Monday, September 12, 2011
Long Black Cape
When I first arrived in Hamilton, late in November 1973,I was wearing a long black cape that made me look like a witch. A friend had given it to me as a going-away present, and now that I think of it, he had received it himself as a present from a woman who I believe was a practicing Wiccan. My friend said it would help keep me warm – it was made with heavy black wool and had a roomy peaked hood. In Montreal, a cape like that would have passed as just another fashion statement. But Hamilton was not Montreal. As I explored the downtown streets of my new, temporary home, I attracted considerable attention. More than once, someone in the street would come to a full halt, stare me in the eye, and one even asked, “Who are you?”
I would sometimes chat with these friendly people, whom I took to be an informal greeting committee, albeit some struck me as a bit strange, even by my standards. Then, usually deciding we had little in common other than a superficial interest in the colour black, I would continue on my way, my costume drawing more looks from other passersby.
Nor did I know that Hamilton is the Masonic capital of Canada. Even if someone had told me all this, it would have meant nothing to me, a young woman of 23 with a B.A. in History and English, and very few marketable skills, one of which was writing.
It was on York Street that my strange adventure began. York Street was originally an Indian trail, and later a military road built along a portion of Hamilton harbour. It was lined with old, Victorian-style mansions which offered cheap rent and access to a neighbourhood where hippies had gathered, a few years earlier. Not much was left of that scene: a natural food store, a coffee house offering folk music, one or two book or record shops. And a few community organizations, like the newly opened Hamilton Women’s Centre, which was the first place I went to look for work in early January of 1974. A bad choice as it turned out, but a logical one since I was qualified for the job of coordinator. I arrived for my first interview, in my long black cape, and before I knew it I was on the short list, and then hired. I was advised, as a welcoming gesture, to pay a visit to one of the Centre’s founding directors, a woman named Nairn Galvin. I wondered why, and was told “You would have a lot in common with her.” So, out of politeness but also curiosity, I phoned her number and was invited over for dinner. As it turned out, Nairn Galvin was a witch, a role she played to the hilt, living with 14 cats in a candlelit apartment filled with rare knickknacks, Indian tapestries, and the like. She served me wine in a silver goblet, and told me about her decision, at age 30, to become a witch – up to then, she’d been a Catholic nun. Then she read my Tarot cards. It was all very interesting – no more than that. I thanked her and went home. That night, she appeared to me in a dream in which she seemed to be trying to take possession of my soul. I managed to fend her off and never saw her again.
My job as women’s centre coordinator began in a blaze of light, but ended in dishonour. First, the Hamilton Spectator sent a reporter to interview us for a feature. She quickly took a deep dislike to my two co-workers, and focused on me. When the article came out, quoting me liberally, while describing the other two in disparaging terms, there was hell to pay.Intensely bored with feminist politics, I decided to quit.
I found another job, a few doors away, writing a booklet on the history of York Street for a citizen’s group that was protesting the demolition and redevelopment of the neighbourhood. That kept me employed until mid summer.
I was riding my bicycle down York Street in the direction of downtown, having just dropped off the finished manuscript of York Street: a People’s History. I’d also collected my final pay cheque. I was suddenly, once again, unemployed, but that hardly mattered, just then. The sun was slanting through the trees, glinting off the windows of old abandoned buildings as I pedalled east in rush hour traffic. I passed the natural foods store, where I had worked for a few days earlier that spring.When I stopped at a traffic light another cyclist came up on my left. He looked to be a boy of about 19, small and scrawny, with lank black hair tied down with an Indian headband to reveal one pointed ear, like that of an elf.
"So, where you goin'?"
The light changed and I took off, ignoring him.
"Aw come on, " he persisted, cycling alongside. We exchanged a few brief sentences. Somewhere downtown, where we parted ways, he expressed his wish that we meet again sometime.
The next day was a Saturday and I was parking my bike at the market, when he showed up again on his bicycle. "Why’d you take off so fast? " he asked. We chatted the length of time it took for me to lock up and get away. He reminded me of some grinning, undernourished street kid, the kind that attaches himself to you in a foreign country and begs to show you the sights. I found him unthreatening since I towered over him in height. I didn't need anyone to guide me around Hamilton. I was already familiar with its constricted social life. All the well-off people lived up the hill, overlooking the downtown where the rest of us went about our lives. Hamilton had a light and dark side. It seemed you were either a practicing, fundamentalist Christian – one of the saved – or you were like this boy. One of the damned.
At the time, I had made friends with a woman my own age, a devout Christian running an agency called “Adopt a Grandparent.” From an old, Anglican, Hamilton family, Margi was one of the few people I had met, so far, with whom I could actually talk.
The following afternoon, a Sunday, Margi and I decided to cycle over to the Botanical Gardens and around Hamilton escarpment. We were crossing the Queen E. bridge, where we had a view of a park called Cootes’ Paradise. Midway across the bridge, I caught sight of a familiar figure cycling toward us in the opposite lane.
He screeched to a halt an did a U turn. " "Three times in three days,” he said. “Must be a reason!" He was wearing a little cap, this time, and carrying a beat-up knapsack. By now, I almost felt I knew him.
There was no dissuading him. He came along with us on our ride and kept up a stream of conversation, first with me, then with Margi, who had a softer disposition and bigger breasts. We came to a densely wooded area, and as we passed a cemetery, our friend threw down his bike and told us to wait while he crossed the highway and headed for one of the grave stones. He stood by the grave for several minutes. From where we waited by the roadside, we could see his lips moving as if in prayer.
Jumping on his bike again, he told us he'd been talking to his grandfather, who had passed away some years earlier but often still appeared to him in dreams. A little farther on, he stopped again, pulled a hunting knife out of his backpack, and disappeared into the woods. We wondered if we should wait this time, or keep going, but after a minute or two he came crashing through the brush and was back on his bike. "Got a trap in there I was checking," he explained. "And now I have something I want to show you girls. It's a lookout at the top of the escarpment, where you can see for miles. A fantastic view of Lake Ontario and a 500-foot drop to the ground below."
We said, No thank you. We needed to be getting home now. We'd skip the view, and the 500-foot drop, this time around. We turned around and an hour later we were back downtown, but still he clung to us. He said he was suddenly feeling very sick, and needed us to come home with him, now. We offered to take him to the hospital. He rode off in a huff.
At her front door, Margi wondered why I’d befriended him in the first place. I said I’d never befriended him. He’d attached himself. He’d turned up three times in three different places in three days. “Maybe he’s following you,” she suggested. Given the locations of our encounters, especially the last one, in the middle of a long bridge over a ravine that divided Hamilton into two separate halves, I didn’t think so.
“Well, you attracted him,” she concluded.
I braced myself for the prospect of running into him every day for the next few months, but I never saw him again, the rest of that summer, fall and winter. In September, I found a new apartment on East Avenue, not far from downtown. In November, my father died, and my mother came to stay with Margi and me. I was working a split shift as a proofreader at the Spectator, correcting wire service copy and front page stories which were often about gangsters and terrorists in Quebec, stories that painted a bizarre picture of Montreal as a violent, crime-ridden place – although I remembered it as a place where art and culture flourished.
Then came spring, when my mother and I decided to move back there. I had packed up my belongings, and was arranging the final details. Margi would take over the apartment at 72 East Avenue North, # 2.
A few days before we were to leave, a misdirected letter arrived in our mailbox. It was an official looking letter, from National Steel Car and was addressed to a James Brewster, 72 East Avenue. Apartment 2. I had never received any of James Brewster’s mail before, but I assumed he must live at 72 East Avenue South, a few blocks away across Main Street. I pencilled in “South” but forgot to mail the letter. It stayed on the table in our hallway until the day before we were to leave, when I dropped it in a mailbox on my way to the laundromat.
When I walked in with my bags of dirty laundry, sitting in a chair near the door was my little pointy-eared friend. He looked surprised, as well as pleased, that our paths had crossed again. I avoided his eyes as I loaded up the machine, added detergent, shoved in three quarters. “Want to go for coffee?” he asked. I declined, and hurried out the door. Then I made sure to stay away for at least two hours, so he would be gone by the time I went back to use the dryer.
I half expected my clothes to be gone, too, by then, but instead, on my machine I found note in ballpoint pen and round, childish handwriting:
“Come on over to my place and have a beer with me.”
It was signed:
“James Brewster, 72 east Avenue South. Apt. 2.”
I reread the note several times, not quite believing it. I wished to God I had not mailed that letter! Otherwise, I would have shown it to Margi along with the note, and got her reaction.
In a city of 500,000 people, what were the chances that any individual you randomly met on the street even once would turn out to be living at the mirror image of your own address? One in 500,000… I guessed. And the chances that person would show up three times on three successive days, and attach himself to you for no apparent reason, and that this person would also be someone who speaks to the dead, carries a knife, and tries to lure you to his apartment, not once, but twice. And that he would resurface a few days after you received a letter for him in your mailbox, and 48 hours before you were to leave town for good –
The odds of all that happening, by the normal laws of probability, were infinitesimal.
Even if I had wanted to go over to James Brewster’s for a beer, there was no time – we were leaving. And even had there been time, I would not have answered this invitation. I had read Jung, and thought of myself as a connoisseur of strange coincidences. But this one set me on edge.
I couldn’t even prove it had actually happened. No one but me had touched, or seen, the letter addressed to him that had arrived at our house. Other than me, no one but Margi had met James Brewster – and she had only met him once, eight months earlier, not three days in a row, as I had.
Had we gone home with him that day, last summer, when he told us he was sick and needed our company, we would have found out where he lived. But that did not change the fact that, a few weeks later, we would move into our new place, at almost exactly the same address.
It was not just the improbability of such a series of coincidences occurring in the order that they did. It was my sense, even back then, that they were not coincidences, but something else, for which I had no proper name and no explanation, except one that whispered that there were “forces” out there, capable of arranging such a series of events. That it was up to me, the single witness, to figure it out.
And most important: it was up to me NOT to get involved in asking How or Why. Because at the bottom of it all, lay a powerful Joker who might not be joking. One does not pop over for a friendly beer with such a joker, or his representative.
Not that, of course, James Brewster would have known the answers. I suspected, rather, that he was someone who dabbled in strangeness. That he liked to flow with the dark currents that ran through town. In the 18 months I'd lived there, I had heard enough. People had told me about the covens that met at the University or on the escarpment where a friend’s daughter and her friends had stumbled on animal bones from a recent sacrifice. Another friend’s upstairs neighbour had been writing a sociology paper on one of these covens, when she was warned to abandon her project. She didn’t, and soon after she fell three storeys, and was now a vegetable.
And there was Nairn Galvin, and her silver chalices, and those chronically angry women at the Women’s Centre. And the people who took my black cape as a sign that I was one of them. And the lost-looking creature I sometimes saw, when I worked the night shift, prowling the downtown streets in sequins and platform shoes and David Bowie hair. There was spooky Dundurn Castle and the Masonic Lodge, and the Pentecostal Church, and the cloud of depression that hung over Hamilton, a city that seemed to exist on the dividing line between heaven and hell. All of it was strange. All of it suggested a world of secrets and closed doors guarded by powerful entities – some of this world, others not.
I closed the door on all that on the day we left for Montreal. Every now and then, on a very few occasions, I told this story to someone, always drawing the same blank stare. “What do you think it means?” I would ask.
No one had a thing to say. Except Leonard Cohen, who nodded. “It’s good you told me that story, because I’m one of the few people around who might understand it.” He never elaborated, however.
John Lilly, the neuroscientist who liked to spend time in flotation tanks on LSD and Ketamine, at around the same time Leonard was in similar experiments at McGill, came up with a theory that there are entities in the universe who arrange these mind-bending coincidences that can change our lives. You can read about them here.
I know nothing of those entities. I do think there are dimensions we can enter, however, in which the laws of cause-and-effect are scrambled.
Another just happened to me when I published this blog.
I was looking for an image to represent "Hamilton" and found several depicting the Mohawk leader, Joseph Brant. That's how I learned that good old James Brewster bore an uncanny resemblance to one of Hamilton's legendary personalities.
Brant was a peculiar figure, with traits that normally don't coincide: he was both Mohawk and Mason, as well as a United Empire Loyalist. Originally from Ohio, he fought with the British against the American revolutionaries who were making raids on the Canadian border, and in the area around Hamilton on Lake Ontario. He would have been very familiar that old Indian trail that eventually became a military road and later, York Street.
The resemblance is so outstanding that in the first seconds when the image of Brant came up, all I could see was the face of James Brewster grinning out at me.
I wonder where he is now... and why it has taken me all these years to write this story.