The trip started from my home in Nanaimo, BC – a burg just a little too big to be a pleasant place to live, with more malls spread along the highway than can really be needed, as if shopping is the only creative outlet for the 80 thousand or so souls who call the city home. Nanaimo’s downtown has been a ghost town for ages, with very few shops of note and a nightlife that includes junkies and slobbering drunks. To be honest, the well-heeled folk are better off venturing no further from suburbia than the closest mall.
Strangely, as vendors of clothing and accessories, Nanaimo has never cottoned to our style. We don’t sell the common brands that fuel box stores, preferring instead to flog handcrafted hats and bags and clothing, some imports and vintage. We set up our tent at street markets and music festivals in spring, summer and fall. In the winter months we set up booths at universities and colleges across Western Canada. The most recent trip took us as far as the prairie jewel, Saskatoon. Even at –30, the warm heart of the place was notable.
These journeys would provide rich material for any freelance journalist or photographer. The themes could be various. Why are so many Korean Christians working in the motel industry? Why do so many men who stay in motels dream of a better life? Why do motels persist in faking domestic environments? What do we feed our students? University and college food courts vary wildly, from the wonderful dhal at UVic’s International Grill, to the drab and damn-near poison offered by some food services. Which student body is the most stylish? The most addicted to mobile devices? The drunkest? There are endless slants on which to hook an article. But I rarely write freelance anymore. I blame my computer - just when a good idea crops up, I find a wireless connection and vanish into cyberspace.
Still, this last trip was remarkable enough to write a blog post and upload some altered snaps. There is also a particularly splendid experience that insists upon proper comment – all about manners. I know it’s not fair to say that one student body is on the whole kinder than another. But the students in Regina and Saskatoon are better mannered than any I’ve come across – particularly in Saskatoon. As an example, let me tell you about my wounded hand and a lost glove.
I will get to the wound. First, let me tell you about my gloves. They are expensive, made for construction workers who want both protection and flexibility. They are snug and well padded. I bought them because of a skin condition that’s exacerbated by my work. I constantly handle metal clothes’ hangers and plastic bags and get rashes so bad that my partner has dubbed me the lizard boy. The rashes are painful and often lead to cracked skin and raw patches. The gloves protect me from rashes, and her not-always-funny taunts.
Just before leaving for the prairies, while loading the van, I misplaced my left glove. It was a real mystery. I looked everywhere. But it simply vanished, and I had to make do with inferior gloves. The highway from Blue River to Jasper was covered in thick-packed snow and ice. From Jasper to Edmonton the road was two lanes of dirty slush, kicked into mini-storms by every passing 4 X 4 and semi-trailer truck. Somewhere along the route – maybe a spider bite in the Blue River Motel, or while checking the chains on the rear wheels of the van – I scrapped the edge of my left hand. Uncharacteristically, I wasn’t wearing gloves.
Within two days my left hand had swollen to twice it’s size and a nasty pit of pus developed, requiring minor surgery. The operation took place in the emergency ward of the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton – two Mash-like tents erected in the ambulance bay (the place was under renovation). It was there I met a stranger who remembered me from 40 years back, and she remembered that my last name was once King. I lost track of her after the curtain was pulled and the emergency-ward doctor drained the wound, spooned out the last bit of pus, and stuck packing in the hole.
Next came an IV drip - three times daily for five days. Fortunately, my partner Joann and I were staying at my mother’s condo, a mere 10 blocks from the hospital. Infection is a great social equalizer – rich and poor in the same room, each hoping that the cool liquid dripping slowly into our veins will rid the alien swelling. The night nurse was a real treat, an ex go-go dancer, lively, efficient and charming. The nervous banter was almost worth the price of admission to her IV unit.
All this happened while I helped my partner with our business. I unloaded and loaded gear, assisted with the set up of a trade show booth, and wrote a grant application. Both hands were wrapped in thick layers of gauze. The dressing on the wound was changed daily, and the IV gear in my other hand was awkward to say the least. The needle pinched. I needed help to bathe.
“Will you bathe me?” I asked my partner. “Or do I have to ask my mother?”
“I could watch,” she quipped. “But that’s just sick.”
My mother laughed. “That’s for sure.”
After the dressings came off, I used wide bandages on my left hand, wrapped from palm to knuckle. Then came a week of antibiotic pills and a trip to Calgary where we stayed in a motel and worked two campuses. I sprayed disinfectant on the light switches and doorknobs and water taps. I cleansed the wound religiously and watched it heal. The weather was seasonably uncertain. Some freezing rain, some snow. I used my backup wool gloves.
After Calgary my partner flew home to Nanaimo and I continued to Saskatoon and booked into the College Drive Lodge – where there’s enough material for a mini-series, complete with a body that never got buried, a madwoman returned to sanity, and an unsettling suicide. The lodge faces a busy, divided roadway. Across stands the cancer hospital and, two blocks further east, the University of Saskatchewan. The first morning was –30 C with a stiff breeze. I unloaded in the university parking lot, hauled the rolling racks of clothing and dolly loads of goods and infrastructure down a hallway, an elevator, and a further 50 feet to the tunnel entrance of the Place Riel Student Centre. It took four trips to unload everything.
My hand throbbed and burned - low-grade pain, still healing. I was on my second to last load, passing the staircase, when I spied the glove. It was on the cement ledge at the bottom of the stairs - my lost left-handed glove. The way I figure: it got snagged on a hanger while loading the van in Nanaimo, three weeks previous, and came loose while unloading in Saskatoon. Some kind soul found the glove and placed it on the ledge. I still had the right-handed glove, too. I was whole again. Symbolically, at least.
There’s more to the journey, of course. But nothing that compares to the moment when I found the glove. The experience continues to affirm my fondness for Saskatoon, and the warm heart of the prairies. I’m back home in Nanaimo, writing this with my wound still bandaged – just an ordinary strip. Yesterday I used the gloves to prune some trees in the backyard and ripped a hole in one of them. They’ve served me more than well. I will get a new pair. I know exactly which mall along the long strip in town to shop for them.