Monday, March 9, 2009

A Sense of Place ©

Bill Longworth,
February 11, 2009

The sun was sinking behind the hills on the far side of the lake, which had stilled to silence after a day’s rhythmic slapping of the rocky shore. The garden lilly perfumes were filling the air before closing their petals for the night. The aromas of the sizzling steak were rising heavenly from the barbeque to tweak the joy of all around. The sounds of Chopin were wafting through the still air. My cottage is heaven, I was thinking, as I nosed the fruity elegance of my 2004 Château de Fonsalette.

The idea of heaven seemed to resonate in my mind as it raced backward in time to the days of my youth as I thought of the contrasts between my present life and that of my childhood.

I well remember, as an eleven-year-old, coming home from downtown Toronto’s first inner city school, The Duke of York, on Pembroke Street just north of Shuter.

It wasn’t much of a walk down Pembroke, a block along Shuter, and three or four houses down Sherbourne past the one with the window sign, "beds 75¢", to number 172. The five-minute walk took us past rundown and overcrowded rooming houses with wild patches of grass littered with garbage that posed as lawns. The garbage cans never seemed to leave the sidewalk and never seemed to be used.

On reaching our house, the creaky stairs groaned as I pushed open the unlocked front door in the shadow of the pungent odors of the Canada Dry factory just across the street. Like every other day, I had to push past shabby old Joe, an unshaven and unkempt drunk who seemed to spend every second of the daylight hours sitting on the steps with his customary half-emptied bottle of cheap wine grasped in his hands. His only activity, besides raising the bottle, was to watch the busy traffic zoom by not two or three meters from his feet. He always seemed to be guarding his rusty old bicycle locked to the railing and his prized possession seemed to be his bicycle air pump always holstered in his belt.

His gruff and rasping voice always mumbled a slurred, “Hello son,” to me as I brushed past. I never responded to his unwanted greeting. “You never know where conversation with him might lead,” cautioned my mother.

On entering the old brick house, smells of various sorts flooded the air. I might have described the “smells” as fragrances or even odours, but that would be too kind. They were wicked, unyielding and unbearable stenches that stained the air and sickened the soul, particularly the stink of stale beer, vomit, urine and the stuffiness of overcrowding. That was to be expected, though, in a house owned by a slum landlord who seldom visited the place, except to collect rent on Fridays, and who certainly never stayed around long enough to do any cleaning.

The house, as best as I can remember, had about eight rooms on its three floors and one small washroom up the stairs on the second floor. Each room in the house was rented. Most of the rooms were rented to guys like Joe. All doors off the halls were secured with padlocks.

The old house had two “prime apartments” on the main floor. The dining room and its adjoining kitchen at the rear of the main floor served as a self-contained apartment for one lucky family who actually had their own sink and tap for dish washing and personal hygiene, a stove, and a clunky old refrigerator. The other “prime” apartment was fashioned out of the living room with its big bow window at the front of the house. It was close enough to Joe to hear his blathering and his belching. This would have been the room in which the original owners lavishly entertained their visitors, probably in the 1850s when the house was new. This room was now “our home."

This large room housed our family of five--my mother, my two brothers, my sister and myself. Our father had not been heard from in years. In this single room, we slept, ate, and prepared meals. Its cramped quarters held two double beds plus a roll-away cot, a table, a few hard chairs, a hot plate, a portable washbowl for hygiene and an open orange crate slung outside the front window as our “food cooler,” a system completely ineffective on hot summer days, but the best we had. We slept with the lights on as that was said to keep the bedbugs at bay. Our toilet, if we discount the bucket that was always close at hand in our room for emergency purposes, was the one on the second floor used by everyone in the house. It was never cleaned. No wonder we “went” at school before we came home and hurried into the school washroom before class to freshen up a little.

Our entertainment was a little radio tuned to pop country that provided our link to the world beyond our slum surroundings. I still remember Hank Williams wailing out “Jambalaya” and “Cold, Cold Heart,” Rosemary Clooney crooning “Come on-a My House” and “Half As Much,” and Doris Day purring “When I Fall in Love.” I suppose this music provided my mother an escape as she sang along.

As I look back at my childhood in this environment and the many others like it that I called home, I never once recall any sense of sadness, of being disadvantaged, or of being any different from others I knew. I experienced all the normal joys and excitement of childhood, not feeling the least deprived of any of the pleasures of life. Of course, you never miss what you never had.

One would think that such impoverished living conditions would have lasting effects on my siblings and me. I certainly would agree. This part of our life did have a profound impact. The experience led me, and all of my siblings, to have quite successful careers and stable lives. It may have been a blessing in disguise as I look at others who have had far more, and yet been blessed with far less.

I took another sip of my Château de Fonsalette as the philosopher in me contemplated that there must be more to a successful and fulfilling life than “place.” The secret must reside in the mind and it depends on a positive outlook and a “can do” attitude to put it there.

Sherbourne Street...The city in one street: Toronto Star, Nov. 29, 2009
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