One of the coolest job’s i’ve ever had was ushering and bar tending at the majestic and beautiful Massey Hall concert venue in Toronto. I sort of chuckle now and wonder how good I really could have been at my job, because I really didn’t drink much back then. I hated making martinis, because no matter which way I made them, dirty, dry, they always tasted horrible to me, so I had no idea if I was doing it right or not. Thankfully it was usually not that sophisticated a crowd that rushed our bar during intermission, and the only thing I had to do well was pour a bottle of beer, and fast. It’s funny to think that I learned how to pour two at once before actually ever drinking those same beers myself.
The hours at Massey weren’t exactly what one would call consistent. We only worked if and when there was a show, and sometimes we’d go weeks without a shift. In any case, most of the staff held other jobs. I was working as a barista at a coffee shop (which is also ironic, cause I didn’t really drink much coffee back then either). Massey was something you did, not for the money, but for the fun of it. How could you not be having an amazing time when you were getting paid to watch Sting, or Cindy Lauper, or Sigur Ros or Beck or The Flaming Lips or better yet, work their after party. I think I reached the pinnacle of my bar tending career when I was asked to stock Alice Cooper’s dressing room with drinks. His drink of choice, Starbucks Frappacinos. I became an instant fan right then and there.
What really made the job special though was the people I worked with. Our bosses and managers were always professional but cool, and my fellow coworkers were one big happy mess of interesting people. One guy was a lawyer, another girl a professional clown. There was a standup comedian, a cartoonist, a guy in real estate, a sports journalist, boys in bands (some semi famous, others very unknown), people who owned their own businesses and others who surfed friend’s couches not sure of their life’s direction just yet. Wether you were working the bar, tearing tickets at the door, or showing people to their seats, there was almost always someone else by your side helping you out. Conversation, story telling and swapping secrets were inevitably going to happen.
I love stories. Especially the ones that are told by people about themselves, the true ones that you never could have guessed, ever, even if you tried, but once you sat there and heard the whole thing through, everything about that person made so much more sense, and in fact life seemed to make more sense too. You know…the stories that people tell you that you don’t forget. The ones you can’t forget.
One just like that was dropped at my feet by a debonaire friend and usher on a quiet and boring night down in the bar as I waited for the show to end and the after party to begin. It started with me brewing coffee and pouring us both a cup and then somehow through random chit chat the tale made its way out of his mouth, into my ears and burned itself on my mind forever. It was about how years ago while traveling through Thailand he found himself accepting a too good to be true offer to smuggle drugs onto a flight into Taiwan. And of course, being too good to be true, he was caught at the airport and sentenced to 12 years in a Taiwanese prison. His family could do nothing, except send him books and crossword puzzles, so aside from eating a lot of rice, he read quite a bit and learned how to speak Mandarin. Prisoners weren’t allowed out very often and it was hard to tell how much time was passing. He said he always knew a month had gone by when all the inmates had their heads shaved. Head lice was apparently a big problem. 4 years into his sentence, unannounced, he was released and deported back to Canada.
That’s the story. Through his retelling there were moments when he smiled, or chuckled a little bit over these memories. That was the intriguing thing about it. He could think about his experience, tell me everything, and even speak fondly about some things. It was as if there was something he found there within himself that he was happy to have stumbled upon. It was quite amazing. I have no recollection of anything he told me after that. I don’t know how long it was between his arrival home and that night that he leaned against the bar, sipping the horrible house coffee and sharing 4 years of his life with me in one conversation. I haven’t seen him or even heard his name spoken out loud in so much time, but I guess because this is my fourth and final year in Japan my mind has pulled his story up from its database trying to compare and draw a relationship between the two of us. In the end there isn’t much there in common. Except maybe the part about the rice.
If I saw him again, the first thing I would want to ask him is “Would you take it back?” And I think this is the question that all of us might ask ourselves when we end up trapped in the circumstances of our lives or actions. Would we take it back? Of course, who in their right mind would say “I really want to spend the best years of my young life sitting in an Asian jail with hijackers and gang members!” But if you did happen to end up in such a dark place, and lived through it, and came out the other side into freedom, would you want to change the person you’d become? Undoubtedly, it all depends on the person you were going in and who you chose to be coming out.