the diary thing 
gray and outlookI LEFT MOUNT DENNIS over fifteen years ago, and apart from occasional, often accidental visits, I haven't really been back. Last month, I pitched a story about my old neighbourhood to a big lifestyle magazine here, and they accepted. After a couple of weeks of procrastination, I went back today.

I know I'm making it sound like Mount Dennis is my distant, far away hometown, a little prairie village or seaside town hundreds of miles from here, the kind of place most of us escape for the big city, and a very few of us return to, later in life. The fact that Mount Dennis is half an hour away from here by public transit -- barely ten minutes by car -- is, to me, incidental. I feel, every day, like I'm a thousand miles away from the place where I grew up, in more ways than even I can imagine.

I leave for my old neighbourhood after a breakfast meeting with one of my editors, starting pretty much directly from the centre of the city. I finally put my book down on the Weston road bus when we pass the high point at Rogers Road, before the bus starts down the steep slope to Black Creek and up the hill again to Mount Dennis -- so named because it's probably the highest point in the west end, a small plateau carved out by the once-raging rivers that subsided eons ago into the humble trickle of Black Creek and the more substantial, yet nevertheless declining, flow of the Humber River. 

I get off the bus at the physical centre of the neighbourhood, the corner of Weston and Eglinton, directly in front of the Anglican church where I used to have my piano recitals, and next to the library where I spent much of my childhood when not in school or in my room. It seems a good place to start.

Across the wide intersection, the old tavern by the bank is now a Korean restaurant -- the most immediate of the various changes to the place. I head west, to Guestville Avenue, and down the street, past the church where I was christened and confirmed, and where my parents were buried from. I turn at Astoria, past the nicest homes in the neighbourhood -- clustered around the Medical Centre, naturally -- and head along the street where it curves around the edge of the slope at the edge of the Flats, the broad floodplain of the Humber. 

I head down Lambton to Grandville, to the row of houses my grandfather built in the twenties, and which he lost when the economy tanked. It's a signal fact of my family's history that he ended up renting a house that he built, and that he never worked again. I stand in front of number eighty, and try to match it up -- a tiny bungalow with a newish, timber porch and a small parking spot carved out of what was once the lawn -- with the house in the pictures of my dad in his RCAF uniform. It's a bright winter day, and it's a tough fit in this light -- I decide to move on, and turn up Outlook to Chryessa.

 I walk down the dead end of the street to my aunt Matty's house. I knock twice before I hear her opening the door, and hear the t.v. set, turned to the weather channel, blaring in the living room. It's been years since I've seen Matty, and she doesn't remember me until I say my name, twice. 

When I was a little boy, my mother bought me a box of stationary -- buff-coloured paper decorated with an elaborate, vaguely medieval manuscript-type scroll. (I was obsessed with the Middle Ages at the time, a period that sat roughly between my obsession with Egyptology and marine biology.) I didn't know anyone who lived outside my neighbourhood, so I decided to write to my Aunt Matty, who lived two blocks away from us. She still remembers my letters, and tells me she has them, somewhere in the house. She's just about to get up to find them when I tell her not to get up.

My uncle Tommy passed away a few years back, and Matty's lived alone in the house ever since. She's hard of hearing and walks with a cane, and I don't think she uses the upstairs anymore. I used to love visiting Matty and Tommy when I was little, and especially loved the fish-bowl by the window full of multicoloured guppies. The big t.v. set, in it's dark wood cabinet, is sitting about where the fish bowl was, and Matty has a table next to her chair covered in books, medicine, the t.v. guide and remote. 

Matty's still sharp, if a bit sad.

"My life really ended when Tommy died," she tells me, and I don't know what to say.

I ask her about the neighbourhood, the house she's lived in for over fifty years, her memories of my parents and their friends.

"I thought Mount Dennis was heaven when we came here," she tells me, at least two or three times. "I remember the wooden sidewalks, and muddy roads." She came here with her parents from Scotland when she was a little girl, and arrived at the docks in Montreal on Armistice Day, 1919. They were delayed leaving the ship by the three minutes' silence. Matty is 89 years old.

She tells me about a skating rink on Lambton that Mr. Marshall, one of the neighbourhood patriarchs, used to flood, and how he charged a quarter when there was a band. They'd swim in the Humber and catch fish for frying. 

A lot had changed, even when I was little. The Irish and Scots that made up Mount Dennis were being replaced by Italians, Portugese and Croats, and later by West Indians and, now, Koreans and Vietnamese. She remembers market gardens, thick bush, and potato patches on the flats below the houses, the last of the brick kilns, and the gravel pit that I knew as Smythe Park. 

I remember bullying at school and tough kids who hated bookish, unathletic kids like me. I remember walking to school, imagining the ordeal ahead, the beatings and humliation I could expect, as if to prepare myself; a daily ritual that somehow made it easier when, at the end of the day, it was only half as bad as I expected. I remember that when the boys had gotten tired of making my life miserable, sometime at the beginning of the seventh grade, the girls, newly roused by the power of their earlier puberty, took over, and that was somehow much worse. I don't remember Mount Dennis as heaven, yet here I am, my backpack full of maps and photocopied history of the neighbourhood, trying to make sense of it all.

I tell Matty that I'll be around a fair bit over the next month, and that I'll drop by on her when I can. I ask her if she needs anything, and she tells me no -- she orders her groceries over the phone, and her son, Tim, comes by on weekends to help her out. 

"And this is the way / We start the day / In a corner of Hell called home."
- Louise Cass

I suppose the blandly appropriate quote of the day should have been Thomas Wolfe's "You can't go home again", but it just seemed too pat. You can go home -- but you'd better be prepared.

weston and eglintonI WALK BACK TO OUTLOOK and head up to Gray. Gray and Outlook -- the corner where I grew up. It's been a joke with me and my friends for years -- the bitterest, most vituperative person they know, the one with the legendarily bleak childhood, growing up at the corner of Gray and Outlook. Cheap, obvious irony, but somehow too true. I've promised them I'll take a picture of the street signs the next time I'm up here, just for proof.

I turn the corner and the feeling is back again -- the same feeling as the last time I strolled by, a decade after the day I left here, in the moving truck that took my stuff into storage and me onto a series of friends' couches. Back home after a few frustrated efforts at living on my own, I ended up alone in the house after my mom went into a nursing home, when the Parkinson's made her finally give up the independence she'd cherished for over a decade after Dad died. 

The feeling -- nothing new, really, just the too-tall sensation of standing in front of the house you grew up in, on the street that once felt like the world. The house looks small, the lawn tiny, the distance to the houses where Dave and Shawn and Kevin used to live so much shorter. I stare at number 41 for a few minutes, hoping someone will see me through the venetians and invite me in, but no one does, so I head down the street toward Lambton. 

I walk past my old school, near where Matty and Tom used to skate on Mr. Marshall's rink, and marvel that the walk takes a scant few minutes, where it used to seem like a tiring, endless half-hour on my way to classes in the morning and after lunch. Considering the dread with which I made that walk every day, I suppose it's no surprise. I turn at Guestville and again at Dennis, past the United Church -- now half-converted into a social services facility, and past Dennis Avenue School, where my mother went to school, and where my father went for a short while before quitting to help support the family. Back on Weston, I pass the Legion Hall, and the Salvation Army, and drop by the library, for old times' sake.

The library I used to spend hours in, migrating early from the children's section in the south half of the building to the adults' in the north, is long gone, demolished over a decade ago and re-built as a bright, open bookroom. I leave and cross the street for some lunch at the Korean place, where I'm the only customer and where the waitress, a cheerful young girl, seems surprised when I order from the Korean menu, not the "Western".

The afternoon is barely half over when I finish eating, so I decide to head up Weston, up the old main street, to the bleakest corner at Jane, just by the factories and the horrible new development. I'm barely a block up the road when I see, on the side of a store ahead, a sign: "Our Lady of Victory Credit Union". The last time I was in the credit union my father helped found was after college, when my mother signed over the savings account she'd been keeping in my name to me, a savings account that began with my baby bonus, and to which she added a few dollars every month. I was having a hard time finding work. 

I remember filling out withdrawal slips under a picture of the credit union's founding day, looking at my father in his shirtsleeves in the same room where I was standing, thirty years later, eager to get at the money. I drained the account by the end of the summer, spending it on an electric guitar and drugs -- acid mostly, some pot, and a few tiny baggies of magic mushrooms. 

I decide to visit and see if the picture's still there. Maybe I'll see if anyone remembers my dad; I'll interview them for my article. Maybe I'll ask for a copy of the picture. I decide not to mention my long-closed account. 

I push open the front door and immediately sense that something's wrong. From the stairs to the basement offices I hear reggae pounding, and smell stale cooking odours -- the thick rice and starch and spicy sweetness of island food. The inside door to the ground floor banking room is covered from the inside with a slab of acoustic ceiling tile, and the old yellow curtains are drawn. I push on the door; it's locked. I peek through an opening in the curtains and see a kettle, a couch, a t.v. set. I quickly turn on my heel and bolt out.

Suddenly, I'm in one of those nightmares I still have, the ones set in the old neighbourhood, in my school, or my mother's house. This time the dream is a fevered variation on Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life; I'm Jimmy Stewart, and Bedford Falls has turned into Potterville. The Bailey Savings and Loan closed because I did leave town, and Uncle George ran it into the ground. I walk back out onto Weston and head up the street, almost distraught, muttering to myself, "I'm sorry, Dad. I'm really sorry."

No, that's wrong. I always thought of my neighbourhood as Potterville. Bedford Falls -- that was where my parents lived, with the skating rink and the 25-cent band and the butcher shop with the greasy, sawdust-covered wooden floor across from Walker's, where my brother worked after school. The butcher's has been gone since I was a boy, and Walker's became a Becker's, then a Mac's Milk, years ago, when Mr. Potter bought everything. 

My deadline is in two weeks. I wonder how much of this psychodrama I can get through to produce a nice lifestyle magazine piece about a little old neighbourhood. 

writing ©2001
Rick McGinnis
...the past
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