Above is a photo I took a few days ago of my first home, 523 Finch Avenue West. From the outside, it hasn’t changed much. What a cockroach infested, dark, health-and-safety-code-breaking, stench-filled place it was. I loved it. Notice the little black stains that come down around the edges of the windows? As a child, I always thought they were tears.
It was the late seventies, what I call the golden era of Toronto immigration. My parents were like thousands of others that came both literally and figuratively barefoot. Our building of six floors almost resembled a refugee camp of sorts, but when I was a kid I thought it was the greatest place on earth.
I was fascinated by the terrifyingly dark and stinky garbage chutes. The ominous stairs compelled and horrified me. Our elevator always threatened imprisonment. The barrier free windows invited us as toddlers and preschoolers to test gravity.
The cultural make-up of our big brown home was as diverse as you could get, and it featured a significant Korean community. Many of us who live amongst Korean émigrés nowadays think of the upwardly mobile, highly educated; not so then. This might explain why newly arrived Koreans look at me like I’m speaking a pigeon brand of the language when I use it nowadays. Awkward, clumpy, and somewhat crass.
One of my favourite memories is of the Korean veggie truck that used to drop by once a week. You’d know the man had arrived because you’d suddenly hear the echoed call of ajimas (ladies) reverberating through the building. Soon, every Korean mother would be outside, cash in hand, ready to stock up for the week on various turnips, chives, and cabbages.
There were a lot of different immigrants in the building, and plenty of apparent racism. We used every slur in the book to describe each other. And then we would babysit each other’s kids and go to one another’s birthday parties. We would fight for each other, literally. A strange brand of conflict and love. All fiery, lots of passion.
We had our little world and it was special.
School was our internet, really. It was the place to go to expand oneself, to legitimize or devalue one’s cultural capital, to literally learn stuff that was foreign to us. I loved it. My kindergarten teachers were a step above Jesus for me. They taught me to read, sing, smile, share, and not be ashamed when I pissed my pants on the classroom mat (basically everything you need for success the world no?) In my memories, I envision those ladies as 8 foot tall superhuman entities. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t have trusted them with.
Most or many of us have kids like me in our classes. We make a monstrous difference.