I was “big sister” to The Saints
The young men with the duck-tail haircuts needed a friend who wouldn’t be shocked by their problems. I volunteered. It was the -most frustrating, heart-breaking—and sometimes rewarding—thing I’ve ever tried to do
IN EVERY CITY, big and small, there is a strange, uneasy little world of young people who talk alike, dress alike and are lumped together in newspaper headlines as juvenile delinquents. Three years ago, because a sixteen-year-old prowler in my apartment panicked at my sudden awakening and conked me on the head with an iron bookend, I blundered into that world. It was the most frustrating. enriching, educational, heart-breaking and rewarding time of my life. 1 reeled through experiences which ranged from the hilarious to the tragic, spent hours in courtrooms, was tabbed the leader of a teenage crime ring and the teenagers’ girl friend by the police and. most important, became an honorary member of a boys' club with the improbable name. The Saints.
When 1 try now to remember how it all began, 1 have to go back a long way. I have to go back through the arrest of the teenager—back to my mistaken notion that he was not the guilty prowler, to my meeting with him in Toronto's Don Jail, and
“It happened to me”
This is another of the series of personal - experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean’s . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
to the beginning of our subsequent friendship.
My interest in him and his dilemma (w'hich I described in a Maclean's article in August 1957) did not begin with any blinding flash. On that violent night of my first encounter with the prowler, David, 1 experienced no spiritual transformation. The blow he gave me with the iron bookend knocked me down. When I staggered to my feet I had no impulse whatever to ask him sympathetically, “Well, now, and who misunderstands you?” My reaction was far more primitive. 1 shrieked. I remember wavering between one urge to spring at him and break every bone — misunderstood or not — in his body, and another to cower in the bathtub, where his blow had sent me sprawling. I compromised and remained there, screaming wildly, as we stared at each other. I remember thinking, “Don't be ridiculous . . . this is not happening.” That incredulity was to return many times, over the months 1 spent with The Saints.
David was sentenced to fourteen months at the
Ontario Reformatory at Guelph. It was his third conviction. We corresponded during that time, and a combination of sympathy for a confused, lonely boy and a growing interest in his world drew me deeper into that world.
When David got out of jail he asked me to attend a meeting of a club formed by teenagers who had banded together to “get the kids off the streets, give them something to do and do something about juvenile delinquency.”
Most of them lived in Parkdale, a west-end area of Toronto with more than its share of poverty. Most of them, too. were on intimate terms with some of our finest training schools, reformatories and prisons. Their lives had three boundary lines. One was the restaurant, where they spent hours in aimless conversation. One was the pool hall. One was a stern grey building — No. 6 district police station.
David was one of the club's organizers. The average age was eighteen, but the club's membership, which soared to sixty-six in a month, was open to young men sixteen to twenty-three. They had chosen St. Mark’s Anglican Church. Parkdale, as a meeting place because it was convenient, it had accommodation for meetings and dances, and it had a young minister who was receptive to their idea.
So on a brisk February night I walked for the first time down the shadowy lane beside the church, into the building and up a flight of steps. They were crowded together on the landing, these
young people who make the headlines. You couldn't mistake them — duck-tail hair styles, a fierce, restless vitality, the arrogant tilt of head and grins that did not cancel out a thoughtful scrutiny of me. They wore scarlet jackets — official uniform of The Saints — and strides.
In a room too small, it seemed, to contain such energy, 1 was ushered to the head table. Fifty pairs of eyes studied me. I reached nervously for a cigarette. Four matches flamed from four dilferent directions. Someone helped me off with my coat. An ashtray was pushed in my direction. Aaron, the meeting’s chairman, officially ^introduced me as “a friend of David's who wants to help us.” David's friendship was my probationary passport.
The meeting got under way with roll call and the collection of dues. All the time the noise swirled and bounced and bubbled through the room. Someone referred irreverently to "the fuzz.” 1 looked at a grave-faced teenager beside me. “Fuzz?”
"Police,” he translated.
1 caught another phrase, "a bale of weed,” and looked inquiringly again at him.
“Package of cigarettes,” he said and grinned. Gossip was being exchanged near me. Someone was "on the street” again. "Out of jail,” my translator explained. “Don't worry, you'll catch on.” He was right. Months later, in conversation with business associates, a sudden glazed look in their eyes would remind me that I had lapsed into the colorful phraseology of my fellow Saints.
The chairman announced the next item of business. Three club members had been charged with armed robbery. I almost swallowed my cigarette. They discussed the club rule: any member getting into serious trouble with the police was expelled. They decided armed robbery was serious trouble. I nodded furiously in agreement. With regret, a member moved that the offending members be expelled, the notification of their expulsion to be sent to their new address—Kingston Penitentiary. Aaron explained that such minor charges as vagrancy and disturbing the peace were tried by the club's court. He listed the club’s court officials fot me and when he reached "crown attorney” he clapped a hand over his mouth. "We don't have a crown now,” he gasped.
"And we won't have one for seven years,” someone yelled. The "crown attorney” had been one of the three charged with armed robbery.
Swiftly they moved on to other business. The treasurer, who doubled as secretary, had borrowed from the club's funds and. despite promises, the money had not been returned. The discussion was heated and, I was to learn, typical of the straightforward practicality of these young people. He would be relieved of his responsibilities as treasurer, but he would continue as secretary. "That way,” someone announced from the floor, “he’ll have to sit and face us every week.”
A discussion of the weekly dance was followed by a routine which became my favorite period of club meetings — the CONTINUED ON RAGE 50
“The boys were defiant, hostile and often foolishly rebellious"
interviewing of new members. Applicants lined up to be questioned on names, addresses, ages and telephone numbers. While the others stayed in the hall outside the room, each, subsequently, was interrogated by the chairman. Had he been in trouble in the past year? Six months? One month? “No" brought the cautioning, "Remember, we check with Number Six.” “Yes” meant closer questioning. Was he keeping straight? Did he have any beefs against anyone iti the club? Then the boy left the room while the meeting was queried. Who knew him? Anyone have any beefs against him?
After the meeting some of the boys introduced me to Rev. O. R. Orr, the slender young rector of St. Mark's. He showed me into his booklined study, closed the door and looked at me. "Well?” he said and chuckled. “Wheel" I said, and our understanding was born of that inarticulate exchange.
Father Orr did not look like Pat O’Brien; nor was he religiously solemn. He seemed neither engaged in "good works.” nor inclined to pontificate on youth problems. The club, he explained, was self-governing. At meetings he sat at the back of the room, offering opinion or advice only when it was requested. Neither of us knew where I would fit in, but it was abundantly clear that I would be back.
I was as fascinated by Father Orr as I was by the club. His background was academic — Harvard University, Trinity College, a seminary in New York. He was studying for his PhD and for music degrees. He was a man of many interests, one certainly of vitality and wit and wisdom, but had no apparent kinship with this group of rebellious teenagers. His manner held no hearty geniality. On the contrary, there was a firmness and a dignity which insisted the boys come up to his level.
The following week I went to my first rock-and-roll dance, an experience which established that I was over the hill. An hour after my arrival, the master of ceremonies announced to the two hundred assembled teenagers that the next record would be “a slow one, so Jeann can dance.” With elderly, thirty-five-yearold dignity I moved through the dance with David.
At the next meeting I was voted an honorary member. The following meeting was in an uproar when I arrived. Members had been picked up by the police for questioning at least once and some as many as five times during the past forty-eight hours. The police, it seemed, were interested in the illegal activities of a boy who was not a Saint but who was known to many of the members. I asked if the boys who were picked up had been permitted to make a telephone call. None were aware of this right. We suspended discussion as the membership recorded my telephone number, as well as that of the church—a development which was to have disconcerting and sleep-disturbing results for me.
My suggestion that we visit Number Six for an explanation brought a Pied Piper reaction. The meeting rose as one. We surged into the street as if we were storming the Bastille. At the police-station door we cut the delegation to five. The startled sergeant suggested we re-
turn the next afternoon for a chat with the inspector.
That meeting, the next afternoon, between the inspector, Father Orr and myself established that he was frank, stern and adamant. He did not believe in the club, its aims or its sincerity. We left on the futuristic note of further discussion and I was amused to find myself aligned solidly with The Saints. In fairness to the police, I must admit The Saints were neither saintly nor docile. They were defiant, irresponsible, hostile and, in many cases, foolishly rebellious. They believed society to be hostile and there was justification for that belief. But I began to feel that society had not yet decided whether it wanted a solution to a problem or merely revenge. For Father Orr and me there was the question of “why" — why had things gone wrong for these young people?
The big fear: failure
In the weeks that followed I met the families of some members. Among the boys who had served terms in training schools, reformatories and prisons, there were, oddly, no broken homes. Financially. environments ranged from poor to reasonably good. In some cases alcoholism was rampant. In others there was evidence of parental apathy, bitterness, ignorance or desperation. Some parents were too stern. Some were too lax. There was no common denominator, no one answer to the persistent question.
The club’s discussion periods offered some clues to the beliefs that motivated their lives: Guys got into trouble, they claimed, because they wanted to be "big wheels.” Members talked openly of their “capers.” Unemployment was rampant, yet few made any concentrated effort to get a job. One member claimed their attitude stemmed from a fear of failure. Few had attended high school, some had not finished public school. They felt inadequate, not equipped to handle good jobs; yet there was no determination to get more education. Religion, someone suggested, was "what was wrong with the world.” "Everyone says his religion is the best,” one boy explained. “Maybe if there was only one religion and one God, things would be better.”
I became acquainted with courts and court officials. Father Orr and I did not act to “get a boy out of trouble.” We simply believed that confinement with more-experienced criminals and without treatment was not necessarily the solution. So we talked with the crown attorney, explained the facts, gave as much of a boy’s background as we knew and many times assumed responsibility if leniency was granted.
Our telephones were busy with nigh calls—financial problems, girl troubles family troubles, or just the incessant to talk which is a normal part of ado lescence.
By the end of May, when I had beer with the club about three months, Fathei Orr and I were joined by a Toronto ad agency executive, Hugh Horler. His par ticipation eased some of the mounting pressure. We divided responsibilities; om always present if a member were making a court appearance; at least one available for any day or night emergency and ol course at least one always at a meetinf or dance.
We encountered tragic cases. Bill, for example—a gentle, quiet, nineteen-yearold who had been adopted out in childhood and had spent teenage years searching for his mother. The search had been interrupted by reformatory terms, but finally he narrowed it to Toronto. Then he discovered his mother’s approximate whereabouts just when the police issued a warrant for his arrest on a charge of passing a forged cheque. Father Orr intervened and the Children’s Aid permitted a meeting between the boy and his mother. His search ended in a shabby room, where his mother lived a disordered existence. He was picked up by the police that same day and sentenced to the Ontario Reformatory. In the reformatory Bill made plans to take care of her. Back on the street, his determination lasted a couple of months. He faced the problem common to any young man who has a criminal record—getting a job. Then he vanished. Today he is in Kingston Penitentiary, serving a four-year term.
During the first few months my contact with the girls was limited to brief exchanges at the dances. Then one Sunday we accompanied The Saints and the girl friends on a day’s horseback riding. During the afternoon a tiny sixteen-yearold asked if she could be allowed to ride.
“Do you know how?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I was born on a farm,” she said.
“I’m four months pregnant,” she said simply.
There were moments of pleasure, too. In May, the Saints gave a surprise birthday banquet for me. The gift was a wrist watch. I remember looking down the rows of faces, noticing the suits and clean shirts—because you dressed for a banquet— and recalling that violent moment at 4.30 in the morning and being suddenly grateful to David.
In November they threw another birthday party, for Hugh Horler. He needed a pen-and-pencil set. They had wanted to
give him a signet ring. Typically, they gave him both.
But there were memorable moments that were neither tragic nor pleasant, such as the time I was suspected of being the leader of a teenage crime ring. I had promised to pick up a number of Saints in a Parkdale restaurant. While I waited there, I talked with one of the girls and three other boys. That evening Father Orr telephoned to tell me that the Markham police had called him. It seemed the previous evening a garage had been broken into, a gun had been fired and it was thought the prowler had been wounded. He had escaped, but they were reasonably certain he was in Parkdale. A policeman had been in the restaurant, overheard fragments of my conversation 1 and become suspicious. He had checked the car license plate, made inquiries and learned 1 was frequently in Parkdale and was involved with these young people. What was going on? Father Orr suggested I would hate it in the penitentiary and warned that the policeman would be calling me.
I gave the facts to the policeman when he called, but he obviously had some doubts. He asked if I knew the boy. I didn't. Did I know where he was hiding? No. Would I tell him if I did know? That depended; I wouldn’t break the confidence of The Saints. Would I get a message to him? I called the restaurant, talked to a Saint and asked if he would pass the word. He called back. They knew where the boy was hiding; he was not hurt and he would be given the advice to give himself up. Of course he did not follow the advice. He was picked up the next day. I didn’t hear from the policeman again.
Was she an accomplice?
There was at least one occasion, too, when the Kingston Pen was but a hop, skip and court frown away. Two Saints broke into a warehouse, stole a box containing sixteen dollars and emerged to encounter a carful of curious police. As they scattered, one paused to bury the box in a field. They were caught and this time there was an extra complication; an innocent boy was arrested with the two Saints. In view of his past record, it was a most serious charge, so he appeared in court with a lawyer. During a noon recess of the trial we held a conference. The return of the box might lend weight to the claim that the boys sincerely regretted their impulse. The lawyer agreed and we sped off in my car. As I waited while they dug up the box, a thought wandered through my mind. Wasn't there something about being an accomplice after the fact that might make things sticky if we were stopped and the box discovered in the car? On that return trip 1 have never driven so well. The innocent boy was acquitted and the chagrined Saints were placed on two years’ probation.
I remember another moment, when a young man of twenty-six who looked as if he had just walked off a college campus and who had spent seven years in Kingston Penitentiary for armed robbery was standing with me on the apartment balcony. He glanced toward Mount Pleasant cemetery. "I remember,” he said thoughtfully, “the last time I was in there. The police were shooting at me.”
In the silence I thought, “Yes, of course” and then "Don't be ridiculous.”
Or the time I was driving with a girl I'd come to know from the dances. She was a violent, hardened, bitter and scared seventeen-year-old. She said suddenly, "I tried to kill my mother last Novem-
ber.” I knew then how far I’d come. There was no violent denial in me. What she said was probably true.
Or the Sunday afternoon I’d arranged for two Saints to come to my apartment to record an interview I was planning for radio. They arrived with a quiet, goodlooking young man. I asked if he had any qualifications for participation. He said, "I'm just out of Kingston.”
"What put you there?” I asked.
“Murder,” he said simply.
I swallowed and then said heartily, “Really?”
"It was reduced to manslaughter,” he said.
"Oh yes,” I said and began the interview.
Or the slender, wistful, fifteen-year-old who wanted to write. He had been handed over by his parents to a Negro family when he was ten months old. They raised him until he was eleven. Then his parents decided they wanted him home. Emotionally the boy was a Negro and he returned to white parents, to a mother who had surrendered to some private sorrow and a father who took refuge in a bottle. He gave me some of his stories to read. They had the wonderful, excessive emotionalism of youth and a rare talent. Given a chance, even by himself, this lonely youngster will some day be a writer.
There were so many of these kids and each needed help — some trained help, some merely a listening ear or time. These were decent, frightened youngsters, many of them desperate kids caught up in adult problems while they were still emotionally children and not equipped to handle either society’s ignorance, apathy or revenge.
Summer was a bad time. Meetings were suspended and suddenly we seemed busy with court appearances. In the autumn, attendance at the meetings dropped and interest was spasmodic. Gradually, most members got jobs, returned to their families and settled into almost disconcerting respectability. There was a sudden rash of weddings. Our group was growing up.
Gradually, despite the efforts of a fiercely dedicated core, the club as an organized group disintegrated. Many of the Saints still wandered around the church as if it were some kind of home base. They came occasionally to service; one boy joined the church, another was in the choir. Our first sixteen-year-old mother had her son baptized by Father Orr, and Hugh and I are his godparents.
We were asked frequently what we expected of the club. Even now I don’t know. We have no way of knowing if it made any difference to any of the boys, but perhaps it will at some future time. It made a great difference to my life. Even now I search anxiously for a familiar name in every news story of a boy in trouble. Even now I’m haunted by the memory of that human assembly line in a court of boys with no one to speak for them. Even now these are the friends I trust and know and would rely on. The twenty-six-year-old who fled before the gunfire of the police married not long ago and has a son. He will be all right. Another is back in Guelph. Another is working.
Just recently one of my Saints, who had spent much of his young life in reform schools and prisons, came to see me.
"I’m celebrating an anniversary,” he said with a broad grin. “It's a whole year today since I’ve been in jail.”
He looked thoughtful. "Do you know, Jeann,” he added, "I’m beginning to like civilization!” ★