Greg had a girlfriend who was a registered nurse, who liked to remind him she was not a registered practical nurse, or a personal support worker, but she had a university degree with honours, a bachelor of nursing science, and even a master’s degree in public health. Greg possessed only a diploma, but Ellen told him as a journalism student, recently graduated from community college, he should be able to find work in Beaverbrook, since there were many unfilled positions and job vacancies. He thought she believed in him, and nurtured high hopes for their future together—so she persuaded him to move from Toronto to Beaverbrook.
Later, he would blame her: love made him blind; she became the reason he ended up stranded in Beaverbrook. Within three months of moving to Beaverbrook, his girlfriend asked him to leave and move from their two-bedroom unit domicile in the only apartment block in the town, since, she revealed, she was having an affair with Doctor Money. He decided to stay in Beaverbrook since Ellen was still the love of his life. Also, because of the high rate of diabetes among indigenous peoples from reserves up north, in the catchment area of Ellen’s regional hospital, he found the health-care for his Type 1 diabetes, the counseling, the treatment, better than anyplace he lived before. Still infatuated and preoccupied with Ellen, he hoped to reunite.
Meanwhile, he continued to search for work. The local newspaper was a family owned business. The editor-in-chief and advertising manager warned him not to call again. The free weekly community newspaper was not hiring. The owner had not hired any new reporters or editors in five years; in fact, their editorial staff consisted of only an editor/writer, a reporter, and a copy editor/production manager. In any event, the owners planned to fold or sell the newspaper in the not-so-distant future, unless they found a white knight, or found some method to earn money from their online edition.
He applied at the regional hospital, which, after the great recession and closure of the sawmill and the Cody Springs Nuclear Disaster and the shuttering of the uranium mine, became the town’s leading employer. The hospital’s human resources department did not return his phone calls or respond by mail to the application and resume he filed at their website online. When he tried to call the housekeeping supervisor, the kitchen, or the maintenance department about the vacant positions, to which he applied online, by snail mail, and in person, they either never bothered to answer the telephone. When he pestered them, they advised him management filled the positions and insisted he not call or visit again. An administrative assistant warned him not to keep his hopes up and urged him to contact human resources department, which pleaded with him to please stop calling.
The railroad gave him an interview and a test for a freight train conductor and engineer. He was told he passed the interview and the multiple-choice test, whose railyard questions kept reminding him of the video game Tetris, but he was up against a very competitive field.
“Are you native?” the HR guy in faded denim asked.
“As in Ojibway, indigenous?”
“No, I’m Italian on one side and Portuguese on the other.”
“You look like you might be native.”
“I darken easily in the sun.”
“That’s too bad; if you were, I could’ve hired you on the spot.”
He applied for work at the sawmill, but he did not receive any reply. When he called the front office because he did, indeed, want a job and was not applying to improve his job interview skills, he was warned management expected the sawmill faced permanent closure soon. When he bicycled to the mill, the security guard at the gatehouse greeted him suspiciously and warned him he would be charged with trespassing if he did not leave sawmill property promptly.
When Greg asked Spencer, the host of the male coffee klatch in Moose Knuckles Coffee & Donuts, he was warned by Spencer and his crew he probably would not be hired at the sawmill. “You don’t have any friends or relatives, my fair brethren, who laboured at the sawmill, friends or relatives who acted as foremen, supervisors, or in management.” Spencer also warned, “My fair brethren, you are not a long time local or lifer. Oftentimes even so-called lifers are not hired if they are not old stock Canadians or if they are considered outsiders—for example, they come from so-called uppity, immigrant, or indigenous families.”
Greg dropped off an application at the uranium mine administration office downtown, but the human resources officer told him she did not expect to hire anyone until there was a steep upturn in uranium prices, which the company projections indicated would not occur anytime soon after the Cody Springs Nuclear Disaster.
As Greg sat at the edge of the coffee klatch surrounding Spencer, in the Moose Knuckles Coffee & Donuts, browsing about for an artificial sweetener for his coffee, a furloughed miner warned him, “You’re probably not going to be hired. You don’t have friends or relatives working at the mine.”
“This is the manner, my fair brethren, in which business in Beaverbrook operates,” Spencer agreed. “You are also totally unfamiliar with anyone in management: you have no friends or relatives in the upper echelons.”
As Greg drew down his savings, he barely managed to eke out a living by picking up items from the curbside swap. He kept coming across Geiger counters, remnants of uranium mining and refining from laid off or retired uranium miners who quit or gave up hope of ever returning to work. He tested the Geiger counters by bicycling to the mine site. The closer he peddled along the highway towards the uranium mine and processing and refining facility, the faster and louder the clicking and warning noises emitted from the hand held devices occurred. He sold the Geiger counters online and managed to net a pretty penny for each of them, selling most of them to hardcore, diehard survivalist at remote outposts and locations in Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and British Columbia. He began to think of himself as a leading supplier of second-hand Geiger counters online. He discovered the Internet was still a novice technology to most residents of Beaverbrook and internet speeds were very slow, but he still managed to post pictures of the items he recovered from curbside swap and sell and auction them online.
A few weeks later, though, early morning in the morning, on the last Saturday of the month, curbside swap day, as he cycled down the residential streets near his apartment on the morning of curbside swap, he realized he probably wouldn’t come across another Geiger counter and wondered to which neighbourhood Ellen had moved in with her doctor friend. Then he thought he hit the motherlode. Someone at a gabled and turreted house, which he nicknamed the Castle of Floatplane Street, down the thoroughfare from where he lived, was leaving first editions books in mint or excellent condition in their blue box. In the rigid plastic recycle bin he spotted first editions in good condition, albeit there were signs of wear and tear, of having been read by someone who respected books. He noticed a few of the hardcovers, autographed on the title page by Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, among other contemporary authors. When he checked the condition of the hardcover books, inside the cover beneath the dustjacket, he found they were delicately signed in pencil by Marvin Money. He would have been more comfortable if there was a sign indicating the books were free, but this was the curbside swap day, and they were in blue box recycle bins on the curb. He took a few books, dumped them into his backpack, and peddled away.
In more prosperous times, he probably would have bought these books, if he could afford them, but he needed the money and storage space was now at a premium. When he checked their potential value online, he was astonished. He started auctioning the first edition hardcover books online. The price he received per volume proved enough to survive for one week, if he remained thrifty and frugal, and shopped at the dollar store for groceries. So, he limited himself to auctioning one volume per week.
At the Moose Knuckles coffee klatch, Greg asked, “Who lives in the brick house at the end of Floatplane Street?”
“My fair brethren, that’s Doctor Money’s humble abode,” Spencer replied.
“Did you say, Doctor Money?”
“I said Doctor Money, not related to the famous Doctor Money of sexology fame. She lives with her father, a retired English professor suffering the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease.”
As Greg listened to Spencer explain the difference between Parkinson’s disease and other forms of dementia, he wondered how a retired professor wound up in Beaverbrook, but he thought his situation explained the impressive book collection—first editions discarded like stale newsmagazines and last week’s newspapers. Then the following month, on the Saturday morning of the curbside swap, he visited the same boulevard outside the Castle of Floatplane Street. A woman, bare foot, wearing a hoodie over an athletic bra and thong, quietly stepped onto her backdoor steps, and sat down with her cup of coffee and a magazine, The New England Journal of Medicine. She watched him for several moments while she smoked a cigarillo. When he noticed her watching him, he felt like a target had been drawn on his back but he resisted the urge to bolt.
“You’d be doing me a favor if you took those books. My father was a university professor and a book lover, but now he’s in his nineties, half-blind, with dementia, and can’t read.”
“Will do,” Greg said crisply. He fumbled with the books as he loaded his backpack and sped off on his bicycle.
“See you next month, handsome!” she shouted. “Curbside swap, baby! Last sat Saturday of each month! The early bird gets the worm!” she clapped her hands and blew him a kiss.
As he peddled, he turned back and shouted, “Thanks!”
Her early morning exuberance puzzled him, causing him to wonder if she had been drinking, as he cycled down Floatplane Street. Possibly, she had been partying since late Friday night and had not been to bed yet. A doctor who smoked cigarillos also made him wonder. Then he considered the possibly this woman could be Ellen’s girlfriend. On the day of curbside swap, the following month, as he rummaged through the books in her rigid plastic blue box on the boulevard, Ellen stepped out of the house, leading an elderly man out of the house, into a Mercedes SUV in the driveway. Saying nothing, she blushed, but Greg did not think he could ever recall the woman he knew as so confident and assertive ever looking so embarrassed or her cheeks so red, since normally nothing fazed her. He thought he was the person who should feel abashed and ashamed. Instead, when he discovered in the recycle bin, the blue box, the first edition of a famous World War Two novel, The Naked and The Dead, by Norman Mailer, worn, with a tattered dust jacket, but still in excellent condition, he marveled and gasped. He double checked the publisher’s copyright page and confirmed the book was indeed a first edition as well as a first printing.
When he auctioned the classic collectable online, he figured the proceeds would pay his rent and groceries for the next month. In any event, during the following year of his life in Beaverbrook, he thought, the curbside swap and this depot saved his life. Meanwhile, at the coffee klatch in Moose Knuckles Coffee & Donuts the locals and minions continued to congregate around Spencer, who had earned an honors bachelors degree and a master’s degree in forestry. During a conversation he had with his ex-girlfriend, at the coffee shop, during which he pleaded with her for the return of his laptop and compact disc player, she tried to warn him about Spencer.
Greg thought Spencer was harmless, an intelligent local guide, but she said he quit his job in shame as a forester at the Ministry of Natural Resources after a forest firefighter accused him of sexual harassment. Over the next several years, the skinny man gained over a hundred and fifty pounds. She sniped cattily he had not been gainfully employed since the allegations.
When she left the Moose Knuckles café, he went to sit at Spencer’s regular table and asked about curbside swap.
“The curbside swap in Beaverbrook has been a success since the nineties, my fair brethren,” Spencer said. “As volunteer chair for the environmental committee for municipality of Beaverbrook, I helped set up and implement the program.”
“Isn’t this town kind of remote and isolated for recycling to work economically?” Greg asked.
“A new era of environmental consciousness arrived town with the dawning of a millennium. Local activists contributed to new initiatives in recycling, composting, and reduction of waste. The population of the town of Beaverbrook has always been transient. When people are moving, or during spring cleanup, curbside swap helps.” Spencer paused to catch his breath. “It took, my fair brethren, years to persuade municipal public works to implement the plan for a curbside swap. All those residents downsizing, spring cleaning, or, more likely, moving, who cannot sell their belongings or dump them excess cargo at the garbage dump or landfill can simply leave them on the curbside on the last Friday of the month. That leaves an opening for a neighbour, a friend, another resident of the town, a newcomer to Beaverbrook, a rate payer, anyone, to help find repurpose that discarded chair, cast off office furniture, boards, wood, the old door or window, the sofa, the boxes of cassettes, compact disks, and DVDS, books, comics, magazines, even vintage Playboys. Clothes, dish ware, kitchenware, and dish towels, tools, used car parts, plumbing supplies, surplus wood—you name it, these carpetbaggers leave it, my fair brethren. The social experiment, the mutually beneficial selfless act of community recycling and sharing, is a stupendous success. The local curbside swap was even featured in regional news coverage on Thunder Bay and Winnipeg news telecasts and newspapers. The Winnipeg Free Press and the Thunder Bay Chronicle Herald. Meanwhile, retailers in town are not affected by curbside swap, because Front Street and Railyardside Street has lost all its hardware stores, furniture stores, and department stores to the big box stores in nearby Northcliff.”
The curbside swap was a co-operative community success, Spencer explained, but societal ills and associated domestic problems, and chronic physical and mental illness continued to plague the town. Then Spencer started to quibble and quarrel when Greg opined that, even though many claimed there were plenty of jobs in Beaverbrook, a plethora of unfilled positions, Greg was unable to find steady, regular work that paid a living wage.
In any event, no one was certain how the curbside swap reached the ultimate level. A few prominent locals, pillars of the community, and even Spencer believed the transformation occurred in the midst of the high school graduation ceremony, following a wild party, at a time when so much hope was instilled in a bright future, progress, and better living through technological advances, improved education, and practicing the three R’s of waste management: reduction, re-use, and recycling. After a party that left them with vomit stained formal attire, rumpled, wrinkled three-piece suits and tuxedoes, elaborate and ornate prom dresses gowns, several hung over graduates milled and loitered about outdoors, outside the house where the after party occurred. The mother of a graduate, expressing her disgust and dismay, took her broom, started swatting, and asked the partygoers to leave her house before she called the police. Hurting, hungover, outside the house, the graduates rummaged through the cardboard egg boxes of clothes outside the neighbour’s house at the street corner and changed from their formals into streetwear—Kenora dinner jackets, distressed jeans, sports t-shirts, before they plopped down on the chairs and sofa, also left on the boulevard for curbside swap.
Greg managed to shoot video of a few locals scavenging during curbside swap, picking up the tuxedos and prom dresses the graduates discarded. That was before the graduates changed into the jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, and scuffed shoes they themselves found in cardboard boxes on the boulevard. Then, as if they were left out for curbside swap themselves, parents and guardians emerged from nowhere in urgently driven cars and starting retrieving their offspring.
A pair of freshly minted graduates of the Beaverbrook high school graduates never returned home, as they went to live together, as boyfriend and girlfriend, in Winnipeg. That morning, though, most parents arrived promptly to pick up their children, whose chaperones were long gone, when they received calls about vomiting, hungover teenagers slumped in the recycle bins, amidst the curbside swap materials, outside the house beside the Baptist church.
Then, at the curbside swap, the following month, wives were duct taped to discarded kitchen and office furniture. Husbands were strapped to their broken-down snowmobiles, abandoned motorcycles, and discarded car seats, alongside blown engines, and broken and worn parts from backyard garages and junkyards. Disconsolate, downtrodden, ex-boyfriends sat in the centre of worn out truck tires in their pajamas and housecoats. Ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends stood smoking cigarettes beside their suitcases, pacing back and forth outside their partner’s houses, mobile homes, and recreation vehicles. Was it safe to assume, Greg wondered, as he bicycled past, they wished and hoped someone scavenging on the day of curbside swap would rescue them—recover them for recycling. A pair of baby twins were left in their infant car seats outside the house by a young couple, suffering from opioid and methamphetamine addiction, who had recently lost their jobs as pharmacy technicians at the big box stores to which they commuted daily in Northcliff over one hundred kilometres away. A pair of family physicians, clinicians at the local clinic and regional hospital, new to town, who had attempted to conceive for the past twelve years, spotted the twins beside discarded chairs, promptly picked up the infants, and sped away. A middle-aged man, the former principal of the Beaverbrook High School, who was suffering from premature dementia, was left in his housecoat in the reclining chair, beside a discarded stationary bicycle, with a broken foot pedal, a hand printed card attached to a lanyard around his neck. A student nurse took him by the arm and helped him into the passenger seat of her car. She drove off in a hurry, pressing down accelerator pedal, racing through the quiet residential street, before, she feared, his wife changed her mind. At the very least, she figured, with this aged man with Alzheimer’s living at her home she would in a position to collect the caregiver tax credits. Far more importantly, she figured the elder would help her improve her nursing skills and acquire real time, real world practical nursing experience.
So, it went: the adult son living in the basement of his parents’ house was abruptly awakened at sunrise on his thirty-third birthday, the morning of the curbside swap. Despite his protests and pleas, his parents dumped him, with his desktop computer, wide screen television, game console, and computer desk, and chair, at the curbside. Unemployed for the past decade, after the sawmill shutdown forever, and then the uranium mine shuttered after the Cody Springs nuclear reactor disaster, his parents surrendered their hopes and dreams for him: they realized he would never return to college or university; he might not find another job that paid a living wage for a long time—at least while he was living with them. Having downloaded countless digital files of music, videos, games, graphic novels, and comic books from the internet, he spent his days stuck in the eighties, listening to his collection of pop songs, watching movies and porn, with undepilated bodies and big hair hairstyles. A lab technician, single, despite her best efforts over the past decade to find a boyfriend, downtown, at work, at some of the bars and lounges down, and more recently, online, had nearly surrendered expectations of ever finding a suitable mate for herself in Beaverbrook, until she saw him, sitting beside his computer chair at the curbside, wearing a housecoat and pyjamas. Slouched in an aged worn Lazy Boy chair, which his parents also put out for the curbside day, he rubbed and picked his nose and scratched his crotch as he absently read a science fiction paperback. Feeling something akin to love at first sight, she held his hand as she led him to her car and loaded his belongings into the back seat and trunk and drove him across town to her house in a new subdivision. She set him up in her guest bedroom.
Still into street photography, a remnant of his journalism days, Greg inauspiciously took candid pictures, and even posted some images on his social media accounts, but hardly anyone noticed. Still, the local social transformation continued, he thought, due to curbside swap.
The pregnant teen sitting at the curbside smoking and drinking coffee in her pyjamas was picked up by a pair of lonely grandparents, driving home, returning from volunteer service, vacuuming the carpets and cleaning the pews and aisles of Sacred Heart Church.
On another last Saturday of the month, a widow cruising around town in her pickup truck, sipping takeout coffee, listening to country and western music on the local FM station from her dash radio, picked up a lonely, long-time widower, sitting in a broken reclining chair, outside his house, which needed a fresh coat of paint, new siding, new shingles, and clean windows.
An alcoholic, sitting on an upside down milk crate, beside a garbage pail full of empty beer bottles and wine and liquor bottles, and clear plastic bags of empty beer and liquor bottles, which could be refunded at the beer or liquor store for cash, shivering outside the house he shared with his common law wife, went into the back seat of a luxury SUV driven by a stern evangelical, one of the first female born again priest in Northwestern Ontario. The juvenile delinquent, napping on clear blue plastic recycle bags of discarded quilts, pillows, comforters, and duvets, went to a retired army major.
The number of castaways left at curbside swap some Saturday mornings was astonishing, but by evening these lost souls were gone, conveyed into new homes.
Meanwhile, senior officials and bureaucrats at the Ministry of Human Services in Ottawa got wind of the potential media and public relations disaster looming on the horizon—humans left out for curbside swap in Beaverbrook and expressed dismay at what they called a social experiment. Off the record, they expressed shock and dismay, after a few locals protested to their member of parliament about persons left alongside discarded furniture, appliances, books, compact discs, scratchy vinyl records, cassette tapes, and worn out clothes. Human were beings picked up like regular recyclables. A few senior bureaucrats made their discoveries independently—from monitoring postings on websites, bloggers, and social media, grew apprehensive, and alarms went off. The public relations, corporate communications, and political consequences were considered grave and ominous by the communications apparatus and officers and senior bureaucrats, although they realized they had breathing room since mainstream media did not dare venture that far north, into an isolated part of the hinterland. A super secret war room session was convened in an operations room, located in underground bunkers in Toronto and then Ottawa, involving provincial and federal government officials.
The federal government became involved because the community had a large indigenous population. Bureaucrats, planners, academics, consultants, politicians, and public relations and corporate communications officers formed several select committees and subcommittees to investigate and report on the problem and then convened a special session in a confidential situation room located in Department of Defence headquarters. Shortly thereafter, an army of bureaucrats, social workers, counsellors, psychologists, students, medical doctors, police officers, nurses, psychiatrists, doctors, and security guards was mobilized. The modern army descended upon the relatively remote and isolated northwestern Ontario town, during the forest fire season, landing in successive waves of Hercules military aircraft. The emergency intervention resembled a predawn raid. A few war veterans and history buffs were even reminded of the air convoys and formation of gliders and troop transports of Operation Market Garden.
When Greg saw the convoy of military aircraft landing at the airport from the street, outside the basement room he rented, after he heard the droning noise of squadrons of aircraft, which sounded like a war bombing raid, he remembered his journalism training. He bicycled to the airport with the video camera he managed to hang onto and the digital camera, which he cleaned and dusted, after he found deposited in an SLR in a recycle bin during curbside swap.
Army personnel, in body armour, brandishing automatic rifles, descended from the ramps of heavy lift aircraft onto the airport tarmac, and then patrolled the town on foot and armoured personnel carrier as a dusk to dawn curfew was declared. Civilians violating the curfew would be shot on sight. With the mayor and councillors removed from office by provincial decree, teams of social workers and mental health counsellors, guarded by the provincial police, patrolled the abandoned streets of Beaverbrook, shouting through megaphones house dwellers and residents emergency measures were in effect until further notice and no-one was to leave their houses until teams of healthcare workers and administrators deemed the town safe and the curfew was lifted. Counsellors, social workers, medical doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists examined and interviewed virtually every member of the community in special popup offices set up in the gymnasiums of the public high school.
The police and military took control of the streets and public venues like the seniors activity centre, the hockey arena, the town hall, the library, the homeless shelter, the firehall, the elementary school, the high school, the auditorium, the civic centre, and even the hockey arena. Within weeks, though, the intervention was declared a success, as everyday activity and routines in the community were resumed, curbside swap aside. After a decade long ban, curbside swap was resumed. By then the best Greg, who still occasionally foraged during curbside swap Saturdays, on the boulevard outside a Doctor Money’s house was a complete, intact, worn and faded Tupperware collection, with difficult to wash pasta sauce stains.
Meanwhile, Greg managed to find work on the graveyard shift at the local Moose Knuckles Coffee & Donuts. Earning slightly above minimum wage, he manned the drive through window from midnight to eight am, serving motorists their takeout coffee, lattes, hot chocolate, donuts, muffins, and breakfast sandwiches. He still sends out the odd resume and application to community newspapers and local radio and television stations in Southern Ontario marketplaces, where, apparently, the employment listings and recruiters say the news media, struggling to join the digital revolution, is still hiring. The video and photographs he took during the intervention he considered the best part of his ragtag portfolio. In the end, though, he has mostly given up hope of ever working as a journalist or in the media. He is content to post as a citizen journalist on social media. It is safe to say he is happy and has found a sweet spot in life finally: coffee has always been his favorite beverage, and now he lives for the drink.
Sometime around the time of the first snowfall, Ellen drove her girlfriend’s Mercedes SUV past his drive through window. As he served her pumpkin spice latte through the drive thru portal, Ellen could barely contain her laughter. Then, enroute to pick up her partner at the Thunder Bay airport, her SUV skidded out of control, as she slammed the brakes and the front wheel drive locked up and the tires skidded on glare ice. She was seriously injured in the subsequent crash, a head-on collision in the northbound lane with a compact sedan on Highway 72. After several surgeries, she was transferred to the hospital in Beaverbrook for further recovery and rehabilitation.
Greg left his free quota of daily goodies from Moose Knuckles, a fresh coffee and a box of maple glazed moose knuckles, honey cruller bear claws, and sour cream glazed deer tails, and blueberry and wild rice muffins for her at the nursing station every morning, after he bicycled from work at the coffeeshop around the time of sunrise. He did not know if she or the nurses drank the foamy freshly brewed coffee and ate the doughnuts and muffins, but he thought it was the thought that counted, and his heart was in the right place, and all those other clichés and canned greeting card sentiments.
Born and raised in Sioux Lookout, Ontario, John Tavares is the son of Portuguese immigrants from the Azores. His education includes graduation from 2-year GAS at Humber College in Etobicoke with concentration in psychology (1993), 3-year journalism at Centennial College in East York (1996) & the Specialized Honors BA in English from York University in North York (2012). He worked as a research assistant for the Sioux Lookout Public Library & as a research assistant in waste management for the SLKT public works department & regional recycle association. He also worked with the disabled for the Sioux Lookout Association for Community Living.
Edward S. Gault is a poet and fine art photographer. He lives at Mosaic Commons, a co-housing community in Berlin, Ma. He has a wife Karen, and daughter.