Once, when I was green and golden, young and aspiring, I had a friend who I only held for a few short years. He was erudite beyond his years. The funniest thing about him other than the fact that he drank coffee from a mason jar and when he accidentally tipped a cigarette ash into his jar, covered the fact by sipping up and declaring that cigarette ash could enhance the flavor of coffee, the funniest thing was that in his abstract world of linguistics and philosophy he taught me to love nature.
Most of the time that I knew him, I never saw his nature side. Only because I am stupid. He lived in a tiny room and other than a clothing rack and urn sized ashtray, his room was a tropical jungle of plants. I don’t mean on the window sill and table, I mean there were rack shelves devoted to plants. The entire room was devoted to plants. We had to crowd into a dark corner where the chairs were set, outside of the sunlight. And when I think back, the room he chose in that great old rooming house was the room with the best sunlight.
We used to drink coffee like it was beer and smoke cigarettes like they would get us high. And talk about Wiggenstein and Chomsky. We’d crash Turgenev up against Kerouac and modify with Feynman. Mostly I listened, because he always talked over my head. I was a headstrong, arrogant youth, always drunk on my own smarts, but with him, I always felt ignorant and slow witted. It would be a cliché elder mentor story, except he was the same age as I.
I can’t even imagine what he got from my own stupid opinionated grunts. Sometimes I think he craved my insanity. Who else would jump off a building with him, or make 3am plant stealing runs? I certainly couldn’t keep up in the cerebral department.
He taught me Hegel and Heidegger. He taught me to question Alan Watts. He taught me to love but mistrust Nietzsche. When I couldn’t understand his monologues on linguistics, he played me the Talking Heads as though that would make it all clear. To this day, as much as I like their music, I keep thinking there is an encoded message that I cannot hear. Maybe only he heard it.
His modesty was overwhelming. He took a year off after highschool, not to “find himself”, but because he didn’t feel sufficiently prepared for university and wanted to “read up”. I hadn’t attended university, but I presciently told him, “you already know more than most grads”. He didn’t listen, he just kept misting his plants and reading advanced linguistic texts.
If that was the end of the story, he would still be one of the greatest people I ever knew.
But one spring, he asked me to come on a survival canoe trip he did every year, up past North Bay. I interpreted the invite as for a camping trip and accepted since I rarely had opportunity to get out of the city. I paid little attention to the fact that he started training in a gym, other than that his skinny body suddenly popped with lean muscle. (I exercised both envy and laziness in this regard)
I met his father on a stop off before the trip. He was the sort of man who would either hammer a son into pudding or steel. Sink or swim. I suddenly understood my friend better.
We got dropped, with heavy packsacks and canoes into wilds I had never even conceived of. It was fourteen hour days of paddling and portaging, withstanding swarms of biting insects, making and breaking camp every day, and often enough, sleeping on rock (dead exhausted sleep). Two things stood out.
I saw a different side of him, hitherto hidden, a scampering, wild-eyed nature born being who was utterly adapted to the unkempt and intraversable, and who you would never think of as a person who read philosophy. For kicks, he would pirouette the canoe while we were gasping for breath on the rocks.
The other thing, was after a couple of days, I never wanted to return to “the city” or ideas.
He had tried to show me his true world (where he grew up, where his imagination fled to) and demonstrate how it funded him. The only thing my small mind took from it was, why leave?
This was an eden beyond civilization, and even beyond the majority of most campers. The only people who had been here before us were the odd fur traders. It was sufficiently unpleasant to dissuade most. We scaled cliffs carrying our canoes. I had to grip canyon sides, covered in spiders (and I am normally very spiderphobic), or else we would be dashed on rocks in river flow. As much as my life has been trepiditious, this is as close as i ever got to epic.
It’s all kind of unreal now. And I still remember not wanting to leave, and him having to explain that we were learning things to bring back. It was like he had shown me the universe and then said we had to live in a bunker. Thereafter, his tiny room, clotted with plants and cigarette smoke seemed even more mysterious. How did this visionary cope? What did his eyes see?
A year later, I was on the opposite side of the country and phoned him in the middle of the night, addled on drugs and booze, to say I love you, and worried he might think it some homosexual thing that neither of us were. He replied, so nonchalantly, “Of course *Idle*, I love you too.
Five years later, we ran into each other on a boulevard in Montreal, buying bootleg liquor out of the trunk of a car, and spent the night drinking and talking, sitting on a sidewalk curb. (ahhh, montreal stories).
Ten years later, we had a beer, then two, then a coffee, while commiserating about the things we hadn’t achieved and the things we missed.
So, that is what time does to the majesty of magical moments. I am still stuck in a city. I don’t know where my friend is. I do court the love of many plants in my little room, and feel good that I have nurtured a tiny bud of a succulent into an overgrown two foot tall monstrosity. In a good year, I cultivate then eat a good garden. In a bad year, my plants are kind enough not to die
His email name was waybackwayback. Even back in the day before the internet took off.
This wayback wayback machine operation is dedicated to him.