VOICES FROM GOTHIC AVENUE
The experience of one radical expatriate running north from America to find home
Once upon a time, when I had lived in Chicago all my life, I was shaking and poking my Josh to get him up. He had to go and be drafted. And I was standing at the front door watching him ramble down the walk, wondering what the hell we were doing.
He had some idea he could talk the army out of taking him. But he’s tall, blond, healthy and well built. Looks like perfect soldier material. They soon found out different.
Because Josh believes in talking instead of fighting. He filed for Conscientious Objector status, giving his religion as Love. So he didn’t carry a weapon. He wore orange beads and a bell, and he talked so much and so persuasively against the war that he was placed off limits. The men could talk to him but they weren’t supposed to listen.
It was during his second session of basic training that his application for CO status was rejected. He stayed up that night playing poker to get together bus fare. Three days later I answered the door and knew my life was changed. This is crazy, I kept telling myself, this just isn’t happening.
There was a very real fear for his safety, but mostly it was exciting to play cops-and-deserters. They never taught us about Canada in school, but stories were beginning to trickle through about a huge open country biding its time in the north. Josh left the army on September 19, 1967, and landed in Toronto as an immigrant on December 29. He was just about to turn 21.
So here’s 19-year-old Penney, wide green eyes taking a last look at Chicago, clutching a bouquet of feather flowers for Josh. I told the Immigration people the only thing I was sure of: I was coming to be with my man. They accepted that. I was glad. I’d
been afraid someone would insist we get legally married, and my parents had made only one provision about coming up here. They didn’t want me signing a marriage license. In light of their own divorce when I was six, this seemed sensible advice.
It was January in Toronto and we were strangers. At first I ached for the streets of home and kept a U.S. $20 bill in my jeans as a stash to buy my fare back to Chicago. Up here I was Josh’s old lady, among people who’d taken him in because he had no place to go. We were starting with virtually nothing. Josh was wearing my clothes because he had none.
After about a month, the people we were staying with rented a big house and we moved into the basement. It was funny to have a home together. True, it needed a lot of work. We figured we had a lot of time. Josh went job hunting and I got money from the other folks in the house for cooking supper every night. I’d also saved up some money from working for the university at home. We were coasting and settling in. There was such a lot to explore in the new city. The range and multitude of shops on Queen Street knocked me out. It was a far cry from the three supermarkets and two shopping centres at home.
It seems strange, but life then was practically idyllic. Every night was like a party. Every morning Josh and I woke up at the same time and he’d stretch and yawn and say he loved me. His birthday came shortly after we moved in. I remember looking at my last pay cheque forwarded from home and shaking my head. Seventy dollars we had to last indefinitely. I cashed the cheque and blew 20 bucks on a silver ring for him.
The fine times continued until one morning in the middle of March. We
woke up and there were three men in business suits at the foot of our mattress. They said they were police officers and we weren’t supposed to move. One guy opened the corner cabinet next to the bed and pulled out a pipe. He shook it in my face and asked what it was used for. I said I didn’t know. He said, “Shut up, bitch.”
Josh came awake in a hurry to protest the cop’s language. The cop asked if we were married and Josh shook his head. The man was triumphant: “Then she’s a bitch.” They found and confiscated a pipe I’d gotten Josh for Christmas, a hookah, two vials of pipe scrapings, a butt end with green matter in it, a package of cigarette papers and a little brass bell on a rawhide string which Josh always wore around his neck.
And here we go to jail. We spent the night in separate drunk tanks and had bail set at $1,000 each. Our friends found a house to put up for Josh’s security, but I was in jail four days more while they rounded up cash.
God, the air smelt good without any walls around it. Josh was like a puppydog, running round and round me in circles, jumping up to kiss me and falling back to look at me.
So suddenly we were under pressure again. The charges in themselves were minor. But conviction meant deportation. And for Josh, that meant Leavenworth.
Fortunately, our lawyer, Paul Copeland, of Copeland & Ruby, is a very funny, very together man. He put forward a plan of action that, including remands and appeals, promised us two or three years’ reprieve. And he guided us through the red tape. I had to go through Immigration and get my landed-immigrant status. We had to go through Legal Aid to get enough
money to pay for our defense.
Josh got a job delivering diapers. The work was hard and rotten, but the weekly pay was high, he worked on his own, and he didn’t have to cut his hair. We scrounged and scrubbed and painted and faked it, and made our basement into a very pleasant little flat. I had my own kitchen and Josh had a workroom.
And we had a pair of fine friends, Steve and Michelle. Steve is a tall lank blond draft-dodger whose dad is a colonel. He was in the country illegally. His dad was cooperating with the authorities. When Steve was denied entrance at Buffalo, he’d had no real choice but to slip around and come in through Windsor. He couldn’t work without papers. Michelle, a pretty Canadian redhead, was supporting him.
Spring came, and then summer. We were becoming assimilated. My kid brother Bill came tô spend the summer with us. The cops came back once but didn’t really bother us. We went to court and requested trial by judge and jury. The FBI finally contacted our families, who were not cooperative. Soon we were watching the CNE fireworks every night from our street corner, and then Bill went home to school. Thanksgiving snuck up — I wasn’t expecting it until November. We had 20 people to supper and it was riotous.
And after Thanksgiving come birthdays for me and Michelle, both Scorpio. We had kind of a quiet celebration though. Steve was in jail. He’d thought maybe he could apply again to live here. He sent a letter to Immigration, forwarding it through his parents’ home in New York State. Three weeks later the cops pounded on the door and took him away. Immigration had to set the bail and that took a week. Finally we sprung him, and he was given working papers pending a special hearing in Ottawa. Everybody suddenly realized that his only real hope of staying in Canada lay in marrying Michelle.
We celebrated Christmas and New Year’s uproariously, culminating with moving into our very own first-floor flat. Before long, we had a houseful of hippies including Michelle’s kid sister Dawn, fresh from the Prairies, and a little black pup named Ruby, who died before she had lived six months.
Steve’s parents came up for a visit in February and fortunately the screaming match about the war only lasted a day. My attitude about the Asian catastrophe is pretty well
summed up in Dr. Spock’s book, Dr. Spock Speaks On Vietnam. I’ve got a lot of respect for documentation. Spock presents overwhelming proof that the Vietnamese people are spontaneously revolting against an incredibly corrupt, feudal, U.S.-imposed government. And is it patriotism, then, to slaughter simple peasant folk endlessly because they will not vote the way we want them to? Is it glory to have an authentic testing ground for nerve gases? Does not the Big Lie of the affluent society begin to smell like another, earlier, Big Lie?
Steve proposed to Michelle, and changed his mind, and proposed again, and so forth, until I finally told her to shoot him and have done with it. They were married on Good Friday, in the United Church. About 40 people showed up for the wedding and the feast afterward. About a dozen of us got together for the Easter mescaline trip. I only trip about once a year now, and I like to make it at Easter. There’s a terrific sense of rebirth in the coming of spring.
One day in May Josh awoke, cut his hair and shaved his moustache. We dressed solemnly and made our way down to the new courthouse for our trial. We felt detached from the proceedings. We were sure to be convicted, though the evidence against us was flimsy. One of the exhibits produced against us was a pack of cigarette papers. In the morning we went through the formalities of choosing the jury and hearing the charges. I sat and held Josh’s hand and read the crest behind the judge over and over: Honi soit qui mal y pense. Then the Crown presented its case — that is, the police.
The officers obviously disliked us. I’d written a letter to the Star complaining that Josh’s brass bell had disappeared after the raid. He wore that bell through the army and it had great sentimental value. The newspaper hadn’t gotten its return, but it did get one officer called on the carpet. The police testified that they found us asleep together, naked, in a room containing a hookah which lab analysis proved had once been used for smoking cannabis. There were other goodies around the basement. They got us dressed and dragged us sleepyheaded down to the clink.
Paul swung the cross-examination around to other points. Had they arrested anyone else at that time? Yes, a suspected trafficker who lived on the first floor. Had we ever said that we lived there or acknowledged the paraphernalia as ours? No, we hadn’t said much of anything at all. Paul then gave a neat demonstration of squinting into a pipe bowl while he
asked, “How do you officers tell what a pipe’s been used for? I always thought marijuana was green.” The officer replied that he was there on a drug raid and knew what to look for. Paul thanked him and dismissed him.
The Crown rested its case. Paul moved that the charges be dismissed on grounds that no one had proved we had either knowledge or control of the drug. The Crown was flabbergasted. The police were not happy. The judge took the motion under consideration and recessed court for the day. We passed the night in a cold sweat.
In the morning the judge went through the technicalities of hearing precedents and then he recalled the jury. He told them that a mistake had been made, that our case should never have come to court at all. A jury cannot be dismissed without returning a verdict. So he instructed them to choose a foreman, quickly so we could all go home for lunch, and return to him the verdict, Not Guilty.
This incredible shock wave went through the room and slammed into Josh and me. Paul came over and said, “You can look happy now.” We left, whooping and dancing down the courthouse corridors. Paul pretended he didn’t know us, but he couldn’t stop laughing either.
nd suddenly we were adrift again, whirling and spinning and trying to find a lifetime course. Josh was perplexed. He wanted to start building a career somewhere outside the Establishment but he didn’t know where. We bought a truck with the released bail money we’d been working so long to pay back; I had a cocktail waitress job at night and Josh would wait up for me suspiciously. He was putting time and effort into a venture with another guy whereby they would incorporate and build geodesic domes. But it fell through.
Something else fell through that summer. Steve and Michelle split up. They had lived together for two years, and three months after they made it legal it disintegrated. Steve moved into a job and apartment in Rochdale College, of which we’d heard many wild rumors. The building was already becoming legendary. A month later we moved in with him. We had dissolved our house and spent September in Orillia trying to land a juicy dome contract. We came back to the city with little money and no place to stay. So we shared Steve’s Aphrodite (onebedroom) apartment in Rochdale for three months.
The activity within the building is mind-boggling.
continued on page 98
GOTHIC AVENUE from page 36
Something that the politicians who hate the place, and never visit it, forget is that Rochdale is so obviously and completely an experiment. The people who live and visit in the building were here before it was and will be here after. Rochdale serves a purpose invaluable to many more communities than realize it. It’s just that I don’t like to live there.
Since I’ve lived in Toronto, I’ve acquired a taste for houses with backyards big enough for a dog. But I didn’t like the house that Josh found. It was cramped and tiny and the whole thing leaned toward the southwest corner. Josh did like it because it was cheap and had a workroom and a place to park his truck. I wanted a couple more days to look around. There followed a quick and nasty power play in which I was voted down by Josh, Michelle and Dawn. Either I shared that house with them or I shared no house with them.
Bitterly did I do my part in painting, scrubbing and floor-sanding. The more work we put into it, the more it looked like a dump. I was planning to pay my annual visit to Chicago and told Josh maybe I wouldn’t come back. As we were moving into the house, Josh went to his workroom and pulled out my Christmas present. It was a beautiful, huge, kitchen hutch with stained glass and a mirror and
all kinds of handy intelligent gadgets built in.
So home goes Penney to think. I got in to Mother’s place late on Twelfth Night, had a drink, and woke up to a wide-eyed six-year-old sister’s hug. I spent most of my life in a world comprised of me and Bill and Mother. Now when I go home, there’s a young ’un at Mom’s and four more at Dad’s and I can’t get used to it.
But Chicago is always Chicago. There’s a half-hour coughing fit at O’Hare while I adjust to the smog. There’s thousands of people on the downtown streets all through the day. There’s a story in the news about the new “crime wave.” There’s a funny Mike Royko column in the Daily News. And Dick Daley’s smile or frown sends fortunes sliding this way and that.
I looked up the dude who was my partner for five years and listened awestruck to news of teen-age friends. So-and-so was pregnant in jail in Panama. So-and-so had shot a cop. Soand-so got shot in New York on a plane he was trying to take to Algeria. Now I had a reputation and Bill another, so my name still brought response. An amazing number of people were still in town. We swapped stories, matched political opinions, and did a little bragging. Before long I found myself singing the same old song.
Come to Canada, I’d say. It’s a young country, open and free. Come to Toronto in its boom stage. Come watch them repeal laws instead of making more. The States is gonna fall, I’d say. It’s gonna topple and decay, and it doesn’t matter which side you’re on when it goes. Come help make the new life strong while there’s time.
(Collecting statistics on the number of young Americans in Canada is like hunting moose with a butterfly net. The Yanks are clearly here, clearly visible, going about their own business. Immigration estimates the number in Toronto at about 12,000. One of the city’s underground newspapers claims a community of 60,000 or more. The influx is steady and not always legal. The young people tend to think of moving up here as escaping, and they try to do it quietly. The place we are likely to run into each other is Grossman’s Tavern. We go there to buy meat pies and gravy, drink draft and listen to the blues band.)
My mother had to laugh. “You make it sound like the land of milk and honey,” she said. I looked at life in Chicago, where the only question is, What’s the price? And I knew that, Josh or no Josh, Toronto was where I wanted to live. So back I came.
The relationship, always tumultuous, stood in frantic need of basic repair. It got patchwork instead. I took a job for six months, Civil Service Temporary, in the Department of Transport. The work was tedious but the people were groovy. I saw little of Josh and less of his money. I got a puppy, named her Rebecca, and spent my frustrated affection on her. I got my brother Bill, to keep, and he arrived from Chicago in a state of emotional crisis peculiar to 16-year-olds. In August I almost reached my breaking point when I became agonizingly sick from a baby I lost before I was sure I had it.
Josh didn’t want to hear it. He didn't want to know about me. I didn’t want to know about him. I didn’t want to know whether it was Dawn’s or Michelle’s bed he’d been in. I didn't want to know where he was staying every night until two or three o’clock. And I blindly refused to see that along about April or May, humming the fool’s tune that he was one in a million who could beat it, Josh had started to get into speed.
Speed’s poison. It’s a cumulative poison too. It carves new, paranoid channels in thought patterns. It drills holes through your liver and kidneys, adding grouchiness to the paranoia. Pile guilt feelings on top of the lot, and you have a man who is apt to lash out at anything he can. I was the closest object. One night he tipped my
chin up to look at me and said tenderly, “It’s not your fault I think you’re the Establishment.”
Sounds like a swan song, right? I should’ve been so smart. Instead we fought it out until Christmas, making an untidy three years in all. One thing I did made me feel underhanded at the time but proved to be the right action. I went to Steve behind Josh’s
back and told him I was worried about the speed. Steve said, “Oh, is that the connection between the bad temper and the weight loss?” And he could talk to my man where I could not.
But I’ve never been called Establishment before, however metaphorically. The major influences on my life were half intellectual (my parents) and
continued on page 100
half slum black (my neighbors and peer group). An independent streak, an ingrained distrust of established authority runs solidly through both schools of thought. This is one chicky who’s always been on her own, from cooking for SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) at age 15 to sabotaging the computer that ran our high school, to running with and then from the Blackstone Rangers. A full life but not exactly bourgeois.
I’m just starting to lose the grogginess that followed the split with Josh. I’m trying to get some sense of myself and my place in the world’s drift. Canada really seems like a good place to be. I think this country might be big enough and young enough to ride out the incredibly massive social changes that our ever-accelerating technological world is going to impose. Try to project your mind 20 years in the future. Assuming we’re still here, can any single imagination grasp the dimensions of change at our present pace? Could 1971 have been projected from 1951? I think not.
I have a good friend who insists that the more things change, the more people go on doing the same old things. We shop, we make love, we war and laugh and plant and pick flowers. And of course he has a point. But that’s part of what this whole evolution is about. We gotta get back to the basics — I’m people, I grow. You’re people, you grow. He’s people, he grows. Cycles we need, knots we don’t.
Community we need, centralization we don’t. Somehow we’ve got to scramble back through the plastic and chrome, concrete and ticky-tacky, and try to dig out a couple of stone-solid things we can all relate to. And I’m proud and scared that my generation is doing so much of the scrambling.
When it comes right down to getting-the-hell-out, it doesn’t seem to matter where you’re going. I was lucky. I stepped blindly into a house on Gothic Avenue, a quiet neighborly street with about 100 folks like myself. Now, you see, we have a peaceful and merry life.
It’s a warm summer day and I’m writing these sentences on the front porch in the sun. My brother Bill has gone to Vancouver. He crammed three years of school into one and got a 70 average. My dog, Rebecca, is playing on the lawn with the neighbor’s dog. The guy across the street is trying to organize a party to go swimming in the pool at High Park just down the road. The sun comes green-leafspeckled through the trees and the water sounds very tempting. I think I’m going to go. ■