Monday, June 21, 2010

Crossing the Tracks

Crossing the tracks. Going east, 750 metres from the wartime house.

Eventually, the time came to venture out of my world, my flat concrete world with paved back lanes that slanted inward to a perfect vee, where we could play tin can cricket with tomato juice cans. My flat concrete world with perfectly pocked sidewalks poured in perfect blocks and hemmed with a nice smooth border. Ideal for hopscotch. My flat concrete world with solid curbs, majestically rounded down to a good cement street. Lots of grey. Right up to the fields. I didn’t know that in some parts of this city, Charleswood and St. Vital, for example, they didn’t even have paved back lanes yet. In other parts of the city, like the new Garden City that was just popping up, they didn’t even have back lanes! Here, we even had nice square pads of poured concrete dotting the way from the big sidewalk into our front steps. It came with the house!

Grass grew between each cement block, and, of course, you never stepped on the cracks. Everyone in Shaughnessy Heights had these good cement sidewalks up front, but nobody had them at the back.

It turned out that we had been living in a gauntlet. There was only one way out.
There was nothing to the south. We could not wander that way. There was only the CPR and it was successfully barricaded by a ten-foot fence. To this day, I have never seen past the fence.

We used to call it the Piggy Back and the only place you could almost see into the CPR yards was at the tracks, where they jogged past Matela’s and the drug store.

To the North, there were only the fields. Later, long before the fields became Inkster Industrial Park, they paved many of the newly surveyed streets out there, but they didn’t put up any street lights for several years. We called that dark series of streets Dunlop. It became the famous drinking and necking grounds. Anyone who went for a ride to Dunlop knew what they were getting into, but in the early days, before Dunlop, wandering north offered nothing but the splendour of tall grass prairie. The crocuses, the fleabane, the gopher holes, and every so often, a piece of junk, a true treasure.

To the west of us, Keewatin was unpaved, the end of the city. The few ramshackle houses beyond there had no plumbing.
East it would be, across the tracks and into the mysterious world inhabited by those other kids, the ones who went to that other school, Florence Nightingale. I would venture inward, toward the city I’d only seen from the bus. I was almost old enough.

Every day in Shaughnessy Heights, you would hear kids getting called in for supper then see them cut through yards and jump fences and cross lanes, being beckoned home like puppies for some food. Kids generally played within earshot. I knew nothing past Magnus, just the fields, and nothing past Selkirk, just the CPR. My world was three blocks long, ending at the tracks, and at the north end of Railway, on our side of the tracks, was my church, the United Church. The Catholic Church was across the tracks, so I figured the Catholics were all over there too.
Summers were never-ending in Shaughnessy Heights, and eventually, the days dragged for our moms too, with mountains of kids hollering and brawling and creating one ruckus after another. Thank heavens for Northwood! By the time I’d heard of Northwood, it already had a reputation as a place for the teenagers, the big kids, and the dances. It was a real action place. Bands even played there. But for me, at that age the big attraction there was the wading pool.
When you live in a flat concrete world, a world that absorbs the heat of a long hot summer, a sprinkler is a really big deal. The upstairs bedrooms in the wartime houses were nested under slanted ceilings protected by black asphalt shingles. It was a perfect heat sink. There were no breezes coming through because the houses blocked each other. It was just plain hot. And eventually, by the time our moms were on their second or third child, they had lost their sense of protection and would cast us off, armed with squashed peanut butter and banana sandwiches. We would hike three blocks up the concrete sidewalks and across the tracks and behind the Catholic Church and down the short street, across Burrows, the boulevard avenue, and into the wading pool at Northwood. We’d lie on our bellies, feet toward the middle and heads facing out, like seals or walruses. It was a scratchy bottom, but it was wet and wild and a major adventure. And there were strangers too. Other kids. Maybe I’d seen them at the store, or maybe that time I was at Brownies for two weeks at the Catholic Church. I saw my first Mennonite there, Helene, with the lovely blue plaid dress.

The neighbourhood across the tracks was much bigger than ours. It went to the CPR yards too, but there were houses on both sides of Selkirk once you crossed the tracks. And, well, it was bigger. It went all the way to McPhillips, a long way. And there were all of those old houses. Creepy. But eventually we were forced to socialize with the kids beyond our safe haven. And that was where the kings of my neighbourhood lived. Heady and Deigo. Maybe they’re dead by now. All the other boys, the big boys, the smart boys, they all took after Heady and Deigo. Nobody ever fought with Heady or Deigo, unless they came from somewhere else. If you were from Shaughnessy Heights, you never fought with Heady or Deigo.
From my perspective, about seven years behind the first wave of baby boomers, Heady and Deigo were practically grown-ups, and they set the tone for who we would all become, and for the most part, who we are today. The girls from the neighbourhood were teased by Heady and Deigo and the rest of the boys went along with them.

Next Week, Episode 7: Musicial Influences

No comments: