Maks wore a women’s winter coat.
This wasn’t immediately obvious if you weren’t paying close attention. It was a brown wool coat, old and weatherworn from years of use. It was my guess that Maks had come across it at a thrift shop, rummage bin, or maybe a yard sale. The coat’s breast buttoned right-over-left and the sleeves were about two inches too short for his long arms. But this was his coat, and he wore it solely during both winters we were in studio and seminar at McGill’s School of Urban Planning.
Maks and I were part of the 2011 cohort, which for a few of us is still dragging on after it was supposed to end. Actually, had he lived, he and I would be graduating together in 2012. My delay, of course, is doubly attributed to almost being killed myself two years ago and dealing with an unorganized programme. For Maks, it was a medical leave for the winter 2011 semester. He and I, separately so, were returning to our SRPs (our version of the masters thesis) this fall.
Maks was a one-off from a mould which was immediately destroyed.
This metaphor of moulds being broken for some people was something which I used to find terribly offensive, as the same has been said of me over the years. But I also came to affirm something: some of the most interesting, complex, nuanced people I have ever come to know resemble that idea precisely because there’s no one else in the world like them (I can’t say that I’m terribly lively, but I’ll take it for what it is when someone says this to me next time).
When our planning (and design) cohort met for the first time on 31 August 2009, I set out — as I’m sure everyone else was doing — to see which people with whom I might share a simpatico. It was clear that I was a statistical outlier in our group: on paper, not only should I have not been in that room, but given my life experiences, I also shouldn’t have been alive this long.
There were actually two outliers in our cohort. I didn’t yet understand why, but Maks was clearly not cut from the same cloth as our other cohorts. From the very start, both of us wore the same expression of scepticism for a programme which didn’t seem to be completely on its feet. We came to like one another fairly quickly. We both hailed from broken homes and from pretty difficult obstacles that were inexplicably overcome to get to where we were now stuck together for the next two years.
Our fledgling friendship was tested forcefully from nearly the very start. Because of a broken trust issue on his behalf, to which he later sincerely apologized (where others in our group did not), our friendship cooled after June 2010. I still liked Maks, but the incident made it hard for me to trust him.
He and I landed in a studio team together with two other classmates (actually, we landed in two studios together, which meant I worked with him more in studio space than did any of our other classmates). The chemistry of this first group was, shall we say, an explosive, stinky mess concocted by a middle school chemistry lab.
Stress, poor communication, a self-appointed leader, and a mess of other faux pas produced the cohort’s first interpersonal shakedown: one group member temporarily bowed out of the programme due to a nervous breakdown while the other, our self-appointed leader, was losing footing as she became more self-certain about what was best for the team. Once it was clear this management approach was destroying us, she abruptly walked away just as we were about to present our preliminary findings to our cohort and our client, Montréal’s Sud-Ouest Borough. Our team was broken.
This ultimately wedged Maks and I into a tough crevice: the work of four people had been compressed for two people to complete. On the night before our mid-term presentation, Maks prepared notes to be used during presentation (a task which he had not planned to deliver) and pasted together display board while I feverishly (and somewhat futilely) threw together the slideshow and delivered our revised report. Wits were at their end, and many of us in our respective groups were camped overnight, working wherever we could find room. I’d found the hallway floor. Maks had found a spot in the computer lab.
At around 2a, Maks barged out of the lab, busting a rhyme: “I GOT 99 THINGS ON MY MIND, BUT THE BITCH AIN’T ONE!” He was referring to our failed “manager”, who was nowhere to be found after she was called out on her aggressiveness. When Maks belted this without warning, a few of us burst into laughter. He then went on to another hip-hop song and then shooting the breeze with people before returning to the lab. This was his tension breaker.
Earlier in the evening, a few people who were in the lab had watched Maks’s brain “short-circuit” in a possible petite mal seizure — a neurological consequence of when he was struck in the cranium in 2001 at the Summit of the Americas protest in Québec City. A blow to his head by a riot cop shattered his skull, sending bone fragments into his brain. He was struck while trying to break up a fight. Maks was in hospital for months. I recall him telling me it was well over a year, possibly two, of gruelling physical therapy which followed.
His doctors gave a foreboding prognosis: he would probably never fully recover and would probably not be able to speak properly again. Maks accepted this as a challenge. He often said that after the blow to his head, he had to re-learn to tie his shoes and speak. He went on to create a public engagement of civic space called the Swap Box project.
The Swap Box was part of his inspiration from reading Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities when he was still in his teens. He deeply respected Jacobs, and this reflected in his playful ideas for guerrilla street art: in one, he built an emergency box with the message: “IN CASE OF KITTEN INVASION / BREAK GLASS”; inside the transparent “glass” of plastic were furry cat toys, the kind with tinkly bells on them.
But the Swap Box project was his recurring passion. “Take somethin’, leave somethin’,” each box read. Each box was unique, built from scrap wood which Maks would apply his mad carpentry skills. A couple of YouTube clips by Ottawans showed how the Swap Box worked and in the kinds of places one might find them.
At his memorial, some of his longtime Ottawan friends said that these installations, while mounted firmly to a telephone pole or similar using a cordless drill, would disappear within 48–72 hours, if not after a weekend or so. No one knows what became of them or who was lifting them, but while they were in place, it allowed people who would never meet to carry a kind of conversation through the items they left or picked up — so long as it was neither food nor money.
In 2009, Maks was admitted to McGill after finishing his undergrad work in Ottawa. He was very humble and reserved about his Swap Box projects, and it was probably not until after the first term had ended before he showed me the gallery page on Facebook. It didn’t register with me what it meant, and at the time, it was a fairly abstract idea. Then again, at the time I was just barely coping with my situation of being weakened from the injury and planning my way out of the programme (which ultimately didn’t work). Maks too was on the precipice of quitting the programme, too. It was never clear to me why he stayed, but for me, it was the requirement of my enrolment.
After that long night in October 2009, just before he and I were to deliver this team presentation, our entire cohort assembled the next afternoon, all sleep-deprived and wearing professional attire. Our cohort also half-expected us to deliver a patchwork disaster given what they knew of our group’s breakdown. No one came right out and said as much, but their murmuring of low expectations was impossible to ignore. The slide presentation I pieced together was, well, what it was. We were to present last.
In the kitchen, where I was sitting on a sofa, Maks walked in from the lab. I looked at him. “So, are you feeling ready for this?”
He flapped his deck of index cards against his other hand: “It’s as ready as I’ll get. I’m just going to speak, and whatever comes out, comes out.” Then this sly grin wiped across his face. “I’ve got some help,” he said, pulling out a flask from his back pocket.
My eyes bugged.
He took a nip from the flask, closed it, and then, as if holding it up like an Olympic gold medal, said with deadpanned verve, “Bourbon planning.”
I was half-incredulous and half-laughing. He showed a couple of our cohorts this secret companion of his. He’d go on, “Jane Jacobs versus Jack D!”
So he levelled with me. “We’re just gonna do this and get it the eff behind us,” he said. He gave me a high-five and wanly smiled. He was exhausted.
At the end of the afternoon, our team was up. Maks moved to the front of the room while I sat next to the projector laptop. Adding to this pressure was a video camera Professor Fischler had mounted to a tripod to record our presentations for peer review the following week.
When Maks started, I had no idea how it would unfold. What we saw was something beyond comprehension.
Maks, having crammed an incredible amount of information in a matter of hours, went freeform — and spoke in a total stream of consciousness, pointing my way when he needed the slides to advance. He only glanced down at the cards maybe twice, perhaps thrice.
He was on fire. It was beat poetry in motion, set to an economics and stakeholder assessment for a run-down district adjacent to Montréal’s centre-ville called Griffintown. The material was painfully dry. And yet, Maks kept everyone’s eyes glued on him. His spoken word pacing permitted him to plough through so much material in the five to ten minutes allotted that it became impossible for to keep up. And yet it kept coming. I knew the material well enough that he was covering every base and not bullshitting his way through. This performance was like nothing any of us had ever seen.
He spoke fast, almost in a staccato. The staccato was more his hanging the final syllable of a sentence as he pulled into the next sentence for discussion. Maks had a tendency to do this anyway, often looking up to the ceiling to start his thought. In the presentation, it was his ordinary speaking style as a feverish pace. About a minute into the presentation, his brow broke into a sweat.
Then he came to the end. There was a brief moment of dead silence as he walked back from the front of the studio. At once, everyone erupted in standing applause. The previous presentations by other groups eked out, at most, the requisite golf clap. This, however, was something different. Everyone in the room, including the Sud-Ouest council guests, realized that something critical had been dealt with far more gracefully than anyone expected. I was blown away.
Bourbon planning was born.
On that day, the rest of us, complete strangers just six weeks earlier, had seen Maks in his finest form — the Maks his longtime friends in Ottawa long had known.
This event came to be mentioned multiple times in the week after his passing, characteristically peaceful in his own way: when he was found two weeks ago, his head was resting on his backpack, and he was protected underneath a canopy of trees in a sylvan area located fairly close to the airport. These woods are sandwiched uncomfortably between two low-density sprawl developments with absolutely poor arterial connections — the very thing Jacobs derided and berated in poor city planning and hostile residential morphologies. There were no signs of injury on Maks’s body, and he appeared to be sleeping peacefully. It was almost as if the site he came to rest was in itself a political statement on the threat which similar development would eventually devour this sandwiched area.
What happened to Maks after his medical leave of absence last winter?
Evidently, he had learnt that chronic conditions relating to his 2001 brain injury — risk of seizures being possibly one of these — was going to prevent him from pursuing his planning specialization: disaster recovery planning for marginal urban areas in developing nations. In particular, Maks’s goal was to work in Port-au-Prince. He also volunteered in New Orleans in 2007 and had fallen in love with that city. In the last two years before his death, he had enhanced his bilingual command by learning the French Creole used in Haiti.
When Maks learnt this summer that his opportunity to work in these areas was all but never going to happen, I think his spirit had finally crushed for the last time. He had given the finger to physical therapists who had held out pathetic hope for him. He feverishly used his hands to create wood swap boxes and used coloured pencils to draw scenes and ideas. He had entered a university programme respected in name only. And all of this was because of a technicality, likely bureaucratic, which directly related back to when he was trying to break up a fight a decade earlier. This act of peacekeeping quashed his deliberate, carefully planned goals.
Over and over at Maks’s memorial, his Ottawan friends who had known him far longer than we had stressed how he detested conflict and wanted people to find common ground. That’s what the Swap Box was to him: a way to restore a civic bonhomie to cities long stripped of this social engagement.
Even I saw Maks’s efforts to limit conflict in the studio teams to which we were assigned.
* * *
There is one more memory I have of Maks which was just between him and me.
Had I known his friends back in Ottawa, I’d have already known his m.o. was to make sure everyone he knew was fed. He volunteered constantly in soup kitchens, cooking huge pots of dal or stews. Of course, I didn’t really know this yet. Knowing this now makes me weepy because I know involuntary hunger. I know the feeling of being unable to afford eating for stretches lasting up to nine days. Poverty-based hunger is one of the most humiliating, painful experiences one can know. Maks understood this and wanted to make sure he could curb at least a tiny fraction of it.
After I was released from hospital around Halloween 2009, Taleen (one of our classmates) arranged a once-weekly sign-up sheet to volunteer delivering meals to me on Mondays through the remainder of the term so to limit the amount of movement, standing, and cooking that would quickly tap away my limited energy. Maks signed onto the volunteer delivery list first. When I mentioned this at his memorial last week, his old friends nodded, completely unsurprised by this detail.
On a sunny mid-afternoon in early November, Maks came over from the soup kitchen where he had just finished cooking lunch. In a glass jar, wrapped in a sage-and-white cloth rag, he brought a fantastic mung dal he had thrown together with what was lying around the soup kitchen. I was already grateful that he had come over to feed me and to stick around during his visit, but that here I was, holding a still-warm jar? I was impressed, and it deeply humbled me. He insisted that I eat, so I poured the dal into a bowl and joined him.
Then, just as I sat back down, Maks reached into his backpack. Out came a six-pack of Guinness. “Doctor’s orders,” he said.
I started to protest, “Awwwh no, dude, you don’t have to,” but he spoke quicker.
“It’s — let’s see here,” looking at his watch, “it’s almost 1:30. 1:30′s a good time to get started.” That sly grin from the day he invented “bourbon planning” had returned to his face. Whether or not I was supposed to avoid alcohol during recovery no longer mattered. What mattered was that he was taking care of me because he wanted to. He stuck around with me until Emily, another of our classmates, came by to say hi. She was also amused by the Guinness.
* * *
Two weeks ago, on Saturday, October 1st, just a few hours before my friend Taleen phoned me as I stood in a bank line at Dufferin Mall, I was making my morning coffee. As I reached up to the shelf for the jar of sugar, I subconsciously remembered that Maks had brought the mung dal in that metal-lidded jar. Ever briefly, I wondered what he was up to these days. I returned the jar and sipped my sweetened coffee. Taleen’s news that afternoon pushed aside this passing thought. As I sat on a bench facing Dufferin Grove Park, golden-leaved trees framed by a sky of brilliant cerulean, I said to her that I’d been thinking about him earlier that day but couldn’t remember for what reason.
When she phoned, I saw an unfamiliar 905 number. “Slap ‘em, jack ‘em, we stack ‘em,” I answered. I answer the phone like this whenever I don’t recognize the caller. I picked up this habit years earlier when I phoned a pizza delivery place just after they’d closed. The guy who answered greeted me like this. Confused, I asked him if I had dialled the right number. “Yeah, we’re closed.”
Taleen, sounding surprised, asked, “Astrid?”
“Yeah? Who is this?”
“Ohhh! I didn’t recognize this number and it didn’t register as the one in my address book.”
“It’s because I’m using my parents’ home phone.”
“Ah. Got it. How are you?”
“Not so good. Actually, I have some bad news about someone at school.”
“Bad news, as in scandalous-someone-got-sacked-bad?”
“No, bad news as in somebody-died-bad.”
“Oh no.” Each and every face and name from my school poured into my head all at once. I really didn’t want to know who. Even to those two or three people in the cohort I couldn’t stand in the slightest, I didn’t want to hear their name uttered. I didn’t want to hear any name uttered. Gingerly, I asked, “Who is it?”
“Well, I received a message on my Facebook this morning that Maks . . . ”
I cut her off. It hurt to hear his name. It hurt me into instant shock. “No. Oh fuck, no.” A couple of people in line looked at me strangely. “Maks is gone?”
“I’m having a hard time believing it, Astrid. I just found out a short while ago. I know you don’t have Facebook, so you wouldn’t have heard about it.”
“OK,” I said. I looked down to my feet, then up at the mall’s exit doors. “What happened?”
“It looks like a suicide.”
Days later, we learnt that his last activity on Facebook — and possibly online — was from the morning of the day he died. Taleen had posted on her wall that she had submitted her masters thesis the day before. Maks had ‘liked’ her post.
* * *
At the memorial in Ottawa last Thursday, one of his closest friends, a petite woman in a kelly green wool coat named Jadis, was in shambles. If we were all hurting, her pain was visibly a tenfold ours. She read from a long eulogy which at times was collected and upbeat, and at other times was interrupted by sobbing. After other eulogies were shared, including my own on behalf of the McGill cohort, Jadis interrupted the minister — a wooden personality that Maks’s semi-estranged parents had found for officiating the memorial. The reverend’s generic tone was completely incongruous with the rest of the memorial. When Jadis returned to the lectern, she was half-crying and apologizing for disrupting what was supposed to be the conclusion.
She proceeded. “Maks left a statement he wanted to say to us today.” At this point, I think many of us returned to shock. I don’t think we had expected to hear this.
Through his friend, now his posthumous proxy, Maks spoke to us, his planning cohort.
Before doing this, though, his note started with him remembering back to a time when he was five years old. On the evening news, he saw the news report of a murder in which police had found a woman’s body. “I asked my dad, ‘Will they find who killed her?’ My dad said they would. But the next day, they hadn’t found her killer. I asked again, ‘Are they going to find who did this to her?’ — but no answer. I kept asking every day. Within a few days, her story had faded from the headlines. They never found her killer. And this really upset me. Why would anyone do this to someone else? Why would someone hurt another person like that? It was the first time I learned of injustice, and how it was wrong. It didn’t matter that the woman was on the streets, or that she was working in prostitution. She had a life, a personality, and a heart, just like everyone. And someone took that away. I don’t like seeing people in pain or getting hurt. This is why it was important for me to get involved in New Orleans, where entire parts of the city had been forgotten, why it was important that I go to Haiti to help there.”
I came unglued. Taleen, sitting to my left, held me. Paul, sitting to my right, held me.
Through Jadis, Maks’s words then spoke to us, his planning cohort. Lacking the exact words — I was inconsolable by this point — I recall him saying that the planning profession is facing the greatest challenge of its existence, and unfortunately for us, we are being forced to carry this burden and are charged with repairing so much of the damage caused before us by earlier planning approaches. It sounded like a critique not only to planning, but also to planning pedagogy — long a sticking point for him and for many of us. He reminded us that people need to interact with one another, that there needs to be a prankster to engage people to look at one another, to remember that we’re still people, and that we should work to make interactions like the ones at the Swap Boxes a more common feature within the city.
* * *
In his will, he had asked that three songs be played at his memorial. We weren’t aware of this until the end. All I could think of was how much a planner Maks was. He had prepared exactly what was to be done after his passing. His casket was draped, quite unusually, in the Canadian flag. This brought a smile to my face. Just like Jack Layton, I thought. One of Maks’s last street art pieces was made for Layton.
At the beginning of the memorial, a downbeat jazz piece with upright bass and plaintive saxophone ushered us to sit. This was the kind of jazz I occasionally heard him talk about, very much in that late 1950s roots style. I’m guessing it was probably a John Coltrane piece.
Midway through, Maks requested that Blind Willie Johnson’s doleful “Dark Was the Night, Cold was the Ground” be played. Ahhhh, Mississippi Delta blues, I thought bittersweetly. This was his paean to the city he loved, the crescent city of New Orleans. Harry Connick’s version of Louis Armstrong’s “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” also came to mind as Blind Willie played.
His third and final request, reserved for the very end, was what really tore me apart, precisely because it was one of the most formative, impressionable songs of my own, so-called life — just as the song was emblematic of what brought Maks and the rest of us together in the very first place. This song undid me much in the way that the last song at Jack Layton’s memorial had also undone me, making my knees give out in the middle of a crowd of fellow Torontonians who stood together on King West, baking on a street cooked by a late summer sun. Like Lorraine Segato’s solo rendition of “Rise Up” (one of my all-time favourite songs), I took this request personally and deeply to heart. And yet, I never knew it had ever meant anything to Maks. It would have made for a great conversation between us.
It was a song venerating the urban playground and the lifeblood of the street scape to which he gifted the city with his public art and civic pranks. It was a song written by a musician who passed away earlier this year, a person whose birthday was the day after mine (trust me, I’ve known about these trivial things for years). This song reached back to when I was five years old, when it was still new and fresh, and when I was consciously beginning to pay close attention to pop music — these listening experiences inscribed with the temporal stamp of when (and where) I first heard those songs.
This song was perhaps the most poignantly memorable sound I’d heard by that point in 1978, sitting on the blue vinyl back seat of a powder blue station wagon, always looking out the left window. Our family made a two-hour road trip regularly during those years to visit my grandmother. On those rural, pastoral rides, broken up by trans-regional hydro lines, it was when I most frequently got to hear this song — usually as we were arriving into the big city and were able to pick up local FM radio in stereo.
The version being played at the memorial, badly and hastily hacked apart by somebody who had redacted the lyrical segments (so much to my horror), was not drawn from the original mix recorded in 1977, but from the extended mix produced and released a dozen years later for a greatest hits collection. I was probably the only person at Maks’s memorial who even knew this, but I’ve also long known what to listen for (pro-tip: the extended version is every bit the original, but better). It was an existential song about a city, a very specific city. It was even taken from an album titled City to City.
The song was about a street on which I once had walked in a cold drizzle on the dusky, gloomy afternoon of Tuesday, 11 April 2000 — a day perfect for a brown wool overcoat. It was a street which I’m pretty sure Maks never got to see with his own eyes.
It was a song about Baker Street.