The house was half-priced. It's half-priced when you buy it with family. My mother and her husband, and my grandparents, jointly bought a 150-year-old house on Wilson Street, in Hamilton, Ontario. Steeltown. In one of the poorest, shabbiest neighbourhoods in the city.
I moved to Newfoundland because my mother and her then-husband, Roger, had been fighting, and my grandparents had fled to parts unknown. They did that whenever they had financial obligations to adhere to. Marriage does things to people, so my mother asked if I wanted to go to Newfoundland. She needed me to be elsewhere while she attempted reconciliation with Roger, a marriage salvage operation. Roger and mom were always on the brink of a sudden and catastrophic explosion. System failure. Do not pass Go.
I stayed at my aunt's house for about three months during grade six. Much in the way that Doctor Frankenstein pieced together humans to create his monster, mom had succeeded in piecing together her marriage. Sure, it was an abomination, but it was functional, and a triumph of science over reality. She did a fine job of obfuscating the truth from me--I didn't have a clue that her marriage had sustained as much damage as it had. When I returned from Newfoundland twelve days before Christmas, the decorations were up. The tree was happily blinking. A wonderful facade of family togetherness. The radio played Hall and Oates seemingly non-stop. Carolers beat at our doors with jolly fists, expecting a payout, or Christmas cheer. Or something.
I was more anxious for the new year, to go back to school, and solder myself to sports, old friends, classwork. When I got home, I had a new bedroom: no more sleeping in the cubby by the back door, or in the living room.
They remodelled the entire second level of the house. This house was older than life on Earth and many things were in the walls. Not R-rated things: more like trinkets from forgotten times. We found an illegible diary in the ancient plaster. Latex gloves on, I scoured every page for words and symbols I recognized. I never found anything. The cover was red, once, and leather.
It seemed at the time that step-father and mother attempted to renovate their decaying relationship by renovating the house. Many pictures were taken of the process: here's one of mom and Roger throwing hammers at the wall. Here's another of mom and Roger, dirty faces gleefully satisfied with a job well done. They had divested the entire upstairs of its previous charm and personality, replacing it with dry, unfriendly white walls. It looked like a hospital you would go to to die. At one end, the way-too-huge master bedroom with its slanted, disinfected, stuccoed ceiling; a tiny, barred window on the south side, gazing out at Lake Ontario. At the other end a storage closet and my bedroom. How they must have cackled at their own maginificence when they decided to put doors on both sides of the bathroom, one for me, one for them. Roger had somehow procured a Jacuzzi tub; this was my first time ever experiencing one. I thought they were for the rich. I managed to soak the entire bathroom the first time I used it. I was twelve. I pressed the big round button, and instantly a water-inferno occurred, a noisy apocalypse. I panicked and retrieved my mother, who was downstairs serenely brushing her hair. The ability to reach down and press the big round button had fully fled my mind; it seemed that my only remaining skill was Find Mother Now. When your new bathtub creates an angry vortex of water five feet wide and high, what are you going to do? Intellectualize it?
We found out upon bankruptcy that we lived in the oldest part of the city, once a rich neighbourhood. Our lawyer's assistant told us:
"It's an old house, built in 1865. It's been renovated and renovated maybe a dozen times. It was originally a bungalow, too. You'd never guess though with all the Portuguese and such in the neighborhood. But it really was quite upscale." I thought to myself, whoa, this guy's a little off.
Delivering papers is a shit job, man. After school isn't so bad, but when a person has to shake off the nonconformity of the Saturday morning sleep-in, and replace it with the conformity of Saturday morning early rising, the Shit Jobness factor goes up by at least four. Especially when that person, the newspaper carrier, is twelve years old.
Roused and newly scrubbed, breakfast eaten, we throw ourselves in front of the house, and over to the corner of Tisdale St. N and Wilson St. This is the drop-point, square in front of a family of Sikhs, of whom the younger sons have only begun their hair-wrapping journey into warrior-hood. They have their place too; religious, they are ready to fight. The newspaper carrier, me, is ready to dispense current events on paper to the doorsteps of twenty-two families. Later your faithful servant will have a newspaper bag which, upon its retirement, will become a bag filled with comics; for now the aforementioned servant contents himself with the unweildly and loud plastic box which barely holds the Saturday drop of newspapers. That's the newspaper with the TV Guide-alike. The Big One. The Anti-Christ.
Wheeling that heavy, ugly blue bastard around was tough work. It's not like the box itself was nondescript, so that your heroic narrator could easily imagine himself tending to some special service for some shadow government. Naturally the newspaper had THE HAMILTON SPECTATOR emblazoned on its side, in pseudo-gothic and fully-tasteless stenciling.
Take the blue box out to the corner of Tisdale and Wilson, and fill it up. Unwrap everything first, and toss the wholly-ineffective-against-rain plastic wrap in the bottom where it can mate with itself until half the box is full. Throw the papers on top and murder the offending plastic.
Cross Wilson and talk with Portuguese family number one: how is work, how's your mom, oh she's great, life's just grand, I'm delivering papers when I could easily be sitting in my own filth eating leftover beef stroganoff and watching wrestling and cartoons I hate, yeah, things are grand. This house is at the end of Tisdale, more towards Cannon St. than Wilson. It's way off the route, in other words, and I began to take well-executed steps into the realm of bad service to shun this customer--why do all that walking with the noisy blue box for a paltry dollar or so a week? Monthly, I would receive a stern talking to by one Mr. Bruce Greer about the quality of my work, as concerned that particular customer. I know it's a pain in the butt Devon, he'd say, but you've got to treat all your customers the same way that you'd like to be treated. Wow, that's some great advice, especially considering that I would much rather be at home, in the same clothes I'd slept in, playing SimCity on my SNES until my brains melted. I've got Mario Statues to get, after all. Much more important than Portuguese families who talk to me whilst clearly cutting into wrestling/video game time.
Then, we head up to King William Ave., and deliver newspapers to an insanely dysfunctional family of Natives. They only paid once-a-month, which was a pain because I had a quota to fill, bills to pay. I never knew what to say to them; the kids were always beaten; the wife was always beaten; it seemed as if the whole family was constantly drunk. Thankfully, I was always paid, never yelled at, never ripped off. In and out at the end of the month.
Turn left at King William Ave., away from King and Steven, where the hookers no doubt still peddle their wares to this very day, and head back towards Wilson St. This was the main stretch, twenty or so houses and then back home to the comfortable couch with the comfortable food and comfortable television programming; barring that, perhaps a comfortable chair in front of some video games.
We lived in what popular media likes to refer to as "the ghetto"; low-maintenance row-housing across the street from me and old, disused houses on my side. The house next to mine was demolished due to health regulations coming into effect which disallowed a person from owning four million cats. The cats weren't a bother--the stench, however, was a big problem. The neighbourhood itself was teeming with children who all seemed to be younger and dirtier than I was. It became a goal to finish the papers before the kids would start running around, so as to avoid both playing with them and getting into fights. Unscrubbed and noisy, the kids were much like their houses.
This lower-middle class neighborhood was largely composed of old people and families with too many children. The old people, in general, were quiet, and comprised of at least fifty percent of my customer base; the young families with too many children had crummy houses (which seemed to constantly reek of weed) and were more likely to not pay me. Irrespective of that, they would of course expect to receive the newspaper every day.
A Dirty Old Man, as we all called him, lived in the house before my last customer. He was Italian, maybe, or some other vaguely white ethnicity not understood by a twelve-year-old; I only knew he wasn't white like I was, but then, not many in the neighborhood were.
And oh yes, kids love to be kids, and in no time at all, I was taught how to make this old man take out his penis and show it to everyone. Oh, what great times were had! Today, I cannot recall the coddling and pressing inherent in making an old man expose himself to half the kids in the neighbourhood, but I do remember that it didn't require a great deal of effort. In retrospect I believe the old man might have at one time a stroke, but was still effective enough, in his head at least, to tend to most of his own daily activities: waking up, watching television, getting dressed. It seems to me he might have had a part-time caregiver, and was probably not an "invalid", but had lost something of his mind. It wasn't the penis-showing that has caused me to believe this of him. It was his clothes, and the fact that he only wandered over the grass in front of his house, never anything beyond.
The Dirty Old Man always dressed in fine, well-tailored suits. Even by present-day standards. If one were to discount age and use as a factor in the quality of a suit, his were top-notch. On days when I was not with other children with whom I would torment the man, I would try to get a good look at his suits. It was clear he enjoyed grays and greens, and there was nary a pinstripe to be seen. Accompanying whatever the suit of the day was would be an expensive-looking watch, large gold cufflinks, and a cane which I have always assumed was made of ivory. There were intricate, golden designs woven deep into the white cane. It made him look like a billionaire.
As fate would have it, he died shortly before my last day as a paperboy. Two people dressed in black suits were discussing something in hushed, confidential voices in front of the man's tiny home.
"Hey," I called out, "Where's the old guy?"
They told me, and I felt a vague, directionless sense of loss. And over what? A man goaded by malicious kids to expose himself? He meant nothing to me, but I knew that a part of my day's work was gone. It wasn't long before I stopped doing papers.
I hope they buried him in that nice black one with the deep green shirt underneath, black tie, his expensive leather shoes shined up like mirrors.