GUEST POET BY KEVIN MOSBY
by Kevin Mosby
Standing on the back deck of my temporary home, the Flagg House, overlooking the crescent-arced Flagg Cove, my visitor Carl Waters looks to the sunset sea ebbing to the shore of Stanley Beach.
— This used to be mine, all of it, he tells me.
Meaning: 30+ years back nobody — nobody, he emphasized twice — dared do business on his turf. The drugs here were his and his alone to peddle.
Carl Waters isn’t his name. But around the time my face must have first shown enough horrified interest in his tales for not-Carl to presume I’d like to write about him, he said in near whisper:
— You quote me, I’m Carl Waters.
When he said this — and when he had most anything weighty to say — Carl raised to his chin his big paw fingers that, naked, clearly yearned for the leather Harley-branded motorcycle gloves they’d grown accustomed to these many years. And with the fingers he stroked his substantial snow white beard. But nobody had ever called this guy Santa Claus.
— Ok, you’ll be Carl Waters.
You don’t have to tell me twice.
For two weeks I’d been chatting with / (interviewing) / shooting the shit with local Grand Mananers and those “from away,” the preferred demonym of any and all Grand Manan occupants (residents, visitors, or otherwise) not born and bred on the island.
You can spot most from away-ers from a mile away.
For instance: at The Old Well House Cafe where I did much of my “research” (by appearing to work at a laptop on which I did little more than, at various times, re-type the alphabet, go through my email, and read about how to gut haddock), I spied one afternoon, a quiet almost somber young woman writing dolefully in a notebook, her older but equally brittle diet-hipster boyfriend in the chair by her side, reading Proust while he awkwardly and too suggestively for this quaint cafe stroked the nape at the base of her ever-lolling head.
— But is it any good? she asked him, stealing back her tattered journal. Is it even a poem?
— It’s whatever you want it to be, sweetness.
No, these two aren’t from here.
A fact made more apparent by the presence out the window of a red-faced knee-boot-wearing fisherman (you can just tell) walking his mutt and smoking a cigarette, his lovely lazy jaunt — lobster season had just ended — framed by the cooing lovebirds on holiday on that queer island of “humble people” in the Bay of Fundy they like to tell their Torontonian pals about upon their return.
So. After two weeks, all this people-watching and shit-shooting produced in my from-away brain an arresting but still foggy portrait of life on this quaint island of 2500 residents.
And despite the quaintness, despite the magnanimity of the locals and their great big hearts and willingness always to chat and gossip and feed you, this island seemed to me immediately to be the bearer of a burden it had tried long to shake.
Gradually, I discovered that nearly everyone on the island had been directly or indirectly affected by a longstanding drug problem, centered largely but not exclusively among the young lobster fishermen of the island who, in the midst of a now decade-long lobster boom, simply don’t know what to do with all the money.
Liam, a 20-year-old lobster fisherman with the scarred, twisted, weather-beaten hands to prove it, admitted to me that a year ago he made $215,000 (over $160,000 in American dollars) in a single long lobster season.
— What’d you do with it? I asked.
— Bought a truck, blew most of the rest of it. At least $100,000.
Before I was able to ask him “on what?” Liam interjected proudly that he’d finished rehab a few months back. One night past 1 a.m. he and a friend were driving in the new truck, strung out on cocaine and booze, when they turned to each other and, nearly simultaneously, asked the other:
— The fuck are we doing?
The candor and bluntness with which Liam told me his story suggested that the trajectory of his young Grand Manan life was far from an anomaly.
Mid-conversation he picked up a guitar and strummed the most beautiful version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” I’d ever heard. I listened. He appeared done talking. So we ate cupcakes.
I wanted to know so much more but I, a Californian (more from-away than most from-awayers), felt too much the stranger to pry.
But from Liam and another two teenagers and the proprietor of the kayak shop and the kids at the pizzeria and anyone and everyone else I asked about it, I did surmise that the broke-down RV down the road was, today — many years after Carl’s reign — the primary if not solitary purveyor of all things coke. They even sold to the neighbor kids. Those with the money. Those, like Liam, with too much money for their own good. For decades now, during lobster boom especially, people, off-islanders mostly, have come to Grand Manan to profit from what’s clearly — behind the lobster trade — the second-most profitable industry on the island. Drugs, mostly coke (now, say those who’d know, laced generously with meth), keep the lobster boats afloat, the fishermen awake those 15-hour days without weekends.
And the drugs keep the teenagers occupied. Although nearly every teen gets a job here in the summer (grocery store, coffee house, motel), in the winter, it seems, there are exactly two things for young people to do here: cocaine and each other.
Reporting on Grand Manan’s long struggles with crack cocaine, Christopher Shulgan of The Globe and Mail said in 2007,
— Living in a place that is impossible to escape when the weather is inclement, as it often is, they have no easy access to things city kids take for granted, such as record shops, movie theatres or clothing boutiques. Their isolation leaves them craving urban culture – even its dark side, epitomized by crack.
Fittingly, the island’s M.G. Fisheries now has a successful line of clothing and kitsch called “Trapped.” M.G.’s clearly excellent branding tactics over the past few years have resulted in “Trapped”-brand bumper stickers and mugs becoming ubiquitous; their not-inexpensive clothing — T-shirts, sweatshirts, and sweatpants mostly–has become the island’s haute couture.
I spoke with several young people who, perhaps inadvertently, used the word “trapped” when describing their experience growing up here. But even those teens and young adults seemingly most disillusioned with the island, when telling me about Grand Manan’s troubles, made sure to talk about the positive too. Said one newly former teen I spoke with:
— I loved growing up here. I love this place. But there should be a rule: raise your kids here until they’re 10, then get them the hell off the island.
Later she provided reasons for her strong opinion, including:
— I saw a picture on Facebook or something of these guys I went to high school with cutting up some cocaine into the shape of a lobster on a lobster boat. They thought it was cute.
Get them off the island, she said again, or else.
Several islanders I spoke with mentioned the 2018 case of Daniel Greene, a native Grand Mananer, as a recent example of the possible consequences of the pattern of drug- and alcohol-fueled recklessness everyone seems to be taking for granted.
From the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Jan 8 2018:
After a court appearance lasting only minutes, Daniel Greene, 21, charged after a Grand Manan ATVer died in an alleged drunk-driving incident New Year’s Day, was released from custody Friday.
He now faces three charges related to the death of 29-year-old Derek Patey of Grand Manan, who was killed when his all-terrain vehicle and a pickup truck collided at about 3:30 a.m. Monday.
In a community this size, death is never anonymous. Maybe your best friend’s sister dated the victim, and so did your neighbor’s aunt. Or your dentist’s daughter taught him, and her husband prepped the body at the funeral home.
Despite its beauty (go and watch the sunset at Dark Harbour; I dare you not to weep), Grand Manan has deep scars and new wounds. It doesn’t know how to help the victims of its lobster bounty, how to right its wrongs. The islanders are both exasperated by and entirely accustomed to the fact of the local police’s ineffectiveness. They know it won’t be the cops who enact the changes needed to shift the culture.
Maybe soon the island’s prosperity will cease, the lobster boom will end. And maybe that’ll be the best thing for it.
I’d largely figured out all this prior to talking to the fabled “Carl Waters,” but I’d heard so much about him that I had to meet him, so, though I was leaving the island the next morning, I rushed home to talk to Carl. Little of what he told me surprised me much. I already knew:
- that the island had tried and failed and tried again to get a proper rehab facility, too often “holied-up” by churches looking for new members (Carl: “Organized religion is just people sitting around on Sunday pretending everything’s ok.”);
- where and how the drugs are sold and to who and how much (yep, the RV; plus Canadian biker gangs and their tough wannabe members);
- how precisely the coke comes in (American lobster boats drop a lobster cage full of the drugs in the international “grey zone,” the Grand Manan boats pick it up).
But in no one else I’d talked to had I seen such pain. Not pain of loss, like most of the others, but pain of guilt. Carl knows that coked-out teens have died by his doing, knows that a junkie or two beat his wife and family solely because he sold to him. Carl, having returned to the island recently after years rambling across the US and Canada, sees here every day the wreckage he helped found.
Now in his seventies, Carl devotes most of his energy to drug rehabilitation causes, mostly to keep the weighty guilt at bay. Much of the time he’s hopeful for change, but sometimes he has thoughts that disturb him because he knows they’re too real a possibility. Like:
— One of these nights someone’s gonna bring carfentanil over and in the morning 8 or 9 kids are gonna show up dead.
Things don’t change until it’s too late, Carl knows. Yeah.
But it’s abundantly clear to me that there really is hope. There are enough Carls and Liams on the island to make at least a dent in the drug issue. Grand Mananers are an industrious, tenacious, salt-of-the-earth people. So I have hope the island will kick its habit sooner or later, once and for all, though it might take a generous handful of pitiful fishing seasons to do it.
But Carl knows too, and I do, that until then there will be more deaths on the island to inebriated driving, more overdoses, more families torn apart by the drugs.
The saddest thing I heard on the island, from a woman lunching at The Old Well House Cafe:
— That used-to-be-friendly kid I hired to cut the grass just keeps not showing up. Wonder what he’s been up to.
Agnese Nelms Haury Program, blog, creative writing, Grand Manan, UA MFA