Becky the Cow

“Just squeeze here and aim.”

There’s nothing like milking a cow to turn you off dairy when you’re a kid. Except maybe being expected to drink it when you’re done.

I’ve had such an on-again-off-again relationship with all things dairy. Uncle Herman had a cow named Becky and at ten years old this is just not flattering.

When I was 21 or so, I had strange little bumps that felt like small bones sticking out here and there. Dr. Fred said they were calcium deposits – not dangerous, don’t worry about it. But I thought, if calcium is piling up all over my body, where’s it coming from? The pint of yogurt I eat daily? The block of cheese? Pizza? Lazagna? Grilled cheeses? You can see where this is going. So I went off dairy cold-turkey as a test. The last thing to go was the drop of cream in my coffee. After three months the little bumps were gone and most startling of all, I could breathe through my nose.

I’d never done that before. I was gagging and choking and had to train myself to breathe through my nose. I could smell things I’d never realized that I couldn’t smell before, like cut grass and that fresh rain smell, and My God – the reek of McD’s! I stayed off dairy for about ten or twelve years until the cheese festival in Montreal. It was all gourmet after that.

The idea at the cafe is to bring some of those gourmet cheeses in from Quebec, where the artisanal farmers have been practicing their craft for hundreds of years (really!). In keeping with our efforts to find the best food and beverages, I want to get organic milk and cream for coffee from a local farmer, but it’s tricky shopping for things you don’t want to taste – like milk.

People seem to love Organic Meadow so I contacted them and was redirected to the distributor. And somehow, that crazy idiotic system that forgets that businesses aren’t things, they’re people, has reared it’s ugly head again.

“Hi there, I’m calling from the Heart of the Hammer Cafe to talk about your organic dairy products.”

“Ok, I’ll start with your banking information.”

“No no, I’m just calling to find out about the different products, what they cost, how it works.”

“I need your banking information.”

“I don’t understand. I just want to talk to someone first.”

“And I need your banking information to proceed.”

“Maybe I have the wrong line. Can I talk to someone in the sales department?”

“That’s me-ee!”

“Ok, bye.”

I begin to wonder; am I a cow after all or is something rotten in the state of business?

Broke Bank Mountain

I’m coming around to the idea that this may be my job for the foreseeable future.

Go ahead Geoffrey, say “I told you so.” My little brother Geoffrey who has a lot of wisdom about these things lent me some money for equipment to start-up but declined the invitation to come and tend bar. “Every story I’ve ever heard about opening a bar starts with five years of no sleep.” “Fooey on that,” was my answer. And luckily, for if I had believed him or any of the other people who said so I wouldn’t have opened the cafe. And I’m really glad I did since I am learning so much. And who needs sleep anyway?

The thing I like best about it is jazzing with all the people who come in. Oh, well, and feeding them too. So I found it odd when the bank manager kept trying to find solutions for me that involved not dealing with people. I had gone in to talk to him about a few specific problems that I was having with the bank.

To raise some money for the rest of the liquor license, we offered pre-paid tabs for food and beverage and merchandise, sort of a pay-now, eat-later deal. And it worked; between that and some loans we got the money together. So the day I had to ship the documents to the AGCO I ran over to the bank with an uncharacteristically large pile of money and cheques, popped my card into the teller’s reader and counted out the money into $100 stacks.

“Do you have a book?” the teller asked.

“I don’t know,” says I, “I don’t think so.” She looks at me blankly so I fumble onward, “Nobody ever gave me a book, or asked me for one before,”

“You don’t have a book?” The rolled eyeballs, exasperated sigh. She trurns to her colleague, “Aren’t they supposed to have a book?” Now I’m a ‘they’. At this point I wonder if we’re speaking the same language.

“If there’s something you want me to do, just let me know,” I offer “Nobody ever asked me for a book before.” She grabs up all my piles of money and says,

“How much are you depositing?” Of course, with all this drama I can no longer recall.

“I forget,” I tell her. Big sigh, shoulders slump. More rolling of the eyeballs to the colleague. She sits looking at the money. So what if I’m an idiot, doesn’t she have a job to do?

“Are you not going to count it?” I ask her.

“We count it,” she says, “but we don’t add it up.”

What the hell does that mean? I just look on, puzzled, not knowing what to do next, my joyful moment of success shattered because I don’t have a book. She starts banging furiously on a little keypad, lets out another sound of exasperation using the word receipt like a curse.

“I usually get a receipt,” I interject.

“Yeah, YOU get one,” she spits, “but I don’t.”

And this is my fault?

So I get back to the cafe and fire off a note to the manager saying that the teller who just served me was really rude and if this is what I can look forward to I’m not really interested. Can we meet to discuss whether my business fits with his?

The next day we meet bright and early. When I tell my story, the manager replies,

“I’m not going to apologize for her cause she was just doing her job.”

“The thing is, I’m not complaining about her, I’m complaining about her job. It should be customer service, but instead it is about serving her. It should be – What do you need and how can we help?”

“The problem is you didn’t have your book.”

“What book!?!”

“When you opened the account, I told you that you need it and you said you didn’t want it.”

“You mean that kit for $140 with a fancy cheque book cover and a company seal?”


“Well I’m not buying it. None of that brings in business. I don’t need any of that. I am behind on wages and utilities and only two days ahead on stock. I have more important things to spend $140 on.”

“You need the book for your records.”

“My records are on excel and in my bank account.”

“Well we need it for our records.”

“Then you pay for it.”

“It doesn’t work like that.”

“Well then it has to change. I get it that we’re talking about a bank-wide system, but the world is changing. All this fancy stuff has gone the way of the dodo. If it doesn’t get me business I’m not spending money on it. If it’s something you need me to do, then you supply it. What I’m saying is let’s work together to find a way to change this system. It has to be changed.”

“It’s always been this way.”

“I believe you. But listen, when I order my chocolates from Beanermunky, she provided me with white cotton chocolate gloves for handling the chocolates cause that’s what she wants to have happen. She didn’t say, “Hey, you have to go buy gloves.” Angela’s Cakes brought a beautiful Biscotti jar and my soups from Chef Danielle and my coffee from Detour come in storage containers, they don’t tell me to go out and find special storage containers that fit their warehouse. If you need some fancy book and you want me to fill it out for you, you have to provide it.”

“What you’re talking about is barter system. It’s used all over the world but it isn’t used in big business.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I pay my suppliers, and Campbells Soup provides the pots for Locke Street Bagel to serve their soups in at no charge. And Campbells are big business.”

“Look, if you want, you can make your deposits in the machine and then you don’t need a deposit book.”

“What’s the turnaround time if I deposit cash to the machine?”

“Six days.”

“I don’t have six days worth of money. Every day I pay somebody for something with whatever comes in that day. At the end of the month I’m scrambling to get the rent money into the account five minutes before the landlord gets here to cash the rent cheque. I don’t have six days. This is where the customer service thing comes in. I’m the customer and you say – How can we make this work for a new small business in our neighbourhood?”

“If you use the machine, you don’t have to deal with the people.”

“I like the people, it’s the system that needs to change. All of my suppliers are real people. They do their thing, I do mine. We figure out what works for each other. Each time I pay one of them, I know exactly what value I am getting for the money I give them. But here, I opened a business account to keep the money separate, I’m paying you $15 per month and I’m not clear what I’m getting for that, especially if she wont even count the money.”

“It’s important to keep the money separate.”

“Sure, except right now I don’t have any money. I pay the rent by cheque and I pay my PST. I can do both of those things from my personal account. I anticipate making cash deposits daily once we get up to speed, but if I have to go through this then I’ll have to do it somewhere else.”

“Don’t I recall from when you opened your account that you had some credit issues…”

The credit bomb. What this means is don’t you dare ask for things, just do what you’re told. Take what you get. Even if you’re not looking for credit.

Recently somebody suggested to me that a small handful of people control the world economy. This was momentarily depressing but then I thought, who cares? Whether or not this is true, I say so what? A small handful control space, another handful control the internet, another handful control Royal Marriages. Unless you’re playing in those arenas, trying to marry a prince, build space shuttles or control virtual real estate, it doesn’t really matter. Money is fiction, so is economy. It’s a set of rules in somebody’s game. It may be true that if you play the game, you have to play by the rules, but who says we have to play the game?

You’re real. I’m real. Whatever we’re building is real. We need to start a new game. A new economy. A people economy. Cause our banks are broken.

Not sure how, and it might be a mountain of work, but I think if we play together it could be fun.

Stone Soup Cafe

I love Rob Brezsny’s Freewill Astrology. It’s the lovely prose that gets me, his insight into human nature and the way he gets you thinking about things you might not otherwise ponder.

Last week he had this to say to me:

“Do you want to know where all the power lies for you right now? It’s nowhere. Do you want to know what the nature of that power is? It’s nothing. But before you jump to conclusions about the meaning of what I just said, read this passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell: “We join spokes together in a wheel, but it is the center hole that makes the wagon move. We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want. We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable.”

And it got me thinking about Stone Soup. Here’s how one person tells this universal story:

Once upon a time, somewhere in Eastern Europe, there was a great famine. People jealously hoarded whatever food they could find, hiding it even from their friends and neighbors. One day a peddler drove his wagon into a village, sold a few of his wares, and began asking questions as if he planned to stay for the night.

“There’s not a bite to eat in the whole province,” he was told. “Better keep moving on.”

“Oh, I have everything I need,” he said. “In fact, I was thinking of making some stone soup to share with all of you.” He pulled an iron cauldron from his wagon, filled it with water, and built a fire under it. Then, with great ceremony, he drew an ordinary-looking stone from a velvet bag and dropped it into the water.

By now, hearing the rumor of food, most of the villagers had come to the square or watched from their windows. As the peddler sniffed the “broth” and licked his lips in anticipation, hunger began to overcome their skepticism.

“Ahh,” the peddler said to himself rather loudly, “I do like a tasty stone soup. Of course, stone soup with CABBAGE — that’s hard to beat.”

Soon a villager approached hesitantly, holding a cabbage he’d retrieved from its hiding place, and added it to the pot. “Capital!” cried the peddler. “You know, I once had stone soup with cabbage and a bit of salt beef as well, and it was fit for a king.”

The village butcher managed to find some salt beef…and so it went, through potatoes, onions, carrots, mushrooms, and so on, until there was indeed a delicious meal for all. The villagers offered the peddler a great deal of money for the magic stone, but he refused to sell and traveled on the next day. And from that time on, long after the famine had ended, they reminisced about the finest soup they’d ever had.

Which got me to thinking about how the cafe is a really a soup pot into which the whole community has contributed ingredients to make our Neighbour Soup.

And all I can add to that is a great big thank you to all the people who have contributed, invested, become stakeholders and loungers and visitors. (And even pajama-party, story-time people!)

You ARE the power.

Why Me!?!

Years ago, my little brother used to holler up and down that he was the only one who ever had to do the dishes. “Why do ‘I’ always have to do them? How come I’m the ONLY one who ever has to do them? Nobody does dishes around here except me!”

So I said, “Ok, if you say so. From now on nobody does dishes around here but you.” It wasn’t long before the difference between the perception and the reality sunk in.

Sometimes at the Neighbourhood Complaints Department a person will go on a rant with a story about how life the universe and everything is victimizing them, particularly our neighbourhood. Same story each time, different details, but the set-up, the crisis, the clues and the causes are all there for anyone to hear.

“Those kids do it on purpose! They have no respect! I even told that one’s mother that her daughter was a Dirty Little !@#$@#$! They don’t graffiti anyone else’s property! They don’t ruin anyone else’s garden! I have to chase them away all the time, warn them when they get too close. I keep an eye on them. Make sure I know what they are up to. They have no respect for me! They’re deliberately targeting me!”

And if you hear it often enough, it makes you want to ask, “Why is that? Why do they only target you?”

I wish a spell of doing dishes would help in these situations. It would sure give me a break at the cafe if all the angry people took turns working it off, but there is only one person in that story who can change it, and it’s the person telling the story.

Imagine a different scenario. Imagine that you don’t chase them away. Imagine that you tell them what kind of flowers those are, where they come from, why they’re special. Imagine that you help those kids with something or other. Imagine that you ask them for help with something, give them five bucks for their trouble. Imagine that you tell them about upcoming opportunities like the skate park or the summer camp.

If you can’t IMAGINE it, you can’t DO it.

And if YOU can’t do it, why should THEY?

Landing in “Lower Hamilton”

I didn’t know that I lived in “Lower Hamilton”. None of the people who live here with me call it that.

I thought I moved here because of the beautiful architecture, affordable houses, greenery and of course the lake, which I missed so much in Montreal. I thought I stayed because of the front-porch culture, the friendly neighbours, the opportunity all around.

But suddenly, I feel like I fell off the end of the earth and landed here. Like no one else would take me.

There is no line between helping and needing help, at least not here in Hamilton. I thought I was helping with the South Sherman Hub and the South Stipeley Neighbourhood Association, the bike project and the business round table. I thought I was helping with the cafe, but really the neighbourhood is helping me. When I read the descriptors in the Spec’s Code Red series, too many of them are about me…

As a kid we lived in the country. We started out with a sort of Sound of Music upbringing with things like meal times and bed times and checking-that-you-brushed-your-teeth times. Then we moved to Guelph when I was about ten and that was the first time I went to the dentist: straight A’s.

But the second time we went to the dentist I had a mouth full of cavities, and the third time we went I had more. At first I went along with things like fillings, but then I started to get the idea that going to the dentist was causing them. Eventually, I really believed this and have concocted elaborate theories of corruption to explain it.

My theories didn’t included the ways that malnutrition and starvation can affect your health – and your teeth. And somehow these articles about the effects of poverty on health, about the effects of poverty on mental health (like concocting kooky theories) are all about me.

And maybe I am trying to get out. Maybe where I want to be is somewhere where people are all eating healthily, where differences are based on personality or temperament and not on opportunity or resources. Somewhere where people can’t pull rank because of credit rating.

And it made me really really mad to be accused of wanting something better, as if that was bad. Brought up fourty years of rage against the system and made me want to spend the next 60 years of my life devoting it to making one person’s life miserable. I am told that this fellow is truly a prince among men, that he stands up to superficial social climbers and that it must have been a case of mistaken identity between he and I. I hope so. It made me crazy that someone would try to cut my aspirations out from under me, cause I wasn’t planning to do it at the expense of everyone else.

I was planning to do it with them.

I didn’t cry for Code Red

I didn’t cry when I read the Code Red series in the Hamilton Spectator. I live here, I see the people.

I didn’t cry when I saw the comparisons; Sub-Saharan Africa is in crisis with 15% of babies being born underweight with few prospects for improvement over their lifetime; in some of our Hamilton neighbourhoods it’s 47%.

I didn’t cry when you belittled me at the table, even though you invited me to this meeting of the Hamilton Collaboratives. Invited me to represent the people in question.

I didn’t cry when you mocked my efforts to help as self-serving, said that I was there to get connected so that I could “get out”, meanwhile you kept telling the room all about what you had done in the past, what you would do in the future. Grandstanding while small children go hungry.

I didn’t cry when you ignored me, left the table while I was talking.

I didn’t cry when I realized that all this rudeness wasn’t about me, it was about you.

But when I realized that this whole day, this whole effort, the energy of all these people was also about you and your self-interest, that there never is going to be a plan to save the lives of the people in my neighbourhood, that in all likelihood this is just a platform for your campaign, then I cried. Cause who else will all these smart, capable people turn to in directing their resources? Who else will take the lead to get us working together if not you? You’re like a tin man, good at your job but missing a heart.

I cried then and I can’t seem to stop cause I realize I was expecting too much from you. And you’re just a person. And there isn’t anybody else. And that was news to me. News I didn’t want to know.

I wanted to believe that smart people everywhere really were trying to help.