By Jeremy Milks
It was the end of winter in Ottawa, 1995, and I was still young then and living away from home for the first time. Me and my friend Simon managed to get an apartment up on Cambridge St., third floor of a redbrick right next to the Red Cross building, site of late night parking lot skateboard lessons from Simon. We’d tear down the stairs in wild eagerness and then out into that clean air mingled with the oncoming softness of spring and the sound of our wheels clacking across the street where I would build up my tremendous speed and Ollie over sunken grates and stick it, but in my haste I would cast a quick glance over my shoulder towards Simon, all proud of me and smiling and then have a terrible wipeout because I wasn’t looking and tear up my hands and elbows causing unbelievable pain and terror. Simon would just laugh and do amazing kickflips to curbs and other things I could only dream of doing and I would pick out the little bloody rocks from my hand and try again with more or less the same results until the security guard would come and kick us out into the street.
Life was fairly simple then; for instance, we would split food costs down the middle and every night make enormous dinners of pasta, bread and butter and orange juice, both of us on welfare, back in the day when it was plentiful and easy to get. We managed to pay rent every month, eat, drink, buy records and go to our final year of high school just down the street. Life went on quietly like this for months but the summer was approaching and I got the urge to explore the city and do something new and in this way I was thrust into strange and sweet new friendships that would set the course for the next five years of my life.
I began going to a lot of shows at a place in the neighbourhood called 5 Arlington, an empty storefront that was taken over by a couple of punk kids from Ottawa and turned into an open space for bands mostly and sometimes for art shows or political groups, Food Not Bombs, whatever was around at the time. People lived in the basement and anyone could hang out and thus it became the hub of the whole scene, people moving from different cities just to be part of all that was going on.
It was there that I first saw Nick, then only nineteen with blond spiky hair, almost Albino looking in his paleness except for a dark streak of blush that coloured his cheeks whenever he spoke. He wore clothes two sizes too small for him and big clunky black shoes that were way too big. His band would play shows there often and I would watch this kid with fascination as he flopped around the floor with squeaky screams into the mike. Up to that point I had never really talked to him tho we would pass by on the street sometimes (and once to my horror, with my ex-girlfriend on his arm) and we would nod but rarely talk.
I would often watch him in conversation with his more serious bandmates and he would look bored and disinterested and all the time nervously playing with his hair, but then making some dumb joke as if to sabotage the discussion and then laugh like a little kid, blush and stalk away in search of something else to do.
Through all this I figured he was someone I could get along with, someone not so caught up in all the bland seriousness of punk at that time, someone who may have a sense of humour. And finally I did get to meet Nick and it’s because Luke rolled into town.
Luke was from a small town, Bracebridge, and his older brother lived at the space in Ottawa, so he moved in and onto the couch and was quickly loved by everyone. Our friendship was immediate and we took to spending our days sitting on the front stoop of the 5, goofing about everything, having foot races around the schoolyard across the street and having riotous fake puke contests with mouthfuls of water, even the ritual of walking around for a minute holding your stomach before letting it go, thereby fooling everybody who saw us. He was the funniest guy I had ever met, sporting an anchor tattoo on his right forearm and in fact looked a bit like a tough seaman though skinny, and had dark tanned arms and neck from working in cranberry marshes back home. He reminded me of a young Paul Newman in the Hustler, though maybe more of a carpenter than a pool player.
And so like this one night Nick’s band is playing, the place is steaming up with all the people inside; you could see the walls sweating and everyone is pressed up against each other, throbbing with heat and music and finally the set is over as Nick sits on the floor in heat exhaustion with the feedback screaming and everyone goes pouring out into the street. Luke and I are sharing a smoke out front when he says, “My mom’s in town tonight staying down at that big hotel on Elgin. Whaddya say we head down there and get my birthday gift, two bottles of wine from the brewery back home, we can polish em off tonight if you want, walk around, what do you think?”
I agreed quickly and waited outside for Luke to get ready. When he came back out he had a hyper looking Nick in tow who wanted to come along. So the three of us set off for downtown, taking the back streets because Nick had a big bottle of beer he insisted on sharing with us and at first I didn’t talk much, just listened as Luke and Nick, already good friends, babbled on to each other in screams and fits, Nick arching back his blond spiky head and throwing down beer and soon his cheeks began to glow red as he weaved in and out of the street with his big glompym shoes flomping around, little shrieks of laughter as Luke pretended he was an Olympian and leapt over a park bench like a big goof as Nick passed me the beer and I chuckled to myself watching Nick chase after him, intent on a tremendous race, like a little child set loose in the summer night. Despite Nick’s apparent endless energy and flashiness, he was deathly shy and barely spoke a word to me in any sort of normal way but rather he would be crashing around and joking with Luke when he would slow down all of a sudden and look at me with a grave face, feigning seriousness and ask a ridiculous question like, “Have you ever jerked off with baby oil?”, and I would answer quickly and just as seriously, “Of course, it’s the best and more smooth than vegetable oil”, and he would look at me with a slight smile, apparently satisfied and off he’d go again running around and kicking at the grass. I realized he was testing me as he would do with everybody in the future, sometimes purposely being completely unlikeable, just to gauge a reaction and protect himself at the same time. Even as I drank from the bottle he watched me from the corner of his eye to make sure I knew how to drink and I didn’t disappoint him.
We got to the hotel entrance and strolled in calmly towards the elevators like perfect gentlemen despite all three of our faces being bright red from a combination of the beer and the heat and the sort of sudden self-consciousness you attain when you realize you are out of your element. It was all ripe for some sort of sabotage and Nick quickly leapt into action. As soon as the elevator doors closed, Nick whipped off his shirt and threw down his pants and stood there in the nude all the way up as me and Luke crept away into the corner howling with laughter and before the doors opened at the top floor, Nick was back to normal and, as he spied the basket of wine sitting outside the door with a note, he said, “Well, fuck a duck, it’s true”.
True enough, there was a basket with two bottles of red wine and a note, “Gone to bed, call tomorrow, happy birthday.”
On the way down we all got naked this time amidst huge teary eyed laughter and walked back out the entrance and into the night almost bouncing out of our skin.
The walk back to Centretown was a whirlwind of terror. The three of us, perfectly comfortable with each other now, opened a bottle of wine and crashed through the street with all the wild joy and release you feel when you know you’ve got a new gang to run with. Just for the pure joy and idiocy of it we kicked over garbage cans and tackled one another, spilling wine in our hair and ripping out knees and elbows. Nick cut his hand on broken glass and almost went into shock, totally white-faced and thinking he was going to die. Luke just laughed and poured wine on it and Nick tackled him again and we were all in a frenzied drunk pile when an old couple walked by and I looked up at them, almost embarrassed and the lady gave as a shocked look and stopped in her tracks as if to say something. Nick then belted out, “Leave us alone lady, we’re just fucking each other up the ass”, and we all broke out again, shocked at Nick for saying something like that. The old man just tugged at his wife’s hand and they stumbled off into the street dumbfounded.
We made our way back to the 5 just in time to join everybody in going out to the nearby park where there was a big outdoor sprinkler. Nick grabbed his camera and we headed out for a crazy hour with everyone running around in the water and drinking wine on the grass. Nick snapped some classic pictures of me (too shy to get naked) and Luke (not too shy to get naked) running around being goofs and later, Nick almost killed himself in trying to outdo everybody on the swing set and nearly wrapping himself around the top pole.
As the night cooled off and everyone left for their beds, the three of us stuck around for another hour on the grass, clean and braced from all the fresh air, the wine only magnifying the serenity of that moment, the whole city churning around us in the distance but here we sat perfectly still right in the center of it, all thoughts turning toward the future and the promise of the summer. Once a year you get a night like that when everything is perfectly clear and set out, no snags or problems envisioned, no derailments, your body and mind humming like a perfect engine hurtling you into that soft spot, impossible to describe but easy to discern when you feel it; not stomach knots, no worries just a hum.
But I soon found out our gang was splitting up after just one night. Nick was leaving in two days for a summer tour with his band and as if he could read the disappointment on my face he gave me on of his trademark drunk from the heart speeches which I would witness for years onward from this night. His eyes would lock, his cheeks would glow and he would stare right into me with his heart in his throat, completely in a strange fit of sorts and say, “Me and you Jer, we’re gonna be brothers our whole life, I know it somehow, we got the same blood me and you.”
This always meant our fathers, both drunks tho his was lousy, having left the family when Nick was young, leaving him reeling for years and in the end, dooming him to agonies of identity and direction.
Then he would look down and for some reason become almost apologetic, saying, “I know that I’m not very smart, I mean book smart, but I got it in different ways, you know, I can pick up on people, I can see…fuckin…aaah, soul and I…me and you will be bros, I know it.” And his face would contort with the enormity of it in his mind, the feeling was too intense and he would shriek and pour more wine down his throat. He would actually be shaking from it and then when he got really tight he would sit in front of the record player and put his head between his knees and listen to a single favourite song over and over again. I saw all this for the first time that night and I just nodded and was blown away, I mean, who was this kid? I had never met anyone like and him and liked that he picked up his bag and half danced to the door going, “…tootalooo…tootalooo…” and laughing, “I’ll see you bitches at the end of the summer, hee, hee”. And he was gone.