When I was a child, there were two worlds. I moved from one to the other of them and back again with the regularity of the seasons.
Dorval Island formed a summer world that was green and peaceful and dearly known. The mainland of Montreal formed the other world, that outside world, and it was cement grey and noisy and smelled of car exhaust and diesel engine fumes. It was hard and loud and big.
These two very different spaces were four minutes away from each other by boat, so I knew that although they contrasted sharply with each other, they lived side by side. And as years passed I had to spend time in that second world, that outside world, more often.
I knew where I wanted to be. All winter I would wait for spring and picture myself running and playing in that cool green grass. I wanted to be in the circle of family, the Romper Room of childhood that was contained for me in the rough oval of the island. I didn’t like the other world. I saw, though, that I had to live in both. I didn’t want to, but I had to go out there.
Years passed and I found I’d been pushed out of the known world of family and away from the island. They were hard years, fast-paced years. University studies in Ontario took up most of my time. The years trundled on by.
Of course, I visited, especially the island. I spent a whole week of my two week summer vacation there. But Ontario, and summer jobs, and boyfriends in Ottawa, all conspired to keep me away. That mainland world which I had disliked as a child had now become my life.
I graduated and looked for work. After exploring quite thoroughly the absurdities of being well-educated yet unemployable, I grabbed at the first offered position, that of a lowly office clerk in a small importing business. This was not the sort of position that I had envisioned for myself, but this big world can do strange things to all of us; can redefine us, even as we stare into our bathroom mirrors.
Thus did I become an adult. I worked hard and learned quickly. I earned the minimum wage allowed. I saved money compulsively and tried to make do with the somewhat ragged clothes and single saucepan that I had left over from my days as a student.
I became functional, focused on invoices and accounts payable, bus fare increases and bank service charges. When the work day was finished my one room apartment and the beer cooler at the corner depanneur awaited me. I drank beer and killed cockroaches in the evenings. I drank enough beer each evening to lose my place in the world, to travel back, running through memories of that green and sun-splotched island space.
Then, I had been free to watch the circling, swooping barn swallows for hours in the long late June afternoons. I had been an explorer on the rocky windy lake-sprayed beach. My memories were interrupted only by the dark surreptitious scuttlings of the cockroaches. I killed them, one by one, with my running shoes.
I worked so quickly in that dingy brown office, and was so neat and accurate in my work, that the bellicose boss-man ordered his bookkeeper to train me. When I knew the routines and methods used for accounting in his small business, he fired her amidst tears and shouting and gave me all of her work to do, as well as my own of course. He assured me that there would be a pay raise within the next six months.
Spring staggered into Montreal that year of 1984, and I learned just how filthy a bus window can be. I was the bookkeeper. I was responsible. I was over-worked and under-paid. I had become one of many in that big, noisy city world at last, indistinguishable from all the others.
My boss, in a fever of high-tech ‘flu, bought a computer for his somewhat outdated office. It seemed incongruous, sitting perched there on an old, paper-strewn desk, beside the bent grey filing cabinet and the wheezing photocopier.
I was told to ‘learn how to use this thing,’ and to ‘get the thing going.’ Along with everything else that I had to do, I was given a two-hundred page manual to study and a three month deadline on the establishment of a functioning database.
My younger sister came back to Montreal from Vancouver at that time and got a room in a lovely old stone house on Laval Street at the far end of the Prince Arthur Street pedestrian mall. She was no more than five minutes walk from me since my grey cockroach infested room was on the corner of Clarke and Prince Arthur.
Now it was early summer and on Prince Arthur the clowns and jugglers staked out territory beside the portrait painters and the old man with his accordian. The pedestrian mall was thronged, as sidewalk cafes and glass-fronted restaurants enticed lovers and tourists from all over the city. Montreal loves to eat out.
Although I had carried the computer manual home and had no free time to speak of, I walked slowly along Prince Arthur, savouring the noise and the colours in the early evening on my way to Jane’s house. I could suddenly remember what it was to be alive, not to live in memory, or to lose one’s self in mindless work. The jugglers fascinated me. I stood in a crowd to watch them like all the other office workers. They made their brightly coloured juggling balls dance and the fire torches fly. They seemed so young and playful that I wanted with all my heart to be one of them. But I was a mere spectator and anyway I had so much to do. I had to be on my way.
At Jane’s place, which was very small, but had nice woodwork, I met a woman named Joan. Joan was a large somewhat ragged young woman with a beautiful way of speaking; very soft and very sincere. She shocked me when she told me that she had lived on the street. She had left home when she was fifteen, and somehow had made it on the street in Vancouver, playing her guitar on Granville mall and sleeping wherever she could.
She was twenty-one when I met her, just arrived in Montreal and almost broke. She and her knapsack and her guitar were living in a dingy dirty room just off of St. Denis near Rachel. My minimum wage suddenly seemed more than adequate and I was glad that I hadn’t complained about my weekend work.
I realized also that Joan was not despondent in her situation. She was learning French and collecting unemployment benefits from her last job. She had friends in Montreal; as she left Jane’s place that day, she told us that she was going to visit Yacko. He was going to cut her hair for her.
“Oh, so he’s a hairdresser, then.” I said.
“No!” said Joan, “He’s Yacko. Yacko the Clown.”
I thought about Yacko although I said nothing. I wondered what he looked like, what he talked about to people, what he did for fun with friends. I wondered how he had become a clown. I wanted to meet Yacko.
Joan invited me to Glenn’s house for cocktails and I went there right after work one hot and hazy late June day. Glenn was a tall thin man with beautiful blue eyes. He and his friend Jay seemed so gracious as they lounged on the tiny porch in the heat. I couldn’t quite believe that people could be so easy and relaxed in the city world. After a day of work in that tense and unhappy office warehouse, I had forgotten what manners were, what conversation was.
Glenn was a performance artist. He had a clown character and had clowned and done street theatre in Vancouver. Jay was a lawyer, but I couldn’t quite believe that. It’s not that I thought he was lying, he just wasn’t being like a lawyer at all. He was indolently sipping a cocktail on the front stoop of a dilapidated walk-up on Coloniale and Prince Arthur which is the inner-most inner city.
They welcomed me and soon my sister appeared on the steep stairs to join us. For the first time since I’d come crawling into the city, with a history of dead-ends and a hundred dollars in my wallet, I felt like I was enjoying Montreal. Glenn was well-spoken and full of insights to share and stories to recount. The heat haze washed over us and the street sounds mixed well with our words. When Joan arrived, Glenn announced that dinner was ready and we all went into the dark humid apartment with a kitchen overflowing with food and pots and dishes, dirty and clean. And the evening went on and on, so that I remembered, with the help of the wine, what ‘well-being’ meant and how purple a June twilight could be.
Joan, Jane and I walked up the half-block to Prince Arthur to go our separate ways, but once there we felt the energy of the crowd. People packed the street and thronged around us. Joan said, “Oh, God! There’s Scottie and Archer. Let’s go say hi. I love these guys!”
Scottie had laid claim to one of the prime spots on Prince Arthur and was holding onto it by placing his pins, unicycle and props in a rough semi-circle in front of a crowded open-air café. As he moved, tracing the semi-circle with his footsteps, creating an illusion of ownership, he nodded and smiled to Archer who followed along beside him on the inside talking non-stop to the crowd.
Scottie had on a pair of old loose shoes, the kind that tie, baggy trousers and suspenders, an old suit jacket and a bowler hat. Archer wore a sleeveless vest of black, short black trousers and a red bandana headband. His skin was beautifully dark like teak wood. He moved with such tremendous energy that he seemed to be on fire, and he shot out words rapidly as he moved, a seasoned barker at a country fair.
Joan greeted the two of them and they both stopped in the center of the circle and hugged her, grinning. Jane and I were introduced, but I didn’t say much. I’d seen Scottie on the street. He was good; he was one of the best jugglers there, and he was real cool; a young man working on the streets on his own terms and succeeding.
Joan chatted on and another clown appeared, joining the group. I realized that Joan was one of them because she had lived that street life, but I was just an office worker, out too late on a Thursday night, and I was hovering, fascinated and awed like a young girl in front of the high school hunks.
I left and nobody noticed me go.
Work was slow and I struggled with that computer in the darkness of ignorance and the heat of July while the pressure from my boss mounted. While I sorted the mail, recorded invoices in the payables journal, or pushed buttons on the shiny new keyboard, I would picture Glenn lazing on his front stairs, or Scottie juggling and cycling in the sunshine at Jeanne Mance Park. There were two worlds, and I was in the wrong one.
Joan and Archer, the metis juggler, came over to my place with a guitar and a bottle of wine. I felt honoured. Joan played Vancouver songs and Archer told stories about anarchists and feminists and the Parade of Fools out West when all the clowns and jugglers would gather in their free-spirited finery to celebrate April first; Fool’s Day.
He was a beautiful young man with brilliant dark flashing eyes and a strong sense of the lack of social justice in the world. When Archer talked, the world seemed a huge and brightly coloured place with clear rights and wrongs and an infinity of stages on which to act, causes to live for, selves to celebrate. Listening to Archer and stretching my arms up to the daylight still flooding my little grey room at eight o’clock on a Wednesday evening, it seemed that how I was living was wrong, that I was indeed in the wrong world, a different world from the one that he was in, or Glenn, Scottie, or Yacko whom I’d never even met. I’d gone through the wrong door.
“Life is not just to be got through.” I scolded myself. “Days are not just this work to be done, this boss to be appeased, this pay cheque to be oh-so-carefully divided up into yes and no and savings.”
Every minute that I spent in that office now seemed wasted. I embraced Joan whole-heartedly, kissed Archer lingeringly in the Montreal fashion, and stood on the threshold of their world of play and colour and foolishness; clowning.
Remember the story of the juggler who wanted to give something of himself to God? It’s an Italian folktale. All he had were his beautiful golden juggling balls, and his marvelous ability to make them dance. He juggled with all his heart, as he had never juggled before, and it was enough for heaven. God accepted his gift. And here I had been, for months, endless, dreary months, trying so hard, struggling to be an adult.
You know, there are two worlds; the world of the adult, the worker and the world of the child, the clown. I saw them both. I saw a world of conformity, of rigidity, of tension, because ultimately everyone in that world is doing something they don’t want to do. I saw another world, a world of self-expression, of playfulness and of self-fulfillment because the people in that world do whatever interests them. They follow their bliss.
It is this that I remember from my childhood, from the island; that safe, yet enchanting, fascinating world. At almost any moment, every moment, we were doing what we wanted to do, what interested us. We were wearing the colours that we wanted to wear, playing.
But life moves through seasons. As a child, I saw two worlds. In the winter months, the island house was boarded up and the family lived in the city. As we live through the years, summer passes and winter wearies us. When I got to know these jugglers, these artists, these clowns, I saw that they lived in shabby houses with cramped rooms and dirty windows. Some got tired of travelling and stayed in Montreal through the long and dreary winter, went on welfare, wore black coats.
So I kept my job, although it pained me, and taught myself to juggle on weekends. Jay went back to Vancouver and Glenn and I moved to a cockroach-free two bedroom apartment further up on Clarke. Joan got a job, dyed her hair and bought new and fashionable clothes. My sister moved further east and was always broke. Scottie and Archer went south.
We move through seasons, juggling worlds. There is summer and play and light. There is winter and work and compromise. But there is a place and a time every now and then for all of us to play, if we can but seize the moment, and as we live our lives in an endless dance between sweet freedom and stale compromise, in a sense, we’re all jugglers.