A couple of weeks ago I was in Ottawa keeping my grandfather company, and at one point he was meeting with his financial adviser and I was walking around outside taking photos. The street the advisor’s office is on is a busy four-lane road. Basically an urban highway, with some middle-class neighbourhoods tucked out of sight behind lowrise office buildings and several half-block long one-storey high strip-malls.
After a while I ran out of things to shoot. I couldn’t go too far, my grandfather leaves in a hurry from wherever he goes, so my photos are limited to an ugly round building across the street and some of myself reflected in the mirrored windows of the building my grandfather was in… the Berenal Building, which I have more than thirty photos of now.
I even made sure to take a photo of the “no parking” sign in the parking lot, warning the clientèle of the next door funeral parlour they’ll be ticketed and towed at their own expense if they even think of parking near the Berenal Building.
After taking photos of me, the sign and the round building I was leaning on my grandfather’s car in the parking lot, watching the traffic when I noticed some kids talking across the street.
On the corner of the highway and a side street that disappeared into a neighbourhood was a ten-storey apartment building called the Carmel Apartments — the kind of building with a permanent For Rent sign, basically advertising someone’s about to disappear, walk away or get locked up so there’ll be a vacancy soon.
There was a girl, maybe nineteen, and a taller guy who may have been in his early twenties if not her age. They were happy, laughing. They obviously had a connection.
Then two more guys and their dogs came out. They all knew each other and while their dogs played at the end of their long leashes the kids seemed to be making plans. After a few minutes the girl left, then a few more and one of the guys said his goodbyes and went back inside as the other two and their dogs, a rottweiler and a mixed mutt, walked away in the opposite direction of the girl.
It was just the way they interacted with each other, the way their bodies moved so you could almost tell what they were talking about without even hearing their voices. It honestly took me a few minutes of watching to understand why I was watching. For the first few minutes it was boredom and maybe the girl. But after that, in hindsight, it was because they reminded me of myself and the friends I had when I first moved to Ottawa.
There were no insights or revelations. And beyond the way the people moved the only other similarity I could see was most of the windows of their building were covered by bed sheets. I never used sheets, I had the classic hammer and sickle Soviet flag in my window for awhile — replaced later by the Canadian Maple Leaf.
But from the moment I recognized my friends in them, until they all walked away, I really just wanted to walk over there and ask if they went to the show last night…
When I moved to Ottawa I was nineteen and coming from a small farming community where my friends and I could tell you exactly what classic-rock song was playing on the radio from the very first note we heard.
My first job in Ottawa was volunteering in the record library at the University of Ottawa’s student radio station. A few weeks after I started the station director and the program director wanted to revamp the drive show. So I suggested two hours of classic rock. They thought I was being ironic so they gave me the job of assistant producer for the new show.
I still wasn’t getting paid, but I had access to a lot of concerts in a lot of venues. So that’s how I started meeting people. One of the night DJ’s was actually from my hometown, so we connected as well. He had been in Ottawa for awhile and had become the de facto leader of the city’s goth scene. He also helped run (one of?) Canada’s first BBS so I also had access to some of the very first Internet porn.
Another friend lived with an urban painter, who my girlfriend at the time knew as well from their time at Canterbury High School… I forget his name, but he would paint magnificent portraits on abandoned buildings and signed everything “Go Fish”. Years later he later he painted graffiti puzzle pieces on random Ottawa buildings and numbering them. Some of them are still there.
I’d always try to get my friends into concerts. The only shows any of could get into were freebies, and those were mostly in someone’s parents basement. At first I was trying to get into the classic rock stuff, which nobody else at the station wanted. So I took a friend backstage to a Bad Company / Ted Nugent show.
But after a couple of months I started to learn about the alt-rock scene. My first non-CR concert was the album release party for “Just Buy It” by Ottawa’s Furnaceface. Who were awesome in their awesomeness for as long as they were around. Then over the next six weeks it was Blue Rodeo, Crash Test Dummies, 54-40, Wild T & the Spirit and Crash Vegas.
A few months later I was fired from my volunteer radio job for sleeping in and missing two afternoon drive shows.
But when I think of things I miss, I generally think of this time period. I was in love with a wonderful girl, my friends and I were always broke but we all knew how to steal from the 7/11, we shared books, we played on the Internet, sometimes there were six of us living in an apartment…
I’ve never really been a full member of any of the groups I’ve hung out with, but for those three or four years in those places and in those moments there was definitely a community of people who cared about each other.
It was just nice to be reminded of that.