Hey, gang! Welcome to EP 03 of my podcast, “Something That I Wrote.”
Once again, if this is your first time visiting, I really hope you enjoy your stay. I am flattered. Always. And also, once again, if you’ve hated the last two but you’re back to give me one last chance, well – third time’s the charm, right? That’s what they say, isn’t it? But they also say to live life without regrets, and, like communism, I’ve found that that philosophy only ever really works in theory, so who knows. Who knows, man. Who knows.
What I do know is that if you’re back because you want to be, I want to thank you. (As always, especially you.) I hope you aren’t leading me on. I hope you aren’t fooling around with my heart like some kid with a BB gun, and I hope you aren’t fucking with me. I don’t think you are, though. I can see it when I look in your eyes. Your intentions are honest and gentle and pure. And so are mine. Be oh-so-good to me, baby, and I’ll be oh-so-good to you. And if you’re back because you want to be, I can do that. I can be oh-so-good to you. Maybe someday I’ll even call you my sweetheart. It feels like we’ve gone on a coupla dates, and you’ve stuck around – I couldn’t tell you why, but you have – and so, I can relax a little bit. I don’t need to be so scared about how my hair looks. I don’t have to wear my fancy shoes. I will still be a gentleman – I always will, I promise, I swear it’s true – and I will never ever let the romance die, but I think maybe you like me, like a schoolboy crush, and so I can take a deep breath, and I can take off my jacket, and I can start to tell you stories without being so scared. Because I want to tell you stories that are very near and dear to my heart.
I want to tell you stories from Niagara.
When I was in my last year of university, I had to complete some kinda long project. They don’t let you graduate if you don’t, so they’re sure you take it seriously. Scholars call such a thing a “thesis.” Most kids do something academic, but sometimes, they let some of the stubborn and silly ones do something creative. I was one of these. For better or worse, I always have been.
I knew I’d be doing this long creative project in my fourth year from pretty early on in my undergraduate life, and I spent much of the next few years thinking about what I might do. I don’t know how I’d ever approach such a project if I didn’t. I need a masterplan. I can bluff my way through many things but I can’t through something like that. So sometimes, while I took the long, lonely walk up UC Hill to class, or while I stumbled home drunk down London’s snow-covered sidewalks, I thought about my fourth-year project. I thought about what I might do when I got there, but I didn’t really have any good ideas.
When I was in third year I spent some time going to school in England. While I was there, I got to travel all over. One day, I was walking down a street in Barcelona. I was with a friend I’d made from Brazil. His name was Romel, and as Romel and I walked, side-by-side, he was looking at all kindsa interesting things, and he would point them out, and I would nod and smile. But then I’d stare back down at the sidewalk. Because I was not in Barcelona. In my head, I was in Niagara. And then I knew what I would do for my fourth-year project.
I know that many writers have places they like to write about, over and over and over. William Faulkner had Yoknapatawpha County, and Stephen King’s got Castle Rock, and Woody Allen had New York, at least for a little while. And as I walked down a Spanish sidewalk I realized I had my place, too.
I have lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake for all my life. It is a small town, and nearly everybody knows each other’s name. Sometimes, growing up, it frustrated me. I felt secluded and stifled. It’s almost claustrophobic. Maybe that’s why today I’m so scared of elevators.
But there were many, many things I liked. I liked that when I looked through my dad’s yearbooks, I could see all the dads of the kids who were on my hockey team, and I liked that I could immediately recognize them. I liked that me and my sisters spent our summers riding our bikes to the same pool that my mom and aunts and uncles spent their summers riding their bikes to. And the older I get, the more and more I appreciate these kindsa things. I like that every time I head to the cafe where I write many of these stories, I pass by the funeral home where my grandma’s visitation was. It’s strange and it’s sad and yet it’s also somehow comforting. And I feel so very fortunate. Because I have such close contact to the people and the places that make me who I am. I can walk down a sidewalk, and I can stand in front of the house that was once some relative’s, and I can stare into the window, and I can think to myself that if it was not for the lives that were lived on the other side of that glass, I would not be here. That’s a special thing.
And there are just so many stories. All my life, I have been surrounded by wonderful stories, and because I live where I live, I can go to the places where they happened. And the stories get to come back to life.
I don’t know if I’m drawn to tell stories because of this, or if I woulda wanted to no matter what. That’s impossible to determine, like trying to pinpoint exactly when a relationship crumbles apart. But there’s two things I know for certain: I know that I am who I am because of where I grew up, and I know that the stories I write all happen in the same place, and that place is a place called Niagara.
I didn’t realize this until that day in Barcelona, but after I did it seemed so obvious and inevitable and clear, and I don’t know now how I didn’t know it all along. So I decided that for my project I’d write a buncha stories, and they’d all fit together, somehow, because they’d all be about Niagara. And that’s what I did. I called it “Stories From Niagara.” I worked long and hard on it, and I’m proud of it. I’m proud because for the first time, I was able to bring my Niagara to life. And I still do. I still write about Niagara. Not always – sometimes I wander – but never for long. I always end up coming home. My Niagara is not exactly the town I grew up in. It’s distinctly different. If you tried to draw a map of it based on how I set it up in stories, you’d find the geography’s all fucked up, and it’d look nothing like the real thing. This is slightly due to my lousy sense of direction, but mostly it’s intentional. I want my Niagara to be different. It has to be. It comes from my head. The same goes for the people, too. There are names and there are faces that are all too familiar, but they’re different. They’re completely different. The place they come from is true, though, and I think that’s all that matters.
And I’m proud, too, of “Stories from Niagara,” because for me, it represents those four years of school. It is the total culmination of all the lessons I learned, all the books I read (and all the ones I only sorta read), all the notes I scribbled down in lectures, and all the late nights at the library. I had many wonderful teachers – some of them professors, some of them classmates, some of them neither – and they taught me many wonderful things. And I put all that they’d taught me into these stories. I wanted to make them proud.
Near the end of last year, the English department hosted a day for all us stubborn, silly creative thesis-writers to read from our work. So I read this story, “Greasers,” to them. I want to share it with you for the same reason I wanted to share it with them: I think, more than anything else I’d written up until that point, and maybe since, that it is the greatest combination of all my strengths and my interests and all the subjects I keep coming back to. I don’t know why I keep wanting to write about summertime and rock n roll and cigarettes and boys who fall in love with girls they maybe shouldn’t fall in love with, but I do, and sometimes I try to resist it, and sometimes, I don’t. With “Greasers,” I let myself tell exactly the story I wanted to. I pulled out all the trick cards I keep tucked up in my sleeves, and I put them in this story. And I read it to them that day, and when I finished, I looked around the room. My family was there, and they looked proud, and I appreciated that, but it was the look on the faces of my teachers that really meant something to me. There were professors and classmates and some people who were neither, and I could tell from their faces when I looked at each one of them that they knew I had learned whatever lessons they had each wanted to teach me. I had written what I’d written because I’d been honored to learn from them, but that afternoon, I got the sense that they were proud of me.
On the day that I graduated I got my diploma, and my mother insisted I get it framed. She wanted me to hang it on my bedroom wall, so I could sit and stare at it and be proud of all I accomplished. But I think now, I’m gonna go home, and take it down. I’m gonna print out this story, and I’m gonna put it up instead.