March 6, 2010

Preview of Alexander Newcombe's "The Spark Gap Blog"

The release of our second issue is just around the corner and inside it you'll find this story.  The Spark Gap Blog is written as a series of blog posts by a blogger/reporter named Christopher Bartley.  He spends a few weeks in Steel Hawk, an (almost) abandoned mining town in British Columbia.  This excerpt takes place a few days after he arrives.

Night Out in the Ghost Town           

Perhaps I hadn't adjusted to the early schedule of Steel Hawk yet, or maybe it was an aversion to curling up in my insect-ridden house, but I didn't feel like going to sleep after I left Ed's hydro plant.  I began walking down the main road, towards the town's entrance.  Occasionally I would see a house with a few lights on, or hear the sounds of never-ending home repairs, but the streets at night really bring the “ghost” out in ghost town.  I was jumping at rustling trees and animal noises more than I'd like to admit.  Eventually, I heard a large group of people talking.  And not just talking; laughing, shouting, and swearing.  I wasn't sure at first, but once I heard the undercurrent of music in the mix, I knew I had stumbled onto a bar.  It was right on the edge of town, in a building older than my new house by a decade or two.  The original sign hanging from the low roof had been removed and was replaced with cut sheet-metal letters that spelled out “The Company”.

I needed to find out what people did for fun at some point, so I went in.  Perhaps it wasn't only unyielding professionalism that led me inside, but I promised to keep myself standing long enough to get a feel for the night life of Steel Hawk.  I'm not sure what I expected.  Perhaps a rowdy saloon, with bottles getting broken over skulls every few minutes; maybe a wild pleasure-den on the fringes of civilization, where any vice was welcomed.  In fact, The Company was mostly like any busy local pub, with a little saloon and pleasure-den thrown in.  It was clean enough not to be unsettling, but it wore its shabbiness with comfort.  A jukebox (the kind with CDs), played classic songs while the patrons ignored it.  It was mostly men, sitting around tables in the centre of the bar talking and laughing.  And smoking.  Having lived without smoke in bars for my legal life, it was a shock to walk in and nearly choke on the heavy grey cloud that seemed to be as permanent as the tacky brass lamp shades.  Not all of it was tobacco either.  There was a group in a booth to the side that were sedately smoking well-rolled joints.  I went to the bar, but before I could give the bartender my patented “I need a drink badly” look, he began shouting at a man sitting on one of the bar stools.  The shouting went back and forth, all the eyes on the bar turned to the action, voluntarily or not, and the bartender's swearing reached a crescendo.  The man at the bar raised his hand, it wasn't quite a punch, but it wasn't a harmless gesture either.  The bartender slapped his hand down and then shoved his other hand into the man's face.  The (apparently very drunk) customer toppled off the stool but continued swearing.  The bartender was circling around the bar, still fuming.  By this point, others were working to get the drunk up and hold the furious bartender back.  They dumped the confused man in a heap outside the door and worked at cooling off the bartender.  I heard one guy say, “It's okay Fergie, just keep him dry for a few days and he'll come around.”  By the time Fergie was back to the other side of the bar to serve drinks, the place had gone back to normal and good-natured talk was jostling with the music again.

I waited for the bartender to settle and then leaned over the bar.  “Hey there, could I get a rum and coke?” I asked.

“Just rum okay?”

I didn't like guessing wrong, and I wanted something that I could sip for a while.  The bartender sounded gracious, as if he regretted being short on supplies.  I ordered a bottle of beer and it came in plain brown glass with no label.  I was deciding whether to pay then or wait, but he left and served someone else, saving me from another gaffe.  
I was nervous.   Most of my reporting involves reading websites, sending emails, and doing short interviews over Skype.  It is rare that I have to use anything like social grace.  I listened to a Johnny Cash song until it finished, trying to look comfortable on my own.  At the same moment that I started feeling ridiculous, one of the few women in the bar approached me.  
She was younger than me, with straight black hair and light copper skin.  She was wearing a flashy black camisole that would have been in fashion back in Van and looked haut-couture here.  She also had a simple hemp bracelet on, the kind of thing you'd see at any flea market or street vendor.  She smiled and struck up a conversation right away.  No pretence, no tricks, just straight-up, “Hi, how are you?”  We went through small-talk.  I imagined that her interest was solely based on me being the new guy in town.  I'd heard that in isolated places like this, the smell of the outside world is better than any cologne.  I felt confident and began to flirt.  Soon, the conversation turned to when I was planning on leaving the bar.  I made an effort to evaluate the perks of leaving with my need to stay and learn more.  As I evaluated, I happened to look the young woman up and down, and my eye caught on the hemp bracelet again.  I looked around, and, sure enough, every other woman at the bar had a similar bracelet on.  I finally caught on to what I'm sure you have already gathered.  I asked the woman what she did for work and she said she worked in the rooms next door.  That helped my rational mind make the case for staying and doing more actual work.  At first, Caroline (the woman), was confused by my renewed interest in mere conversation, but after I offered to pick up her drinks, she was happy to talk more.  She was one of Steel Hawk's part-time prostitutes (she was also a house painter and a hairdresser).  The bracelets were a signal to the men that they were working.  Since they had to come to the same bar and see the same people when they wanted to relax, they needed a way to be off-limits.  I don't think she was trying to entrap me when she invited me out with her.  She had just become so used to the system that she forgot that an outsider wouldn't understand that he was being hit on professionally.

Caroline drifted away after finishing her drink.  She was immediately replaced by a tall man in his thirties, with a clean plaid shirt open over a white tee and nice, if worn, jeans.  He shook hands with me and introduced himself as Jake.  I checked his wrist for a bracelet as he pulled his hand back.  No reason to assume otherwise, I figured.  My reality check with Caroline reminded me that people don't usually chat with strangers at a bar because they don't want something from them.  Since Jake wasn't here to proposition me, I kept an eye out for whatever he was looking for.

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