Gary can’t pronounce my name; at first he didn’t even try. I don’t think it’s because my name is “ethnic,” as he doesn’t remember my white co-workers’ names either. He calls us Smiley, Pinky, and Blue Eyes, which makes us feel like 1930s gangsters. I call him Helmet Guy because each day during drop-in hours, he rides a shiny red electric scooter down the street from his unit to the housing co-op office and he always leaves his matching helmet on during our conversations.
Gary is a dedicated maintenance volunteer in his housing co-operative. He knows a lot of things about a lot of things. And about a lot of people. He’s resourceful. For instance, one day I wished aloud for a microwave in the office because cold dal just doesn’t have the right texture. As he left, he casually mentioned that he’d keep an eye out. I went back to accounting to the City about how we use their subsidy money. Not two minutes later, Gary returned, speed-walking with microwave in hand. Brown eyes glinting with the score. Official business.
“Holy shit!” my co-worker and I cheered.
“See, I got one for ya. That guy across the street was just getting rid of it!” Only the inside dish and one bottom peg were missing, but microwaves still work when they’re slanted. Gary brought us a dish the next day, found somewhere else.
He knows about mould and doorknobs and furnaces and insulation from his time as a superintendent. He knows exactly which day the City picks up garbage and which day they pick up plastics and which day they pick up paper. They alternate garbage collection now but do compost weekly, to encourage more green bin use. When this was instituted last summer, it drove Gary to the brink of madness.
“Why can no one keep it straight?” he yelled one day in the office. “They should pick up garbage weekly like they usedta ‘cuz people put their compost in the garbage and then the garbage just sits there stinkin’.” I asked the City to deliver calendars listing the pick-up schedule to everyone in the co-op. It seems to have caught on now. Most of the time. Things take time to become part of the culture in a housing co-op, but when they do, they have “always been” how things work.
Gary moves fast, he is a man of action, so this slow pace of behavioural change in the co-op doesn’t jive with him. He gets angry sometimes, and sometimes the reason is obvious but other times, he is not sure why. He has recurring nightmares about Skynet and apocalyptic visions of the office crumbling to rubble. He had lost his Star Trek uniform, and then he found it buried below the Beanie Baby collection that had to be thrown out after a bed-bug scare. One day after a pretty good discussion on aliens and atheism and terrorism, I asked him why he gets so stressed out.
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink ten cups of coffee a day,” I offered. He said that’s not the problem, it’s because he’s seen things. “Like what?” I asked, thinking of previous conversation topics.
“You wouldn’t want to know.”
Last weekend, we ran into each other in the neighbourhood and it would have been awkward not to walk together, as we were headed in the same direction. I didn’t want to talk about work on my time off, so I inquired after his wife. It had been their anniversary a few days prior. They had gone out for Chinese food and it was shit, he recounted.
“Aw, that sucks,” I said.
“Yeah, I told them about it, too.”
“I bet you did. Which anniversary were you celebrating?”
“You always ask the hard questions, Smiley! Don’t tell my wife!”
“Harhar.” I rolled my eyes.
After a silence, he said “Uhhh, four.” I was surprised; with his white hair and deep furrows I didn’t peg him for a newlywed. Then I learned that she was his second wife and they met while he was a superintendent. She’d lived in the building and he was so handy and they hit it off. His first wife? She had leukemia but didn’t know it. One day she woke up with a bad headache, went to the hospital, and died there. Within a week. That’s why Gary never goes to hospitals, even when he has angina attacks, because those places are doomed and those people don’t know what they’re doing.
Before we parted ways, he sighed and said, “You know Smiley, sometimes I used to get angry at my wife. I don’t know why. I really wish I didn’t.”
“I’m sorry Gary. I guess you can make it up by being good to the folks in your life now.”
“Oh I am.” He nodded vigorously. “See ya tomorrow!” The office isn’t open on weekends, but same same. The days go on.
Yesterday, Gary threatened again to “take the board down.” He was angry because the co-op’s board of directors had not yet approved a policy that allowed maintenance volunteers to have copies of master keys for every unit, in the case of an emergency while the office is closed. The board hadn’t even discussed the issue yet, since they meet monthly and Gary had brought it up only last week, but that’s not really the point. The point is, why is everything so inefficient? What would he do if, one day, there was a fire on a weekend? Why don’t people trust him?
“Well now, just wait. We can talk about this as a group at the monthly board meeting on Monday,” I said.
“They’re dragging their feet!” He replied loudly, pointing at me, eyebrows way up. This is a common refrain, along with “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing” and “they don’t know if they’re comin’ or goin’.” It took me exactly 24 minutes from that moment to explain the process about keys listed in the co-op’s by-laws (“Only good for one thing, toilet paper!”).
After he calmed down, he apologized. “I’m sorry Zeela, I didn’t mean to take it out on you.” He’s recently started trying out my name. It’s kind of nice; Zeela is the nickname my favourite aunt gave me.
Gary gets angry sometimes. He doesn’t know where it comes from, but I can understand. For one thing, he hasn’t got much. Gary wouldn’t call himself poor; he gets by. I know that social assistance pays his rent at one of the City’s rare affordable housing units. The waiting list for a place like his is seven years. He won’t move anywhere, despite his frustrations with the co-op. He can’t. Almost everyone around him is stuck the same way—except for the folks who moved into the new condo buildings last week, and the people who frequent that hip new café that used to be a 2$ kabob place.
Gary gets angry sometimes because he’s got no ID. His birth certificate was in bad shape and when he went to get it replaced, the clerk at the desk punched a hole in it and gave him a form to fill in. This is an insurmountable task. Gary’s not the best reader because he didn’t finish school, because he got into “a bad scene” when he was a kid, because he got bumped from one foster home to the next, because he was taken away by Children’s Aid and split up from his siblings, because they all watched their dad kill their mom. He can’t get a birth certificate without listing his mom’s maiden name on the form, which he doesn’t remember because he was seven when she died and he never knew his family again.
Gary gets angry sometimes, like a lot of men I know whose childhoods have been fucked up. This doesn’t excuse his targeting of the board or his wife or me. He has been conditioned to be angry, to win with intimidation; he’s a scrapper, always has been, and he watches too much Fox News which makes him paranoid.
Sometimes, sometimes often, Gary is loving and patient and playful. He appreciates details. Like today, when he complimented me on the strength of the coffee I made for the meeting. “I’d like to take you with me when I go home on the spaceship,” he winked. And I might go, just to meet those few who live without gravity.