I grew up poor.
Not in abject poverty. Not in squalor. Not on the wrong side of the tracks. And not Dust Bowl-poor like Ma & Pa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.
But we were poor. As an only-child to a single mother, things were tight. We were squeezing nickels and pinching pennies. Always trying to make a dollar stretch.
I never grew up in a “house”. We didn’t have a car until I was ten. My clothes were often second-hand, and while others luxuriated in the land of colour and cable, our TV set was black and white, stood on four legs, and listened for its invisible signals with its rabbit’s ears.
But we got by.
And sometimes I think I was made better by it. Nothing came easy. Nothing was taken for granted.
You had to be made of tough stuff to be poor. When kids teased you about your clothes, you had to slough it off. When you didn’t have the cool ‘stuff’ they had, you had to pretend you didn’t care. When you had to walk to school in the freezing cold, you said that you actually wanted to. When your mother couldn’t afford gymnastics lessons any longer, you pretended you wanted to quit anyway. You learned to be tough, take a few hits. Put on your game face. It’s like the real world showed up, just a whole lot sooner.
And that’s probably why I loved to read.
I got to inhabit a million worlds outside my own. I could be transported across the globe or across the galaxy, with the simple flick of a page; glorious alternate lives at the ends of my fingertips.
So many times, I crawled through that wardrobe into Narnia, cried actual tears for that ill-fated lion. And oh, how I longed to know the taste of Turkish Delight…….
I watched a tree grow in Brooklyn and slipped through a wrinkle in time; sailed on the Kon-Tiki and tromped through the woods with Enid Blyton. I searched for God with Margaret and treasure with Bilbo Baggins. And there is still a part of me that wants to be that stubborn titian-haired girl detective, along with her merry band of teenage cohorts.
The library was my sanctuary. I loved its hallowed halls, its creepy back-stairway bathroom. I loved the privacy of the stacks and the old moldy smell of the paper, the tiny cubicles where you could set down your things and set down your thoughts. The cranky librarians shushing in the barely-restrained quiet…..running my fingers along the spines of a million lives, all catalogued by Dewey and his countless decimals.
But mostly, I loved that it was free.
I don’t think I’d realized yet that some people actually owned books. Like, their very own copies. That they never had to return. Or share. Or watch for due dates circling around on the wall-hung calendar.
And then one day, I met Arthur Black.
Now, if you’re not Canadian, or you’re not into the CBC, or the radio, I can understand how you might not know who Arthur was. But unbeknownst to young ten-year-old me, he was a pretty famous cat in the place from which I hailed: Thunder Bay, Ontario. He was a humorist, a columnist, an author, and a CBC radio host. And apparently, he was also a really good man, who took time out of his busy life to visit schools and read to children.
And that’s how I came to know of Mr. Arthur Black.
Now, in retrospect, I’m not sure why it seemed like a good idea to read passages from his book to a group of 10 and 11-year olds. I actually think that audience might have been a little young for his brand of sarcastic delight. But I was transfixed, instantly captivated. I was an advanced reader for my age, and I was over the moon. He was witty and charming, and I was under his spell.
And then I found out that you could buy a copy of his book. Your. Very. Own. Copy!!
Ten-year old mind…..blown.
Now luckily, I was a resourceful young lady, and had been saving money from my paper route. It was the old-skool kind of paper route, where you actually delivered the papers to the door, at suppertime, out of a heavy shoulder bag. And people paid you actual money. Collections involved a cardboard card, and a hole punch. All in all, a very sophisticated operation.
And because my customers thought I was a good kid, staying out of trouble, they often tipped me, over and above the weekly paper rate. I actually think I was saving for my very first camera, which is ironic and hilarious in retrospect. But at that very moment, nothing could divert me from my mission to get my hands on that volume. Nothing.
And so, I gathered my cloth collection bag, with all my tip money safely ensconced within, and took the bus downtown to the local CBC station. And yes. It was a different time, where a kid could take a bus without anyone giving you side-eye or calling CFS on your parents. We weren’t coddled back then.
And with all the confidence a naive youngster could muster, I walked up to the front desk and asked to speak with Mr. Black. I really have no idea what they made of my ten-year-old-self showing up at the station, asking to speak to their premier radio personality, but to their credit, they fully indulged my juvenile whims.
I was directed to his office upstairs, and within minutes of my arrival, I was sitting with Mr. Black, explaining my unannounced presence and my desire to purchase one of his books. Without so much as the raise of an eyebrow, he got right down to business. We discussed the price, and I plunked my money onto the table, ready to proceed with the transaction.
That guy was an absolute rock star.
Because I paid for the entire thing in coins.
Before loonies and toonies even existed!!
He patiently helped me count out quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies until we reached the agreed-upon price. And I remember telling him that I thought he mis-counted, because I was pretty sure I was shorting him, with a few too many coins left in the bag going home with me. But he vehemently insisted that his count was accurate. Only later, through the lens of time, did I realize that he likely did that on purpose. Because he was generous. And gentle. And kind. And probably amused.
And before I left with my precious treasure, he signed it for me:
And I still have that book to this day. One of my most prized possessions. Something I would grab if my house was on fire. Irreplaceable. Beat up. Torn up. Loved up.
The book that came before all the other books.
And as the years went by, I often thought of dropping him a line somewhere asking him if he remembered me, that spunky little girl, on her mission with her bag of coins. But time marched on, and I never got around to it. Or it never seemed important enough. Or I just assumed he wouldn’t remember anyways.
But it’s something I will never forget. A treasured memory. Of someone who gave a little bit of their time. To take a young lady seriously. And maybe change her life in some small, unknowable way. Making a difference. One small act of kindness at a time.
You were a class act.
RIP Mr. Black.