Jenny and I moved to Toronto in August of 2003.
The day of the Blackout, to be exact.
I remember joking that maybe the city of Toronto didn’t want us to move in.
Like maybe, they figured, if they’d just off turned the lights, we’d roll right on past.
Our first year in Toronto was pretty close to perfect.
I played the odd show.
I started painting.
Life was good.
I hung around.
Went to pubs.
Became a regular.
For the first time in years, I was in one place.
I couldn’t have been happier.
One Sunday morning in early November 2003 I came home from a show in Sudbury.
Jenny said, “Take a look in the refrigerator, when you get a chance…”
I opened the refrigerator door, looked around…
“What am I looking for?”
“Look in the freezer…”
In the freezer was a bowl of ice cream with a pickle sticking out of it.
Ruby Tallulah Plume was born in July of 2004.
About an hour after her arrival, the thought of going on the road ever again completely slipped away.
I mean, it had been in my rearview mirror for a while, probably a couple of years by the time Ruby was born.
But as soon as I laid eyes on her the road disappeared entirely.
Like the sun sinking into the ocean, my music career just slid off into the horizon.
She was the only thing in my sights.
I had just put out an album called “Rock And Roll Recordings, Volume 1”
and so, to coincide with its release,
I booked a little cross Canada tour to go out and play the record for what fans I had left.
The joke was on me.
I should’ve called the tour “Circling The Drain…2004”
Since mid 2002, I’d noticed a steady decline in numbers at my shows.
S.R.O. now stood for “Sitting Room Only” at my gigs.
Oh well, you don’t play for the empty seats.
You play for the seats with people in them.
For some reason, I’d let everything that I’d worked for over the previous 15 years slip away.
I just couldn’t bring myself to go out and get after it again.
(Actually I know the reason and someday, when I’m drunk, I’ll tell you the whole story.
Trust me, it’s a humdinger…)
Anyway, I’d let it all go and I was, more or less, okay with the idea that my ‘career’ was over.
I felt like my life in music had run its course.
The gamble didn’t seem to be worth it to me anymore.
I just wanted to be home with my little family.
So that’s where I went.
It was fantastic for a while.
A nice and quiet little life.
Every morning we’d push Ruby in the stroller over to the Starbucks at the corner of Hilltop and Elginton.
Every Monday, I’d hop on the city bus with all of my hockey gear slung over my shoulder
to go and play in Mimi’s Monday Morning Hockey League.
Life was great.
Everything was in as it should be.
Reality reared its ugly head.
And me, with no source of income.
I had no choice.
I had to provide for my little family.
I had to get a job and quick.
But I’d never really had a job.
I’d been on the road my entire adult life.
I mean, I had the typical jobs that everyone has in high school.
I pumped gas.
I worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store.
I was a dishwasher at the Midtown Motor Inn in Bonnyville in 1987.
When I first moved to Edmonton, in the fall of ’87,
I worked as a janitor for two nights at a McDonalds up on Fort Road.
I had a job building bikes at Western Cycle in Edmonton for a couple of months in early 1988,
before hitting the road for for about 6 years straight.
Then in 1994, I was a bartender at the Kings Horse for about 3 months in Edmonton.
But other than that…
It’s hard to believe, but since my sixteenth birthday, I’d worked a “normal” job for maybe a total of 18 months.
I used to wear that like a badge of honor.
I was proud that I’d never had to have a “normal” job.
Well the joke was on me because I couldn’t get hired anywhere.
Not for nothing.
I still can’t.
Trust me, I’ve tried.
(Just ask the guy who interviewed for the job at Home Depot…)
After looking everywhere for a job and with rent due,
I finally I found an establishment who’d take a chance on someone as unemployable as me.
I became a Courier.
It sounded like a good idea at the time.
But those warm fuzzy feelings didn’t last long.
Every day from seven in the morning until usually seven in the evening,
I drove around Toronto in the worst traffic and weather imaginable.
After expenses, I made about 300 bucks a week.
That didn’t even cover our rent.
Jenny was home with Ruby.
And because she was in school before Ruby was born there was no Maternity leave,
so whatever my wage didn’t cover, I covered with my credit card.
It was a tough row to hoe.
The courier gig wasn’t too bad if I got lucky and spent the entire day on the outskirts of Toronto,
delivering automotive parts from one dealer to another.
Blue collar guys dealing with blue collar guys.
Sometimes they’d even tip you.
But if I had to go “Down to the Core” as they called it,
well that was a completely different story.
Cops on foot.
Cops on horseback.
Pissed off drivers everywhere.
Everyone laying the horn.
Finding a place to park was an adventure every time.
Usually you had to park illegally.
Usually there was a ticket waiting for you under your windshield wiper.
It was like being in a video game.
When I’d finally get to wherever it was that I was going,
the receptionist would look at me like I was the biggest piece of shit on earth.
Finally someone she could take all her frustrations out on.
Finally someone she could walk all over.
“Where’ve you been? We’ve been waiting all day for this you know…”
“Sorry about that… Lots of traffic… ”
From 1994 through till 2004, ten years, I didn’t have one traffic ticket.
I’d literally driven a million kilometers and not one ticket.
Not a speeding ticket.
Not a failure to stop ticket.
Not a reckless driving ticket.
(Well, I did have one tiny little infraction in Holland back in December of 1997 and I’ll tell you that story later…)
Anyway, my clean driving record took a serious kick in the nuts during one week in my career as a Courier.
Monday: speeding ticket.
Tuesday: parking ticket.
Wednesday: a ticket for running a red light.
Thursday: a ticket for expired tags.
Friday: I got pulled over for making an illegal left hand turn at Avenue Road and Bloor Street.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to be making that turn,
but there was no one near me and no one coming towards me.
So I went for it.
As soon as I made the turn, a cop jumped out of his car and yelled “Pull over!!!””
“Oh for fuck sakes!!!” I said to myself.
I gave the officer all my paperwork and called Jenny to tell her about my fifth run in with the law that week.
She was thrilled.
I’d racked up about a thousand dollars in fines.
I wanted to jump off a bridge.
About ten minutes later the officer tapped on the window.
“Do you still play with your band?”
(That was not what I was expecting him to say, I can assure you.)
“No, not really much anymore…”
“Man, I’ve been a big fan for a long time. I used to go see you play all the time when I was stationed up in Dryden.
Anyway, I’m gonna let you go but try not to do that again, okay…?”
“Yes sir, officer. Thank you so much, have a great day!”
“I will and you too, I’ll keep an eye on your website to see when you’re playing in town again…”
“Cool, yeah, thanks again!”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I didn’t have a website anymore.
I drove away.
It wasn’t the first time that my past life as a Rock and Roller had come knocking on the door of my current life as a Courier.
One day, just before Christmas, the dispatcher contacted me “899… Come in 899…”
“899” was my “Driver Name”.
All my dreams had come true.
“This is 899…”
“Yeah, 899, before you head down to the core I’m gonna need you to swing by High Park and Roncesvalles and pick up a package that needs to go out by the Beaches…”
“Great…” I thought to myself. “Just what I need…”
I picked up the letter that was left on the doorstep and made my way to the drop off address.
When I got out front of the building I glanced at the package again.
My heart sunk.
I recognized the name.
Music industry people.
I pulled my hat down over my eyes and walked in.
It was a hive of activity.
I just wanted the receptionist to sign for the delivery so I could get the fuck out of there.
No such luck.
I had to walk across the office to the desk of the guy who was expecting the package.
I handed him the letter.
He looked at me.
I looked down and pretended to look at my watch.
I knew what was coming.
He recognized me.
I’d been recognized before, but never like this.
Back in the day, I’d get recognized in a bar or a restaurant or an airport.
Someone would come up to me and say hello
or that they liked a song of mine
or that they liked the band or something like that.
It was always nice and pleasant.
We’d chat for a minute or two and then we’d all continue on with our day.
But this was different.
This was an all time low.
But deep down, I knew it was nothing more than vanity on my end.
“Pride goes before a fall”, as they say.
“Hey, aren’t you Mike Plume?”
“Yeah. Yeah I sure am…”
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know, this is what I do now…”
“No kidding? Do you still see the guys in your band? Do you still play once in a while?”
“No not really. I’ll see you later.”
“Yeah, I’ll see you later.”
As I was making the long walk back across the office I could hear the guy saying to someone, “That’s fucking Mike Plume, man! Fucking, “Rattle The Cage”… “Steel Belted Radio”…”
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I got back in my car and sat there.
As it was everyday, Humble Pie was on the menu.
I remember thinking,
“That’s it, it’s over. You’re not a musician anymore, Plume, so quite pretending you are.
You’re a courier now, it’s no big deal. It’s an honest wage.
It’s what you do now.
You gotta provide for your family. Deal with it. “
It was a tough pill to swallow.
But I needed to.
And then, as if on cue, a reminder as to who I now was…
“Come in 899… 899 come in… 899 where are you?”
“This is 899…”
“Yeah, 899, did you make the drop yet?”
“Yeah… yeah I made the drop…”
“You gotta update yer fuckin’ pager, man, so I know yer good to go…
Anyway, I need you to start heading down to the Core…”
I was bitter, but I had no really good reason to be.
Every decision that I’d made from the minute I got out of high school had led me to this courier job.
“You made your bed, Plume. Get over yourself, jackass…”
Easier said than done, I can assure you.
Then for absolutely no reason whatsoever, inspiration reared it’s ugly head.
It probably saved my life.
While sitting there waiting for my list of pickups and deliveries to be sent to me.
Across the street, in the parking lot of some little strip mall was one of those “yellow rental signs”…
It read, “Merry XMas!!!”
For some reason and out of the blue, I was hit with a phrase that I thought would make for a funny Hallmark Card.
“Merry XMas to my Ex Miss!”
Jesus, that made me laugh.
Well, maybe not laugh, but it sure made me smile.
It was the first time I’d smiled all day.
It may have been the first time I’d smiled in months.
For some reason, for as low as I had felt five minutes earlier,
my mind was now preoccupied with this peculiar line.
“Merry XMas to my Ex Miss…” I sang to myself.
Then without any thought whatsoever, the next line spilled out…
“What a glorious Christmas Eve…”
With that, I was off and running.
For the rest of the day I just kept singing those opening lines.
“Merry XMas to my Ex Miss, what a glorious Christmas Eve…”
Eventually I added, “I asked her for just one thing and Lord she gave it to me…”
Then I stumbled on to the line,
“How could someone be so nice with a heart carved out of ice?
Merry XMas to my Ex Miss, I hope Santa treats her nice…”
For the rest of the day, I sang that song to myself as I tapped a beat on the steering wheel.
I got home that night at seven o’clock, took our dog Lucy for a walk and continued to work on the lyric.
I hadn’t even played the song on a guitar yet.
I just sang the melody over and over.
I knew it would have a certain John Prine feel to it.
After I got back from walking our dog, I sat down with my guitar and started writing.
For some reason, every line made me laugh.
I guess I needed it.
In the second verse I wrote,
“Now here I sit by the fireside just a looking at my Christmas Tree, thinking about my Anglo bride who claimed she was Acadie”
It made me laugh.
I don’t know why.
It just did.
Then out of nowhere, Jenny, who was feeding Ruby at the time, said, “She’s a Ho Ho Ho…”
That’s the kicker.
What a corker!
What a line!
No wonder I love that chick.
About five minutes later the line grew to include this…
“Well she’s a Ho Ho Ho, boys, there you go,
if you want her, fella’s, Hell now you can have her.
But it take it from me, honestly, she’s the original Nutcracker.”
You can’t top that!
Well, John Prine could, but I certainly couldn’t.
The song was done.
Every time I play that song, which is really only in December of each year,
I’m brought back to that miserable day in December of 2004.
Where the only bright spot of my day came from a yellow rental sign.
The song just makes me smile.
I don’t know why, it just does.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that what music is supposed to do?
November 17, 2012