It’s always something: Life and death on a city block

 

The man across the street from me died recently. He is the twelfth death that I can remember on the block during the time I have lived here.

The Dalai Lama once said to remember that whenever you enter a room with others, there is always pain somewhere in the room. This is my remembrance of pain on the street, my own included. It’s perhaps a macabre exercise but one that underscores the thickness of our neighbourhoods.

When I lead Jane’s Walks in the neighbourhood, we fly through the neighbourhood. This tour will pause much more frequently and cover little more than a city block.

The only people I know who have gotten mugged in my neighbourhood both got mugged at the underpass to the railway tracks at the top of the street. And the restaurant at the other end is nicknamed the Kick & Stab.  This is some of what has happened in the spaces between these two places:

  • A corner brick house was built by a man during WWI. The woman who lived in it promised payment when her husband returned. Lost is the reason why, but the builder was never paid. His daughter bullied the new little girl who moved in after that – bullying passed on generationally, and spatially.
  • Further south is the family that raised a crowd of children, one they lost when he was eleven. Four neighbourhood boys had found an open sewer grate and crawled down for an adventure. What they found was a pocket of deadly gas. Only the two quickest boys were able to climb out. The others succumbed. His father bankrupted himself, suing the City for neglect.
  • Walking again south, we come to the house where five-year-old Jeffrey died with his grandparents after his young parents were found incompetent. However, his grandmother, barely better equipped, became overwhelmed. The testimony at the trial which I remember is how one of the neighbourhood mums, a woman I knew by sight from the local school ground, visited one day and found Jeffrey’s grandmother giving him a bath in the basement. The grandmother told our neighbour she didn’t know if she could manage. Within months, the weight of a toddler, 21 pound Jeffrey died of neglect and septic shock. A new, happy family lives behind those walls now, a little girl, who knows of him, in the bedroom where Jeffrey had been locked. It overlooks our backyards.
  • Turning right, here is where Louie ran a store for years, robbed just as frequently. His face was always relieved when he saw you were a customer. He’s gone now, and the owners of the store around the block have bought a big dog. Their faces are perpetually nervous too.
  • Here an old man found in his basement apartment, not having the strength to walk out on his own, relying on his neighbours to fetch groceries. The police found him when there was a fire in the building.
  • Here the brother and sister, grown, the patterns set when they were young. He was suspended, then expelled, from the local grade school. She lured into trading her young sexuality for favours.
  • Here the man who didn’t see his family for fifteen years until he was able to save enough for them to emigrate,  his toddler turned to a teenager.
  • And here the mother who went mad. And recovered. Sort of.
  • Here the man who has depression who won’t tell anyone. His wife miscarried, too.
  • Here the man so alienated from his family that he didn’t attend the funeral of his disabled son.
  • Here the brother who became a drug addict and then committed suicide. His father beat his mother.
  • Here the house that was filled with young people, lost to the world. They burned the house down setting off fire crackers in the waste can. One of them, panicked, rushed to the second floor porch, certain she was trapped, waiting for the fire trucks. Her friends, rushing out to the front sidewalk, chanted, “Jump, jump, jump.” Two households were burned out, neither covered by insurance.
  • Here the man who doesn’t talk to others. He’s in the hospital a lot.
  • Here the elderly mother whose dutiful daughter stayed close until she met a man who took her money. When the mother objected, they found a long-term home for her.
  • Here the woman who moved here with a draft dodger and had a beautiful child. But he lives on the streets now.
  • Here the daughter with special needs so carefully tended because her friendliness makes her vulnerable.
  • Here the daughter who died of cancer in her early 20’s.
  • Here the man who nursed his lover through the final stages of AIDS. Now, a couple who lost a child unborn.
  • Here the man who beat his wife until she left. His grown sons visit sometimes.
  • Here the woman and two children who emigrated here, to follow her husband, then to find they had no status. Her husband beat her too. She left him, and met a woman, a white Canadian who stepped in where her husband left off, we didn’t like her. The mother was almost deported, but neighbours put up the surety, testified on her behalf. The Canadian woman moved her away from this neighbourhood. The last we heard, she was homeless and mad. We don’t know what happened to the children. Now there, a women whose time is occupied with her suicidal sister.
  • Here the husband who was so cheap he wouldn’t let his wife have a visitor over for tea because electricity and tea bags cost money.
  • Here a four-year-old child lived, her Mum her only support, a woman who too became addicted. The neighbours each took turns watching over the child, feeding her, until her grandmother arrived months later and set things straight. I saw her grown and well.
  • Here, two bad landlords.
  • Here the smoker who died of lung cancer, saying, “I feel so stupid. I’m scared.”
  • Here the man who never told his family he is gay. But they never visit.
  • Here the partner who strayed, had a child with another woman, then left.
  • Here another straying man, whose lover left him. His wife wouldn’t take him back. And, then, a woman with a hundred friends who was self-conscious she was alone in life, single.
  • Here a father who swears his son is slow because of an undetected gas leak.
  • Here the couple who, when they moved, left pictures drawn on the wall of the wife having sex with their labrador dog.
  • Here the father who lost his legs and then his life to diabetes. An adult son also died. His wife had bottles delivered regularly to her home until she was put in housing. She’s better now. Then, a tenant who never worked after a construction accident.
  • Here the two half-brothers who lived and aged together for more than 3 decades, the older one passed away first, his brother’s name on his lips, his brother’s arms around him.
  • Here, another alcoholic and a tenant, in the basement, who couldn’t live peaceably with her partner.
  • Here the family that faced with dread that the daughter had inherited the mother’s disease, the men stood stalwart by these wives, only grouching about parking or snow removal.
  • Here the family who bought a home, a dream they could just afford, but it burned down early one morning, grandmother escaping with grandchildren, because the little boy who lived in the basement apartment found some matches. They didn’t have insurance either.
  • Here the mother who shepherded her two sons to school everyday, past her ex-mother-in-law, who would speak to none of them.
  • Here the woman, schizophrenic, who has managed through medication and personal strength and neighbourliness, to raise her child well.

There’s more, there’s always more, but that’s enough. As my neighbour June would sum up such events, “It’s always something on [our street].”

Film-maker Sue Bourne took this exercise even further, making My Street, a film about the lives people lead behind the 116 doors on her street. She started it because she didn’t know her neighbours, even though she had lived there for fourteen years. TVO broadcast this in February 2012 when I was pleased to discover it.

To view, see Part 1 and Part 2 on Vimeo.

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5 Responses to “It’s always something: Life and death on a city block”

  1. Amazing post Diane, thanks for sharing

    Like

    • Thanks Kevin, much appreciated. It’s a list that just grew over the weeks that I wrote it – I was amazed at the stories of our street.

      Like

  2. This was a very poignant post and such a unique idea. Small snapshots of tragedies and life too, I would love reading a book of these.

    Like

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