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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I woke myself last night by knocking the plastic cup of water off my bedside table. It's quite a feat, since I deliberately set the cup as far from the mattress as I can, nestled between the lamp and a metal fold-out picture-frame containing two photos of Kimmie. Somehow I can take out the cup, dumping water all over the carpet in the dark, while leaving the rest of the table standing.

I believe it happens when I unfold my left arm, tucked behind my head when I get hot. The arm sweeps down, clearing the cup from the table. It's the second time I've done it in two weeks. I used to keep my bedside water in a squeeze-bottle on the floor, which did not spill if knocked over, but found out from Robin that many kinds of plastic, but especially plastic number 5, have been found to be strongly carcinogenic. So I switched to a cup (still of plastic, but not number 5).

Now I have a spill problem. It wouldn't matter, except for two things: the water soaks the new magazines I keep stacked on the floor by the bed; and I have to get up to refill the cup.

Last night when I returned to bed I found myself lying awake a long time, maybe a couple of hours, and then sleeping only intermittently. I felt myself returning to a condition of darkness, dissatisfaction, and concern for my project and my life. Usually the best short-term antidote to such thoughts and feelings is action: do something, rather than brood on one's inertia. But in the dead of night one lies there, hoping for sleep to overtake one.

I find that there is a definite change of psychology when the sun sets. One's solar psychology sinks with it, and one's "night self" or lunar psychology rises. For some people this may be reversed. I've read that those born under Cancer often have a hard time with the sun--they're the pale ones blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight, or wearing dark shades and ball-cap. They are more at home in the rays reflected from the Moon.

I used to work graveyard shifts, both at Vancouver General Hospital and later (briefly) as a laborer at Sauder Plastics in Richmond. I was intrigued to have the experience, but it took me months to get used to sleeping in the day and working at night. As 11 p.m. approached I would walk up Willow Street from False Creek where we lived, toting a Tupperware bowl full of my "lunch"--often some leftovers from dinner. I remember passing one of the old houses on Willow one night, where an old man sat out on the porch in the dark.

"Headin' up to work?" he said one night. I could barely see him.


"Glad it's you and not me!"

We both got a chuckle out of it. I actually felt buoyed up to have the unpleasantness of my shift acknowledged by a stranger.

I remembered when I'd worked in the evenings (my main former shift: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.) riding an elevator in the hospital somewhere, maybe it was Fairview Pavilion, and finding only a single line of graffiti written on the steel walls: "I hate graveyard." Later I came to understand the sentiment.

One of the lowest moments of my life happened on a graveyard shift at VGH. My job was the employee locker rooms, located at tunnel level under Heather Pavilion. In the dead of night these fluorescent-lit caverns were deserted and silent. The men's locker room was more "intimate", with only a few aisles and maybe a few hundred lockers in it. But the women's lockers were in a vast space, over two floors: the nurses' lockers upstairs, at ground level, and the rest down below.

For whatever reason, the female lockers were messier than the men's (which were not neat, mind you): paper caps, hairnets, discarded pantyhose, and lots of coat-hangers. The first step in cleaning the place was to clear off the roofs of the banks of lockers, sweeping their contents onto the floor. People often discarded things up on the roof of the lockers--out of sight, out of mind. The technique was to run a wide dust-mop along the roof (which I could not actually see without jumping up), angling the mop to sweep debris to the linoleum-tiled floor. But since the most common leaving up there was coat-hangers (all our uniforms were laundered on-site, and returned to us on coat-hangers when we picked them up), the method was to keep the mop-handle extended across the aisle so that its end ran along the tops of the opposite bank of lockers. This made for a horizontal, supported mop-handle, which became a moving rack for coat-hangers. As I came upon them I would untangle them and hang them neatly from the mop-handle overhead. When the handle became too weighed down with hangers, I would take them to the great steel racks on which they were stacked for morning pickup by transportation crew.

One night in 1980, probably in the fall after I had dropped out of UBC, I had completed the roof-sweep portion of the female lockers and was dust-mopping the floor, pushing a growing pile of caps, pantyhose, and bobby pins down one of the long aisles of cream-colored steel lockers. It was the dead of night, with no sound but the swish of debris and the faint 60-hertz buzz of the fluorescent ballasts overhead. I knew I had another year ahead of me at VGH, at least. Gradually I became overcome with a sense of loneliness and entrapment in the job. I stopped pushing my mop. The junk-filled aisles of the locker-room seemed to be an image of my life: canyons of other people's mess, other people's daytime lives. They were all home asleep. The aisles had to be got through, the year had to be got through. In despair I sank down the bank of lockers to the floor, and sat there awhile, contemplating my fate.

How the hell did I get into this? I wondered. How the hell can I get out?

I knew there was only one way: keep sweeping. After my moment of private theatrics, I would still have to get up and keep pushing that mop. That's all there was to it. With a sense of heaviness and futility, I got back up and resumed sweeping.

My mood improved, both that evening and about my situation in general. I was a hospital janitor, but that was part of the adventure of my life--an adventure that I was increasingly coming to choose for myself. And at the end of cleaning a locker-room, when I had swept and washed the floor, I felt good. The employees would arrive at a clean locker-room, and perhaps feel a bit uplifted as they started their day, making meals, washing linen, cleaning wards.

But the dead of night is when life's lows are reached: that's my testimony.

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  • Paul,
    I read your blog often and am always entertained. Looking forward to the completion of your book.
    As to the water spilling issue, go to Coast Mountain Sports in Park Royal, South and splurge and get yourself a Sigg aluminum water bottle. They have a large range of styles and sizes and you will no longer have to worry about spills or dangerous chemicals leaching from your plastics.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at July 31, 2007 12:03 PM  

  • Hi Deb--many thanks for the tip, which sounds very sensible. I might even try that. More importantly, thanks for checking in on my blog--I appreciate it very much.

    By Blogger paulv, at July 31, 2007 5:38 PM  

  • I've been in a funky mood the past three days, today it lifted sometime after lunch. Work has been busy, I've been starting to feel overwhelmed, much like you were in that locker room, with my job, my 4 month stretch of not writing a word towards my project... Maybe its the moon, or something astrological?
    Thanks for the insight and motivation.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at July 31, 2007 7:16 PM  

  • Hi Greg--thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Who knew that my janitorial adventures might one day prove of some value to others? If they have, I'm delighted.

    By Blogger paulv, at August 01, 2007 7:31 AM  

  • Paul, your posts hold entire novels within them. Having experienced that "dead of night" mood throughout my life, considering my frequent job changes and my writing struggles, this one resonated with me. Your blog entertains and enlightens. Thanks, d:)

    By Anonymous Debra Young, at August 03, 2007 11:15 AM  

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