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1255 – Four Years Down the Rabbit Hole at Domus Legis

Domus Legis

When I was in university, undergrad, my brother and his/my best friends were in law school. The law school within Dalhousie University, Halifax, nurtured an odd institution, Domus Legis, Legal House, a sort of bar crossed with a fraternity, except it wasn’t a fraternity because it was entirely and enthusiastically a co-ed place in which the genders mixed and matched, all of us inebriated.

This was back in the early eighties. Though not a law student, Domus was my haunt, and I had some very weird and crucial formative experiences there – and astonishingly, in 1984, I wrote them all down, as if they might be of any interest in years to follow. This is a distillation of those notes.  All the names except mine have been changed to protect the indictable.

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Friday Morning, Coming Down

We were sitting at the picnic table, like usual for a Friday, taking stock, mumbling, trying to count the take from Thursday Night.  Oh yeah, Thursday Night, the Big Night.  They usually ended around six in the morning; we were all usually there to the end.  All of us now had the usual crushing hangovers.  Of course, it wasn’t really morning – it was morning to us, noon, one maybe, no shadows on the street, and light bouncing off the white clapboard of the house next door and into the basement through the dirt-level windows.  The soothing tunes of the Melodic Unit were playing on the tape deck, James Taylor singing the original version of Something in the Way She Moves, it seemed like an old song then – such a sweet and honest thing, that song, flowing past us, over the collected filth of Thursday Night, crud and grunge strewn all about us, waiting for McGillvary to rouse himself.  Sean did the cleaning, it was Sean’s job.

Moments like that, you wanted nothing more than to load yourself into the car and get to a McDonalds for shakes and those oh-so-Pabulum-like generic cheeseburgers, they cost about a buck, you could shovel them into your gullet and they just seemed to sop up the alcohol that was otherwise about to ooze out of your pores and tear ducts, best thing for a hangover ever.  I couldn’t get my mind off McDonalds.  Some guys figured beer, have another beer, take the edge off.  Not me.  Anyway we probably had no beer.  The fridge was probably empty.  We’d probably poured it all into the gaping maw of Thursday Night.  So much more beer, now, to buy, and beer in large quantities is so very, very heavy.

Kevin had the till on the table.  In his Kevin way, he stared at it, studied it, prepared to deal with it, which he would, but not just yet, no big rush.  No big rush.  Just take it slow.  Let the feeling creep back into your extremities.  Mike sat beside me.  We weren’t saying much.  Kevin rubbed his eyes.  I played with an empty beer cup.  If you take a plastic 12 oz. beer cup and cut it from the lip to the base in four equal segments, you can invert it, push on the base, and make it bounce up and down in a very pleasing manner.

Mike asked of no one in particular “I wonder who the McDonaldland Pen of the Week is?”  He was thinking of McDonalds too.

Kevin looked up from the till, a little unfocussed.  Mike stared back at him, detached, not withdrawn, exactly, but not at all interested either.  Some part of him sought to explain.  “You know, every week it’s a different pen – Grimace, the Hamburglar, whatever….”  He and Kev looked at each other.  Mute.  I could hear them breathing.

Dust floated gently in the shafts of light bouncing off the white house next door.

Actually, we already had the Hamburglar pen hanging behind the bar.  We were collecting the whole set.

“Oh, right…”  Kevin reached into the till, grasping a thick wad of one dollar bills, all wrinkled and frayed, and crumpled and…damp.  Goddamn things were wet. He started to count, shuffled the soggy bills like they were wet leaves, frowned, and put a fistful up to his nose to sniff.  Sure.  Drenched in stale beer.  Sticky.  Everything was sticky.  The floor was sticky, your sneakers stuck to it when you walked over the fading linoleum.  The table was sticky, your arms stuck to it when you leaned on them.  The bench was sticky, your ass kind of glued itself in when you sat down.

You might as well hose the place out on a Friday.  Might as well submerge the whole mess in isopropyl alcohol, but all we had was a tired mop, and a single bucket, and that was Sean’s job, Sean would sort it out, with any luck in advance of our opening again for bloody Weepers, which hey wait a minute, was in just a couple of hours, and didn’t we need beer?  And where was Sean?  But Sean had had another Big Thursday Night, so of course, if he turned up at all today, it would be early.

Kev had lost count.  O.K.  Fine.  Start again.  In a minute.  He got up, went behind the bar, and opened the fridge.  Hey, there were still just a few beers in there after all, maybe a beer would, you know, even out the strain, so yeah, beer.  “Anybody want one,” he asked, without asking.  More like the roll call in Ferris Bueller.  Mike said sure.  Me, actually, I wasn’t much of a beer drinker, high volume, low impact, I preferred rum, I drank buckets of rum on those long drunken nights, big-assed Domus double-dark-and-dirties made from London Dock and not a whole hell of a lot else, a bit of Coke, a bit of ice, five or six ounces of alcohol, chucked into a plastic beer cup.

You can live that way in school.  Day after day.

A voice from behind the bar, directed at me: “You don’t want a rum, do you?”

Ummmmm…

Hell yes, actually, that would be great, no – that would be a nightmare. No response.

Kevin was busy testing the Coke fountain, pulling the levers.  It coughed, making disgusting suction noises, spurting foam and gas, like it had a hangover too.  Suddenly I craved an ice-cold cup of Coke, a great big cup, several of them, but Kev held up a glass that was all foam, all CO2, nothing left but gas, which meant another trip to the Coke plant for more canisters of syrup, and those crazy guys on propane-powered forklifts would be tearing around, and the walls would be covered with all those totalitarian slogans and posters about plant safety and productivity, how great it was to work at the Coke plant, I mean, shit, we just put in another hundred injury-free Coke Days, nearly a new record, what better thing than working and working and working some more for Coke?  Those Coke syrup canisters were so heavy, and always banged your shins when you hauled them around.

Footsteps down the stairs.  Sean?  Sean at last?  But it was Jason, way too full of weird energy seeing as he closed the dump down with the rest of us just a few hours ago, and agitated, and out he comes with “How many pounds in a Kilopascal?”

Slit-eyed, we looked at him.

Kevin paused.  Now back at the bench, he’d started counting again, but with this distraction he’d lost count again.  He looked up at Jason.  Jason was illuminated in a shaft of light through the basement window.

He asked again:  “How many pounds in a Kilopascal?”

Kev spoke first.  “I’ll tell you, but first, you have to tell us who the McDonaldland Pen of the Week is.”

“That’s easy.  Mayor McCheese.”

“Not the Hamburglar?”

“No, he was last week.  Got one hanging behind the bar”

“Be damned.”

“So?”

“So what?”

Sohow many pounds in a Kilopascal?”

“The fuck should I know?  What’s a Kilopsacal?’

Jason looked around at the group of us.

“O.K., here’s the deal”.  He grabbed his crotch.  “I’m going to play with myself.  I’m going to play with myself, and I’m gonna make you watch, until one of you guys tells me the answer”.

I could still hear breathing.

“I mean it.”

Kevin started in again, counting.  Jason looked at us sitting there.  Gut check time.  He actually went through the motions for a few seconds, but nobody said anything, and he sat down, finally, resigned; so we all sat around the picnic table looking blankly at each other.  Marine Iguana probably look at each other in much the same way as they bake themselves on the rocks and contemplate another chilling foray into the cold ocean around the Galapagos to forage for yet another meagre seaweed dinner.

“I’m surprised one of you bright boys doesn’t know,” Jason offered, “that a Kilopascal is a metric measure of air pressure, like our more familiar pound-per-square inch.  My tires are low out there, and all I have is this metric gauge marked out in Kilopascals, but the tires are rated at PSI….”

Kevin: “Another metric-related fiasco.”

Jason (sizing up the till): “So what’s the take?”

“Dunno, still counting.  Six hundred maybe.”

“Not bad”.  Jason thought for a minute, as Kevin stared at the two dollar bills.  Six hundred was a respectable take.  Money was coming in at a fair clip.  Jason was the Domus accountant, and was helping Mike run a tighter ship, while the bar ran at enough of a profit to support regular payments in a scheme worked out to retire a huge debt to the Bar Services arm of the student union, who had previously supplied the Dome with about 6000 cubic yards of beer without getting paid.  Nobody could really say where the money had gone, not for sure, you understand, I mean, oh sure, the previous generation of Domus house and bar managers had lived awfully well for students, what with trips to the States to see the Rolling Stones and all, but nobody was keeping any books back then, and all we had were blank stubs in a cheque book, and $15,000 in the hole may have been res ipsa loquiter to us, but what were you going to do?

Anyway, that was last year.  Mike was bar manager now, and Domus was operating on a paying basis, Bar Services was getting its money back, everybody was being responsible.  We were in simultaneous breach of about seventy applicable liquor, public safety, and occupational health and safety statutes; we were in open and notorious breach of our liquor licence; we certainly served under-age drinkers, just on the percentages; it was a safe bet that the Criminal Code and the Narcotics Control Act figured into the mix somewhere; but dammit, we made our payments.

Jason went behind the bar, opened the fridge, pulled out a beer, reconsidered – he wasn’t that chipper yet – and left it on the bar.  Turning to the Coke fountain, he tried to pour himself a soft drink, but of course all he got was a big cup of aerated foam.  He cursed and picked up the beer again.  He really didn’t want the frigging thing.  Maybe a bag of chips?

“Any Smoky Bacon left?”  There were not.  I had eaten them all.  O.K., maybe some hard candy, we usually stocked some kind of glucose-fructose confection.

“Where are the Dino-Sour Eggs?”

“Gone.”

“Who besides me is eating those things?”

“Graeme.  He’s had dozens.”  It was true.  I loved them.  They were about the size of a golf ball, pure chemical sugar, and when you got to their soft insides, they were so full of sucrose/glucose/fructose and artificial fruit flavour with malic acid that you saw white light when you bit into them.

So, fine, no Dino-Sours.  Looking around now for anything to eat, Jason’s eyes lingered briefly on a plastic container sitting on the bar, full of gelatinous, multi-coloured rodents.  They were called “Gum Mice”.  They were chewy like Number Three Industrial Washers.  They stopped up your works.  Thwarted, now, Jason grabbed the discarded beer and popped the cap.

No chips, no candy bars, no Dino-Sours, it all added up to another trip to the wholesaler for the boxes upon boxes of junk food needed to keep our crazed alcoholic patrons from ripping each other’s arms off for sustenance when they got so hungry in the early morning hours.  About the only thing they wouldn’t eat were these pickled eggs that we kept in a jar that had been handed down through generations of Domus bartenders, nobody even knew how old they were.  At least fifteen years old.  Cordon Bleu Pickled Eggs.  They can’t go bad, you see.  They can sit there for a century.  The label on the jar had faded away to near illegibility.  A pair of wiener tongs rested nearby, kind of like the keys that open the safe that holds the launch codes – there just in case they’re needed some day.  That day came, once, only once: there was some guy wall-eyed enough to give them a go, and the bartender reached in with the tongs and plucked the puckered egg out of the green brine, and handed the tongs to buddy, who popped it in his mouth, chewed, and then, through a mouthful of embalmed eggy meat, noted, sort of matter-of-fact, “this is not good.”

Mike looked around the bar and released a small sigh.  It was a terrible downer in the daylight, this shitty little basement, dirty, small, claustrophobic, its six-foot ceiling seeming even lower than it was when you were hung over, which you always were, because every night the mood would change, and we’d be back for another round with our favourite songs blasting over the huge speakers, everything we needed there for the taking until the sun came up again.  All of that awaited us tonight, again, but for now, Mike was looking at the stacks of empty two-fours piled up behind the bar.  A big stack, which meant another trip to the bottle exchange, which was good, because the return money was a perq to the bar manager, to Mike, and bad, because there were so many flats of empty bottles, and he was so very tired all of a sudden.  He thought of all the classes he was supposed to be attending; he was missing one right now, what was it on a Friday, Wills?  Admin.?  Admiralty?  There were papers to write too, and they could go fuck themselves along with the classes, and all those course summaries he was supposed to be preparing, which were such a waste of time when you could just borrow someone else’s, and law school was such a waste of time…

Soon enough it would be time for exams, and the all-nighters, and fuck the law – and fuck this filthy little basement bar, and God especially fuck all the assholes who made such a mess of it every night, and the lousy tips they left every night, and fuck Sean McGillvary, first on general principles, and second for not getting up to clean this stale and sticky little toilet bowl.

There was a night behind the bar when Mike got angry enough at this crew of third-year A-holes who were bugging him that he just burst out with “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you” (pointing to each in turn) “and fuck this place”, upon which he pulled his night’s earnings out of his pocket (Tips Is All We Get!) and tore the bills into shreds, throwing it all into the air like confetti.

Jason called it the Big Rebuttal.

Back when it all started, maybe his boiling point had been a little higher, but now, at the end of his own third year, everything was pretty close to being too fucking much.  Law school was probably the worst disappointment of his young life.  Mike had wanted to go to law school since he was in junior high school, and all those years waiting to get in he never figured it would be like this.  Boring.  Arcane.  Unprincipled.  Some kind of freaking lottery between you and your grades, with 100% finals and a bell curve wrought out of the subjective preferences of teachers who couldn’t grade any better than they could teach.  All so you could one day become a lawyer – a lawyer.  What a thing to look forward to!  So suddenly he was an indifferent student, which was new, he’d always been a great student, Kevin too, they’d both graduated First Class Honours out of the Poli. Sci. Department before crossing the campus to take the next logical step, but then, this had happened.

Not at first.  At first it was full commitment, spare no effort; I remember Mike and Kev studying together at our place for first year exams, leaving them in a room full of paper at night and finding them still there in the morning.  They were really trying.  Doing the summaries.  Reading the cases.  Mike put case briefs for his torts course on little index cards he stored in a plastic recipe box, and labeled it “Mike’s Tort Box”, while Kevin drew up complex flow charts showing the relationships between given contract problems and the cases and doctrines that solved them.  Somebody claiming damages for something the poor slob on the hook could never have anticipated would arise?  Follow the dotted line to “Remoteness”, thence to the decision in Hadley v. Baxendale.  Somebody suing over an advertisement that claimed amazing, implausible things for a product that couldn’t possibly deliver?  An arrow led to “Mere Puffery”, thence to Carbolic Smoke Ball. 

They crammed.  They fired questions back and forth.  Morning comes, and it’s off to a 100% final exam, then do it all again, every second day, six times.

Out of all this came nothing.  Grades in the “C” range.  What you’d get if you didn’t even try.  What they did get when they didn’t even try.  The bell curve tolls for thee.

Still, there were other things to do, once you were kicking around the law school.  Other diversions. Until, no way around it, three years had gone by.

Footsteps above.  The old floor was creaking.  Sean was stirring at last.  Mike looked towards the entrance, waiting for him to arrive, his face expressionless.

 

 

The Set, the Crew, and Some Cast Members

1255. A number seared into my cortex, Mike’s too, Kevin’s too, everybody’s, I wasn’t even a law student, not then, but 1255 loomed large in the lives of an awful lot of the law students I hung out with. The year Magna Carta was signed? Get real. Nobody teaches law students about Magna Carta, and anyway, that was in 1215. No, 1255 was a street address, 1255 Seymour, on which Haligonian plot stood a dilapidated old house that must once have been a nice place where a nice family lived, maybe even somebody I knew as a kid, because my first years were spent just around the corner in a house long gone.

It’s strange to think of the generations that must have led normal lives there before the structure was, you know, repurposed. Young mothers must have brought their new babies home to 1255. Maybe grandparents grew old there.  There would have been Christmas dinners, teenagers studying by the radio, maybe young men sent off to war. The reverberations of the Halifax Explosion might have echoed off the shingles, the place seemed old enough; the old plaster walls must have witnessed all manner of joys and tragedies, as people were born, moved away, grew sick, grew old, all of that must once have happened there.

But now, this was happening.

Mike was leaning on the bar, his head resting on his folded arms, riding out the doldrums of another dead Friday night of not yet slinging beer. Kevin was behind the bar with him. Mike and Kevin – inseparable back then, and joint Friday night bartenders, which was a stepping stone to the coveted Thursday slot. Friday, nothing much went on during regular bar business hours. There was no real action until it got late, and it was still early, nowhere near the real beginning. Only about 11:00 PM. That’s 11:00 PM Friday, Domus Standard Time, understand, and at that point the fun was still hours away, and wouldn’t start until all the other bars downtown had closed; everything had to wait until the flow of alcohol ceased everywhere else on the peninsula, and then they would be coming. Oh yes, then they would be coming.

This being the law school bar, you might have expected to see some law students lurking about, but except for the two behind the bar, there weren’t any.  There was hardly anybody at all, really, and whoever was there, and whoever showed up, it wasn’t likely to be any frigging law student, not on Friday.

Mike looked sideways at the little ceramic tip bowl sitting near where his head was resting. There sat tonight’s pay. About 75 cents. Kevin was behind him, playing air guitar; at least they had the toooooons. And oh yeah, the free beer and liquor. Bartenders drank for free. That’s probably not policy at most bars, and it probably isn’t a great idea, because you wind up with drunks serving drunks, which, come to think of it, ought to have given pause to anyone who just went through torts class, but you know, you couldn’t staff the bar otherwise, a guy isn’t going to stand back there and take the shit that went on at Domus for 75 cents in cash.

So this is the scene: a wood-paneled basement with a linoleum tile floor. The tiles are dirty grey and dirty brown in a checkerboard pattern. The linoleum is worn through in the high traffic areas. The light is dim. There are a few small tables, with chrome and foam chairs – the vinyl is torn and the foam is sticking out.  There are some picnic tables with benches. The ceiling is low – very low – maybe a bit under six feet at the lowest end where the place was settling, and never higher than seven feet. The bar area is set up like a little redoubt, sort of a fortified canteen, you have to enter it through a door that could be bolted from the inside, and it has its own exit to the outdoors – safety first! – and in a pinch, there are thick wooden shutters that could be slapped in to seal off the bar area entirely, fitting between the counter and the ceiling (always upon the rousing order “raise the blast shields”).

There’s a tired little washroom off to your left as you enter via the narrow basement stairs. Behind the bar are a couple of big fridges for the beer, a Coke fountain, and various odds and sods; a pair of shark’s jaws is mounted, with a cute little stuffed dog lodged in its teeth; a little bulletin board with plastic letters spells out “DOMUS SEZ URINE LAW”; an apparently authentic World War One British Army helmet hangs from the wall, “Goose Green” painted crudely on its front, a reference to the Falkland Islands battle site. Below the counter is a lead-lined truncheon, just in case. A baseball bat leans in a corner. Just in case.

Look up. The low ceiling is covered, every square inch of it, by graffiti left in magic marker by generations of Domophiles, everything from signatures (including the autographs of some august judges, right up to Supreme Court level), to sly comments from former science majors (“Reunite Pangea!”), an almost empty rectangle designated “Map of the Universe”, with a small “x” in one corner labelled “You are here”, and a straightforward declaration that “Jane Braddock puked right where you are now standing”; and so on. One read: “Shit! Piss! Fuck! – A future justice of the Nova Scotia Superior Court ”.

Look out over the counter. There are enormous speakers affixed to the far wall opposite the bar, custom made band monitors, with metal grilles over the big bass cones. The music is loud. With Mike and Kevin behind bar, it is likely the Clash, or the Ramones, the Stones, or the Who; put them in charge of the bar, and the music would be good.

There is a strange, leather-clad Goth type sitting at a table in the corner. An early arrival.

Look right. Leaning against the wall, in Mike’s peripheral vision as he rests his head on the counter, standing there at the low end beneath the very lowest beam in the basement, almost wedged in between the floor and the beam as he stands there, beer in hand, semi-conscious, with his ball cap on sideways, is Jack McKilroy.

Jack McKilroy was one of what might be called the “Domus Troupe of Players”. An extra, but omnipresent, there in every scene, somewhere in the frame, perhaps participating in the action, perhaps just there, off in a corner, inconsequential for the moment but part of the necessary fabric of things.

Oh, Jack. Where are you now?

We all figured that somewhere in there, the real Jack was a stand-up guy. We just never got to meet him. He was always a slit-eyed, stumbling drunk by the time he wobbled into Domus, but I’ll tell you something, he was a sad and gentle drunk, not a mean one, and in this world of wall-to-wall assholes that counts for much. If being plastered strips away the veneer to reveal the real person underneath, then Jack was just a melancholy man looking for some company.

While perfectly harmless, he had a habit that often suggested he was just the opposite, if you didn’t know him, and it could get him into trouble. You could be standing at the bar, minding your own business, and Jack would sidle up behind you, tap you on the shoulder, and say “Challenge me”. You’d turn around to be met by a pair of bleary, bloodshot eyes, half-crossed beneath a sideways baseball cap, and he’d say it again, maybe while poking you a bit in the chest, not forcefully, mind you, but poking: “Challenge me”.

At Domus, that was a pretty good way to solicit a rabbit punch to the trachea, and if you were around when he proposed it to a stranger, you’d have to be quick to say something like “I’ll challenge you, Jack!”, and that would be it, situation avoided. Jack would beam at you and wander over your way, looking forward to being challenged.

You see, poor Jack wasn’t looking for a fight; he wanted you to challenge him to a game of hockey trivia. He knew hockey and its history backwards and forwards, and very much enjoyed being peppered with questions that really tested the depth of his knowledge. By Christ, he had mastery of the material, you had to hand it to him, he could give you the whole line-up of the cup-winning ’58 Canadiens, wax nostalgic about the heyday of “fire wagon hockey”, extol the virtues of Richard’s amazing 50-goals-in-50-games performance, and tell you who scored the decisive markers in every Stanley Cup final. “Dicky Duff!” he’d shout. “Greatest clutch hockey player in history!”

You could fact-check him if you wanted, but all you’d find is that Tricky Dicky Duff really was a great clutch hockey player, with a Stanley Cup-winning goal among his accomplishments – not a game winner, a Cup winner. Not many could claim that, there being only one such goal per year. Some players had two cup-winning goals, did you know that? Toe Blake. Belliveau. Orr. Mike Bossy, now there was a thinking man’s player, guy was a sniper, could score from any angle, he had just scored his second consecutive Cup-winner, he was a 50-in-50 guy too, first since Richard.

He was a hapless drunk, sure, but Jack was OK. Besides, unlike so many of our real problem children, he was an alumnus. You had to have some respect. He was one of ours.

Now, not everybody who actually belonged there, as a bona fide current or former law student, was somebody you were happy to have running around unsupervised. No argument. Among a number of students that rubbed everybody the wrong way was one who favoured argyle sweaters, and once thought it amusing to stand on a chair, in what was perhaps an episode of alcohol-induced non-insane automatism, and repeatedly bellow suck me off. He was known to us, thence forward, as the “Duke of Argyle”. There was another guy who actually landed shifts as a bartender, whose tendency, when you asked him for a drink, was to feign an inability to hear you and say “What? What?”.  More like “Wha?”, actually, with the final “t” being silent.  He had these thin reedy appendages, a strangely distorted torso, and seemed more vegetable than animal, so we called him “the Plant”. There was one poor fellow dubbed “Rodent Man”, unfairly, it seems clear to me now.

We were sometimes cruel but fair, sometimes simply cruel. Everybody that failed, for whatever reason, to pass muster was gifted a derisive nickname, and being an otherwise innocuous classmate was no defence.

Mostly, though, the borderline mental cases who inspired the contemptuous “call signs” were outsiders. Not law students, and often not students at all, just people who stumbled in and generally made a bit of a mess. All too typical was this sloppy alcoholic we called “Laughing Boy”, we never knew his name, and I don’t think we ever figured out where he came from, he’d just walk in, somehow navigate down the narrow stairs to the basement without falling and breaking his neck, and bump into walls and pillars for a bit before somebody worked up the gumption to eject him. Before that, the only thing he seemed to want, besides booze, was for somebody to play some Lesley Gore on the stereo – he’d scream it out in the middle of a crowd, “Lesley Gore, Lesley Goooooooooooor!!” He’d be slumped in a chair looking at the floor, seeming puzzled, like he was a sloth who’d lately been having a nice nap way up above in the leafy canopy, but had woken up on the forest floor somehow, inert, lethargic, apparently near coma, until he’d shout as loud as he could, “Lesley Gore!”.

“Hey, I just saw her upstairs” responded some joker one night. “I think you might still be able to catch her!” Well, Laughing Boy’s gears ground slowly, when they were grinding, so it took him a while to think over whether it was really likely that Ms. Gore might be upstairs right this minute, but he worked it out, and he wasn’t going for it. It was clear that being taunted this way made him sad, but what did we care? He was Laughing Boy. Fair game. Right?

We tried to bar him from the place, but he kept wandering in, and could remain unnoticed amid the general chaos for quite a while. He was, in his drunken way, a bit crafty, too. He’d try to hide, hoping we’d go home after locking up and leave him inside. Of course, being always on the ragged edge of complete insensibility, he wasn’t very good at it. Sean was closing down one night when he noticed a pair of legs in the upstairs fireplace – Laughing Boy was trying to hide up the chimney. You might find him in the washroom, squeezing behind the door. It was a bit like playing Hide and Seek with a toddler.

He flew on autopilot a lot of the time. You could deposit him on the front porch, orient him towards the street and say “Time for bed”, and he’d just walk away, back to wherever he came from. I doubt he was conscious at all. It’s more like he was working off a basic navigation algorithm, and most of the time it worked pretty well, except there was one spectacular system failure when he found his way blocked by one of our basement picnic tables, bumped into it, pulled out his pecker, and began a long, leisurely piss right there amid the patrons. I guess he’d been making for the bathroom, and when he got as far as he could, the all-purge sub-routine kicked in. He’d picked a table full of graduate students to pee all over, and we hated grad students, but still, taking a leak all over them was a tad beyond the limits of even Domus decorum; something had to be done, and the frigging grad students weren’t about to help themselves. It landed on Kevin to haul him away by his collar, prostrate, out the back door, dork still dangling, and send him on his way. The ruckus had roused his conscious mind, just a little, and he looked sadly up at Kev and asked, repeatedly, “What’d I do?”.

It’s indicative of how young and new to tragedy we were that this didn’t make us anywhere near as sad as we should have been.

After a while, Laughing Boy stopped trying to infiltrate the basement, and we never saw him anymore. I wondered, idly, if something killed him, a truck or a bus, maybe, or maybe he just died from the drinking. It wasn’t the sort of question we dwelled upon, back then. I can’t even remember why we called him “Laughing Boy”. It sure wasn’t because the poor, morose, friendless husk of a man laughed a whole hell of a lot.

“It takes all kinds”, they say, but after a while in the Domus basement you might be inclined to question that. Surely, there were some kinds that could be done without, no? Take the guy who had a stainless steel plate in his skull, so he claimed, who liked to call us all “plebeians”, and took to dealing dope out of the TV room, drawing in all sorts of unsavoury types. Inevitably, we called him “Chrome Dome”, which was fun, but he had to be dealt with. The local constabulary gave Domus, and other marginally law-abiding student establishments like the frats, a great deal of leeway so long as we kept everything on campus and indoors, and nobody got hurt, but the surest way to exhaust Official Police patience was to deal drugs. Do that, and the hammer blow of no-bullshit by-the-book criminal law enforcement would soon be delivered, never a very pleasant thing, and even less agreeable for anybody still clinging to the possibility of someday being admitted to the bar. Actual, real-world consequences were thus drawing near. It was not to be borne. We had to drag Chrome Dome out of there, kicking and screaming, sometimes five or six times in a single night. Out you go! Asshole. Fun was fun, but Chrome Dome was a cancer, a career dealer, which wasn’t the same thing as a casual user. Right? We were raucous, and undisciplined, and drunk and stupid most of the time, and yes there were drugs, but there was a line.

Or take the “Nerk Twins”. They were brothers, strange little guys, slight, with wispy blonde hair, and they blathered endlessly about the Deep Ideas you first glean from a few 100 level philosophy courses. Unlike you, poor slob, they had it all figured out, and they were most keen to explain. Listen up, untutored hordes! Wisdom will be imparted starting in ten seconds! Christ, they were tireless windbags. One time, Joe Rossi – more on him later – found himself sandwiched between them at the bar, as they yammered back and forth about existentialism, nihilism, pacifism, communism, every fucking ism there was, talking over him, around him, through him, yip yip yip, until Joe, slumping lower by the minute as he drank more and more trying to end the pain, moaned “I’m getting stereo horse-shit here”.

There was a militant lesbian in war surplus clothing with an entourage, who seemed to show up for the sole purpose of expressing her contempt for men in general, and frat-boy types in particular, which she took us to be, in itself a hanging offence at Domus. To us, frats were cults, whereas all we were about was having a good party; we hated the frats, there was none of that smug, cliquish, female-excluding, pledge-abusing, thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another Greek Life bullshit going on in our joint. She didn’t see the difference. Among those who followed her around was a rather slight East Asian guy, twitchy like a Pomeranian, who’d blurt, at the slightest provocation, that he carried a switchblade, so watch it. He became – what else? – “Blade Runner”.

Did the world really need Blade Runner? Was he really among the kinds that it took?

There were dozens more where these misfits came from. Technically, you were supposed to be a member to get in, which none of them were, but most rules were honoured only in the breach at Domus. We were open after hours, and like I said, after midnight this drew them in like flies from all the places that were obeying the closing time laws downtown. Probably, we should have kept them all out. There were nights when the mix got pretty volatile, and stoking the late-nighters with cheap booze wasn’t doing anything to calm anybody down; but we stoked anyway, until we sometimes found ourselves presiding over the local equivalent of Mos Eisley – like Obi Wan said, a hive of scum and villainy.

With such a diverse crew of oddballs, not all them fully sane, Domus personnel were often in purported charge of a strange venue on the cusp of going South, people essentially out of control, with everything balanced on a knife edge in the cramped and sweaty basement. It could get crazy, actually nuts down there, the place was like flypaper for human dysfunction, but we didn’t really appreciate that going in. We learned soon enough, oh, how we learned, but when we plunged in head first, nobody’s spider sense was tingling. With the benefit of hindsight, that seems a little dense, but you know, we were young, and let’s be fair, nothing in anybody’s experience could have quite prepared him for Domus. Domus was a thing unto itself.

Anyhow, where were we? Oh yeah, Mike and Kev, Friday Night, waiting for the human tide to come in. Mike had his head resting on the pillow of his arms. Look forward. Uh-oh. A great big harbinger of things to come, a man as big as a door, loomed into view. He wasn’t a stranger, but the boys behind the counter stiffened all he same. This could go either way.

 

 

Customer Relations

“You know, I could even kill you with an ice cube.”

So said Doug to a visibly on-edge Mike and Kevin, and God knows, they didn’t doubt it. Doug was an enormous native Canadian, First Nations, though which, I don’t think I knew – Mi’gmaw, maybe, but that’s just a guess. Was he a law student? That seems unlikely, but after 35 years or so, it’s hard to remember, except he had a record, and that suggests that no, he wasn’t vying for admission to the Bar. He was quite happy to tell you he had a criminal record, actually, and not for stealing change from a parking meter, either. Years ago, he had killed some idiot in a bar fight, his story was that the guy pulled a knife on him, so Doug relieved him of his weapon and used it to pretty much clean the moron like a fish. Mike, looking upwards at the underside of Doug’s chin, was trying to imagine what special mix of alcohol and innate stupidity could lead even the dimmest dim bulb to think it would be a good move to pull a knife on Doug. He did the guy a favour, thought Mike, using the knife to do him in like that, it was a clean death, a soldier’s death; he might just as easily have pulled the silly bastard’s head out by the roots.

Doug usually didn’t like to talk about what prison time was like. We sure as shit weren’t bringing it up.

This evening, Doug was somewhere on the continuum between happy-go-lucky and murderous rage, and the boys were doing their best to be agreeable and nudge him in the right attitudinal direction. If it went sideways, all the plausible scenarios looked a bit grim. Doug looked like he’d be pretty much impervious to the baseball bat that was supposed to be the Domus barman’s last line of active defence. Actually, he looked as if you’d have only a faint hope of slowing him down with small arms fire. Maybe, a few hours after he was through ripping you to pieces, he’d get a nasty infection from the 5 rounds you managed to squeeze off before he shoved the gun up your ass. Kevin was wondering how fast you could possibly put the wooden blast shields in place, and how long it would take Doug to punch through them if you could.

The wild card, the potential derangement factor, was the basement’s low ceiling, which seemed a little lower every semester, as the back half of the building kept subsiding. The top of Doug’s head was right up against it. With the supporting beams lower still, and poor light and copious beer consumption dulling reflexes and depth perception, it was all too likely that even a fellow of ordinary height could suffer one of those jarring blows to the head that makes everybody in the bar gasp and wince. Lots of people banged their pumpkins. If it was somebody you didn’t like, it could be kind of funny, some B-Comm A-hole would bound down the stairs and make for the bar, and thwump, there’d be this sound like the combination of a bass drum and somebody slapping a honeydew melon with the palm of his hand. Ouch. Honestly, you could knock yourself cross-eyed, really brain yourself, and if a guy was drunk enough he might even do it repeatedly, return from the washroom and thwunk, Jesus, he wouldn’t have done that again on purpose for $500,000, and here he was doing it for free. We used to worry about bar fights, but really, we were far more likely to need the first responders for some poor doofus who’d concussed himself right out of the starting lineup.

Tonight, that diabolical low ceiling looked good to spark off something that would end with both Mike and Kevin on a slab. Doug liked his liquor, he liked it a lot, and he liked a lot of it. He wasn’t, sadly, one of those mellow drunks who’d just sort of slump there grinning at you. He was more inclined to get a bit testy, let’s say, and this was a tendency that was now being mightily exacerbated by the number of times Doug kept banging his noggin on the beam behind him, and the thick upper frame of the bar enclosure in front of him. It was just too low on all sides. The bar counter sat just above his waist, and from inside the canteen-like space, Mike and Kevin often lost sight of his forehead. Time and again, Doug would get animated over some unhappy memory or other, lean forward for emphasis, and bonk. Shit. This made Doug angry. You really can’t get a good idea from my poor powers of description just how frightening an angry Doug could be.

After each surprising blow, Doug would clench his jaw, and will himself to maintain his composure. He had a story he wanted to tell, and he couldn’t do that and tear the place off its foundation at the same time. You could almost hear his inner monologue as he talked himself down. Steady boy. Take a breath.

There were things to get off his chest. To begin with, he was sorry about that mess in the bar, you know, the poor slob he killed, but really, what did the idiot expect? Who pulls a knife on you out of the blue like that? Would you? It was all instinct after that, all muscle memory, his training kicked in and he disarmed his attacker and, you know, neutralized the threat. That’s what you were supposed to do, shit, how would anybody else react after all that intensive close-quarter combat drill? Poor dumb fuck never had a chance, because Christ, it had taken a long time to get trained in that stuff, and you never forgot your training, no sir, that was the point, it was like forgetting how to walk, you didn’t even think, you just did it.

Er…training? Doug looked at them across the bar, a little befuddled, maybe a little cross, like of course they were supposed to know what he meant. Kevin cursed himself silently for asking.

Bonk. Another bang to the head. Another tooth-clenching pause. “That makes me so mad”, said Doug. In the cartoons, this is where Daffy, standing in Kevin’s shoes, says something like “mother”.

Head shake. Oh yeah – training, yeah, he was a veteran, he’d been in the army, the Canadian Army – sorry, the Land Element of Mobile Command. He reeled off the bases where he’d been stationed, the various combat skills he’d been taught, his gripes about the day-to-day drudgery and grinding routines of military life. Mike had served a stint in the Militia, and Doug sounded like the real deal to him. Yet the story that emerged was a stunner – coming from anyone else, you’d snort “sure, Jack”, which, you will understand, was not what Mike or Kevin were going to say just now. Best to just listen, and they did so with increasing fascination.

Doug, you see, had been part of something he wasn’t really supposed to talk about. Special forces shit, black ops, real secret; he was a specialist in jungle warfare and counter-insurgency. He’d been to Viet Nam, part of a joint mission with the Americans back in the late sixties. For a while he was in-country, didn’t see a lot of combat, but he’d been around. He was there mainly to learn. And he’d been taught dozens of ways to kill, quickly, efficiently, silently, with whatever was handy, his bare hands if need be. He could bash in your head with whatever was handy, no problem. Or cut your jugular with a pointed stick. Shit, almost anything could be used to obstruct somebody’s windpipe, if you could pry open his mouth and shove it in there – an ice cube, say. There were lots of special martial arts type moves you could pull too, snap a guy’s neck like balsa wood – hey, did Kevin want to see one?

KA-BONK. “ Jesus Christ, that makes me sooo mad!!”.

I don’t know how long this went on. A while. Then a while longer. There were moments of something close to terror, and moments of great relief, until the ride finally came to an end. It probably sounds implausible at this point, but Mike and Kevin both lived through the night, much as you might weather a hurricane. You can imagine their sense of deliverance; eventually, Doug just shambled off, and probably was never going to kill them at all, so long as they didn’t do anything that would trigger the training. We had no idea what to make of his story. I wondered about it for years after, it just didn’t seem like Doug was making anything up. Recently, I became curious again and found this:

http://www.cbc.ca/archives/topic/canadas-secret-war-vietnam

Maybe Doug had been on the level.

OK, so maybe listening to all the different, essentially effortless ways in which you could be extinguished in close combat is an extreme example, the far end of the spectrum of possibilities facing a Domus bartender at the start of a shift, but that sort of thing was never quite beyond the realm. Seriously, you could never really rule anything out. The drunks who weren’t members, who simply arrived, were apt to get all stroppy if you tried to cut them off, or get them to pay for their drinks when they didn’t feel like it. You  could be off to the races in no time. There was almost always some sort of hassle, some level of fracas in the offing, you developed a sense for it, you could almost feel the millibars of pressure increase as the night wore on, and people became increasingly frustrated.

Frustrated about what? Oh, maybe the bartenders were ignoring you, they tended to do that for long stretches, sometimes just because they were having their own fun back there, sometimes to make a point. Maybe one of them scowled at you for being a lousy tipper (TIPS IS ALL WE GET, it said clearly on the sign behind the bar – buddy, you can’t read?). Maybe some girl or another left you standing there with your dick in your hand, brutally rebuffed. Maybe you didn’t like the music – the selection was the bartender’s alone to make, one of the little perqs, and you could shout out requests all you liked, but those weren’t frigging DJs back there. Maybe if you asked nicely – Jack, our teetering hockey aficionado, knew how, he’d sidle up and say, sweet as pie, “C’mon, Sean my boy, play a little Bobby D”, which was both polite and crafty, since Dylan was Sean’s favourite.

Depending on the bartender, the music could amount to psy-war, outright punishment. Joe Rossi was famous for this. We all came to half dread, half clamour after, the next “Rossi Tape”. Some people have a grasp of the art of the mixed tape – why, I fancy myself a true master of the form – and some are apt to create musical juxtapositions so jarring as to be the aural equivalent of putting shrimp in a chocolate cake. On a Rossi tape, Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love would be programmed next to Anne Murray doing Snowbird. Sometimes the songs would stop, abruptly, and slam immediately into something utterly different and incompatible – Rossi, evidently, simply hit the pause button mid-track and changed the record. Something by the Stones might morph abruptly into the back half of a number by Peter, Paul and Mary. The Domus segue! We had one tape that switched from Donavan’s Mellow Yellow to a recording of the hypnotist Reveen putting somebody off to sleep, right in the bridge, when the horns go: Bup – BUP-BUP, Bup-BUP, bup bup bup – then a jump-cut to the sonorous voice saying “You are getting sleepier and sleepier…” In modern parlance, we had weaponized the cassette deck.

A constant favourite with staff was Sinatra’s version of New York New York. The Clash/Ramones mixed-tape would get yanked and replaced by the silver-piped stylings of the Chairman of the Board, or – honestly, here, no foolin’ – something by Dean Martin. Another number in heavy rotation was The Rodeo Song, by I couldn’t frigging tell you who, which went:

Here comes Johnny

With his pecker in his hand

He’s a one-ball man

And he’s off to the Rodeo…

 …accompanied by country and western twangy guitars and some good down-home fiddle playin’. The chorus went something like:

It’s allemande left

And allemande right

C’mon ya fuckin’ dummy

Get your right step right

Get off the stage you goddam goof

Get off

Well piss me off {interject fiddle riff}

Fuckin’ jerk {same}

He gets on my nerves

This being an age of endless beauty and wonder, you can of course find a version on YouTube. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tX6ggRByE8g

So put that on real loud at three in the morning, ignore the plaintive cries for more beer and a different song, and observe what happens. Maybe something good. Maybe something bad. That’s just it. Nobody knows. Give it a try, run the scenario a few times just to see.

The downside of being a Domus bartender was that at some point, you had to stop spectating and actually tend bar, and on Thursdays it could get frantic back there. The place would be shoulder-to-shoulder, tropically hot, and so sweaty that condensation would be forming on glass and smooth surfaces. It doesn’t seem to me, in retrospect, that we had the slightest idea how many people in that dark little underground was too many, at what point it became unsafe. Just pack ‘em in, and sling the beer at them. I didn’t like Thursdays, much, actually – I never missed one, of course, but I didn’t like them. The off nights were way more entertaining, you could just lean on the bar and watch as some sort of weird anthropology experiment played out in front of you. Until Domus, I didn’t grasp that there was almost no level of high strangeness beyond the repertoire of otherwise outwardly functional people.

What do I mean?

Well, Mike was tending to a thin crowd early one Thursday night when a woman he’d never seen there before didn’t so much wander in as waft, wide-eyed and looking about the bar in apparent confusion.  She wasn’t dishevelled or anything, she wasn’t in a hospital gown, looking like she was on the lam from the nut hatch. She just acted like it, gazing around in what seemed to be dumbstruck confusion. What was this place? How did it occupy the same astral plane as she? Had it always been here? Would it always remain? Furtively, she explored the little broom closet at the foot if the stairs, a quite unappealing, lightless little space, then stole inside, and closed the door behind her. Mike wasn’t about to go in after her – for all he knew she was turning into a werewolf in there. She stayed in there for a couple of hours, until finally, the door opened a crack and she peered out at the mounting chaos. Thursday Night was starting to happen; all was becoming noise and confusion. She retreated, and shut the door again.

I can’t recall, I guess Mike must have fished her out of there at some point, or maybe she just vanished. Maybe it was a portal to another dimension, and she crossed through to return to her own time and space.

They’d play mind games with you. A pair of arty-looking young women, quite sober I’m led to believe, once paid Kevin for a couple of beers, and then began, well, a sort of little play. Really, a rehearsed and scripted scene, apparently of their own devise. “I think,” says one, “that we should thank the bartender for his service”.

“Oh I quite agree”, says the other, “but what sort of gesture would be most appropriate?”.

They both then turned to face Kevin, who figured maybe they were going to toss him a quarter, but no, they both stuck out their tongues and vibrated them quickly, up and down within their open mouths, making sounds uncannily like those of a turkey on speed – ululating, they call it. It’s common in African and Middle Eastern cultures, it says here in Wikipedia, but not so much in the basement of 1255 Seymour Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1982. It was like this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md7OvU5JIcI

“What do you think of that?”, they asked, upon finishing.

“I really find myself at a complete loss”, responded Kevin, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Except there was no other shoe. They just skipped away, delighted with themselves. Perhaps it was the off-Broadway debut of their new one-act play: Confusing the Shit Out of the Guy Tending Bar.

Look, could I possibly make this up?

Hey, have you ever seen a bunch of Domus drunks play ping-pong? I bet you haven’t! We had a table up on the main floor. I heard some ruckus coming through the floor into the basement, and went upstairs to find a couple of drunks standing on chairs, taking swan dives onto the thing, breaking it irreparably. When you’re good and loaded, trying to keep track of that little white ball was a real pain in the ass, inevitably it rolled under some couch or other, and I guess at that point you could play Sissy-Boy-Slap-Party with the paddles, but this – now this was fun. Australian rules ping-pong! Dig it!

Meanwhile, who could predict what child of the night might arrive unannounced? Jerry, one of our house managers who lived upstairs – oh yes, you could live there, too, there were a couple of apartments upstairs, it was a real time-saver, you just crawled up there on all fours at the end of the night, and stumbled back down to the bar to start another cycle the next morning – anyway, Jerry was crawling back into his lair one night when he found a strange woman just standing in his kitchen, fridge door open, rummaging around and grabbing some left over pizza, or Sara Lee cake or something. The front door was unlocked, so she figured it was all community property, I guess. It was best not to over-react in such situations. Just keep smiling. I think maybe she settled down for the night after that, on Jerry’s sofa maybe, which was OK, you just wedged a chair under the doorknob inside your bedroom, and likely she’d be gone by the time you woke up. It wasn’t like there was much she could break out there.

Mike, despite the long nights stretching into mornings, was actually married by the time he made bar manager, his wife was a hard-working rookie teacher, so he couldn’t avail himself of the lodgings. Kevin sure did, though, when it was his turn, and Jason too, it was all very handy.

We lived like debauched princes, really.

One thing though: if it started to get ugly, if the place needed defending, that meant you. There were no bouncers, and the Police were out of the question – that was the unspoken deal, leave the cops out of it, and God help you if they were forced to intervene. No sir, it was down to you. This was very much more than a theoretical possibility. An after-hours bar, what they might have called a “speak-easy” back in the day, was the sort of place that your average inveterate drunk just doesn’t want to leave. It’s also the sort of place where fights could erupt in the wink of an eye, but the main problem was always cleaning the place out and locking up. Not everybody was as passive as Laughing Boy, looking for a place to hide until we’d gone. Some just dug in their heels. A particular stand-out was one giant, bald-headed picnic ham in a leather vest who simply refused to go, no, he wouldn’t do it, for the very good reason, as he put it, that “I haven’t had enough fun here yet”.

Kevin, who is wiry but slight – I’d say this guy had about a foot in height and a hundred pounds of bulk on him – tried to confront him in a reasonable way, but it was soon getting heated, and somehow, through the noise and the confusion and fog of war, I became conscious of Kevin saying to the guy “You want to hit somebody? Go on and hit me then”.

WRONG THING TO SAY, KEV!  Buddy did haul off and punch him in the face. The next thing Kevin saw was Jason storm at his attacker like you would in football, and he tells me I did too, apparently the both of us, Jason mostly, ran him right off his feet and threw him down the front steps, and then there was a crowd, and threats, and people coming out of the woodwork, and noise – outdoor noise. The sort of noise that draws in campus police, who will then call the actual Police, and I don’t know how we managed to defuse the situation. I seem to recall we had leverage, because he wore glasses, which Kevin clutched in his upraised fist, threatening to break them in two. I think the guy agreed to go home if he could just have his glasses. Or was that another guy, during another stand-off? There were many, you see. It’s hard to keep them straight.

Jesus Christ, I thought to myself, you’re a Liberal Arts student. You major in Poli Sci.  What the hell was I doing filling in as goddam bouncer? But you had to, really. Sometimes there simply was nobody else. The only alternative would be to stop closing the place down every night – unthinkable.

It could get pretty scary. I was faced once with an alcoholic regular who was ready to fight tooth and nail, literally, to remain and drink, and I toyed with the idea of just locking him in and letting him have at the bar all night, but that wasn’t my call, so now what? So now I had to throw him out. Me. Sure. In the ensuing struggle, he tore the shirt right off my back, and dug at my flesh with his fingernails, and I was bleeding from long scratches all over my torso, and screaming, and found myself in a sort of delirium, with the drunk up against a wall and my forearm crushing his trachea, vowing to kill him, which I just about did. God help me. Some part of me realized that I actually was coming close to killing this almost insensate sack of guts. He was turning a little blue. I remembered reading somewhere – somehow, a rational lobe of my brain was still functioning as I screamed and strangled this bastard, who wouldn’t release his grip on my flesh – that if you put enough pressure on a guy’s throat, it wouldn’t matter if you stopped short of knocking him out, his trachea could still swell from the injury, and if you didn’t know how to intubate him, you’d lose him.

Having no real urge to commit manslaughter, I managed to get a grip on myself, stopped trying to crush his throat – I was terrified for a moment that I’d already gone too far – and wheeled him around, pushed him out the front door, and sort of tobogganed down the front steps on top of him, which was enough to break the spell. He stood up, panting, but he was OK. I made my way back inside with some haste. As I watched he stood there for a bit, and then just walked away. He was so drunk that he was veering all over the sidewalk, kicking his legs high in a weird sort of alcoholic goose step, until he vanished around a corner, and you know what? You can guess, I bet. He was back a couple of nights later. He didn’t remember me, and I guess he didn’t remember the incident either.

So much for my career as an enforcer. Oh well, at least he didn’t give me rabies.

Sean, who often pulled the Friday shift, inevitably faced similar challenges, but he was a few years older than me, had been around the track many more times, and wasn’t dumb enough to get into brawls with patrons. What, then, to do? He was actually flummoxed very late, one Saturday morning, by a bunch of Goth types who huddled in a corner and simply wouldn’t go. They simply would not, I mean, it was surreal. It was impossible to grasp what it was they imagined was going to happen. Sean tried to figure out a way to ease them out the door, and his first idea was that he could leverage the weather, since it was the dead of winter. Maybe he could encourage the Goths to leave if he made the place uncomfortable. So Sean opened up the ground level windows on both sides of the bar, and before long, it was frickin’ freezing in there, a howling arctic vortex crossed the basement between the windows. That would force them out, right?

Not really.

Sean had another bright idea. It happened that a CBC film crew had recently taken a few shots of the Domus interior for a documentary they were making called, simply, Lawyers. I don’t think much of the footage made the cut, but they’d gone to town setting the place up for filming, and one of their challenges had been lighting – it was too dark down in that basement for the cameras. So, they’d brought in these special lightbulbs, God they were bright, they almost blew fuses, they were something on the order of arc lights except they fit into ordinary light sockets. They cast an unbearably bright and incandescent storm of photons, so powerfully luminescent that it made it painful to keep your eyes open. Those Goths, huddled in the corner in the dark and cold over there, would have thoroughly dilated pupils, yes? The fierce light would surely sear their retinas, fry their brains, and force them to run, yes?  Sean bustled around the basement, screwing in the special bulbs, and then AAAAAAAAAAAA – turned them all on. The blue-white light was hideous! No place was ever seedier than Domus at 4AM Saturday in the dead of winter, as illuminated by several million candlepower. That would do the trick! Between that and the cold, these frigging Goths would surely, now, scuttle away.

Or stay put.

Desperate, now, Sean unhooked one of the big pressurized CO2 canisters attached to the soda fountain. It was about the size of a scuba tank. As he hauled it out of place, he banged it repeatedly against some other empty cylinders that were lying around, and it made a piercing, clanging noise, like the bells of some church being hammered by a percussionist in the last stages of degenerative dementia. “GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT”, yelled Sean over the clanging, in the punishing cold, under the merciless un-flickering lights.

Still nothing. The Goths hunkered down. So Sean hauled the canister around the bar and opened the valve on top. A gale of high pressure CO2 struck the Goths right in their faces, there was grit blowing around, beer cups were blown off the tables, as Sean kept yelling “GET OUT! GET OUT! GETTTTT OUUUUTTTTTTT!!!!”. He was growling. He sounded almost demonic. It was scary. It certainly scared me.

The Goths, made of sterner stuff, did up their leather jackets, raised their collars, and crouched, clutching their beers. They were like penguins huddling through the long Antarctic winter, the brightest Antarctic winter that ever saw a 100 knot gale blow through, unmoving, immovable.

Sean turned off the stream of CO2, turned off the lights, closed the windows, and retired back behind the bar. He put a new tape on the stereo, and sat on his stool, face down on the counter. Sometimes, you were just whipped, plain and simple.

 

 

Exams

Screen Shot 2017-08-18 at 3.42.53 PM

It was just a beautiful spring day, and the almost crystalline blue sky harboured not a single cloud.

Out back of 1255 Seymour was a big open lot, a sort of parking lot, I guess, smoothed-over gravel, not asphalt, and I don’t recall a lot of cars ever occupying the space, but whatever, a parking lot. Mike and Kevin had opened up the back door escape hatch of the Domus bar area, and taken to the parking lot to play with a Frisbee.

A Frisbee can be like therapy, you know. Kevin and I sometimes went to the grassy grounds in front of one of Dalhousie’s most substantial structures, the Dunn Building, to throw a Frisbee around in the dusk, as sunset stretched into nightfall on those wonderfully crisp Nova Scotia summer evenings. That’s a source of happy memories, the simple joy of tossing a Frisbee back and forth with Kev. There are times, not many, when you don’t seem to have a worry in the world, and if you ask me to conjure up a happy memory, which is always, inevitably, a lot harder than retrieving a recollection of something mortifying or embarrassing, my first thought might be of chucking the Frisbee around with Kev out in front of the Dunn building.

The memories you form in those youthful days are always more powerful, aren’t they? Tell me to free-associate the concept of contentment, and up comes a mental snapshot of a 180 gram white Frisbee, sailing toward Kev, about 50, heck maybe 75 yards away, under the lights. It could soar that far, high up, and then, its forward momentum dissipated, simply settle down and descend vertically, land like a helicopter, right into Kev’s hands. I can see it now, clear as day, as I write this. At such times, I guess, the self-conscious parts of your mind simply take a break. All you have is the perfection of the moment, and the wonder of the friendship that supports it.

It’s not as if that’s my last happy memory, but it is, in a way. The times that came next were never again so free of the constant, underlying anxiety. Someday, maybe somebody can explain to me the upside of being a grown-up.

Anyway, Mike and Kevin were out back on a beautiful day, throwing the Frisbee back and forth, just passing the time.

“Geez, nice day isn’t it?” said Mike.

“Yup”, said Kev.

I mean, it’s shirt-sleeve weather out here, warm, sunny, dry, not too hot, almost perfect weather, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess”.

“So Winter’s over, then, right? It’s Spring?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.”

“Doesn’t that make it exam time?”

Shit.

Yes.

The Spring weather meant it simply had to be exam time, but of course the questions were, which exams, when, and what courses were they enrolled in anyway?

Most professional people that I know, me included, have the exam dream. It’s a recurring nightmare that can involve any level of school you ever attended, and any number of riffs on the basic scenario: you’ve just realized you have an exam tomorrow for a course in which you’d forgotten you were enrolled, the classes for which you never attended. It can be high school French, or something you never actually took in graduate school, and it’s always something that you simply can’t afford to fail, you need a pass to graduate. I always wake up in a cold sweat, but it’s just a dream. Mike and Kevin lived it.

How did it get this way? In my recollection, Mike’s and Kevin’s law school endeavours went sideways pretty quickly, and there were three key factors:

  • Anybody in his right frame of mind hates law school;
  • The pernicious bell curve grading system makes it almost impossible to do well; and
  • 1255 Seymour Street, and all that that implies.

Perhaps not in that order.

It started with beating your brains out to get grades in the “C” range. From there, it was a straight line to not beating your brains out to get grades in the “C” range. After that, it was realizing that you didn’t really need to go to class, you could skip the whole dreary business, just obtain somebody else’s case summaries – “cans” in Dalhousie law parlance – and continue to get grades in the “C” range. It turns out that “cans” was actually an acronym, “CANS”, for Condensed Annotated Notes; who knew? Somebody once asked Mike, “how long does it take you to do up your CANS?” Mike mimed out the motion of reaching his hand into his pocket, grabbing a coin, and inserting it into a photocopier, and then he bent his arm at the elbow and mimicked the back and forth motion of the light bar that scans the image, being careful to add sound effects to fully imitate the action of the machinery. Pause to calculate. “About five seconds”, he answered.

Easy, peasy, provided you could get somebody to lend you their CANS. That could get tricky if you weren’t actually known much within the school; fellow Domophiles weren’t much help, they all needed to borrow somebody’s CANS too, of course. There was always a way, though. From there, it wasn’t so much sliding down a slippery slope as it was diving into a heated pool.

The full Domus immersion made conventional school attendance and academic striving a little bit unlikely. First, if you were going take residence in the Domus basement, drinking, from about 7PM to 3AM every day, that pretty much put a stop to reading cases and poring over textbooks. Second, if you were going to be up until 3 AM almost every day, drunk, with the subsequent hangover to deal with, that precluded attendance at any sort of class scheduled for the morning, and indeed, for the early afternoon. Third, there was Thursday Night: since Thursday Night, the Big Night, might involve drinking until the Sun came up, that obviously precluded any sort of class on Fridays, whenever they might choose to schedule it. Finally, there was the availability of what amounted to paying jobs at Domus – you could be Bar Manager, like Mike, and then Kevin, or House Manager, like Sean, and make the supply and upkeep of the bar your primary purpose in life. Domus needed. It was like a living thing. You spent the daylight hours feeding it, getting it ready to go, and then depleted it all night, until it was time to wake up, drag your ass back in, and begin the cycle anew. Lather, debauch, repeat.

What did the musty law library, what did all those tedious classes, have to compete with the myriad charms of Domus? This was an era, understand, when law school tuition wasn’t the punishing levy to which we’ve become accustomed in these latter days. You could cover it off with modest student loans, maybe bursaries, and summer jobs, so it never felt like there was that much of an investment at risk, not the sort of blood and treasure that modern law students have to expend. You could make a party out of it and not lose much, short-term. So who cared? Not you. It became almost as if law school tuition was the Domus membership fee, you couldn’t be an official Domus employee and not be enrolled in the frigging school, so O.K., pay the price, enroll, and then get down to the real business of managing and inhabiting our own little corner of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Attend classes? What? Give your head a shake. The average Domophile avoided classes the way an ascetic spurned pleasure, it went beyond inclination and entered the world of governing philosophy. It became an article of the New Faith that a true hall-of-famer on the make, a “clutch law student”, could ignore the classwork all day, attend not a single lecture, not even buy the course materials, and still pull off the bell curve-induced mark in the “C” range.  After a while, neither Mike nor Kevin even visited the Weldon Law School, except to post notices of upcoming Domus events on the various cork-boards. They became “phantom law students”, as one professor deemed them. They’d be signed up, all right, their names on the class list, but they wouldn’t be seen, not once, before the stinking 100% final exam, for which the boys would cram the night before – if particularly conscientious, two nights before – and collect their regulation “C” grades.

The member of the lay public has to understand something: law school is nothing like medical school. In the latter, you’re being trained to be a physician, no guff, to be able to confront the challenges you’ll face when you get out there in the real world of hospitals and ERs and begin to take responsibility for people’s lives, and yes, their deaths too. That’s serious stuff, and not, trust me, the stuff of law school. Law school had nothing to do with preparing you to be a lawyer. The academics who inhabit these sinecures are almost adamant, almost proud of it: this is not a vocational school. One didn’t attend their institutions in order to learn the nuts and bolts of how to practise law in a given specialty, of which the law has many. No, this was an exercise in learning how to think like a lawyer, to understand the underlying principles, the very life essence, of legal thinking and the functioning legal mind.

In other words, you could take a year of contracts class at law school, and never see an actual contract, never be asked to take a stab at drafting an actual contract, and then be sent out there into the real world, where ordinary people were supposed to assume that your law degree had turned you into some kind of legal Gandolf, and draft real, legally enforceable agreements. You may doubt me on this. If so, that’s because – and this isn’t your fault, understand – you don’t know Jack Shit. Anything law school teaches you that’s actually pertinent to being a real human lawyer serving real human clients is completed in the first, I’d say, three months of first year, and it ain’t much. When I graduated law school, and was given my first assignments as a business lawyer, I was confronted with reams upon reams of clauses and language that I had no clue how to interpret. Certain things were always there, like, say, an innocuous little clause that said “Time is of the essence of this agreement”. Had anyone prepared me to know what that meant, or why I might or might not want it in a contract? Hell, no. It was four years in when I learned what it meant, and when I did, I wished most fervently that I hadn’t included it in about a third of the things I’d ever drafted.

If we trained doctors the way we trained lawyers, they’d graduate and understand the theory of, say, why cleansing the bloodstream of impurities is crucial, but have no idea what the liver looks like, much less what it does.

If you’re smart – and Mike and Kevin were smart – you caught on to this nonsense fast. Attendance at hundreds of hours of classes dealing with civil procedure, business associations, administrative law and the like, would equip you for almost nothing. The few things that you did learn, which were likely laboured over for weeks in classes taught by relative incompetents using the case law “Socratic Method” of instruction, you were likely going to have to re-learn once you were out in the awful realm of practical application, and you’d begin to realize that what they had taken a month to explain to you was a concept that was much more readily understood after about 25 minutes of practical thought. Mike, Kevin, and the others could not possibly have understood this as well as actually practising law would soon equip them to grasp, but it was certainly possible to get a whiff of the academic horse manure. These people weren’t real lawyers, and weren’t real teachers either. They had no idea how to help you succeed in the cut-throat roller derby you were supposedly being groomed to enter. They didn’t care. They didn’t need to. It was, practically speaking – and Mike, Kev, and others among their peer group weren’t wrong about this – a holding pattern, an utter waste of time.

OK, so once you’d absorbed certain unpalatable realities, and also, subsequently, realized that excelling was almost impossible, that the profs had no idea how to teach, that what they were teaching didn’t much equip you for what you’d be facing supposing you graduated, and that it was, to boot, horrifically, crushingly, irrepressibly drab and awful – and Domus beckoned – what would you do? You’re a young man, twenty-something, with access to a 24/7 bar in which you could drink cheaply, listen to your favourite music all night, and flirt with pretty young women. Would you choose that? Or would you choose a path of rectitude in which you attended Friday morning Tax class at 8:30 and spent two more hours on the concept of “income from an office of employment”? Would you spend night after night with three colours of hi-liter going over things in the casebooks? Would you? Really?

Yeah, all right, maybe you would, because you wanted the prize. That’s what I did, when I finally succumbed, and went. I wanted the shiny object, but I was lucky, I’d already had Domus, I’d already seen law school from the inside. I knew what I was getting into. I was free to push forward, unencumbered by illusions, hopes, and dreams of doing something meaningful. Law school was a job, a competition, leading towards another job, another competition, and there were certain things you had to achieve, without worrying that your dreams about what it was all about were proving to be nonsense. What dreams? I just wanted to get my arms out of a bucket of Varsol. I was almost ten years older, too. I rather doubt I could have taken the strain of law school if I hadn’t already known how shallow and empty it would be, and If I hadn’t already more or less sated my youthful compulsion to indulge in the joys of the dissolute lifestyle that was there, free for the taking, seductive, irresistible, really, to young men of a certain age. Perhaps I was doubly lucky, too, that I went to U of T, not Dal, and U of T had no Domus – well, nobody did, but U of T had no law student bar at all. They had a wine tasting club. They called it “The Supreme Cork”. I shit you not.

So call it disillusionment. Call it immaturity, call it being led astray, it was what it was. The boys were at the bar. In the light of day, they tended to its needs. At night, they depleted its resources to the point of exhaustion. Lather, debauch, repeat.

Yet some part of them still wanted the diploma. Tuition wasn’t really just the membership fee to Domus, not all the time anyway. They’d been brought up to achieve. So exam time always initiated this frantic process: what courses am I in, what are the course materials, when is the exam, what short-cuts are out there to get me through? It could become very tense and exhausting, being utterly unprepared and blindsided by exams in courses you’d only just realized you’d been enrolled in all year long, especially if – God help us – they were scheduled on a Friday. What sort of Torquemadas scheduled an exam on the day after Thursday Night? The day after Thursday Night, for fuck sakes. One time, Mike, having finished his own Friday ordeal in another room, peered into a class where Rossi was suffering through his own dark morning of the academic soul, looking through the small window in the door to the classroom. Rossi was trying to overcome the effects of the prior night’s alcohol with some uppers. Even out the strain, you know. Mark watched as Rossi looked at the question sheet, picked it up, and used it to mop his fevered brow, the sweat pouring off him.

During some sort of contracts exam, for which Mike was less than unprepared, having neither attended class nor bought the materials – hey, the materials were expensive! – he regarded the exam questions, and got up and left the room. Exams in law school are open book, it’s not about what you can memorize, it’s about how you can reason through problems having learned the rules about how you think like a lawyer (that is, how well you tolerate cognitive dissonance), so nobody objected as he left his seat, apparently intent upon retrieving supplemental materials. He took the elevator up to the law library, now more or less vacant, since everyone was otherwise occupied writing finals downstairs, and asked the rather nonplussed staff member behind the counter if he could please sign out the contracts case book. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing that exam right now?”, she asked. “I am indeed”, says Mike, “so if you could make haste I’d be mightily grateful”.

Sean had another strategy. As exams approached, and his prospects of catching up on all the missed course work dimmed, he had what under the circumstances, we’ll say, was the good luck to have developed a subcutaneous cyst on his back. Or was it his backside? Can’t recall. Back there somewhere. He’d seen doctors at Student Health. It wasn’t dangerous, particularly, it was just a boil which, in time, would need to be lanced the old-fashioned way, and Sean asked them if it could wait, because he had an exam the next day. Sure, they said, come in after. Sean then went to the exam, looked at the question sheet to see if he had a chance of answering anything, and upon realizing he didn’t, slammed his backside against the wooden chair, deliberately bursting the cyst. It was, he assured us later, productive and foul. Who, at that point, could deny him dispensation to go get it dealt with and come back later, in a couple of days maybe, once the doctors were through with him? More study time! Yay, cyst!

Again, I ask you: could I possibly be making this up?

Once, Mike completed his family law exam on the information contained in an article in Family Circle magazine. “A simplistic distillation of the law”, he said, “but it got me a ‘B’”.

So now, it had come to this. They had to transition from chucking the Frisbee around out back to figuring out what classes they were in. After some scrambling, they found out they were enrolled in such daunting courses as Wills, and Admiralty, and trooped over to the Weldon to see if they could still buy the materials, and, crucially, if the relevant exams had already been written.

For Kevin, signed up for Admiralty, apparently, there was good news and bad news. The materials were still available, and the exam had not already been written. However, the exam was tomorrow. Tomorrow. For the love of Christ. He bought the Cerlox-bound casebook, printed, in legal fashion, on paper 8 ½ by 14 inches long, and carried it back to Domus. There was still time, right? All he had to do was go through the materials, and get the gist of it.

Two things about Admiralty Law: first, it’s exquisitely complex. I know. I took it, much later. It isn’t rooted in the English Common Law. Admiralty is its own thing, with some doctrines, we reckon, going as far back as ancient Phoenicia. It has its weird little quirks. For example, if you sue somebody in a court sitting in Admiralty, you don’t sue human beings – you sue the ship. An “in rem” suit, it’s called, that is, translated from the Latin, it’s a thing you’re suing. There were lots of little twists like that, ancient rules about salvage, duty to rescue, flotsam, jetsam, treaties on international carriage of goods, it was a web of strictures, some as old as civilization, some as new as multi-state negotiations concluded only a couple of years prior.

Kevin was, as noted, very smart, but that wasn’t the problem. He had a practical bent; and he couldn’t really give a shit about law. Thus, he was delighted to discover that the first few pages of the Admiralty casebook were devoted to the description of ships, their characteristics, and purposes. Great huge ships, mind you! How they actually worked! There was a big fold-out sheet that gave you a diagram of a modern “Panamax” container ship. Wait – what was “Panamax”? Well, when designed, the locks of the Panama Canal were set at 110 feet of width, so any ship that wanted to transit had to have a beam of less than 110 feet – sometimes only a shade less – or do what ancient mariners had had to do, and round Cape Horn instead. A “Panamax” ship was one designed to have the greatest possible beam that would still allow it to transit the Panama Canal. Oh my God! Fascinating! There were of course different kinds of ships, too, most importantly, these days, oil tankers and container ships, especially, it seemed, container ships.

Containerization had revolutionized international commerce. The apparently simple idea that goods were best shipped in standard-sized boxes which ships, trains and trucks alike could be designed to haul, well, it had changed everything! Moreover, there were types of container ships, they weren’t all the same! Some had ramps that lowered from their sterns, which were set at an angle such that the ramps could be lowered right onto the adjacent pier. Thus you could simply drive vehicles on them, and off them. These were therefore “roll-on, roll-off” vessels, or “Ro-Ros”!  Amazing! Others had well decks that could be flooded, allowing containers to be loaded by barges, right into and out of the hulls. “Float on, Float off” – “Flo-Flos”!  And oh, damn, the ships also had various markings on their hulls, near the water line, things that any observant maritime boy had noticed, in passing, as the vessels entered and exited Halifax Harbour. Here they were explained! It was great! For example, a cargo ship’s hull was always marked with a “Plimsoll Line”! Wait, get the fuck out of here, I’ve seen that!! What does it mean? Well, “the Plimsoll line is a reference mark located on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth to which the vessel may be safely immersed when loaded with cargo. This depth varies with a ship’s dimensions, type of cargo, time of year, and the water densities encountered in port and at sea.”

Oh! This was so interesting!

I sat there, as Kevin studied the casebook with almost savage intensity, sitting at the Domus bar and having a beer. The exam was in about 12 hours, but all this stuff about ships and how they worked was great, and he couldn’t move past it. The mechanics of international trade, the actual means by which billions of tons of goods were exchanged between continents, now that was interesting and important. The related law? Oh for Chrissakes, please.

Back over at the school, I guess on the scrounge for CANS, or there doggedly advertising some theme night at Domus, Kevin and Mike ran into “Frank”, the giant leprechaun, so named because he was 6’6″ tall and once wore a button on March 17th that said “World’s largest leprechaun”.  When they got off the elevator, Frank was getting on. He asked them how the study was going for the impending Admiralty exam.

“Fine” said Kevin. “It’s just that I’m having trouble remembering all those confusing terms: Ro-Ro, Flo-Flo, Flotsam, Jetsam, FOLO, FOFO, LOFO, LOLO, etc. It’s all so difficult”.

“That stuff is murder”, Mike concurred, somberly.

Frank turned white as a sheet. Mike thought he would faint. Frank hadn’t boned up on that stuff at all! Yikes, was that the important stuff? Holy shit! Ay Carumba!! Time to get back to cramming! The elevator door closed before they had a chance to tell him, supposing they could have been bothered to tell him, that he could relax, they were just yanking his chain. Nice guys.

Meanwhile, Mike, if not at the same time, but perhaps some other time, it’s hard to keep this stuff straight after all these years, found out that he was in Wills and Estates. This, too, is a rather fraught and complicated area of law, going back to ancient times, drawing on legal concepts modified by the Common Law that derive from Greek and Roman traditions. The reader might understand a bit about how complex a body of law this is by being informed that this is where the notorious “Rule Against Perpetuities” comes up. Wills and estates is no joke, and it’s also an area, like the equally ancient law of real estate, in which things can get insanely arcane.

Oh shit, real estate, that was another one. In first year, Mike was sure he was getting a grip on this, but it was hard to tell. The relevant law is full of medieval terms signifying the extent of a person’s actual legal interest in the relevant piece of land. One might possess “fee simple absolute”, or only the “fee tail”, that sort of thing. The case books tended to illustrate these concepts by reference to hypothetical plots of land, say “Black-acre”, or “Green-acre”. Some hypothetical protagonist might have some sort of interest in “Green-acre”, maybe a fee tail. Mike assumed the colour of the land denoted, at law, the actual legal doctrine at play, such that “Black-acre” always meant “fee simple absolute”, and “Green-acre” always meant “fee simple contingent”.

Such little misunderstandings could cost you dearly on an exam graded on a bell curve.

Wills and estates was a lot like that. Mike and three others formed a study group, and Mike won that study group’s Wills prize; he got a “D”. There were also two “E”s and an “F”. Yes, Dal Law handed out “E” grades in those days, it was described as a “gentleman’s failure”, and I forget why the distinction between “E” and “F” mattered, maybe it had something to do with the prospect of writing supplemental exams to secure passing marks.

That was the problem with letting the futility of trying to get high grades discourage you from trying to get any grades at all. You could end up with decidedly awful grades. It wasn’t like there was much danger of actually flunking out of law school, everyone involved would do his or her level best to get you over the top somehow, but the thing was, there weren’t a lot of law firms in the Greater Halifax area, and all of them would be looking to see your transcripts.

At the end, when Jason and Kevin and Jerry, all denizens of 1255 in various capacities, started applying for jobs, they held a “PFO” contest. “PFO” stood for “Please Fuck Off” – the essential message of a given law firm, expressed in a letter of reply, having reviewed your job application. They all stapled the PFOs to their walls, and there were dozens. I forget who won.

So it goes. All those PFO-worthy grades set off a sort of chain reaction, which is how I ended up where I am, and others too.

 

 

The Great Parking Meter Caper

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Things kept disappearing, some big, some small, some utterly inconsequential, some valuable, it didn’t seem to matter. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was stolen. If it was nailed down, it was spat upon, torn, crushed, kicked, obliterated, and its remaining fragments stolen. Something about being drunk in the Domus basement turned our patrons, both foreign and domestic, into rabid kleptomaniacs. A ratty garbage can filled with various sorts of refuse best not visualized? Steal it. Beer cups, both used and unused? Take them too. Ashtrays, tiles out of the floor, rolls of paper towel, light bulbs in their sockets, discarded clothing in the lost and found box that hadn’t been discarded for nothing, Hell yes, heist the lot. They ripped posters off the walls, ran off with fire extinguishers (certified fully operational as recently as 1971), carried off tables and chairs, and even tried to haul away the enormous leather sofa in the TV room, a truly gargantuan piece of furniture weighing about as much as a bull moose – they dragged it across the hardwood floor, scraping the hell out of it, and only gave up when they realized, apparently, that it would be too much work to get it out the front door and down the steps. We found it wedged in the entrance.

One time, after a guy puked his guts out, I suggested that maybe we shouldn’t mop up the puddle of cold sick right away, but wait to see if somebody would steal that, too.

One Thursday night, they made off with Mike and Kevin’s tip bowl, pulled it right out from under their noses from its plainly visible place on the bar. Poof, gone, with not so much as a spilled quarter left behind. Hey! It was just there a second ago! Mike almost admired the sleight of hand. All you could do was sigh and check to make sure the bastard hadn’t taken your wallet too.

There wasn’t much we could do about any of the thievery, really. We weren’t staffed to properly secure the place, which was a problem sometimes, and doubly vexing when it wasn’t just robbery that they had in mind, but vandalism too. A main floor radiator valve, opened up by some prankster, seeped water unseen for hours until it rotted out about 20 square feet of the basement ceiling – a shame, all that priceless graffiti gone, and a fire risk too, given the chaotic internal arrangement of the electric wiring. More dangerous still, somebody one night found the master cut-off and killed power to the whole building, right in the middle of an oppressively crowded booze fest – instant chaos, especially since at the time Domus had no emergency lighting (one of about 500 individual code violations). There were some nervous moments, but everybody got out all right. After that we had little emergency lights installed; sadly, the next time somebody cut the juice, they failed to function.

For some reason, they never swiped our TV or upstairs speakers. I suppose the pinball machine and video games (the latter, in those days, being single purpose devices with cathode ray tubes that were about the size of a mail box), also unmolested, were too heavy and unwieldy to cart off, absent a dolly.

The frat boys were the worst. It was as if stealing a souvenir from the law students’ bar was some sort of initiation rite, or badge of honour; or maybe they were just getting their digs in because they knew the extremes to which we despised them. Goddam Delta-Delta-Phi-Delta assholes, or whatever they were, they made us want to retch, they’d stroll in all full of smug entitlement and demand service, often jumping the queue, because, well, they were different. Better. They were Phi-Kappa-Gamma-Omega men! It was outrageous that Mike and Kevin served everyone who bellied up to the bar, students or downtown derelicts, yet ignored them no matter how much they squawked. Outrageous.

We, of course, would have been beaten with two-by-fours had we tried to belly up to one of their bars, in their stinking frat houses with half the Greek Alphabet nailed to their facades. We wouldn’t have made it past the porch.

Most noxious were the commerce students. They had a house on campus too, and they actually wore big round buttons with the slogan “B. Comm. Be Cool”. I guess “Witless Entitled White Boy Capitalist Pig in Training” was too many words. It was a guy wearing one of those “Look at Me, I’m an Asshole” badges who took to lecturing us one night on our manners after we had to deal with a rowdy drunk, which only prompted us to come up with another “call sign” – “Politeness Man” – which was then a comic book character in National Lampoon. Not as cutting as we would have liked, but “Smug Idiotic Interloping Tool of a Commerce Shithead” took too long to say.

Kevin finally declared war when some commerce types ran off with some of our admittedly worthless furniture. Time to get some back. He deputized a couple of other Domus troopers, marched up the street to the Commerce House, grabbed a sofa, and carted it back to Domus. Stupid bastards had left it sitting there on the front porch, not even chained down. We were awfully pleased with ourselves, but the thing was, we had no use for another couch, and there was nowhere to put it where it wouldn’t be an impediment to navigation, so we were kind of like the proverbial dog that caught the fire truck. After a few more drinks we decided that a great way to dispose of it would be to cart it over to a Greek place, maybe Phi-Delta-Gamma, or whatever the hell it was, and put it on their porch – implicate the frat boys! Maybe we could spark off a sort of dickhead war of attrition between them and Commerce Nation, perhaps unlikely but worth a shot.

So there we were, Kevin and I, one at each end of the sofa, marching right up the middle of Seymour Street at something around 2 AM, like a couple of looting Roman Centurions bearing booty back from some sacked Gallic village. We were in plain view, if anybody was around to look, but who was around? Nobody! We’d get this wrapped up in a jiffy, and no one would be any the wiser.  What clever boots we were!

OK, maybe “clever” is the wrong adjective. Perhaps predictably, there was somebody looking – a rather bemused Dalhousie security guard, out doing his rounds, just exiting the Student Union Building. We could see him, no problem, yet drunk and stupid as I was, I was thinking that maybe he didn’t see us! Kevin, pulling from up front, and entertaining no such delusions, was hissing at me sotto voce to get the lead out, for chrissakes.

“Kev, Kev – I don’t think he sees us!”

Shut the fuck up, and keep the fuck up, for fuck’s sake!

Can you romp while lugging a sofa? I think we romped. The security guard could see us, of course, but we were able to beat him to Phi-Del, dump the thing on the lawn, and then circle back to Domus in the shadows, and he didn’t seem to want to chase us. In retrospect, this probably wasn’t his first sofa heist.

Back to the basement, then, have a drink, the night was young! About 20 minutes later a couple of Dal security guards paid us a visit, but we played it cool, and it turned out they just wanted to ask us if we’d lost a sofa, since they’d just seen a couple of knuckle-heads running up the street with one. Kevin, coming on all innocent, told them he’d better check, and as they followed him upstairs he led them into the TV room, and – golly, no sir, look, there’s our sofa, all safe and sound. He then offered that some guys from the Commerce House had stolen a couple of our tables earlier, so they looked good for the sofa job too, and maybe if security paid them a visit they’d cop to where they got it. One of the security guards nodded. Yeah, they’d had complaints about those Commerce House guys more than a few times, and off they went to see what was what with those business trainee dim-bulbs.

I don’t know what it was, after that. Maybe I’d contracted the klepto-bug. Maybe I thought our successful sofa robbery proved we were criminal masterminds. Maybe I was just going insane like everybody else at Domus. But the germ of an idea was turning into an actual plan.

I became fixated upon a certain parking meter. It occupied a space just in front of the entrance to a bakery where I worked every evening to earn pocket money – no, relax, of course I don’t know how to bake anything. I was a glorified stock boy, I’d go in every evening, and do things like replenish their flour bins and clean their peanut grinders. I marvel, now, that I was ever able to do it, since much of the job entailed carrying things like 40 kg. bags of flour, or 50 kg. bags of rolled oats, up two flights of stairs. Things like lard came boxed in 20 kilo cubes. They arrived in tens and twelves. Cream of tartar was the worst, it was so dense that it came in woven plastic bags – paper would just have given way. A smallish sac of it weighed 50 kilos. Up the stairs with it! I was young, once.

Anyway, there was a parking meter opposite the bakery’s entrance, and it wasn’t embedded in the sidewalk in the usual way, it was in its own discrete concrete plug, which was itself sunk into a hole in the sidewalk. It was almost like a tooth in its socket, and it was a loose tooth – idly, sometimes, I’d push the meter back and forth in just the way a kid plays with his baby teeth as they’re about to fall out. At some point, I grabbed the functional part of the meter and pulled upwards, and sure enough, lifted the thing up about half a foot. It was completely loose within the sidewalk. It would be possible, hypothetically, to yank it right out of there.

Say – why not do just that? We could pull the thing right out of the ground and transport it back to Domus, where it would be a terrific complimentary accessory next to the shark’s jaws and the “Goose Green” helmet, I mean, why not? Properly planned, such a scheme could surely be effected in just a minute or two. All we needed were willing hands and a vehicle.

It didn’t take long to bring Kevin on board. Mike was more reticent. This was theft of City property, likely a criminal, or at least provincial, offence. It involved risk. It might not go as smoothly as I envisioned it. We didn’t have a suitable vehicle. And so on. We worked on him, and wore him down, no doubt casting aspersions on his manhood, and we also got ahold of the perfect vehicle. Jason happened to drive an enormous Plymouth Fury, a pure product of the Seventies, when everything was about length and wheelbase. The Fury was a classic land yacht, it was twenty feet long – no kidding, I looked it up before I wrote this, 20 feet long – and seven feet wide. You could fit a beluga whale in the trunk. All we had to do was persuade Jason to lend us his car, and that proved surprisingly easy. Then it would be simple: the parking meter, which was chest-high, and its sub-surface plug, maybe adding another foot, I figured, could be yanked out of the sidewalk, hidden in the trunk, and we’d be off in no time, home and dry at Domus in less than 30 minutes. Maybe then we could saw the head off and use it as a bar ornament! Or maybe just mount it in a corner somewhere! Oh boy!!

My idea, I’m afraid.

The Domus equivalent of the Great Train Robbery was soon under way. We drove downtown, and Mike, driving, let me and Kevin out next to the loose meter. I bounded out of the Fury, and proceeded to pull its concrete plug out of the sidewalk. It was easy to shift, but as I kept pulling it upwards, it became apparent that it was a bit like an iceberg, with much more beneath the surface than was immediately obvious. The damned thing was heavy! I kept yanking it upward, and realized it weighed about 150 lbs., and was just about as deep as it was tall. I couldn’t seem to get to the end of it.

Mike was sweating it out as wheel man. Rather than just park, we had him circling the block, awaiting, each pass, the signal that we were good to go, and I had to wave him off a couple of times. I could almost see his knuckles going white as he gripped the big Plymouth’s steering wheel. Finally, I pulled it free of its hole, and holy crap, the parking meter with its plug and previously sub-surface length stood about, I don’t know, eight feet tall. Too long, even, for the capacious trunk of the Fury.

So as Mike pulled round again, we had a problem – how to spirit it back to Domus all clandestine-like? We wound up jamming it into the back seat, with about three feet hanging out of one of the back windows. With all due haste, we drove back towards Seymour Street, Mike sweating bullets, expecting at any moment to be pulled over by a cop who would, inevitably, ask “son, what’s that thing you got stretched across the back seat and hanging out the window?” As camouflage, I think we had the extruding bit covered in some sort of blanket, but it was a fairly suspicious arrangement nonetheless. Yet we made it back without incident. Jason, who I think had assumed we were just kidding about the whole escapade, almost laughed himself stupid at our actual seizure of the prize.

See? Criminal masterminds, that’s what we were!

So now, Domus had an authentic, eight-foot parking meter with a 150 lb. plug of cement on the end, a real sharp item – but way too tall to put anywhere in the basement, with its low ceiling. I lobbied for the prior idea that we could simply saw it off about a foot down from the head and use it as a bar ornament.

Mike, however, was starting to get all antsy. A stolen parking meter was funny, but it was still theft, wasn’t it? There might even be enough change inside it to push the overall value of the pilfered object into “theft over” territory, and that was actually serious, wasn’t it?.  Mike had visions of himself not just being kicked out of law school, not just being forever banned from admittance to the Bar, but also serving time in the five-bar motel, banging his cup on the steel and screaming for the warden. No, no, unh-uh – the parking meter had to go. We couldn’t keep it. It was toxic waste.

Thus the meter leaned at an angle in a corner for a couple of days, and then, late one night/early one morning, Kevin and I skulked across the parking lot out back and laid it on the sidewalk in front of the entrance to the Dal. security office. It lay there for about a week, before somebody from the city came to collect it. It never made its way back downtown – a shiny new one soon occupied the space in front of the bakery, not at all loose in its hole.

 

Under Siege

incomplete

We were, it seems clear in retrospect, continually flirting with disaster. On many Thursday Nights, and every Event Night, we crammed far more bodies into the place than could possibly have been safe, and sometimes, as when we had a band playing, we must have been straining the electrical system of the old place something wicked, while the wooden bones of the house were tinder dry and liable to burn ferociously – a small electrical fire would probably have become a conflagration in short order. Imagine a fire in a house so densely packed with people that it was actually hard to move – no exaggeration. I remember we opened up on a day following an event and were mystified by a smudgy blue stain about a foot and a half wide that extended all the way around the room, at waist height, like a bathtub ring. What the…? I forget who figured out the rather frightening answer: this was the residue of hundreds of denim-clad backsides rubbing sweatily along the walls, against which they’d been compressed by the sheer biomass of the crowd.

At one point, a pair of bartenders – I’m not sure who it was, now, I think Mike was one – reported that the basement ceiling was flexing dangerously over their heads from the weight of the crowd upstairs. If memory serves, one of them donned the army surplus “Goose Green” helmet in the spirit of gallows humour, and waited fatalistically for whatever came next. Were we ever actually in danger of a collapse? Maybe, yeah. It was an old building.

Somebody should have sat us down and made us watch a documentary on what happened at the Cocoanut Grove.

Masses of well-lubricated, jam-packed, overheated college-age kids brought with them a whole set of risks that went far beyond those posed merely by their density and gross tonnage. Tempers frayed. Tussles would break out over nothing. People well into their cups would lose their balance, fall over, and find themselves in danger of being trampled, with nobody able to hear them over the din. They could trip and fall down the stairs – there was one tumble so epic that it knocked the guy unconscious, and I was terrified he was dead. He came to, apparently unharmed, another catastrophe somehow avoided, but I’m not sure it occurred to us that he might have had a slow internal cranial bleed beneath a slightly fractured skull after a fall like that. Memory is funny that way, I simply can’t recall if we called him an ambulance or just let him walk it off. All I can remember is the wave of relief that he hadn’t snapped his neck.

When Mike reads this, maybe he’ll remember. Mike – we had the sense to hand him off to some paramedics, right?

That incident occurred on an alumni night, an event for all the graduate Domophiles of years past to gather together to recapture their youths, if only for a moment, which I dubbed “The Return of the Creatures in the Blue Suits”. They were just as rowdy and undisciplined as they’d always been, albeit better dressed. Once Domus was in your blood, you were forever in its thrall. You could behave normally in the real world, but return to the basement, and you were back to what you were. Immediately.

Even the Blue Suits were thus a little scary, en masse.

I think the most frightening time, when we were most intensely aware of how close to the ragged edge we were operating, was on a band night, in the summer, featuring a group I’ll call The Rock-hoppers. We’d hosted them before without incident, they were good, and popular with the regulars. Their drummer was one of our own, a law student. We knew they’d draw a crowd, which was fine, they’d drawn crowds before. We had no idea, and I maintain no way to suspect, that this night’s crowd would be of an entirely different quality, rowdy and dangerous beyond anything for which our collective experience as unqualified event security staffers could possibly have prepared us.

The Rock-hoppers, you see, had not confined their advertising to the campus. They’d widely promoted the event with posters taped to lampposts all over the downtown, guaranteeing an influx of strangers, some students perhaps, but many not, some of legal drinking age, some whose mere presence within the building could cost us our liquor licence. We also didn’t appreciate that by now, the Rock-hoppers had a particular following, a crowd that trailed after them to all their concerts, the demographics of which skewed heavily towards the virtual cult of black-garbed, metal-studded skateboarders who’d lately become a kind of social movement embracing all sorts of disaffected youth. They fancied themselves as a sort of anarchic avant-garde, and spray-painted slogans on walls all over the downtown – the one that sticks with me is “Skate and Destroy!”, and I suspect they were also the ones behind “Too Much Law, Not Enough Justice”, a sentiment that never struck me as particularly anti-social, if that’s what they were going for. I’ve used that one myself, many times.

An army of skinheads, skate-boarders, and random members of the gen. pop. was thus poised to descend upon our little law school bar in our little old house. Of course this was categorically prohibited by our licence – we weren’t supposed to be operating as a public venue, it was just one of those things that we got away with in small doses. But this? Hundreds of people from off-campus? It would be a transgression of breathtaking scope. In the aftermath, they might shut us down and bulldoze the building.

Meanwhile, we sat there, oblivious, waiting for a fun evening to begin. Have you ever seen those horrifying videos of the tsunami that hit Thailand and Indonesia back in 2004? At the resorts, tourists stood there on the shoreline, marveling at the retreat of the ocean away from the beach, which exposed a broad stretch of what had been sea floor just a couple of minutes earlier. Amazing! They had no idea what it meant, that they had only minutes, now, to run for the highest ground they could reach before it hit.

That was us, at about 8:55 PM.

Kevin was on door for the evening. His role was more akin to a ticket taker than a security guard. He would be collecting a modest cover charge, and marking the hands of the payees with a rubber stamp, I assume meant originally for use by elementary school teachers, that created an image of a zebra with half of its stripes missing, beside the caption “Incomplete”. I was hanging around the entrance too, there to help Kev make change while he administered the zebra stamps.

Then they came. They arrived, they were just suddenly there, all at once, dozens upon dozens of Rock-hopper fans pouring down Seymour street and crushing on to the porch in front of our narrow entrance. Kev was wielding the zebra stamp with frantic haste, but it would have taken at least six of us, and a much wider door, to process them all smoothly. It wasn’t long before the crowd was grumbling and agitated, but with one till, one zebra stamp, and one small aperture of ingress, what were we going to do?

It got worse as more people made it inside, and began boozing immediately. They were having a good time in clear sight of the growing mob outside, who could watch them through the bay window at the front of the house. Why the delay?

A great many were obviously under-age, or borderline. They’d swear up and down that they were 20 or 21, and we’d make them fish around for IDs to prove it, which of course many didn’t have, and every time it was an argument that made the bottleneck just that much worse. There were a lot of young girls, pretty things who took a different tack and attempted to more or less pout their way in. That took time to mediate, too. Sometimes it even worked – what can I tell you, we were young males. You’d have expected us to be smart and prudent?

It was dawning on us that there was something funny about this crowd. More and more, the fans seeking entrance sported leather, Mohawks, studded belts and wristbands, piercings, hair coloured purple and orange, and wardrobes composed exclusively of items in jet black. Who were these menacing, surly guys? Should we be letting them in? More to the point, did we dare try to bar them? A few times, with the very young ones, we did, and they began making civil rights arguments, for Chrissakes, maybe thinking that was the way to bamboozle a bunch of baby lawyers.  We tried arguing that Domus was a private club, members only and all that, but this tended rather to be undercut by the presence of so many non-members who’d already gained entrance. Besides, there’d been all that advertising downtown, obviously intended for the public.

Everywhere around us were faces punctured by safety-pins, yelling at us. I thought I was in the middle of an out-take from Road Warrior. It occurred to me that we’d seen a few members of this pale, leather-skinned crew at a previous Rock-hoppers event, but that had been on Hallowe’en, and it never crossed our minds that they weren’t just decked out for the costume party. This added to their list of grievances, actually – we’d let them in before, why not now? Many complained that we’d already let their girlfriends in which, let’s face it, was true. Should have thought of that.

The ones inside starting throwing beers over our shoulders to the crowd out front (I guess this meant somebody had a bottle opener out there – no twist-offs back then!). Many in the crowd, which was spreading up and down the street like a nattering ink blot, had brought their own booze with them. People were running around, yelling, climbing trees and lamp posts, tooling around on their skateboards, and drinking and drinking some more, while in the crush up front, the mood had officially turned ugly.

We’d already lost control, we just didn’t know it yet. The crowd kept getting bigger, and the band was loud enough that you could party to the music out there just about as well as inside. They still wanted in, though. That’s where the booze was. There were threats. We weren’t quite panicked yet, but we knew there was nothing we could do if they decided to force the door, and little chance of prevailing if they decided to beat the crap out of us. It hadn’t gone that far yet, but I’m sure Kev and I had resigned ourselves to the inevitable; meanwhile, groups of them began circling the building looking for other ways to get in.

1255 Seymour wasn’t exactly a secure building. It had a fire escape out back, to which all floors had exits, and a back door near the TV room that anyone could open from the inside. There were ground level windows without bars. There were of course more windows, probably unlocked, and certainly not Plexiglass, at the backs of the apartments upstairs, easily accessed from the fire escape. With so many obvious points of entry, there was no way we could keep them out, even if they didn’t tear Kev and me to pieces like rag dolls and simply come in the front.

Once inside, why wouldn’t they wreak all kinds of revenge upon us, perhaps unnoticed, even, amid the noise and the crowd? I started gaming out scenarios in my imagination. They could smash the toilets, or bust the TV. Or destroy the pinball machine and video games. Break every window in the joint. Throw our furniture out on to the parking lot out back. Steal anything of any value in the upstairs apartments. Hurl beer bottles at the bar staff. Storm the canteen and loot the fridges, having tossed the bar staff out the back door. Spray paint everything that wasn’t moving, these guys always had spray paint handy, didn’t they? Oh, shit – they could set the place on fire. No, no, calm down, that’d kill them too, they weren’t that stupid. Right? That was right – right?

Inside, the party was in full, dense-packed swing. Condensation was streaming down the glass on the insides of windows. The heat and the noise were oppressive. It was so dark and loud that nobody would have seen me waving frantically or heard me screaming as the skateboarders beat me with the legs of our former chairs. I strained from where I was to see who was in the crowd, and caught a glimpse of a little guy in full punk regalia who was maybe five feet tall, and, I guessed, about 14 years old. A homeless runaway who’d joined the tribe? At the risk of leaving Kev all alone up front, I decided I’d better go get the kid out of the house, but it was so crowded it took me almost five minutes to cross the floor, and I lost him amid the general chaos. He might even have left on his own, the same way he came in. I gave up. I was wasting time, and Kev had been alone up front for far too long. I struggled to make my way back.

Then – Jesus Sphincter-Clenching Christ! There was a girl attempting to run through the crowd towards the front, struggling against the crush. She seemed frantic to get out. She was frightened, really scared, the look on her face was completely unnerving. What was happening? She looked desperately over her shoulder, and I followed her line of sight to just about the worst thing I might ever have conjured up in my fevered, frightened imaginings. A huge guy, towering above the crushing mass of partiers, bald as a cue ball, big as a Sasquatch, was bulling through the crowd in a way most people couldn’t, just shunting everyone aside, knocking them over, in an obvious fit of rage. He was trying to catch the girl. She clearly believed he’d kill her if he did. Surreally, I couldn’t hear him, but I could see he was screaming. God, how was he moving so fast through that sea of bodies? He was going to reach her – he’d be on her in seconds, she just couldn’t flee as fast as he could chase.

There was nothing else for it, was there? As the girl kept forging towards the entrance, close to escape but not close enough, I made the inevitable, and inevitably disastrous choice: as the monster passed me, I jumped on him. Literally, I jumped on him like you might jump on to the back of a black bear, and my outcome seemed likely to be just about as happy as if I had. Yet, others around me had seen what was happening. Their reaction time was fantastic; in just a couple of seconds Kev, and I think three other Domus regulars, had sized up the situation, and they all jumped on him with me. We slowed him down, enough, thank God, that the girl made her escape and vanished up the street, but we sure didn’t stop him. Not even close. He kept right on chugging towards the entrance, and scraped most of us off on the door frame as he charged through.

Most of us. All but Kev. Kev, all 135 pounds of him, was still clinging to the guy’s back.

Wait! I just remembered something! Recall, from a prior chapter, that I had a mental image of Kev in a stand-off with a big angry guy, holding him at bay by clutching his glasses and threatening to break them. Right memory, wrong incident. This was when that happened. It’s playing like a movie in my head, all of a sudden. As the monster writhed and tossed Kev off his back, Kev managed to grab the glasses off his face, and landed on the ground clutching them in his fist. This gave the massive skinhead pause. He couldn’t see all that well without them, and Kevin swore he’d snap them in two – or, how about it big guy, this could just end, he could give the glasses back, and the skinhead could leave peaceably. The rest of us had regained our feet by now, and we surrounded him – again, I’m reminded of a bear, this time circled by yapping dogs. A circle of kids in black, in turn, surrounded all of us.

It was one of those times when you almost feel like a spectator to your own actions, as the scene remained static for an agonizing length of time. Thankfully, wholly unexpectedly, a couple of the skateboarders came forward to talk him down. They spoke to him in soothing tones. They asked Kev to reiterate his promise to give the glasses back if everyone just walked away.

One second, we were sure we were on the verge of a brawl we would surely lose, and the next, it was all over. The skinhead said “O.K.”. As promised, Kev handed him his glasses. The guy put them on, looked around, blinking for a second, and perfectly calm, now, held up his end of the bargain. I wonder to this day what had happened that made him, however briefly, so homicidally enraged with that girl.

I can report, proudly, that I didn’t soil my drawers, though I wouldn’t take any shit from any of you about it if I had. In my mind’s eye, I kept seeing how the incident could easily have turned out. I saw myself beaten senseless, on the ground being kicked. I saw the headlines in tomorrow’s paper: Young Girl Beaten, Killed, Students Fail To Intervene. Undergraduate Dies At Law Student Function. Campus Party Jumps The Rails – Lives Lost. Police Make Arrests, Begin Interrogations In Law Party Homicide.

So that was over. The worst was avoided. But it was still early, and we were outside, surrounded by a crowd full of punks and skateboarders, most of whom weren’t as sympathetic as the ones that had helped us out of the jam. We formed a sort of flying wedge and forced our way back inside, as they hooted and hollered at us. I heard glass breaking. I heard thrown objects hitting the side of the house.

The punks were taking over the neighbourhood. Right in the middle of campus, the Visigoths had seized control, and I was starting to wonder where the cops were.

Before long, a couple of them broke in upstairs. Kevin caught them coming down the staircase and chased them back up. I saw he had the bat from behind the bar in his hand.

No! Jesus! Kevin! Come back!

I was all alone on door. Kevin wasn’t coming back, the minutes passed, and I started to freak out, until I couldn’t hold fast any longer. I had to go looking for him. I couldn’t possibly abandon the door – but I had to. For all I knew he was upstairs bleeding out on his kitchen floor. I had a little luck at that point, as one of our bona fide members strayed to within arm’s length, and I pulled him towards me, screamed over the racket that he had to take my place, but that I’d be right back – likely not true, but what was I going to say, “if you don’t see me again, maintain your post, and see to it that everybody knows I went down swinging”? My new deputy made no objections, just gave me a curt nod – God bless him always – and I ran upstairs figuring that’s where Kev would be. He wasn’t. His apartment was empty. The back door was open, and I rushed on to the fire escape.

When I spotted him, Kev was way below in the parking lot. Evidently, he’d chased them out of his place and all the way back to ground level, and now he was standing, bat upraised like he was waiting for the next fastball, in the middle of a ring of punks in the parking lot. They were circling him, a couple had picked up rocks, but they weren’t sure. That Louisville Slugger looked like it meant business, and so did Kevin. I arrived, running and shouting, and they decided to break it off and rejoin the crowd out front, cussing us out as they walked away. Kevin told me he’d pursued the first intruders up to his own apartment on the third floor, and a bunch more of them were just breaking in when he chased them all off, but they stopped running when they reached the ground, so there he was, just as I found him, for a couple of tense minutes. He told me he’d have gladly caved in the skull of the first guy who made a move. I believed him.

So now we were talking about manslaughter, and it didn’t seem implausible.

Bedlam outside. It was madness. It had to end. There were too many close shaves, too many things that could end in cops and casualties and criminal charges. We were dodging bullets right, left and center. What to do? We were afraid there’d be a riot if we just silenced the band and tried to throw everybody out, and anyway we simply didn’t have the muscle to toss everybody out, that would have made for confrontations in which we’d have been decidedly overmatched – but look, this was nuts. It was hard to believe the police hadn’t already been called by somebody. It was easy to imagine how that would go, too, when it finally happened (and surely it had to happen), with all the skateboarders blocking the street and drinking out in public, and God knows how many under-age drinkers, inside and out. We would have broken the unwritten compact, failed to keep it indoors, and likely failed to make sure nobody got hurt, and that would have brought them down on us like the wrath of God. Actually, it was a miracle we weren’t hip deep in cops with night sticks already, and while it would almost certainly have ended with our licence being yanked and the place boarded up – if not worse – I was starting to wish it would just happen, let’s just get it over with. At least that would put an end to this fiasco, and it might pre-empt something truly awful.

I tried to take sober stock of the situation. The skateboard brigade had started ripping shingles off the Domus exterior. They sat and laid down on the hoods and rooves of parked cars. They perched in trees. They rolled around on the grass, wrestling. Some of them seemed genuinely angry at each other – was that going to turn into something? They screamed at the top of their lungs, like howling wolves, letting out these piercing wails you could hear echoing off the many monolithic concrete buildings scattered around our frail little bastion. It looked to me like it was never going to end.

So the night wore on; in memory it plays back as a jumpy recording made during a weird delirium, experienced as if in the middle of a river rapids, the roar of rushing water in my ears, while on screen a myriad of isolated images flash by that freeze moments from the endless stream of little emergencies. Many more infiltrations, confrontations, brushes with outright violence, all of it played out amidst the almost annihilating noise and disorder of the party, which kept surging along on its own momentum inside the house. We faced down antagonists. We chased intruders. We struggled to secure the building. Punches were thrown. The skateboarders did more damage, inside and out. The band played on, the sweat poured, the ears rang, the floors flexed, the odd person fainted, the odd window was broken, somebody here, and then somebody there, got past us with more liquor for the mob, beer was being spilled and thrown everywhere, the scene outside grew ever more riotous, and I guess we were getting close to some sort of defining moment. Whatever was going to happen would happen. Nothing was yet set in stone, but nothing was going to change it. This night could be a blip, or it could end up being life-changing. Really. At the drop of a hat, a rash decision, some drunk impulsive outburst, could lead us all down a road that ended at a place that didn’t bear thinking about. I thought so, anyway. We seemed helpless.

But no. It was Domus, so it just ended.

The Rock-hoppers finished their set, the crowd outside got bored, and they dispersed. Just like that. In a few minutes they were all gone. The ones who’d made it inside left and went with them. They had somewhere better to be, I guess. After all that stress, adrenaline, and fright, there was now only this lingering anti-climax, that stretched until dawn as the band packed up, people went home, and we had a few Domus Doubles in the blessed quiet down in the vacant basement to calm our nerves. My hands were shaking for a while.

Here’s the thing: I was actually sure, when I made my way upstairs to look for Kevin, that I’d find him beaten half to death, or maybe not just half. They might have taken that bat away from him, and everybody was drunk enough, angry enough, adrenalized enough, to have crossed that line between bullshit and actually doing something violent and irreversible. If they hadn’t killed Kev, Kev might have killed or grievously injured one of them – both, actually, seemed likely. Words of my father suddenly resonated: Don’t start something you aren’t prepared to finish. A corollary occurred to me: there are some things you shouldn’t start that you are prepared to finish.

How on Earth had we sailed through all of that and come out almost completely unscathed? We had a few things smashed, but that was trivial, considering all the laws we’d broken – dozens, if you counted things like unauthorized street parties, drinking in public, noise past midnight, fire code violations, and so on. No consequences! Nobody even got hurt. It seemed impossible, even then, let alone looking back, but hey, that was Domus. Nothing ever seemed to go as wrong as it could.

 

 

Beginning Descent

Malibu SS

I was sitting in the bar watching Sean tend to a few patrons from behind the counter. One of our notorious drunks showed up, and Sean decided to torture him, like you might torture a dog that wanted a treat, I guess to break the monotony. When the guy asked for whatever was his poison, Sean said “Sure, but only if you beg for it”.

“Hunh…?”

“I want you to beg for it. Tell me you need it, and I’ll let you have it.”

“Ummm…hokay, I need it.”

“Once more with feeling.”

I need it!

“One more time.”

I NEED IT!!“.

“No. Now get the fuck out of here.”

The poor drunk stood there, his mind working in slow motion, sort of swaying, and staring at Sean as if he couldn’t believe it. Sean made an elaborate show of cleaning the counter, moving things around in the fridges, and otherwise ignoring him. The guy was just standing there. I started to tense up. Was this going to turn into another hassle? Would the drunk pitch a fit? Were we going to have to drag yet another one up and out, kicking and screaming? I figured yeah, more likely than not, but no, the poor bastard who needed it just turned around and wobbled off to find it elsewhere. I had a sense that Sean was disappointed, and it occurred to me that Sean was changing; I suspected he’d actually wanted a hassle. Not me. Enough. I thought we got lucky.

We were always lucky, though, weren’t we? Even when we were unlucky, we were lucky. We’d emerge from even the most bat-shit crazy situations scot-free, either because something that should have devolved into a total disaster somehow set itself right, or because some fluke, some random bounce, would occur to save us. Did Domus have a guardian angel? An anti-calamity force field? Sometimes, when I bore people at parties with stories of my misspent youth on Seymour Street, the response will be “You should be dead”. Yeah. I know. From alcohol poisoning, if nothing else.

Whatever it was, angel or mysterious force, it even seemed to follow us around when we were out on excursions. The automotive exploits of the various car-owning Domophiles proved that, since in those days, no one thought all that much about impaired driving. That was all soon going to change. Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, founded just a couple of years earlier in 1980, were beginning to raise consciousness, but they hadn’t raised ours yet, and anyway, we were so used to being buzzed 24/7 that most times I don’t think we even knew that we were, by all conventional standards, loaded. We should have been dropping like flies.

I remember Kevin, years before he became Bar Manager and moved into the upstairs apartment, routinely drove home to Dartmouth after drinking all night, and this meant crossing a long suspension bridge over the harbour. Jason, who eventually moved in too, first had a place in the Halifax suburb of Clayton Park, or Fairview, somewhere off the peninsula, and Halifax and its environs aren’t that easy to navigate. It’s all hills and twisty roads intersecting at all angles, there’s no grid like you see in Toronto and other big cities. There’s plenty of opportunity to miss a turn, fail to stop, or hit one of the city’s many stout old trees.

Yet nothing ever happened. They always made it home and dry, even on nights when, had you been looking at things through the proper lens, you’d have bet those shrinking tail lights were the last you’d ever see of that car and it’s drunken driver. It was nuts. Jason awoke one morning at home, with only a dim memory of how he got there, and found his big Plymouth parked halfway up the embankment between his sunken driveway and his front entrance, leaning there at an angle on the slope with one door hanging open and the emergency flashers blinking. Not a scratch on it.

I’m not saying any of this was clever or humorous. I’m just sayin’.

You want to talk random luck?  Gather ‘round, kids, as I regale you with the story of when Kevin borrowed his brother’s 60s vintage muscle car, yet lived to tell the tale. The auto that bid fair to serve as his final conveyance to Hell was a big, brawny, 1966 Malibu SS, or something just like it. Long, low, and wide, the sort of vehicle that looked in the rear view mirror like it intended to run you down and feast on your entrails. Cars of that genus were hugely over-powered by big-block V-8s, and boy, could they move. They were designed to reach and sustain speeds up around 110 MPH and even higher, and Kev was cracking to get the Malibu out on a nice long stretch of highway and wring her out a bit, see what she could do.

He knew just the road, too: there was a new one that had just been laid in the area up behind the peninsula, Dunbrack Street, all long and fresh and ribbon smooth. Ooooooh. It would be his own personal autobahn. Kev reckoned it’d be almost free of traffic when it was past midnight, so one early morning, after the clock struck twelve, he strapped himself in and made for the open road. Now, was Kev a little bit in the bag? Yes. Yes he was. A lot in the bag? Er, well, maybe not a lot, O.K., more than a little bit, sure, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say a lot, he was still more or less good to go. Sort of.

Would he or anyone he knows repeat such behaviour today? No. No he would not. Nor would they. No.

I think neuroscience has reached the conclusion that the cost-benefit/risk assessment module in the male brain is still wiring itself together at that age, and is generally non-functional. If they’re still looking into this and need any extra data points, they should give me a call.

So Kev gets her on to Dunbrack and puts the spurs to her. It was fantastic. Could it go a hundred? I guess it could go a hundred. It gobbled up asphalt like nobody’s business, he was up there just whipping along, Warp 7, Warp 8, Warp 9, it was hugely exhilarating. He’d guessed right about traffic, too, there wasn’t a car but his on the road.

Well, there was one other car. It had flashing lights on top, sadly.

I don’t know how Kevin felt, exactly, sitting there pulled over at the side of the road, while the cop swaggered up to the driver-side window with that gait that cops seem to affect when you’re in real trouble, and they’re going to be just so happy to slap the cuffs on you. I can guess. Totally feeked. The cop tapped on his window, and when Kev rolled it down, it went more or less like this (for effect, the scene works better if you add the embellishment that the Halifax cop was really an Alabama State Trooper, you know, some guy with a Southern drawl named Buford):

“Well now, son, did you realize you were going 163 KPH in an 80 zone?”

“Ummm….”

“A bit over the posted limit, wouldn’t you say? I would. Tell me now, have you been drinking tonight, son?”

“Oh…no…I…”

[Heavy Sigh] “Unh-huh. Unh-huh. O.K., then, I’m gonna need licence and registration, and I’m gonna need you to step out the car, slowly now, so I can administer – uh – shit – Kevin?

Of course. It was Kevin, so, of course. Only Kevin.

You see, the prior summer, Kev had participated in a program between the law school and the HPD under which law students did ride-alongs with the police, and for a couple of months he got to experience law enforcement from the perspective of the guys in the patrol cars. The cops came around to liking Kevin, first because just about everybody liked him, but second, because Kev identified immediately with the cops and what they had to do most nights. There usually isn’t a lot of high drama. Usually, it involves corralling drunks, breaking up bar fights, dealing with derelicts – kind of like Domus on a bad night. Sometimes it involves domestics, and suicides, and attempted suicides. There was one episode on the McDonald Bridge, with first responders talking a girl out of jumping; Halifax has two world-class suspension bridges, and jumpers weren’t uncommon. It was all very sad, really, you were confronted with a great deal of anguish and human tragedy when you were out on patrol. Kind of like Domus on a bad night.

Probably, the cops had been expecting their law student companion to be a pain in the ass, quoting the brand new Charter of Rights at them and complaining about civil liberties violations, but Kev, invariably fascinated with the systems, procedures and protocols by which we maintained civil society, gave them no guff at all. In some ways, he already thought like a cop, and as the summer passed, he even started to look like one, he was often mistaken for a plain-clothes detective when he was in the company of the officers, with whom he developed an easy rapport. One of Kev’s oldest childhood friends had become a Dartmouth cop, and they were still close, so he even knew a bit of the lingo, and understood the mind-set. They were all pals in the patrol car by the time summer ended.

Now there he was, still pretty drunk, having been pulled over for truly excessive speeding. Had you been there with him, you’d have had to think Kevin, you lucky, lucky bastard. For Kev had been pulled over by one of his former ride-along buddies.

The cop was torn, because Kev had really crossed the line this time, and anybody else would probably be clapped in irons already, and riding in the back seat towards a stay in the five-bar motel, but of course it was hard to do that to your old ride-along buddy, the nice kid who’d shown such surprising sympathy for what the police had to deal with. So Kev was told to drive slowly towards home, and the cop would follow him, and if it looked like he could navigate safely, he’d be allowed to go on his way – straight home, and no speeding, understood?

By now, Kev was a whole lot closer to sober than when the joy ride began, and he passed muster.

So, it seemed the Domus force field was still up and running. Living under it, though, had side effects, and we lived under it for years, in a sort of parallel universe where almost every abnormality was normalized, each of us immersed in a sort of group-think through which we mutually reinforced our attitudes and ideas about sensible behaviour. I think that after a while, we all started to go mildly off our gourds.

The famed Leopard Skin Vest, salvaged from the lost and found bin, might have been a symptom of the progressive dysfunction. It sat there in the box for a long, long time. Then Kev decided to take off his shirt one night, and just wear the skimpy little vest with its faux leopard print pattern, and from then on, it became an almost totemic item for him, the Tartan of Clan Kevin. You knew the party had started when Kev appeared in the Leopard Skin Vest. That was fine in the basement, people ate it up, they were all go-Kev-go, but it was maybe less advisable out among the regular folk in civilization. Kev was determined to give it a try though, so off we went one Friday evening, Kev bare-chested in the vest, pulling off the look surprisingly well, to dine at a tavern known as the Red Fox. The Red Fox, of all places.

We often went there on Fridays. They had great wings. It was also, how to put it, a little rough around the edges, you know? Working guys went there. Truck drivers. Longshoremen. It was not the best place for a guy to flounce around in a skimpy little animal print number, and it probably isn’t to this day, if it’s still there; it certainly wasn’t in Halifax, circa 1983. The sorts of guys who filled the tables at the Red Fox had certain fixed ideas about certain matters relating to manly comportment, let’s say, and they were sitting there in their Greb boots and plaid shirts, incredulous, giving Kev the stink eye. There was that old, familiar feeling again. Barometer rising.

So Kev looks one of them in the eye and fires back with “What’re you lookin’ at?”. Smart. Mike looked at Kev almost pleadingly, beseechingly, as if to say look, Kevin, good buddy, aren’t we under enough risk of a beat-down on a routine basis? Must we really court one here? Can’t we just eat our wings, Kevin? Buddy? Well, Kev was having none of that. No sir. They wanted to look at him? Fine. He’d give them a real good look.

So he stands up and just starts doing a circuit of the bar, brushing closely past all the rig-drivers and dock-wallopers, making sure to mince a little in the way that retrograde straight guys suppose, in their nonsensical way, that gay men would mince, almost like he was displaying his wares. Mike and I grimaced and tried to sink lower in our seats.

Something was bound to blow. Hmmm…what was the blast radius for a 5 megaton H-bomb, “H” for “Homophobia”? A few miles? We were surely in the red zone, we knew that much. You could feel the seething hatred growing, it felt as if the temperature was actually going up, and Kev kept walking the circuit, like a model on the cat-walk, until he’d hit every table in the joint, at which point he just kept going and marched right out the door, leaving us there. He travelled on foot all the way back to Domus, about two and a half kilometres away (I just checked it on Google Maps), nothing but the Leopard Skin Vest to protect him from the winter temperatures.

The punch line? There was never anyone more firmly, and indeed successfully, heterosexual than Kev. He bedded beautiful women in a fashion those welders and concrete-pourers could only dream of emulating. He was just traipsing through the bar that way because some part of him wanted to piss them off, royally. Success! Yet nothing came of it, nobody said a word, or grabbed him on the way by, though it was undoubtedly a good move to sashay straight out of the place at the end of the performance. That was probably what saved us.

Was it time, perhaps, to give our heads a shake and get a grip? Nah. We were fine, and anyway, there was so much fun yet to be squeezed out of the old house. Have a drink! Let’s do another theme night! We could do a beach party, maybe, or riff on a story in the news. Soviet fighter jets had just made an appalling hash out of what should have been a routine intercept, and shot down a Korean airliner, apparently by mistake – how about Russian Dead-Eye Pilot Night? Yeah! Oh, what fun. Not in bad taste at all. Remember that toxic punch we’d made for the Hallowe’en party, what did we call it – Pumpkin Piss? We could do up a batch like that, it’d lay ‘em flat on their asses. Oh, be joyful!

So much unadulterated fun! We were doing just fine! Maybe, I thought, it was getting a little strange in our repeated subterranean bacchanals, as I sat there and watched Sean, tending bar, look quizzically at the counter, upend his beer on it, and proceed to slurp it up like a dog lapping at a bowl. Maybe. Nothing to worry about, though. It was all just Domus.

Look, it was just Domus, that’s all. So we remained there, closed the place down every night, and left any sober reflection for later.

So it went, and so there they were, at another closing time. Everyone was gone. It was just Rossi, McGillvary, Mike, and Kevin. They were playing what you might call Domus Basketball. This involved not hoops, but the far wall of the washroom and the tub beneath (yes, there was a tub in there for some reason), and not balls, but empty beer bottles. There was a target painted on the wall above the tub. The idea was to sit at a table in the bar area, and throw a beer bottle at the target. If your aim was good, the bottle would fall into the tub and shatter. Or, sometimes it would shatter on the wall, and its fragments would fall into the tub. Sometimes, of course, you’d miss the target by a wide margin, heck, you might not even get it through the door into the washroom, and that meant that the average game left nasty shards of brown glass all over the place, but what the Hell. Sean would sweep ‘em up. Cleaning was Sean’s job.

This went on for a fair while before it got old. Mike and Kev decided to pack it in, and Mike offered to give Kev a lift home. At this juncture, Kev was living in an apartment a-ways down the road, closer to the harbour. They began the drive down the empty street, South Street if the reader knows anything about the geography, amid the long shadows cast by the rising sun. It was tranquil, soothing actually. Mike cruised at a nice leisurely pace, like he was out for a Sunday drive in the countryside. He was maybe a little over the legal limit, but mainly he was dog-tired. So tired, these days.

Not tired enough to be sloppy behind the wheel, though. Mike never was. He always shoulder-checked, he always looked both ways, and he always came to a full stop at an intersection. That was good, because as they passed the Victoria General Hospital, and approached the intersection, the Reaper took another shot at them. Coming from the right, going at least 50 MPH, maybe more, was a hurtling paneled van, a Ford Econoline, duck-egg blue, they’ll never forget it. As Mike saw it, Kev, sitting in the death seat, had acquired it too, and even as he yelped something a little incoherent, like “Mike – the car!”, Mike, already braking slowly to stop behind the white line, now slammed on the brakes, hard. Just as they stopped, the van slashed across them, veering into the road on Mike’s side of the cross walk, making contact with the grille of Mike’s car, punching out the left headlight, then veering again and tearing away without slowing in the slightest. Mike and Len were rocked around as the car oscillated back and forth on its shocks. They were unhurt. Another couple of feet, another split second, and they’d have bought it, maybe, or been maimed, but it was O.K., they were just shook up.

They got out, and were just able to catch a glimpse of the van rounding a distant corner as its tires shrieked, and it came close to tipping over during the violent turn. It was as if whoever was driving was in the midst of a high-speed chase, but there was no other traffic, nothing to be chasing him. Mike and Kev just stood there, mouth-breathing, trying to calm down, when a couple of medics ran over from the hospital to check them out. Kevin wobbled over to the curb and sat down, and Mike talked to the medics. “Why didn’t you chase them?”, asked one. “And do what if I caught them?” responded Mike.

Soon the police were there. They took down their report, but at first seemed a little dubious about Mike’s account. It had approached from the right, but punched out the left headlight? The medics, though, had seen enough to confirm the story, and avow that the van had been flying by at ungodly speed. Satisfied, the cops did their paperwork. They could tell from the skid marks that Mike had saved the day by virtue of superb reaction time, and everyone confirmed that the van was at fault. The Police never even suggested a breathalyzer. A cop motioned his head towards Kev. “Is he all right?” “Oh sure” replied Mike, “he’s just a little fazed”.

Fazed? Jesus, he’d said fazed. Who said something like that when he was sober? Mike was worried the cop would suddenly think a breathalyzer was a good idea after all, but he didn’t, apparently “fazed” didn’t sound like a strange word choice to him, and everything soon wrapped up. Mike’s car was still drivable. So off they went. Like nothing at all had happened.

Later, Mike examined the front end of the car, and there was a sort of scuff-mark on the housing for the right headlight, and then a series of little nicks across the entire latticework of the grille, each filled with blue paint, as if a blue bullet had furrowed a shallow path as it grazed the front before it took out the left headlight. The hood ornament had been clipped off. There was no other damage, none at all. It had been incredibly close, but the Domus force field was still giving them its full extended protection.

Lucky. We always had luck. It was starting to seem, though, like we were pushing it.

 

 

 

Irrecoverable Flat Spin

 

Once it had been stupid, but also kind of funny, almost innocent, as these things go.

Rewind to first year. Cast your mind back to the time before Mike and Kevin had given themselves fully over to the dark side, when they still attended class, worried about grades, and kept up with their reading, ploughing through the casebooks with their hi-lighters, using different colours to denote obiter vs. ratio, majority vs. dissent, while carefully making little notes in the margins. They knew there was a party going on at Domus, and everybody likes a party, and of course, student life involved all sorts of blow-outs and drink-fests, that was just normal, everybody did it. Mike and Kev weren’t inclined to be stand-offish. If folks were holding parties, it was no more than polite to attend. Anyway, it was good to get to know people, and join in the fun with everybody else.

It was in that spirit that they decided to be active participants in the law school Variety Show (or was it Talent Show?), which went on every year in a venue over at the Student Union Building. Tradition, you know. These weren’t Domus events, but they were certainly in the same vein, and prone to the same sort of inebriated hijinks. Willing students weren’t expected to perform so much as submit themselves to ritual humiliation.

Thus there were no criteria for the performances. Anyone who liked could do anything that suited him, or her, but it was understood that whatever they did, the drunken crowd would boo, jeer, hoot and holler, throw things – including the contents of garbage pails and half-eaten food – and make such a ruckus that nobody would be able to hear you. Some performers tried gamely to put on a show anyway, while some just went out and started throwing things back at the mob. It was a bit like the Roman Colosseum must have been, absent the sword-play; so far, at least, nobody had been killed. Once it was over, the venue would be shin-deep in refuse and tipped over chairs, empty beer bottles everywhere, looking like the beaches at Dunkirk just after the last of the BEF had made their escape.

Maybe Mike and Kev didn’t fully know the score at the time, but in any case they decided to put on a skit. I can’t remember what it was supposed to be about, but it’s not really relevant, since as soon as they got out there, the howls, boos, and thrown food made any sort of performance pointless. Mike, getting into the spirit of things, decided his act would be to chug-a-lug a whole litre of wine on stage, and he downed it in seconds, while Kev resolved that a really funny retort to the abusive audience was in order – the idea would be to retreat, but go out there again and give them a taste of their own medicine. Wouldn’t it be great if they could douse the first few rows with cold water? Really soak the shit out of them? It’d be hilarious. But where to get the water, and how to deliver it?

Abandoning the stage, he grabbed a big plastic garbage pail, emptied out whatever was in it, and loped off into the hallways of the Student Union Building in search of a suitable faucet. Crap. There weren’t any. All the taps he could find were mounted over sinks in the washrooms, and you can’t fit a standard 20-gallon garbage pail into a sink. He knew that for sure, he tried, and it wouldn’t go. With Mike now in tow, the litre of wine sloshing around in his guts – where it was not to remain much longer – Kev searched high and low on all the building’s floors, hoping to find an unlocked janitorial closet or something, so keen to fill the pail to the brim that he didn’t even pause to consider that 20 gallons of water would weigh 200 pounds. It was a mission, dammit. Failure was not an option.

He ended up standing in front of a urinal in one of the washrooms, jamming the pail into it as far as it would go, and repeatedly flushing it, hoping some of the water would be captured. He kept at it, grimly determined, even as the impossibility of the scheme became obvious; after about five minutes, he had maybe an ounce of water at the bottom of the pail. It was going to take him twenty-five years to fill it that way. No matter! There would be no quitters on Kev’s squad, no way! He kept flushing and flushing, screaming his frustration into the porcelain, until he finally drew the attention of a staffer, who barged into the washroom expecting, probably, to find a brutal murder in progress.

The staffer was taken aback for a second. It took a moment to process. Kev kept screaming and flushing. The staffer finally said “What in Christ are you doing?”.

“None of your fuckin’ business!” yelled Kev, struggling in the urinal. “Piss off!”.

This particular staffer was not about to piss off, though. He was actually a guy Mike knew, somehow, maybe from his days in the Militia up in Gagetown. He was a six-foot-plus, black, ex-U.S. Marine and combat vet., and he was most decidedly nobody you wanted to dick with, even if you were as big as he was, let alone if you were diminutive, 135-pound Kevin. His name was Ron Pate – Mr. Pate, to you. Mike, beginning to realize he was inevitably going to vomit, tried, sweatily, to be sociable. “H’lo Ron”, he said, “how’re things?”. No response. It was impossible to focus on anything besides the guy screaming at the urinal.

Mr. Pate, luckily for Kev, wasn’t an excitable guy, and he was more bemused than angry, actually, but it was still his job to put a stop to this nonsense. Ignoring Mike, and without much further ado, he simply walked over and wrested the pail from Kevin like a parent might deprive an infant of its annoying rattle.

Kev tried to resist. Mike advised him to just let Mr. Pate do his job, which was surprisingly prudent, given his now quite sickening level of impairment. “Run along, now”, they were told. Kev was pissed. Now there would be no revenge on the jeering crowd! Mike, however, was only too ready to oblige. He was mightily relieved that they weren’t trying to mess around with Mr. Pate. He was also desperate to find somewhere quiet to crash, somewhere close to a toilet, ideally. He made a beeline home and spent the next few hours in various states of gastro-intestinal distress.

Was that the turning point? Is that when the trajectory changed, and everything went South? It seemed about then that everything Domus had to offer, the seductive pull of the place, made the transition to basement life the logical next step. It was just normal to indulge a little, wasn’t it? After all, it was the law student bar, yes? What could be wrong with law students frequenting the law student bar? So they went, and Domus put its hooks into them. The place was like a Venus Flytrap. It had something that drew you in, and then it snapped shut around you, and you never got out, until now, a couple of years later, you were living there, and venturing elsewhere only briefly. All roads led back to the basement.

We didn’t even notice we were going insane. Not until someone actually did, and in the aftermath, Rossi and McGillvary went over the cliff.

The catalyst was a bout of mental illness that couldn’t be laid at the Domus doorstep, remarkably. It was simply a tragic onset of something clinically diagnosable that could have happened anywhere, under any circumstances, and in the manner of these things it struck seemingly the unlikeliest of victims, with appallingly destructive effect.

At first, nobody noticed the signs – actually, at first, there were no signs to see. Joe Rossi’s wife Katherine, also a law student, was obviously fine. She was soft-spoken and very pretty, in an understated way, such that it snuck up on you, you’d look at her after knowing her for a while and think how did I not notice how pretty this girl is? We all liked her very much, there simply wasn’t anything to dislike, and she was a perfect Yin to Rossi’s Yang. It seemed, indeed, the perfect marriage. Rossi had the ideal wife, brainy and lovely, and friendly, too. They used to host parties that everybody loved attending. It all seemed rather special, and thoroughly, unshakeably, permanent.

Yet there was a sort of time-bomb in Katherine’s mind. I’ll never know whether we witnessed the first explosion, or if it had happened before, but we all started to notice that something wasn’t quite right. Her behaviour became erratic. She started saying strange things, and she started wandering around as if she was navigating through a dreamscape. She’d float into the basement, and speak sentences towards us, but they were utterly incoherent. Sometimes it was apparent that she couldn’t quite remember who you were. She sometimes seemed frightened. Sometimes suspicious. She’d repeat things you said, matching your intonation, like a parrot. “Echolalia”, I think it’s called. I didn’t have enough of a grip on what would then have been the DSM-III to guess what exactly was wrong, but it was clearly some sort of break with reality, and none of us had the slightest idea what we were dealing with, or what we should do.

She left home. She left Rossi all alone. She actually went missing for a few days, and afterwards stayed upstairs at Domus for a while, with Sean, Rossi’s friend, until Sean became afraid of her. He’d awaken with all the flatware he owned, all the forks and knives, arrayed in a semi-circle around his head on his pillow. She burned things in his bathtub.

One night, Dal Security fished her out of a big blue garbage bin, she’d been hiding in there, and Sean was the one she told them to contact. It was awful. They actually told him to come collect “your woman”. To them she was just a hindrance, I suppose. A break in the tranquility of the usually uneventful shift.

Somehow, I find the incident far more upsetting now than I did then.

I can’t shake the feeling that we failed Katherine, yet it was never clear what we might do. With rare exceptions, you can’t force someone to seek treatment. Should I have tried to talk to her anyway? Should Rossi have tried? Or maybe Rossi did try, as best as anyone could, and still she resisted? I don’t know. I’ll never know. Not too many years ago, I revisited my doubts with Jason and Kevin, still my close friends after all these years, and they just about bit my head off. There was nothing anybody could have done, they insisted, angry at me. I guess that’s right. I guess. In retrospect, though, I wish there had been.

I don’t even remember what became of her, in the end. I just remember being totally unprepared, with my meagre life experience, all 21 years of it, to understand what was going on. I know Sean became unsettled enough to send her away, and I don’t know where she went after that. Not back home. Divorce papers were drawn up – I guess somebody with the proper credentials judged Katherine competent enough to understand such things – and I remember Rossi signing them on the Domus bar, emotionless. He signed away his marriage as if he was signing a cheque, outwardly placid and unconcerned.

I don’t believe he was as he seemed.

So Katherine was gone, Rossi was divorced, and in the aftermath of the emotional mess Rossi started to change, and Sean McGillvary changed right along with him. The always latent psychosis of Domus basement life went from the merely theoretical to full realization, as the both of them, symbiotically, jumped the rails.

Oh boy, did they jump the rails. They came to prefer each other’s company to the virtual exclusion of everybody else, sometimes shunning all of us while they huddled together in the basement, drinking, laughing at inside jokes, making snide remarks, mocking just about everybody, and at times practically speaking in tongues. They were their own little social club, and you weren’t always allowed in. The Rossi-McGillvary axis. I can’t say which drugs besides alcohol were being mixed in to the witch’s brew, not in any comprehensive way, there was obviously a lot of grass, and Rossi took to popping these little red pills that were some sort of upper, but God knows what else.

Their symbiotic nut-house repartee had its moments. Oh yes, they were funny all right, they had a black, caustic sense of humour that suited their natural habitat, sparing nothing and nobody from often hilarious, and always mean-spirited, derision and abuse. Rossi was especially good for a laugh, when he was dosed on his uppers, he just prattled along, nattering a non-stop stream of witticisms, invective, complaints, puns, wry observations, bitter sarcasm, and utter non-sequiturs – I really can’t do it justice. I swear, if we’d recorded it, we could still be selling the albums, it was a bit like a deranged and ever-variable stand-up routine, delivered stoned and sitting down. As the pills kicked in, he’d start to sweat, and his eyes would narrow, his speech would accelerate, and nothing could stop him, not even his own punishing body heat. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if he’d simply keeled over, mid-sentence, or burst into flames. It might have been worrying, had we the wit to be worried. Every machine, mechanical or biological, has its operational limits, and Rossi was running well above his. All his gauges were in the red. The piston rods were about to burst clean through the hood.

How he loved to rant. He’d be sitting there, reading a newspaper, and something in one of the stories would set him off. Before long, the original topic was forgotten, and it turned into free association, with Sean egging him on and laughing his guts out. You never knew what he’d come up with. Out of the blue, apropos of nothing, he’d say something like “Actually, my great success with women has no firm anatomical basis. My penis is no longer than the North American Caucasian average, and may even be a little shorter. What drives them crazy is my tireless wit, and the way I can hold a conversation, at length, on just about anything, which is a product of my inveterate drug use.”

The gift of drug-induced gab never deserted him, and may even have saved him from a beating one night, when his nattering insults managed to offend someone quite large and formidable standing next to him at the bar. The standard Rossi insult treatment may have been directed at no one in particular, but the other guy  took it personally, and Rossi found himself pinned to the wall with the guy’s hands around his throat. “Don’t strangle me like a coward” he gasped, “take me outside and thrash me like a man!” This seemed to confuse his assailant, who let him go and backed away as if it was bad luck to beat up anyone that crazy.

It went on like that month after month. Rossi and McGillvary almost fused into a single, demented consciousness. One would start a sentence that the other would finish. They’d exchange knowing glances – what they knew, exactly, I couldn’t say – and burst into uproarious laughter that often had a distressingly hysterical edge to it. The joke was generally their little secret. They’d converse not in sentences, but song lyrics, each of them quoting in turn what must have seemed like appropriate lines from dozens of tunes, especially Dylan, Sean’s favourite. Sometimes they sat there drinking for hours and didn’t say anything at all, until somebody walked by who struck them as a child of privilege, at which point the snide remarks would be hurled – they hated anyone who might have started from a better place than they thought they had. They developed the attitude that they were lower class citizens amid a snobbish elite, while the rest of us were “bourgeois pigs”, all of us, we’d all been “brought up in a rumpus room”.

They also developed an elaborate form of sexually rapacious misogyny. They leered and lusted constantly, catcalling and harassing every attractive girl that crossed their path, and remember, this was university – they were all attractive. They insisted that any woman they saw was crazy about them.

“Look, look, Joe, her over there – she’s crazy about me!”

“Yup. She’s cracking for it.”

“She needs it.”

“You can tell. You can tell from all the way over here.”

The Hell of it was, it was often true. They were insanely successful with women. None of their casual affairs lasted very long, of course, but they were all torrid, and while they were in progress, the both of them would brag in gruesome, gynecological detail about what they’d been up to with the latest conquest. “I had her every way a man can have a woman”, one of them would say. “I did her on the pinball machine until she lost her mind, and passed out”. “She’d never had it where I put it”. Believe me, this is sugar-coating it. They weren’t making it up, either, the girls weren’t fictional and neither were the exploits. It was hard to listen to, especially if you were as pathetically unsuccessful with the opposite sex as I was. Girls wouldn’t touch me with a barge pole. What was so great about these guys? Christ, sometimes it seemed like they hadn’t even bathed for a week or two. It didn’t matter. They had it down to a science. One time they even tried to explain it to me.

The trick, you see, was to give the young woman your undivided attention. Shut your own yap – yes, it was possible, if the prize was sweet enough – and hang on her every word. Make it seem like you were deeply interested, and listening with rapt attention. Never interrupt. Never contradict. Never betray boredom. Never, never let on what you were really after. Just listen, always listen. “You see,” Rossi explained, “this will almost certainly be something she’s never experienced. A guy actually listening. It’s like cat-nip for them. She’ll have been hoping for it ever since she started with guys, and all you have to do is be the first one who ever gave it to her.”

“It’s all bullshit, of course”, added Sean.

“Oh, of course” agreed Bill. “It’s pure, unadulterated panty-removing horse shit”.

“And it works.”

“It really does.”

“Sometimes after only an hour or two. She’ll feel so appreciated, she’ll be crazy about you.”

“It can happen that fast.”

“After that it’s simple. Simple.”

“Sometimes it’s tough to keep it all up, though. You know, week after week.”

“But the payoff.”

“She’ll let you do anything. Because you respect her, see?”

“It might be a month, maybe more, before she catches on”.

“Yeah, what ruins it is sometimes you let your guard down and say something you really mean.”

“I know. There was one time I said to this girl, she wanted to go to a movie or eat out or some such shit, so ‘Look’, I said to her, ‘can we just cut the crap for tonight and fuck?’”

Back and forth, like a ping-pong ball. That was a conversation with Sean and Joe. They weren’t yanking my chain, either, they were utterly sincere, fraternal, even, and as far as they were concerned they were being kind enough to let me in on a powerful secret. I was getting it all ass-backwards, and they wanted to straighten me out. For all those years I’d been barking up the wrong tree. I actually liked girls. The key, apparently, was to have contempt for them. Just screw with their minds according to established methods, proven effective, and you’d be far more successful.

You can disapprove, I can disapprove, but there’s no denying that it worked. It did. It worked.

In between the endless stream of short-term dalliances, incredibly, they both also managed to sustain stable relationships with honest-to-God girlfriends, in something approximating the honest-to-God conventional manner. Rossi contrived to seduce, and somehow hold on to, a very pretty co-ed many years his junior. Sean had two long-term girlfriends, one local, and one in New Brunswick, the latter of whom would come down from time to time to see him. It got a little sticky there one night, when New Brunswick Girl arrived unannounced, and Sean was already in the basement with his local squeeze. He tried to placate them both, as they sat at opposite ends of the basement, actually crossing the bar every few minutes to spend a little time with each of them in turn. It was amazingly awkward, but nobody felt like stomping away, because there was a howling snow-storm in progress outside. There we all were, snowed in, as the pressure mounted. Just one more improbable scene in an endless parade of improbable scenes.

Throughout, they both pulled regular shifts on bar, Sean on Fridays, Joe on Saturdays, when the patrons would all be outsiders that they could have endless fun abusing. What mattered to the clientele was that the place would be open all night long, so the drinkers would take their lumps and keep coming back. They actually got screamed at, and were arbitrarily denied service, insulted on general principle as worthless bourgeois denizens of their respective childhood rumpus rooms, and berated for their lousy tips. “GRATUITY!!” bellowed Sean after a guy left nothing at all in the tip bowl. “THE CONCEPT IS GRATUITY!!” How many times did he have to go over this with these assholes? It said so clearly on the sign: Tips is all we get. As punishment for similar tip-related offences, Sean actually jacked the prices on them one night, charging more every time they came back for a refill.

“That’ll be a buck-forty.”

“But it was a buck-twenty last time!”

“Well, now it’s a buck-forty”.

“Why?”

“I dunno. Inflation. The passage of time.”

“No way!”

“Oh yes, it’s true. It’s policy”.

Fuck – O.K., a buck-forty. Here.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry – since we’ve been talking, it went up to a buck-fifty-five.”

They paid, too; where else were they going to get it at four in the morning?

Sean once got so pissed at a customer that he shattered a beer bottle on the counter and threatened him with the jagged remains, like you see in movies about the old West, or the mob.

It was crazy. It was exhausting. I began to find it frightening. There was never any end to it, the Rossi-McGillvary show just kept making more episodes, right up until graduation, by which point we were all, finally, burned out on Domus and its deleterious effects. The strain was wearing on everybody, Joe and Sean more than anyone else. Mike, as bar manager, visited Domus daily, and one mid-morning on a Sunday he arrived to find the place still open, music still blaring, and Rossi unconscious, face-down on the bar.

Rossi looked up at Mike, dribbling drool, and whispered “Just give me another chance”.

Another time, Kevin and I walked in to find Sean asleep on the hardwood of the main floor, curled up around an industrial sander with which he’d been planning to strip the flooring so we could refinish it. He had a big disk of sandpaper clutched in his hand. Bending over to change the abrasive, exhausted, he’d simply collapsed.

We made no effort to rouse him.

 

*********************

 

It was the end of another long night of patrol duty with the cops. It had been the usual shit out there, and as usual, at the end of shift Kev found himself a little bit depressed. Or maybe a lot-a-bit. The big difference between us and the derelicts the HPD policed-up every night, he realized, was that we could indeed frolic in a rumpus room like the ones we’d grown up in, a place where we could play safely, and after that we had warm, safe beds to go home to – beds which for some of us were right upstairs. No need even to go outdoors.

It was very early in the morning, or very late at night, whichever way you preferred to look at it, and Kev made his way down to the basement to find the detritus of some sort of party strewn everywhere. Oh, right. The basement had hosted a stag party earlier. We did that sometimes. All that was left now was the rubbish, the sticky floor, some broken glass, and a couple of slices of cold pizza. Kev picked his way through it all, got himself a beer, and noticed that over by the far wall, a VCR had been hooked up to a TV. There were a couple of cassettes lying on top. Kev looked at their packaging, saw what he expected, and thought Oh, what the Hell. Why not? He pulled up a chair, drank his beer, and watched the porn. He wasn’t even interested, really. It was just something to do before sleeping.

This is decadence, he thought. This is true decadence.

It was awful when clarity ambushed you like that.

 

 

 

Last Time Around

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Mike, Rossi and McGillvary were the first to graduate. Despite everything, they all pulled off the grades necessary to earn the sheepskin, but Sean still owed some tuition for the last half of third year, and they withheld his diploma pending payment. He never paid. He never got it.

Jerry and Jason were a year behind, and so, now, was Kevin – he got so fed up with law school that he took a year off. In typical Kevin fashion, he had an intense May/December romance with a woman he met on the job – I think he took something with the city, that year – except “December” doesn’t really fit, it was more like May/Mid July. In what was now my fourth year in the basement, I finished up undergrad over in the Poli. Sci. department, and pondered a future that seemed to offer very little to recommend it. The rest of the guys prepared for the Darwinian sport of obtaining an articling position (a sort of apprenticeship that law graduates are made to endure before being admitted to the bar), hoping to land a position at a local firm.

There are more stories to tell, but in a way, there aren’t. That year went pretty much like the other years, though things were a little more sedate in the absence of the Rossi-McGillvary Axis. We partied, we boozed, we wrung the last few drops of hedonistic fun out of Seymour Street, and stumbled towards the future. As year-end approached, the guys prepared their CVs, and threw them out there at dozens of firms, but all that came back were dozens of PFOs. The grades. It was all about the grades; that, and we had more law graduates than open articling positions. This is another chasm between the profession and law school. Nobody tries to coordinate the number of diplomas being ground out with the actual needs of the local employers, and anyway, it was anticipated that a large portion of the graduating class would be looking outside the province. Somebody, somewhere, would hire them. Ontario would sop them up, or B.C., or they’d go back to where they came from, since many came to study in Halifax from other parts of the country – getting into a law school was not unlike getting a job afterwards, you might well have to leave your home town.

I kicked around Halifax for a year after I got my degree, applied for a few jobs, lived at home with my folks, and generally drifted around rudderless. Jason and Kevin, unable to find anything at home, migrated to Toronto, where they hoped to do better. It took a while. Kevin actually worked as a security guard, for a time, wandering the halls of Royal Bank Plaza at night, seeing where the proverbial Bay Street Lawyers actually maintained their lairs. He sent me an ironic picture of himself standing there in his blue uniform dress shirt, pantless, proudly holding up his framed law degree.

I was lonely, actually. Sometimes I’d walk past Domus on my way to and from home, and there were nights when I was sorely tempted to return to the basement, but I didn’t want to become the next Jack McKilroy, poking people drunkenly and asking them to challenge me. I decided graduate school offered the best interim solution, and I snagged an SSHRC grant and gained admittance to the masters’ program in international relations at the University of Toronto. Kevin and Jason were renting a house together, and they took me in for a while until I found a quite dismal apartment. It was a little rough for a time. Toronto took some getting used to, and U of T was uninspiring, to the point that any Ph.D. fantasies I’d been entertaining were flushed right down the john. I had to do something. My Masters wasn’t going to kick open any doors. What was I qualified to do? Go to school, that’s all.

I took a temporary job painting houses, and when “temporary” had stretched to three years, I finally bowed to the inevitable and went to law school. I didn’t want to, really, but it seemed the best of a uniformly unpalatable set of options. So fine, I enrolled in U of T’s law program, and gutted it out. No parties, no basement life, no bacchanals, just work, strive, compete, work, strive, try to beat the bell curve. All the while, I kept up with Mike, and Kev, and Jason, and learned how miserable they were as lawyers. Mike had hung out his own shingle, an incredibly daunting thing to do right out of school. Jason and Kev worked in firms for people they didn’t much care for, and had abuse heaped upon them, like all junior lawyers do, in Toronto, anyway, but I kept on working hard so I could join in the misery. I couldn’t see any other path to take.

It could have been worse, of course. I met my wife there, the luckiest break I’ll ever catch – for some reason she didn’t find me as unappealing as the rest of her gender – and I did well enough to get a job with a prestigious firm in a downtown tower, so hey look at me, I was a Bay Street Lawyer, and that was that. The die was cast.

I do not recommend that you follow in my footsteps, if you haven’t already. Neither you nor anyone you care about should consider law as a profession. Trust me.

The problem with broadcasting that warning here is that only about five people have ever visited my blog, and they’ve all been lawyers for decades.

It’s been over thirty years since we crawled out of the basement, blinking in the sunlight, and wondering what to do. 1255 Seymour Street doesn’t even exist any longer. They tore it down in 2004 to put up a shiny building for the Faculty of Management, and a new parking garage. Some of us were a little sad about that, but not Mike. No bullshit nostalgia for him. He cheered when they bulldozed the place. He hates to even remember his time there, and tells me he won’t even park in the new garage. This whole set of blog posts has been a trauma for him, actually. Sorry, Mike.

I don’t feel quite the same way, but any of us looking back today has got to have feelings that are at least a little mixed. We had our fun. We made lasting friendships. We were princes in our own little castle, we did what we wanted, when we wanted, and answered to no one. We’d also been exceedingly foolish, and we’d gotten away with it. Today, the real people behind the characters in these posts are mature and upright citizens, professionals, and parents, a few of them, who’d probably have a conniption fit before keeling over from a coronary if they even suspected their kids were doing any of the things that we used to do. Maybe I shouldn’t think back upon any of it fondly. Maybe it should be good riddance.

Either way, the house is gone, but something that calls itself the Domus Legis Society still exists. You can visit their web page:

https://www.domuslegis.ca/about/

It provides a brief history of the goings-on when 1255 still stood. It’s a little different from mine. When I first read it Diet Coke almost spewed out my nose. Look at this:

The home-base for this affable enterprise was located at 1255 Seymour Street, affectionately nicknamed “the Dome.” Here law students, faculty, and alumni could come together to enjoy one another’s’ company, engage in lively debate, share their (often musical) talents, and escape the stresses of life.

Lively debate! Talent shows! Stress-relief! I guess so, if “lively debate” was getting punched in the face, and flirting with death and disaster was blowing off steam. It’s like describing one of Stalin’s purges as a cabinet shuffle. It gets better:

But Domus was so much more than just a party setting: it was an active force in the development of Canada’s legal culture. As Tom Khattar (‘78) put it, Domus has always been “a desirable social atmosphere … in which a meaningful dialogue might occur between students and practising lawyers.”

 Oh, there was dialogue all right.

They do allow that some of the former members would probably prefer to remain anonymous when their exploits are recounted. So true. That’s why none of the names used in these blog posts have been real.

It was a bit jarring to suddenly switch gears and leave all that lively debate and meaningful dialogue behind. What did normal folk do in their spare time, anyway? Before Kev left for Hogtown, we’d sometimes go downtown, where a growing trendy bar scene was leading to the replacement of all the old dives. They even roofed in a whole length of street, with the bars sheltered in buildings beneath what came to be known as the “Liquor Dome”. It was all very preppie, all shiny surfaces and rounded edges, and we were out of our element. The new establishments had names like “Lawrence of Oregano’s”, and “Maxwell’s Plumb”. Going from Domus to one of these joints was like being pulled off the front lines for a weekend furlough in Paris, and finding out you didn’t really care for Paris. No explosions. No bullets whizzing by your head. Boring.

Kev and I were downtown one evening, trying to figure out which of these places was the least objectionable, when there was a minor ruckus across the street. Some drunk was getting forcibly ejected from Maxwell’s Plumb. After he regained his balance, he saw us standing there and made straight for us, as best as he could on his rubbery legs, all smiles and how-dee-dos. It was Laughing Boy. He lived.

“Hiya guys! See that? I just got barred from that place!”

Kevin said something like “Well, you don’t really match the décor. Hell, you almost got barred from our place, which is damn near impossible.”

He looked at us, mystified.

“What? Do I know you guys or something?”

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