, he would call me to the booth and we would trade off time over the evening, splitting the pay. But when Rick moved on a few months later and the manager wanted me to take over, I had to quit. I couldn't work every night. I still wanted to keep Tramps as my place to sit in seclusion and write.

When Tramps closed its doors, it was a sad day for me. I lost my writing spot. I lost a place where I could get a Pimm's and 7. And I lost the girl who would never marry me.

But I never lost my habit of sitting in a bar, enjoying a drink, and writing.

* When I finish writing Gyeosunim, I'm going to take another look at JT, which has been sitting in a sealed envelope ever since I got handfuls of rejection letters from publishers (there's another story in that, too). I'll let you know.


  1. What a great story...what's your favourite bar in Ottawa these days?

    1. Thanks, Brittany!

      I wrote the majority of my novel, "Songsaengnim: A Korea Diary," in The Manx on Elgin Street.

      For the novel that I'm currently writing, you can find me at "Mill St. Brew Pub."


  2. That is so cool. I love the Manx! Ok I will look for you the next time I'm at Mill Street. Will also look for your book :)

    1. If you're on Twitter, follow me @RossBrownfoot. I usually announce when I'm at Mill Street.

      As for looking for my book, click the Songsaengnim link on the right-hand side of this blog. It'll take you to my books blog, where you can choose from a list of online bookstores.