Thursday, 23 January 2020

HUMAN WRECKAGE

About an Avenue

Forgive me while I remember.

Before February freezes into double digits I will turn 60, older than the Rolling Stones and the Who but not by much. These days I find myself emitting frequent, involuntary, old person noises. Their source is not physical, aches and pains, so much as the persistence of memory. Every conjured, uninvited memory is a bad one, each comprising a cringe-worthy litany of every stupid, embarrassing and shameful thing I’ve ever done in my life. This is why elderly people tend to stoop; why Catholics inflict the hell of confession upon themselves even though there’s no way to ease the weight of wrong. Still, my psyche isn’t playing fair with me because lately I’ve been reminded of some idyllic times.

These were the days in Montreal before I made the heroic leap from Jean Beliveau to Keith Richards, a puberty-driven and ultimately career-limiting compulsion to never, ever fit in if I could help it. The Town of Mount Royal, separated from downtown by the mountain, a dead volcano, was an ingenious and enlightened example of pre-war urban planning. The main boulevards of the modern garden city spoked toward compass points beyond its boundaries from a hub housing a central park, recreation and public service facilities, schools, a commercial area and the commuter train station. Housing was a carefully regulated mix of walk-up apartment buildings, duplexes, semi-detached, bungalows, two-storeys and modest suburban mansions.

My childhood playmate Mark lived across Dobie Avenue, a few doors farther down toward the tennis courts, rugby field and baseball diamond. We never attended school together because he was Protestant. The nuns never explained that schism in catechism. And what in God’s name was a Jew? Who knew? I had a better handle on Hugh MacLennan’s ‘Two Solitudes’ because the Pea-soups or Pepsis at the hockey rink spoke French and I was fine being called a tete-carre or maudit Sprite as the epithets were nothing personal, just part of the game.

Mark was the youngest of four in his family. He suffered from some type of affliction in his legs. For a time he had to wear clunky, corrective boots. I wanted a pair just like them because Mark was my best friend. Eventually we both sported the same brand of running shoe, North Star knock-offs. The soles of our sparkling white shoes peeled off in the space of a week. Mark decided we should go to the shoe shop in the Centre of Town and complain. We walked home together, an arm around each other’s neck, grinning, admiring our brand new Adidas, three blue stripes.

One of his older brothers, Ian, used to hang around with us from time to time and I looked up to him because he possessed a wise and worldly additional 30 months or so on Earth compared to Mark and me. Ian and I are now Facebook friends. He is a musician who willingly shares his gift. The memories our limited correspondence has prompted have made me smile. His baby brother, my old friend Mark, has, as I understand it, wisely eschewed the duality of digital existence. I don’t know where Mark lives. I don’t know what he does. I wonder how he’s doing.

There were fewer fences back when the Canadian flag and the introduction of the metric system were still novel. We would place brads beneath a front tire of a Guaranteed Milk truck and trespass full throttle through two backyards to emerge innocently on a parallel avenue. One peculiar feature of the Town’s planning was that there were areas where the backs of the residential lots were not quite flush. This anonymous right-of-way was maybe four feet wide, perhaps three. One entry to this secret trail was behind Mark’s and Ian’s garden. It allowed us to move up and down Dobie virtually unseen.

Stealth was required for guerrilla warfare, garbage can lid shields and little green apples. And especially Nicky-Nicky-Nine-Door: ring the doorbell and vanish. As is the case with nascent human nature, we tended to pick on neighbours we deemed strange or different. It never occurred to me that they might view our respective families in the same way. When we did get to know some of the avenue’s weirdos, it was a bit of a letdown to learn they were entirely normal, or as close as you can get what with people being people.

(I suppose the kids residing on my Edmonton street today consider me one of those strange and different types. I smoke. I'm not overly social. My modicum of grace is that the Crooked 9 has no doorbell.)

It’s hard to say when things began to change on Dobie. All of the lovely, shading elms were cut down, victims of disease. Older boys like Ian developed more mature interests than being mere brats. Their hairstyles changed; the local barber's business slumped. Kids like Mark and me made friends with other kids from different blocks and other parts of the Town in our separate schoolyards. Our avenue world expanded very quickly and then burst like a supernova. Growing up. Mark’s and Ian’s family moved to St-Jerome. What was left of mine eventually decamped for downtown Montreal.

About five years ago I drove through the Town of Mount Royal, buckled into the passenger seat of a Mazda. Everything, even the big houses, seemed so tiny. The streets were impossibly narrow. How wide had that secret trail been, really? I reminded myself that I was smaller then too, not even close to almost grown. I thought of a Bob Dylan song, so apropos, ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’ and its lyric: “What looks large from a distance, close up, ain’t never that big.” But it was; it really was.                                              

meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced, inaccurate alternative source of memoir and opinion since 2013. Sign up for e-mail alerts from the Crooked 9.

6 comments:

  1. Nice story about Dobie. Myself, (Robert) and my brother Duncan lived at 102 from 1958 until 1970. The Chown boys, Gary, Richie and David, were at 120.

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    1. I remember you and your brother very well. You guys knew my big brother Robert, he passed in 2012. I knew the Chowns too.

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    2. and us at 122... Hi Robert.

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  3. Hi Geoff. I've never been tagged as "wise" before, more like a "wise guy" or "wise ass motherfucker" lol. I tried to write you from my phone last night when I read it I was out at my regular Thursday Open Mic. Either mine was the one deleted, or it didn't go through...hate the phone. I read it out loud to my wife just before bed, and she found it charming as did I. I can give yopu Mark's phone number in a PM if you'd like. I am sending this article to him via his wife. Thanks for the memories. That little secret back alley I haven't thought about in years!

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