Friday, March 26, 2010

Soul Food

Since returning to school, I've had to do a lot more writing than I was used to previously. Though I've had many mixed feelings about returning to school (part-time) and my classes, boning up on writing and remembering how much I used to get into the process of writing has been great. So many people dread writing essays....I'm definitely not a natural (I do dread starting a piece of writing, and am a huge procrastinator..), but once I get started, it's generally an enjoyable challenge. A piece of writing is like a puzzle...finishing is incredibly satisfying.

The following descriptive essay is the first thing I wrote for school this year. The assignment was to write an in-depth description of something. Woodgreen Fish 'n' Chips was one of the most bizarrely beautiful spaces I've ever set foot in in my life. Sometimes I feel like Woodgreen helped shape my current taste in items, objects and interiors. Everything from the fireproof walls to the booths and the signage made going there an amazing and very unusual aesthetic experience.

This essay started out as a relatively simple descriptive exercise. But as I wrote, I realized that the story had a mind of it's own. After I finished and read it over, I realized that it was also a meditation on memory, and clear way children observe visual details and experience space and social dynamics. It is also about the loss of many aspects of my life from that time, specifically my grandmother, who died four years ago.


Soul Food

Woodgreen Fish and Chips used to be on a sleepy strip of Queen Street East until about a year ago. It served up crisp and greasy breaded halibut with thick french fries sprinkled with crystalline flakes of salt to generations of diners, from lanky pre-teen girls on banana seats to burly, bearded blue-collar everymen. My own patronage of the restaurant began in the mid-1980s, at the tender age of four. My earliest recollections from this period involve my family- long-time patrons- piling into my parents’ two-tone, beige and brown Oldsmobile Toronado and driving south on the sizzling August streets towards the diner. Visits like this started the same way for years, but it is the visits from a few years later that remain most vivid in the annals of my childhood psyche.

Most of our mid-day jaunts to Woodgreen were attended by my neurotic mother (who would meticulously dab grease from her fish with no less than three napkins), my vamp-ish aunt with her jet black hair and gravelly drawl, and my portly grandmother, who was always dressed head-to-toe in black, a stiff leather purse clutched tightly between her fleshy, bejeweled fingers. I remember how we used to stand out among the others in the sweaty luncheonette. There was something unmistakably different about our distinctly Mediterranean brand of mealtime fussing, from the armfuls of shopping bags spilling out from under our table to the dollar bill tug-of-war that would always ensue between the parties who simultaneously insisted on paying the bill. What a contrast this was to the usual assortment of diners sharing the space, which invariably included a quiet elderly man cautiously cutting and forking tiny pieces of fish cake into his gummy orifice and a shabby-looking couple slumped across from one another in a booth, one absorbed in a scratch card while the other stares out the window vacantly.

While my family was consumed in what was to me an impenetrable web of Macedonian chatter, I would lose myself in the trove of curious visuals abound. The walls of the restaurant were made of fireproof tin, painted from floor to ceiling in a faded sea foam green enamel, cracked and broken in spots like a boiled egg struck by the back of a spoon. At the front of the space were two bay windows on either side of the door, one adorned with a single potted bonsai tree, and in the other hung a sun-bleached cola advertisement from the late sixties in a dusty gilded frame. The tiny booths we were seated in which lined the walls were at least as old as the advertisement. They were painted fire engine red with black trim, and squealed under the weight of my grandmother’s ample posterior. In each booth, copies of the same pair of decades-old ketchup and mustard bottles sat against the wall, each made unique by the subtle landscapes of layered grease and dust on their surfaces, detectable only by touch. Similarly worse for wear yet obviously enduring were the plates we ate from.

I remember during one particular visit, while sitting at the lunch counter, I slipped a plate off it’s towering stack behind the back of the old lady wrapping a hot bundle of french fries in newspaper for take-away. I stared at the plate’s surface for several minutes. It was grey with age and use, and had a simple tan-coloured pattern around its rim resembling a Greek frieze. Subtle charcoal-toned scratches formed a whirlpool of markings in the centre of the plate, which simultaneously evoked the rings of a tree stump and the idiosyncratic lines of a fingerprint. Though these lines were perfectly visible, I couldn’t feel their light etch under my finger when I tried. The plate felt perfectly smooth. It’s lines were both existent and non-existent, like smoke rings blown from rough lips, or a puff of hot breath in the cold.

Woodgreen Fish and Chips isn’t on Queen Street anymore. It’s creaking booths and lunch counter have been replaced by shiny molded plastic, gleaming stainless steel and conspicuous consumption. Yet still, the residual rings on my plate from forks circling fish around it’s circumference are echoed in cars circling city blocks, and rings circling the fingers of widows day after day, year after year, decade after decade.

Photo above of Woodgreen F&C by you can count on me/Jeannette Ordas.

No comments: