Puzzled No More

Ode to the Lost and Losing

First off, it's technically not the 9th anymore, but I'm still getting the hang of posting every day, and I'm really only a couple of hours late on this one....

It is strange that when it comes to death, of all things, we feel a pressing urgency to speak, to eulogize, to wax teary eyed before the moment is up. Death, like obscurity, is infinite. It is not the passing that passes but rather our relation to it, each of us passing in turn from the instant towards the inescapable. Perhaps it is in the event of a loss that we are most keenly aware of our own movement, our own fragile reality tenuously ensured by the fickle presence of watching eyes. Perhaps this is the source of urgency, the frantic energy of the newly enlightened, suddenly conscious of a keen truth that begins to fade the moment it is grasped, like a cut rose in a fool's intrepid fist. We must speak while we mourn or find the words lost to us behind a wall of soft forgetting. Or so it would seem. I will attempt to break with this, offering the simple suggestion that the central message of an obituary seldom requires revision, barring of course the oft cited possibility of zombie apocalypse. I do this not out of any desire to be particularly contrary, but simply to pander to my sheer inability to comment on anything in a remotely timely fashion.

Puzzles closed its doors at some point this summer. Others have done a better job than I of cataloguing the indignant minutiae of its demise: the sudden drastic rent hike, the lost jobs, the long history of its owners and clientele. I am far from having the journalistic qualification needed to give details and name names; that's what the newspaper is for, and they did it a while ago. I would like, however, to take a moment to properly mark the passing of this fine establishment now that it stands gutted and forlorn with particle board for windows and a bare stained patch of wall for a sign.

For those of you unfamiliar with this icon of Westboro, who never had the fortune to sit at its well worn bar or under the metal streetlamp that rose from the middle of one of the tables, I hope that this indulgence in micro-regionalism isn't totally incoherent to you.

Puzzles was, in a sense, a dive. This is a rather snobbish declaration in light of the wholly sleazy and aesthetically bereft character of pretty much every bar in this fine city from the Royal Oaks, to the Metropolitan, to that abomination of a drinking trough known as the Irish Village. I would not, however, want to hazard the accusation that I am engaged in some bleeding hearted ode to the simple folk, to "real" "hard-working" people whose every waking moment echoes the righteousness of their existence. Somewhere between these extremes, between the huffing and puffing of slightly patronizing indignation and the ready scorn of my over-priviledged tastes, lies an honest regret for the loss of something meaningful.

It is hard to encapsulate this meaning just as it is hard to capture the richness of a life in a column of newsprint. I once heard someone say that if you want a dignified obituary, one that will really stand out, you entrust the task to someone who knows you well but isn't too close. The writer's task is made easier if he doesn't need to constantly suppress all of the less than flattering things that come to mind about you. I think the same is true in the case of a bar. If you want to know a bar, to truly experience it, you don't need to become a regular. Look at the bathroom, this holds true for restaurants as well, and most importantly, look at the pool table. And if they don't have a pool table? Well, don't expect to be greeted with a friendly hello anytime soon, to have your usual poured at the bar before you've finished taking off your coat. A bar without a pool table is a very sad thing indeed.

The Puzzles bathroom was Spartan, to put it eloquently. I'm not convinced that it was even heated. It was the kind of set up where you could expect to have to squeeze past a pissing stranger to reach the other urinal, where at least one cigarette butt had miraculously found its way indoors to nestle amongst the blue pucks atop the drain. Most striking of all was the absence of a mirror, something that is so common as to be vaguely unsettling when it's gone. I'm not sure if this was bar policy or the unfortunate outcome of a careless elbow somewhere along the line, but the space above the frigid sink was conspicuously barren. It would always take a moment while washing one's hands to figure out what was so strange. When you can't check to see if your hair is sticking up, you stop taking yourself so seriously. This was the kind of thing that made Puzzles an unpretentious oasis in a neighbourhood dead-set on smothering itself in an orgy of kitchen interiors, fancy knickers, and men's grooming products. I think it is to keep this in mind as we, in the big WE sense, charge down a path of endless self-absorption. Experiences of self-unconsciousness are already a rarity, and are likely to become extinct for all intents and purposes. It is not so much the phenomena of being watched or being seen by others, or even of being aware of being watched or seen, as I think the argument can certainly be made that these are far from new. Rather, it is the obsession of watching oneself, rarer in the past, which is the burgeoning malaise of whatever name you wish to give to our present age. But I'm getting a bit off topic, and I'm not even in a bar...

I want to tell you about the pool table. It was beautiful old thing, veneer flaked and peeling on its sides. The felt was worn and battered, you had to play softly, to really just nudge the cue, or else experience something akin to the astronaut who drops a wrench on a space walk. All of the cues were warped, some more favourably than others. The lights were slightly too bright, so that your squint was always exaggerated. The playing area was cramped, a bit like someone's basement, with one set of angles requiring the use of a short cue, or some exceptional trigonometry. A sign on the wall warned that gamblers would lose their playing privileges, although one seriously questioned the willingness of anyone to bet money on something that was so obviously beyond their control. This table was Fortuna herself. She would hold you close for an evening of victory, delivering pocket after unlikely pocket amidst the cursing of your opponent. Just as quickly, you would find yourself trying to make the same shot over and over, the cue ball veering randomly, leaping with little provocation across the bar as if finally making a getaway. This table could make you hate the game, could toss you to the gutter and hold you under the muck a little to give you a good taste of it. When the time came to strip down the bar, I doubt it made it out in one piece. I have the painful suspicion the the table met the end of an old horse.

I don't think it's a coincidence that it was one of the few bars I've visited that gave me no strong desire to drink heavily. This might account for their less than stellar financial performance, but it speaks volumes as to what a bar should be. I will save the tirade about the state of our drinking culture for another day, but surely it is in the very least civically astute to consider the ramifications of a bar where people do not feel the inescapable urge to drink themselves silly. I'm not sure what they will bring in to replace our old local, and I don't really care. It won't have character, not in the same way, because it will cater to a movement that is characterized at its heart by a profound discomfort with character itself, with the tension it entails. The businesses will come and go on that strip, but nobody will open another Puzzles, and its a damn shame.