I’ve Quit the City for Keeps
Everybody was in such a rush pushing and snarling, that John Ewing, streetcar operator, sometimes thought he was going nuts. Then one day he saw the way out for him and snarled right back
THREE YEARS AGO I quit my job as a Toronto streetcar operator, sold my home in west Toronto, and moved my wife, my four kids and my shattered nerves to two hundred and seventy acres of bush, rock and shore line on Lake Manitouwabing in Ontario’s Parry Sound district. I settled down to building a tourist lodge and to carving myself a brand-new life.
Pve only one regret: that I didn’t do it fifteen years ago.
I wouldn’t live in the city again if someone gave me three yachts, a sixty-thousand-dollar home with butler service, and all the cocktail bars on Yonge Street. Pm healthier than Pve been any time in my thirty-nine years. Pve completely overcome a nervous condition that had me going to the doctor’s. Pve put on fifteen pounds. My kids are happier and healthier than they’ve been in their lives. Pve got to know my wife.
Pve made good friends and good neighbors. I enjoy life. I live cheaper.
I don’t have to work so hard. I think anyone who lives in the city is a sucker.
You can take it from me. I know. I saw plenty of the city peddling brushes and vacuum cleaners and delivering milk; but when I ended up in one of the Toronto Transportation Commission’s one-man streetcars, rigged in a grey uniform and looking at the world through a motorman’s mirror, I saw city life as Pd never seen it before. Pve seen it affect people the same way that those scientific experiments with mirrors, loud noises and bad smells drive rats nuts in laboratories. Pve seen city people going nuts. Pve seen the strong mangling the weak; and the milk of human kindness slosh out between the duck boards with the old snow and lost goloshes. One day I saw one of my male passengers reach up, put his hands
against the backside of a woman who started to sit down beside him, boost her into the aisle, and beckon to his pal to take the empty seat. I saw a big man in workclothes look down at a little guy who was trying to squeeze past him, hit him over the head with his lunch kit, knock him as cold as a mackerel and step over him to get out at his stop. More times than I could count I’ve watched women whose wind was being cut off by too much squeezing take careful aim with spiked heels, bring them down on nearby insteps, then go into the most sincere apologies while they secretly filled their lungs with air. One six-foot-four steamfitter I got to know told me he’d developed a new technique of shoving his lunch kit into the back of anyone that barred his way. He told me about it as casually as if it were a new way of raising radishes.
Just Like a Trip to the Moon
These people weren’t thugs. They were fundamentally decent, civilized, Christian people so frantic to get home after lining up all day for haircuts, meals, drinks of water and flying sections of revolving doors that they were ready to bite anyone who held them up. They used to hit me over the head to get me to take their transfers, punch me on the back, kick my ankles, throw transfers in my face, swear at me, call me a public servant and rap me over my TTC cap with their umbrellas.
One time they wouldn’t even let me off my own car. I tried to get out to close an open switch, and the mob waiting to get on pushed me and my switch iron back inside the car. I’d told them the car was full, and watched them keep right on pushing, with dazed eyes, like zombies. They weren’t to blame. They were just trying to get home to meet their families. I suppose they realized the car would take them up the wrong street if I didn’t close the switch, but they also knew that if they moved to let me out somebody else would muscle them out and they’d miss the car anyway. We were all caught in the same rat race.
I’ve seen people so dizzy from the pressure of city life they’d try to get on the car from pure nervous reflex when I was going to the barns, onto spurs, or waiting for an ambulance. One time a crusty-looking guy tapped me on the shoulder (the same sore spot they poked all day long), jerked his head toward a slumped figure in a seat, and asked me why I didn’t do something about drunks. “That man has been falling and slobbering over me ever since I got on at Coxwell Avenue.” I went back and gave the man a shake. I was still shaking him when a nurse got on the car, felt his pulse, and told me he was dead. When I put in a call for an
ambulance and started to back the car onto a spur, a plump matron ran along beside me all the way, pounding on the door with •her fists. I don’t know why she wanted to back up with me. She just saw a streetcar moving away without her on it.
City life has become more and more unimaginative, specialized, removed from incentive, purpose, joy or the slightest idea of what it’s all about. I’ve seen myself getting so far from fundamentals that I’d get ready to leave the barns in Old Columbus, one of the wooden crates that got its nickname from its number, 1492, as serious about the whole thing as if I were starting a flight to the moon. I’d stand there over on track 24 at Keele Street, all alone, the cold winter moon shining in on my pale face, my hand on the control, watching my watch like a scientist waiting for an atomic explosion. At precisely 6.54—zero hour—I’d move the control one notch and roll with Old Columbus out onto the street.
The tragedy was that along with a million or so other people I didn’t realize how funny it was. I settled down seriously to the slow process of advancement, knowing that if I kept my buttons shined, if I was never late and if I always had seventy dollars in cash or tickets when the inspector checked me, and if my arteries held out, I’d eventually get a regular run. Eventually I might even become what is known in the trade as an “Old Fox.” There’s one on every run. The Old Fox’s sole ambition in life is to avoid picking up passengers. He does this by cruising along a few seconds late until some rookie, who has orders to wait on a spur and drop in behind the Old Fox, loses his nerve and takes his place ahead of the Old Fox. This is just what the Old Fox wants. From then on the rookie gets all the crowds. The Old Fox stops and picks up the small groups of red-faced cursing people he leaves, and becomes quite a hero. If an inspector checks him for being out of place, he holds his palms up with a look of injured innocence and says: “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t do everything.” He nods toward the rookie’s car ahead. “He was a minute sharp.” Not many men survive long enough to become an Old Fox. I don’t think I would have. I don’t know what juices shoot through the human body during a sudden scare, but I know I was getting all five flavors, every hour on the hour. One time I was blasting along Bloor Street at about forty miles an hour with about sixteen cars behind me and a gap of a mile in front when an old gentleman stepped out in front of my car, as calmly as if he were admiring the petunias in High Park. I took my foot off the dead man’s control —a pedal that has to be kept depressed all the time for the car to move; the idea is that if the operator’s poor old heart stops, his foot slips off the pedal, the full emergency Continued, on page, 54
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braking system goes on, the passengers are saved, his body is removed, and a new guy is put on.
I sat there praying while thirty tons of steel and humanity ground to a stop amid flying sand, ringing bells, and flashing lights, as if I’d hit the freegame peg on a pinball machine. When I opened my eyes the old gent was still crossing the street, smiling peacefully, a smudge of dust on his coat from the side of my car. He didn’t even look around.
I got out, trembling like a captured antelope, crossed to the sidewalk, wound his tie around my fist, and heard myself yelling in a voice I didn’t recognize: “You fatheaded old goat!
You’ve never been closer to death than you were out there on the street a second ago.” I pulled his tie tighter and squeaked, “But even then you weren’t as close to death as you are right now!”
The city is so full of people and they’re all in such a hurry and so nearly dead from exhaustion and general apathy that somebody’s always bound to be bumping into somebody else and, if a streetcar is involved, the operator spends the night making out a report in triplicate. The next morning he reports to the divisional superintendent, shaved, shined, shaking and sure his run money is in his pocket. The divisional superintendent is a good guy who has bumped plenty of things himself, but who has an almost impossible job to do, keeping city people moving smoothly from place to place.
“What’s this about an accident?” he says.
“Well, sir, I didn’t see him.”
“You’re supposed to see him.”
“But I put the brakes on as soon as I saw him.”
“You’re supposed to put them on before you see him.”
Mamma at the Hydrant
While people asked for change, asked for transfers, forgot to give me their transfers, dropped their transfers, and said they wanted off at the last stop, and I tried to eat my lunch, other people who had tried to drink enough to forget that instead of living peacefully in a vine-covered cottage they lived in an NHA bungalow covered with mortgages, floundered around me, fell on me, and occasionally belted me from behind. Every time I put on the brakes after midnight I found a drunk hanging over my shoulder, peering up at me upside down like a dentist examining an upper molar, and waving and saying “Hiya pal.”
One time a thin pale little kid came up and asked me if I’d help him get Mamma off the car. Mamma, a sleazy blonde, was grinning up in the general direction of my right ear, and was so full of bingo she thought she was Elizabeth Taylor. We got her off and stretched her out tastefully with her head against a hydrant. There was nothing else I could do. All there was for the little boy to do was to grow up. I got back in the car and drove away wondering whether I’d slit my throat that night or wait till I’d had my breakfast.
But I got a break. The next day I overheard a lean, brown, healthy, happy-looking passenger tell a friend that he was running a summer resort. He said, “I see people at their best: when they’re in the country. Everybody’s happy: we all have a wonderful time.”
I suddenly saw the whole thing clearly. There was nothing wrong with
people, unless you packed them into a city, sprayed them with exhaust fumes, battened them down with plastic, made them sore about the cost of importing steaks into the city and shoved them through a lot of revolving doors. It wasn’t the people that were wrong. It was the city. Somewhere along the line the city had quit working for mankind and started making things tough for him. I figured the way out was to get back to the land.
I was right.
Building up Lona Lodge was no pushover. But I’ve been living while making a living. I have time to live. Too much of a city dweller’s time is spent just straightening out the snarl he created when he got away from the land. All that time I have extra. Before I even get out of bed in the morning I’ve paid for my roof, my food and my clothing, just by not living in the city.
Let’s start with food. In the city people are working themselves into breakdowns just trying to pay for things to eat. Take milk, for instance. Everybody makes money on milk but the cow. People in cities like Toronto have been cut off from nature by buildings, wires, dust and subway engineers for so long that I think if some city guys met a cow face to face they would have a hard time identifying it. But milk with me is just something between me and a black cow named Beauty, who has a troublesome curiosity but otherwise is a charming creature who follows the guests around our place like a dog. Beauty and I have an agreement. I fork hay in to her in the winter; she feeds herself all summer. And she gives me 15 quarts a day on an average for nine months. All I do is pull the faucets night and morning. I make my own butter from her milk. Good butter.
The surplus milk from Beauty I use to feed my pigs. I butcher them myself into bacon, hams, shoulders and butts, and cure and smoke them according to my own recipes.
I grow all the vegetables I can use —potatoes, corn, onions, carrots, strawberries, raspberries; and there are enough wild berries near my place to feed a regiment. I catch my own pan-fish: perch, catfish, sunfish in the spring; bass, pickerel and lake trout after the legal season on game-fish opens. We’ve taken fourteen-pound pickerel and six-pound bass from the lake a minute’s walk from our door.
Eggs are something else about which I’ve worked out a deal directly with the hens. I have fifty-five hens. They take very little care. I feed and water them twice a day, which takes me no more than ten minutes altogether. Apart from that I forget about them. But they don’t forget about me. They give me thirty to forty eggs a day in the laying season. And what eggs! My family uses about fifteen a day; we keep and sell the rest. In the summer we have plenty of fresh eggs for our thirty-eight guests. Besides the hens I have fifty roosters. We have chicken every Sunday.
So my food bill comes to very little. I figure that when I was in the city I used to spend about thirty percent of my time working for my food. Now I spend about ten percent of it, if that.
But the food is only one of the things I save money on. There’s clothing, for instance. I wear shorts all summer long and in the winter I wear sweaters and blue jeans, $3.49 a pair, f.o.b. McKellar, Ont. You don’t have to worry about the proper drape of a suit when you’re in the bush cutting timber, fishing through the ice, snowshoeing, skiing or hunting.
I don’t think of Toronto often, but when I do, I sit there with a blade
of grass between my teeth laughing. And one of the things I laugh at is the cost of houses. If I want to build I make my own cement blocks. I can make them for six cents each. They cost about twenty-eight cents each in Toronto. I could build a six-room solid block bungalow with a basement, stucco outside, lath and plaster finish, with a modern three-piece bath, a septic tank, twenty-year roof, rock-wool insulation, a modern heating and plumbing system, wire the whole place and throw a stone fireplace in for good measure, all for twenty-five hundred dollars. I’ll prove it to anyone who wants to take me up on it. I’m now living in a five-room house with a field-stone foundation, cove siding, and full insulation, on two hundred and seventy acres of countryside that’s among the most spectacularly beautiful in the world. Yet my semi-detached house in Toronto, where I was so close to my neighbor that I could sit eating my breakfast in the morning and watch how his ulcers were coming along, sold for about eight thousand dollars!
In the city, every time I opened the newspaper, somebody had put up the price of coal again. Nobody’s ever going to hike the cost of my fuel except myself. And if I do that I profit all round anyway, because I’m both the employer and employee. Two men, working two days with our buzzing equipment, which cost two hundred and fifty dollars, can provide us with fuel for a year.
I spend a lot less on entertainment. Up here you entertain yourself, and you’d be surprised at how much fun you can have. Right now I’m taking a part in a play as a city slicker who does some country girl wrong. It’s kind of hard to get into the part, because I know from experience that the only harm a city slicker does is to himself, his arches, lungs and disposition—any healthy country girl could outrun him, in a breeze.
Another thing, cities were designed partly so people could live close to-
gether and feel sorry for the poor country people who had to drive miles to see one another. Yet when I lived in Toronto my nearest friends were fourteen miles off through traffic lights as thick as jungle creepers. Now I can walk to my neighbors in a few minutes, drive to any of them in no more than twenty. The country isn’t as lonely a place as the city.
But the most important thing is I see people away from the city, smiling, enjoying themselves and behaving like human beings. I’ve had lots of people at Lona Lodge that I recognized from seeing them on the streetcars, but the funniest meeting took place last summer.
I was out pickerel fishing with a guest, a lawyer from Toronto, when he looked at me and said, “You know I’ve been trying to remember you. Now I’ve placed you. You were a motorman on the Bloor Street line.” I recognized him, then, but we both knew something was wrong. I think we both got it at the same time. We’d fought for fifteen minutes one day, him insisting that I let him off the front door, yelling that he was a lawyer and knew his rights and wouldn’t be on the damned TTC if his car weren’t being fixed; me yelling that because he was a lawyer he couldn’t get away with everything and he’d get off in the middle like all the poor people. I think I had to open the door for some passengers and he slipped off. Out there in the boat we eyed one another a second, then both burst out laughing. We nearly upset the boat. When we were finished he put the whole tiling in a nutshell.
“You know,” he said, “I don’t suppose I really minded what door I got off. But I’d missed breakfast that morning, I’d been working hard, and I’d just got a bad report from the garage about my car, and I felt like hell.”
That, if you ask me, is the way the city makes a guy feel most of the time. It’s why I’m never going back. ★