Modern inconveniences

Film gaffer, political activist and carpenter Jan Meyerowitz believes every purchase counts and old-fashioned values do apply to new causes.

click to enlarge illustration Kate Sinclair
illustration Kate Sinclair

If you dial up Ashton Convenience Store in Upper Nine Mile River, a recorded voice boisterously declares the number out of service.

I curse Aliant and Eastlink—I’m not sure which is responsible for these aggressively friendly recordings, the telecommunications multinational or the Halifax-based cable company.

I wish I could turn the clock back to an innocent time when a female voice simply told me, “The number is not in service. This is a recording.” But this digital age means I can no longer “turn back” a clock like the one which marked time in my house during the 1970s. Stationed above the sink, its whirring electric motor and metal hands marked analog time. I’d also like a phone I could actually dial, like the leaden black one that roosted on the telephone table in our living room—especially now that I’ve thrown out my cordless GE phone because the buttons were impossibly stuck.

A friend of mine, a Hants County man with a pickup truck, wishes that Bill and Linda Ashton’s convenience store and Wilsons gas station were still operational.

“It closed down a month after we got here,” Jan Meyerowitz says ruefully. “Mind you, it’s not the food and cigarettes we miss, it’s the gas—and just that they were there.” Ironically, one of the selling points for the property Meyerowitz and his partner bought this summer, at least for the realtor, he says, was the convenience store.

But the Highway 14 business closed in July, one of at least 19 rural Nova Scotia gas stations that were squeezed out this year. The shutdowns, a focus of this summer’s provincial report on the gasoline market, are part of a steady decline in the number of rural gas stations across Canada since 1990.

“I’ve been self-employed for most of my life, but it’s a big struggle for gas stations out here,” says Bill Ashton, 52. Ashton says a start-up loan and skyrocketing insurance premiums—his convenience store was robbed several times—set the business behind.

But several other obstacles made it impossible to get ahead: “After 9/11, a big chunk of the tourism fell—that’s affected gas stations, campgrounds, motels. There’s more regulation and fees and taxes than when I started out six years ago, too. The tax increase on cigarettes promotes more competition between retailers and there’s tax-free cigarettes at the reserve.”

Ashton knows the current cost-per-litre of gasoline to the percentage point: “There’s just a six-cent difference between what the retailer pays and what the customer pays, which I paid tax on.” To keep his gas prices reasonable, he marked up convenience products like cigarettes and canned food. Understandably, customers watching their wallets went elsewhere—mostly to the city.

It’s a trend that’s closed rural stations across the country.

“‘My God, Bill, we miss you,’ they say now. I understand that, but I can only tell them: ‘Well, you should have thought of that then.’ I miss it: the people, their laughs, their pains. Running a shop like that is a lot like being a bartender.”

Jan Meyerowitz dislikes publicity. Making me a mug of coffee in the paper teacup I bought at the Petro Canada in Enfield, he tells me he doesn’t want me to say exactly where he lives. It’s dusk, and he’s just squeezed another task out of the last serviceable light. While he replaces a vent on the attic of his two-bedroom blue house, I stand at the foot of his ladder, stamping my feet from side to side on red clay trucked in from Prince Edward Island to make this road. Using his old tractor—a recent acquisition—Jan cleared the road himself in the swath cut by Hurricane Juan two years ago. He points out the clean stream running in the ditch, which was filled with garbage when they got here. Next week, the road will be frozen almost solid and new trees will be felled by a rainstorm—and cleared by Jan.

Jan buys his food locally; his free-range eggs, for instance, come from the Egg Lady, whose house and sign I passed on the way up here. He ate organic before it became a major growth industry. He drinks thick, whole milk from Mason jars he brings with him to work. His beard is scraggly. I’ve only ever seen him wear work clothes, heavy and durable. His socks are perpetually mismatched.

He’s stationed me by the woodburner, which he’s been stoking all day, with a cup of coffee and part of the falafel sandwich which he asked me to pick up from Cafe Vienna.

I can tell you that this blue house is about 20 years old and sits on a couple of acres of land which Jan and musician Cathy Porter bought this summer. The house is one-storey, and their plan is to gut it and move it back into their grove of mostly hemlock trees.

There’s one very tall poplar is this grove of trees which circle the yard. The branches cut through the indigo sky. Stars puncture the blue, like one-carat diamonds. Black clouds hang like sooty cut-outs on the horizon. This site feels sacred.

For years, the Cape Bretoner lived on a friend’s land on the south shore, with the dream that one day he would own his own land. That quest led the couple here. And it led me to the most meaningful purchase I made this year, perhaps ever: a house renovation by someone who would use the money we paid him to help buy his own land.

Jan renovated our Maynard Street house from July to September. He worked meticulously: tore out plaster lathe ceilings during the hottest days of the summer, drywalled, re-plastered, levelled floors from the basement up, vacuumed 100 years of dirt out of those floors, covered them with new hardwood, made mouldings and finished the fence we started. He scrupulously talked out aspects of the job with us, trying to share some of his knowledge with me.

Jan is a contractor with a conscience. He buys local products whenever possible. Almost every conversation with Jan alludes to local businesses. I’m not surprised that he asked me for the sandwich, or that his directions mention the boarded-up Wilsons: he wants me to know that there used to be a station there and why it’s closed.

During our job, he shopped at Pierceys because it’s five minutes from our house. He recommends locally harvested hemlock, which is naturally rot-resistant, over pressure-treated wood. It’s an uphill battle: when I call Pierceys, the clerk tells me they only carry hemlock spindles and banisters, not 2x4s—at almost double the cost of the treated wood.

For Jan, the price of something is not what it costs in dollars and cents. He calculates the cost by asking, “Is it sustainable?”

And he works in what I would call an organic way: he never sticks to the script if it stops making sense. If the basement joists aren’t properly hung on the foundation wall ledge but his job is to level the first floor, Jan backs up to that point. Obvious? Not to the layperson. But it was dangerous—and, to Jan, a bigger problem, because it could wreck his work.

He hates authority, Jan says. He cites his father as the source of this distrust: he survived Nazism and the bombing of Berlin. By example, his father also taught him to be a jack-of-all-trades and master of some. “It’s all physics,” explains Jan. “If you do this, it will have that effect and so you deal with it.”

Jan is gradually extracting himself from an industry which he says discourages people from being political, from stepping out of line: He started working in film in the 1980s, before it was a regulated industry in Nova Scotia—first as a sound recordist, and then as a grip and gaffer, in which he continues to dabble. “I kind of wish I still was a grip; before I started keying things, I could just do what I was told,” he says. But I don’t believe him.

My impression is that, tired of making what he calls “unsustainable crap; the stuff that keeps people comfortable and wanting more crap,” the forty-three year old is shifting into being a contract carpenter. One with a large market garden.

Not true, says Jan, who, as a member of the Halifax Peace Coalition, was one of the organizers of the 7,000-attendee-strong anti-Bush rally last December. Instead, Jan, who is also a photographer with “a serious cache of photos” documenting the twenty years of Nova Scotia activism, is floating two larger endeavours out there: he wants to expand the HPC website to involve more writers, researchers, photographers, videographers and artists, and he plans to develop an innovative, updated, online directory of “civil society” groups throughout Canada.

“The peace movement’s bake sale days are over,” he says, visions of a global peace network dancing in his head. Jan rejects a philosophy which maintains that grassroots movements have to be disorganized.

“When I did sound reinforcement for the Earth Festival, I never did just that,” he says. “I worked on the whole set-up because I’m interested in the big picture.”

Driving out to Jan’s for the first time, I didn’t even notice the defunct Wilsons station. Several other local businesses, yes: an optometrist, a roofer, a pet supply store and the hand-painted sign advertising the Egg Lady.

Cheryl, whose husband works for Farmers Dairy, charges $2.25 a dozen, less than half what Jan would pay were he to buy them in the city.

And she raises meat birds, which she sells for $5 per pound—“I try to sell things for a reasonable price—I’m not one of these factory farmers who in six weeks takes a chick and makes a 10-pound bird.” And she raises lamb. “I try to do things just so as they’re a reasonable price to buy.”

This is the irony in my relationship with Jan, who sees the interconnectedness of things. The awareness that every purchase has an impact and every job has repercussions is rare in a contractor, though it shouldn’t be. Thinking that way might seem inefficient, but in the end, it saves time. It may seem like it costs more, but it actually costs less. Jan may possess old-fashioned, rural values, but he applies them equally to websites and to the milk he drinks.

At the Wilsons gas station in Elmsdale, they answer the phone: “Esso.”

Earlier this year, Wilsons stepped in when Esso pulled its pumps from rural stations in Atlantic Canada. The family-owned company—now with 250 gas stations, only 80 of which are called Wilsons—saw it as an opportunity to expand.

“We’re still growing,” explains vice president Dave Collins, who says Wilsons floated Bill Ashton’s station at least $15,000 in an attempt to keep it open. “We’re strong in metro Halifax, but really we’re competing with the Wal-Marts and Costcos of gasoline if we just focus on HRM. We can’t really compete.”

“It’s a terrible time to be a rural gas retailer,” says Collins.

Bill Ashton, who now works for Canada Post in Upper Rawdon, agrees: “I bought gas at Superstore the other day, and I noticed they were offering three cents back a litre. I tried to use $1-off coupons at Nine Mile River, but that’s $3 back on the tank—you can’t compete with that.”

As some of autumn’s first snowflakes rushed at my windshield that day, two flatbed trucks loaded with Christmas fir trees flew past me—a fraction of the two million Nova Scotia fir trees about to hit US streets the day after Americans lick the gravy off their Thanksgiving turkey dinner plates.

I feel full. It’s that wonderful full feeling I get in my head. And I know a new place to buy free-range.

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