105. Vancouver, 1962. Graveley Street
We moved to Vancouver, of course, so that I could change schools. Mostly, that’s not an advantage. Adjusting to the new, especially mid-term— new rules, new classroom, new teachers, new classmates—is itself a challenge, even with the practice I had had. There’s always some shade of a lesson that I would have missed, which I had to guess at, and sometimes some other lesson that I heard twice, but only half-heard the second time. Every strange classroom has its own unique mental geography which a person coming in has to learn. For all that, I got three Bs on my report card in my new school, with nothing like them in my two previous reports. So the move was successful. And it showed that I was right; Schou School had not been good for me.
The new school was Grandview and my teacher was Miss Daw. I was fond of her as a teacher, but I remember her name not for that fondness but because she shared her name with the plumbing. I read it every time I took a drink at the water fountain in the hallway across from her door. And at miscellaneous other institutional locations which got their plumbing from the same source. Later that year Miss Daw announced excitedly—oh, my, as if somehow it could matter to us, who hardly expected that she existed outside of the classroom—that she was getting married and changing her name to something else. And what that something else was, well, it was written nowhere on any plumbing, so I’ve forgotten it. — Sorry, the teacher formerly known as Miss Daw.
As my classroom chances expanded, my playground prospects almost vanished. I played marbles in the schoolyard for a day or two, and all I did was lose marbles. Nothing in my new school yard suited my special skill set as developed at Schou. So I brought my leather bag of all my remaining marbles to lunch one day, announced my intention and emptied the bag into the air.
No more of that.
In that same schoolyard, something happened shortly after I moved there that I don’t recall happening much at all, despite all my traveling. From the stories told by others, I would guess that bullying was a common experience for children who change schools and communities. I’m not sure why, but I recall very little explicit bullying in my childhood. Nonetheless it was about to happen in that Grandview schoolyard. A bunch of boys had gathered around ready to do something I was sure I wasn’t going to like, and I was feeling really nervous. Then from somewhere to my left, someone yelled, “Hey, what’s going on? You leave that kid alone.” Then a husky, Italian boy came running up and the bullies scattered. And he turned to me and said, “If they come bothering you again, you come and tell me. My name is Tony.”
I don’t remember what I said. I never had to call on his help again. But he was my hero. I guess he’s still my hero, though I can’t be sure I spoke to him after that day. I remember noticing that he lived on Kitchener down from Cotton Drive, a couple of blocks from where we stayed when our family moved to Graveley Street. That’s all. An image of Tony taking a right turn into a yard halfway down the street. Then disappearing into his own story, not even waiting for a final thank you from me.
I can’t be sure why we moved to Graveley Street. Perhaps it was because our previous place was too cramped. Certainly, the new location on Graveley had more room. Before we left, my father gave the mandolin to the landlords on 2nd Avenue, I never knew why. I remember that the boys downstairs, even before we moved out, had dug rude holes in the bowl of the instrument with the intention, they said, of electrifying it. That instrument was a holy thing to me, and I was horrified. The hole they dug was a wound as if in a living thing. I remember I didn’t like those boys at all.
Our Graveley Street residence was a house or two along from Cotton Drive, a post-war Vancouver special with stairs leading to the door. Inside we climbed another staircase to our floor. On the landing near the top of the stairs, there stood a fridge for use of all the upstairs tenants. A barrel head attached to a boxed body; it looked like a simple sort of robot. The manufacturers had named it after, not a robot, but the gun-turret of an iconic Civil War battleship. It was a GE Monitor Top, the Ford of fridges, which in 1927 first made refrigerators conceivable—meaning affordable—to people beyond the ultra-rich. The final Monitor Top model was issued in 1936. Thus, the one that stood at the top of the stairs was already an antique in 1962. It had a little frost box inside that was not quite cold enough to keep ice cream from going soft, and which became frostier and progressively less spacious as the week and days passed, until, when at last it had to be, we carefully chipped it back again with a butter knife.
Well, that was modern life. Windowsills, and the hole to the outside which protected our perishables at the Auto Court, didn’t serve well for ice cream, either.
The particular layout of our apartment, I’m no longer clear on. We had a kitchen and two or three other rooms, a little back porch which was really the fire escape–as wide as the window was wide, not as long as the window was tall. From Cotton Drive, looking up the alley, you could see our window, and vice versa. The house is no longer there, but when it still was I used to occasionally detour from The Drive to peer at our old window from the end of the alley. From that angle, with the fire escape stairs and so on, the house looked a lot more like a rooming house and less like a family residence, which was how it appeared from the front.
The Graveley Street era I remember as a time spent with my sister Marylou. My father and Irene were always off somewhere. I got a glance at Irene’s report card once (she and Marylou had enrolled at Britannia) and saw more E’s than I’d ever seen on a report card. Not an isolated one, or a punctuated one, but one after another down a row. I confess I took it literally for many years afterwards. I realize now that no one gets report cards like that unless they’ve given up on school altogether. It didn’t mean a thing otherwise.
The shock, perhaps, of encountering a city and an entirely new life, added to the shock, not at all speculative, of all the hormones a near-woman, 15- almost 16-year-old, would encounter around then, would and could be the alibi for a lot of teenage extravagance. I think my father was a little frantic trying to imagine how to deal with it. Hence, his and Irene’s frequent absences. Meanwhile, Marylou and I, as the relatively rational ones, were often left in each other’s company. Not that we minded.
Sometimes Marylou and I were given responsibility for shopping. The age we were did indeed influence our shopping choices. I remember having races with her eating potato chips, which she won until I noticed she was eating more than one chip at a time. You can’t trust a sister.
On the Drive near Graveley, there used to be a greasy spoon with a jukebox. At the same location now there is a rather more upscale café featuring small jazz combos. I remember Marylou playing, “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back” on that same jukebox. Then playing it again. I asked her why.
“Because you like it.”
Well, I didn’t like it that much. And listening to it now, I like it even less.
“Boomerang” was a 1961 hit by Brit comedian Charlie Drake, produced by George Martin of Beatles fame—whose reputation has taken a permanent demotion with me because of it, sorry, George. It is so outrageously racist as to be almost unlistenable. Which—and this should give us pause—I and every other kid simply accepted as normal and funny at the time. Oz-flavoured songs were something of a fad in the early 60s. 1960’s “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport”, with Rolf Harris’s weird wobbleboard sounds, is less flat-out offensive, and if you weren’t aware of Australian slang, you wouldn’t even notice the racial slur in the middle verse. Well, they’ve taken that verse out for the versions that kids sing these days, but they’ll never take away the little sour twist of anti-nostalgia I get when I think of Rolf Harris’s kid-friendly song playing on the jukebox, and his conviction and imprisonment later on for 12 instances of indecent assault against girls and women.
But back in 1962 it was all just innocent fun.
Our world extended beyond Commercial Drive to Chinatown and to Hastings Street, which was our version of downtown, and was much more of a downtown then, with its three second-run theatres. Sometimes, shopping as a whole family, we bought hamburger 4 pounds-for-a-dollar underneath the neon pig of the Save-On-Meats sign. (It was 40% fat.) Or went down to another bargain store by Oppenheimer Park which, in those days before truth-in-advertising laws, had items for sale at a permanent sale price. (I remember when truth-in-advertising laws were enacted in the late 60s, and suddenly every 16 fluid ounce can of beans on store shelves everywhere, without changing can or contents, suddenly shrank to 14 ounces, and the name changed from pork and beans to beans with pork. And sales had to actually represent at least a pretence of a reduction in price.)
I remember also, as summer approached that year, Marylou and I would sometimes walk to Stanley Park. Our regular route detoured past a place just shy of the Hastings viaduct which sold a double-scoop ice cream for a dime. I’m pretty sure the dime represented our bus fare, but I don’t think we ever chose a bus ride over the double scoop, although it added more than 7 kilometres of exercise to the front end of whatever we did at Stanley Park. What the feet could do, you could spend on something else. And the feet could do.
My sister Irene is shadowy in the extreme in my memory at the time. Non-speaking parts at the edge of the frame. I remember my father experimenting with cooking. Once he combined grape jelly with pancake mix. Objectively, gooey in texture, heavy, flat, sort of odd-tasting purple pancakes. Subjectively, well worth the experiment, we thought.
Outside of little walk-ons like that, the world then seemed entirely Marylou and me, and we didn’t always get along. One time we had an especially famous and ferocious battle where she ended by pounding me on the head with her hairbrush. The next day Miss Daw tapped me on that same tenderized skull in the classroom, a little harmless tap actually affectionately meant that elicited a howl and some tears from Teddy. (Poor Miss Daw.) And from that day to this, when I have particularly vexed my sister from sarcasm or other unruly noise, she will inevitably threaten to fetch her hairbrush.
Somewhere in there I turned 12. I finished 6th grade at Grandview School. I presume Marylou finished her grade at Britannia, and Irene did not. And while my father was attending to Irene’s teen crisis, he neglected where the real trouble lay, on the shelf we passed every day going up to our apartment, the Chinese checkers game. I saw one almost identical recently, selling second-hand for a dollar. I guess in 1962 it was worth a dime or 15 cents. But that was enough.
Enough to get us kicked out by our cranky, white-haired landlord, who didn’t like that we relocated that Chinese checker game up half a flight of stairs to our apartments. We didn’t even consider that what we were doing was stealing. We were just playing the game in our rooms, and it was so there in the open, we just considered that it was there for the using. But we got kicked out anyway, because tenants and the poor had even less protection and even fewer rights and were even less listened to then than now. Problems with teen hormones aside—and teenaging was inescapable, anyway—our family had seemed to more or less prosper to that point, but now things began to turn bad very quickly.
That Chinese checkers game was enough to change all our lives.