Chapter 1: The Younger Years
Regent Park, Canada’s first social welfare housing project, is located in the city of Toronto, in the province of Ontario. The neighbourhood sits one mile east of the city’s downtown core, just north of the shore of Lake Ontario. It covers an area four city blocks by four city blocks. Since its inception in the 1950s, low-income families have been provided “affordable” housing there. Based on the number of family members, they were either placed in row houses or an apartment in one of the many three- and six-storey rust-coloured buildings. Five high-rise buildings also provided domiciles within the project. The infrastructure of brick and concrete left no illusion that this “neighbourhood” was anything but a project. From the onset, Regent Park was regarded as a “high-crime” area — the highest, most every year, in the city. Notorious for violence, renowned for drugs, Regent Park made knowledgeable people regard its borders with great trepidation.
In the summer of 1956, my family took up residence in one of the many row houses. I spent the first sixteen years of my life as a resident of South Regent Park.
Considering the hardship each family in Regent Park endured, people were generally friendly to each other, but aloof. Those more familiar, whether by proximity or social ties, would converse. People respected each other’s privacy, unless action dictated otherwise. Child endangerment definitely prompted intervention. Interloping, otherwise, was regarded with disdain. Men, fathers, were rarely seen. They worked long hours, were dead, or divorced of their families residing in Regent. The project housed two elementary schools, with another on its border. The children attended class together, and played together. The women busied themselves maintaining households, while nurturing their young. Like that of my mother, who bore eleven children, their lives were strenuous. For us children, ignorant of the outside world or its responsibilities, life was good.
I recall the sky being unusually grey. Not blue at all, for a midsummer morning. I had toddled out of the family backyard to sit with a neighbour, a girl my age, on the curb of the parking lot that lay out back of our row houses. She was sad. We began to look at all the debris that the wind had blown into the trench our feet now rested upon. Beer bottle caps, empty cigarette packages, bubble gum wrappers. At four years old, we imagined these as treasure.
A loud bang pierced the air, accompanied by a woman’s screams. We looked over our shoulders to see the girl’s mother racing frantically along the side of the row houses. Another bang followed. We looked over our other shoulders to see the girl’s father standing outside his backyard. Before the third bang had a chance to reverberate, I was airborne. Flying high up in the air, I landed on my mother’s hip. Where had she come from?
“You, too,” she snapped, as she yanked the little girl off the curb. She took off running, a child on each hip, back to the safety of our house. She locked the back door and peered out through a window.
I never heard the last bang, but I heard the story of an unfaithful wife who had escaped death, and a distraught husband who, after failing to hit his target, sat in his chair and ended his own life. The remaining family moved soon after. I felt sad for the little girl, and I would miss her company.
My own family was no stranger to domestic violence. My alcoholic father had struggled against the burden of raising eleven children on a paltry wage and his need to be “the man” amongst his friends at the local taverns. After administering several physical beatings upon my mother and eldest siblings, he was, I am told, convinced to leave the family abode at the insistence of a loaded shotgun. I was five years old. Growing up in Regent Park, I found domestic violence to be a prevalent factor in the lives of many families. Of course, it was sheltered “in-house” as much as possible. The Children’s Aid Society was regarded in the neighbourhood as “home wreckers” and “child stealers,” and the police were always theenemy of the people.
My best friend as a child was my next door neighbour, Wayne. He was the middle brother of three, who all suffered the affliction of muscular dystrophy, wheelchair-bound, with no muscle control. I would talk and watch TV with them daily. We played board games, such as checkers or chess, but I would have to move the men for them. Once I was big enough to push Wayne in his wheelchair, we’d go around the neighbourhood, to the corner stores, the restaurant. As I got older, around nine, he had me push him to salvage yards and the dockyard beside the lake. Wayne seemed to know everyone, and all the men would give him coinage. We would be rich when we returned, upwards of three dollars apiece.
One morning, he talked me into pushing him down to the CNE grounds. The Exhibition had just opened, and we wanted to see the midway and go on some of the rides. So we set out. We got lost. With night having fallen, and rain coming down, I pushed Wayne into a corner store in the city’s northwest end. The woman took one look at us, Wayne in his wheelchair, and called the police. We both knew our addresses, so the police drove us home. Both our mothers thanked the police profusely. Wayne’s mother was kissing his head. My mother was tanning my ass. They still let us hang around together. Wayne would pass away at an early age because of his disease. His two brothers suffered the same fate.
[Wasted Time] takes the reader on a devastating journey that ends with a sense of redemption; it brings to the surface a variety of emotions not only for the writer but also the reader — anger, grief, exhilaration and a sense of sadness for a wasted life.
Wasted Time is anything but that as a book! It’s a gritty, realistic, and highly relevant look at poverty, criminal activity, and our penal system. There is nothing here that trivializes the violence involved in a life of drug use or time spent behind bars. It’s a stark – and very human – account of one man’s mistakes, as well as a society’s miscalculations as to the true cost of crime and punishment. I’d recommend it as essential reading material to anyone contemplating a life of crime, and highly compelling reading material to anyone curious about why some people blindly follow that path.
There are many stories of Canadians who have been lost to the criminal margins of society. Too few are able to make their way back to the 'respectable' workaday world. And even in those cases, we rarely know their stories, because they are too busy dealing with life's challenges to describe them to the rest of us. Ed Hertrich is that rare writer who has seen the very depths of the underclass, confronted his demons, and then taken the time and effort to tell his story and describe what he's learned. This is a valuable look at the Canada few of us ever see.