The main drag of my hometown, circa 2010
So, in case you’ve missed the previous post, I’m beginning a series today on class, and the living conditions in the places I’ve inhabited throughout my life. The prompt is this:
Every city and town contains people of different classes: rich, poor, and somewhere in between. What’s it like where you live? If it’s difficult for you to discern and describe the different types of classes in your locale, describe what it was like where you grew up — was it swimming pools and movie stars, industrial and working class, somewhere in between or something completely different?
I suppose this prompt jumped out at me because the place I grew up has some very stark class issues that I noticed more and more as I grew.
My hometown is called St. Catharines, and for the majority of you who aren’t from Southern Ontario, it’s a small city about thirty minutes from the US border. Currently, I think it’s got a population of about 150 000, and that’s about middle range for a town in our area. St. Catharines borders on Lake Ontario, which is the size of some small seas. I think being on the lake my whole life has made me feel most at home by the water. There’s also a canal system that runs through the town, which lets large freighters get to the St. Lawrence river, and from there, to the Atlantic. When I was a kid I used to sit on the cliffs by the lake in Port Dalhousie, the district that I’m from, and watch the freighters sit in the lake, waiting to pass through the locks. We have some of the most amazing fruit growing land in the whole world, and you really can’t beat the local food.
The town has its newsworthy points, both good and bad. For the good, we are the hometown of Rush drumming legend Neil Peart. Rush even wrote a song about Port Dalhousie, that I adore. For the bad, in the nineties, serial killer Paul Bernardo murdered two girls here, in a series of shocking crimes that reached news outlets all over North America. My after-school sitter lived around the corner from his house, during the time the crimes were going on. I’ve never seen public panic like that before or since. It left a mark on me well into my adult life, as I’m sure it did for many others in our community. Let it be duly noted, however, that he migrated in from Scarborough.
So, what was it like to grow up in St. Catharines? Well, I lived in the North end, by the lake, in a beautiful old farm house that had lost its farm. My folks had gotten lucky and gotten a deal on it just before the prices went up and the millionaires started moving in. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, just on the edge of the grey area between St. Catharines and the nearby farming communities. When I went to sleep at night, if the wind was blowing the right way, I could hear the howl of engines from the highway. It’s a very eerie sound when it has filtered across a couple of kilometres of field, but to this day I still find it rather comforting.
My childhood was relatively carefree, although I was pretty nerdy and got teased a lot. I always seemed to gravitate to other misfits like myself… what I didn’t realize then was that a lot of the time, the other kids I hung out with got teased not because they were all that weird (I definitely was) but because they were kinda poor and didn’t have the stuff other kids had, like the snappy clothes and newest games. I had all that stuff… I was just clueless and didn’t see what it mattered. I wasn’t really brought up like that. I was taught to see what I had in common with people, rather than to try and find things I had over them. I found the other snooty suburban kids really confusing as I got older, and often didn’t really get why I didn’t fit in. In fact, I ran into one of my former teachers later in life, and he agreed… it was a really snobby school, and really cruel to anybody that wasn’t ‘with it’. I feel proud that I was one of the ones he liked.
When I reached eleven or twelve, I was identified (diagnosed?) as exceptional, and went part-time to a school for gifted kids. I learned a lot of cool things, like how to use a mixing board, do woodworking projects, and get banned from field trips for being an hour late for check-in. It was there that I was first encouraged to pursue animation. I found the transition to high school really jarring, because for the first time, I was forced to get out of my bubble of perfect people from the suburbs and deal with people from the other parts of town. It was then that I realized that most of St. Catharines is not like the North end. In those few years, I learned that my hometown had teeth. My high school, a last resort for teen moms and kids with drugs found in their lockers, was a half-empty, crumbling abomination from the 1960’s with sediment in the water lines and whole wings blocked off in disrepair. I hung out with the only ten or twelve people in the school not involved in drugs, and a good portion of them had personality disorders of some sort. Until I moved away, I thought all high schools were like this.
Beleaguered and more than a little scared, I threw myself into my studies, dreaming of a day when I would be able to use my mind and talents to get a great job and pull myself out of the company of juvenile idiots. I worked hard to get through high school, and got into my university program of choice. University was much the same. Scared of being like the people I saw pissing their lives away in high school, I kept my head down, and kept to my books. I’d already seen the poverty that the majority of people there lived in, and I didn’t want that to be me. I found a lot of acceptance at Brock, though, and I started to get into my groove with my town, and learn more about the things that made it great.
My favorite bookstore in the world, since torn down to make way for the new arts centre. RIP Novel Idea.
The best book I ever purchased ironically. I just couldn’t get over that it was so old that they referenced “The Home Video Games” like “The Twitter” or “The Disco Music”.
Throughout those years, I could often be found on weekends lurking in the stacks at one of our many great used bookstores, ferreting out classic fantasy and science fiction, old cookbooks, and stuff to help me learn more Japanese. I went down to the beach at Port Dalhousie and just watched the ducks and gulls. I even saw the occasional turtle, but his whereabouts must remain a closely-guarded secret. Robin and I fell in love on the pier. We regularly poked through the racks at Out of the Past downtown looking for goth finds, and put on the funny hats in the mirror, just ’cause. In the spring, my favourite activity is still to go out to the regatta park in Port Dalhousie and follow the baby geese around.
Unfortunately, like all golden eras, my time in university came to an end. The magic I had discovered in my town disappeared, as I realized that I had no way of finding any kind of job that would sustain me, let alone allow me to use my talents in any satisfying way. I applied everywhere in the area that I could, but I couldn’t even get a call-back as a typist. The few people I talked to that could help me treated me like I wasn’t worth their notice because I wasn’t from Toronto. The few good jobs in St. Catharines, I realized, didn’t go to locals. Locals were assumed to be inexperienced and incompetent. My town imported its managers, and exploited its natives. I spent a very hard year working two part-time retail jobs before I realized that I would have to escape to the city to find any kind of meaningful work.
When I realized that I needed something more than St. Catharines could provide, I began planning. I took a scholarship, and saved every penny that I could. When that wasn’t enough, I sold a third of my stuff, including my guitar, which I’ve touched on in other posts. I fled for the city, and (almost) never looked back. Since then, they’ve torn down my favourite bookstore, and most of old Port Dalhousie by the pier, to make way for gentrified ‘improvement’ projects, some of which I see the need for, others of which I never will. But the fact remains that I think they looked in the wrong places to root out the problems St. Catharines has. It’s the holes in the wall that gave it character.
Next week: Oakville and Toronto, and the struggle to fit in.