Candy George – a memoir

Posted on August 22, 2008


The tenement was unpainted, its lumber blanched a tinder gray by weather and sun.  It appeared an old building, and maybe it was, or that might have been an illusion created by shoddy construction and the effect of north coast climate, which could swallow entire cities in a season if only the people went away. The building stood perhaps twenty feet back from the street on a slant so abrupt that the building’s second floor was at street level. The first floor needed a staircase down from the street to reach it. The second floor could be accessed more directly from the pavement by a sort of bridge. It was there, on the second floor, where lived the old man, game in one leg from an ancient motorcycle accident, who the children called Candy George.

Perhaps it was another time, but it seemed that in every town or neighbourhood where people greeted and touched each other’s lives instead of pushing by indifferently on the sidewalk, there was a man like him. Maybe they called him Candy Bill, or Candy Bob, or One-Eyed Candy Sam. In Prince Rupert, in that tenement on Eighth Avenue, he was known as Candy George.

Candy George’s apartment stood to the left, looking from the street. Beneath his street window was a wooden box, three feet in height at the front, a little higher in the back, and about four feet wide. It held sacks of coal, purchased by him from the coalman, who came by periodically in a coal-dusted flatbed truck. Most of the time the box’s lid was fastened with a padlock. There was a similar box positioned next to it for the use of the tenant on the right.

The entire building, on both of its floors, was girdled by wooden walkways with wooden rails. Every apartment had an entrance on one of these walkways. Every entrance was on the side of the building, either to the right or to the left, with none in the front or back. Thus the door to Candy George’s apartment was the first in a series of doors, perhaps eight or ten in number, which went down the left side of the building on the second floor. His was a well-frequented door, particularly popular among the children.

The children called him Candy George, of course, because he gave them candy. They would come, the tenement children, in their several sizes, both white and aboriginal, and knock on his door—the most senior, or the most assertive, or the most irrepressible, front and centre, the shyer ones looking on expectantly in the wings. The thin grey balding man who answered the door wore wire-rim spectacles and striped suspenders, which buttoned onto and held up a pair of heavy wool, mottled-grey trousers, suitable for warming old bones in permanently damp weather.

“Have you got any candy, George?”

Always the same words, always in the same order, according to prescribed ritual.

“I don’t know,” the old man would say, and pretend to search the glass-doored cupboard which stood against the wall to his right. Where the candy was secreted, or indeed, whether there was any candy at all, was never made apparent by the old man’s initial reconnaissance of the cupboard. “Doesn’t look like anything here.”

“Aw, c’mon, George,” someone would say, perfectly aware of being teased, although the old man’s manner was never other than dry.

“Well, let’s see,” said George, rummaging some more. “This looks like some.” And the candies would be found, and each uptilted child’s face would have a treat to carry away with her or him, even the shy small ones on the outskirts.

The candy in the cupboard was often but not always there, and not always available right away to a child who tried to knock on that door too often. Still, it prompted many visits, and many knocks, and was a central institution of the tenement so far as its children were concerned.

Now Candy George did not always live by himself. For a while, he had his grandson with him. The child wasn’t properly his grandson because George was an old Frenchman and the boy was mostly Tsimshian—they of the Skeena River and north coast—without so much as a parlez-vous in him. But the two were grandson and grandfather as far as any useful definitions went.

The boy was known as Tat, and he called his grandfather ‘Pop’, the second generation of his family to refer to him that way. He was eight years old and lived in comfort in his grandfather’s musty, warm-smelling rooms.

Sometimes George entertained his grandson, telling him stories about the Old Country, or fascinating him with backscratchers carved out of kindling with a black-handled pocketknife.

He would make tea very carefully, and when it was done he would ask his grandson:

“Would you like long tea or short tea?”

And the boy would think, then invariably answer:

“Long tea.”

Then George would lift the teapot and pour a long thin stream of tea into the boy’s cup. “Tea, granny,” he said.

It was in these rooms that the boy learned how to construct a fire. First you took a stick of dry cedar kindling, square, about the thickness of a man’s finger, and carved curling slivers out of it with your pocket knife (kept always sharp with spit and carborundum) leaving always one end of the sliver attached to the stick. What resulted was a vague carnation of slivers, easy to light. When several such carnations had been produced in anticipation, a few crumpled bundles of newspaper were tossed onto the grate and lit, with the prepared tinder flowers placed on top, followed by kindling, and eventually larger pieces of wood and fuel as the fire gained strength. This recipe worked for wood stove and coal, and for campfires as well, so long as you could find good dry kindling.

Not everything about George was as easy to understand as candy and tea-grannies and tinder flowers whittled out of cedar kindling. For instance, the old man had been given a Christmas present seven years before and never opened it. To the boy, this was restraint beyond human capacity. He could sort of enjoy the joke—if that is what it was—because the present was not his, or given by him. But something deep in his child’s soul didn’t really approve.

And then there was the time that the old man made tea and forgot to put in the tea leaves. George found out his mistake only after pouring in the boiling water and patiently waiting for the tea to brew. Rather than boiling the water again, and starting the tea from the beginning, he simply—albeit grumpily –added milk and sugar to the hot water and drank that.

Tat never had to feel the kick of that strain of mulishness in Candy George’s character. The old Frenchman was an agnostic, the son of a bourgeois French free-thinker, but the boy could go to Sunday school if that’s where his friends were.

And the old man had the patience that the old often have in the presence of the very young. Sometime even earlier he had taught the boy to read. And in that tenement on Eighth Avenue he spent hours with his young grandson, son of his half-blood Tsimshian stepson, reading him Dickens, talking, teaching, amusing him with nonsensical rituals.

The boy was aware of being privileged. If they wanted to see his grandfather, the other children had to come knocking. But he lived with Candy George, and slept in the same bed, and drank tea with him. He shared that special love of grandparent and grandchild which is so free of agendas, of ego and selfishness.

Sitting in his chair next to the stove, he could watch the candy ritual several times a day. The boy got no more candy than any other, but he got enough. And through his connection with Candy George, he felt a certain proprietorship over the whole procedure. He was as dismayed as anyone when the whole thing came to an end.

It was because of a boy downstairs. The boy got a notion—as I suppose the notion had occurred a thousand times before—of calling upon Candy George. He was feeling exuberant, and the notion when he got it struck him with such force that he commenced to act on it at a dead run.

Now because of the tenement’s construction (and barring the unpurposeful clambering of small boys up and down the fire escape far in the rear) most of the traffic between the first and second stories was routed by way of the street. Thus the boy clumped up the staircase to the pavement, pivoted, and dashed across the little bridge. Turning left at the coal bins, he ran a few steps, then whiplashed around the corner at top speed, calling out as he sighted George’s door:

“Got any candy, George?”

Then his momentum tilted him over the railing, and he fell fifteen feet to the ground and broke his arm.

Candy George’s door was open when the accident happened, but the old man never said whether he saw the boy fall. But what is certain is that he did hear the boy call out, asking for candy. After that, when the children came around begging, Candy George told them to go away.

“Have you got any candy, George?”

“There’s no more candy here. You kids go and play.”

The children were reluctant to believe it at first. They came around for weeks after the candy stopped, even though the ritual didn’t work anymore, even though the old man bawled them out when they came. Of course, they knew he wasn’t really angry at them. The brittle edge to his voice had some other meaning, which, whatever it meant, could not by itself frighten them away.

He told them, “Go away. I don’t want you coming here for candy anymore.”

Eventually, the children listened. But once in a while, even months afterwards, a child would forget and come knocking.

“I’ve got no candy,” said George, angrily.

No one blamed him. Even the boy who had broken his arm felt sorrier about the candy than the arm. But things never went back to the way they used to be. And the cabinet next to Candy George’s door held no more chocolates and sweet things for anyone.

Three years passed. In the meantime, Tat the small Tsimshian boy left town. By the time he returned, he’d lived in several places, in numerous circumstances, and Tat was no longer such a small boy, and no longer young enough to carry that name. Tat was me.

When my father and I came back to town, my grandfather was still living in that grey-boarded tenement. His quarters had shifted, however, from the left side of the building to the right, from two rooms to one, although he was still on the second floor at the front. Shortly after we arrived, we were to hear the last story of Candy George and the children.

My father and I had rented a room above the Grand Cafe, the usual place we stayed when we lived in Prince Rupert. One night my grandfather turned up at the door. He had no coat on. There’d been a fire at the building where he lived, he said, and he’d been burned out. The fire had one casualty.

The rooms where Candy George and Tat had lived had been taken over by a family with two infant children. The eldest of the children was about two years old, and mentally disabled. The other was no more than a year old, and normal.

On the afternoon of the fire, the father of the children had come to the old man and asked him to look after them.—I’ll put them on your bed, he said. They’re having trouble with a stove downstairs. I’m going down to help them.

And he had left.

My grandfather was working in the back room at the time. This was a room with an old wringer washer and a sink—sometimes used for storage—which was common for use by both apartments. Old Pop (as I knew him) was busy, so he didn’t pay much attention to the children, or wonder very much about what the trouble was with the gas stove. He never imagined that the trouble was as serious as it was. Thus his first intimation that there was a fire out of control in the building was when he glanced through the half-closed door of his room and saw that it was filled with smoke.

My grandfather immediately recalled the children. He ran into the room, choking on the thick fumes, and felt around on the bed for the two babies. He could only find one, although, gasping and coughing, he searched frantically for the other. When his lungs could take no more, he ran with the child he had found out into the street and handed it to someone. Then he returned to the room, but again the smoke drove him out into the air before he found the second child. He was going to go in a third time but someone restrained him.—It’s too late, George. He’s dead by now. The baby’s dead.

So it was that my grandfather came weary, sad and angry to our room. It was not guilt that stooped his shoulders as he sat in the chair. He had done what he could, and it was that fool father’s fault for leaving his children behind in a burning building.

“I ran into that room,” my grandfather said, “and I felt around for them, but I could find only one. And the one I found was that stupid ugly thing, while that beautiful bright-eyed little baby, it was still there. It died.”

He was angry because, in his mind, he had rescued the wrong one.

Posted in: memoire