I had an appointment today on a street I’ve know all my life. On a part of the street where I don’t often walk because it’s not a nice walking street but it wasn’t a bad day so I thought I’d walk the two kilometres home and take in a few old sights up close, in a way you might miss when you scoot by in a car.
It was a walk down St. Laurent Boulevard and the things I saw mostly weren’t there any more except in my memory. The first such apparition I saw stood in the footprint of what is now a highly regarded South Indian restaurant named The Coconut Lagoon, at the corner of McArthur Road. In 1973, it was a diner called The Party Palace and I was seven years old and my babysitter, Suzie Paquette, took me along while she went there to hang out with her friends. She was probably 13. The Party Palace was one of those places that had booths with their own juke boxes that probably cost a nickel a song, whatever songs were the hits of the day. Dark Side of the Moon had just come out and she and her friends kept playing “Money” over and over again. For a seven year old, it was otherworldly. In retrospect, it was my first glimpse into the future of what being a teenager might be like.
Next stop was Rideau High School. I believe I was passing by it in the very last hours of its existence. There were older people in gowns, dressed like new graduates and there was media. It opened sixty years ago and looks like a half a dozen other schools in the city that were built around that time. But it closed today. I ran its track a few times, slowly, and I played a few basketball games there over the years but the inside of the school wasn’t as important to me as the outside. I must have passed by this school thousands and thousands of times over the years. It was as much a part of the landscape of my youth as any building in the area. Sixty years of students. There are great-grandparents today who went to Rideau. And I just happened to have been walking by at the very end. It almost seemed sacred and I felt privileged.
On the next block was Queen Elizabeth Public School, where I went for grade seven and eight. The public school in my genteel neighbourhood only went to grade six so a slew of us kids were funneled into this school in a rougher neighbourhood with markedly tougher kids. It’s the first time I saw real fights. The first time I saw kids smoking, the first time I realized there was more to sex than kissing, the first time I heard the word abortion. I don’t think I had any understanding of broken homes and under-privilege until I went to that school. But I also played hockey with a lot of the tough guys outside of school and though they would have scared the crap out of me under normal circumstances, I learned that finding our common ground, like sports, illuminated what we had in common more than it illustrated our differences. It was a good lesson.
Crossing Montreal Road now, heading north, there’s a car dealership across from the Notre Dame Cemetery. It’s housed in an oddly shaped building. This is because when I was going to school in the area it was a burger restaurant called The Red Barn. The building was red and it was shaped like a barn. But it was like McDonald’s or A&W and as eleven and twelve year olds, we loved it. I can still remember the prices. Burger 35 cents, cheeseburger 45 cents, fries 25 cents, coke 20 cents. Your whole meal cost less than a buck and it was often our Friday treat when our mums wanted to take a day off making our bag lunches. Though we did need a note that gave us parental permission to leave the school grounds.
I was nearly home now. My street was just about a block or so away. Forty years ago it was just forest though. An unspoiled piece of woodland between the two biggest cemeteries in town, where there remains a conservation area and a protected marsh. But now it’s home to some three or four hundred people. Many of them children, some of whom are of the age similar to my own in the times I’ve just recounted.
And I can’t help but wonder, if in forty years some of these children take a walk around their old stomping grounds, if it will all come back to them as vividly as it has to me. For their sake, I hope it does.