The Empty Bench
‘This will be our year’ by The Zombies plays on the radio but, somehow, I doubt it.
I’m in a van driving from Penticton to Calgary. A week earlier, I texted my friends who play in a band. I told them I had some free time and wanted to get out of town. They asked what I was doing Friday — nothing — so I signed on to climb into a 15-person van to sell T-shirts and vinyl for them.
I got picked up by one of the band members I didn’t know. We meet each other like boys sharing a cabin at Summer camp. We dive into stories, histories, canals of current situations. We articulate our hearts. He talks a lot and I wait my turn. Sometimes I think he isn’t listening but as I get to know him I realize he’s good at hearing without listening. As we pass Peachland on the way to Penticton, I tell him the story of Eddy Haymour, the Lebanese entrepreneur, who, in the 1970s bought Rattlesnake Island in the middle of Okanagan Lake. Eddie Haymour had plans to build an Arabian mini-golf course, complete with storytellers every 20 feet and tiny great pyramids. The centrepiece would be a thirty-six foot tall camel with a parlour in the belly serving thirty-nine flavours of ice cream.
But the municipal government stopped his plans and ran him out of business. He fought but lost everything. His wife took his children. He was broke. At a press conference, he lit a birthday cake in honour of his absent children and vowed that if he wasn’t allowed to proceed he would “drink human blood and eat human flesh to mark a black day for Canada.” He was harassed by civil servants and ended up at Riverview Mental Hospital in Coquitlam, where two years before, William Lepine escaped and went on a killing spree.
After his release, Haymour returned to Beirut and took thirty-three people hostage at the Canadian Consulate. Remarkably, the government negotiated with him, providing a plane ticket home to the Okanagan and his day in civil court where he would be awarded a quarter of a million dollars in damages. How many people get the chance, after the rashest of actions, to explain themselves and be heard with sympathy? We do not, usually, negotiate with terrorists.
Back in the van, after that first show in Penticton, with forty-eight beers and a bottle of tequila on the rider, we drive to the drummer’s parents’ house thirty-five minutes away. We pass through Peachland again. Rattlesnake Island in the distance, my new friend recounts the entire story of Eddy Haymour to the van as though he’s making it up out of the empty, open, 2 am road ahead.
It makes me feel known, listened to. It reminds me what that feels like.
In the Van, the next day, I write all this down. The two guys in the back are asleep and I’m alone on the bench just ahead. The other four are on the benches and seats in front of me. They’re having a conversation but I can’t hear what they’re saying. That’s how a tour van works. If you want to be heard, you have to speak louder than you expect. If you want to listen, you have to lean right in, assert yourself, and transcend the empty bench.