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It Should Have Been Happy and Warm
I stumble against the doorway. Must have drifted off there for a moment. Almost dropped the precious coins I'm holding.
I open my hand to count the money. Twenty-five … thirty-five … I lose track and start over again. Fifty. Fifty-five. Sixty-five. Seventy-five cents.
It is just after three o'clock. I am twenty-five cents short.
The wind comes up, carrying the rain with it. Cold December rain that is certain to become snow by evening. Bad news. The lineup at the Salvation Army hostel will be longer than usual this evening.
I need that twenty-five cents, that quarter of a dollar. I need it in a way I need air. I need it more than food.
I need to use the bathroom, too. Cold air does that to you. But first I need to drink. Everything is needs. I am beyond wants.
If I stand deeper in the doorway, the dirt-crusted windowed doorway of this empty store on Jarvis Street, I'll be out of the wind a little and won't shiver quite so violently. There won't be as much chilling breeze to pull at the T-shirt and plaid flannel work shirt that I have been wearing for … for weeks now. I tried to figure out how many weeks it's been just then. Lost count.
That's not true. I did not lose count. I just don't want to know.
Standing here deeper in the doorway, I'm not seen so easily by people going by, and if I'm not seen, I can't make eye contact with somebody who might give me a quarter.
Like this fellow coming up the street. Wearing a coat with a fur collar. Smiling to himself as though somebody told him a joke, or he just decided what to buy his girlfriend for Christmas.
He looks my age. Twenty-three, twenty-four years old. Nice shoes. Good haircut. What's twenty-five cents to him? I step out into the wind again, my hand extended.
A police car just turned the corner at Shuter Street. Coming this way. I know the cop driving it. A mean SOB. Big guy. Thick black moustache. He'll stop at the curb, tell me to get the hell off the street. Maybe he'll get out of the car and slap the money from my hand, knock the coins into the gutter and stand there watching me shuffle away, down the street and around the corner. I couldn't take that. Not today. I withdraw my hand, step back into the doorway.
I need to take the chance.
“Any spare change?” I ask the man with the fur collar as he passes me.
I startled him. He averts his eyes from mine, dropping them to my dirty plaid shirt, stained trousers, worn shoes, then away again. Maybe he smells me. I know I smell. I can't help it. You get sick, you don't wash often enough, you don't change your clothes, that's what happens. You smell. I want to explain this to him, but he keeps walking, not missing a stride.
The police car passes. The officer hasn't noticed me either.
Three hours to beg twenty-five cents here on the street. If I get seventy-five cents, a dollar for the wine and fifty cents for the flophouse, I won't have to go to the hostel tonight. I can share a room with Bruce and Doc and the other guys.
The rain is getting heavier, the sky greyer, the air colder.
Here comes a woman, older than me, with a sweet face. I'll smile at her, maybe remind her of her own son or a long-lost brother. Women are more generous than men.
I force a smile to my face. It almost hurts. When did it start hurting to smile?
That was me, the guy looking for a handout, begging money for a bottle of wine and a fifty-cent bed in a flophouse.
The year was 1971. I was thirty years away from being named an Officer of the Order of Canada, twenty years away from marrying a beautiful and successful woman and fathering our two precious daughters, ten years away from earning my first million dollars, and a week away from deciding that I must either change or die.
Let me paint you a pleasant picture, one you may envy.
It's the 1950s, the golden era of the nuclear family. One of the most popular shows on television is Father Knows Best. Father, as portrayed on the show, is a pleasant fellow who smiles easily and is a fount of common sense to his children. He holds an executive position and earns an impressive salary. We know this because he wears a well-tailored suit; lives in a large, immaculate house; drives a new car; and is married to a woman who adores him.
His wife always wears an apron and sensible shoes. She stays home to “keep house.” Father is handsome, mother is pretty, and the children are attractive. The house is located in a comfortable upscale community, far from the dirt and dangers of inner-city life. The yard has a garden. The family owns a dog. The pantry is always full. The rooms are always warm. Sundays are for church. Summers are spent at a cottage on a lake. Christmas is a joyous time.
This is not only the setting for a corny sitcom. It was the setting of my life as a child, the second of four children, and it appears as idyllic on the surface as the television program it seems to mimic.
Father Knows Best existed on a Hollywood set. At 116 Ballantyne Avenue, in the community of Montréal-Ouest during the 1950s, the picture may have been similarly attractive, but the reality was not.
My father was a good man, intelligent and hard-working, the manager of a paint factory. You would have liked him if you met him. Tall, slim, and dark-haired, he was a handsome guy who carried himself with the grace and balance of a professional athlete, which he was for a time. He had an Irish aspect to his personality that many people found attractive, namely a talent for connecting both with blue-collar guys working in a tool shop and with stiff-necked politicians sitting on one of the community service boards to which he had volunteered his time.
This was a good man, in so many ways. Despite what happened, of the one time in my life that he failed me in the way that a father should never fail his son, I loved him and I know he loved me. We just had difficulty showing it.
Dad believed that everybody should meet his or her obligations. He also believed in the demonstrated superiority of English-speaking people. This did not seem nearly as alien then as it does today—most Anglos of his generation felt the same way. He had, I know, great affection and admiration for the Québécois people he lived among, including my mother, whose French-Canadian roots were as deep as anyone's. But at the core of his soul, I know that he thought Anglos superior, just as white people in the U.S. South thought themselves superior to Afro-Americans a few generations ago, though my father displayed none of that bitterness.
My father did not believe in excessive displays of emotion. I think his reaction, if he observed the way I openly hug and kiss my wife and children today, would be somewhere between embarrassment and amusement. He never expressed his opinions to us, his children, or asked about our views on anything of substance. A gulf existed between us that neither was able to bridge. We never exchanged ideas or opinions because only one opinion counted: his. This wasn't simple arrogance on his part; just a basic belief that the role of parents was to pass on knowledge to their children, a flow that was always one way. It's an old-fashioned idea, and a respectable one by some measures.
Dad never played games with us, nor did he participate in sports, a curious decision since he had been a gifted athlete in his youth, playing on the varsity football team for the University of Manitoba. He was even asked to join the Winnipeg Blue Bombers organization and might have launched a career in the Canadian Football League if he hadn't suffered a serious knee injury.
He did not encourage me to play hockey as a child; I made that decision on my own. When I suffered a mild concussion in one game, I was banished from participating in any organized sport from that day forward, as were my brothers and sister.
Dad told us what was good and what was not good about the world. He revealed his expectations of himself, and the expectations he had of his family. Everything else between us was either not worth discussing or superfluous. He provided the means for food and shelter, moral guidance, wise counsel at his discretion, and gentle discipline when needed. We, his children, were not to expect anything more. Today he would be called a distant parent. Back then, he was simply our father.
My mother adored my father. Sixty-odd years ago, this was more than a mere romantic notion. Her kind of adoration meant that she functioned quite happily in her husband's shadow. While he was alive, my mother concealed her own strengths and much of her personality, never wanting to compete with Dad's role. Only after his death did she and her children discover just how formidable those strengths were, and then for a tragically short time.
They were an ideal fit, my father and mother. Even as a small boy, I realized how beautiful my mother was, and how she strived to make herself attractive for my father. She did this, I understand now, not only because she truly loved my father but because she was grateful and honoured to be his wife. This was based in part on practical and cultural factors. He was a white-collar anglophone. She was a middle-class Québécoise. In today's terms, my father was a catch, the Perfect Husband for a French-speaking girl, and my mother never forgot it.
Mother shared his belief in the superiority of English language and culture, despite her having been born and raised in a solidly Québécois family. She believed in it, and in him, so strongly that she rejected every aspect of her heritage. The only time French was spoken in our home was when my mother and father wanted to keep secrets from us kids. We lived among a million French-speaking people in and around Montreal, but that was irrelevant. If you spoke English well, you were several steps ahead of those who didn't. If you spoke only French, you had better get used to pushing brooms and doing laundry. At my father's factory, no French-Canadian worker ever rose above the level of foreman.
The best route to success for French-Canadian men was within the Catholic Church, which reigned supreme in Quebec when I was a child. And the best route for French-Canadian women was to marry an anglophone man. That was my mother's strategy. She rejected her cultural heritage to become a newly minted anglophone woman, the chatelaine of her home in an anglophone enclave. Mother spoke English with a cultivated hint of an upper-class British accent. Upon first meeting her, no one could believe she had been born in La Belle Province and not on a Cotswold estate. The only vestige she retained of her birthright was her Catholicism.
My mother's only ambition was to be my father's wife, a job that included maintaining a clean, attractive home, cooking his favourite meals, laundering his clothes, and sharing his dreams and ambitions. It did not include being the mother of his children. She was, of course. But she resented that responsibility. Mother did not hug her children on any day that I can remember, and although she joined the school's PTA, this represented community service more than family duty. She took no interest in our schooling and no pleasure in our company. This was nothing personal, because she took even less interest in her four grandchildren. I don't offer this as an excuse for what I became. Like other situations confronting us in life, we either deal with it or we do not.