GROWING UP WITH JACKY
I drove downtown one Saturday afternoon in May and looked around for Jacky at his old hangouts. I found him eventually outside the food kitchen talking to a bunch of his buddies. “Hey Jacky! Want to hop in and take a ride to the Harbour?” I said. “Sure”, he said, and we drove out to the north shore.
When we got to the Harbour, I drove him around, and we told a few stories about the places we saw and remarked on how much things had changed. “You wouldn’t believe it, but I haven’t been here in over ten years”, Jacky said. We drove by the old school, the wharf and the lobster factory. We saw where the canteen used to be, and the hall where we went to dances on Saturday nights. Both of them had been torn down by winter works projects. Then we drove up the road to Joe and Eveline’s. The house was still there but it had been moved back from the road a ways and was being used as a barn. “That’s what I’d be usin’ the friggin’ place for if it was mine”, said Jacky. “Too many bad memories; not fit for humans, just for the pigs, if you ask me!”
Then, we turned into the Legion parking lot and Jacky’s eyes lit up. “God”, he said, “Does this ever bring me back! I wonder if Big Gertie’s still around! Don’t forget to take your hat off or you’ll have to buy everybody a round!” He couldn’t have been more excited. We walked in the door and I almost passed out from the smoke. I looked around to let my eyes adjust to the dim surroundings. Then we strode up to the bar, ordered a couple of beers, and sat down to get our bearings.
“Holy Jesus”, said Jacky, all excited. “Isn’t that Squirrel over there?” I said I thought it looked like him. “Christ, he’s so skinny that light above the pool table is shinin’ right through ‘im”. We wandered over to where Squirrel and a couple of other guys we knew were sitting and, before long, the table was full and the stories were flowing as fast as the beer. We talked about lots of things, funny people and crazy stories, the old timers, and the things we got into trouble for when we were kids.
“Remember the Halloween when we tipped over Popeye Pineau’s shithouse”, said Squirrel. “The year before, we’d tore up the little bridge he put in across the ditch and he was fit to be tied. Boy oh boy, Popeye figured he was goin’ to fix us! So we watched him from behind the bushes over in Dick’s yard, and we saw him go inta the shithouse. He wasn’t comin’ out, so we figured he must be waitin’ for us. So we sneaked up behind him and tipped the shithouse over, right onta the door, and then we ran like hell. Popeye was ragin’ at the Post Office the next day, sayin’ how he had to crawl out through the hole! He banged his fist on the counter, and said the Harbour needed a cop. And how if he ever caught the ‘young buggers’, he’d tan our hides. We sure as hell stayed away from him after that, I tell ya’”.
“Yeah”, said Jacky. “That was a good trick. Do you remember how we used to hang around the lobster factory when the guys workin’ there got thirsty? They’d send us over to the Co-op to buy them vanilla extract and shavin’ lotion. We’d send a different guy every time, so the clerk never caught on.” “I remember one time”, he said, “the men sent Junior to the Co-op. He marched up to the counter with the money and a bottle of Williams Lectric Shave, and the clerk looked at him kinda funny. ‘Who’s the Lectric Shave for, Junior? Your mother find a new boyfriend?’ Junior had forgot he had no father! So he hoofed her back down the aisle and picked up a bottle of vanilla extract instead. By the time he got back to the counter, the jig was up, and they threw him out of the Co-op. That’s the last time Junior got to run an errand for the boys at the factory!” roared Jacky. The rest of us nearly pissed ourselves laughing.
Then Sam piped up. “Remember when we used to pick potatoes for George Allen?” George was a hard-working mixed farmer who owned land out in the back settlement, about three miles inland from the Harbour. He grew about ten acres of potatoes every year, and hired a bunch of us to help dig them. Back in those days, potato picking was very labour intensive, and George took the labour part to the extreme. He had the oldest tractor I’ve ever seen, an old broken-down digger, and a rickety trailer. Sam, having been raised on a farm, was George’s right-hand man at potato picking time. We’d drive to the field early in the morning, bouncing around on the back of the trailer, with George standing up behind the wheel of the old Ferguson, with the throttle wide open. Then, we’d stand around with our baskets and jute sacks, each to our section, while George and Sam got the machinery going.
George must have made money on the potatoes, because he sure didn’t spend much on equipment. Invariably, the digger broke down before it had run the first hour. Sam said: “And then, George’d start to curse. ‘Goddamn the Goddamn! Sam, get me another link so I can get this Goddamn belt runnin’ agin.’ One time I made the mistake of askin’ him where the old link was”, Sam said. “And George roars back: ‘Oh, I fired it away about five minutes ago, and for all I know, it’s probbly still goin’”.
Then Denny entered the fray: “Do you remember the time we got into a war with Johnny’s gang?” “Yah”, said Jacky. “Wasn’t it you, Denny, who said ‘Boo Johnny’ one day when he was at bat?” “That’s how it got started alright”, replied Denny, “but I sure as hell didn’t think it’d last three months. Everywhere I went, I had to make sure I had my gang with me ‘cause Johnny was never without his. I’ve hated the son of a bitch ever since. I’m glad he’s not around the Harbour these days, ‘cause I wouldn’t back down from him now, any more than I did then.” “Yah”, said Jacky, “there was no such thing as bullyin’ back then. And you wouldn’t ever make the mistake of tellin’ on anybody who gave ya’ a hard time. It was every guy for hisself.”
Next, it was Squirrel’s turn again, and by this time he was feeling no pain. “Yeah, I remember when we started to chase the girls. One time I went to a step dancin’ contest, and big Elaine was up on the stage. I asked my mother how they knew who the best dancer was, and she told me to watch the feet. So I did for a while, but then I looked up a little higher. I went to step dancin’ contests every chance I got after that”, said Squirrel. “But I never looked at Elaine’s feet agin’!”
The conversation went downhill from there, and before the band came on stage, Jacky and I said our goodbyes and headed back to town. Jacky never did tell me where he lived and I still don’t know to this day. He asked me to drop him off where we’d met the last time, and he thanked me for taking him out to the Harbour. “We’ll have to do that again sometime”, I said. “Sure”, said Jacky. Before he closed the car door, he said to me: “Ya’ know, I don’t want ya’ to take pity on me. I’ve had a good life, and I don’t owe nothin’ to nobody. I know what I’m gonna to do tomorrow when I get up, where I can go to get somethin’ to eat, and where I’m gonna to sleep tomorrow night. If I wanna spend time with a woman, I know where to get one. I’ve got a plan. I’m better off than some of the guys, and we take care of one another. It’s not as bad as people think. If I had it to do over again, I don’t think I’d change too much. I’m happy the way I am.”
With those words, we left one another. I see Jacky from time to time. He looks older than his years, and he’s a bit too stooped for a man his age. We still make small talk, but it’s clear to the both of us that we live in different worlds. I realize now that I sought him out for the wrong reasons, a mixture of curiosity and pity, and I feel bad about that. Like many others in my situation, I’m at a loss as to what to do for Jacky. Should I invite him over for a good meal, should I buy him a coffee, or should I just leave him alone?
As I drove north on University Avenue, I could see the familiar stride and purposeful gait as he walked toward the City centre with a bag slung over his shoulder, his clothing a bit tattered. But, unlike the other loiterers and street people I encounter, I know he’s got a plan. When I look at him today, I can’t help but think of those years we spent hanging around together, ‘runnin’ the roads’ in Palmer’s Harbour. I had cause then to envy him because, to the rest of us youngsters, the foster children who passed through the village seemed to live more exciting lives than we did. After all, they got to move from family to family, and from village to village; we never went anywhere. Little did we know what went on behind closed doors, and the lasting impact this transient life had on all of them!
Not long ago, I re-read the history of Palmer’s Harbour. Half of the book is dedicated to genealogies of the families who lived there through the years. The introduction to the genealogy chapter notes that the history committee did their best to include the names of everybody who ever lived in the village and the surrounding area. But when I read through the names of the families who kept welfare children, their names were nowhere to be found; it’s like those kids never existed!
Jacky had the natural ability to go as far, or farther, than I did. By rights, we should have ended up in the same place. Why our lives have followed such different paths is clear to me now. Someone cared about me during my formative years, while he was thrust into the real world at far too young an age. I had someone who loved me, and he didn’t. I learned to trust people, and he didn’t. I tamed most of my demons, and he didn’t. And now he lives from day to day, surviving on the edge of society, driven by the most basic of human needs.