This was the end. Outside the window a light rain laid its gauze over the Duomo, the Capelli Medici, the Arno and its bridges, and San Miniato and all the rest. Finally the whole scene faded to oblivion as the airplane surged upward through the clouds. There was a connection in Paris, and from there to Toronto. Suddenly I felt so removed from so many different things. I was at a greater and greater distance from Florence, my home for the previous eight months, and what had become the second nature of its rhythms and sounds and smells. I felt distinctly different, changed. I felt more mature as a young man and as a young artist. And because of the change of perspective being abroad can bring, everything back in Canada when I got home seemed unfamiliar, ungainly and over-sized.
My parents picked me up from Pearson International and drove us back to Oshawa, via the then-new 407 highway. Still under construction in many parts, the scenery was a long parade of large brown mounds of dirt and gray concrete structures under a brown, heavy, hazy, gray late-April sky.
I turned on the TV as I tried to pretend that everything was fine. On the news was footage of the protests of the 3rd Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. The next morning I went out for a pack of cigarettes. I kept reminding myself that I was probably going to cross paths with some people, and that they would likely say good morning, and I would say good morning back. About halfway to the store a man came along with his dog. I practiced the interaction in my head a few times. He came within greeting distance: mornin’. I stumbled through a few different Italian things: buon..er, ciao…mmmsalve…ahem mornin’. At the store I had trouble recognizing and counting the money. Everywhere around me were reminders of where I was not.
October 2000. I am standing in Piazza San Marco, Venice. This was our first overnight trip as a group, and what was striking once we were back in Florence, was that everyone seemed to have taken a lot of pictures of each other. I took it as a sign that affective relationships were forming amongst the group. But this photo of me, standing alone, but surrounded by people, I did not see until the last few weeks of the sojourn. While cleaning up and clearing out the studio on via Nationale, Izabella handed me a strip of negatives. “I thought you should have this” she said, or something like it. “I always thought that this looked the most like you. Like the picture I have of you in my mind.” Izabella’s quintessential Graham. It was very sweet, and later I learned that she had simply thrown out all the rest of her negatives.
I am standing, rather aloof, with the weight on my right leg. Both hands are tucked into the pockets of a ratty, much-too-well-loved zip up hoodie. I may be fiddling with something; a pack of cigarettes, loose change, who knows. Around my skinny neck are two closely tied necklaces: one made from a simple metal washer and a grommet from the side of a Chuck Taylor All Stars shoe, the other a tiny little spherical bell on a string. I am goateed and wear a pair of wrap-around type “bug” style sunglasses, a bit like what Bono from U2 wore at the time, and on my head is perched a dark blue velvet peaked cap, purchased on my very first visit to Honest Ed’s in Toronto. Slimish jeans and a dangling wallet chain were unbeatable, and the look is finished off with a righteous pair of black, 8-hole Dr. Marten’s boots.
I don’t have a bag with me, or a camera. I could be gazing at the facade of Basilica San Marco, or perhaps the Campanile. I could be gazing into infinity. I might be listening to Maestro Peter Porcal tell us about “what no” and “little bastards”. He had an amazingly particular way of speaking English. My expression seems neutral, although the sunglasses don’t give away much. Are my eyebrows raised? Could be. I don’t yet have patches and stitches holding my pants together, and I still don’t know what I’m doing. I still don’t know that my life is changing, really. There is no sense of the future. I don’t have any thought for how the full experience of my 8 months in Italy will come to affect me. I can remember a persistent feeling of gritty openness, of possibility, and of movement. Like an overcast day, like new books, like weaving through the crowded market during the day, but calmly quietly walking along its wet cobbles at night.
In Florence it was not legal for me to work. I had an 8 month student visa and no European Union ancestor to piggyback on. In any case, it was just fine by me. Work had always been quite a drag. My first real “job” had been at the automotive parts counter at Canadian Tire. I lasted about two weeks. I know nothing, NOTHING, about cars. The manager and I agreed that it wasn’t a great fit. Around this time I also worked my first “gig”. My parents and some of their friends somehow roped their children into working as servers at a rock n’ roll oldies dance with Little Caesar and the Imperials, catered predictably by Little Caesar’s corporate pizzeria. We all had to adopt Italian names and dress in white shirts and wear colourful kerchifs around our necks. I was Gepetto. It was embarrassing. I think I got paid 50 bucks or something.
I worked the summer between highschool and university at a YMCA camp in Muskoka. I was on the maintenance crew and spent the majority of my time cleaning the boys’ washrooms and facilities, sweeping and mopping the mess hall after each meal, and driving a riding lawnmower with a trailer full of garbage. This was a terrible experience. I had got the job through my friend Liz, who also worked there, and whom I was dating at the time. She silently broke up with me just a couple of weeks into a 10-week contract. I made friends with Gary, also on the maintenance crew. He had access to weed. We smoked up one night and I have never before or since been so astronomically high. It was pretty clearly not just weed, though what I don’t know. I stayed high for about a week and a half. During this time there was a massive summer rain storm and the whole camp lost power and I felt completely fucked up and could barely get out of my bunk. It was terrible. It was character buildingly terrible. Moving into a concrete and cinder block residence building at York University in September seemed a luxurious treat by comparison.
After that first year of university I moved back to Oshawa for the summer and managed to land a job as assistant to the preparator at the McLaughlin gallery. This was my very first introduction to art handling and I loved it. I was 20 years old. So, that one wasn’t so bad, I guess.
Over the next few years I would work odd jobs and gigs here and there, once or twice with my old friend Norm for some over-the-top holy-shit-what-the-fuck-did-you-get-yourself-into kind of project. Sometimes paid in cash, sometimes in weed. I remember one night at the end of the 1998/99 school year casting around for something to do. I settled on an OCAD student book launch happening at the Cameron House. I knew one or two of the artists/students and my teacher Cathy Daly was also involved. I went alone. It was a quiet evening, and I had never been to the Cameron before and was completely ignorant of its history and significance. Cathy asked what I was doing for the summer and I suppose I must have replied somewhat convincingly about looking for work. She hired me to help her partner Paul paint the house they had recently bought in the East end. One of the first parts of the house to be painted was the staircase. We put down a drop sheet as Paul explained that they weren’t sure yet if they wanted to keep the carpet on the floor at the bottom of the stairs, so we made certain to cover that bit. He started at the bottom and I started at the top, with the pail of paint between us in the middle of the stairs. At one point I stepped down to recharge my brush and the drop sheet on the stairs pulled up. This caused the can of paint to tip and spill its entire contents onto Paul. “Paint!” was all that I could get out in the moment. “Ah fuck!” said Paul, and he took off his paint-covered clothes "well, that makes the decision about the carpet a lot easier."
Paul was one of the owners of the Cameron House, and, amazingly considering, he offered me some shifts bussing tables. Bussing tables turned into steady work waiting tables and bartending for a few years. I had, it seemed, made my place in Toronto.
But then I moved to Montreal and had to start all over again.