I’m sitting with my uncle in the backyard of my mother’s Vancouver home when I first hear why I’ll never fully escape my childhood. It’s the summer I turn nineteen. My uncle holds me captive with stories of the poverty he experienced growing up: running away from home at the age of fourteen, living in a tent by the Fraser River with his younger brother, shoplifting their food, and clothing themselves with whatever they could steal from backyard clotheslines.
I’ve never heard these stories before. I’ve long known my mother and her siblings didn’t have an idyllic childhood, but I’ve never known how tough it was. Until recently, my uncle has always worked two jobs to provide for his family. A baker by day. A school janitor by night. Growing up, his family seemed so well-off compared to mine. Truth is they were an ordinary working-class family. Like so many others they lived from paycheck to paycheck.
When my uncle finishes the last of his stories, I say, “You’ve done so well for yourself, considering the shitty hand you were dealt in childhood.” This brings about an awkward pause in our conversation. My uncle stares at the ground as he considers my words.
The entrance to Emmaus House food bank in St. John’s is tucked away from view, as if to hide the needy from the judgmental glances of those walking by. I enter it from the small parking lot behind St. Bonaventure’s College and the Basilica. When the doors open, dozens of clients crowd into the waiting room. Volunteers in the office verify that each client is eligible for a hamper. They must be on social assistance or have a letter from a member of the clergy, and they can’t have received a hamper at any city food bank within the last thirty days. Once duly screened, they are given a slip that tells the volunteers in the warehouse the size of hamper they are to receive. At best they walk away with three days supply of food.
It’s my first day volunteering at Emmaus House and I’m working the counter. My job is to take the slips from the clients and put together the appropriate hamper for them. Some of the clients are single moms. Some are recently unemployed minimum-wage workers not yet in receipt of EI. Many are ‘street people’, folks struggling with addictions and mental health issues, those who’ve fallen through gaping holes in our social safety net.
About an hour in I feel a sense of shame as I realize that, as I take their slips, I’m carefully avoiding contact with their fingers. Why am I doing this? What am I afraid of? Catching some sort of ‘poverty virus’? It occurs to me I have more in common with the slip-bearers on the other side of that counter than I do the middle-class altruists on my side. From then on, I smile, make eye contact and engage my people in conversation as I serve them.
We have not eaten in almost twenty-four hours. It’s early morning when we arrive at Vancouver’s Pacific Central Station. My mom and I, along with my three younger brothers had left Toronto three days earlier. The meagre supply of peanut butter sandwiches Mom had packed for the trip ran out the day before. Running from a disintegrating marriage back to her hometown, Mom has no plan, no money and no place to go. The five of us occupy a couple of pew-like benches in the station.
I’m drifting off to sleep, seeking respite from the torment of an empty stomach, when I hear my uncle’s voice. He’s talking with my mom. I’m struck by the tenderness in his voice and wonder why my mom is crying. I hear him say, “Vi, you’re coming with me.” My mother nods meekly. He turns to the rest of us and says, “Come on boys! Let’s get something to eat.” Somehow, he and my aunt manage to squeeze all of us into their modest home, already crowded with three children of their own. We have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies.
My uncle helps Mom find a place of our own, an apartment in Richmond she can afford on social assistance. Over the next few weeks, various mismatched pieces of furniture begin to appear in our apartment. I’m not aware that we are poor, so none of this seems out of the ordinary to me. I don’t yet feel different from the other kids in my neighbourhood.
I’m sitting in the living room of a public housing unit in Buckmaster’s Circle, across from a young mother looking for a referral to the local furniture bank. She’s sitting on a sofa propped up in one corner with a couple of books and covered with a blanket hiding what lurks beneath. The room is bright as the beige walls reflect the sunlight coming through the windows. The young mother needs a small bed for the budding toddler asleep in her arms. Lately he’s been trying to climb out of his crib, and she’s worried he will soon succeed. As I fill out the referral form, I ask if there is any other furniture she might need. It’s more a suggestion than a question. She asks if it would be possible to get a new sofa.
I have what I need to submit the referral, but she clearly wants to chat and I’m in no rush. It’s small talk mostly, the challenges of parenthood, things we have in common. I ask her if she grew up in St. John’s. “Yes, actually I grew up in this neighbourhood,” she says fondly, “My parents’ place is only a block away.” The thought strikes me that the deck has been stacked against the young mother. All too often poverty is intergenerational. The odds of escaping it in adulthood diminish drastically the longer one’s childhood is spent in poverty. I glance at the child in her arms.
I’m in grade three. The five of us have recently moved into a one-bedroom unit of a run-down motel in Burnaby, disdainfully referred to by nearby residents as “the auto courts”. It’s the most dilapidated place we’ve lived. The bathroom doesn’t have a bathtub, just a skungy shower stall with more mildew than tiles. Mom keeps a large roasting pot in the shower, in which she bathes us one at a time. We wear the same clothes to school every day, but we’re never dirty. Mom washes our clothes by hand every night. She does this in the kitchen sink with a bar of Sunlight soap, the same soap she uses to wash the dishes and her four boys.
The walk to and from school takes us through a middle-class neighbourhood. I’m heading home from school, walking alongside a classmate who lives in the neighbourhood. He says I should come hang out at his place. “My mom won’t mind,” he promises, “She says you’re pretty decent kids for auto court kids.” Auto court kids. I instinctively smile to hide a sudden, unexpected sense of shame, a sense of being lesser.
As I reach the bottom of the stairs connecting Duckworth Street and Water Street, a homeless man asks if I can spare any change. I place a toonie in his cup for which he thanks me sincerely. I head into a nearby café and savour a cup of dark roast while I catch up on Facebook, simple luxuries beyond my means as a child. My thoughts return to the homeless man. Before I leave the café, I order a large coffee with double cream and sugar. He’s still at the bottom of those steps when I hand him the coffee, saying, “You’re going to need this to keep warm my friend.” Before he has a chance to respond, I hand him a five-dollar bill. “Thank you, thank you so much,” he says happily. “You’ve just made my day!” I blush, feeling unworthy of such gratitude. I wish him all the best, and begin the trek back up those stairs.
My mind drifts back to the summer of ’82. My uncle is still staring at the ground when he finally speaks. “You know Mark, poverty is like a stink that you can’t wash off. My kids may not want for anything, but when their friends are around, I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m not as good as them.” He lifts his gaze to look at me, and adds, “It’s a bad stink, Mark. It’s a bad, bad stink.”
My childhood experience of poverty may be a distant memory, but still it lingers, manifesting itself in a sense of inferiority around others of more affluent origins, an inexplicable feeling of somehow being lesser. It is truly a stink of incomparable tenacity. Yet, over the years I’ve learned to live with the stink, to assimilate it; indeed, to embrace it. And upon reaching the top of those stairs, I realize I no longer desire to wash it off.