Wednesday 13 February 2019

Snow on the Victoria and Albert

There was a snowstorm in Toronto yesterday, and I was surprised at the Facebook reaction.  Schools closing, workplaces closing, employees furious that they were made to take a "vacation day" instead of just working remotely from home. I looked out my window to see this meteorological Grendel  and instead perceived good clean snow drifting down and dancing about. Beautiful.

"Since when did everyone get so worried about snow?" I asked after my evening adventure. "Has everyone gone soft?"

"We had many years of mild winters," said my parents, enthroned on either side of the leather-top table. "Then we had two hard ones."  

I did not share in the city-wide reluctance to go  outside. At 5:06 PM I bolted for the bus stop, intent on meeting a girl woman I haven't seen since we were both 18. We had met when we were four. We were in the same class at primary school, right from Junior Kindergarten.  Then we were two of the three girls who went to the all-girls' high school south of us instead of the all-girls' school north. 

At high school we went our own ways. I hung out with nerds, and she became a rocker. She grew long, feathered hair. I always remembered her as the one member of the elementary school Popular Girls who was nice, by which I mean friendly and kind-hearted. She seemed to be on the edges of a quasi-Popular crowd in high school, too, although by then I had lost all interest in becoming Popular myself and no longer believed in reigning cliques.  

"I wish I were Popular," I told this girl when we were both 13 or 14. 

I remember very distinctly that we walking south down Yonge Street across from the Victoria and Albert pub.

"It's not always good being Popular," she said to my astonishment. "You don't know who your real friends are from one day to the next." 

Or words to that effect. It was one of the most important conversations of my life, and so there was no way I was going to miss meeting up with this oracle, snowstorm or no snowstorm. 

We met at the Victoria and Albert, which has a new, irrelevant name. I watched as she walked past the plate glass window to the door, and although she was decades older and had a hood pulled over her face agains the snow, I recognised her.

We hugged--for possibly the first time ever.  (Social hugging was not a thing when we were kids.) She was once the tallest girl in class, and now she is barely taller than me. That was a bit disconcerting. Then we sat, she ordered wine, and we started catching up. 

I had meant to go home after an hour, to eat my dinner, but after we had covered the 90s and 00s and Teens, we delved into the 1970s and 1980s. I cried out for another half-pint; she called for more wine.  This, to me, was the juicy stuff: the distant past,  the shared memories, the buried questions, the roots of who we were. 

One of my roots, going back to the Italian World Cup Victory of 1982, is the experience of being mocked and marginalised for my ethnic origins. The most popular of the Popular Girls, which is to say, the nastiest ones, were very proud of being Italian and very dismissive of those they called Mangiacakes. There are many derogatory terms in Toronto for white Anglo-Saxons, and that is the one I grew up hearing. I had at least three years of it: mangiacake, mangiacake, Cake, Caker, English-Canadians-don't-care-about-family-like-we-do, we-call-you-mangia-cake-because-you-eat-cake-for-breakfast-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.

And just like other people from marginalised groups, I get mad when my experience of marginalisation is denied. In elementary school, we were taught that racism was horrible and unfair, and that everyone in Toronto (save the First Nations) had immigrant backgrounds that we should share and celebrate, usually through folk dances and homemade dishes at International Night. I believed this with all my innocent child's heart and still do today, without exception.  

Naturally, since my background is (mostly) white Anglo Saxon, my early experience of marginalisation is denied all the time. This could have led me to some very nasty places. Indeed, my initial reaction was to loathe Italian-Canadian culture. Fortunately, I signed up for Italian class in Grade 10 to get out of Art class, and thus ended my ressentiment against Italian-Canadians. But I still growl when I read or hear slights to Toronto's oldest community of European origin (most recently from the late TV chef Anthony Bourdain).

It turns out that my friend, the Popular Girl, was likewise marginalised by the Popular Girls for being a Caker, only in her case there was a bait-and-switch: she was invited home and made much of and then dropped flat. 

"Blue eyes," she said. "Not Italian."

"Ooh, that b*tch," I said, smug at being 40+ and psychologically able to use such words. Not long ago, I saw a former (and Italian) Popular Girl sigh over Facebook that the long-disappeared  b*tch had been "beautiful inside and out." I think not. 

We drank deeply of the wheat and grape.

"I really loved you," said my friend eventually, which surprised me very much. "In high school, too."

"That calls for a hug," I said in a jokey way, so as not to break down and cry, or say "Did you really? Why didn't you tell me?," or think about what a difference that would have made to my often lonely teenage life. 

Instead we went out into the snow. She trudged north to Mr Sub, and I trudged south to Mr Subway Station. My weekly pass wouldn't let me in the near side, so I went around to the other side, where I was stopped by a subway man.

"You can't come in here," he said. 

"But I couldn't get in at Harlandale," I said. "I have a weekly pass."

"There's been a bomb threat," he said. "You can't come in."

"A bomb threat?" I scoffed, having drunk two half-pints of beer on an empty stomach. "Who calls in a bomb threat during a snowstorm?"

I woozily made my way back to the street, thinking that if my parents still lived a few blocks south of Sheppard, I'd be home in a jiffy. Alternatively, I could have walked the five blocks down Sheppard Avenue to my grandma's. However, sure as a homing pigeon, I trudged to the nearest bus stop to await the appropriate bus. It was a very long time in coming, and I had do more trudging to actually get on it. But when at last the bus had dropped me off near my street, I enjoyed the dark, quiet and snowy walk home. 

No comments:

Post a Comment