Stephen Wisniewski




Maestro Fresh Wes:
Let Your Backbone Slide


I am hanging halfway out the window of a Volkswagen Fox, listening to late 80's Canadian hip-hop and going 70 miles per hour on a Toronto highway in January. I'm doing this because the windshield washer fluid nozzles are frozen over, and so I have to continuously douse the moving wipers with liquid for the driver to see the road, but it's so cold that the windshield immediately freezes back over with every swipe. I am 13 years old, it's absolutely the most dangerous thing I've ever done to that point in my life, and I am both strangely numb to -- and intensely aware of -- the risk.
(Dumps washer fluid)
(Thinks, "I could actually get very hurt doing this.")
(Dumps more washer fluid)

When my dad and his family came from Europe, they became part of an extended network of sponsors -- people from Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries that had established roots in North America, and who would help new immigrants. These people became friends of our family, and we would visit some of them, like the ones in Toronto, two or three times a year from as far back as I can remember. We would go to grandparents' houses that smelled like cabbage and had photos of Pope John Paul II in every room. They would pinch our cheeks like real grandparents.

These family friends had children, who were like cousins to me. The oldest one was a boy 3-4 years older than I was, and he introduced me to cool things in the way many older cousins do -- things like Canadian rappers, designer jeans, Doc Martens, and so on. On the car ride that I served as window washer, he was driving, because it was decided that we were old enough to go out and have a night hanging out, just us and his friends. He had friends that had started going to University in the city, and we were driving to pick them up. After we picked them up, we did a lot of standard, boring teenage stuff -- we went to a convenience store, and then he and his friends smoked weed in the wooded area of a park while I watched. I knew with absolute certainty that I didn't want to do that with them, because for better or worse, I was immune to a lot of standard teenage peer pressures. Despite my behavior in the car, I was not a thrill-seeking adolescent. On a similar trip to Toronto years earlier, I saw my dad smoking a single cigarette while listening to music and talking with his friends, and I was so upset that I ran out of the house and into the street. Even though he'd smoked off and on in his life before I existed, I'd never seen him do it before. And I didn't want my dad to die.

Driving back to the house later that night, I was back on windshield duty, with my friend driving. In a few years, he would be diagnosed with macular degeneration, and with every day that passed, he would become gradually more blind and justifiably angry. Everyone grew up and further apart, and we eventually stopped visiting so often.
It was even colder driving back than it was earlier that evening, and so with every dousing of fluid, the windshield froze more quickly. I would yell back into the window, "ARE WE ALMOST THERE?"
We were not.