Fraser

Fraser calls himself the only right-wing idealogue in a neighbourhood of socialists. He says he only started using the word socialist because his ex wife told him that he was offending too many people by calling them communists. Fraser fixes and sells gadgets down the block.

Fraser has a lot to say about government and immigration and business and history and citizenship and patriotism. His political platform is one he calls anti-incumbentism. He also has a lot to say about world travel. For a guy who claims to be against just about everything around him, he sure does help a lot of the people on the wrong side of his arguments.

On Friday mornings Fraser buys a couple extra cups of coffee and shares them with people on the street. Like Park Bench Lady. He sits and chats with her for a good long time.

Fraser is a magnet for teenagers, partly because he fixes and sells the kind of gadgets they like, and partly because he talks to them like they’re real people. Fraser talks to everyone like they are real people.

He goes to the high school football practices and gives them workout tips. He cooks for the 5 year old on her birthday and brings her mom out for Music Night. He keeps us all up-to-date on the specials at the grocery stores. He offers a Travel Tips Seminar at the cafe. Fraser knows how to travel in style, how to do it for less than you’d think, and what sort of things to prioritize in order to really make the most of your future lifetime memories.

Fraser doesn’t seem to hold it against me that I often try to steer the conversation AWAY from his favourite rants and I don’t hold it against him that he keeps trying.

Fraser knows the secret that the rest of us are trying to find: People are what’s important.

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Your Eyes

When I see me through your eyes I don’t want to live here.

Don’t want to live.

I see what you imagine, what you believe, what you’re afraid of.

You don’t really look at me. Into me.

You are careful not to touch me.

I’m not that person you see, but if I reach out…

You step further away.

So I move on. Maybe for now, maybe for ever.

Maybe till somebody can see me. Hear me. Touch me.

Till I am real.

Till I can touch the world.

Till I am strong enough to see it through my own eyes.

The End of the Tunnel

Our culture is so focused on that light at the end of the tunnel. I find I am so easily derailed when I can’t see it. Maybe it’s a bend in the tunnel, maybe the light goes out, but the panic, the flailing in the dark, the desire to give up, to press re-start and build a new character is terrific. I wonder if it really happens, if these deja-vus we all get are cause we already played this part of the game before. I wonder if that’s cheating.

On a trip to Vermont once, Mike aka the Best was driving and I was gawking at the scenery; up and around the winding roads, green valleys, steepled towns, low-hanging sky. We saw a rainbow, bright as can be with all its colours intact and as we wound around hips and curves of hills we got closer and closer. The excitement grew and then, quite suddenly we saw it – the foot of the rainbow planted firmly on the road in front of us. We drove through it in a shower of pixie dust and revelations of forgotten spiritual treasures and I felt for sure that life would be smooth sailing after that.

But maybe that wasn’t the lesson. Maybe the lesson was that the light at the end of the tunnel is a beautiful and compelling guide, but the point of the journey is all of the bright souls that light the tunnel along the way.

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?”

“Yes”

“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.

Love Note for J K Rowlings

Dear Joanne,

I live in a neighbourhood in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada) where there are a great many people trying to make a difference in the community. I have met many of them through my small cafe where a lot of story swapping goes on. I am amazed at how many of these people have had Harry Potter childhoods. Not in the magician sense, but in the sense of being abandoned or ignored or unloved. In the sense of having to find their own way in the world, figure out who they are and where they belong and how they fit in.

I wanted to thank you for creating Harry Potter and sharing his journey. He is a modern archetype that allows me to connect with people in a humourous, optimistic way as they share personal histories. It is as if we live on the frontier of society, a place full of people who believe that “it doesn’t have to be like that” and who are committed to doing something about it; to creating a world where the Voldemorts have no sway, where people know their neighbours and care about each other.

So thank you. For your words, your compassion, for telling your stories that help us to tell ours.