A Writer's End-of-the-Year Housecleaning

As an aspiring writer, I collect words the way a seamstress collects scraps. My notebooks are full of unpublished paragraphs, sentences, and ideas. There are character sketches and conversations. There are even single words jotted in the margins, words I want to use someday, like “urticate” (if I can figure out what that means).

Travel writer Ronald Wright was once asked to submit some really gritty travel writing for a collection. He used this as an excuse to publish his scraps, cobbling them together with rough transitions like literary rusty staples. With no editors beating down my door, I thought I’d just publish some of my scraps here, an end-of-the-year housecleaning.

Bounding down the road on Cape Breton Island, we pass a café called “The Yack ‘n’ Snack.” A street called “Puddle Hill Lane.” A mailbox in the shape of a grinning lobster, covered in pastel polka dots.

“Polka dots” is a funny phrase. Why do we call them polka dots, and not just dots? It’s an example of rampant commercialism from the 19th century. There was a polka dance craze in Europe and the U.S., and many unrelated things were named polka-this and polka-that, from polka hats to polka curtain-hangers. Dots became polka-dots, and have stayed that way ever since. We experienced something like this during the (polka) dot com boom of the late 90’s, when the country went crazy with e-this and e-that. My employer at the time, a loser with the awful name of “Millennia Vision” had a slogan, “E-business in e-time.” What the heck is e-time, anyway? Someday, children will ask their parents what eBay means.

Leaving Nova Scotia for New Brunswick, we tuned the radio to CBC. Over a month before Halloween, there was an overview of modern witchcraft in popular culture, provided by a man from British Columbia. He told the moderator, “I’m a witch. Not a wizard, or a warlock, or any of those silly things. A witch.” A radio book club panel discussed the role of the acknowledgements section in books. The panel’s conclusion was, “It’s not who you put in, it’s who you leave out.” A registered dietitian discussed the nutrition of hot dogs. Did you know one wiener can provide 26% of your RDA of saturated fat and 22% of sodium? As the dietician said, “Hot dogs are, well, marginal.” Our favorite radio show was a college student who did a blind survey to rank brands of macaroni and cheese. The winner, based on cost and color (blaze orange), was Kraft dinner, affectionately called “K.D.”

I have an incomplete list of places where we connected to the internet. The Columbus Colony for the Deaf. A miniscule library overlooking the harbor in Cutler, Maine. The most stunning library building I’ve ever seen, the Athenaeum in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Echoing hallways after school at Roncalli High, in Newfoundland. In Québèc; the keyboards were French. A rest area with computer kiosks at the Nova Scotia border was mobbed with tourists. In Baddeck, Cape Breton, Barry used the internet at the library while I took a walk. I found a free computer at the tourism office and sent him a message. “Hi, Sweetie! I’m on the other side of town!”

One Sunday, we find a community center with a sign indicating that they have Internet. In the parking lot, a bewildered couple asks us if we’re here for the birthday party; they’ve either got the place or the time wrong. The front door is open, but the restrooms are locked. We use a hallway computer to download our e-mail before being gently kicked out by a tai chi instructor who informs us that the building is closed.

In Port Au Choix, we were resting after a hike to the Dorset Paleoeskimo village. An angry fisherman, the only one I met, sat down beside me on the edge of the parking lot and bent my ear. “Confederation was the worst thing to ever happen to Newfoundland. The Canadians raped our land! If you put all the politicians together, you wouldn’t get the brains of a chicken.”

On a beautiful, sunny day, Dad tried to start a conversation with a fellow sitting by the beach in his truck, the window rolled down. “Great day for fishing,” Dad said. “It’s not allowed,” the man said. End of conversation.

We toured a blacksmith’s forge, full of working original equipment. There were rows and rows of letter openers and candle holders for sale. “Do you ever make grapnels or anchors?” I asked. The blacksmith said, flatly, “You can’t fish.” End of conversation.

In Canada, a scenic view is a “lookoff.” Bathrooms are washrooms. The cash register is simply the “cash.” No Chevy’s, only “Chevs.” We had no idea what we were getting when we ordered a “donair” pizza. It turned out to be seasoned lamb, what we call “gyro meat.”

My favorite signs: “Sydney Curling Club – New Members Wanted. Take advantage of our early payment plan!” “Memory Lanes – Glow in the Dark Bowling.” “Thank you for visiting Newfoundland. Long may your big jib draw!” In Minnesota, “Coffee and Fresh-Baked DIESEL Cookies.” In a Montana rest area, “Rattlesnakes have been observed. Please stay on sidewalks.” It’s November, and 45 degrees. Are there rattlesnakes this time of year? Going into the bathroom, I’m extremely nervous. Maybe that’s where the rattlesnakes go to keep warm.

In Idaho, a highway sign says “Weather Info: Tune Radio to 620 AM.” When we do so, it only brings twangy country music with a Christian theme. Is the highway department in cahoots with the evangelical Christians? We listen as long as we can stand it, about 45 seconds. The same thing happens again in Montana, and we turn it off immediately.

Gordon and Gloria Smith are country music fans. She wears a denim jacket with rhinestone snaps. His cap says Nashville. Chatting beside their fifth-wheeler in Nova Scotia, we shared a laugh about the bluegrass concert we’d attended the night before. “We were the youngest people there,” I said. “When we go to bluegrass concerts, we’re the youngest people there,” Gloria replied, “and we’re sixty!”

In Cox’s Cove, two men were driving a small herd of cattle. They looked like Laurel and Hardy. One rode an ATV. The other one, wearing rubber boots, ran up behind a cow and kicked it in the butt. It took off running, along with the rest of the cows, whereupon he tried frantically to get ahead of the stampede, waving his arms and shouting, “No! No! No!” Watching, unseen, from our cabin, I laughed myself silly.

Tyrone, an EMT, was pinch-hitting for his sick wife in her parents’ restaurant, waiting tables. His mother-in-law needed him to help with the french fryer. He drafted a friend, who happened to be eating dinner, to take over the water pitcher and order tablet. When Tyrone came back, he was friendly and chatty, and told us a variant on an old sailing joke. “A Newfoundlander wins the lottery. He goes out and buys a big new pickup truck and a fancy snow blower to put in the back. Then he heads south. When someone asks him what the snow blower is, he knows he’s gone far enough.”