I was born in downtown Toronto, in January 1985. My childhood home, an eleventh story apartment, overlooked a cityscape of old Victorian neighbourhoods, high-rise condominiums, and tall office skyscrapers, culminating in the needle of the CN Tower. A short distance away from the centre of the city, ours was a small, old apartment, with wood and tile flooring, dirty whitewashed walls, and an off-limits pigeon-infested balcony, all that my parents could afford. This building we shared with recent immigrants, half-inch cockroaches, and in the winter, mice, the latter two a result of living over a grocery store. I think our apartment was over the fruit aisles.
My Dad wandered from job to job, working as a real estate agent and a door-to-door salesman, so he had lots of time for me, his firstborn child. Often he would place me on his back, and walk to Yonge street, a street the Guinness Book of Records says is the "longest street in the world". These shoulder-high tours resulted in a love for geography--I'm told one of the first things I read was a street sign. We would walk past emblazoned lights, crowds of people, and subway vents, from which each passing train sent a blast of air and sound. Other times we would walk into an arcade for a game of pinball or a convenience store for a treat.
The elementary school was located at the foot of my apartment building, and surrounded by several other highrises. The handbell that was rung every morning to signal the start of classes could be distinctly heard from my building's foyer, a gentle hint to run. It was difficult at first to be separated from "mommy", but soon I had my own friends, most notably my "circle of five". We would always sit together, play together--we were inseparable, and we were also diverse. In our group, one was Black, one Chinese, one Vietnamese, one South Asian, and me, half-Caucasian half-Chinese. The teacher once gave out buttons that said "Say NO to racism"; at that point, I hadn't a clue why anyone would be racist, and equated it with such sins as stealing, robbery, and adultery. I was living Pierre Trudeau's dream of a cultural mosaic, long before I ever had a clue of who he was.
My South Asian friend came to us once with joy in his eyes, holding a brand new cricket bat, a gift from his father. He quickly explained to the clueless how to play the game that was the lifeblood of his homeland, eventually reducing it to "baseball with one base", "roll pitches on the ground" and "strikeout with one strike" and we understood. We spent many afternoons in the park with many runs, innings, and outs, and the occasional game of baseball.
It was at the park where we unfailingly met. It was completely surrounded by apartment buildings so that half of it would be in shade at any given time, a plus during summer months. We'd make our way down to the park without ever phoning each other, and if the others hadn't arrived yet, the playground offered a distraction for a few minutes while the rest arrived. I had an extra bonus: my brother joined me most of the time, so I wouldn't be left waiting alone. Sometimes no one remembered to bring a ball or a bat, and so we'd be stuck climbing up the maple trees, competing in the playground, or exploring our small world.
Exploring in the park one day led four of us to a grate. One of us, I don't remember who, spotted a dime, three feet under the barrier. Being only thirty feet in front of the convenience store, we pulled out twenty cents and bought a piece of chewing gum for each of us. While we chewed the sugary sweetness out of the wad, we searched among the trees that bordered the park for a stick that was straight and strong enough for our purposes. Bright as an engineering team, we tested idea after idea, until with many cheers of joy and delight, we were successful in raising the dime to the surface. Thereafter, we promptly returned to the store to purchase two more sticks of gum, which we split in half to equally share among the four of us.
All of us kids were candy addicts. I once tried to calculate how much money the local convenience stores made off us kids, but soon gave up. Each of the four convenience stores in our area had its merits. The Gift & Variety was the closest, being only forty feet from the entrance of my building, and thirty feet from the entrance of the park, so they got our business the most. Another convenience store was a walk of about two hundred feet down a hill and a sidewalk promenade from the Gift & Variety. Their selection of candy was about equal to the Gift & Variety, but they also had baseball cards at low costs, and they would also let you purchase entire cartons of gum, something only the older kids were able to afford. Once, when visiting in a friends apartment, he had an older friend there who had bought forty packets of X-men gum, except he didn't want the gum--he wanted the stickers that came with the gum. We all stood around in anticipation, waiting to see which new hero he would unveil with each wrapper. But the real excitement came at the end, when we were given free access to all the gum!
The Becker's across the street was another hundred feet further, but that involved crossing the street, and waiting at a traffic light, so they were only a rare treat, and a treat they were, as they had much better variety in candy. There were rumours of a fourth store that was quite far away, across the schoolyard, over a wooden fence and through some dirt trails, that had the best variety of candy out of the four shops, but this was never proven until later years, and after much exploration. None of us lived that way, so we tended to avoid the area. Another reason to avoid the area came during a recess one day at school, when some older kids were messing around with that fence, making a swarm of earwigs come out. We got as close as we could while still guaranteeing that the earwigs would not be able to reach us, since none of us were particularly interested in having earwigs crawl into our ears. We felt quite sorry for the first young chap who discovered this for the rest of humanity.
Cockroaches were a wonderful part of our lives. The populous pests were brown, big ones about three-quarters of an inch long, with half-an-inch long antennae that always waved as if they were trying to feel the air. I kept my feet entangled in the legs of my chair during meals so that I would avoid any surprises on my socks. They were nearly impossible to catch since they hated the light, and they moved randomly. The only skills necessary for the art of catching cockroaches were speed and luck. Traps were no good either. I once tried to make a cockroach trap by place cellophane tape on a 3x5 card, sticky side up, and placing a mound of sugar in the middle. It didn't work too well, since the cockroaches, not having ever foraged in the sugary area before, had no reason to go there, though I didn't know this at the time. The best traps for cockroaches involved placing something delicious and important out in the open, and watching them come. For instance, my Mom was baking once, and reached up for the flour container, where she found a cockroach nest, swarming with babies. She quickly disposed of the entire contents of the container. The kitchen was certainly a favourite habitation for the cockroaches!
The kitchen was always a place of wonder. Once you subtracted the cabinets and counters it had sixteen square feet of walking space. Mom continually kicked us kids out of the kitchen, only adding to our curiosity. Before Mom was baptized as an Adventist when I was six, she brought home crabs from Chinatown on a regular basis. She'd first plug the sink and fill it with water, then carefully remove the crabs from the paper bag and place them in the sink, where they would await their fate. Sometimes the crabs would be vicious and nearly rip open the paper bags, which usually resulted in Mom getting bitten. All this didn't end my wonder for these creatures, which I watched, head peering over the edge of the sink, never daring to touch or eat these creatures, for if they bit Mom, what on earth would they do to me? Besides, Dad, the Adventist, was giving me subtle hints that it wasn't right to eat these mean creatures. Anything that fuels the imagination of a four-year old will start a forest fire.
Chinatown was always an interesting shopping trip. There were more people walking around Chinatown than perhaps anywhere else in the city, and the sidewalks were further crowded by vendors displaying their wares. The streetcar routes went through the area as well, adding to the clogged feeling with their wires hanging overhead. A small earthquake could be felt whenever they passed. Exotic fruits and brands populated the stores: whether it was palm fruit jars, Chinese pears, or Guava juice, I could find here what I could find nowhere else, with something new to be discovered each trip, something I could pester Mom with a "What is that?" If I was lucky, Mom would stop by the bakery, and buy me a black bean dessert, or a coconut cream bun. These delicious treats would never last the day, though some would usually last long enough for Dad to enjoy when he got home from work. Of all these Chinatown memories, the one thing I don't think I will ever forget though is the smell. The smell could hardly be considered putrid or awful, but it most certainly was unique and virtually indescribable. Imagine the smells of live seafood, mixing with that of ripe tropical fruit and concrete on a rainy day, and you might begin to know the odour that was perpetually found there.
Across the Don River from Chinatown was located another favourite of mine, Riverdale Farm. It was a free, open to the public farm that was located in the middle of the city, a wonderful place to spend Sabbath afternoons. One could stop to see horses, cattle, and chickens, or move further on to see a waterfall, mallards, and turtles, and further on to the river valley, one could spend an entire afternoon running, rolling, and falling down the grassy, dandelion-covered slopes. It was there at a turtle pond I first learned to skip a rock, to the dismay of the pond's inhabitants. Wood chip trails winding through forest brought a fascinating contact with nature for a city child. In the springtime, the trails would be bordered with daffodils, tulips, crocuses, and hyacinths.
I had always thought that it took special training to be able to create a plant. That was, until my grade one teacher had us journal the life of a bean plant we were to nurture. With delight we watched our little bean grow roots, then a sprout, and then leaves as it matured. Upon reaching home just before the summer break, this plant met an ill-fated transplant end. However, this was not to end my love of plants in the slightest. When we repeated the project in Gr. 3, I decided to test my luck, and secretly added six maple seeds to my bean sprout's pot. There was no results until the day I was to take the plant home, when I noticed an unusual looking green sprout. This sprout slowly grew into a three-inch tall tree on my apartment windowsill, a place it shared with various green creations I had attempted. This was the summer I was to visit my grandparents in the Philippines, and with Dad staying home, I asked him to water my plants faithfully. When I returned, I had a five-inch tall maple wood stick. Since then, my maple seeds have produced many mouldy pots.
Our apartment building overshadowed the adjoining Victorian neighbourhood of Old Cabbagetown. Cabbagetown made an interesting Sabbath afternoon walk, as we would pass by old houses, quaint gardens, and a school playground that me and my brother were inevitably able to get my parents to take a rest at. Located in Cabbagetown was a community centre that ran a soccer league every summer, sponsored by local businesses. I was able to sign up one summer, along with my brother, for this soccer program, where I served as my team's goalie-defence, switching as the coach wished. With amazing sibling skills, our team placed fourth in the five team league.
Another Cabbagetown community initiative where I spent a lot of time was the arts centre. There, some ambitious person had started a project to get the arts to poor downtown kids at an affordable rate. Mom, seeing this place advertised in the paper, instantly took me over there to get me signed up for Piano lessons, costing $50 per year. After being told she could sign me up for two more instruments at no extra cost, she asked me to look and see if there was anything else that interested me. Having played musical bingo in school, I thought the sound of the flute was cool, and asked for that. Flute I had to wait a year, because of doubts on the teacher's mind as to whether I could handle one for a year without destroying it. I think her doubts were well founded. I continued to take lessons there for four years, which started my love of music.
At the end of my Grade six year, our family moved from our apartment in the city to a home in the suburbs, primarily so that one day, when our parents had the money, us kids would be able to attend the local Adventist academy. We moved from bustling city streets and a high-rise apartment with a view that stretched for miles, to a new home in a rising subdivision with a forested backyard view that would last only a few months. There was no longer a perpetual din that arose from subways and buses roaring on and beneath the streets, from sirens blaring at every hour of the day, from pigeons which perched on our balcony demanding bread. No longer did I face cockroaches crawling the floors, though spiders quickly took their place. No longer did I have an excuse for growing plants inside the house, or playing ball inside the house for that matter. The nearest convenience store was now a fifteen minute walk away, which was a lifesaver to my wallet. And now I had a forest to wander in, a place I could walk to and be able to see no signs of civilization. (Well, for a little while anyways--the forest is now houses.) I must say that the academy years were the best of my life, by a long shot; and that I never once missed the apartment after leaving it; though, in a city that is now thousands of kilometres from where I currently sit, lies a small realm, where I once lived, dreamed, and played: a place I called home, a place that I will always remember.
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