Retirement plans…

On Monday night, M, Binky, and I went to Cabaret for some Monday night culture. It was Le Cabaret Bleu/The Blue Ceilidh, presented by Montreal’s trilingual literary festival institution, Blue Metropolis.

It was billed as a celebration of words and music, combining writers from Quebec and Cape Breton, along with a Celtic band called Orealis. The big draw for me was Sheldon Currie who was reading from his new novel Down the Coaltown Road.

Sheldon Currie is a (retired) professor of English literature from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, my alma-mater. St. F. X. is a small school, so everyone knew each other, and since he taught me English 200, I got to know him fairly well. He’s a quiet and modest man, grey haired with enormous bushy eyebrows. He’d shuffle into class wearing wrinkled green pants that looked like something bought at the company store, an old cardigan draped on his frame sporting suede-patched pockets that each hung open like and old woman’s mouth waiting for her medicine. I often joked that he looked more like the janitor than an academic — and a Flannery O’Connor scholar at that.

But that man taught me. In his unassuming way, he made me think about literature in new ways, which is exactly what an English professor should do. But with Prof. Currie I felt a certain affiliation that made his teaching seem that much more salient. You see, he was the child of a Cape Breton mining town. He grew up working class, and for whatever reason escaped to the academy instead of the mines. It’s not like he was a boy genius or anything, he just decided on a different path — one that expands the mind instead of one that crushes the body.

Similarly, I’m a working class steel-town boy. I barely made it through high school — I prefer to think it was from boredom more than stupidity — and when I finally did I felt I had little choice other than the steel plant. All along, however, I knew that I didn’t want that — to get caught up in the vortex of hirings and layoffs, smoke, heat, boredom, and danger. But I didn’t know what else to do. Going to university was out of the question, because (a) it was virtually unheard of in my family and neighbourhood, and (b) I had already proven my lack of academic ability.

However, a few years later something bit me on the ass, and off I went, bypassing the academic requirements due to my status as a “mature student” (I was 23).

At the time, Prof. Currie was known as a teacher, not a writer. No doubt he published academic papers here and there, but as an undergrad I didn’t care about that. He had only produced one book of fiction that anyone knew of, an odd little book of quirky short stories called The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum. I assumed his interest in fiction was primarily academic and editorial (he’s been on the editorial board of The Antigonish Review for decades).

In 1995, eight years after I left St.F.X.U. and moved to Montreal, a film called Margaret’s Museum came out, with Helena Bonham Carter in the lead. The story line sounded familiar, and sure enough, it was an adaptation of Currie’s The Glace Bay Miner’s Museum, the title story from that odd little book of short stories that he had published in 1979, the year I finished high school.

Local boy does well. Since then he has expanded the story into a novel, written another novel called The Company Store, and has put out a few more volumes of short stories. He retired three years ago and has been writing full time ever since, releasing his third novel just a few months ago.

The result, of course, is that he continues to inspire me — I’m now planning an early retirement. Way early. As early as possible.

During an intermission in the ceilidh, which featured Currie plus some other writers and a really nice Celtic band who I described to Binky as sounding like Jethro Tull after somebody told them to Shhhhhhh!!!, I went down to speak to Prof. Currie. I grabbed a copy of the new novel from the table where they were selling them, and went with a pen in hand for a chat and an autograph.

It took him about 30 seconds, but he remembered me, even after 15 years. So we had a nice chat about the horrors of the mines and the steel plant, about life at St.F.X., the beauty of an enriched retirement, and a few other things. Then, as he was signing the book, he told me a story. Our dialog went something like this:

Currie: Do you remember the time, when I was cleaning out my office because I was going on sabbatical, that you caught me in the parking lot putting a whole filing cabinet into my van?
Me: Uh… wait a minute…
Currie: Yes, I was too lazy to clean it out and sort through everything, so I thought I’d just take the whole cabinet home and sort it out there. Then of course I’d bring the cabinet back because it belonged to the university.
Me: Wow, it’s coming back to me…
Currie: It was one of those sublime moments when you know you’re doing something you’re not supposed to do, but you don’t care because nobody’s looking, but then you turn around and somebody you know is standing right there.
Me: That was me?
Currie: Yes. You looked right at me and said “hey, are you stealing that thing?”
Me: Sounds like something I’d say.
Currie: Yes indeed, but what was I going to say? I had all intentions of bringing it back, although it sure didn’t look like it.
Me: Did you bring it back?
Currie: No, I still have it.

To be honest, I have only half a memory of that day, and it may be manufactured more than remembered, but regardless, it was vintage Currie. I started reading Down the Coaltown Road this morning, on the way to work. One day closer to retirement.