73. Prince Rupert, 1960: Caretaking by Proxy
Once he had established me in school, my father returned for one more month of fishing at the Boneyard. He left me under one of the strangest caretaking arrangements I had so far encountered.
I’m not sure how my father imagined the arrangements were being carried out. He set me up in a room off the front hall, the only wide hall in the rooms above the Grand, with my door located across the way from where Sing, and, more importantly, his son David, had their apartments. Sing was to look after me while my father was away. However, I don’t remember interacting with Sing at all above café level. David was my contact in the rooms above. Sing and his partner George I interacted with only below, and as a customer in the café. I ate breakfast and supper there, and they fixed my lunches to bring to school. Upstairs I sometimes felt Sing’s presence, and certainly he was sending David to me, but I never spoke to him or passed through that door across the hall that led to where he and David lived. It was an arrangement oddly without direct adult voices, caretaking by proxy.
My primary daily activity during the week was of course school. That September at Roosevelt I began to display some academic mojo, something I’d shown little of since grade one. Grade two had been a fragmented year; grade three was hard to assess; grade four I was doubted on racial grounds. Perhaps carrying momentum from a summer of fairy tales and astronomy, I entered grade five very well.
Accomplishment was measured in that Prince Rupert classroom in the spelling and arithmetic tests, and at the beginning of the year I scored best in both. My teacher rewarded me with a paint-by-numbers set. (I seem to remember a mill and a stream.) It was intended as an ongoing contest, and the second time around I slipped to second place in both categories. A different kid took first place in each. The teacher awarded each a prize, as I recall it, the equal of mine.
Hey, I thought. Weren’t these kids getting prizes for half of what I’d done? Doing well on the spelling test is not the same as doing well on the spelling and arithmetic test. Despite my slip in standing I was still the best overall student. On the other hand, if each category deserved its own prize, why hadn’t I received two prizes? I felt slighted. I suppose the whole thing would have evened out in the end, but that didn’t have a chance to happen, as we shall see.
At home, as I said, David was practically my only contact on the second floor and the only one who ever came in my room while I was there. Mostly I didn’t have any trouble with the arrangement. Sometimes at night I missed my father, I recall. But I did get in trouble in a couple of ways.
The first trouble happened because it’s difficult, perhaps, for a practicing early bird to monitor the sleep of a kid living out of direct sight across the hall.
Mostly there was no issue, until David came over one afternoon after school and left me with a box of comics. I sat down to read, and compulsively continued to read until I very nearly finished the box and my brain and vision were bloated with pop art and thought balloons. I can’t say how much sleep I got that night. It was daylight when I finally slept, qualifying that event as my first all-nighter. I guess David came to wake me because I made it to school without trouble. The trouble materialized in the afternoon when I fell asleep at my desk, and nothing anyone could do would wake me. Somehow they knew at the school that he was connected to me because it was David they delegated to take me home.
David deposited me in my room and I fell asleep instantly, waking with a start some time later, refreshed but vaguely panicking when I saw that the clock on the dresser said eight o’clock. No time for my usual routine. I rushed out and passed through the café downstairs, explaining, “No lunch today,” then briskly climbed the hill to the school. As I progressed I became increasingly puzzled to see so few kids, none in fact, along the way. When I reached the school, the schoolyard was entirely empty. Finally—maybe it was the darkening sky that alerted me—it occurred to me that it was evening, not morning. Standing on the hill above downtown and looking upwards, I realized that it was still the same day that I had fallen asleep in class.
Walking down the hill and home again, it occurred to me to wonder what they thought of me earlier in the café, popping my head in and saying, “No lunch today.”
I didn’t go and ask.
My second problem came from my sudden obsession with pork chops. I suppose that if you leave a ten-year-old boy with carte blanche to eat at a café, you have to take a chance that he might explore other parts of the menu. My father didn’t consider that possibility until too late. And I didn’t consider the question at all. I just decided somewhere in the month that I liked pork chops. The consequences didn’t become clear until my father came back from fishing at the end of the month. He realized that he hadn’t made nearly enough money from his last month of fishing to pay his bill to the Grand for my housing and feeding. Characteristically, my father didn’t turn even a glance of blame in my direction when encountering that bill.
But I felt nonetheless that I should have eaten fewer pork chops.
We were in trouble. Whatever my feelings of guilt then or now, it’s hard to see how we would have been in less trouble without my father’s income that month. But the situation was fateful, left us essentially homeless, and led to one of my father’s most remarkable solutions.
We were going to migrate to Vancouver, he decided. That, by itself, hardly qualified as eccentric. However, the way my father decided to make the journey was something practically only he would have, could have imagined.