Tag Archives: disasters

A Love Letter To Boston

20 Apr

Dear Boston,

I’ve never visited you.

I know that that’s a strange way to begin, and of course I don’t mean it as a slight against you. I’m just stating a fact: I’ve never visited you.

I’ve always wanted to, though, and that must count for something, right? I’ve heard great things about you. A bunch of people whose opinions I really respect have highly recommended you. I’ve planned a fantasy vacation (which my husband has nicknamed The Dead Author Tour of New England) that involves you.

I don’t really have any great reasons for not having visited you, to be honest. It just never seemed to be the right time, and our vacations often get eaten by visiting various family members, and travelling with a toddler isn’t exactly optimal.

But still, I’ve always meant to visit you.

The truth is, I think that you might be partially responsible for my existence on this earth. And as much as this life can sometimes be a rocky ride, I’m still grateful that I’m here. I’m the type of person who occasionally likes to consider of all the things that somehow coalesced so that I, this particular me, could happen to be born into this particular time on this particular planet, and the thing is, Boston, you play a small part in that story.

Let me explain.

My great-grandfather, William Cave, had what would be considered by most standards to be a pretty miserable childhood. He grew up poor in Halifax’s north end, living in a flat with his parents, his two sisters, and his grandmother. Things were tough but manageable until the cold, damp climate, inadequate nutrition and limited access to healthcare began to take their toll on his family. When my great-grandfather was nine, his sister Agnes Pearl, aged eleven, died of tuberculosis. The next year, his sister Annie Florence died, also of tuberculosis, at the age of sixteen. In 1915 his mother, Louisa, died, and in 1916 his grandmother, Mariah, died – both of tuberculosis.

My great-grandfather rarely spoke about his childhood. I’ve seen photographs of Agnes and Annie, and I’ve visited their graves, but beyond that, I don’t know much about them. In the picture of Agnes that my grandmother has, she’s very blond, her hair tied back in an enormous bow, and sits in a chair clutching a doll.  Annie is older in her picture, and is standing in front of a white fence wearing a long black coat; she has dark hair and eyes that slant upwards like mine.

In 1917, my great-grandfather was fourteen years old. On the morning of December 6th of that year he was getting ready to start his first day of work at a nearby newspaper plant. He happened to be running late. This fact would prove to be incredibly lucky.

Halifax, like many port towns, tends to profit during wartime, what with all the troops and ships and military big-wigs passing through. On the morning of December 6th, 1917, the harbour and the Bedford Basin were full of big boats, each one crowded with dozens, maybe even hundreds, of crewmen and soldiers on their way to the front. Halifax’s waterfront was packed with people, either working or hurrying to their school or job. Some were just out for a walk, enjoying the nice weather and taking in the excitement of all the ships’ comings and goings.

Every account I’ve ever read of that day has said that it was bright and sunny, the sky clear and the air sharp and bracing.

In order to get from Halifax Harbour into Bedford Basin, a ship has to pass through a strait called the Narrows. On the morning of December 17th, two ships, the Norwegian Imo, which was bringing relief supplies to Belgium, and the French Mont-Blanc, collided in the narrows. The Mont-Blanc caught fire.

What very few people knew was that the Mont-Blanc was a munitions ship carrying TNT, picric acid, benzol and guncotton. Once fire was added to that mix, she became a floating bomb. The captain ordered his crew to abandon ship, and they fled in lifeboats to the Dartmouth side of the harbour. The Mont-Blanc drifted towards Halifax and came to rest at Pier 6, which lay at the bottom of Richmond Street.

As black smoke filled the sky, even more people flocked down to the harbour to watch the ship burn. A few of the dock workers knew what kind of cargo the Mont-Blanc‘s was carrying, and tried to evacuate the waterfront, but they were unsuccessful.

One sailor made his way to the Richmond Railway Yards to tell men working there, Vince Coleman and William Lovett, about the coming explosion. Lovett fled, but Coleman realized that there was a train due in the station within minutes. He stayed behind to send a series of urgent telegraph messages to the train, saying,

“Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys.”

At 9:04:35 am, the Mont-Blanc’s highly volatile cargo exploded. The ship disintegrated, and the blast travelled at more than 1,000 metres per second. A mushroom cloud rose into the air and hung over the city. Tremors from the blast were felt as far away as Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. The harbour floor was briefly exposed, then a tsunami formed as water rushed to fill the void.

Halifax was devastated.

The north end was levelled, with huge brick factories reduced to little more than rubble and wooden houses flattened as if smashed by a giant’s hand. Fires raged everywhere, sometimes consuming entire city blocks. Hundreds were blinded by shards of glass as thousands of windows were shattered by the shockwave.

Fireman Billy Wells, who was thrown and stripped naked by the force of the explosion, described the immediate aftermath:

“The sight was awful, with people hanging out of windows dead. Some with their heads missing, and some thrown onto the overhead telegraph wires.”

That night there was a terrible snow storm, and many people who had survived but been left homeless by the blast had nowhere to go. A city of canvas tents was set up in the Halifax Commons, but the shelter they offered was meagre at best, and anyway, there weren’t enough to go around. People froze to death in the city that had, up until a few hours before, been on fire.

It’s estimated that two thousand people died in the Halifax Explosion and its immediate aftermath, and nine thousand people were injured, six thousand of them seriously. Nearly two thousand homes were completely destroyed, and twelve thousand homes were badly damaged. More Nova Scotian residents were killed in the Halifax Explosion than died in combat during World War I.

And my great-grandfather? Well, he was late for work, which meant that he was out in the middle of the street when the blast happened. As it turned out, this was the best place for him. The newspaper plant where he was supposed to be working was destroyed in the explosion, and his house was a pile of rubble. Had he been in either building, he likely would have died.

His aunt and uncle died, and so did all of their children. A few of his neighbours died. Many of his friends and family were badly injured. He couldn’t find his father after the blast, and had to wait until the next day to learn whether or not he was safe. Miraculously, his father didn’t have a scratch on him.

So what does any of this have to do with Boston?

Well, Boston was the first city to send relief to Halifax. The Boston Red Cross and the Massachusetts Public Safety Committee in particular collected money and supplies to send to Halifax. They didn’t care that the victims of the explosion weren’t Americans; they didn’t care that they were in the middle of a war and resources were tight. They did it anyway, because it was the right thing to do.

And when I imagine my great-grandfather in the aftermath the explosion, homeless and shivering in the sudden storm, alone and not knowing whether his only family member was still alive, I can’t help but think that Boston must have somehow helped him get through that long night. Boston must have been a part of what kept him going through the days and weeks that followed, as he and his father tried to put their life back together.

Boston, who clothed and fed and sheltered Halifax when they were in need.

Boston, who sent help without a second thought.

Boston, the city that now needs our help.

Halifax has a long memory. This is a trait that is, in my experience, both charming and irritating. It means that after you’ve lived in Halifax for a few years, everyone in the city knows your all your business and remembers every single stupid thing you’ve ever done. You can never live anything down in Halifax. If you stay there long enough, an act as simple as walking through its streets becomes tricky, because you feel like even the buildings and trees are passing judgment on you.

But sometimes Halifax’s long memory is lovely. Halifax doesn’t forget the awful things you’ve done, but it doesn’t forget the good ones, either. And Halifax has never forgotten that Boston was there to help first, before even the rest of Canada was able to respond. Halifax sends a Christmas tree to Boston every year, and that tree is lit on the Boston Common. Haligonians traditionally cheer for Boston sports teams. Halifax calls Boston its sister city.

And now, Nova Scotia, the province that can barely afford to feed its own residents, has pledged to donate $50,000 to the Boston Children’s Hospital. While announcing this, Nova Scotia premier Darryl Dexter said,

“When we were in need, Bostonians were there. There is a border and hundreds of miles between us, but Massachusetts is always close to the hearts of Nova Scotians. We will do everything we can to support our neighbours and friends in their time of need. Boston’s resilience and fighting spirit will persevere.”

And he’s exactly right. About everything.

So I guess, Boston, what I really want to say is thank you. Thank you for helping us when we were down. Thank you for saving my great-grandfather. Thank you for my life.

I’ve never met you, but I love you.

The days and weeks ahead of you will be really fucking tough, but I just want you to know that we’re up here, cheering you on. We’re here to help if you need it. We know that your spirit will only grow stronger in the face of this adversity. We know that you will fucking beat this.

And also, we haven’t forgotten.

Hope to see you someday soon!

Sincerely,

Annabelle

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

My great-grandparents on their 65th wedding anniversary

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Goodbye, Old Store

31 Oct

I woke up this morning and logged into Facebook, thinking that I would take a few minutes before work to check and make sure that all of my friends had survived Superstorm Sandy. Instead, I was distracted by the news that the Roots store on Queen West had burned down overnight.

People in neighbouring buildings felt an explosion around 12:30 am, and the force of the blast broke the front windows of the store and forced the back door open. Roots merchandise spilled out onto the streets and, according to witnesses, there were looters grabbing whatever they could get, in spite of the flames pouring out of the second storey windows. Sandy’s winds meant that the fire fighters (over 80 of them) had a hard time controlling the blaze, but by the early hours of the morning they had managed to put the fire out and save the adjacent buildings. Unfortunately, this was all that was left of 369 Queen West:

(c) Torontoist, Ink Truck Media

This Roots store was the site of my first job in Toronto. I’d worked for Roots in Halifax, and when we moved here they offered to transfer me to local store. This Queen street location (there had previously been another one a block down the street) opened not long after I arrived in the city; I loved the Queen West neighbourhood, lived only a short subway ride away, and thought working at a brand new store would be exciting. It seemed like a perfect fit.

I was there to help set up the store, piling sweatshirts on tables and artfully arranging leather bags on shelves that smelled of fresh wood. I was there day they opened, too, a sunny but cold day in the spring of 2007. I worked there for over a year, until, in the summer of 2008, I transferred to the Rosedale store so that I could also work at the Roots Yoga Studio. I’ve been back to visit the old store once or twice, but honestly I haven’t thought about it that much. All day today, though, I’ve been using my spare moments to collect and sift through memories of my time there. It’s almost as if I used to rely on the building itself to hold onto all the things that happened, but now that it’s gone I have to be the one to safeguard my own experiences.

I thought about my old co-workers – there was Kari, the manager and the person I worked with most often, who kept us all entertained and worked her ass off to make sure that things ran smoothly. Elise, an art school student who took amazing photographs. Georgea, the stand-up comedian who taught me how to draw unicorns (the first time I tried I put the horn at the end of the nose, and she explained that it went between the eyes – when I groaned about how stupid I was, she said, well, it’s not really fair because I have a unicorn at home). Lindsay, the smarty-pants U of T student who is now doing her MA in Cinema Studies.

There was Rachel, who became one of my closest friends and played the cello at my wedding. Adam, our token straight male and the dude who explained the “drink and dance” diet to me (hit: it involves drinking a lot of beer and then dancing a lot, and apparently results in losing weight). Sasha, who is now a superstar makeup artist. Alexei, the high school student who had his first real hangover on my watch (he swore that he would never drink again, but pictures on his Facebook prove that he’s a liar). Emily, who was only 16 and was like everyone’s little sister, and now inspires me with her feminist rhetoric and general bad-assery.

I remembered how we used to make candy store runs when summer afternoons dragged on too long, running a block west to Tutti Frutti and returning with giant bags of various gelatine-based sweets for everyone to share. The rickety stairs leading down into the horror movie of a basement. The funny pictures and signs we put up in the staff areas, some of which were still there long after the people who made them had moved on to new jobs:

I remembered staff outings and movie dates, pot lucks and parties. The time we all went to the Ex together and Kari and I ate a million Tiny Tom donuts. The time we went to watch the fireworks down at the Princes Gates and sat in the grass trying to stealthily drink our beer. How we used to hang out in the alley behind the store, sometimes with staff from the Silver Snail next door, soaking up some sunshine on our breaks.

I remembered the time a pipe burst in the basement bathroom, covering the floor with inch-thick black sludge. We had to call a plumber, a little old Asian man who explained that what looked like mud and mulched leaves was actually hundred-year-old poop that had been sitting in the pipe for a century or more. When Kari and I yelled “EW!“, the plumber exclaimed, “No, no, that’s my gold! That’s how I make my money!

I remembered the tiny baby tree that grew through the crack in the wall of the staff room. I remembered the giant centipedes that lived in the basement, terrifying creatures who liked to hide under the boxes we stored down there (RIP giant centipedes).  I thought about how we used to hang bells inside the drawers where we kept the leather bags in an attempt to prevent shoplifting.

I remembered doing good-cop-bad-cop interviews when we were hiring new staff (one potential employee asked to use our microwave at the end of the interview – that’s weird, right?).

I remembered eating a thousand Swiss Chalet meals with Kari, who swore that she would have her wedding dinner there.

I remembered the time Elise got a giant tattoo of geese (or was it ducks?) on her side. The time Emily’s hair turned pink and she had to make an emergency appointment to fix it. The time the owner of the building wanted to sell it and hired a building inspector who showed me the knob and tube wiring in the basement. The day there was a giant snowstorm and we took Kari to see the Nutcracker ballet and Matt fell asleep.

I remembered the time Samantha Bee came into our store, and Kari and I tried SO HARD to be funny but she didn’t even laugh once. When Audra came in, before we were even really friends, and I was like, hey, I think I know you from the internet, and then sold her a red purse. I thought about the many times Emily broke up with (and inevitably got back together with) her boyfriend, each instance a mini drama requiring ice cream and an in-depth analysis of their relationship.

What happens when a building is destroyed or torn down or otherwise ceases to be? What occupies the space where it used to exist, other than open air and the occasional bird passing through? It’s strange to look at that giant hole two storeys in the air and think about how that used to be a place where people lived. A place where they slept, and cooked, and laughed, and made love, and cried, and did all the other little things that make up our lives. What happens to all of those experiences once their physical remainders, all the scuff marks and scratched paint and cracked plaster, literally go up in smoke?

I’ve been wondering why this fire has affected me so much. Am I going to get this nostalgic over every former workplace? I mean, yeah, I’m great at being nostalgic, but this seemed a bit much, even for me. Then I realized that my time at that store has had a huge impact on the shape my life in Toronto has taken. The people I worked with helped me learn to navigate the city, and introduced me to places and events that I might not have discovered on my own. Some of the friends I made there are still a part of my life, and have certainly helped influence choices that I’ve made. Perhaps most importantly of all, working at this store indirectly lead to me becoming a yoga teacher. See, the Roots Yoga Studio offers free classes to all of its employees. If I hadn’t been able to take free classes, I doubt that I would have started a regular practice; knowing me, I would have given up early on due to laziness or being a cheapskate. But the fact that they were free, and that I’d shaped my work schedule around the classes I took, meant that I didn’t have much of an excuse to quit. So I persevered, and I grew to love yoga and, well, here I am.

I haven’t been in the Queen West store in years. Mostly I’m just not hip enough to spend much time in that part of town anymore, and when I am there I prefer to go to stores that I can’t find anywhere else in the city. I haven’t seen many of my former coworkers in a long time either; after we stopped working together, our paths diverged, and now most of us are in totally different places in our lives. We keep up with each other on Facebook, and promise to get together soon, but never do.

I miss them, though. And I know I’ll miss the store, too. Just not the centipedes.