in which Bigelow, More and Thoreau have a small adventure in Charlottetown
I disembarked from the GRIS-RT at the Central Athenia station and headed back to the place I had left More the day before with Thoreau - that bench was one of Henry’s favorite sitting and thinking places, and if they were not there enjoying the morning air they would not be far removed, as Henry’s cottage was but a few yards distant. They were not on the bench nor did I see them anywhere nearby, so I made my way to Henry’s front door and knocked on the wooden edge then pulled open the screen door and stuck my head in. The kitchen table, for this was the room the door opened into, still had some breakfast remnants scattered about, but the chairs were empty and the morning newspapers abandoned on the table top.
More, Thoreau and I had a short but lively trip into town, as they questioned me relentlessly about the internet and modern communications and some of the things they had seen, still awed and somewhat unbelieving of the marvel of it (as was I, I had to admit, at times, when I thought about it - like all of the great libraries at your fingertips and more). The few minutes flew, and it seemed like no time at all before we were disembarking from the GRIS-RT at Charlottetown Central, a quite lovely station only recently opened (many, many things on Green Island had been "recently” done, as we no longer faced the great but completely artificial and unnecessary money problems of previous governments - for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, a policy philosophy that pervaded the previous governments but one that we no longer followed), very near the historic center of the city at the refurbished and redecorated old Dominion Building, which now flew the Green Island Flag, a green heart in a blue sphere on a white background, replacing the previous colonial flag of PEI - one thing we did not consider ourselves as was someone else’s colony. We exited the station to a scattering of raindrops, rain showers being a not uncommon occurrence in this small island province surrounded by the ocean, where the warm (or cold, depending on the season) offshore breezes meet and quarrelled with the cooler (or milder, depending on the season) onshore ocean breezes coming from some part of the North Atlantic Ocean. As an old Island saying has it, “If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and something new will come along!” And a minute later the raindrops ceased, although the sky was still threatening, and a freshening breeze from the harbour promised more.
We stopped for a moment, looking westwards down the five blocks or so of Queen Street sloping gently down to the harbour, now mostly hidden behind the large Colonial Hotel. It was a typical sort of small town main street, all along its length small shops and offices, no buildings other than the Dominion Building and Colonial Hotel more than four or five stories tall, most with apartments in their upper levels, red brick and fire escapes and plate glass windows and an array of signs telling what was available. There were a few cars passing along, but now with the new streetcar section of GRIS-RT along Queen St running all the way, melding almost seamlessly into the larger Island grid through the GRIS-HQ at the refurbished train station further along the waterfront area, most people used public transport of one type or another when coming to town. Kitty-corner across Queen St. the large Confederation Center of the Arts, which housed the city library and the Festival Theatre, dominated the view - Anne of Green Gables, a favorite of audiences for decades, had taken on a whole new meaning with the Green Island government. Our destination today was down Rochfort street which ran alongside the Confederation Center, and I guided my charges across the street.
The town was alive with people on such a fine morning, threat of rain notwithstanding, and More and Thoreau were taking everything in, walking slowly and observing, offering comments to one another on things that struck their fancy - the shops in the area across from the Confed Center we were now passing had been largely redone in their original style, circa 1900, and the carved woodwork, painted in various colors, large plate glass windows with old style lettering, and other period decor, in combination with the several trees and planter boxes of flowers and herbs in many of the windows, made for a pleasant stroll. As we passed one of the sidewalk cafes, More stopped and took my arm, saying, “Say Bigelow, would it be possible to get a cup of coffee here as tasty as the one we had yesterday when we first arrived at Athenia? I think I’d like to just sit for a few minutes, and take things in, you see? This is such a - a - well, a nice spot! - and interesting!”
“Yes, Bigelow, I concur!” added Thoreau, “it does seem like a fine and inviting place for a sit, you see, our first excursion into the capital city of your Island - surely nothing is so important that it cannot wait another few minutes!”
I glanced at my watch - we were, actually, a few minutes ahead of schedule. I then looked at the sky, and considered the raindrops. I judged the rain would hold off for at least a few minutes - not that I was any great judge of such things, but one has to practice.
“Well, Thomas, I certainly don’t want to deny you any opportunity to observe things,” I replied, “as that is what we are here for, after all, and it looks as if the rain probably isn’t going to get serious for a few minutes at least, so I think we might well enjoy a coffee here - I will say, all of these little cafes do do a very nice job with fresh coffee and pastries - as you can see, they are popular. And for that matter, I am no great fan of rushing myself. So let us sit, gentlemen, indeed!”
There were probably 20 or so tables scattered along the street in front of the several cafes here, most of them occupied, with people old and young and in between, chatting animatedly among themselves - altogether a pleasant summer morning in Charlottetown, the buzz of conversation and traffic, some birdsong in the background, mostly Robins and sparrows, a few squawking starlings, peace and contentment in the air - life, in other words, as it really ought to be. We were doing ok here, I reflected briefly.
I swung my arm in a short arc as a waiter might do, saying “Pick your table, Sir!”
More looked around, and pointed to an open table in front of a cafe with a large sign on the front, “Zelda’s Zesty Zings”. We strolled over and sat, and within a few seconds a young man appeared with a menu and a greeting.
“Good morning, all!” he said, cheerily, “I’m not Zelda hahahah, but you can call me Zam if you like. And what can I get you fine folk today? I can tell you, the Frenzz baguettes just came out of the oven, and are heavenly!”, touching his thumb and forefinger to his lips and making a smacking sound, eyes half-closed in feigned bliss.
Thoreau laughed in enjoyment at, I think, the young waiter’s enthusiasm and general joie de vivre.
“I don’t believe I’ve seen you folks here before - why don’t I leave you a menu, and come back in a couple of minutes to take your order?”
“Thanks,” I said, smiling back at him, “but we are in just a bit of a hurry, so if we could have three regular coffees, with a plate of cream and sweeteners, and perhaps a small sample tray of your pastries, that should do us for now.”
I looked inquiringly at More and Thoreau, and they both nodded their heads in agreement.
“Excellent!” said Zam, retrieving the menu, “I’ll be back in a ziffy hahahaha!”
And so saying he turned with a flourish, to appreciative chuckles from all three of us, and disappeared through Zelda’s door.
As the door slammed, a burst of laughter and cheers erupted from a couple of tables pushed together at the cafe next door, where a group of mostly younger people sat around a table with an older man at the end, evidently, to judge from the various attitudes, holding court. The older man was dressed in a somewhat threadbare grey suit which matched his greyish, scraggly beard, with an old brown fedora perched on his head and a pair of worn sneakers on his feet, one of which was visible as a crossed leg was swinging a lazy arc through the air as he spoke. His pale blue eyes were somewhat rheumy, but at the moment full of laughter.
“Ha ha ha ha!” we heard his laughter and then words, his voice somewhat hoarse as the other voices quieted while listening to him, “Never, never, never let them tell you you can’t do it, son! hahahaha! That’s exactly what I mean when I tell you about “in the box” thinking! - YOU must make the decisions that guide your life! - sure, you will make mistakes, many mistakes - but when you do, you learn the lessons you need to grow and become a better person! If you take orders all your life, you never learn how to make your own decisions, and accept responsibility for them, and for your life! - and then you find too, as you get older, you can’t make any decisions harder than which tv show to watch because you don’t know how!”
The old man’s voice dropped in volume, his words became indistinguishable from the background babble, as some of the younger voices joined in with questions challenging the old man, and we returned our attention to our own table.
“I must say,” More said, looking around, “it certainly looks like a prosperous enough place you have here, and free enough and happy enough! Who’s the older gentleman, some local man of wisdom or something?”
I couldn’t help myself, an involuntary peal of laughter overtook me.
“Sorry, Thomas,” I said when I recovered, “but you’d have to know the history here! Old Mac, as he is known, was for years and years known mainly as the last holdout of the Charlottetown alkies, as they referred to homeless alcoholics. He was normally to be found shuffling along Queen St there where we just came from, or sitting in front of the liquor store just around the corner, begging for nickels and quarters for his daily quart of wine.”
“Really?” said Thoreau, “so what happened?”
“Well,” I said, “in Green Island we believe in looking after everyone and respecting all of our people, and now old Mac has a room just a couple of blocks away, and a bit of pocket money every day - and we also don’t believe in fostering a societal underclass of any sort, so by and large he is accepted for who he is now - oh, there are still people around who like to feel superior and scorn people like Mac because they have to look down on someone, but as you can see, younger people, more open than many older people to new things, have started to talk to him, and he is saying some things they like to hear, it appears, now that he has a chance.”
“And as for prosperous looking in general, I know what you mean, and quite agree. It is quite a bit different from a few years ago, when the whole Island seemed to be ready to crumble, on the edge of financial disaster at all times - most of these shops were closed then, except for some being open a couple of months in the summer to take advantage of the tourist trade that many Island governments tried to make the basis of our economy, a losing idea in all respects, in our opinion - but more to the point, there just wasn’t enough money around for people to spend - lots of willing workers, but a seasonal economy based on farming, fishing and tourism just doesn’t have the diverse, dependable year-in, year-out base needed to prosper.”
“Hahaha - always a problem, that money!” said Thoreau, with More nodding in agreement. “I recall, we tried an experiment once during the Civil War, called Greenback Dollars - seemed to be working ok, I don’t know what happened...”
“Exactly!” I said, “We have studied the history of money here - the Greenback Dollars were issued by Lincoln to pay for the Civil War - but after the war, the banks persuaded Congress to withdraw them from circulation, and adopt the debt-based money supply, which is what we have always used here as well - rather than using the government bank, the Bank of Canada here, to create the necessary money, the governments borrowed the same amount of money from private banks, and then were stuck paying interest on that money forever, in effect. And if there were any unexpected problems, the debt could suddenly grow very large, as it did in Canada and most of the provinces. During the last 20 years or so of the 20th century, in Canada the situation got so bad that all governments were turning over 20 or 30%, or sometimes more!, of all the tax money they collected straight to the banks, to “service” the debt they had accumulated - meaning, of course, there was much less money to undertake the maintenance of the social systems they were supposed to be using that money for, for taking care of the people who paid that money in taxes, actually.”
“Well, yes,” said More, “but that is the way things have always worked, isn’t it? We have had the same thing happening - when King John wanted to go to war in France, he had to borrow gold from the Banker’s Guild and private nobles to finance it - and then, when payback time came, he was forced to make all kinds of concessions to them. It’s caused no end of trouble, this money stuff, I must say.”
“Exactly!” I said, “Letting a small group of people control the money supply of a country is, in our opinion, insane - it institutionalises a master-slave relationship in society as a basic principle! with the master-bankers and the citizens literally begging for the money to use for their daily business - and for a people who are fighting for some kind of true egalitarian democracy, as we were doing here, well, we understood that control of the money - of, by and for the people, as that same great President of yours said, Henry, in a very related context - is absolutely the first requirement.”
“Hear, hear!” said More.
“But,” I continued, smiling somewhat grimly, I fear, “such a thing is a GREAT deal easier to talk about than to achieve! Those with the money have been in control for a long, long time, and have used their money to take control of the political system through a series of all-too-readily-bribed politicians, with their levers of control reaching into every area of our lives, most importantly, outside of the provision of the money supply, the branches of government which enforce the laws of the land - the police and courts, and the media which reports on those things, or not as the case may be - at the time of which I speak, the government, the police and the courts, and the media were all quite firmly under the thumb of the bankers and the elite, the wealthy class in the society - although, of course, the illusion was carefully maintained that all were controlled by the people in a modern democratic society!”
“Yes, but what.....?” More never got to finish his question, as a loud, angry-sounding voice interrupted him.
“Jesus fucking christ, Bigelow, will you people never give up on that absolute bullshit?!”
The speaker was a large burly man, middle-aged, dressed in blue jeans and safari shirt, long brown hair somewhat disarrayed and pudgy face with reddened cheeks and somewhat sunken bloodshot eyes even at this time of the morning. He had risen from a chair at a table by the street, where he had been sitting with a couple of other men with his back to me or I might have recognised him - Jack MacIrving, whose family had been one of the wealthiest of the Island families for generations, with their fingers in pretty much every significant enterprise here, including the government and legal system, prior to our election victory. The MacIrvings were one of the main actors in the upcoming trial that was going to try to sort out the many legal ramifications and issues between the elite, who felt as young MacIrving here did, that they owned everything they wanted and did what they wanted, and the rest of us, who believed in a somewhat more democratic sort of government. Most of the family were resigned to the legal route, but not all. Young Jack, as he had always been called, was known for taking things a bit more directly.
As he was now. He approached the table where More, Thoreau and I sat, still waiting for our coffee, fists clenched, angry red patches showing through his day-old beard.
“Everything was going great here on PEI, had been for years!, until your band of commies or hippies or assholes or whatever the fuck you call yourselves stole that election! And ever since then you’ve been stealing property from those it rightfully belongs to and causing grief to good citizens! And you call yourselves a democracy! HA! Nothing but a pack of damned thieves, I say, and you all ought to be horsewhipped and sent back to Russia or wherever you came from!”
And as he finished speaking, or ranting it might be called, he reached out and gave me a strong push on the shoulder, violent enough to knock me out of my chair onto the pavement, as I had not seen it coming and was not prepared. A heard a couple of screams behind me, and saw from the corner of my eye people rising from chairs, and More and Thoreau pushing back their chairs and quickly getting to their feet. A few cries could be heard as well - “Stop that!” “Hey!” “Someone get a GRIPP!” - but none of them stopped MacIrving, who had pushed my chair aside and was drawing back his work-booted foot apparently for a kick at me, somewhat wild-eyed.
I saw More waving his cane in the air, then - I saw this in a glance around, as I tried to size up the situation quickly while MacIrving approached, as if time had slowed down somehow, although it all took place in a couple of seconds, I have noticed before that there are times in one’s life when this sort of time-enhancement, or slowing, occurs - Thoreau made eye contact with More, then glanced down to where he had stuck out his long leg behind MacIrving’s leg, bracing himself on the back of a chair, then looked back to More’s cane. More understood immediately, and reached across the table, placed the cane in MacIrving’s chest, and gave a strong, two-handed push. Caught off balance, MacIrving took a little hop backwards, and tripped over Thoreau’s foot, crashing to the ground with a “Crack!” as his head hit the edge of a table on his way down, and letting out a loud "Whoof" as he landed on his back.
Then the sound of a whistle pierced the air, wavering in sound, and I heard footsteps running, and a second later a deep voice, calm and authoritative, only slightly out of breath, was speaking.
“All right then! What’s going on here, then, on such a fine morning, eh?”
And thankfully I saw a deep forest green shirt, pushing through the crowd, covering the sturdy frame of a GRIPP - an officer of the Green Island People’s Police. As the GRIPP (we didn’t refer to them as “police” usually, that name having rather too many bad connotations with the old capitalistic societies, where such people were more often used as “legalised” corporate enforcers than the citizen’s police they were supposed to be in theory) pushed his way through and reached the front of the small crowd, still somewhat excited at the recent violence, he quickly sized up the situation, saw that things were not immediately volatile, and set about clearing things up.
“Right, then, folks,” said the GRIPP, looking around with a small smile, serious at the same time, “what’s been happening, then?”
MacIrving was sitting up by now, rubbing the back of his head, evidently the fall had not done any serious damage, and immediately jumped in, “I’ll tell you want happened, Officer,” he stormed, “those three sons a bitches attacked me, is what happened! I’d advise you to arrest em all and toss em in jail for a few days, until my uncle at MacIrving, MacMacIrving, and Mac-4-Irving get a chance to have the appropriate charges laid, which I can assure you they will - I...”
“Alright then, young fella,” said the GRIPP, “that’ll be about enough for now. I’ll take your statement in due time. But now - “
MacIrving by now was on his feet, and did not seem to care to be interrupted.
“No!” he shouted, “don’t you interrupt ME when I’m speaking to you! Don’t you know who I am, you idiot? My uncle’ll ....”
Which was as far as he got, as the GRIPP simply reached out and pinched shut his nose with two fingers, evidently quite forcefully as tears appeared in MacIrving’s eyes. There were a couple of squeaked words until MacIrving stopped in silence, his eyes opening wide in rage as he tried to reach up and remove the offending fingers, but found his wrist caught in the strong grip of the GRIPP; he received his wish, though, as the fingers pinching the nose released that relieved appendage, and in one fluid motion reached to his belt, removed a pair of handcuffs, reached back up snapping one bracelet around the wrist his other hand was gripping, then stepping forward, forcing MacIrving to take a step backwards, and with a quick motion pushed then pulled MacIrving’s hand around a convenient light pole and fastened the second bracelet around his other wrist. It was about as smooth as you could imagine. We were quite proud of our GRIPPs - their training in martial arts and least-violence restraint of troublemakers was another way in which we differed from the old ways, the “modern” ways governments dealt with either criminals or protesters, of darthvader costumes and guns and batons and pepper spray - we were trying to encourage non-violence in our society, and that meant that we set an example in the ways we used to keep our streets safe from the occasional criminal behaviour we still faced.
“Now, young fella,” said the GRIPP, “I said when I want your side of the story I’ll ask for it - which I will, soon enough - but for now keep it shut, ok? I also have a small roll of duct tape about my person here somewhere, which we have found is quite handy for keeping mouths shut that don’t want to stay shut of their own accord, if you catch my meaning?”
“I....” began MacIrving in protest, but then as he saw the GRIPP immediately reaching into another of the small leather pouches attached to his waist belt with a grim look on his face which MacIrving now understood was not to be trifled with, quickly did as told. The GRIPP stared at him for another few seconds, then turned back to the crowd.
“Now, then, as I was saying - who wants to tell me what happened?”