Mentor by John Tavares *Mature Themes

Even though it was a hot and humid summer day and the beach was our destination, it was the first time I dressed immodestly for work, the first time I ever showed up for work not wearing intimate things, and I wanted Mullen to notice. When I arrived at the ferry terminal, clutching my camera, notebooks, pens, voice recorder, smartphone, and handbag, he gulped, and sighed, and barely resisted giving me elevator eyes. During this long weekend, I was forced to spend the holiday with Mullen, but I opted to shadow him to learn the trade. 

I slept with many guys when I was a younger woman. Then I liked older men, as perverse as that may sound, as offensive as that may be to my wiser, smarter female friends. In my younger years, I naively and foolishly liked to brag, without exaggeration, to my peers and friends about sleeping with older men; they sometimes verified my stories and were impressed. The knowledge seemed to endow me with a special or privileged status. When I remember the many men I have known, I like to think my affinity to Mullen was different. It certainly wasn’t a physical attraction, because I found him hideous looking, ugly, and even grotesque. He was naturally well-built, muscular, lean, seemingly without a layer of body fat, but his head was misshapen, his facial features were distorted and ill-proportioned. His teeth were clean and white, but he had a broken front tooth, a conspicuous and distinctive facial feature, an eyesore, which he didn’t bother to repair. Maybe I felt a spiritual attraction or pity for him, because he seemed alone and friendless.

Although his co-workers admired him from a distance, and respected him, nobody liked him. They complained he was intimidating, aloof. They tried to warn me that, while he was the newspaper veteran from whom I would learn valuable lessons, management was ready to fire him. His problem wasn’t incompetence, laziness, but the relentless pursuit of the truth and the unexpected and uncomfortable places where that quest led him. Meanwhile, the big daily was cutting back; advertising revenue had declined drastically; newspaper readership was dramatically down due to intense competition from the Internet. Mullen’s lack of popularity among the newsroom staff translated into his demise, and he ranked high on management’s hit list—employees in line to receive layoff notices—or so I was informed, by a reliable source, the managing editor, no less. The managing editor also told me confidentially and strictly off the record, if I wanted to learn journalism, I should shadow Mullen. She even gave me her blessing, permission to shadow Mullen.

Since Mullen had seniority he also received a higher salary, which was motivation for management to find any reason to lay him off. I was told his last big scoop was when he captured on film the police shooting of a suspect holding a hostage on a busy street downtown, during which the police allowed him to interview the perpetrator. He had good relations with the police, since they remembered him from his crime beat. Although, I was told some officers never forgave him, but I never learned for what reason. Moreover, he had taken courses in crisis intervention and social work, during what he told me was a misguided effort at career change. His relentless pursuit of the truth in cold case files helped lead detectives to finally convict suspects for unsolved murders many years and even decades after. Now, though, his passion was gone, since his relentless, ruthless, and frenzied pursuit of the truth in cold cases and forgotten homicides and in investigative journalism cost him friends and relationships he nurtured and developed with organizations like the police union and even within the ranks of middle level and senior executives at the newspaper, with whom, in previous times, he had been friends.

Mullen asked how I landed the internship. Even though I had been warned and advised to keep quiet, I told him the truth; my mother was a college friend and girlfriend of the executive editor, whom she claimed was her first true love. 

After I finished my master’s degree in library science, I got the photography bug. I was hoping to turn that phase of my life as a shutterbug, that addiction, into a career. I was warned against pursuing that goal since the competition in journalism was so intense and news media companies were notorious for finding ways to avoid adequately compensating their contributors, aside from front page and marquee names. Those negative sentiments, though, didn’t discourage me. 

Mullen told me to show up at the Jack Layton ferry terminal on Canada Day. Dressed in a halter top, short shorts, sandals, with my gear, camera, smartphone, notebook, in tow, I found him in the vast crowd of day-trippers and holiday revelers, standing, reading The New York Times, alongside those posing beside the statue of Jack Layton astride a tandem bicycle. I worried about looking unprofessional, but he, wearing a T-shirt that said “Assume Nothing, Everybody Lies,” asked me if I brought a swimsuit. When I inquired about the origin of the T-shirt he, laughing, said he bought the novelty shirt from another intern, who worked part-time in a stag shop, which stocked the T-shirt, along with similar novelty items.

“Why are we going to Centre Island on Canada Day?”

“We’re in the middle of a heat wave and a temperature warning from Environment Canada, so we’ll probably do a weather story, and tie it in with climate change. But I’m hoping we can get pictures of a drowning.”

“A drowning?”

“Precisely. Anyway, we’re not going to Centre Island exactly—we’re going to Hanlan’s Point Beach, the party beach. Twenty-four party people go there to drink, fornicate, carouse and celebrate. Oops. I guess I shouldn’t use the F-word around an intern, but it’s true.”

If he expected me to blush like a teenage virgin, he was in for disappointment, because he could have used any taboo word—for all I cared. We took the ferry to Hanlan’s Point Beach, a storied place I had heard about, but which I never bothered to visit, when I lived in Toronto. The beach was narrow but long, and part of it was clothing optional. The long stretch of sand was crowded with an immense number of people, tanning, swimming, wading, nude, dancing, chatting, partying, drinking, and, offshore, people in bikinis and board shorts and assorted swimsuits partied aboard boats, canoes, kayaks, yachts, and jet skis. We sat on a huge log near the sand dunes and bushes that straddled a point midway between the clothing optional beach and the mandatory clothing part of the beach. I marvelled at the crowds of physically attractive men in Speedos, thongs, and G-strings. Meanwhile, he tried to get the black-market police scanner he carried in his backpack to work. The rechargeable battery on the scanner didn’t work and appeared dead. He said we would have to work without that source of information. He took out some hard seltzers from his backpack. The drinks felt cold and wet to the touch. The mango spiked seltzer looked fresh and appetizing, so how could I resist, at the party beach, on a hot sunny day, for which meteorologists issued heat warnings. 

“I brought these for you. The girls I see seem to enjoy them.”

Girls? I thought, as I glared at him. Surely, he meant women, but I didn’t bother to correct him, even though I was in that mood momentarily. He handed me a second drink, cranberry flavored. I gladly opened the can and drank both cans simultaneously, even though I usually carefully monitored and controlled my sugar consumption. Meanwhile, he sipped warm coffee from a thermos bottle, like some underground miner. 

Then he, thirsty and dehydrated as well from the heat, opened a can of sugar-free cola and sipped the beverage. “I had an alcoholic roommate. She convinced me through her habit or madness, not to drink.” I glanced at him quizzically. He must have sensed my state of mind. “I’m not trying to guilt you. She lived a messed-up life—I think mostly because of alcohol.” With the perspiration pouring seemingly from every pore in his body, he said he’d swim in Lake Ontario to cool off and bring down his body temperature. I thought it unprofessional to take a swim while we worked, but I said nothing, since I was only an intern. Still, I unbuttoned my halter top, and uncovered my breasts, in an attempt to impress him with my body and cleavage. I watched as he swam skillfully and effortlessly between the buoys until he reached the lifeguard stand, where an attractive lifeguard, looking enamoured with him, chatted with him enthusiastically. Afterwards, he concealed himself in the bushes, behind the sandy beach, donned his khaki cargo pants, and tossed his wet briefs in his backpack. Then he noticed the blue flashing lights from police and rescue boats further down the shoreline, near the westernmost tip of the runway of the island airport. 

“Something dramatic is happening over there,” he said.

“Let’s go check it out.”

We hurried down the shoreline, walking fast and then jogging, while he prepared his camera equipment, changing to a long zoom lens, inserting a fresh memory card.

“What’s going on here?” he asked a few spectators milling around the crowd of first responders.

“There’s been a drowning.”

“A woman drowned trying to save a child who also drowned.”

Camera ready, he pushed through the crowd of gawkers in bikinis and speedos, breaking through to the retinue of lakefront marine police and paramedics attempting to resuscitate the woman and child.

“I cannot believe this,” Mullen said, as he zoomed in the lens, focussed, and pressed the shutter, capturing a burst of images. “I guess the law of large numbers is working in our favour.”

Mullen took plenty of pictures and attempted to obtain quotes and information from a police officer. Then, a handsome, high, narrow, dark-haired man pushed through the crowd of beach goers, lunged towards him, grabbed his camera, and snatched it from his hands.

“This is disgusting and an abomination. Intruding on a family’s privacy at its darkest, most intimate moments! Have you no sense of shame?” the tall slender man demanded. 

“Give me back my camera.”

With the camera clenched in his grip, the righteous assailant bolted and ran. Mullen chased him along the beach, kicking up sand, through the throng of bikinis and board shorts, along the long narrow strip of shoreline. I lost sight of Mullen pursuing his nemesis on foot, along the long stretch of sand, as he chased him through the crowds and then, at the other end, along a trail into the bush, the sand dunes, and the shoreline, lined with rocks and driftwood. Eventually, he returned to the spot on the beach where I, amazed at the spectacle of two middle-aged men, in excellent physical condition, behaving childishly, chasing each other, stood helpless. Between gasps and spitting, sweaty, short of breath, Mullen asked, “Did you manage to get any pictures?”

How could I take pictures of a drowned mother and her drowned child? At the beach, even in the mandatory clothing part, I felt acutely conscious of my camera and the direction I pointed the lens. I still had the lens, covered with its caps, pressed against my belly, near my navel, which was pierced, with a Catholic Saint Medal, St. Francis De Sales, who was not only the patron saint of writers and journalists, but the namesake of my first girlfriends’ Catholic school, and I was disappointed nobody noticed. “I was too shocked.” He had already warned me I shouldn’t be so shy with my camera, stressing I was a journalist and photography, even on a beach, was not a crime. “But there’s a sign prohibiting photography.”

“That’s a city bylaw, and I wonder if that local ordinance would withstand a constitutional challenge. There’s this thing a free society has called freedom of speech. You’re a journalist, and your job is to practice it, not shy away.”

Already distracted with emotion, needing a break, I took a short walk from the scene. By the time I calmed down and returned it was too late; the only remnants of the carnage was police tape and discarded accessories for medical devices, tape, gel, bandages, and biomedical debris. He cursed and told me he couldn’t recover his camera, a digital SLR, with a large digital sensor, and a zoom lens, worth a few thousand dollars, he bought himself for work. As I started sobbing, he put his arm around me and attempted to comfort and console me. Then he recoiled and stood back awkwardly. I realized he feared he transgressed—went over a line or boundary by touching me.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be hard on you. I know it’s traumatic, but I have a job to do.”

“I have a job to do, too,” I sobbed. He reminded me I was an intern, and he was ultimately responsible. “Responsible for what?” I demanded testily.

We returned along the beach pathway, and roadway back to the ferry docks on Hanlan Point. He told me he thought he recognized his assailant. He looked like a former college roommate in a student housing co-op, many years ago, with whom he clashed. “Kent! The guy’s a gadfly. He shows up at demonstrations and makes vocal his very liberal opinions and progressive views in the loudest voice. I respect his opinion, and even agree sometimes, but he went way over the line.”

I felt pouty as we rode the ferry from the docks across the harbour, crowded with yachts, sailboats, and recreational watercraft, to the cage-like terminal at the foot of Bay Street. I never expected I’d spend Canada Day pursuing leads and sources for an article, based on a melodramatic incident, pictures of which my mentor intended to splash across the front page of Canada’s largest daily.

“We’re going to go to my apartment,” Mullen said. “I’m going to make a few phone calls.” We raced to his apartment, a large red brick house he owned near Eglinton Avenue and Dufferin Street. Long ago, after he discovered his cozy Toronto house was too large for him, alone, he rented the ground floor and the upper floor to separate tenants, so he thought of his own living quarters as merely another apartment unit. “I’m going to make a few phone calls and find where this gadfly lives.” 

He offered me a homemade iced coffee. Sipping the surprisingly tasty drink I perused his library, crammed with books by journalists about the news media and the accomplished careers or legendary lives of its practitioners. “I got his address. Let’s roll.” A suspicious object bulged out of his backpack. I had an ominous feeling, a sensation of dread. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m getting my camera and images back.”

I didn’t believe that was possible, but I went along in his compact car anyway, while he explained the passionate anger Kent provoked—having the verve to steal his camera and photojournalism, his intellectual property. We drove to an apartment building in a public housing project, in the inner city of the east end, and he knocked on the door on the first floor, like an indignant proprietor with unpaid rent. Nobody answered, so he peered into the peephole, trying to gaze into the apartment interior. Then he started pounding the scratched, painted steel door harder. When Kent asked who it was he replied, “Police.” I gasped, and pulled back, when Mullen drew from a holster in his backpack what appeared to be a genuine stun gun. “We have a warrant.”

When Kent opened the door a wedge, Mullen aimed the stun gun and fired the prongs into him. Having struck his target, he squeezed the trigger, delivering a burst of conducted electrical energy. He jolted Kent, who shrieked like an animal and grimaced, the air filling with cackling, the smell of burning flesh. “Where’s my camera?” Mullen stunned Kent again and showed him the collapsible baton he carried in the backpack.

Kent howled while he lay in a pool of his own urine, where he collapsed beside his muddy bicycle and smelly running shoes in his studio apartment, cluttered, untidy, inside the doorway. Mullen’s camera was tethered to a laptop on a computer desk. Mullen untethered the USB cords from his camera, and they headed out the door, into the dark hallway.

“I’ve lived with him in a campus co-op back when we were students. He went to University of Toronto and I took journalism at Centennial College. I believe he thought he was a superior person as a consequence.”

“Most of the community college students I met in university were, well, appreciated; they had already learned trades and had better job prospects.”

“He was a scholarship student, at a top university, and I went to a community college. Afterwards, I encountered him at various demonstrations I covered as a journalist over the years in Toronto. I don’t think he was ever able to parlay his psychology into a conventional career, assuming he even earned his degree. Once I had to do a story about a person with AIDS, in the Rainbow Village. He was working there as a barista at Second Cup. And, yes, he definitely still doesn’t like me as you can see.”

“Looks like the feeling is mutual,” I said.

As Mullen drove us back to the newspaper offices, he scrolled through the files and metadata on the memory card for his camera, but virtually the entire storage device was blank of images. “Looks like he deleted the pictures from the data card. He might have downloaded the set to his laptop.”

“Why would he delete the images?”

“Out of malice, but it could be a default setting on whatever app he used. Why would he take my camera in the first place?”

“Sounds like you guys have history.”

“Let’s go back there.”

“What if he calls the police?”

“I tell them the truth, but he’s not going to call the police; he’s a renegade, a rogue.”

I started to sob, but concealed my tears and covered my mouth, when I remembered the scene of carnage, bathos, and tragedy I witnessed at the beach. “I can’t believe I saw a mother and child drown before my eyes—”

“They were already dead by then.”

“Then you launch a home invasion against some guy to steal back your camera.” Sunburnt, tired, I stared at my camera, like it was some hideous monster, in my lap. 

“Why don’t you ask me how I knew there would be a drowning at Hanlan’s Point?” He explained that not only was part of the beach a clothing optional beach, but it was also a party beach, which attracted the yachting crowd, with their boat parties, and an incredibly diverse group of younger city residents and tourists, who liked to engage in heavy drinking and drug consumption, and had virtual police immunity because of the LGBTQ crowd. I started sobbing again.

“Let me drive you home,” Mullen said.

I was so relieved I stopped crying. I calmed down and tried to apologize. I didn’t see what kind of future I had as a young journalist; his discourses on his work experiences shattered my dreams. I invited him inside my apartment. After I insisted he settle on the leather sofa, he said I had a better apartment than he ever lived in within Toronto.

“But you own your own house,” I countered.

“Living on a journalist’s wages I can hardly afford to live in my own Toronto house. That’s why I live in the basement and rent out the other two floors. How can you afford this place?” 

“My father pays the rent.”

Mullen looked around the apartment, the wide screen television, the dishwasher, the shiny stainless-steel espresso and cappuccino maker, the wine rack. 

“You’re a pretty young lady and a fine person, but you don’t belong in print journalism.”

“Because I’m a woman you don’t think I’d be a good journalist.”

“Don’t go putting words in my mouth and drawing the wrong conclusions. They were just two observations I randomly made together. The best journalists are usually geeks or misfits, who spend days poring over boring government documents and files, and you’re a sensitive soul.” He told me most successful local journalists, especially in eyewitness news, secretly salivated over something like a drowning, murder, or gruesome car accident.

“You have good looks, you’re telegenic, photogenic, you’d probably do very well in television news.”

“But I’d get panic attacks, and every morning I’d be miserable because I’d face the day knowing I’d have to do something that scares me to death. Trust me: I tried broadcasting on campus community TV, as a volunteer.”

“What about radio?”

“Ditto. I choked, I hyperventilated. People thought: she’s having a heart attack or seizure.”

“Wow. So now you know my life story.”

“For real?”

“I’m sorry, but this conversation is getting too personal.”

Still, he continued to lecture while I brewed strong coffee. He advised me that I’d never earn enough money to afford an apartment like this if I continued to work in journalism, especially local print journalism. The kind of reportage that provided a public service and made a difference didn’t pay well—maybe a living wage, but not much else.

“Besides, the Internet is taking revenue from newspapers, which used to be cash cows.”

I appreciated his lecture on the economics of the newspaper business, but I wasn’t in the mood. I ground the coffee and put the coarse grinds in the reusable coffee filter. 

“That’s my opinion, anyway. I always wanted to be a stockbroker when I was a teenager, but then I had an existential crisis when my mother died.” He said he always loved reading journalism, ever since he delivered newspapers in his Northern Ontario hometown when he was a kid. “The New York Times practically made me hard, and I managed to read it whenever I visited Toronto, which became my destination when I graduated from high school and left my hometown. I wanted to contribute to society, provide a public service. I should have pursued my original dreams to become a stock broker; it was a realistic goal.”

“I think I understand.”

“You can be happy in this work, but you won’t be in a position to afford a comfortable lifestyle.”

Needing to be tranquilised, I took Irish Cream liqueur from the liquor cabinet and poured a dash into the coffee and gulped when I usually sipped liqueur.

“You should teach, or work in a library. What we did today was journalism and it made you cry.”

“Teach storybooks, collect overdue fines, shelves books in the lonely stacks, where student have sex…?”

“I don’t remember students having sex in the stacks when I was a student.”

“Remember you went to community college. Those students probably worked after school—didn’t winnow away their time in a library or dorm room.” I started to feel frustrated—like I was speaking with my father about unrealistic dreams: moving to Los Angeles and pursuing acting, despite my public speaking phobia, possibly because of it. Dad convinced me acting was a horrible life choice—and I declined my offer of admission to the theater and drama department at University of Southern California. 

“Anyway, teacher—librarian—they are union jobs. They pay relatively well, especially once you include the pension and benefits. Or you could take pictures of drowning victims, and worry about your next paycheck. People will hate you because you’re doing your job. People in positions of influence will try to destroy your career and reputation because you sought the truth.”

I gazed intently into his eyes.

“You know, I’ve had people who wanted to kill me for the questions I asked, for things I wrote, for the pictures I took.” He touched his broken tooth and opened his mouth to show me closely. “You know how I broke my incisor? I did a feature story on the tow truck industry. The day it was published the tow truck operator who drove me around, took me on a grand tour of the freeways and expressways around the Golden Horseshoe, showed up at the newsroom, unannounced. I thought he’d be happy with the piece. But, without telling me what was wrong with the article, without saying a word, he strode purposefully to my desk, slapped me in the face with the folded newspaper. Then he slugged me in the mouth, breaking my tooth. He stormed out, stomping his work boots noisily. And this happened in the biggest newsroom in North America. The journalists, editors, and staffers at their desks around me stopped for a second, dead silent, except a few couldn’t resist snickering and laughing. Then they went back to clacking at word processors like nothing happened. Nobody cared. It was as if I had gotten my comeuppance, exactly what I deserved.”

My eyes watered up again and, instead of rousing me and inspiring me to take up the mantle, his words only succeeded in stoking a simmering fire, a longing and yearning, which I thought I buried. He reminded me of the frozen pints of pricey premium gourmet ice cream I wasted, tossing them into the garbage, because I would occasionally lose control of my appetite and, famished, wake in the middle of the night from sleep to binge on my favorite food after starving myself on my latest diet. I felt a strong bond and affinity to him, even though he was more than twice my age. I sat in his lap and put my arm around him. I wanted him to be a friend with benefits. I wanted him inside me, I wanted to taste him in my mouth. I could feel him getting hard against my backside. When I reached for his midsection to grope at the lump beneath the crotch of his cargo pants, he touched my hips. I pressed my backside hard against his groin and clasped his hands with my own. Then he started to rise. I slid off him as I was forced to stand but I could feel his erection beneath my short shorts in exactly the spot where I wanted him. He said he would head to the newspaper offices to see if he could find a technician in the IT department who might somehow manage to undelete the images from the data card.

Afterwards, I didn’t return to my work as an intern at the newspaper that day or any other day. I followed his advice. I applied for work at the Toronto public library and was immediately hired by a head librarian who remembered me from my elementary school days, when she worked as a librarian at our neighbourhood Forest Hills library. In the fall, I worked at an elementary school full-time as a teachers’ assistant.

I wanted to be creative, I had wanted to literally write headlines, but even there I discovered the inhouse practice at our big city daily was that the editor or copy editor wrote or rewrote the headlines. Eventually, I found an outlet for my creative instincts in landscape photography. Then, after a year of classroom work, I attended the faculty of education at York University, a teacher’s college, and acquired my professional degree and obtained my requisite teachers license. 

The following year, Mullen was laid off from the newspaper, a victim of corporate reorganizing, downsizing, declining advertising revenues, and financial losses. He returned to college, took courses in investments, finance, economics. I passed him the odd time in a lecture hall, amphitheater, library or cafeteria at York University, but he still stirred my emotions so I did my best to avoid him. He got his brokers license, and found work in wealth management, at the investment branch of an insurance company, on which he had done some less than flattering reporting as a journalist in the past. Now, ironically, he was living off those very same service fees and premiums customers had complained about in his series of award-winning newspaper articles. Somehow, he managed to find a woman with whom he shared mutual love. He had mentioned her before at work, telling me he could never be certain if they were friends or if they were dating, but I thought he was exaggerating, telling tales, someone he met by chance and distorted the nature or extent of their relationship, or someone he happened to meet while he was reporting another story. I thought she was far too beautiful for him. She was also a medical specialist, a surgeon, whose investment account and stock and bond portfolio he managed, which totally made sense to me. For some reason, I was invited to his wedding. I marvelled at the man whom I considered a helpless geek, and nerd, and a hopeless bachelor, with breath that sometimes smelled of coffee, who led a humble, modest life, but with the jaded attitude and cynicism of a hardened, journalist who had witnessed the worst of the big city—he had changed and was getting married. And it was the whitest of white weddings—another surprise, nay, shock. I kept rushing to the restroom and the privacy of the stalls, where I sobbed and cried on a toilet seat cover. The man towards whom I felt a quirky attraction was with a woman, in part, the stuff of dreams and fairy tales. He found happiness, at last, I figured. I was happy for him, although I never expected he’d play a fateful and instrumental role in my life, as I pursued a career in intermediate school education.

I wanted to make a splash in my life, pursue a creative endeavour. Now I was a teacher back at school, Terry Fox Middle School in suburban Toronto, which was all right, because, while school could be boring and routine, I loved the schoolyards, hallways, and classrooms of my youth.