Sunday, October 5, 2008

Day 64: The two best guys in St Lazare

Based on my deteriorating breakfast experiences, I was becoming concerned about having enough food to reach Virden or Brandon safely. There was a small town, St Lazare, near the confluence. I tied up the canoe under a highway bridge and hiked the mile or so into town.
The highway was main street and as I walked I saw Decorby Family Foods, a grocery store, closed Sundays. Since it was Sunday, I kept walking. There were a couple of restaraunts, a repair shop, and a small convenience store. In front of the convenience store were gas pumps, but I didn't see the prices advertised. There were also three men talking.

The nearest one was almost sixty, and wore a black jacket over his white shirt. I interrupted the conversation.

"Is that the only grocery store around here?" I said, indicating Decorby's.

"Yes", said the nearest, "but he just drove past here. He drives a silver pickup, oh, quarter-ton... half-ton?"

We could wait for him to drive by, or walk over to his house. This seemed like a lot of trouble to me, certainly rude, to track down the owner of a closed store, but I let the man lead me to "Benny".

I bluntly asked him his name: "Robert LaClare". And mine? "Kevin". But a single name, appropriate for a large city where who you are is defined by what you, and only you, do and say, is incomplete in a small town. You are not just yourself, but a representative of a family, a representative of a nationality.

"Oh, Saff, what is that? English, Scottish maybe?" he said.

"Swedish, actually, but it doesn't mean anything in Swedish."

He apologized on behalf of the other two men he had been talking to. I noticed how they had turned away when we started talking, to exclude me and him from their ongoing conversation. I had interpreted more as personal quirks than rudeness.

"It's okay, everyone's different," I said.

"Sometimes in these small towns," he said, "people aren't comfortable talking to strangers, but they're good guys. I can just meet someone and its like I've known them ten, twenty years!"
We tracked down Benny while avoiding two "drunks" Robert didn't want to run into. "But they're good people."

Robert introduced me to Benny and said I now knew the best two guys in town.

"Well, one of them anyway," Benny said.

Benny was Ben Decorby, the owner of the grocery store. He drove me the block back there in his silver pickup of uncertain tonnage, while a pop country song played on the radio. He got the hook stuck in his head and hummed it while he opened the store up for me and I picked out my groceries.

"Do you need a receipt?" he said.


"I'll just do it this way, then. It will be faster anyway." He started totaling up the groceries by hand, rounding to dollars.

I worked out the sum more exactly in my head to keep him honest, until I noticed he was giving me a healthy discount, which shamed me to stop. The total came to $50, which I paid with a single bill. He started asking if I needed anything else.

"Need some water?" indicating the bottles, stacked in 24-packs by the door.

"No that's alright. I've got water." I was running a bit low but I had my water filter and didn't want to deal with a lot of empty bottles.

"Spitz?" Sunflower seeds.

"No, I'm okay."

He got the idea that I was going to refuse everything if he asked, and went over to a dark corner of the store, just taking things off the shelves. Meanwhile a thin, weathered man in a red flannel shirt took advantage of the unusual store hours to buy groceries, or just a block of cheese. He waited at the register.

"Hello," I said.

No response.

Ben came by and added a box of Wagon Wheels and snack bars to my pile, and went back into the store.

"Hello," I tried again to the waiting man, again to no response.
Benny brought over a couple Powerades, crackers, and a water bottle. We packed it all up in two cardboard boxes, and he rang up the man's cheese. As the weathered man walked out he turned to me.

"Good evening," he said.

"You too!" I said, surprised.

Ben drove me out to the bridge, and we took the groceries down to the canoe. He watched as I unpacked everything into my canoe. The boat was piled high with gear because my tent and bag were too wet to pack up in the morning, so were stacked on top of everything else to dry off.

"No alcohol?" Ben asked.

"I've heard too many stories about how boating and alcohol don't mix. You know, there's a big weir in Calgary and every year a couple guys get drunk and go over it."

I arranged everything in the canoe to make room for myself, and recovered the rope.

"You ever thought about just getting away from it all?" I said.

He shrugged. "Well."

I scooted off and he climbed back up to his truck.

I suppose Robert is right about people being different in small towns and big cities. I have been a suburbanite, a student in a University town, and lived a short walk from the downtown of a city of a million people. Each one of these environments has shaped my values, my actions, my identity.

Now I am a river traveller, and I can see developing in myself similar qualities to others I've read; even qualities I thought myself wise in criticizing in them.

I especially disliked how at the end of every book, the author seems desperate to get off the river, to get it all over and done, as if the river is some terrible thing that must be escaped. Yet, I found myself hurried to get off of both Lake Diefenbaker and the Qu'Appelle. Maybe this feeling of moving on, making progress, getting to the next thing, is too essential of a human characteristic to overcome.

Then there is the "efflusive praise for minor acts of kindness" which I had mocked. Well,it really is surprising how much smoe people want to help. A math PhD is much more difficult than floating down the river, but I got hardly any help with that. A river journey is a story people want to be part of, and can. If you want to be a bum, it's best to be a tramp; tramp by bike, scooter or boat and you'll always find people wanting to help.

Floating down the river, there is sometimes little to think about but these small kindnesses I cannot repay.

It is frightened to be changed, and changed into what?

"You sound like Kathy!" my Calgary roommates remarked when I first called back, after only a couple of weeks. Kathy is a calm but passionate, carefree explorer in the backwoods of Alberta. She encouraged me in this trip; she gave me her water filter.

If floating down the river makes me more like Kathy then this "efflusive praise" seems like a small price to pay.

Thank you, Robert LaClare, for welcoming me to St Lazare and leading me to "Benny". Your easy-going, friendly manner is an inspiration.

And thank you, Ben Decorby, for your generosity of time and food, which kept me going a long way. Your kindness will never be forgotten.

Okay, that is laying it on a bit thick. Still, they're good guys. The two best in St Lazare, I'm sure.

Day 64 ended: 50*23.404N, 101*15.805W


John said...

It's true that experiences will change oneself, and I think 'where' is only a subset of the overall picture. I think that's one thing that people don't understand about employment: working with a given group of people is a choice in how you personally could change.

I know what you mean about no help in the academic world, which is one reason why I'm working with ProfW&N to help give N some support, and also see if ProfW's work can be put into software.

In related matters (I'll explain the relation after some initial thoughts), yesterday I completely read (Often, I'm astonished at how fast people read, but what I've discovered is that they aren't reading very difficult things for fun.) "Soon I Will Be Invincible" by Austin Grossman, which was a great attempt to look into the internal lives of superheroes and supervillains.

It's totally worthwhile, for it's an interesting view into what separates the supervillain from either the run-of-the-mill mad scientist (unsuccessful academic/businessperson, Willy Wonka never quite being able to build his factory) or the frustrated person who just loses their mind with rage (or even a mixture of the two). To be a supervillain, it take a kind of pettiness and narrow mindedness that sustains a self-supported intellectual bent towards destruction and domination that just isn't self-consistent. Breaking down and becoming twisted just doesn't make one better at accomplishing anything, even evil pursuits.

The relation is that a main character and central supervillain was a failed graduate student. Is it such a wonder that throughout comics the supervillains always take such academic titles for themselves, such as Dr. and Prof.? Is there perhaps any better sense of intelligence gone to bitter seed then to spend years in closely reasoned academic pursuits that have no reference to any positive responsibility, only to be withheld the credentials that would then allow one to do something positive with it? Given that as a possible destination, may we be glad to be adventurers with our own senses of positive responsibility, you into new lands, and me into new projects and businesses.

Today, in between WiiSports, grocery shopping, dishes, lunch, and arguing about random number generators, I've been working a little on some software projects of my own. I wouldn't call them new, but basically a consolidation of previous projects around the milieu of the internet of things and closed-loop supply chains.

Kevin Saff said...

"Is there perhaps any better sense of intelligence gone to bitter seed then to spend years in closely reasoned academic pursuits that have no reference to any positive responsibility, only to be withheld the credentials that would then allow one to do something positive with it?"

Ouch. Very pointed, that.