Saint John, New Brunswick
This is a street at war.
The smallest children
battle with clubs
till the blood comes,
shout ‘fuck you!’
like a rallying cry ––
while mothers shriek
from doorsteps and windows
as though the very names
of their young were curses:
Damn you! God damn you!’
or waddle into the street
to beat their own with switches:
‘I’ll teach you, Brian!
I’ll teach you, God damn you!’
On this street
even the dogs
would rather fight
I have lived here nine months
and in all that time
have never once heard
a gentle word spoken.
I like to tell myself
that is only because
gentle words are whispered
and harsh words shouted.
It was an era of big hair and cats eye glasses, brush cuts and t-shirts and rolled up blue jeans and high top sneakers.
The poverty....it was like a chronic condition. It was ever present on every street and in almost every home. About 80 years prior to Nowlans arrival, around the turn of the last century, Saint John's wealthiest citizens resided in the South-End. The area was desirable to the rich because of convenience and central location.
By the time we came to live in these houses most were barely habitable. I remember being in several homes where the walls should of been covered with ......well, with walls. They were not. The plaster and wall paper had crumbled away from years of aging and what was left exposed were the old wooden slats and long wooden beams of what they called balloon framing. You could even see the daylight from outside peeking in between the slats. I remember playing in the bedrooms of some of these houses with my friends and the one thing that strikes my mind in memory were the beds, so neatly made, well scrubbed, worn smooth, wooden floors. On the windows were almost always plastic drapes. That is what you would see from the outside. You couldn't see the plastic from inside the rooms as most windows were covered with heavy blankets to keep out the cold.
We were the last generation to live in those old relics and they were quietly torn down and removed after we all left. Life was hard in the South-End and in turn it was just plain hard being a South-Ender. Nothing ever came easy.
Alden Nowlans' description of Britain St. is, in my insider point of view, fairly close to the truth. His views of Britain St. both figuratively and literally were of an outsider. And there was good reason for his witnessing what he saw and a reason for his feeling compelled to write about it.
His empathy of this poor neighbourhood was stunted I think by all the violence and anger he witnessed. I'm guessing his upbringing may of been poor but, at the same time it was sheltered as Britain St. had a profound affect on him.
What he saw was ugly, dark and desperate. Kids fighting among themselves. Some of them full of rage...they were hungry. Riots in the streets....they were oppressed. Houses catching fire and burning to the ground in the height of the Christmas Season....they were cold. Mothers coming out their front doors carrying a belt to break up a fight between 2 of her sons. Sometimes the whipping would be to teach them the very lesson that you never make a public display of yourself and to send that point home was the humiliation of having their backsides swatted all the way back into their house...in front of their friends. Enough said.
Most parents back then didn't spare anything when it came to disciplining the kids. As far as being wild on the streets when it came to those same kids, if their parents were present it was a whole different thing. You feared your parents more than fear itself. If you got out of line they were so quick to show you your place. It would make your head spin...and it usually stung for a bit too. I'm sure the parents felt that their everyday lives were hard enough just surviving. Families were larger back then. It was normal for most families to have 5 or more children. I knew families that had 11 and more that had 8. Feeding and putting that many kids through school was no easy feat.
One discipline that was a common thread amongst the community children was their regard for their elders. We NEVER called any elder by their first name, not ever. Everyone was Mr. or Mrs. no matter how long you knew them. It showed respect. Even parents out for evening strolls in passing would refer to each other as Mr. or Mrs.
We all lived in cold water flats. Most had pull out tubs where water had to be heated and hauled. There were no showers, most had no tubs. Cleanliness was important and that was also reflected throughout the home as most were was spotless and tidy. All had bare to modest furnishings. They may not of had much but they were proud of what they had. They took care of what they owned.
The parents were all very hard working people. Mothers who stayed home to raise the children and run the household worked their fingers to the bone. They were up before first light and the last to go down at night. She worked straight through each day, seven days a week.
Back then we payed for health care. So if you got sick home remedies were always tried before making an appointment at the family Doctor. No one ever went to the Doctor over a cold. If you had a toothache....you suffered until you couldn't stand the pain anymore. Depending on the family's income would either place you in the local health clinic where there was always a waiting list and you suffered until your time came or the family would have to save the money for an extraction. Getting fillings was unheard of. That was something only the wealthy could afford. Needless to say that regular tooth brushing was a strict rule whether there was toothpaste or not because there was always baking soda.
You see my point here is that Alden Nowlan didn't ask 'why' these children were so angry. He knew nothing of their needs not being met. Life was hard for these kids. For some of them they went to school hungry on a regular basis . The teachers would always pull that child aside as discretely as possible and do what they could. Many a kid was quietly ushered into the teachers lounge and fed a bowl of soup and crackers. The child's privacy was always held in the highest regard.
These very special teachers had their fingers on the pulse of the community they taught in. They gave these kids hope and showed them compassion. I wasn't ever one of those kids but I was very close to a couple of them that were. From my memory these were the angriest kids. These were the kids that were fighting in the streets. My family fared a bit better than some and a bit less than others. I never went to school hungry. I was well dressed as most of my clothes were either homemade or ordered from Eatons Catalogue or Simpsons Sears.
Another thing Alden Nowlan couldn't see were the parents that he held disdain for over their parenting skills were also the same parents that would take on extra jobs to give their children a Christmas of some kind. These hard core parents would take on the extra load and start their days before sunup and wouldn't return home until long past sundown.
We'd see little of them those weeks before the big day. In most households it was the one day of the year where the Dad's would relax and become a 'Dad'. The stern demeanor gone and the silent glare replaced with a look of satisfaction and being in the moment. Their laughter came easy, the stress gone as though it never existed. It was the one day these hard working parents would let down their guard and forget about the drudgery of every day life. Even the children lay aside the anger and became kids again. They'd run from house to house still in their pajamas to see what their friends had gotten from Santa. For the children of this community Christmas was magic. The best part was having their Mom's and Dad's for a day and getting to just be kids.
Also what Alden couldn't see were that these kids had dreams. Beneath the hard tough exteriors these kids had imaginations and were creative and they were talented. What Alden couldn't see was the loyalty these kids had to each other. You never had to worry about outsiders causing a South-End kid a hard time because if they did...they'd have a gang of kids behind them backing them up.
Of all the kids I grew up with a lot of them are still my friends, even more than 40 years later. Some have passed on. Some have moved on. Most became very respectable citizens. Lawyers, Doctors, Dentists Peace Officers, Social Workers, hairdressers, Moms and Dads and now grandparents...and even one Champion For Change, Bobby Hays who was awarded Canada's Number One Volunteer 2011. Bobby's spirit and hard work have never left the South-End. He works hard reaching out to the South-End kids of today. He works hard at quelling the anger, hunger and hopelessness that sits beneath the surface of these impoverished children. And he sees success. What he does works because he isn't just reaching out, he is reaching back, into his old neighbourhood. It's people like Bobby Hays that make us South-Enders proud.
There is a very deep, unspoken bond that to this day still exists between the South-Enders. Like survivors of a natural catastrophe we all went through the same experience and came out the other end with an understanding of human nature. We can to this day look at each other and without a word, come together in understanding where we don't have to explain ourselves. We lived and survived and we are the people we are today because of where we came from. We are proud of all that we had to endure, no one can take that away from us. We are more compassionate, more understanding, more determined, more loving, and more appreciative of the life we were given and we understand better than anyone why we are the way we are. We are unique. Our stories are unique and we have so many to tell.
It is a shame that Alden Nowlan, the Great Canadian Poet Laureate didn't take a deeper look at what he must of thought of as savage humans. I would of loved to have been the one to show him what was going on behind the closed doors in the homes of these angry children. I'd be the first to admit that a lot of what we kids had to endure wasn't proper or right by today's standards. Because we came from less we had to fight twice as hard to claw our way out of the poverty. We had to fight to become educated, we had to get there on our own.
A line out of the movie As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicolson as Mr. Udahl is talking to the movies' scene stealer, Verdel, a small dog that happened to have the unlucky fortune of being caught running around the hallways of the apartment building Mr. Udahl resided in. As he holds the small dog over the opening of the garbage chute he says to the dog. "This is New York City. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." That is the legacy the South-End instilled in me.
After surviving a childhood in the roughest part of town and being exposed to things no child should ever be subjected to we all came away with a very strong, never say die belief that no matter if people think they know you, they can never really know what it is that drives you. They could never understand why you are the way you are. If they push...it is then that others may get a unexpected glance of that angry child.
On a personal note to all of this and the affect it had on me were the lessons learned from that time in my life. Lessons that at the time were going to serve me in the years to come. I had no idea that there would be times I would feel as though I had to fight the devil himself for myself, for my children, for my life. The lessons learned, the ghosts of the past would at times float into the forefront and center of my life and would remind me of worse times, of how I'd already been there and done that. I had the experience and knowledge to get through whatever life was throwing at me.
Ironically, I was born into a family of old money. I was the first grandchild on both sides of my parents family. There layed promises of a privileged life ahead for this baby. Promises that were never fulfilled because 'life' threw my Mother some unexpected curve balls. She took me and whisked us away to the other side of the country with good intentions of a better life for her and for me. Did she make a mistake? It isn't for me to say one way or the other. I do know her choices had a impact on my life and my future. And as hard as this life has been I don't think...no, I KNOW I could never trade if off even if it were possible to do so.
Would I want to go back to that time in my childhood? No. Although there are moments I'd like to relive...in a heartbeat. To be with my friends again donning long dresses and big hats holding long sticks over our heads as we paraded down the middle of Sydney St. Singing Motown songs at the top of our lungs. We'd stop traffic by holding our hands, palms out and sing 'Stop In The Name Of Love!'. We put on plays in our backyards and then charged the other kids 10 cents for admission...and they did indeed pay!
We all had one thing in common. We loved music. We loved to sing and dance. My friend and I one time came to find ourselves hanging out at Tin Can Beach. It was OUR beach. It was located at the very end of Sydney St. You couldn't go any further south as it took you to the Bay of Fundy. The tide was in and high, the winds were wild and as we sat on the huge boulders facing the water we looked across the water to Partridge Island. " I think Elvis lives over there." said my friend. I thought about that for a moment. I asked her "why?". "Think about it." she said. "He is so famous and people never leave him alone. If he needed to hide nobody would ever think to look on Partridge Island for him! I bet that right now he is looking through a pair of binoculars right at us!" One of us got the idea that if Elvis was watching us then this would be our one and only chance to be discovered and become famous! So we stood up on the boulder, faced the Island and proceeded to sing into the wind. We sang Petula Clark's Downtown, we sang and swayed and moved to the beat of our own music. We were the new Supremes! Our heads filled with promise of being famous, of chauffeur driven limousines, of wearing fur stoles and long sparkling gowns and being mobbed by paparatzies and adoring fans! Yes we had imaginations. We had dreams like every other child. Grand dreams! Mr. Nowlan for all his insight missed all of that somehow.
We sang that day until the sun started to set in the west. We were not allowed out after dark and where our houses were just on the next block we pushed it until we seen the light from the lighthouse spinning round. Before turning away to walk home we yelled out over the water "WE LOVE YOU ELVIS!" We were sure he heard us.
To this very day whenever I find myself near the Bay of Fundy that memory almost always comes floating back into to my mind. Whenever I see a lighthouse I think of Elvis. When the tides run high and the wind becomes wild I think of my friend, who is, to this day, 45 years later, still my friend.
Yes Mr. Nowlan, you missed a lot. If only you'd of gotten closer to those angry kids...if only you hadn't been so frightened of them...I'd like to believe that if you had that it would of changed you. That the South-End would of wrapped itself around your heart and embedded an understanding of how not understanding and remaining ignorant to the other side of life creates shortcomings and causes nearsightedness.
If you ever have the chance to encounter a South-Ender, keep one thing in mind....Still waters run deep.
Until the next high tide.....
This posting is dedicated to all the South-Enders who still walk this earth. Who still keep the memories alive and who still continue to dream.