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Max Roytenberg

Max Roytenberg: The Junkyard on Jarvis Street

by Max Roytenberg, Dublin, June 2013

I remember it like it was yesterday. From the depths of the jungle that was the place we inhabited on Jarvis Street, I had managed to find a trowel, a little metal shovel to dig with in the hard ground. There I had dug a good-sized hole. There was a little patch of grass beside our house. Ours fronted directly on the sidewalk of our street, but the neighbor’s, Mr. Eisenstein, was set back a little, leaving a grassy patch. It even had a tree. This was precious territory in the urban desert that was Jarvis Street. Directly across the street was Simkin’s Coal and Lumber yard, a large establishment occupying much of the space on the other side. Behind that were Winnipeg’s famous rail yards, stretching back, seemingly without end, where we had often wandered in our explorations. We had never ever plumbed to the far extremities of that “terra incognita”.

Into the hole went the tableware over which I poured the boiling water. The water drained away quickly. Out came the utensils to be wrapped in a tea towel, being careful as possible not to burn my hands from the heat they had picked up from the water. Back into the house to get another kettle full of boiling water and the dishes. Into the hole went the dishes. Then again I poured the boiling water over the contents stacked in the hole I had dug. I gathered the hot plates up, wrapped again in tea towels, and back into the house to be washed like the utensils in the kitchen sink. We were preparing everything in the house for Passover. Not for us a second set of everything to celebrate the holiday. Every year we would carry out the ritual cleansing, along with the requisite blessings, so that we would be properly prepared. The search for “chometz” was in full swing. We would be ready for the first Passover meal in the evening.

I never gave a second thought to all these rituals as I carried out Mama’s instructions. These were just the things that Jews did. Didn’t everybody? How this process of exposing the things we used to eat with to the mud on the ground somehow made them clean was never questioned, but surely I must have wondered about it. More than that, when my mother shook a chicken above my head, accompanied by Hebrew imprecations, how it somehow saved me from a horrible fate, and guaranteed my life for another year, as the poor fowl, destined for our dinner, absorbed my sins, may have seemed bizarre, but it never prompted a question to emerge from my lips. This was the world I lived in.

Inside the four walls of our home we lived a fantasy life, where family was everything, the warmth of parental concern for our, we children’s, well-being, the beauty of our Sabbath, the inner life we lived, were all taken for granted. Fantasy or not, we acted as if we believed in it, we functioned, and for us it was real. We were protected by it from the brutal reality we experienced when we went out into the streets to go to school. On that street, in the terraced housing,  a drunken father beat children, a woman drank peroxide to escape from an unbearable existence, the neighbor’s oldest daughter dated a bootlegger with a shiny car, while the younger children marched outside our door, shouting catcalls and throwing stones.  Out in the street I had to scrabble around on the ground many times, fighting all my contemporaries, for no reason I could understand, before I could walk upright on that street. We were at the nadir of a descent over the years that had led us from Magnus and McPhillips, to Powers and Stella, and finally to Jarvis. My early years paralleled the aftermath of the Depression in Canada. In that world my father was unemployed and we were on Welfare.

On Jarvis I had only one friend, Gary, who lived in the next block. He was the second youngest of four children of a German mother and a black Jamaican father, a shambling ancient wreck of an alcoholic past. But that family was living the North American dream of rising in the world. The older sister was a nurse. The oldest brother worked for the C.B.C. radio! Gary, a school classmate, was the only one I could talk with about the life we were leading and what our futures might be. I would meet Gary later in life in Toronto, (his name was now Gerard, and he had matured so his penchant for drawing had turned into saleable oil paintings,) and he would implore me not to mention our humble origins. Who knows what tale he was telling regarding his background. I did not choose to make contact with him again.

A central feature of my fantasy world was what lay behind our house. Mr. Eisenstein owned a junk yard situated right behind our house. It may have been junk to me, but it was a business venture for our landlord. No doubt rats and vermin, and all manner of noxious things, were present there among the piles of metal objects from which were salvaged valuable materials. And there were  mountains of used bottles of every description. I could understand all this. My grandfather had a horse and wagon and he collected the kinds of things that would be purchased in this place.

But all this was unimportant. In this treasure house I would build my hydraulic engineering structures. Whenever there was rain there would be puddles. In the afterhours, when the premises were empty, I would build elaborate systems of rivulets, trenching pathways for the waters, and dams to prepare for flooding torrents. Bottle caps would be my boats to be carried by the waters. And who knew what treasures might have been cast away? How many hours I spent there, wrapped up in my own secret world. My eyes were ever searching everywhere for something precious. What was that bright thing that caught my eye? What could this curious thing be used for? Was there something here that I might appropriate for myself. All of this was mine for the taking. After all, it was in my back yard.

It was there I found the greatest treasure of all. Among the flotsam and jetsam were many discarded books, of interest only for pulping back into paper products. I never tired of examining the contents. I had been emptying the shelves of libraries for years. They were my window on the world, and I was already well travelled. It was in the junkyard that I found a volume of the collected plays of one William Shakespeare. Once entering this world, I was lost forever. I read that dilapidated volume from cover to cover. The lessons of those imaginings, those histories, the resonance of that language, the turn of phrase, the insight offered into the nature of man, enough material there to digest for a lifetime, many lifetimes. Young as I was, I was forever marked. I had something in my life against which to measure everything that I would encounter, rivaling the Old Testament, and seemingly, more relevant.

Many years have passed since that time. When I visited the area some ten years ago, the site was almost unrecognizable. The junkyard was long gone and the house seemed to be an abandoned shell. Yet it remains alive and well in my memories and vibrant in the impact the site made on my life.

Is it too trite to note that one man’s junk can be another man’s treasure? Is it too trite to note that our lives are a junk yard of experiences from which we could, if we know how, extract the valuables that might and do enlighten our lives? 

The War, that unbelievable horror in the history of mankind, that junkyard, wherein was cast away for a time all of the moral heritage of thousands of years, that destroyed so many lives-dare I say it-changed my life for the better. On Jarvis Street, the Winnipeg Cold Storage received a contract to powder eggs for shipment to a beleaguered Britain. They hired my father to shovel coal into the boilers that would power that effort. The young men who supervised those activities were soon drafted into the military and my father was engaged to learn the necessary skills to do their jobs. Without any formal education, my father managed to learn at that kitchen table how to pass the exams to become a professional engineer. My mother scrimped from his wages to save for a down payment on a home far removed from Jarvis Street. A war of horrors was an  agent whereby we left that junk yard behind and were enrolled as privileged candidates to participate in the North American dream.

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