Sunday 25 Sep 2016

What Secret
David Simmonds

It seemed a trivial thing at the time. I was in the post office, when the clerk behind the desk said to me "there was a magazine without a label on it. I guessed it was yours, so it's in your box."

She was right. All right, I'll tell you it was Canadian Paper Clip Collector Quarterly. They haven't gone online yet, as a matter of principle). After the warm glow of uniting with my mail faded, I began to think. They must know an awful lot about me, and everyone else. Thank goodness, my subscription to Modern Toupee Care comes in a plain brown wrapper. If they knew, I could never set foot in the Post Office again unless I went incognito.

I began to wonder. How much about myself am I exposing without being aware of it, and what are other people doing with it?

My mind began to race over transactions in which I had embarrassed myself. Not long ago, when shopping at a Foodland, I tried to slip a couple of boxes of Vachon Passion Flakie pastries in among my lentils and fresh vegetables. "I'll bag those separately for you, hon," said the cheerful cashier. She then called out to someone at the back of the store, at full operatic pitch, "Doris, how much are those Vachon things that are on special; you know the ones with all the fake cream and calories?"

There was nowhere to crawl. I spent many sleepless nights imagining my cashier, in all her glory. Her friends staking her to free drinks in exchange for regaling all and sundry with tales of the frailties of the grocery shopping public, me being Exhibit A. "And then he," I dreamed she said, "had the nerve to ask me to put them in a plain brown bag - as if he thought he could get home without anyone knowing!" Cashiered was I, I guess.

It doesn't take long to imagine comparable situations. What does a librarian do if he or she knows that someone has taken out a book entitled 'The numbskull's guide to building a nuclear reactor'? What can the florist do with the fact that an elderly man has just purchased a dozen roses and it's

Think of the information that flows in that most sacred of all relationships, the one between hairdresser/stylist/barber and customer. It is no accident the best selling Jake Hooker reality series anchors at Rhonda's Barber and Beauty Shop. Nor is it an accident that Floyd the Barber was a major character in the old Andy Griffith television show. People seem to open up some sort of spigot tapping their innermost secrets when they settle back in that chair. A hair steward is a powerful person.

In fact, you begin to wonder why forensic crime shows fascinate us. Never mind slivers of fibre or specks of DNA, let alone fingerprints. We leave muddy boot trails revealing fundamental facts about ourselves in the most mundane transactions.

The courts recognize a relationship of complete confidentiality between lawyers and their clients and enforce the obligation to keep what you learn under your hat. Ditto, for the most part, for the bond between physicians and their patients. After that, it gets a little fuzzier. Just last month, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled, privileged, the relationship between a journalist and a confidential source, but only if a court finds it in the public interest to make it so. It's much the same for the relationship between priest and penitent.

If the law won't seal off confidences to the clergy, it will surely offer even less protection to the day-to-day transactions. Many organizations and professions have of course established codes of conduct, to which people must adhere for fear of losing their job or professional standing. Canada Post, to my great relief, has one.

What do you do about it? You can't really walk up to a pharmacy counter and say "before I buy these suppositories, I'd like you to refer me to the provisions of the Pharmacists' Code of Conduct concerning confidentiality, and an affidavit confirming you have never breached them." You have to extend that basic trust. That's what makes a community work.

At the other end, maybe someone should breach that trust, occasionally. Maybe a car dealer can give a heads-up to the children of an elderly woman, young boyfriend in tow, to whom he just sold a new Mercedes 320. If the Vet has to put down a lonely person's pet, maybe the best thing to do is to let a few of his friends know that he will need cheering up. That's what makes a community work.

This takes me back to the post office. I'm imagining that I work there and I'm having fun sorting a whole bunch of mail without address labels. "Now let's see. Garden Gnome Collector International: do you think it belongs to the Blodgetts, those people with all the gnomes on their lawn or shall we give it to Miss Supine, in Box 355, who owns the art gallery and see the look on her face when she opens the box? Maybe we should give Barbie Collector News to the guy who owns the Corvette and Muscle Car Monthly to the lady on Main Street with the doilies in her window." That might be pushing the limits

Whatever you really do, you people at Canada Post, just remember: don't mess with my Canadian Paper Clip Collector Quarterly.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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