There Goes the Neighbourhood

PART OF THIS IS A STORY about saying goodbye to a longtime Yellowknifer and friend, something most people in town know a thing or two about. But it’s also about celebrating the best damn neighbour you could ask for – and thinking about what life after Phil Morck leaves town might look like.

On a typical Sunday, I’m up early with my young son. The options for coffee at 6:15 a.m.? We could run uptown to a fast-food joint. We could put a pot on at home and try not to wake up Mom. Or we could slip our jackets over our pajamas and walk next door to Phil’s. He’s up. I know because I can peer through my living room window, through his living room window and see that he’s got last night’s sports highlights on the big screen. I know his door’s always open, coffee’s always on.

Phil is the best neighbour. I wonder if you read that and think to yourself, “Yah, we’ve all got a great neighbour like that.” I actually don’t think you do. This is different than, say, the way everyone thinks their mom’s cooking is the best. We’re all right about our mom’s cooking. But in this neighbour thing, I’ve got the best one. And he’s leaving.

After a couple cups of coffee and a couple hours of Phil getting down on the floor to play trucks with my son (and teach him a few choice words), we put our coats on over our pajamas and head home – usually with a bit of flour or some eggs for our breakfast. “You know where it is,” he’ll say if I ask to borrow something, “No service around here,” he jokes. It’s true, Phil helps you help yourself.

“Phil didn’t grow up here. He’s not Indigenous, but for me, he’s of the place. “

Phil came to the Northwest Territories as a 17 year old, volunteering with the now defunct youth volunteer organization, Katimavik. Phil was placed in Edzo where he worked all manner of jobs, from teaching assistant at Chief Jimmy Bruno School to an orderly at the Edzo Cottage Hospital. He was young, adventurous, hardworking and with all the requisite handiwork skills of a farm kid from southern Alberta.

Those skills are still put to work daily at Phil’s: mend the fence, harvest potatoes, use a trick or two to fire up a stubborn snowmachine. And on this Sunday when I have to change out my hot water heater, Phil holds my hand, so to speak. He won’t do it for me. He subscribes to the “teach a man to fish” philosophy. And so Phil helps me help myself. He sends me in his pickup truck to talk to his guy at the store to get the right supplies. And I do, but alas, I don’t have the tools. “Run to the shed and grab my whatever it might be,” hollers Phil.

Phil calls it the neighbourhood tool cooperative. We all share so we don’t have a bunch of pricey duplications. Roy has a snowblower that does the rounds, Gerald has the best air compressor (Phil also has one, just not as powerful). Besides a few screwdrivers and wrenches that everyone already has, I don’t really contribute. The bottom line is, for the most part, it’s Phil’s tool library – a public good, managed by a generous guy for the benefit of whoever darkens his door.

After changing the hot water heater without incident, I bask in a state of euphoria. Waves of a sense of my own masculinity wash over me. “I am handy!” I think to myself. Phil pours gas on this fragile ego fire by telling me I did a good job and imploring me to think about all the money I saved. This calls for a beer!

Sunday afternoon, I head back to Phil’s so he and I can crack a couple cans. Jerry, D-Rock, Rico and Doug join us. Which is another part of hanging out at Phil’s. It’s a neighbourhood clubhouse for a handful of middle-aged dudes. It’s not just for borrowing tools that Phil’s door is open. With families, jobs, and busy lives, the old glory days of lounging around with buddies for hours on end are mostly gone. But Phil’s open door (living room in the winter, deck in the summer) offers a beautiful consolation: pop in for 10 minutes if that’s all you can, but pop in. There’ll be conversation and a cold beer on offer.

I’ve pondered this open door. If it’s generous on Phil’s part to always be so welcoming, it makes his wife Marie a saint. There’s a sweet verve to the gatherings at Phil’s, but I can’t help but wonder if Phil and Marie’s new life, full of grandkids instead of us hosers, will be a welcome change. At the very least, those of us who benefit from Phil and Marie’s generosity, are grateful. Since the For Sale sign was staked, the guys and I have spent quiet moments talking about what it’ll be like when Phil wheels out of town. Will we see less of each other, will the neighbourhood vibe dry up?

I would say I’m the one who will feel Phil’s departure most acutely. Not only do we live side by side, we work together everyday at 4:30 in the morning. From 6-8 a.m. weekdays, Phil and I are on air with the Trailbreaker, the NWT’s morning radio show on CBC North Radio One. I’m the host and he’s the director. At work, our relationship is similar to how it is at our homes: Phil is my mentor. On air, the place Phil and I really connect is on the weather. About 20 times a week, I lean into my microphone, look through a pane of glass at Phil in the control room and say, “Those were the current weather conditions, now here’s Phil with the weather forecast. Good morning, Phil!”

At work, I call him Uncle Phil. And I mean it. The chemistry between us is 10 percent on air and 90 percent behind the scenes. We’re in a kind of dance. If our rhythm doesn’t match, the show sounds painfully awkward and unsure of itself. When we’re in sync, it sounds confident and grounded. The truth is somewhere in between most days, but since we work in radio, how we sound is important. A cab driver in Inuvik stopped me one time and said, “What’s it like working with that guy with the incredible, soothing voice?” He couldn’t remember the name and so I guessed, “Mansbridge? Stuart McLean?” But then it came to him, “No, not those Toronto guys. I’m talking about Phil…the Peter Gzowski of the North!”

Phil didn’t grow up here. He’s not Indigenous, but for me, he’s of the North. After Katimavik, he worked as a heavy equipment operator up and down the Mackenzie Valley during the oil and gas boom of the ‘80s. As he puts it, “When Mulroney killed the PIP (Petroleum Incentive Program) grants, work in the Beaufort went to shit.” Had it not, we might never have had 30 years of Phil at CBC North and 30 years of Phil’s summer residency as the mayor of Quiet Cove on the East Arm of Great Slave Lake.

Phil’s upbringing might explain why he’s the kind of neighbour, friend and uncle he is. Phil is the proverbial son of a preacher. His father was the Lutheran minister in Spruceview, a rural farming community in southern Alberta. I can only imagine that as much as there were barn parties and pickup trucks hurtling down the section roads, there were gatherings to raise a barn after a family had a fire. Phil’s stern, straight-shooting grandfather, Christian, farmed rye and was the Rye King of the World two years in a row in 1954 and 1955. Phil is the youngest of seven kids, coming from that strong-backed, morally-fibrous kind of farm family stock.

Sunday afternoon in the neighbourhood I wander over to Roy’s. He’s moving a shed. Others step outside at the same time, shaking out work gloves and waving at one another. Phil’s pulled this work crew together. No grand organizer, just a mention here or there that someone could use a hand stacking wood pellets, painting a fence… moving a shed.

Later that night I amble over to Phil’s to borrow an impact driver. Supper’s on. He might not have invited anyone over for supper, but he’s made a huge vat of his (award-winning) chili and has enough salad and buns to feed a dozen people. I take enough home to feed our family. And as I’m on my way out, I trade “hello” with a couple of neighbours who didn’t have other plans for Sunday dinner. They sink into the couches watching football with the pellet stove howling and TV tables unfolded, thick carpet under their feet. I keep an eye on the scene through my window. Not because I wish I was over there. I’m happy at home. But I take real comfort in the fact that this is my neighbourhood, that Phil is my neighbour.

And all of that is ending, going away. The For Sale sign looms. He’s retiring and CBC North has posted his job. It forces me to wrestle with what life will be like after Phil leaves. Phil’s departure marks the end of a chapter in my personal and professional life. But rather than focus only on this as an ending, I’ve been thinking about what I am supposed to learn from Phil.

My final trip to Phil’s that Sunday is to return the impact driver and punctuate the weekend with a scotch. But as I try to return the tool, Phil barks, “Keep it! It’ll be good for you guys to have at least one in the neighbourhood.” Soon enough a young family or someone new to town will close up Phil’s clubhouse. But his generosity and his role as the person who brings us together will continue. He’s built a foundation for a neighbourhood that shares, that helps each other, and where the doors are open. Whenever Gerald, or Rico, or whoever…needs an impact driver, they know where to come. What Phil has brought together, let no man break apart.

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