My second Toronto rooming house was a block north of Bloor on Huron Street– a rundown three story, red brick Edwardian that had seen far better days. It was one of several such establishments owned by a surly Portuguese would-be slum landlord named Rocko. Rocko trolled the streets on garbage days looking for cast off furniture, which he would collect and set out in the backyards of his various properties to season over winter before using them to furnish his rooms. When it came to distressed furniture, Rocko was ahead of his time.
Bobbie, a lumpish middle aged woman with a limp, occupied a couple of rooms on the first floor in exchange for vetting potential tenants, collecting the rent and letting Rocko know if something needed to be fixed so that he could ignore it for as long as possible. Case in point: the bathroom on my floor. It was in restauro for the better part of a year. I peed into an empty coffee can and poured it out the window. It was all very Medieval.
As for the rest of my fellow roomers, three stand out clearly in my mind:
Creepy George, who was in Butchers’ School. One night in the communal kitchen Creepy George described in vivid detail exactly what he would do with his knives if ever he got his hands on one of the nuns who lived in the convent next door. It seemed that his memories of parochial school were less than fond. Bobbie notified the police and that was the last we saw of George.
Then there was Billy, a good old boy from Arkansas who had deserted the U.S. Army while on leave from duty in Vietnam and made his way to Canada. Billy slept with the lights and the radio on; sometimes he woke up screaming. This did not sit well with me. Having no noise filters whatsoever, I can’t abide the sound of a television or a radio burbling away in the background, never mind full-out, middle-of-the-night screaming, and Billy was in the room directly below mine. Shortly after he moved on to parts unknown, the RCMP came looking for him. It was during the day and, as it happened, I was the only one home. I was wearing jumbo sized pink foam rollers. The Mounties were wearing suits and dark glasses. I was disappointed. “Couldn’t you at least have worn your Dudley Doright outfits?” I asked. That’s when I discovered that Mounties are sadly lacking in a sense of humour. Lucky for Billy that I knew next to nothing about him. As it turned out, his name wasn’t even Billy.
Finally, there was a bulky, truculent woman in her thirties with a great deal of facial hair; she resembled nothing so much as a female Russian shot putter. I never did get her name. Bobbie must have known it, but none of the rest of us did. She rented one of the basement rooms. This was not a finished basement. It had mold speckled cinder block walls, a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling, a bed with a lumpy mattress and a bedside table. Bobbie had occasion to go down to the woman’s room when she was not there. She reported that she had no possessions except a Bible — no clothes but the ones on her back, no sheets or blankets.
Later I was to pass the woman standing at a bus stop. “Yellow pills! Green pills! Red pills!” she was screaming at the people getting off and on the bus. That’s when I realized she was a ranter. I had always wondered where ranters went at the end of a long day of hollering at people. Now I knew.
One night, a few of us were in the kitchen when we heard low rumbling sounds coming from below. We opened the basement door and listened. It was the woman noisily pacing back and forth in her room, fulminating about the End of Days, the Blood of the Lamb, the Mighty Hand of God and a whole lot of smiting. According to the woman in the basement, our collective goose was just about to be cooked and was she glad.
One day I descended in to the communal kitchen to find myself alone with her. Nothing to be afraid of, I assured my trepidacious self. She’s just a poor crazy person who yells at strangers and comforts herself at night with warm fuzzy thoughts of the Apocalypse. Making a show of nonchalance, I went to open my tin of corned beef. The ranter took one look at me, picked up a pile of plates in the sink and smashed them down with a mighty clatter. She glared at me, her mouth working, strange gurgling noises leaking from her. Finally she choked it out: “It is not meet to eat meat!” Then, overwhelmed with emotion, she lurched to the door that led to the basement and staggered down the stairs. I stared after her, agape. An eschatological vegetarian! Who knew? On the other hand, if one intended to lay down beside the lion and the lamb in a post-apocalyptic Eden, it would probably be advisable to stop eying them hungrily.
Eventually a number of roomers complained to Bobbie about the ranter, including me. She scared us. She made us uncomfortable. Bobbie told her that Rocko was going to renovate the basement and that she would have to move. This was a lie of course. Rocko never renovated anything.
Forty years later, I sit on the Steering Committee for the London Homeless Coalition and I feel bad for the part I played in driving the ranter once more into the wilderness that was the Annex in the seventies. She was on some kind of disability; there was a monthly cheque; she would find another cheerless room in which to exercise her demons. Still. Not kind on my part. Ungenerous. Not surprising that she wanted us all to die. I wonder if she is all right. I wonder if she is. Homeless women die young and in Mike Harris’ Ontario she would have surely become homeless, even the bare basement room rendered unaffordable.
As for meat, well, slouching towards vegetarianism as I have been for lo these many years, I have to agree with her. It really isn’t meet to eat meat and maybe someday I will summon the moral rectitude to stop chomping on my fellow sentient creatures. You never know. On the other hand, perhaps you do.
The Bargain Hunter, published in Terminus, in the Autumn of 2003, is about another man who liked to collect thrown out furniture from the side of the road on garbage day. To read it, click on the title.