In grade 11 I thought about two things, neither of which had anything to do with school. One was with girls, the other was football.
That fall, my brother and I joined forces and enrolled at Western Technical Commercial School in High Park area of Toronto, to facilitate these two very things.
I went to a bunch of different high schools. Five to be exact. I think my brother went to about eight. There was nothing wrong with this to us. I would sample different high schools for a while, then… try another.
It started when I ran from my first high school, Humberside, after being stalked and beaten during that school’s lightly termed “initiation week,” by two skinheads. They spotted me like a lame deer my third day. In 1991 an older, petulant looking white boy in a nylon bomber with enough guts to put red laces in his 10-hole Doc Martins was a sheer sign of danger to anyone- still is.
Humberside was huge. I was lost in the belly of a whale. Its inhabitants- teachers and students alike seemed to hate me. I would have done better in the military, rather than that faceless and terrible place. The school offered no comfort to its new enrolees. Just the opposite. Not a secretary or a teacher was interested in easing the desperate state of human suffering they at the same time were facilitating by allowing to go on what went on between classes. There weren’t signs telling 13 year olds like me what we were in for. No announcements. No hint from parents.
On the surface, it sounded like picking classes and learning, but it was sheer oppression and rudimentary survival. The halls made up so many miles of lockers, where between classes a fission explosion of boys and girls massed into the halls talking, laughing and screaming in pain, and horniness and wanting to fit in with one another.
If anyone from my grade 8 or junior school was enrolled there, I saw them about as often as you do a prisoner you knew on the outside, in another range at a penitentiary. Every three days or so I would see someone and we were afforded a brief conversation, hurriedly spoken between classes, ringing bells, angry teachers, a small mafia for a front office and other forms of institutional insanity and abuse… We were honestly in shock.
In grade 9 I was cute but useless in a fight against most other kids in my grade or older. I was a late bloomer, which meant I lived in as much fear of a girl getting to third base with me as I did getting into a scrap.
Anyways, that’s how I became a school hopper. Or as I prefer to call it, a school shopper. I left Humberside under duress, in the cover of night. There was no choice. There were skinheads there! Skinheads!
I noticed them out of the corner of my eye the second day I was there, not far from my locker. I knew it was trouble. They were talking in the hall, which quickly emptied of kids after morning class. There was no way to act my way out of the dread these two pricks inspired. I was already in a state of fight or flight every moment of every day of those first two weeks of high school.
The hall was then completely empty. I froze. I had to walk past these two guys to get to where I was going. I had now become convinced that they were watching me. Until then I had been in hopeful denial. I played with the shit in my locker for a minute or two, hoping they would leave. They didn’t. I dropped a book onto the floor. They started laughing. I grabbed my bag and tried to move. I froze.
I summoned the courage to look- they were staring right at me. I would have rathered senior guys on the football squad or something like that from a Molly Ringwald movie. These guys looked unhinged. You can’t identify publicly as one of Hitler’s youth without something having gone terribly wrong, somewhere.
I gathered what courage I had, grabbed my shit, and slunk past them to the left. They stood under a loud blinking fluorescent light, just as the last door to the last open classroom clinked shut. The hall was otherwise perfectly empty. My face drained of blood as I slithered away.
After recovering from crushing anxiety, I had a moment or two of relief. But a larger state of despair was beginning to set in. I ignored it. I told no one- too embarrassed. I shouldn’t have been so afraid, but when you’re being abused, silence seems like a safe option. Less trouble. Like the little old lady closing the drapes from her Brooklyn apartment so she doesn’t have to witness two thugs mug some cab driver- Except in this case, I’m the old lady, and the cabbie getting mugged all at the same time.
On the very next day, the same skinheads found me in the hall after geography class, just before lunch. They saw me from the hall, waited for like 20 minutes in the hall till the class ended, then grabbed me and put me up against the lockers… The one with the teacher still in it, ten feet away. What the fuck? How was no one stopping this?
I looked back over my shoulder at the class, and the teacher was answering some students’ questions. You fucking kidding me? A skinhead had me by the scruff of my neck and was slapping my face. The other one had a stick in the sleeve of his bomber, which he let slide down into his grip. Here we go I thought, and stifled a cry. They both punched me in the stomach, then laughed and walked away.
Halfway down the hall, with me still hunched in disbelief, one of them turned around and yelled, “Welcome to Humberside.”
“Thanks,” I muttered.
It’s not pleasing to either admit to have, or to actually have, imagined murdering people. I mean I was only 13, and my sanity had been pushed to the limits of violence and hatred by the goings on within a massive publicly funded educational institution. It looked more and more like a fucking jail! Its monolithic ad Victorian inspired front entranceway, more imposing each morning.
I daydreamt for three days and three longer nights about getting those assholes back. Vile predictions about how a fight might go played out in my head.
The school was actually difficult academically, but I had to focus complete and total energy on this other situation that I had, and my dreams of becoming a doctor seemed to be slipping away. Fuck that. I had clue what I was doing, or what I wanted to be. It’s hard to focus on sailing when your bailing out your hull from water. Go ahead and be serious about your education. Just live to tell about it.
I realized that I needed some people on my side. One person at least. I looked around the next day for some friends to pool together. I remembered my friend Mike- one of the tougher grade 9’s I knew from middle school, had also come to Humberside. I found him just before lunch the next day to tell him what was going on, but when I got around his locker, I found him surrounded by about six older guys watching him push a marshmallow down the hall with his nose.
I decided to I bring a concealed weapon to school on Monday- an old Wilson tennis racket which I put into my locker. The next time I saw that skinhead I was gonna use it. Or something.
I got my chance the very same day. I was at my locker again and one of the same skinheads, wearing the same outfit, walked right by me. He winked out of his weasel white buck toothed fucking face. I flipped through the plan: Grab the racket, and hit him with it. Pretty simple.
He was by himself. It would have been perfect, wood and cat-gut mesh wrapping itself in the bloody bone face of a die hard Nazi. It would have been a goddamned public service. I could have looked back and been proud. I could have told my kids. I could have bragged. I could have been a contender. But, rather than produce my weapon, I froze and looked down at my shifting feet.
A natural abiding fear of the skinhead is warranted at any point in time; to be scared to death of getting in trouble is not so useful since it prevents one from stepping out and trying things, from engaging in activities that one has no clear answer about. I like to think I have overcome this fear, but the truth is its still there, hidden by a false bravado and a distaste for being told what to do.
It was my father. He was big, strict about school and- I realize now- unhappy. School was everything to him. He had done amazing at school. He had also somehow refrained to mention during his many passionate appeals to me about school, the skinheads, the initiations, a lack of hair on my dick at 13 (which seemed as much his fault as mine), and the generic sense of terror once locked inside of a real high school. Unlike the cops, which I could run from when my brother and I smashed bottles against windows and broke like vandals into the dawn laughing at Park Lawn, drinking and almost getting caught… you cannot run from some legally registered sociopath with which your school board inhabits your precious learning environment.
Nor could I run from my father- or so it seemed. He loomed more and more expectant the older I got, the more I got laid, the more I hung around big brother Johnny.
I decided right then, as that young man walked away having owned me for the second time, that I was getting the hell out of that school. Fight or flight. I chose flight.
I must note here that my brother Johnny was a god. A hero. A lady’s man, tough guy and rock and roller all balled up into one. He beat cool to the punch. He beat the fuck out of cool and offered to bandage its eye. He was cool! He embodied the cool that I wished I had, which mostly meant, 1) Tough in a fight situation, and, 2) Getting laid.
I finally told him what was going on at Humberside. We were at his buddy’s Justin’s house, smoking reefer and drinking on a Tuesday night. There were about 4 other guys there, all tight with Johnny, all drunk as fuck. They liked me mostly cause I could drink, and cause Johnny stood up for me. Some of them were already recovering felons at that time. Older guys that were like 27 and had carpet businesses and cocaine addictions, and long criminal rap sheets. Good fucking guys, basically.
When I told them, they all wanted to come down and kick these guys asses- and they meant it.
I declined. “No, I hate that place, and will never go back.”
Johnny said, “You’re coming to Scarlett Heights,” where he was enrolled. I say enrolled, not attending. He had an authority that I believed. It partly came from my mother, who took Johnny’s and my side almost no matter what- a reality that proved to be extremely helpful later. I realized she had provided me the only parental example of trustworthiness that I had had as a burgeoning adult. She had faith in me- a long term and I believe strategic faith.
She would side with me, and Johnny would side with me, about changing schools. After all, the plan could work. Johnny could have picked up his proverbial bootstraps, set a “good” example for me, and started to buckle down. Going to Scarlett Heights with Johnny might have a positive impact.
I agreed with Johnny. Had there been any other viable option, I would have also considered that. I was backed into a corner by my own pathetic-ness, lack of puberty and lack of ability to tell older and stronger people to fuck right off. Those were some of the main lessons I was to learn from Johnny. At least shit like this wouldn’t happen with him around.
I started building up the courage to convince my dad to let me enrol at Scarlett. My obsessive mind at least made me a very convincing little turd when I needed to be. “Without skinheads and other bull, I would be able to ‘focus on school,’” I told my dad. It was nearly a total misrepresentation: I imagined only the better chances with girls I was gonna have with Johnny around.
Johnny. He was three years older than me. He didn’t bloom late. His birthday was in January and that meant he was always slightly older than the kids in his grade, rather than me, who was always slightly younger. He also happened to be a real bad-ass. As I mentioned, he drank. He smoked weed. He hung out with other cool and even really more bad ass other dudes from other schools. Tom, Justin, and Justin D, who were full fledged and happygolucky criminals at 17. By criminal I mean totally amazing. Ladies men.
But he also hung around lots of other different cats as well. Musicians, artists, athletes. He was engaged in many social circles, and this made him not only cool, but very mature in a way for a man (or boy) his age. For example, on Saturday nights at my mom’s house, a whole group of people would inevitably gather, to find out from Johnny where we were going. He was a social climber and leader, even though he sucked at institutional learning environments.
Furthermore, Johnny wasn’t scared to fight like I was. There was lots of times at parties or at school when I watched him kick guys asses, or get his own ass kicked. The point is, he didn’t back down. He had what yogis call an abundance of primal, first chakra energy. Too much.
As an illustration: Me him and this guy Tom once got surrounded in Hamilton by about 7 guys. We were there drinking and hanging out for no good reason, other than that Tom decided in his infinite 17 year old wisdom that driving hammered to Hamilton sounded like fun, and we came because we happened to also be drinking, making great decisions, and in the back seat of his maroon 1987 Chevy Beretta. It was literally a getaway car, funmobile, and polish drinking experiment all in one. Tom was a big, tall, good looking Pollack from Tandridge in Etobicoke- an area that has bred more than one handsome, felonious and highly engaging teenager. We were in a dead end alley finishing off a 24 pack of beer and suddenly seven guys turned the corner at the end of the lane, and right away we knew we were in trouble. They stalked up to us. They must have scoped us going in, and come up with some hairbrained plan to fuck us up. Two groups of idiotic teenage men with two very different hairbrained plans. I was thinking, “We are just completely fucked.”
We were on the edge of a dock bay with our feet dangled over. There was only one way back out that alley. I looked up to see if maybe the business was open. The doors were closed, the dock bay desolate, and no lights were on inside.
I turned back around, to see Johnny and Tom already engaged with them, and the terms you would imagine being set. The biggest one was up in my brother’s face, telling him to give over our beer. In case you don’t remember, when you’re 18 years old, you don’t take others’ beer. Nor does any self-respecting 18 year old ALLOW his beer to BE stolen.
Johnny acted meek and polite, “Ok. I’m sorry. Sure,” he said, hopping down off the raised bay, landing on the alley’s pavement with a thud. I knew that tone of voice. Pure sarcasm leading to violence. He looked over to us and kinda shrugged like, “Sorry guys. I guess they win.” Oh god, here we go I thought.
He twisted away towards the case of beer on the dock bay grabbed it like he was gonna hand it over, but just as he got close enough to stick one, he dropped the beer and threw a generous right hand into this guys stunned face.
The beer was broken and we got our asses kicked for the next 5 minutes before we were able to run off. We giggled like crazy driving back to T.O. It’s why we loved Johnny so much and followed him around. We never seemed to get truly hurt, in spite of a million more opportunities laid out by providence for us to be maimed, injured or killed.
Johnny has a square jaw, a shock of long brown hair and confidence coming out his pores. Girls love him, and anything that girls loved, we loved.
The status of his being wanted was undeniable. Still is. As Henry Miller once said, “The world turns on a fuck.”
Johnny not only fell through the cracks of the public school system (and various other poorly equipped and haphazard institutions), he sought those cracks out and jumped right into them with naturalistic teenage violence.
There was an edge there. Against my father, with whom he no longer spoke; against the schools; against all the adults that he should have been able to trust; the cops; anyone who would stop him from doing whatever the hell he wanted. In a way it was a narrow vision, dominated by a need to rebel constantly, that when it wasn’t expressed, got taken out on me, or others who were close to him.
The girls he hung around also liked me- I was the cute younger brother. They wanted to tickle, hug and even sometimes kiss me…. My first lay at 15, for example, happened to be with a friend of one of my brother’s girlfriends- an 18 year old who decided to de-virginize me several times one night.
So anyways, back to the fall of 1991. In late September 1989, I enrolled at Scarlett Heights for grade 9. It was an hour’s bus ride from my house, which was great until the TTC decided to go on strike in late August of 1991. At that point we had no where to go, and Johnny and I had to find somewhere else to attend. For whatever reason, we picked Western Tech.
My brother had a friend named Greg who actually had a car!! It was a blue Volkswagen Jetta, like 10 years old. Greg helped us out by picking us up for school and we all piled into his car each morning and headed off to Western Tech, where all that mattered and all we thought about was girls and football. Yes, we had by that time already, mostly given up on the idea of education by any other means. These large brown buildings had only several viable options, and none of those involved learning from books or the disciplinarians calling themselves teachers.
All we did everyday for the single semester we spent at Western Tech was play football. And try to pick up girls. It only got more pronounced as we stayed there. We skipped class more than we went to them. We drank more than we didn’t. And we spent more time playing football on the little makeshift pitch on the south east end of the school, than we spent with our loved ones.
We played football before football practices. We played football after football practices. We played football at lunch. We skipped class and played football in the afternoons, when other boys looked out windows in the fall and dream about running around on the pitch…. When it got too cold, and when our teachers started noticing us on the field during classes, we even played football in the halls of the school.
As the semester at Western Tech wore on, the teachers got wind of our skipping and makeshift football games. A critical mass of them had noticed our antics, including one of the defensive coaches, who was super cool. He had no real choice but to shut us down. We were out of control with football.
One teacher, though, had it out for us. Mr. Redman, the art teacher, noticed us skipping and started following us around like a jealous thief. He caught us about three times playing in different places within or outside of the school and Redman wanted to make a big deal about it. When he first approached us to tell us to get back to class, we told him to fuck off and do his job! I admit, we started the war.
He kept finding us, but we kept finding new spots to skip class and play. Once, I saw him screaming at us to come back in for our classes from the doors near the pitch- he wouldn’t actually come out and approach the 17 or 18 young men who had only the other day told him where to stuff his shitty attitude about our games and class skipping. The next time he had an embarrassing conniption in the wide open foyer of the school where we were passing it around and running plays; and lastly in the parking lot in the back of the school. The look on Redman’s face each tie told us everything: We had pushed him to his limit.
We got sent to the office, where it was a predictable fare of escalations and warnings. But let me tell you, like the great loves of all times, the stories of DH Lawrence, Earnest Hemingway’s great romances and stories of men and women who refused to be separated form one another by either distance, incarceration or war, we also refused to be separated from our makeshift football sessions-and each other- for very long. No crochety, horny old art teacher who didn’t have a class to hide himself in after lunch was going to ruin our fun just because he walked the halls for the tiny bit of exercise he afforded his lumbering body.
So I started looking for less obvious places to play. Spots that would give us the privacy and space which we needed and deserved. I had what I considered a guerrilla style urban talent for finding ninja spots, inspired initially as a need for finding good places to drink and smoke weed that were right under the noses of those who would stop us. I began to utilize this talent for finding the same kind of spot for our massive obsession with makeshift football sessions.
Western Tech is a great space, structurally. It was built in the 1920’s, when less functional architecture had not robbed Toronto’s growing metropolis of flair and nodded-to Victorian, brick hewn expanses. Western smelled like old wood, and had massive, wide halls, wide high archways, and all the nooks and crannies you might expect from such a building.
One day I was by myself skipping English and poking about it’s immense structure when I went past the theatre auditorium, as much to see if there was a drama class going on with girls in it, than to find a great place to play football. When I got there no one was there. No class, no sound. The halls were silent. The auditorium sat in the southern part of the school where there were no active classrooms on the first floor. I hadn’t even thought of the bounty of privacy and space that the theatre might afford us- until that moment.
I peered inside through a crack in the double doors. The lights were on, but I couldn’t hear anything. I listened for a full minute, a breeze touching my cheek from the different air pressures between the auditorium and hall, blowing through the crack between the double doors with a low hum. Nothing. No movement, no sound. Nobody.
I decided to go in. The old varnished wood seats and playfulness of the theatre were too inviting.
But then I tried the doors. No bones. Three sets of them, all locked. My hair bristled while I explored for another way in. I listened for footsteps… silence. Redman had a long, fat shuffle that was unmistakable, with overworked old loafers and corduroy pants. He and everyone were tucked away in their classes.
I walked around to the side and checked another set of doors. They were about halfway down the auditorium seats towards the stage, in a strange little hall adjacent to the big room. Nothing. Another set, about another ten feet down. Locked as well. There was only one more…one little door…that led directly onto stage right. I tried it- open! I walked in.
There was nothing better- and there still is not- than an empty theatre. In it, drama, spaciousness and openness come alive. I loved the stage- how it smelled, the seats, which I imagined were filled with the nodding heads of an approving and discerning audience. The booth above and the lights. The 40 year old grand drape that smelled like dust. Alone in that room and playing hooky from class, I felt free.
I jumped on stage and looked out at the empty seats. I dreamt for a moment I was a hero who saves the girl; next, some terrible, solitary villain who crashes the entire world down around him…Yet even as I fantasized and gestured out into the empty seats, it dawned. It clicked. It came to me… this place was perfect room for our makeshift football games.
We had our new location! The aisles, the large stage, and the fact that the auditorium was off in a corner of the school where there were no classrooms… The stage made it feel even more inviting to our fantasies about being football stars under the lights. My assessment was complete. I left to inform the others immediately.
That same afternoon, we all joined at the door. Within 5 minutes of walking in we immediately set up a passing play. Our quarterback stood halfway up the aisles between the seats and threw a 15 yard pass to a receiver, who ran across the stage left to right, dove for the ball, and tried to land in a 12-inch-thick foam mat used for dramatic stunts during performances.
Once in a while- needless to say- the receiver didn’t make the mat in his zealous attempt to catch the ball. There were so many obstacles made of hard wood, not to mention the cliff-edge where the stage ended, and a narrow running lane, all of which meant sure injury to someone who wasn’t very careful about their sprint, and dive onto the big mat.
I ran up to the booth and got the stage lights going. I put a spot up where the receiver would be diving in mid air for the ball.
Bliss. Heaven. They are made of many different dreams – various escapes from hell. But that makeshift football game in the old Western Tech theatre auditorium must be counted amongst them, for both its pleasure inducing, and also sheltering qualities. We were safe in there.
My brother and I began to go door-to-door to classrooms after lunch, and secretly pull out members of the junior football team. Johnny would even sometimes enter the classroom and ask the teacher if a particular student could come out because there was a family emergency of some sort. We did whatever it took. God would later exonerate us for these lies, sins, and crimes, because he knew how much we loved football. And each other.
We took turns taking passes or acting as quarterback. Others were just running around up and down the aisles throwing footballs, screaming and losing their shit. It was joyous class-skipping football extraordinariness… Johnny came up to me one day, put his arm around me, and said, “Beef, this is the best,” and he and I just sat back and watched for a while. Until we got caught.
I think we got into that auditorium to play our mid-day football about 12 or 15 times- at least a month- before the magic broke. Old red faced Redman walked in on us. A janitor, who had heard us squealing and bouncing off the walls, had summoned him. The lot of us to the office. The magic door locked from then on. The dire warnings. Escalations. And of course plenty of laughter.
I was the starting junior half-back for Western Tech. In the 90’s, football teams ran a two-back set (we thought about teams like the Dallas Cowboys with Moose Johnston and Emmit Smith day and night). By grade 11, I was now one of the oldest and biggest guys on the junior team because of when my birthday was- it allowed me to play junior for three years. During that terrible first week at Humberside I was scrawny and 13, but by grade 11 I was 15 and 165 pounds. I had always been long and fast but that year I stood out for my size. I was hard to tackle, had a nasty stiff-arm, and an instinct for the game.
I watched 9 hours of NFL on Sundays, practiced 5 days a week, played makeshift football at least five other times per week, and played in a game. Grade 11 heaven. No girls, though, yet.
I came into that season with two full years of football under my belt on the Scarlett Heights senior team. Scarlett didn’t have a junior team those years, so I played with the seniors and they were good. The coach put me into the second half of games that we were winning, and I made some catches and blocks as back-up to one of the best and fastest receivers I ever played with a guy named Joel. It was great. I got shown things by seasoned players. I made it to every single practice and learned from Joel and guys like Shane and Rob G and Fordy and all the older guys on that team, so by the time I got to Western, I was also one of the most experienced players on the junior squad with two full years of playing under my belt.
Mr. Pyzanschin was the coach at Western. He was very passionate. He’d say to us, ”You gotta BLOW through that line.” When we did something wrong, he’d say, “Awww, horse pucky, run it again,” which always made us giggle. He had coached for like 30 years. He taught us that football is not a contact sport- it’s a collision sport. We needed that kind of coach, because guys who hadn’t played football before were scared to run right into guys and blow right over them. Smash-mouth football, like a steamroller running up the field 5 and 7 yards at a time. Nothing was more fun once you got the hang of it.
Johnny was too old to play on the junior team and for whatever reason he didn’t join the senior team at Western. He was a bit too much of a rebel. He and his buddies had too much fun hanging around us all the time. They helped us practice, and of course took part in our constant sandlot football matches we set up just about everywhere we went.
It was the year I had finally begun to have a growth spurt, beyond just my body. I started growing out of my shyness. I started growing out of my boyhood and looked more and more like a man. My face changed, me demeanour, my attitude. I didn’t rely on my father as much. Johnny was my new hero.
I was constantly challenging my older brother to various contests and duels- all of which I lost. Johnny was fast. He was strong with a muscular body. He worked out a lot, mostly for vanity but it also came in handy when he would get into a real fistfight or had to run from some bad situation like a gazelle. I was obsessed with beating him at things like pull up contests, races, and wrestling matches.
The only thing I came close to him on was wrestling. I was a natural wrestler with an instinct for getting someone down, getting low and tricking them with quick feints and bulrushes. But he even beat me most of the time in that.
God I loved him so much. We spent lots of time together just hanging out, getting stoned and drunk, chasing girls and pretending to go to school. It was definitely one of the best times from my teenage years, even though we complained every day about going to Western Tech.
You might have thought- like we did- that our prospects for girls would have been high. They weren’t. I mean we were cool! But not at Western Tech. It was partly cause we didn’t know anybody and we had to really try to work our way in. It was also that none of the girls there gave a shit about football. At other schools they came out to watch games or even had cheerleading squads. Silverthorne, Humberside, Scarlett. But not Western.
Also, like all high schools, Western Tech was really cliquey. By grade 11, people already had their groups, and most of these at Western were organized along racial lines. I’m not sure why. Ask a sociologist. The Chinese, the Filipinos, the Latinos, the Jamaicans and other black kids, and the whites. It was not surprising, looking back, that kids in large schools find tight groupings of some sort to stick together by- out of sheer insecurity, based on the kind of shit we had to deal with. I mean after all, the negotiation of “skinheads” was not exactly part of the orientation they gave to grade nines. Nor was feeling trapped and subdued by orthodox scholastic learning.
Unfortunately though, for me, when it came to girls at Western, the pairings occurred within the bounds of clique, which meant race, and diversions from this were obvious and noted by everyone. They weren’t prohibited, as if in a prison, but they were rare and duly observed by about 1500 other kids- the last thing two teenagers looking for a place to make out needs to deal with. So, since our second priority or let’s just call it our second first priority- was to pick up girls, we had to really make an effort. This came to both me and Johnny as an unfavourable surprise.
No girls were paying any attention to my exploits on the football field. No one seemed to notice how astoundingly cute I was, either. So I had to ply one of my only other skills as a human being: drama. You see, drama was the one school subject that my growing, hyperactive, fun loving body could appreciate.
Sitting there all day in classes drove me nuts. My storied career in math had finally finished in grade ten. Fuck I hated math. Weed didn’t help, the way it seemed to have for Carl Sagan. Teach me how to tally a fucking restaurant bill, or measure some drywall. Why on earth would I need to know the square root of anything. I wouldn’t where I was going, I made sure of that… by going somewhere that math was not involved.
I thought they also hacked up English class too, with too much boring shit. I was already reading way past my grade- Poetry, Vaclev Havel, the Beat writers, Henry Miller etc. I could tell from what these people were saying in these classic books- Tropic of Cancer, On The Road, and Living in Truth- that the public school system had “English Class” all off.
Drama was the only class where I seemed to have natural affinity and talent. I looked forward to theatre and didn’t skip most of the time.
Unfortunately, the drama teacher at Western didn’t like me. Big surprise. She could probably sense the insane and asinine horniness coursing through my every sentiment, tone of voice and gesture… every time I talked back, and every time I interrupted her. Like most adults, she had no clue how to harness or make something out of that energy.
She instead tried to prohibit it- the least effective forms of all human interaction and learning. Drugs, racism, crime, and teenage boys- none of these will ever leave the human experience, while being policed.
The drama teacher was 55, British, and made us do exercises every class prior to getting to the acting part, which really pissed me off because I liked the acting part. I especially liked acting with girls.
Drama attracts shy people. Olivier vomited before most of his stage performances. I know exactly why. You can hide in a character and say things and do things that you normally would not do. You can express ideas and activities which you had rehearsed a hundred times in your normal life like an obsessive squirrel trying to remember where his lost nuts are. “I should have said this,” or, “I should have said that.” These are the rehearsals for future theatres. Shy people have a hundred skits all built up in their mind already, and drama releases them like a dam.
One day in the second half of class, after boring and uncomfortable drama drills, we were doing sides in pairs. By some twist of romantic fate I got paired with Jessica who I will tell you about in a minute. Rather than figuring out how to kick the ass of the “About Last Night” break-up scene, I set about trying to figure out how to impress and cajole Jessica to notice how cool I was and to like me. We had five minutes to prepare.
Looking back, I think my predilection for Jessica, and the personal pledge to win her by having her notice me in some way, was the best kind of preparation for acting, anyways. That energy in the pit of your stomach is where it’s at. Not in all the books in the world that could drown you in the theory. It’s humanness an actor craves.
We moved over to a corner and I awkwardly started reading out lines. I was trying to get her to look at me but she wouldn’t. She read her lines back to me, but she wouldn’t look me in the eyes. Ok. We tried it again. There… a small twinkle moment when we locked eyes, worth millions and millions of dollars. We invented some loose blocking. They called our names to present.
Rather than front on, we changed it and decided to play it in the middle of the circle of other kids. As soon as I said it, teacher frowned, but Jessica’s eyes lit up for another breathtaking second. I showed a moment of confidence, so I then had hers. That sparkle was there- that crackle of performing, that life, when those characters come out for a moment from inside, and the body is fully present.
Although Jessica hadn’t seemed to notice me one bit prior to that scene-it was different afterwards. There was a little tiny itsy bitsy something between us, and I chased after it. It could have just been the characters from About Last Night. But I still chased after it.
Jessica was in the same grade as me, and we only had that one class together. She was Jamaican and Scottish I later found out. She wore her hair pulled back tight, had piercing brown eyes and a smile that came out only every once in a while. I think I liked that best- there was something serious going on there, and I had to find out what it was. Like me, she didn’t really know anyone else in the class, but she had a big clique of people at the school, and an older brother who looked pretty bad ass, and tons of other friends.
She was shy, I think. Of course I was shy too- way more shy than most people, and especially shy around girls. I got by on decent looks and a comely smile, and the hope and prayer that a girl would come up to me and start the conversation. My moves were terrible, my lines and my ability to talk and be spontaneous evaporated as soon as I liked someone and tried to talk to them.
That’s part of the reason I poured so much into football and drama-to get girls to notice me and hopefully come up and talk to me. Until that point, it had been working, and if girls hadn’t been making the first move since I was 12, I never would have even had the chance to kiss one, let alone have sex. But at Western Tech in grade 11, I began to try a different tact- I chased because I had to. I set about to somehow win Jessica over in spite of my terrible shyness, terrible lines, and the apparent social rigidity at the school that circumvented the effort.
I did make one friend that seemed like he might be able to help. His name was Micha. He and I became buddies from that drama class, and from meeting in the office for always being late. He was extremely outgoing and well-read. He was a bit of a loner, but cool. He didn’t know anyone either, and he was one grade older than me. He was Jewish, spoke well and was really funny. One day I told him I liked Jessica, but that I didn’t know how to talk to her. He laughed as we walked down the hall. “Have you read the Godfather, by Mario Puzo?” he asked.
I said, “No.”
He laughed again and said that if I borrowed his copy- a hardcover that by the looks of its fibrous and undone binding and corners had never languished on a bookshelf for very long, and which he handed to me at the very moment- that he would help me talk to Jessica. I believed him wholeheartedly- partly out of desperation and partly out of awe for his careless ways. “The only thing,” he said, “is that you have to have it read by Monday.” It was Friday at noon. I grabbed the book out of his hand, hoping it wouldn’t be too boring, or come along with its own super dry whistle-blown soundtrack of honorific Italian lament. I began to read it immediately.
It was a big weekend. I had to read Puzo’s Godfather, which was the best novel I ever read- I couldn’t put it down. I had a playbook to memorize for the game we had that week against Humberside. I had to get good and drunk with Johnny and a few of his older friends on Friday AND Saturday night. I would squeeze in a miniscule enough amount of homework to pass enough to keep my father off my back for another little while. And finally, I had to think about Jessica. It was a tight schedule. I barely had time to eat.
Mother was always lovely at home, and often had to break out a stick to break up a scrap between me and Johnny. Not that weekend though. That weekend, Johnny was super nice to me. He was being really supportive and kind. He loved that I was on the football team, and he was acting like my protector. “We have to keep Bob healthy for Tuesday’s game,” he told his buddy Justin, just as we were dipping into our next round of beers in Justin’s backyard. The sun was setting over a long fall Friday night in early October, and Monday seemed like a long way away. The feeling of beer settled into my stomach, and the cares of the world dipped below the horizon, along with the sun.
Monday came. It actually came twice, like the bookends of a 15 minute sex -romp of a teenage boy: Once while staying up till past 2 am finishing The Godfather for Micha, and once again when I had to drag my sorry ass out of bed all dishevelled but happy for my big day.
First came the drama class, which, unhappily for my teacher, was almost first thing in the morning. This meant- since I had not yet discovered coffee and other stimulants- that I was a groggy, moody curmudgeon with a knack for a nasty comeback, and not liking being told what to do. We had sides that morning and teacher paired everyone up with the person they were with with before- except, when she got to me. I got paired with a boy named Hamish.
Not only had every single person in the class except that old bitch came up to us last week and said how awesome our little skit had been, but we knew it. I had spent all weekend fantasizing like a shy dweeb about how amazing I was gonna be in Mondays drama class, and alas, I got paired up with some dude. I think I saw the teacher smirk when we walked over to the corner to briefly rehearse.
So I said, fuck it. This woman’s throwing me a curve- I’m going to throw one right back. Hamish and I were given a scene from one of Chekov’s short plays, but I convinced Hamish that the light at the end of the tunnel of this dark and forgettable moment in our scholastic lives, and the way to get teacher back for her stupendous jealousy and smallness, was to abandon the scene we were given in dramatic style and to draw one up from scratch. “From where?” asked Hamish.
“Well I’m glad you asked. From the novel, The Godfather, naturally,” and I pulled it out from behind my back.
After a couple minutes of fevered discussion, we decided to act the scene where Michael Corleone proposes to the consigliore and Sonny to murder a cop and a couple other unlucky dudes in a public restaurant. We wrote it from scratch, and when we ran out of time, kept writing it out instead of watching the other kids perform. I was best under that kind of pressure. It didn’t hurt to know that this teacher was going to have a goddamned heart attack and fail us both when we did the scene.
There is a contagious rebelliousness to theatre, one I was later attracted to very much. I only hoped that Jessica would notice. Hamish watched me nervously scribble off a couple of lines- more nervously as the minutes progressed. I finally finished it. a page and a half. Best writing I had ever done.
She called us- ruefully. I handed Hamish his copy. He played Sonny, talking sense into me after I ambitiously but naively suggest we murder the Turk and cop in the restaurant.
“All right we wait.” Sonny says.
“We can’t wait.” Michael retorts….
Halfway through he scene, everybody realizes what we have done. Hamish picks up on the vibe and says fuck it, goes even more into Sonny.
“Bada bing… Bada bang…”
When we were done, the smallish class erupted in applause. They all knew this was a made up skit we did- we were reading off hand scribbled pieces of papers for scripts. Jessica did too, and she seemed to like it. When we were finished everybody but the teacher clapped.
I had made my impression. Micha was happy, since of course he knew I had read the book he loved so much… He made everybody read that damned book. It was by far his favourite thing to do and when we were finished the scene, he sat back like Don Corleone and nodded in satisfaction.
There was one more skit then class let out. As we all got up from the carpet I wanted to get strait over to Micha, because I really wanted him to make immediate good on our bargain. As I moved, though, someone grabbed my arm. It was the teacher. Red faced and glowering, I could see she was steaming mad. “That wasn’t the scene I gave you two,” she said. I nodded.
“And you dragged Hamish into it to, I presume?”
“You could say that.” She nodded two nods downward in some vengeful thought, then one upward and towards the exit door. I turned on my heels like a convict and hit the door. I was screwed. I knew she’d have the last word- she eventually failed me. But I had better things to do that day, and walked out of there to do them.
By the time I reached the classroom door, I could hear Micha’s voice laughing, and yes, to my great excitement, it was Jessica was laughing with him. “Hey.”
“Was she pissed off?” Jessica asked.
“When is she not pissed off?” I retorted, and she laughed. Micha put his arm around me- like he was making me into the Jewish mafia.
“That’s my boy. That’s the power of Puzo.” We laughed, while Jessica looked up at us with a smile, not getting the little joke.
“Its Micha’s favourite book,” I explained, and produced the ancient, string-bound copy between my two palms. “And he gets anyone he can to read it.”
“Only my best students,” he said, and again his face assumed the look of warm satisfaction from earlier. He happened to also hate the drama teacher. “The look on her face was priceless. Absolutely priceless.”
(Awkward silence where I should have said something).
Micha laughed, “Jessica wants to borrow it next.”
“You do?” I said awkwardly, and she smiled. “Its really good,” I tried to follow up.
“Sure,” and as I started to hand her the book, Micha grabbed it from my hand.
“She wants to borrow it from me,” he said. We all laughed, and he handed it to her. “But you have to read it by Monday,” he said with his best Corleone smile. She looked over at me to explain.
“It’s ok, he does that to everyone.”
Just then, Micha flew off. “I gotta go. My dad’s sick at home. I’m taking the rest of the week off.” And we both started to laugh. He was a great guy. I wished I had stayed in contact with him, but I didn’t.
Jessica and I continued walking down the hall, her rocking back and forth in slow deliberate movements, I hopefully interpreted as playful. The black, fabricky unsheathed book in one hand, her book bag on both shoulders, and she moved ahead slightly. It was my natural tendency to “upstage” people in conversation. I was staring at her and taking her in, but also trying to get her to look back towards me. Of course, I was also thinking of what the hell my next line was. Desperately.
She suddenly caught me out of the corner of her eye. “What?!”
“Oh, nothing sorry,” I tried coy and she didn’t play back. She pursed her lips, and shook her head, like what an idiot. But then she turned back and saw the look on my face, cracked up with laughter, stomped her foot, and hit me with the back of her hand. All I could think was, “physical contact! Yes!” God I was so horny and annoying.
I liked the direction we were walking, because it was away from the location of where all of her friends were- in their territorial spot at the opposite end of the school. I didn’t stand a chance with her with all them there. I stuck out like an incandescent thumb. I wasn’t cool. My friends were drunks, drop outs and football junkies.
We reached a stairwell near and stopped at the top before descending. She looked up at me. Maybe she wanted a kiss? I thought about it. Moment gone. We took the steps to walk down. “I have a spare,” she said.
“Really? You want to hang out?” Way to quick…I didn’t have a spare, but I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity for a lecture by Francis Ford Cappola.
“Sure,” she said, I tried to evade the surge of gratitude that threatened to beam across my face.
We spent the next 70 minutes talking and hanging out. Once I knew that she was even mildly interested in spending a bit of time with me, my guard went down, and I could be my cute and annoying self, rather than painfully shy.
Almost as if to shelter our little date from the potential prying eyes of her brother and crew, we ended up on this little staircase at the very back of the school, beside the field where we practiced every night. No one was really ever down there.
We spent an hour getting to know one another. She kept mentioning her brother Simon. I asked her to come to my game the following day against Humberside, and she promised. I told her how to get to Humberside’s field, and which side we would be on. I didn’t try to kiss her, though and our little date ended.
That night practice was all work. Plays plays plays. Pyszanchyn hated Humbeside almost as much as I did. North American football is like going to war, with the pitch turned battlefield, highly coordinated and pre planned plays, analyses of what the opponents strengths and weaknesses were, and a huge amount of equipment.
Humberside were enemy combatants. A platoon of teenage soldiers we had happened to meet dozens and dozens of times in the long history of the two schools. Humberside was where preppy kids went- ready for university. Western was where you went just to graduate high school. It was working class, and far more dominated by non white racial groups. Our football team hated Humberside for their colors and traditions. It went pretty deep. We were not playing around.
In high school junior ball there’s not a lot of passing. It’s too challenging. It’s easier to run the ball. Me and Sammy. Tomorrow it would be me and Sammy. And all the boys from the makeshift football club. And Pyzsanchyn.,my brother, a couple of his older buddies and Jessica. We were going to crush Humberside. I couldn’t wait.
Tuesday’s activities were utterly superfluous to the content of that game. Nothing was going to stand in the way of me both enjoying this day, and engaging in the football game that afternoon. Unlike other schools, where the football program was a valuable aspect of the schools endeavours, at Western, they were just happy that a few less kids were out in the parking lot smoking weed.
I actually had to attend a morning English class to hand in an assignment, but after that it was outside to run makeshift plays with all the other guys, and especially Sammy.
Everyone was feeling the pressure. At lunch, Sammy and I made a pact to protect each other, and lower blocks on their defence for each other, and to generally watch out for one another once the game started. One o’clock rolled around. The school was nice enough to let our afternoon teachers know about the game. We moved towards lockers to get ready.
Humberside was down the street. We suited up and walked over. They were already on the field stretching. We had to walk past three row stands to get to our end. My brother and his buddies were already there. “Beef! Kick their asses,” He yelled with a big gamey smile on his face. His buddies laughed. It felt really good having them there.
We got to our end and started warming up stretching. The stands filled up. I couldn’t tell who was who, but I hoped Jessica was in one of the rolling large groups of teenagers proceeding to take their seats. Warm ups done, there was 15 mins to kick off. Pyzanchyin grabbed me and Sammy by the jerseys, and brought us both in to him.
“You boys ready to make some trouble?”
“Yessir we both said at the same time, and smiles at each other.”
“Get out there and kill someone.” It was football talk for running someone over. At that point, coach spoke up, and projected like a Lieutenant Col. to his troops “Everyone in.” We all did as asked. “Todays game is about you boys, not about these wannabees from Humberside.” His voice got louder with each statement. “Today is about you sticking together. Focus on the play at hand. Todays not about running someone over, its about running someone over, then getting up and doing it again.’ Louder still. “It’s about levelling the playing field between Western and Humberside once and for all. Its about pride, kicking some ass and living to tell about it.” A spontaneous war cry from us erupted.
“You all understand?” Pyzanchyn yelled back.
“Yessir,” we screamed.
“I can-no-t hear –you,” he yelled back deliberately.
“Yessir,” we yelled back.
“I cant hear you!” he yelled, practically a the top of his lungs.
What came back out of our mouths was unintelligible, loud and frightening. We had been officially whipped into a frenzy.
We made our way to the side of the field opposite the bleachers. We were kicking to them so I was off till we got on offence. I took a moment to survey the crowd across. My brother and his buddies were high up on the left- furthest away from any potential threats to their drinking. I scanned right. Where was Jessica? Hold on- there she was at the very top, with two of her girlfriends and a couple boys tagging along. I smiled. Whatever happened in the game didn’t matter as much now. The tension released for a moment.
I continued to survey the crowd. My eyes adjusted down towards the Humberside bench. They were big kids. I was trying, though, to make out the faces of a couple guys sitting behind their bench. My hair stood up on my neck. The tension came flooding back, and the distant memory of the two weeks of grade 9 I spent at Humberside almost crushed me.
It was that piece of shit skinhead, and like 5 of his buddies, sitting next to the Humberside bench. They were obvious- no one was sitting next to them. It was a warm October day, but they were still in black bombers, still in doc martins, still acting tough. I almost swallowed, then decided to spit. Rage made my head hot, and my hands grasp for something to squeeze- hard.
Sammy had walked over to me, and noticed right away. “What’s up Bobby,” he said. “You ready?” he asked.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said as I tore my eyes from the stands across the field. Me and Sammy’s eyes met. “There’s some people in the stands… A couple of motherfuckers. From Humberside.”
“Who?” he said, as my hand went up to point them out. “Those fucking skinheads?” he asked, and almost laughed.
“Yep,” I said, deadly serious. It didn’t take much. Sammy could see it was more than just their presence. There was some history there and his eyes reddened too. He was the nicest guy. I almost never saw him get pissed. But as a Pakistani-Canadian, he likely had had his own shitty experiences with white supremacists.
“Where they from,” he chopped back, getting into my foul and slightly violent mood.
“Humberside,” I said.
Sammy turned to me, still red from the sight of those pricks. “We are gonna fucking kill these guys today, Bobby.” And that was that. Quick on with our helmets, banged together a head butt, and just then, Pyzanchyn called us out onto the field.
Riled up teenage boy-men, with 18 competing emotions and practical nose up hard ons all day long make for some pretty decent basic material for a game like football. Today, against Humberside, those ingredients came together and turned out a recipe for a real good football game.
First play, toss outside right to Sammy, me lead blocking. I found a safety jogging up towards the play, and levelled him with a block. Sammy made 8 yards. Next play call, a guard trap to the left, me with ball. Half their d-line collapsed in the ruckus, and I ducked to the outside. Sammy took the wide receiver towards the out, and I ran the open lane, tackled by the linebacker after gaining another 7 or 8. First down.
Next, an up the gut off center run for no gain. Short pass to the wide out, maybe 3 yards. Only three downs., Canadian style. Coach called in a screen to me on the outside, one of our best plays. We had a quick and aggressive O-line, perhaps the most crucial of all strengths at that level of play. I pretended to take the handoff, then swung out as QB backed up to pass, spreading out the defence, when the O-line split from their pass blocking over to where I was, out near the receiver in the backfield.
The pass to me was a dead on leading affair that had me at ¾ chug by the time I wrapped my hands around the ball and tucked it into my chest. Two great blocks from the guard and tackle, I feigned outside then darted back in and turned on the jets, found open field, and ran across their line for a touchdown.
Our team was screaming in joy. The stands- the ones to stage left were also screaming. Sammy and I met in the end zone, and head-butted, then turned and walked back up towards our end.
Instead of following my teammates towards our bench opposite the stands, I walked along the Humberside bench, in open defiance of football etiquette. I didn’t give a shit about their players. I wanted to check out the crowd. With my helmet on, no one could tell who I was except the guys who had been out to practice like Johnny. I strode past the skinheads, and the guy- the same fucking guy, wearing the same goodamned outfit- was sitting there looking right at me. I’ll tell you, it felt amazing. With my entire team there, Sammy and all the others, along with my brother and a couple of his tougher buddies, I felt untouchable.
Skinhead boy and his merry band of idiots- now verging on adulthood and indictable offences for hate crimes, had no clue who I was. Maybe it was my helmet, or then again, when you set yourself on the goal of being a bully and racist, you probably tend to forget the features of some of your clientele- especially after they’ve grown by 6 inches and gained 25 pounds. I kept walking.
“Beef!” my brother yelled out, snapped me out of my limbo, and his buddies all cheered as I peeled away across the playing now filling up with special teams for kickoff. I took my place on the bench.
Humberside scored on the kickoff. Then we turned it back, brought it into their end but got shut out on a 3rd down attempt to run- I got crushed by their big nosetackle and practically limped back to the bench. Fortunately, they couldn’t do much pinned down in their end, and their punter lobbed a lame duck 20 yard kick out of bounds, so we started next offence at their 45.
Sammy smiled as we took the field again. We could feel it. Even the wind was at our backs.
We played a short pass to gain 5. Tackle-trap to the left to me for another 12, then Sammy took another pitch, out to the right- and he made it count. He could jig and jag and turn on the jets like the best of them. He crossed their line with a kid dangling from his left ankle trying to slow him down, but the damage was done. We were up 13 to 7 and halftime was called.
The next half was the same. Back and forth. I kept my eye on the bleachers. I knew if I told Johnny and his boys who was at the game, he’d have gone and smoked the (now emaciated-looking) skinhead. Its funny when you’re bullied, one of the things that prevents you from crushing the bully back is that you feel sorry for them. At least I did. He wasn’t scary anymore, just arrogant. He wasn’t big anymore, just thin with a puffy jacket. He wasn’t tough, just part of a small, corrupt and very dysfunctional clique.
In the latter half of the second quarter, they scored again on a run by their big half back, a guy named Chris who I knew from the gym. So they were up 14-13 at that point, with a quarter left.
Before our offence took the field again, Pyzanchyn roused us with another speech. We had to dig now, cause we were all tired. We were banged up. Our center was off with an ankle. Our best wide out had an asthma attack. This was it. This was what it meant to decide to win.
Our offence rolled downfield slowly- keeping possession and making modest gains for first downs. From 12 -yards out, Sammy took a pitch, following a lead block from me and the shifting O-line, and he crossed that ball over the plain for a touchdown. It was the last one of the day. The one that won us the game. It was fucking beautiful.
As ref called the play over and touchdown scored with his whistle, I was turning towards the stands when one of Humberside’s linebackers shoved me from just behind- we called it a clip, and it twisted my lankey left ankle and sprained it good. Fuck, I thought, immediately hoping my season was not finished. I later discovered that there was little a bunch of tape and a cortisol shot couldn’t fix. Our go-to physiotherapist for the team was an ex-center for the Argonaughts whoe office was in Bloor West “If you’re going to play football,” he said, “You’re going to learn to play in pain.”
Right after the injury, and in the end zone, though, I was sick to my stomach from the adrenaline and pain. I removed my helmet. Sammy came over to get under my left shoulder, and we hobbled back. “Lets go this way,” I said, beaconing us to walk along the Humberside bench again. A couple of the other boys on the team saw us, and our left guard, Pete, got himself under my right side. A couple of others walked behind, one of them carrying my helmet. “That’s him?” Sammy asked, as we got right up on the stands.
“Yeah, that’s him.”
This was the moment. I wanted him to recognize me. The same guy that ate me for breakfast exactly two years ago. He caught me looking, and started looking back. He shoved one of his buddies who looked up and they giggled. I kept right on staring, and I knew Sammy was too. We got even closer, as they say, to see the whites of their eyes.
They seemed to suddenly take note of the edge to our gait. Our proximity. Our staring and serious faces. And the fact that we should have been celebrating. It seemed to dawn on this guy that we might be there to fuck him up.
He smiled and nodded his head upwards, like “what do you want?” trying like an arrogant fool to test the waters. Now we were right in front of them. I stopped for a second and our eyes met again. He didn’t recognize me. I didn’t care. He looked back at his buddy to the right and shrugged his shoulders, trying to play off like I was weird. But he was scared, and I knew it. Things had come full circle.
I looked up, but Jessica and her friends were already gone.
We headed home. We had the rest of the season- three more games- to think about. Makeshift football was done for me for a while, though I still skipped class and made sure people were coming. Hanging out with big brother Johnny, and taking on his various rebellions to the world got more and more pronounced. In fact, I ended up moving in with him and my mom that very night after the game against Humberside.
My dad, who had been steadily and awkwardly taking note of my growing masculinity and disdain for all things nerdy, had been subtly or not so subtly pressuring me to perform better in school, and to listen more. I still got B grades with some A’s. It was more my attitude he wanted to adjust.
I had lived at my dads house for the last 5 years after the separation between him and mom, and had secretly been trying to pull the family back together. In that, I tended to be the really good kid. Golden boy. But at 16, that had changed. From grades 6-9 I lived in the absolute graces of my pops. But when I started to become a big person, I also started to become a troublemaking shit.
My father craved a son who would be “good,” which meant someone in contrast to my brother, and also meant to remain in the nostalgic childhood I had now grown out from. He wanted a son who would make him proud- perhaps make him look good. But it went further. He wanted someone to have sympathy for him. He wanted people like me- the people closest to him- to do all of the understanding. All of the “hearing him out,” and that sort of thing. He felt hard done by with regards to Johnny.
What I already knew intuitively at 12 years old was that my brother’s rebelliousness, being bad a school, hanging around tough guys and drinking had as much to do with my father’s abuse towards him as it did from some endogenous behavioural issue on Johnny’s part. Like most middle class people, my father maintained a steady, single dimension, popular-psychology-inspired vision of people that was perhaps at the time the burgeoning manifestation of North America’s obsession with self-help, and the pathologizing of natural, normal human behaviours.
I remember the strangeness of sensation when at 11 years old, I listened to my father’s complaints about how Johnny had had somehow turned on him, and was now no good- damaged goods- and my mother along with him. It was bizarre, because I had myself witnessed old dad kick the shit out of young Johnny more than once, in fitful and lurid acts of violence, from which none of us- Johnny especially- ever fully recovered. No, your pop psychology didn’t offer you a glimpses inwards, where your answers truly were.
Come young adulthood, I had many of those same rebellious and natural instincts for wanting to be cool and athletics, that came at odds against father’s perspectives. Not only that, but I began to break apart from trying to hold all of that tension together, and it came to a head, the night my father came home after that game against Humberside.
I was at the house on Sunnyside and began to ravenously eat. I could cook, and I did up a feast for myself and my father. When dad got home, I was eating in front of the television- one of the no no’s in the house. He normally didn’t care so much, but for whatever reason, he dad lost it that day.
Father flew into the room and crisply attacked my laziness for eating in the living room. Though I had until that very moment spared my father the incredible rebelliousness and sarcasm that most of my teachers regularly felt, I didn’t that day. My team had won the game. Johnny and my teammates were my protectors. I was thinking about celebrating and picking up chicks, not fawning before this man.
Out of my new response to assholes and other adults, I shot back, “What does it matter where I eat?!” And that was all it took.
Pops lost it. “You will immediately go to your room, this instant.” He raised up his hands and voice, in a tired cross between pouting and rage.
But I wasn’t going to let him define the situation.
“No,” I said, and thought for a moment about my ankle. Should I mention it to him? I was all bandaged up. Should I maybe just listen? Ill be honest, I had had enough. I had had enough bullying. I had had enough confidence. I had had enough girls. Enough football. Enough exposure to my brother and his myriad groups of friends and lovers. I had had enough trying to hold the family’s tension together. I had had enough.
“No, I wont,” I repeated.
“Get upstairs to your room, and don’t come down at all.”
“No,” I said, and hobbled up to stand, not two feet from his imposing frame. It was the first time I had used my own physicality in this kind of interaction with my father. Up until then, it was all him.
My father’s big- 6’4”, with brooding Slavic eyes. They shook back and forth, confused and searching at his sons response. Then, rage.
He careened across the short 8 feet of the old living room on Sunnyside Ave, and bellowed and raised his fist to me, threatening to knock me out.
The one regret I now have- knowing now how it all went down, knowing I’d never get my chance again, knowing that my father’s only real solution to any problem with other people was to cut them off and draw himself into sacrosanct isolation- was not standing up to him and taking my lumps. I couldn’t.
I froze. I had spent too long listening to my father and feeling sorry for him. I had been subdued by the thought that he had been done wrong and that in the moment, I couldn’t overcome it.
I turned, put my plate on the floor, and walked out the door, crying.
We never spoke again.
The season ended. I moved into moms and Johnny’s place on the Lakeshore, near 15th street. The TTC strike was over. Our prospects for girls had never panned out at Western. Our ride, Greg, got called to active duty when he turned 18. And we moved onto what we hoped was greener pastures- Silverthorne Collegiate. Their football program was known province-wide. Their infamy for hot girls, also seemed to be a known factor. We didn’t know single person there, but come second semester of grade 11, we were enrolled.