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Thursday, 2 January 2014

On Being Electrocuted

It was the summer of 1973. I was working as a waiter on the rooftop restaurant in the Blue Horizon Hotel on Robson Street in Vancouver. A sign in the elevator said that anyone who came to the restaurant on their birthday or wedding anniversary would receive free Baked Alaska for desert at the restaurant and more than a few took advantage of that offer. It wasn’t the best restaurant in town but if you wanted to impress out of town guests or a gal on your first date this place just might do the trick with its spectacular views.
The restaurant specialized in “French Service” and I would debone a Dover Sole, make a Caesar Salad from scratch, cut up a Chateaubriand, and set fire to a Spanish coffee or the Baked Alaska in front of the customers.
The other waiters were almost all older than I was and were from various ethnic backgrounds. About 4 of them were Greek and they seemed to hang out together, one guy was a gay Italian and another guy was Yugoslavian, I think his name was Frank, and he liked to play the stock market. Come to think of it, I may have been the only Canadian born waiter in the place.
I remember one night serving a family of about 14 where I had to push a number of tables together. An older guy was paying the bill and he whispered in my ear that I must not forget the free Baked Alaska towards the end of the meal. Everyone seemed to have had a very good time but when the old guy paid the bill I found out that I had been stiffed on the tip. I was really pissed off. I caught up with the old guy in the washroom and stood at the urinal next to the one he was using. “You’re sure everything was satisfactory?” I asked him. “Yes thanks.” he said. I wanted to hit him over the head with a shovel. I had spent about 2-1/2 hours taking care of these folks, they occupied almost all of my tables, and he didn’t give a rat’s ass about how I made my living. It was all about the god damned free Baked Alaska.
One night I served what was left of the singing trio, The Mills Brothers. These old black guys had been in show biz since something like 1926. They introduced the song Up The Lazy River and had some hits in the 40s and 50s with tunes like Paper Doll, Glow Worm, Til Then, Cab Driver, and You Always Hurt The One You Love. A few of these tunes were also recorded by Bill Kenny and The Ink Spots. Bill Kenny spent his final years living in New Westminster, BC.  Dean Martin once said that Harry Mills were his biggest musical influence.
The Mills Brothers
The maître d’ at the restaurant was a Spanish guy named Raphael. He was a dapper kind of dude, probably in his mid-thirties, and wore rose coloured glasses. He was really smooth at schmoozing with the customers and charming the ladies. All the waiters were pretty good at what they did including me so there wasn’t that much interaction with Raphael other than when he brought the patrons to their tables. The place was busy almost every night of the week.
At the time The Blue Horizon Hotel was owned by Morris Wosk.  He and his brother Ben had been partners in a chain of furniture and appliance stores in and around Vancouver. Somewhere along the line the two brothers had a falling out and went their separate ways. The hotel was not originally a hotel but a high rise apartment building. As I understood it there was a local ordinance years ago that didn’t allow for high rise hotels but you could convert an existing apartment building to a hotel. The apartment building was built with small units with the plan of converting them to a hotel which later happened. It seemed like the two brothers were having a pissing contest when Ben later built a new high rise hotel a few blocks away on Robson Street. His hotel also had a rooftop restaurant but his revolved. One minute you would be looking at English Bay and a half hour later viewing the Lion’s Gate Bridge.
The Blue Horizon Hotel
I got the job at the Blue Horizon shortly after turning up in Vancouver after spending most of the winter working at the Banff Springs Hotel. A gal I had messed around with in Banff wrote me a letter asking if she could stay with me in Vancouver. We got an apartment a few blocks away from the Blue Horizon. It took less than 10 minutes to walk to work. The gal was nice enough but I wasn’t romantically interested in her and she headed home to Ottawa after a few months.
A friend I had met in Banff turned up in Vancouver in the fall and I put him up for a couple of weeks. By this time I was involved with a gorgeous red head. I tried to set my friend up with her roommate but that didn’t work out. The friend was a world traveller and had been to many exotic places. He brought up the idea of us skiing in the US for a couple of months in the coming winter. Sounded like a good plan to me. I started saving my money. For some odd reason I dumped the red head.
Eventually it was determined that we would head down to the US at the beginning of February. My friend was going to meet me in Banff after driving out to Alberta from Toronto in his van. For some time I had had my eye on cute Italian waitress who worked the day shift at the restaurant and I got up the courage to ask her out before leaving town. She was just about to head off to Europe. We had a great date and I would have liked to have known her better but it wasn’t in the cards I guess.
I got to Banff about a week before my friend from Toronto. I crashed at a mutual friend’s place. By the time the guy from Toronto arrived I only had about half the money left I had saved. Somehow I got sucked into some late night gambling, mostly shooting craps. I should have known better. They say never gamble with a guy who has the nick name “Doc”. They might add the nick name “Hollywood.”
At this point in my story I am going to ask you to be a bit patient. I will get back to Vancouver and the electrocution stuff shortly but you may just find the following interesting.
The mutual friend in Banff was quite a character. The guy from Toronto, the mutual friend and I hung out a lot together the winter before in Banff. Let’s just call the mutual friend KC. KC was engaged to a wealthy gal in Toronto and the wedding was to occur in the late summer after we had all worked together in Banff. KC was messing around with another gal even though he was engaged but was kind of discreet about it if that is the right word. The wedding took place and was attended by my friend from T.O.
The couple moved out to Banff following the wedding and into KC’s basement apartment. KC was working in the cabaret up at the Banff Springs Hotel but was fired when 100 bucks went missing from the till. Not long after the couple settled in Banff there was a knock on the door. It was the well-off dad and the bride’s brother. There was a bit of a conversation and then the dad pulled out a knife and stuck it in the coffee table. The dad and the brother cleaned out everything that the daughter owned and that was the end of the marriage.
During my stay with KC and before my friend from Toronto turned up I tried to get KC drunk a few times and see if he would tell me the truth about the missing 100 bucks and the dad with the knife and why they cleaned the place out but KC wasn’t forthcoming. Did he pawn the wedding ring? Did he give his bride herpes? It will remain one of those mysteries in life.
We took off for the US and ended up skiing in Sun Valley, Aspen, and Alta, Utah. When we first tried to get across the border we were refused entry. My friend went into a struggling student plea to no avail. I thought his plea was both sad and funny. He hadn’t been a student for years. We ended up having to travel a 100 miles out of our way and crossed over the line at another small border town.
The downside of the trip was that the van’s heater didn’t work. I also discovered that my travelling companion could be a bit moody at times. The upside was that he was well experienced at finding bargains. I remember him finding a motel for 6 bucks a night in Ketchum, Idaho. We were in the US for about 3 or 4 weeks. Oh yeah, I got stopped for speeding by the ski patrol at Aspen Highlands.
I can’t remember how I ever got back Vancouver or where I stayed after the trip. I do recall getting my old job back at the Blue Horizon and finding another apartment.
The crew at the restaurant were pretty much the same folks I had worked with before except for one new guy, a Czech named Andre. Andre sported a goatee which wasn’t that common back then. He had a kind of “devil may care” attitude, he was the kind of person who wasn’t fazed by much.
Andre had a very interesting background. He had been in the Czechoslovakian army and was a border guard. It was a Communist country at the time. One day he took a walk across the border and never came back. Somehow he later found himself in Hawaii. How he ever made it to Vancouver is beyond me. When we were both working as waiters Andre also had an apartment in the west end of downtown Vancouver. He was shacked up with a former Miss Hawaii. She showed me some of her trophies once.
As the summer approached I was once again thinking about packing in the waiter gig and looking for some other way of making a living. I was getting tired of just scraping by and I was 25 years old and still didn’t own a car. I thought that it might be an idea if I got out of town I might be able to save enough money to buy a car if I got a job in a mill somewhere. I wasn’t going to be able to buy a car waiting on tables.
I took a walk down the hallway in the apartment building I lived in and opened the chute to the incinerator. Remember those things? I tossed my white shirts and black pants into the chute. I went over to the Blue Horizon and quit my job. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for work but my days as a waiter were over.
I didn’t have much money saved. I did have one last pay cheque coming to me and a few days after quitting I went over to the hotel to pick up the cheque from Raphael. I had no idea that fate would be taking over very shortly.
Raphael always seemed to have something going on the side. I once helped him out on a small construction job on house owned by his in-laws. When I arrived to pick up my cheque he asked me if I would be interested in picking up some cash by doing some painting. Somehow he had secured a contract to paint 2 office buildings on West Broadway in Vancouver. How hard could it be running a roller up and down some walls I thought? I could also use the money. Raphael told me that Andre from the restaurant would also be doing some painting. I was in. Andre was always good for a few laughs and this project just might be fun.
We were going to start off by painting the interiors of the vacant offices on the second and third floors of the office buildings. The bare rooms looked cavernous and it looked like this painting job was going to take some time. I soon found out that I was mostly on my own and that Andre was only making occasional appearances. I seemed to be getting nowhere fast. Time seemed to speed by. What really slowed me down were the areas that required detail like painting around the window panes.
In retrospect I think Raphael had a plan that he didn’t tell Andre and I about. I think he wanted to get as much paint coverage done by amateurs at lower hourly rates before bringing in professionals to finish up the job. One day Raphael dropped by to check on our progress and gave me a painter’s hat that looked like something a black American pimp might wear. I became attached to that hat.
It would be safe to say that there was nothing close to professional in the way this painting contract was being implemented. It was all about getting as much of the place covered with new paint as possible. One day Raphael informed us that we would be starting painting of the exterior of the buildings. There was no way I was going to take part in anything to do with a hanging scaffold. “Not to worry.” we were told. We were only going to have to paint the top 10 or 12 feet of the building and this was not going to involve scaffolds.
I remember the next day as if it was yesterday. In the morning Andre and I went up on the roof to survey the situation. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and we could see Vancouver City Hall a few blocks away.  Between the 2 of us we were going to have to come up with some kind of plan as to how to tackle the painting. We had some paint poles with 12 foot extensions and soon figured out that it would be dangerous stooping by the edge of the roof and trying to paint.
It was decided that one of us (me) would lie flat on the roof surface and dangle the paint pole and run it up and down the exterior wall. The other guy (Andre) would hang on to my legs for extra security. He would also take the paint pole from me and dunk it in the 5 gallon drum of paint when needed. After a while Andre was only holding onto my legs every now and then. He would wander off and have a smoke while I was painting. I was kind of getting the short end of this deal but we seemed to be making some progress.
We had lunch and resumed painting. It was now about 1 p.m. The last thing I remember saying to Andre was….”You know what the toughest things in the world are?.....those little birds that sit on the electrical wires.”
And then it happened, a number of things all at once. I heard a deep humming sound. I couldn’t see anything but a bright orange colour. I could smell something burning. I could feel the electricity running up my arm. Somehow I managed to stand up. My arms were limp. I started to scream in panic. I didn’t know whether I was going to die or be left without use of my arms for the rest of my life. I had never been this scared in my life.
Someone, maybe Andre, called an ambulance. I was whisked away to a nearby hospital within minutes. I’m not sure if it was in the ambulance or at the hospital, maybe both, that I was told about how close I had come to death. Apparently if high voltage passes by the heart area you are a goner. It seems that I touched a BC Hydro wire with the paint pole and the electricity ran up my arm and jumped to the tin border on the roof. At the same time the weight of the paint pole made it drop to the ground below cutting off the circuit. I was one lucky son of a bitch!
Andre never came to the hospital to see how I was doing. I wasn’t sure if it was because he just didn’t care or if he was concerned that if he identified himself he might get deported for not having any documentation. It would be a few years before I would see Andre again.
By the time I left the hospital it was about 4 in the afternoon. I was still in shock and didn’t have complete feeling in my arms. The burning smell I had experienced was my eye lashes and eye brows that were singed. There was a small hole underneath my left armpit where the electricity had jumped from my body to the tin border on the roof.
I got it into my mind to go over to the Blue Horizon and confront Raphael. At the least there should have been better supervision and safety measures in place on the jobsite. I was still wearing my painting clothes.
Raphael wasn’t at the restaurant when I arrived but a German hostess I knew was. She immediately asked me what I was doing at the restaurant dressed the way I was. I told her that I had been electrocuted. I also asked her if she wanted to screw me. (She wasn’t that attractive). She was kind of taken aback by my question. I remember telling her that I had come very close to death and being alive at all was just gravy.
I sat at the bar in the lounge until Raphael arrived. He kind of freaked out a bit. I think his biggest concern was what liability he had. I should probably have found a lawyer and sued his ass off but I didn’t. I wasn’t that wise to what legal action I could have taken. Raphael knew that I had planned on leaving town and I think he thought the sooner that happened the less likely there was going to be any legal actions occurring.
A few weeks later I found a job working in a mill at a remote place called Tahsis on Vancouver Island. I was hired through their head office in Vancouver. Before leaving town I needed some place to store my furniture, what little there was of it. My old pal Raphael told me he would keep my stuff in his basement. Moving day came around and I sat with my furniture outside of the apartment building waiting for Raphael to turn up with a truck. He never did and I ended up waking away from my stuff. Talk about leaving town with your tail between your legs?
Fate is a weird thing. I hitchhiked up to Gold River on Vancouver Island where I had to get on a boat that would take me to Tahsis. One of the crew asked me where I was going and when I told him he informed me that the mill in Tahsis was on strike. You might say I was having a streak of bad luck. I had some friends from Banff, a married couple who were working in Port Alberni that wasn’t that far away from where I was. I had attended their wedding in Calgary about a year before. I ended up moving in with them and found a job at the local pulp mill that was owned by MacMillan-Bloedel at the time. I stayed in Port Alberni for 9 months and saved enough money to buy my first car.
Later on I moved to Victoria and had my first experience in working in outside sales, a story for another time. My next stop was Kamloops where I worked in another pulp mill. I then tried living in Calgary but couldn’t find an apartment. By this time I was also through with working at manual jobs. I ended up back in Vancouver. I remember when I was working in the mill in Kamloops that I was asked to hose down a room that was covered in sulphur dust. I spotted some insulated wires and refused to do the task. There was no way I was going to mess around with anything that involved electricity ever again in my life. I had learned my lesson.
About 3 years after getting electrocuted I got hired by as a salesman by a Vancouver office equipment company called Benndorf-Verster Ltd. It was to be the longest job I ever held. Each year the company would have a Christmas party. One year it was at a seafood restaurant called Ondine’s on the old mud flats in False Creek where the Vancouver Expo 86 site would later be.
We were sitting at our tables when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and it was none other than Andre, the goateed waiter I had waited tables with and painted with a few years earlier. He still had that silly grin and the goatee. He was our waiter for the night and during the course of the evening he produced a few free cocktails. Andre also knew one of my co-workers, a fellow Czech named George who was a technician with the company. It was the last time I saw Andre.
A few months later George pulled me aside at work. He told me that on the previous weekend Andre had been drunk and was involved in a head on collision in North Vancouver. I think it was on the steep Lonsdale Boulevard. Andre died in the accident along with an innocent couple.
Andre was a likable guy. He was fun to be around even if he didn’t seem to give a shit about much. I really didn’t have much empathy for him losing his life however. I might have been more sympathetic if he had just killed himself but I had a hard time knowing that two others had lost their lives because of his recklessness.
Life does move along in mysterious ways sometimes. Andre died about 37 years ago. I almost died but my life got better and better over those same 37 years. “Fate” is a strange word.







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