Nobody messes with George Huey. He may have withered from age and too much golf, but his wide shoulders and big hands—plumped up by years of pulling prawn traps off the coast of Pender Harbour—still grant him a wide berth around town. But even more intimidating than his stature are his stories.
Back in the ’60s and ’70s, Huey used to break knee-caps for Mafioso-types in Toronto. All his yarns, told in a deep smoker’s rumble, involve tough guys whose names end in ‘ee’—Jimmy, Mickey, Donny—and who inevitably end up on the receiving end of Huey’s sizable knuckles.
In high school, I worked at the Pender Harbour 9-holer and got to be friends with Huey. Last year, when I told him I was moving to New York to attend a journalism school just blocks from Harlem, a rare look of concern crossed his face. “You bloody well watch out for yourself,” he said. “I done business down there. Those guys don’t mess around. A life ain’t worth nuthin’ on them streets.”
I’m a child of Lotusland. I was raised around old hippies, wind-swept cedars and emerald mountains. In 2001, I went to UVic. There I learned to thank bus drivers, wear flip-flops year-round, play ultimate, and watch the cherry blossoms fall.
Huey couldn’t see me surviving New York, city of sharp elbows and switchblades. Neither could I, really.
New York smelled a sucker as soon as I walked out of JFK airport. Limousine drivers swarmed me, all promising cheap fares to Manhattan. I knew better. I’d read my Lonely Planet. It advised to steer clear of these vultures, and walk to the lineup for city-approved yellow cabs where the regulated price would be $45.
Ten minutes later, I found myself riding shotgun in a sleek, black Chevy Suburban—shiny rims, tinted windows, leather—completely unsure if the driver was taking me to my apartment or some landfill in Staten Island where I’d be robbed and deposited in the ground alongside mob turncoats and TV dinner trays. The driver had talked me into paying him twice the going rate. My guidebook was wrong, he claimed. Yellow cabs actually charged $115 to go to Manhattan. He was a good liar.
I was courteous to the driver all the same. That’s just the way I was raised. I asked him all about his life—he was a Kashmiri refugee—and I think he started to feel sorry for this naïve passenger he’d so easily taken for 90 bucks. Familiar Manhattan images began to pass by: the Empire State Building, Times Square, Broadway. I’d cheated the gutter. When we finally stopped in front of my new place, I handed him $85 and rooted around in my pockets for another five. “No, don’t worry,” he said. “This is fine. This is fine.”
“Oh thanks very much,” I said.
He climbed back into his Suburban. “Goodbye,” he said. “You be careful.”
Sure he still fleeced me, but my discount for good behaviour taught me something: an easygoing West Coast demeanour might be my best big city defence.
In a place so famous for pushy go-getters, I set myself apart by holding doors, looking people in the eye, helping carry strollers up subway stairs—basically continuing the decency I’d learned out west.
At journalism school, one of our most daunting tasks was to get quotes from high-ups with the city government. Some students believed in asserting themselves over the phone and were quickly tangled in layers of bureaucratic brush-offs. I managed to please-and-thank-you my way to good quotes.
In the fall, each student had to ride along with NYPD cops to get a sense of the city’s underbelly. Many students were hurt that the cops didn’t take them seriously. My cops sensed that I didn’t care about being taken seriously or about the city’s crime rate, so we dropped the pretense and spent four blissful hours together trying to find Brooklyn’s best cup of coffee. It made a great story.
My first job offer out of school came from Rupert Murdoch’s bloodthirsty New York Post, a paper where the reporters are just as hard-boiled as the creeps they splash across the front page every day. In me, the Post found a reporter who could empathize his way into the living rooms of mourners and murderers both.
This summer I flew back to BC for a few weeks to relax with family and friends. On the sun-drenched deck of the Grasshopper Pub in Pender Harbour, I bumped into old George Huey. “Jesus Christ, look who it is,” he bellowed. “You actually got out of that place alive.”
“Just barely,” I lied.