On Jim Christy, by Joe Nickell
|Dawson City, Yukon|
Jim and I met as fellow American exiles, opposed to the Vietnam War and living in Canada in the late 1960s. I am included in The New Refugees (1972) edited by Jim Christy. He and I were part of a loose group of literati, artists, expatriates, and occasional folksingers like Blues guitarist Jim Byrnes. The center of the circle was the apartment of Elizabeth Woods, who was something of a Gertrude Stein of Toronto. Also living there were artist Bill Kimber and writer George Fetherling, who once brought Margaret “Peggy” Atwood to the place. The group was known affectionately as The Church Street Gang and there was always something going on—people feeling welcome to drop in at all hours.
|Typewriter, before it sailed out of the window|
George (then “Doug”) Fetherling and I once published an alternative newspaper named Tabloid which came to be printed on yellow paper (a wink to “yellow journalism”). A Globe and Mail columnist wrote that we were probably the best-written newspaper in Canada, and that was no doubt largely due to Jim Christy. He was recruited for the premier number of Tabloid (June 1971) for which he produced two big reviews—one of the Country music scene with the likes of Waylon Jennings at the Horseshoe Tavern. (Country was never written about like this: brilliant, provocatively insightful, almost lapsing into stream of consciousness.) The other, “Ellis the slugger v. Chuvalo the boxer,” took the reader to a bruising punchfest in “the old and battered ring at Maple Leaf Gardens.” Jim’s opening sentence ran for half a newspaper column.
Jim knew something about pugilism, himself being what is known as a two-fisted kind of guy—literally. He and I were both (of occasional necessity) barroom brawlers, and once we were drinking together at some out-of the-way dive when a fellow took some dislike to my friend. In a flash Jim was out of his chair pummeling the fellow—wiping his sneer and then his look of horror right off his face. The man’s buddy started to get up to help him, but I sent a distinct, sign-language message that he should sit back down, and he instinctively saw the wisdom of that. I’m glad Jim and I never got in a set-to with each other: We’d have beaten ourselves to smithereens and vanished into nothingness.
Jim was forever going and coming—from whence was always interesting. I was doing something of the same. I had begun my “career of careers” (seeing how many personas I could accrue, inspired by George Plimpton, the participatory journalist, and Ferdinand Waldo Demarra, “the Great Impostor”). I had been, among other things, a stage magician and Pinkerton undercover detective, and I had decided I wanted to become a blackjack dealer. I was stymied because there was then no legal gambling in Canada—or so I thought. But Jim was just back from the Yukon Territory with the news that gambling was legal in frontier Dawson City due to its history (as the center of the great Klondike gold rush). I was soon off to Dawson where I picked up several personas and lived a couple of the best years of my life. Jim Christy sold me on going to Dawson and later saw me there, as he mentioned in his book, Rough Road to the North.
Jim was also a man of many personas. Coming to Canada, he and I had both done a stint as advertising copywriters for Sears, though we worked at separate facilities. I knew he was sometimes a carnival roughie (one who helped with manual labor, say with the teardown on slough night). He introduced me to Marcel Horne, known professionally as “Diablo the Human Volcano,” and at one time was his promoter. (I wrote my poem “The Fire Breather” for Marcel, after watching a performance Jim organized for the media in 1970. See my Secrets of the Sideshows, 2005, pp. 219–20.)
Shakespeare’s “one man in his time plays many parts” is true in spades for Jim Christy, who has had many, many roles. We were together last in 2008 in Toronto when we read poems with fellow authologizees from Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era. We had, in a way, come full circle.
PS: On my website, click on “Personas” and check out the alphabetically arranged list. Under “Anti-war Activist” Jim might be in the second photo—he would know. (I’m third from right; is he possibly fourth or fifth?) See also “Alternative Newspaper Co-Publisher,” “Poet,” “Refugee.”