Monday, May 24, 2010

The Commercial District

The commercial district three blocks away, 500 metres east of the wartime house.

I could hear my mother’s cackling outrageous laughter from across the backyard fence as I skipped eastward away from the house toward the tracks, three long blocks away. It was a treacherous journey for a five year-old among so many big kids. But nobody ever told me to put on shoes. My destination was the store. I had found a Seven-Up bottle and two Pepsi bottles that I could spend as I wished. Six-cent Popsicles. Two for a penny, mint leaves, jawbreakers, strawberries, nigger babies, and lick-a-mades. Decisions decisions. And I wouldn’t have to share.
I didn’t realize until many years later that having a paved back lane was an amazing asset for a neighbourhood. Cities and towns where I lived in the decades that followed had lanes that were often made with either grass or c-base gravel, possibly with some invisible infrastructure beneath, but usually not. In those places, ditches were even found on some front streets! But not in Shaughnessy Heights. Our back lanes were modern. Those were the days long before the dumpsters. Most dutiful homeowners built some sort of garbage-can stand and the garbage was sent out back into galvanized cans or rusty oil barrels for the City trucks to empty on a weekly basis. It was a progressive little neighbourhood.

But I lived on the poor side of the lane. Across the lane from my house were the newer houses with concrete slab foundations. “Slab houses,” my dad called them. Our house was a wartime house. It was built after WWII, for the soldiers coming home. I used to listen to my dad patiently clarify for people the difference between a wartime house and a peacetime house. He was always so polite until we got home where he would slander the idiots for a solid hour. He did have an arrogant streak.
Our part of Shaughnessy Heights made up a small neighbourhood three and a half streets wide and four blocks long. It was a long hike for me to the furthest outpost of the neighbourhood, to Matela’s. The restaurant with red vinyl swirling stools that were so much fun to sit and twirl on, sold dark rye bread with little purple stickers, and hunks of halva for a dime. I might go across the street from Matela’s to Bilyk’s instead. It was a Solo store for official emergency errands for stuff like laundry soap or tomato soup.
But the favourite candy stop was the drugstore around the corner. Peter was the pharmacist. He was the only grown-up whose first name I knew. Funny, he was one of the only professionals in the neighbourhood, and everyone called him Peter. He always had a white coat, white hair, and a white moustache. And he had the best penny candy and the hardest Popsicles. But no drinks. The drinks were at Matela’s. And our neighbourhood’s final commercial establishment on Railway was the hardware store where we shopped for gifts for our parents on birthdays and at Christmas. The lady there always helped us pick out some drinking glasses or an ornament. She would put our gift in a box and we would march back down that back lane, to hide the gift somewhere among the hiding places within that wartime house. These shops anchored Shaughnessy Heights toward the tracks. Beyond the tracks were houses full of kids who went to the next school. They might as well have been on a different planet.
In hindsight, I admit I was afraid to use the front street to go to the store, whether on my own behalf or on an errand for an adult. There was a bigger chance of seeing some big kids, and I learned how to avoid them. I knew every feature of that back lane, every fence and fenceless yard. I knew every garage to shelter me from the wind. And I knew where the peacetime houses began, when I crossed Leo Novak. Who was Leo Novak anyway?

It was a long walk for a kid, but in this neighbourhood, there were no restrictions on playing outside. It would not be an exaggeration to say that 400 kids lived in that four-block grid. There were a few old folks, but they kept their heads down. The wildness of youth dominated Shaughnessy Heights.
To the north the wind howled across the fields into our little corner of the world. If you stood on the edge of the field, at the back of the school, which marked the north-west edge of the neighbourhood, you could see the barn and the big white house on deGrave’s farm a mile or more away. We weren’t allowed to go there, but René and Julian deGrave were the Royal Dairies milkmen who greeted our moms daily, up and down the four blocks of our four little streets: Selkirk, Pritchard, Manitoba, and Magnus. The south sounds were of the rail yards. Years later, I realized they were called the Weston shops, but to me it was just the CPR. In summers we slept to the sounds of trains being staged, banging and hooking together. It was a lullaby. On hot summer nights, every Wednesday we could listen to the whistling roar of the speedway in Brooklands, a mile or more to the west. Crescendo, decrescendo over and over again as the hot rods rounded the speedway, until I fell asleep in the breezeless heat.
We were surrounded and isolated in this flat city corner, but we were not forgotten. We had the bus on our street, so our moms had a way out to Eaton’s or Oretzki’s. Every second Selkirk bus journeyed past McPhillips into Shaughnessy Heights and all the way to Keewatin. When I awoke to darkness, still in my bed, the gentle shaking of the house and the moving light across my slanted bedroom ceiling told me that it wasn’t the middle of the night yet. The bus was still running, rumbling past our front door.
Nobody spoke about class or status in Shaughnessy Heights, but there were strata. The houses with basements were the coveted properties. The bungalows on Selkirk were the ultra-modern, even though they faced the CPR yards. I envied the kids in the gingerbread slab homes on Pritchard and on Manitoba toward Keewatin. They had cleaner houses, yards, and clothes than we did. Up past Leo Novak, the kids in the peacetime houses were all older teenagers, and their parents were older too. And over on Magnus, across from the church, at the north end of Railway, some of the houses were really old, like the ones across the tracks. Who knew what kind of spooks lived in those places? In our block, it was a free-for-all. We ran through the yards, ran and jumped and walked fences, raided gardens, and climbed on sheds.
1-2-3 on Larry! Home free! Draw a snake upon your back, who pokes IN? The cedar pole that served as a streetlight standard on the front street was the nearest thing to a tree in our block. That was where the hide-‘n-go-seek was based. There was no point in playing unless there were at least 15 kids. And we kept track. There was no limit and no rules. And, man, could we run. It was all barefoot.
In winter, the road had to be cleared to let the bus through, and the piles of snow were half again my height and the smooth paths along the top brought the kids to school. Up and down over the piles of snow the boys and girls scampered, fighting and pushing, and daring to throw one another in front of the next bus.
When I was a child, I thought everyone’s address rhymed, just like mine.
Sixteen Twenty-two Manitoba Avenue
Sixteen Twenty-two Manitoba Avenue

Of course, life was a continuous rhyme.
She didn’t read the poem to me, but she pointed to the book where it was. Nana would just tell us the poem and sometimes in her urgency she would roughly scramble to the page and make sure I could see the little acorn-shaped cap on the little people, and I’d jump on the chesterfield and yell the rhymes to her while her hands were covered with flour and her duMaurier was dangling from her mouth.
And then out I’d go, running across the street to gather a friend. Nose pressed against the screen.
“Can Shelley come out?”
“She’s in the back” would come the gruff, smoky reply from her busy mom.
Into the rhubarb patch we’d jump, yanking the ruby red stems and chomping them from the bottom up, daring each other to do so without making a sour face. My mouth waters still at the thought of the effort and success we had in this yearly contest. Sometimes Dawn Rae would come out of her house next door with sugar, but no, I was tough, I could do it without sugar.
When I was older, but still years from wearing a bra, I wanted to show the boys in Elmwood, by my auntie’s house, how tough I was.
“Watch this!” And I yanked a two-inch wide hunk of rhubarb from a patch a few doors away and calmly chomped into it without flinching.
They looked at me, and roared and barked at each other.
“Here – try this one,” some kid dared me back. It was an onion. I could handle an onion. What’s the big deal? I took the dare. I bit in. Chomped. I felt the heat rising in the sides of my neck, not because of this unusual fruit, but because I was embarrassed and I didn’t want to show it. I knew my face was turning brilliant red against the dark brown gigantic freckles that covered my face. In an instant I knew I had become a clown. And yes, the boys roared with laughter and pointed their fingers and rolled on the ground. It was their joke.
But I didn’t really get it. I felt the humiliation. I swallowed the bitter onion, turned and ran back to my aunt’s yard and climbed into the back seat of our car. They would not see my tears. The itchy cloth seat and the door-to-door rope hold on the back of the front seat had been a common playground for me and was a satisfactory refuge. I was still short enough to stand on the seat and jump, holding the safety cord. It was hot August, but I would not venture out. Those kids were history. Get me home to my own world.
I waited in the car and probably fell asleep. Finally, the family piled back into the car to head home to Shaughnessy Heights, and they instantly howled with disgust. All eyes were on me.
“Jeezus Christ – what have you been into?” My mom lit a cigarette and rolled down the window to get some fresh air in.
My dad looked at me and laughed. “You smell like a Bohunk.”
Nobody grew garlic in Shaughnessy Heights. At least we didn’t. I knew everybody’s gardens. How was I supposed to know? If I was to believe my family, I must have stunk for a month, or maybe forever.
Pink Pink You Stink
Red Red Pee the Bed
Yellow Yellow Kissed your Fellow
Green Green Washing Machine!
To this day, I’m glad I wasn’t living in Elmwood. All the bikers came from there.
Two four six eight
Ten twelve fourteen sixteen
Eighteen twenty
Two four six eight
Two four six eight
Two four six eight
Yell-singing in two-four time was a specialty in Shaughnessy Heights. There were no quiet kids. Not a single one. It was a prerequisite in our part of the North End. Well, maybe over in the slab houses or in the bungalows you might find a quiet kid, but not here in the wartime houses.
Plains claps Rollers backs
Highs lows Heels toes
Criss cross Over she goes
Sevens sixes fives fours threes twos ones.
We used the lacrosse ball. And we were ruthless with the lacrosse ball. On the steps of the school there was a red brick wall in front and another behind. It was a natural handball court. And we played there for hours. Jump ball with lines of five or six kids, or elimination seven-up. It was cutthroat.
“Aunty aunty over the shaaan-teeee!” the gang of kids yelled together. I was in a perpetually rhyming world. Pigtails. Aunty aunty over the shaaan-teeee. “Pigtails!” came the reply.
“Aunty aunty over the shaaan-teeee. Over!”
“Aunty aunty… Whew! They missed it.” And all our eyes were up at the top of the peak of the house as they called again from the backyard.
“Pigtails! Aunty aunty over the shaaan-teee. Over.”
There it is. Coming right at me. “Get it! Get it!”
It hit the ground, so we would have to throw again.
“Aunty aunty over the shaaan-teeee. Over!” We listened. There was no call back this time. It was all quiet and we were edgy, on alert. And then we would all scream. Everyone. Both teams would scream as they roared at us from both directions, hands cupped, all but one pretending they were holding the ball. The whole team had to switch sides. I needed to get to the backyard before I was tackled or belted with the ball. If I was hit or caught, I would have to go onto the other team.“Gotcha. Gotcha.” Every team needed a thrower and a catcher. There were really no jobs for the other team members other than screamer or tagger. A few windows were put out in this game. Lots of people built half-yard fences, separating the front yard from the back, to keep the kids from playing aunty aunty over the shanty, but that never stopped us from playing statues where in someone’s front yard we’d swing kids, or be swung around and chucked for a landing. Then the thrower had to guess what you had magically become upon landing in a strange and twisted posture. Or we’d play fruits where all but one kid would sit on the front steps. If that one kid, the guesser, guessed your fruit, you’d run around the house as fast as you could and get your bum back into the empty space first. It was the Shaughnessy Heights version of duck duck goose. Apples oranges peaches pears plums bananas. And the ones who liked to run always chose one of those. And the ones who hated running and didn’t want to lose their seat on the steps tried to think of a really obscure fruit. I was always torn between finding the most obscure fruit to make them guess, and getting to run the fastest. It was never ending, from morning to night. Hours and hours of fruits and statues and hide and seek and aunty aunty and seven-up. Or Skipping.
The wind the wind the wind blows high
It blows Nancy across the sky
She is fair and she is pretty
She is the girl from New York City
She can play accordion one two three
Oh Pray Oh Pray Oh who is she.
Roger Roger says he loves her
All the boys are asking for her
Put her in the garden, sat her on his knee
Asked her a question, “Will you marry me!!”
Yes No Maybe So Yes No Maybe So Yes No.
Had a little car.
Nineteen forty-eight.
Drove it down Main Street.
Put on the brakes!
What I don’t get is why this accordion-playing girl was so popular? I always put on the brakes at NO! during pepper because I would not be stuck with Roger. They always sang his name because he was the only kid who had more freckles and was shorter than me. Ick.
One two three O’Leary
My first name is Mary
If you think it’s necessary
Look it up in the dictionary
There was lots of noise in Shaughnessy Heights. And it came from the kids. Not from boom boxes or hot rods. No, just kids, hundreds and hundreds of very loud kids.
Mom worked at Eaton’s on Fridays and Dad always went to pick her up in the white Pontiac Laurentian with the red interior. That was why Nana was there, making the scones, smoking the DuMaurier. Wee folk. Good folk. Trooping all together.
That was the summer they put the trees in our boulevard. Such skinny little things. You couldn’t even climb them even though we tried. Snap! Maples. No, those aren’t real maples. They’re Manitoba maples. But they were just too skinny.

I peeked through the front door, but the grown up, Mr. Brown, the new guy from across the street was in our front room. He wouldn’t let me into my house. I saw Nana lying on the front room rug.
I shouldn’t have been playing outside. I should have been in the house with her. I was invisible. The grown-ups were all hanging around out front. They took her away. People brought whiskey. I ran and hid beneath the laundry pile at Shelley’s. Her mom and dad and all of the other moms and dads and everyone after dark were all humming this low drone. I couldn’t hear anything. Usually when there was whiskey everyone was wild and singing and the kids were crazy, jumping on the beds and climbing out of windows. But not this time.
Then, finally, it was about me, and where was I? Was I sleeping? Was I hiding? I was found and they dug me out from beneath the neighbour’s laundry and my dad carried me home. That was the first time I saw the dime. And I saw it many many times after that. It was the dime of silence. The dime that was not a dime. The thing that could not be described. It floated between my mind and what I could see. I could hear it better than I could see it and could even feel it with my tongue. As I lay still on the big bed in my parents’ bedroom, it came to me from the Other Side and I was afraid of it. It was the underside of my mind, the first clue that maybe I was not right.
It was smooth and shiny and perfect. A destination. A goal. And it was in a race against the big and shapeless lumpy cloud that could not be seen or even described. The garbage. The dime was always just beyond reach, and I was always sliding backwards within the lumps. Sucked in by the garbage. Slowed down. Swallowed by the murkiness. But if I closed my eyes and held my breath, maybe, just maybe I would be the dime or know the dime. Perhaps I had known it and it had left me behind that day.
Nana had left me with this untouchable and indescribable floating talisman of the mind that became a cue to awareness of the Other Side. A gate to the unknown and the unspeakable.They buried my Nana during the total eclipse, but all the kids had to go to the Palace Theatre on Selkirk to watch 101 Dalmations or else we’d go blind. She’s still over there in Brookside with the rest of them. Watching the airplanes come and go.
Next Weekly Episode: Hopscotch

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