A few stories and storytellers in St. John’s

Toronto Star, June 6, 2016: ST. JOHN’S, N.L.—This is a city of storytellers. Writers, actors, musicians, even the cabbie who tells you the word “sex” is spelled in the lights of the city — there are stories and the people who tell them everywhere you look.

In her award-winning novels and short stories, Lisa Moore has written beautifully about her hometown of St. John’s — everything from describing the grit of a downtown alley inAlligator to her high school, Holy Heart of Mary, in her latest book, Flannery. “I tend to write exactly about the places I’ve been in a day and what I’m seeing,” she says from outside Fixed Coffee + Baking on Duckworth St., a popular spot for actors, musicians and writers to drink coffee and fuel their creativity.

“I like to be in public places and capture how people shift and move and the expressions that come over their faces,” says Moore, as she waves at someone walking by. “It’s a great place for research, but don’t tell anyone or I won’t be allowed in.”

Walking down George St., the site of endless late night stories, you’ll hear the band at Rob Roy doing Springsteen, the fellas in Greensleeves belting out some Barenaked Ladies and the crowd over at O’Reilly’s playing traditional music.

But keep walking if you want to catch local bands, such as Green and Gold, Fog Lake or Jonny and the Cowabungas playing at four different bars tucked away in Holdsworth Court.

“It’s a funny spot, it’s not on George St. technically,” says Micah Brown, a musician and co-organizer of the Shed Island music festival held in August in St. John’s. “If you didn’t know it was there, you’d walk right past it, but on any given night there are a couple hundred people up in those bars listening to music.”

But if you want to get “screeched-in” that is, kiss a cod and take a shot of rum, you’ll have to head to a bar on George St. “It’s sort of like some consensual hazing. It’s a fun tradition,” explains Brown, a P.E.I. native who was screeched-in a few years ago. “I like to think it started in a kitchen when somebody’s cousin was visiting: ‘Oh, Jeremy from Toronto is up here and if you wanna fit in, you gotta kiss a fish.’” Note that no Newfoundlander actually kisses a fish. They just watch as mainlanders do.

St. John’s singer/songwriter Joanna Barker, meanwhile, grew up hearing the remarkable story of her great-great-great-grandfather, Michael Power. He was born in Ireland and as a young man he committed a crime of some sort — it could have been stealing a loaf of bread or perhaps it was political.

“The crime is unknown,” says Barker. “It could have been a bar brawl, could have been murder. We don’t know. What we do know is this story.” The story is he was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Australia. But on the ship on the way over, there was a fierce storm and somehow, Power saved the captain’s wife from drowning. He was rewarded with a pardon. “He escaped a life sentence in prison and started a new life on Bell Island, Newfoundland,” says Barker, who pays tribute to Michael Power in a gorgeous song.

Wondering about “Jellybean Row?” As a youngster, Geoff Meeker and his buddies would get hassled by the tough kids who lived in the rough houses in downtown St. John’s. Those tough kids have moved on, replaced by tourists taking pictures of the brightly painted houses on steep streets — known collectively as “Jellybean Row.”

The nickname started in the 1980s, a decade or so after a heritage group started buying up a few run down Victorian houses downtown. “They fixed one up and gave it nice trim and painted it bright colours and bought the house next to it and did the same thing, but painted it a different bright colour,” says Meeker, the proprietor of Jellybean Row Shop and Gallery on Duckworth St. “It just started spreading by itself, like a cold. Everyone started doing it.”

The bright colours hearken back to earlier days when people who lived in the houses would use up their leftover boat paint. “Boat paint was bright so it would stand out in the water and what was left would go on the houses,” says Meeker. These days you can count about 150 “Jellybean” houses in downtown St. John’s.

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