Fri Mar 31, 2017

About twenty years ago, when I was a student, I lived in an old apartment building on a busy main street. It wasn’t in a good neighbourhood. The dudes in the building across from us appeared to be drug dealers and would beg us for smokes every time we went on the balcony - even though we never had any damn smokes.

But the rent was cheap. I had a roommate, and each of us chipped in less than $300 a month.

That summer was the worst. The building was a rotting carcass that smelled sickening when the sun baked its cracked wooden siding. And even with the windows closed - which only made the smell worse - the noise from the traffic roaring by never ceased.

I had an early bedtime that summer because I was working at the Canadian Tire warehouse and had to wake up at 5 AM to make the bus on time.

But I didn’t get much sleep.

The sun doesn’t go down until late in the summer and I was too poor to buy proper curtains. I was also too poor to buy a proper bed, but a friend-of-a-friend who worked at 1-800-GOT-JUNK gave me a free mattress. I laid it straight down on the ratty carpet, and was almost immediately infested with bed bugs.

My feet hurt because my steel-toed boots were ill-fitting and rubbed my feet freshly raw every day. I hated walking in those boots, so much so that I accepted rides to the bus stop with this creepy dude at work. It turned out that he had an alternative agenda - one that involved cheating on his boyfriend. I had to endure him constantly printing updated versions of his DVD list and giving me copies during the car ride in an effort to entice me over to his place to “watch some movies”.

But even so, it was the traffic that kept me up at night. I’ve had an aversion to living on busy streets ever since. I have this theory that when everybody drive electric cars, the traffic noise will disappear. And that garbage real estate - homes next to highways - will become prime. But that hasn’t happened yet.

The only thing that kept me sane that summer was reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time. These days, the entry ticket for geekdom is cheap, but back then there were no LOTR movies to watch for a quick primer to Tolkien’s world. Those long books transported me away to a magical place at a time when I needed it most.

Eventually, that torturous summer was over. I abandoned my mattress in the building’s storage locker, quit Canadian Tire, tossed my shoes away, moved out, and went back to school.

I still drive by that building every day of my life. I just don’t see it. It’s a black hole that sucks away the surrounding light. Or maybe there’s some sort of mysterious psychic cloak that shields my cognizant mind from noticing it anymore. Subconsciously though, there is something that gnaws at me when I drive by, like a haunted face in your peripheral vision.

These days, the neighbourhood has changed. A lot. You can’t buy a house on the busy street for under a million bucks, and the rent for a two-bedroom apartment would set you back a couple of thousand dollars a month. The drug-dealer scum has moved on across the bridge to some dark hole in Surrey probably and my kid’s newly-constructed school is just a few blocks away where a hospital used to be.

About twenty years ago, I came to Canada as an immigrant and it wasn’t good. I was twenty years old. I’m forty now, so that means I’ve lived an equal amount of time in both South Africa and Canada. That is quite the milestone.

My life is much better now and I’m so thankful for that. I have a career that I love and a beautiful family. It’s funny - even though I’ve had much better summers since that time so long ago, the dark rain-drenched days of a Vancouver winter don’t bother me at all. In fact, I adore them.

And if hell has one gigantic silver-lining it would be this: I may never have ended up married to my lovely wife if I hadn’t lived in that awful building.

Sure, my life isn’t all rainbows and sunshine. It’s still hard most of the time in one way or the other - the same as yours. But you won’t find me complaining about how Starbucks misspelled my name on a paper cup or how the iPhone is a piece of trash without a headphone jack. At least not today. Today, I’m grateful.

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