When I first signed the lease for my restaurant, the lawyer asked for some I.D. So, I presented him with my Ontario Health card.
“A driver’s license is a little more typical,” he said. “Can I see that?”
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” I said.
He stared blankly at me for a moment.
“Did you have it revoked?” He asked.
“No. The fact is, I never had one.” His jaw dropped a little. “What’s the matter?” I asked. “Is it that unusual for a forty year old man to not have a drivers’ license?” I smiled, making light of the situation. He didn’t return my smile.
“Yes. It actually is very unusual. May I ask; how are you going to run a business without a car? You will have to pick up liquor; you will have to transport CO2 tanks for the beer. You are a small restaurant, so you will be running most of the errands yourself. You will be buying things by the case. Are you going to carry all those things on your back?” He tapped his pen on the table impatiently. I felt a little insulted by this diatribe. What business was it of his?
“My wife Dorothy is a licensed driver. She will help me with the errands.” I said. I could tell what he was thinking; I was some kind of henpecked man-child, ferried around the town by his mother-wife. Yet, this newfound information seemed to satisfy him enough to take a cell phone snap of my Health Card and move on to other matters. As he shuffled through papers though, I could feel my ears getting hot with humiliation. He was right. It was unusual for a grown man to not have a driver’s license. My little brother also did not have a driver’s license. In fact, for most of my life my mum didn’t drive either. A long time ago, my mum tried to drive a car, but in the end, she quit driving. In a rare confession to me when I was ten years old, she admitted she didn’t have the natural aptitude for it. “I’m not a good driver Bobby. It’s best I stay off the roads,” she said. A few years earlier, when dad had moved out, we were left with an old wood-paneled station wagon. My mum tried to make the best of the situation and drove the old thing for a while. It misfired regularly and would stall at every third red light. My mum could barely see over the dashboard and had to bring a circular shaped, afghan style knitted throw pillow from our couch to act as a booster seat in order to keep an eye on the road.
Over time, we kids could almost detect the moods of the old V8 engine, especially when it was teetering on the verge of stalling at a busy intersection. My brother and I would look at each other with our ears cocked. Yep, this time she’s not gonna make it. The engine would reach a crescendo rate of RPM and then suddenly drop down and waver as it struggled to regain the top of the cycle in the lower gear. There would be moment for which all hung in the balance, maybe the old girl could hold on to that small amount of momentum to continue turning the cylinders until the light turned green. But the tell-tale change in vibration of the car’s chassis foretold the inevitable; with a sigh, the engine finally sputtered and died. “Shoot, shoot, shoot, this damn thing,” mum cursed. Cigarette hanging out of her mouth, she cranked the gear shift into park. Then, with the car behind her impatiently leaning on their horn, she violently twisted the key in the ignition several times to get it going again, and slammed it in to drive as soon as the engine caught. The car lurched forward jarringly, giving us kids whiplash and causing the smoldering ember on the end of her cigarette, which had grown as long as a Szechuan pepper, to deposit itself on to her lap, which briefly burned through her polyester slacks, causing her to swat frantically at her leg.
For the short time it was convenient to have that car. Mum would drive us to the grocery store at Bridlewood Mall where my brother and I would wander aimlessly and unattended around in the stores while she shopped. Somehow we’d find each other again and load up the station wagon with our meagre groceries. On the way home, we drove past red-balconied high rise buildings, a government housing project called Chester Le, the gas station at the corner, the Chinese convenience store that sold contraband non-duty-paid cigarettes, and then past the green hydro fields that hugged the length of our street. These swaths of miniature prairies were put aside by some long ago city engineer as a place for the hydro-electric towers to string wire clear across the province from Niagara Falls generators. Despite the buzzing wires overhead and the 80-foot-tall steel wicker men vanishing in the distance like a sad dystopia, the actual grounds that formed the pediment of the towers were green seas of undulating long grasses. Among the grasses were flowers; honeysuckle, thistles, purple clover, golden rod, and buttercups blossoming across the expanse like an English meadow. There were also wild strawberries, scattered here and there like wrinkled red jewels. They are identified first by the blossoms; white and yellow during the spring, like miniature daisies, and their leaves, triplets of serrated green teardrops. Found low to the ground, the fruit is often hidden in the long blades of field grass but their telltale greenery lead the way. Wild strawberries, like their undomesticated blue counterparts are much smaller than the cultivated beasties found in green plastic pint containers. The wild ones actually look a little like the fake fructose berries in Frankenberry cereal.
Along what could best be described as hedgerow between hydro field and school yard were tangled, prickly raspberry bushes, producing enough fruit to sustain a local population of red-winged black birds and one greedy guts kid. A lonely stand of aged and gnarly trees also followed the line of this hedgerow, likely a holdover from a distant past when the hydro field and school yard were bucolic farmlands, the general topography of the agrarian history dutifully allowing for the modern march of progress and electricity delivery. My dad, before he moved out, had muttered about it being unkempt. “The grass should be mowed down,” he complained loudly. “It’s a jungle…it’s long enough to hide a dead body in, for crying out loud.”
For a time, those fields became a sort of larder to me. I sucked on the nectar-rich stigmas of honeysuckle flowers, gorged on raspberries and foraged for wild strawberries. There were more bugs in our kitchen then in those fresh and beautiful fields. It felt cleaner out there. I would lay on my back in the field and drift in and out of sleep as I watched the clouds slowly cross paths with the black wires spanning the expanse. As a kid I bushwhacked in search of rabbits and gophers. As a randy teenager, I clumsily felt up a girl named Carla among the wild flowers, and later I would drink beer and smoke cigarettes in the hidden safety of the long grasses. Given the preponderance of youthful vice occurring in that field, maybe my dad had a point about the city mowing it all down. Despite the wildness and accidental beauty of the hydro fields of Scarborough, there was little else there to inspire me. In fact, last time I checked, my dad’s wish had come true and the fields had been cleaned up by the city. Trees in Scarborough never grew very tall given the top soil had been blown away by the decades of tract housing construction. The boulevards were wide. Strip plazas dotted most major intersections, with nothing more interesting than convenience stores, video rental establishments and coffee shops.
Our childhood car was eventually abandoned. After one final smoke-spewing, engine-stalling trip to the mall, mum locked it up, tossed the keys in a bowl and retired from driving forever. No attempt was made to sell the unsellable, and instead it remained in the driveway like a totem of our failures. Briefly, my older brother, a transient presence in our lives, attempted to convert the old station wagon into a small bachelor apartment, until it was unduly towed away by the property management company as derelict vehicle.
I had no motivation to learn to drive, for we had nothing to drive and any hope of buying my own vehicle seemed quite remote. Not having a car in Scarborough was a liability. I needed to find a place that was denser for which the stores and other amenities were within walking distance. I needed close access to a subway so that I would not have to depend on four wheels. From as far back as I can remember I knew I was going to get out of Scarborough. But strangely, all through the years that followed, I never really felt a burning desire to operate an automobile until that lawyer suggested I carry a case of liquor on my back.