When I was in grade school, I learned that if I brought home a picture book about snakes and opened it at random at the kitchen table, I would be rewarded with the sight of my mother going berserk.
“But, look! It’s not a snake, just a picture in a book,” I would protest, in Greek, as she upended her chair and fled from the room, screaming, while I chased her, the book still open and fluttering in my little hands. “You can’t be scared of a picture!”
The pleasure and satisfaction in the cruelty of it was a revelation, something new. For once, the roles were reversed and the adult was an unhinged screamer, the child a voice of reason. I didn’t even need a picture of a snake. An unconvincing stick would do just fine. Or a mess of badly scotch-taped loops of paper, with a splayed bobby pin stuck on the end, representing a forked tongue.
I’d waltz into the living room and toss that on the couch beside my mother. She’d hit the ceiling. I would dissolve in laughter.
I’ve been thinking a lot about snakes recently, after I saw one in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Over a couple of anxious days, I’d been firing off nasty emails from Santa Fe to a loan officer at our bank, back in Montreal. We felt that she had been too slow in finishing up some paperwork for a house we wanted to buy — our dream home in the woods. And so my emails were peevish and impatient. You know the tone. You’ve overheard it at airports and in hotel lobbies. People in Prada calling for the manager. Demanding upgrades. Making threats. Brandishing their Platinum EliteAsshole cards.
Our loan officer replied with an apology. A colleague had unexpectedly quit the week before and, overnight, her workload had doubled. Hence the delay. Plus, well, she now had Covid. No, she wasn’t on a ventilator, thank God. And her parents weren’t at risk, as they were now safely dead. Of Covid. But still, she had to work right through her recovery at home, if she ever hoped to clear the backlog. Thankfully, her kids were bringing her orange juice and leaving it by the door. This was over the weekend.
I wrote back with a weaselly apology: “…oh, terrible for you…no idea…but of course you understand…dream home… now slipping away…but thank God for your loving children…so if you could just…” etc.
I sent the email and went for a run along the Camino Real, which follows the Santa Fe River south. About fifteen minutes in, a shape appeared beside the asphalt path up ahead. From a distance it looked like a coiled garden hose. But as I drew closer, the hose moved. Outside of a zoo, it was easily the biggest snake I’d ever seen.
The snake sensed my approach and the head turned, tongue testing the air. For a moment we regarded one another. I took a step closer. A tail emerged from the coiled mass and began to shake crazily. No-No-No-No-No-No!
* * *
On the night Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidential election, in 1981, I was squeezed into a crowded lounge at McGill, watching the results on a wall-mounted TV through a haze of cigarette smoke. We were booing and basking in our shared Canadian superiority. We watched the professional actor glide effortlessly, beat by beat: aw-shucks humility…self-deprecating quip…sobering setup…pause to let things sink in…steely glint…Repeat.
It was morning again in America.
Today, when we think of global disasters, the mind goes to uncontrollable wildfires and floods, to bedraggled polar bears drowning from lack of ice. But for me, the 1980s were far worse. A fever dream of high-waisted pants, mullets and pushed up jacket sleeves. The Eurythmics. That was a planetary catastrophe.
And another thing about the 1980s — during that first Reagan term, it suddenly became cool to be rich. Raw greed? Bring it on! Unreservedly shit on the poor? Yes, please!
I had a part-time job at a picture-framing shop, where we sold posters of couples in tuxedos and gowns swanning in front of ugly mansions and spooning caviar into each other’s mouths. The caption was, LET THEM EAT CAKE.
* * *
The snake regarded me a moment longer, sensed that I wasn’t going anywhere. The tail stopped its shivering and withdrew into its coils. In an instant, it slid down the riverbank and disappeared.
Back at our Airbnb, I googled New Mexico Rattlesnakes. I had committed the snake to memory — reddish-orange, with diamond-shaped ochre patches — but I needed a proper name for my dinner story. None of the pictures that popped up matched. I tried googling rattlesnakes from adjacent states, from Texas, Arizona and Colorado, in case my rattler had taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Again, I drew a blank. Then I read that some snakes have developed a ruse. They’ve learned to vibrate their tails to fool predators. Lookee here, pilgrim — I’m just a big ol’ rattler!
* * *
By Reagan’s second term, I had graduated from McGill and was freelancing for small ad agencies around town. When anyone asked what I did for a living, I said that I worked for the Ministry of Information. No one ever laughed and so I soon dropped it. In fact, I wrote ads for industrial valves and cheese. By then, too, I had a mullet and a moustache and was driving a Soviet car whose seats were upholstered with straw. I worried about car fires, fretted about my next job.
Then one day I landed a plum. An art-director friend at a big agency recommended me for a national campaign. Two weeks later, the two of us filed into a board room to pitch our ideas to the agency’s creative director, a tall, elegant woman dressed entirely in black. She listened intently until we were finished, thought for a moment, shuffled through the presentation boards and finally landed on one headed with the word WINNERS.
“This one,” she said. “This captures the mood of the times.” It’s too long ago to remember the details, but our idea was to make the customer feel like a winner. To declare them a winner, even when there was nothing to win, not a contest or a prize. She tapped the presentation board with a long finger. “That’s just human nature, isn’t it? Everyone wants to be in the winner’s circle, not stuck outside with the losers. Okay, we’ll go with that.” She rose from her seat and left.
I was thunderstruck. I hadn’t thought about it in exactly that way: You can’t really feel like a winner if someone else isn’t there to, you know — help out by being a loser. This had never entered my mind. The ecological balance, the absolute necessity of losers.
But still, it was a win for a young up-and-coming copywriter. And a big one at that. National reach, mass media, money in the bank, a yellow brick road of billable hours stretching to the horizon. I felt like Tom Cruise, whooping and dancing in my underwear, punching the air.
* * *
You absorb what’s out there, don’t you? Even when you’re sleeping. Even when you think you’re thinking about nothing. It happens all the time. You watch TV with the sound low. A man with a folksy smile, a reassuring tilt of the head. Laughing. He says something you don’t quite catch. Something changes, and you never see it coming.