In Our Backyard
God bless us because at least the furnace isn’t running. It has been that kind of summer so far – and that’s just the weather. As I’ve aged I’ve come to conclude that I’m incapable of exercising any control or influence over external events – hashtags and online petitions are empty gestures. I devote my attention to Ann’s and mine’s little patch of turf and the people surrounding it.
The brown bungalow adjacent to the Crooked 9 whose street number ended with a properly installed 5 was reduced to a pile of debris before noon today. Amazing what comes out of an empty house: sheets of plywood, solid timber studs, pipes, wires, ducts, tubing, pink fiberglass insulation, purple and blue rigid insulation, aluminum, plastic sheeting, tarpaper, porcelain bathroom fixtures, wrought iron, glass shards, carpeting, ceramic tiles, cement and a snow shovel. All of it smashed, crushed and bent into haulable smithereens.
The fellow who operated the orange Hitachi backhoe with the dinosaur-jaw at its end was something of an artist. The destruction was methodical, room by room. Demolition isn’t neurosurgery but I was surprised by the agility of the panzer-tracked machine, and the finesse and dexterity of its operator. A colleague of his saturated the dust raised with the nozzle of a water truck’s unspooled large gauge high pressure hose. Water sprayed everywhere into the air, droplets shining like mercury in the morning sun. The light revealed other things: a fallen bird nest, a squirreled cache of peanuts and an angry swarm of displaced wasps. And pushing the surreal, a perfectly intact box of Mickey Mouse disposable Huggies diapers.
Our eccentric neighbour Forest was getting on. His eyesight had declined as his infirmities increased. A solitary man, he sold his home pretty much “as is” last November to move into assisted living on the north side of the river, downtown. He is not enthralled with his new residence. “Geoff, the food is beef, beef, beef, beef, chicken. Sometimes they make me an omelet. I’m evaporating. And the people, they play cards and talk about nothing. I can’t relate to anyone.” He allows that living next door to Ann and me afforded him a bonus year, maybe two, of independence.
Forest loved Ann’s cooking and baking. His twice weekly Meals on Wheels deliveries provided little satisfaction. We shoveled his snow and changed his light bulbs. We read his correspondence to him and accompanied him on short walks in the neighbourhood. Ann fixed his toilet; I changed his furnace filters.
I encountered Forest for the first time about 30 years ago. He had hair like Bob Dylan (and still does) and wore eyeglasses that would have suited John Lennon. He drove a maroon Jaguar. Here was a far out enigma, a self-described “lapsed Buddhist” who “helps people when they’re ready.” Throughout all the years I’ve known him he’s been working on a book. A philosophical treatise on the human condition and the nature of the christ figure who must necessarily embody the best qualities of every gender and race and unify the world’s great religions. Yet his legendary aphorism remains: “So much to do, so little time. Why bother?”
Forest is an aesthete and a minimalist. Should there be just one chair in his living room (and there was), it had to be the Platonic ideal of a chair and the purchasing decision could not be made in haste, weeks of reflection were required because any and every choice about something seemingly as simple as a piece of furniture changed the past, altered the present and affected the future by its very presence. There was no such thing as an easy chair, a La-Z-Boy, how could there be and, more importantly, why should there be?
Forest’s backyard today looks like a battlefield the morning after. The dust has cleared. Truth is that it had fallen into neglect before he decided to pull up stakes late last fall. At one time his Zen refuge was an elaborately manicured private space of paving stones, raised flowerbeds, hanging baskets and compact, elevated winding paths. There was a torii, a gate between the humdrum and the sacred, and gong, and a bell. The exact placement of each primitively hewn obelisk was an agonizing decision - the correct side must be properly oriented, but which one? The boards comprising the fence between us had been individually inspected by Forest and he’d rejected many as less than furniture quality.
He had a life partner too once, an artist, but for a limited time only. Ultimately her muse led her out of town while Forest chose to remain in his garden. Alone with the biggest regret of his life Forest fretted over the inability of the Edmonton Oilers’ fourth line to provide the club with 40 goals over the course of a hockey season. And why does Edmonton always lose the big must-win football game to Calgary?
We spoke over the telephone just recently – a visit is still impossible. Forest said, “Don’t tell me about my house, I don’t want to know. I’m trying to erase it from my memory. Hey, Geoff, what do you think the Oilers’ chances are in a five game series against the Blackhawks? Chicago wasn’t having a great season before the stoppage but they’ve got a couple of great players who’ve already won three Cups.”
Most Canadians live in urban environments. Higher levels of government limit cities’ abilities to raise revenue which in turn is spent on essential services and administration. Ann and I are aware that the infill phenomenon, the sub-division of existing lots to accommodate two skinny houses, increases the municipal tax base through density. The problem with this poorly regulated process is that speculative builders often run out of cash midway through projects. Most city neighbourhoods are blighted with weedy wastelands, scars of failed quick-buck dreams. New builds display their Tyvek vapour barriers for months at a time. Finally, architectural controls are mere guidelines; civic bylaws don’t allow accountability for a developer’s poor taste, neither the gauche nor the cookie-cutter.
The Forest project is right in our backyard. Ann and I are annoyed because this infill job has become our headache. Noise and shockwaves. We are sweating the integrity of the Crooked 9’s 65-year-old cement foundation. We are sweating the solidity of the excavation face along the property line following a decade of drought. We are sweating slope, drainage and shadows. We are concerned about privacy in our home and our backyard. But most of all we are grieving the loss of a friend - the three of us were close for many years.