Updated: Jun 14, 2020
By David Sherman
When the cat runs at the sight of me and the chaos, the clamour, and the rancour has me pinned to the sofa, I know it’s time to unplug and take stock. Not so much of the present in which I try to live, usually unsuccessfully, but of the comforts of the past, where I worked and played and celebrated, ignorant of the gifts of white privilege.
And the benefits of Canada – free education, affordable universities, health care, though hobbling, unemployment insurance and the open borders of decades ago that had many U.S. draft dodgers become Canadian friends. And admired artists, like the late, great Jesse Winchester.
But the songs of Winchester were only some of the extraordinary gifts of my youth, when friends and I, less than 25, seemed to be sitting on top of the world.
For 80 bucks a week, after CEGEP, I sold cameras at a photo shop, shared a large apartment with a black colleague from the store. He had a nifty red MG.
We lost our apartment soon after he moved in. The owners didn’t want black people in the place, the janitor’s son told me. I wanted to make a stink, Jim wanted to leave it alone.
And the first prospective tenant to visit asked me if black people lived in the building. I didn’t say not anymore. I said no.
What could I do about it?
Eventually, Jim went his way, I went mine and we never saw each other again. My experiences until then with racism had been via Walter Cronkite narrating pictures from the Southern U.S.
These days, I need to hit rewind and choose to spend time in the land of my privileged past, don’t often think of the black and white film of dogs biting men, water cannons blasting men into walls. I can see similar montages every night on CNN.
My white youth, and that of many I knew and know, was a gift from the gods, spent in school and university, playing bridge and poker, worshiping women and music and reading literature.
Life was good, worries strictly First World. Jobs were often just a phone call and an interview away and when I tired of one I moved onto the next.
But, when barely 20, on $80 a week from the camera store, I spent most nights in the carnival of Montreal. It was probably not unlike Toronto or Vancouver, except our bars were open later and everyone said the girls were prettier and the food was better.
I go back to those days during times like today because life was easy, perhaps selfish, and Montreal was probably the best city in the world to be a young white man who could consume its riches even with limited means. Hell and war were across the border and there was another sub-human in the White House.
Bars, clubs and coffee houses, cheap beer and great music, all off alleyways one could slip into to readjust between sets from $20 baggies of, as Jesse sang, Twigs and Seeds.
Hotels in Old Montreal had ballrooms with tables, chairs and stages for rocking blues bands. Cafés on Saint Paul St. were home to chansonniers singing new tunes about oppression in an English-dominated society.
The Band played Place des Arts and I sat in the last row for two bucks, an hour’s wage.
Before the smoky clubs and bars, we often came from the repertory theatres that dotted the city before the chains bought them and shut them down. Appretizers of Truffaut, Bergman, Lelouche, Visconti and a new breed of Italian-American filmmakers, Scorcese and Coppola and DePalma, antidotes to the fairy-tale gloss of Hollywood.
From the theatre to the clubs to cheap eats.
The city was not yet infected by franchise quick service food or the sushi invasion. There were souvlakis for 65 cents, grilled and served by tired Greek men in a three-table dump smaller than my living room. I would bring the uninitiated there and watch their eyes light up as tzatziki dripped from their mouths and dotted their noses. Those days, there was fresh lamb between the folded pita with fresh tomatoes and sharp onions and platters of salad. Two or three bucks covered it.
There were inexpensive Vietnamese basement joints and Chinatown, ablaze with neon until the wee hours, where you could find good vibes and live fried crab or Cantonese lobster or steamed fish for a few bucks. No dress code, no décor, just good food and happy clatter at ridiculous prices.
“The pill” had brought passion fulfilled and, for many, an end to lonely nights. Life was all it was supposed to be when you were young and healthy and had a few bucks in your pocket. You could make it without help from your parents. Apartments went for a song. On 80 bucks a week, life was a victory, toasted by drinking cheap wine until closing time and smoking too many cigarettes.
Lovin’ and Laughin’ was the title of one of the first commercial Quebec films of the time.
Jim’s story was a story to tell now and then for a year or two but soon, forgotten. I had it good. Besides, what could I do about it?
Looking back, how could life have been better? As long as you were white.
Outside our little world, we went from DC3s to DC9 jets to Mercury and Apollo and now, Space X flights. We went from Royal typewriters to MacBook Airs, scratched and cherished vinyl to CDs and now streaming. There’s so much music a click or two away, most has no monetary value.
Volkswagen Beatles bought second hand for $150, engines rebuilt for another hundred or so, are now Volkswagens my friends spend $25,000 - $40,000 on. More than my first house.
We gained a lot and lost a lot along the way. Where are all the deejays and the newspapers and magazines and the stores you could spend an hour or so in just browsing through them? Cheap rental apartments have become condos or homes for sale or scooped up for the Airbnb biz. Rotary phones for a few bucks a month became iPhones for $100 a month. The wifi that delivers everything is another $100 a month.
We were weaned on antibiotics that saved us all but now there are viruses that threaten to kill us all.
Back in our youth, the white life was a good life. My father, worked a factory, cutting dresses and bought a home in the suburbs, a new car every three or four years and had a lawn he loved to water each night, a cigar plugged in his mouth.
Today, those jobs are in China and Bangladesh. And, short on words to begin with, he never had to sit down and “have the conversation,” telling me what to do when the police pulled me over.
This was all privilege, accepted, perhaps expected and taken for granted. White people can enjoy selective memories, so at these times, for an instant, we can escape the searing memories from videos of black people being shot and choked to death, of people being clubbed and gassed.
White privilege and its past also means I can escape, if only for a few minutes, or weeks if I choose, what people of colour can never escape. The burning cities and gassed and beaten populations of this small point in time can be put aside for most of us to immerse ourselves in the best of a good past, our balm for the pain of the present. Even the heroic white people, now on the receiving end of the police officers’ violent scorn and contempt, can return to their free pass. Soon, they won’t worry about getting killed by a cop for taking a jog or walk or drive. Their loved ones won’t worry tonight might be the night they don’t come home.
But, for those with different skin colour, today is not a small point in time. It’s another day, another painful scar, tinged with an ounce of hope for the optimistic.
People of colour can’t escape into any idyllic past to get a reprieve from the chaos of the present.
But, what can I do about it?