In the northern winter of ’09, I convinced my folks to head home from the family holiday without me.
They left me in Montreal. I found a job at an English-speaking hostel run by a motivated, smart young New Yorker with red hair in a ponytail and a broad accent. I wasn’t paid to work reception and clean rooms, but I did receive a rickety metal bed upstairs in the garage, a room shared with six others. One of these was a West Virginian military-school grad, proud of his West Point ring and all his painful opinions. It was largely due to his presence that I fought my growing melancholy and ventured out into the streets.
It was icy, snowing daily, and the homeless held out their spare change coffee cups at the end of tree branches. You wouldn’t even notice their sheltered spot under a staircase, over a subway vent, until the stick moved and the eye arced back to the huddled supplicant. My walks would regularly take me past a luthier’s workshop, the Authorité Authoctones, and a curiosity shop with wide glass windows that displayed a wealth of dusty junk. A guitar leaned, the missing piece of my wintry puzzle, against a shelf of limbless dolls – beat-up enough to afford, but not enough to defeat my optimism, fueled by dreams of a hidden old masterpiece that I could fix up and treasure. For a week, the place gave no impression that opening hours were an essential part of its business model. I would place my face against the glass on my way to putting together my life: finding a coffee shop, combatting bureaucracy for my visa, finding citizenship papers, and avoiding my Virginian marine.
Finally, the day came when the doors were open. My grasp of the language was insufficient to find out why, but I had my guitar. I’ll say this for it – it worked, eventually. Bringing it to life occupied my mind and my hands, between gloomily welcoming cheery tourists and cleaning their soiled rooms. I can clearly feel the bend of the neck, the roughness of the fretboard, the muted sound of the instrument in the tiny office, snowshoes off and drying on the heater. The chair creaked in time to my singing. Without really realising it at first, I hollowed out my melancholy and my preoccupation with the past as I assembled my new song. I was feeling lost, endlessly questioning, revisiting, convinced that the outcome of my decisions was a self-imposed abandonment in a totally foreign place. All my thoughts were of my mismanaged relationships with people back home, particularly my girlfriend, the precipitous decision to break it off when I realised I was staying overseas. Had I really traded that summer for this empty winter?
Through the magic of the internet, that relationship soured painfully, days and days, I in my dark office, irregular hours, alone and withdrawn. Writing the song drew those feelings out of the wound, and singing it quietly in the office, aloud with feathered breath on the grey ice sidewalks, filled me again. In the bright white light of the declining snow, I began to find my feet. I quit my job, made a plan to move on down south to meet up with Joe in Chicago. This new song was almost finished, and more time in the sun cleared my dark eyes. Sharing my plans for the future with a dear friend downtown, I received the call: my Dad was sick and prepping for surgery. Two days later I was on a plane back to Australia.