A song of fond farewell to the vanishing Canadian WASP
ROBERT THOMAS ALLENDecember11973
God, Eaton's and the Orangemen's parade
A song of fond farewell to the vanishing Canadian WASP
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
Every time I hear someone say “Wasp” in a way that conjures images of bigoted bourgeois in solid brick houses, directing banks and ruling Canada, I think with a twinge of loyalty of the few old Wasps still squeezed into a row of semidetached houses on the street where I grew up. It was a neighborhood of lower middle-class Wasps, although they didn’t call themselves that. They called themselves “workingmen,” in a tone that meant they hadn’t lost their moral fibre or contact with reality, and I’d like to put in a word for them before they vanish completely, like the passenger pigeon, in their Eatonia Donegal-tweed caps, amid a faint fragrance of lilacs and overdone roast beef, carefully closing their back gates behind them and ankling off down life’s lane, carrying their soldering irons, jeweler’s eyepieces, trowels, plumbers’ wrenches, lunch boxes, postmen’s pouches and bricklayers’ hods, and a few unexploded 24th-of-May firecrackers, followed by the taunts, jeers and flying rocks of the new era.
I know there are still strongholds of rich Wasps, who live surrounded by ravines, old pewter and curved driveways. I take my daily walks through one of these areas and still see people in yacht club blazers and white squash shoes coming out of houses with fat veranda pillars and potted ferns, and giving Japanese gardeners their day’s instructions on what to do with their gazebos, the dappled sunlight coming down on them through old elms like the pale light of a rain forest. When I read that these people control Canada I can believe it. But even they are surrounded by new ideas that lap at their spirea bushes like rising flood waters.
For my former neighbors, the flood of changing times has left little but a few old watches engraved “For 40 years of loyal service,” certificates signed by the staff of the crating department and memories of such things as military tattoos and royal visits. Their world has gone, their garages are too small, their granddaughters are called Lady Clairols and their ideals are cited as examples of perversity. Nobody under 35 realizes what they’ve lost. They were /
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WASPS from page 38
once on a winning team (the same as the wealthy folks on the other side of the ravine) sharing a well-ordered universe, with King George V or VI at the top and trim little gardens and good plumbing at the bottom — established forever by right thinking, God, Eaton’s and the Orangemen’s parade, and filled with a cheerful pink gas from Victoria to Calcutta, that shimmered in the air like the spray from a gunboat at sunset. Now they sit on their battleship-grey porches peering nervously from under striped awnings and through Virginia creepers at the new people who paint their houses red and purple, plant radishes in the old aster beds and put the evil eye on one another, and — well, I’m sorry, but I like them.
They invite me into their prim polished living rooms where everything is tidy and battened down, as if for a final exodus — the piano closed and the sheet music of Little Grass Shack In Waikiki stuffed into the piano bench; Dickens, Thackeray and Walter Scott snug and dry in glassed-in cases; Union Jacks framed on the wall like symbols of an underground movement — and give me ginger ale and recall old times, reminding me of a lot of neighborhood horseplay and good spirits that disappeared with the Grey Dort.
“Do you remember the time Billy Cook kept sprinkling water on old Mr. Cook’s head from the bathroom window until the old gentleman thought it was raining?” “Do you remember when your Uncle Bert, that time he had the roofing business, sent old Mrs. Mitchener a bill for 30 pounds of solid silver nails just to hear what she’d say?” or “the way Mr. Ware used to make those speeches when he came home from laying bricks?” (Mr. Ware used to give the best imitations I’ve ever heard of a politician on the stump saying absolutely nothing.)
I think it’s a mistake to ignore their good qualities just because they thought French Canadians wore bright green suits and talked funny, and that there was something unnatural about garlic, a weird food used by all foreigners except Americans, who were so misguided in other ways they might as well have used it. I forget these things when some little lady Wasp says she doesn’t get around much now because she’s crippled with arthritis, then adds something that could have come right out of the Boy Scout Manual for 1929, like “But we mustn’t complain.” Or says, “Joe will be sorry he missed you. He just went downtown to pay for the gas,” adding some quaint remark like “He still doesn’t rest right when there’s an unpaid bill, you know.”
They had other qualities I’ll be sorry to see go. I don’t know if they were exclusively Wasp, but they were in the air when the Wasp was the unchallenged dominant species — qualities like taking
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pride in good workmanship; being as good as your word; believing in principles; doing a bit more than you were paid for; being on time; never missing a day’s work; taking your turn in a lineup; being self-dependent. If a Wasp on my street lost his job, he didn’t try to reorganize the world on his side; he felt he’d get another job if he kept his pants pressed and remained cheerful, and I sometimes think of him with a lump in my throat, as I did the other day when two garage men took a tire off my car, then, before they installed the new one, left me standing there, got hamburgers from the Jiffy Wagon, and sat down for their mid-afternoon break, chewing slowly, staring into space, at God knows what.
Perfect marriages happened on my street about as often as they do on any street today: that is, virtually never, but the solution wasn’t to try another one. A man and his wife may have had a fight that was fascinating to the people in the other half of the semidetached house; or even the next detached one; braying and thumping saucepans. And it might have ended with the husband up on the roof, silent, stiff-necked and thin-lipped, repairing an eaves trough; and the wife flinging caution to the winds and going out for a soda and to see a movie and look at Ronald Coleman. But the home was still there, a complex full-time project, involving trouble, crafts, repairs, courage, letting down hems, re-soling kids’ shoes and paying off mortgages, and by the following Tuesday, both husband and wife would be getting along fine again.
People did their best to be honest. A man selling, say, his T-Model Ford for $75, tried to act on the principle that business was compatible with decency. He would put down his garden hose, go out to the curb in his carpet slippers, point with the stem of his pipe and say, “I won’t fool you, the spark jumps when she’s in low and she’s got a growl in her pinion gear, but that’s all that’s wrong with her that I know of,” stubbornly clinging to the belief that in a world where everyone was honest nobody would be the loser in the long run. And people believed these things without urging by political advertising agencies or public service TV, or even the need of saying them aloud. A man may have said “Honesty is the best policy,” but he said it with a little grin to make sure nobody thought he was a religious fanatic, for, by and large, Wasps distrusted extravagant remarks and theatrical gestures, like goose-stepping, which they found undignified and vaguely embarrassing, along with singing sentimental patriotic songs, a bad habit of Americans, or boasting that Wasps were a superior breed, which wasn’t necessary.
There were a lot of traits I’d like to see
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revived like a Wasp’s idea of the limits of personal violence, which now seem as quaint as the mating dance of the whooping crane. A Wasp schoolyard fight was a formal affair that took place perhaps twice a year. Its value was preserved, like the Victoria Cross. It was held inside a large ring, in which two young Wasps swung at one another with their hair in their eyes and their pants coming down, the idea of each being to punch the other in the head. They kept this up until one went home, perhaps meeting, on the way, a schoolteacher who called “Straighten up, Howie, you’re slouching,” jerking her shoulders back. A Wasp had no knowledge of blows that paralyze the central nervous system, and his only psychological attack was to scowl and mutter “You bastard!” One of those demented screams of today’s karate experts would have sent both the combatants and the spectators home, convinced somebody had gone out of his mind. Kicking anyone in the groin would have been considered the work of a maniac which, of course, it is. Footwork meant sidestepping quickly. If either antagonist had used any of the two dozen blows seen nightly on shows like Mannix or Cannon, everybody would have thought he was some kind of freak. An old-style Wasp smiled when he boxed, because he considered it a manly sport in which you never hit anyone below the waist or when he was down or not looking. In fact, I never saw anyone throw a rock at anything alive until a year ago, when a young, newstyle Wasp in North Toronto threw one at me. He missed a mile, but something in that chimpanzee-like gesture left me feeling depressed. We thought it a point of honor to fight our own battles. “Are you going to get your gang?” was considered an insult. I never saw a pocketknife used except for things like making birchbark drinking cups until I was middle-aged and staying for a while in San Francisco. One night I crossed paths with a group that had come out onto the sidewalk from a house party, talking excitedly, and heard one man say, “I cut him good,” as proudly as if he’d just won a standing broad jump. I never saw
a house party on the street where I grew up end in anything but a few choruses of old Wasp folk songs, like A Wee Hoose Amang The Heather. What Wasps did at house parties was dance, stiff and perspiring, with lady Wasps, not challenge fellow guests to duels with broken beer bottles. A Saturday Night Special meant dinnerware night at the Iola Theatre.
Nobody can deny that a Wasp was bigoted, because when you get right down to it he was. His mind was full of clear-cut comic-strip ideas of Eyetalians who dug ditches; Negroes who wore pink polka-dot bow ties and played banjos; Bulgarians who carried tremendous weights and ate onions; Jews who tried to chisel you; Catholics who worshipped idols and had mistaken ideas about God and the Pope and underground tunnels to nunneries. He felt that Wasps should marry Wasps so that everyone would come out the right color. But I’m not sure bigotry, which I associate with clubs, guns and masked men at midnight, is quite the word. Mental chaos would be closer, for a lot of old Wasps I can think of, even holding those ideas, would have shown more civilized behavior toward someone they thought wrong than many people I see on TV today throwing rocks at people they don’t agree with.
Another thing, they were just as bigoted about their own. Canadian-born Wasps made fun of Englishmen giving awful imitations of their speech and saying: “Everything is better over ’ome,” and English Wasps thought Canadians were comical colonial clods and that Canadian robins were really crows with the wrong name; and both thought Scots were tight and a bit too cocky, and that the Irish got everything backward and were bad tempered, in fact you couldn’t trust them. But a lot of their bigotry wasn’t any worse than today’s. They thought you could be short, fat and homely, for instance, and still be alright as long as you were white, AngloSaxon and Protestant, instead of believing as people do today that you can be any race, creed or color as long as you’re tall, young, muscular and/or beautiful.
Anyway, looking back on the Wasps I
have known, I find these qualities as hard to identify in them as the outer primaries of a laughing gull. I think of Mr. Rushton, a soft-spoken, pipe-smoking English Wasp who used to fix fire-tower clocks; Mr. James, a muscular, energetic five-foot-four Wasp, the only man I’ve ever known personally who could walk on his hands, which he sometimes did after supper to the delight of all the kids on the block, who stopped playing buckbuck-how-many-fingers-up to watch him, along with Mrs. James, a nice little woman who was always giving us cookies; Mr. Dinsmore, who, when his wife started tearing strips off him just, as he put it, “let it go in one ear and out the other,” and went down to his garage and worked on his main bearings helped by Mr. Birch, the only Negro on the street, a crony of his; and Mr. Bedford. I saw Mr. Bedford last summer, standing on a lawn as smooth as a snooker table, outlined in little white rocks, like gannets’ eggs, hands behind his back, looking at his hollyhocks. I remember my mother having tea out by the snowball bush, a lively woman who shared all the going Wasp ideas and never quite got over looking out of her hotel window in St. Louis on her honeymoon and seeing “nothing but Darkies,” but who, if she’d been invited to, say, confront a bus-load of immigrants with rotten eggs, would have said “That would be very ladylike, I’m sure!” And I think of my Pop, a lean, friendly man who was fascinated with tales of strange people like the Chinese, who, he said, only paid the doctor when they were well and cut off all payments when they were sick. He was a gentle man who belted me only once, and then his hands were so calloused with hard work they felt like Olympicsize sparring gloves, and he felt so awful afterward that he went out on the back porch and smoked two pipesful of Irish Twist and Rose Quesnel, a French-Canadian leaf tobacco which a nephew in Montreal who had a French connection had smuggled into Wasp territory.
My father was that most diabolical of all Wasps — all Canadian Wasps anyway — a Montreal Wasp. He was born within the fragrance of Molson’s brewery, and I often think of him when some sprightly young panhandler comes up to me with a remark like “Pardon me, sir, could you spare a dollar? This is my birthday.” He started work at 11 years old for $1.50 a week, working 10 hours a day, Monday through Saturday, but at the age of 85 he was still holding his own, making $35 a week repairing handbags, refusing help, going downtown to lunch, paying for it out of his own pocket, smoking White Owl cigars and holding his end up, all of which, in my opinion, went a long way toward making up for the fact that he had been born a Wasp. ■
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