For several years Joan and I have been meeting weekly at the Maria Shchuka branch of the Toronto Public Library. In the Adult Literacy room, she develops the reading and numeracy skills required to travel through the city, manage finances, apply for jobs and do the countless other things that people who read well do with ease.
It’s been four years since her arrival from St. Vincent and the Grenadines. With grown children and grandchildren on the islands her mind is often there, however the Oakwood-Eglinton-St. Clair district is now her home. We’re the same age; our youngest children are the same age and attended the same high school. However, if not for the Literacy program our lives would never have intersected.
A couple of weeks ago I asked her to describe the places that she travels to and how she gets there. Then we left the library and took a walk along Eglinton Avenue West where she led me into shops I would never have otherwise visited. By describing how she knows and navigates her way through it, Joan showed me our neighbourhood from new angles.
Abu Fofana at Accents had introduced me to the importance of orality as central to cultural experience of Eglinton. This led me to try to capture Joan’s language and not just her words. I wrote this so that she would be able to read it with her level of English literacy, transcribing phonetically the recording of our conversation. She looked over the interview and helped me to incorporate changes so that her voice rang true. The themes of finding home and defining a sense of place in relation to well-being and family tie us together. Our reliance on making sense of our environment through visuals makes Google maps an important bridge to communication, as do the topics of hair and our lives with young adult daughters.
Usually a community is a place where you feel you belong. Where do you feel you belong?
I belong where I live at Atlas Avenue.
Because the people are so warm.
What about shopping or seeing friends, on Atlas are you close to those things?
Sometime’ I go to No Frills to shop because I feel at home buyin’ der’.
What makes it feel like that?
You get cheap food der’.
Do you go to other places?
I goin’ to the side store sometime’. They so expensive but sometimes you run out of sometin’ and you just have to go ‘cross.
And do you know the people there?
Sometimes we chat a little.
What about along Eglinton?
I don’ remember all those people’s names but they are very nice as well. Sometimes you go there and you see sometin’ like for ten bucks and you don’ have ten buck’ and they give you for eight bucks.
So, you can negotiate the price at those businesses along Eglinton?
How often do you go to Eglinton to get the kind of food you have in St. Vincent?
Sometimes three times a month.
What about your church, do you go once a week?
Sometimes I only skip one times a month.
You mean you go almost every week?
Where’s the church?
(At this point in our exchange, we’re bogged down in our effort to find common geographic reference points. Joan uses bus routes and landmarks rather than street names to define a location. As a car driver I navigate through the city grid using a visual memory of landmarks and streetscapes. When Joan has an important trip to a new and unknown destination in the city we use Google maps to coordinate an itinerary connecting route numbers to street views.)
Sheffield you know bou’ that?
We’re talking around Keele right? It sounds like you go north from the waste disposal station at Ingram. How do you get there?
I take the bus. I ride down to Keele and catch the 41 goes up. I stay up to the top where it say Ingram Drive an’ there’s a bus, I think it’s comin’ from Weston road, an’ dat take you right to the church. The bus stop is right in front of the church.
The minister has a van and every once a month we go to Dundas, by a home where there ‘s plenty people. We go there an’ sing, testify and like that.
It’s a Protestant church?
Is it pretty close to the kind of church you had in St. Vincent?
Yeah. Back home in St. Vincen’ I had a church next to me. Above me, like five minutes above me there. An, it’s a Pentecostal as well. It’s name’ New Testament. An’ then we have Methodists, Anglican, Roman and Baptists as well. In my church here they’re from Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad, and St. Vincen’. There’s some Canadian persons as well.
The minister is Jamaican?
Yes, he’s very blessed. He preach nice, he testify nice, he pray nice.
Is there singing?
Yes, singing, clapping, dancing.. It’s so nice., You could come with me this Sunday comin’. Kim, my cousin will come too.
She was living with you?
Yeah, but she left home. She like to live on her own. An’ she’s not goin’ live far she’s livin’ at… I think there is Keele an’ oh what do you call that one?
You’re searching for the word, the street name. When you think about these intersections, like Keele and whatever, do you see it as a picture?
If I go to Keele and Rogers I mark the place where I go with sometin’ … like a MacDonals’ or a hairdresser place. That’s how I mark it yeah.
What do you see when you think of that place that Kim’s moving to?
You know when you reach Rogers and the buryin’ groun’ not too far from there.
What are your favourite places? What are the places where you go to feel good?
Sometime I like St. Clair. Plenty people there are very frien’ly too. I have a frien’ who works at the homeless place there.
The Wychwood Open Door at St. Matthew’s?
I like to go there.
What do you like there?
I like the people, I like to sit there and see dem eatin’
Have you thought about being a volunteer there?
I make arrangement to go to another church. You know how de bus run righ’?
The 63 go righ’ down der. Like you goin’ to Ossinton’ but when you reach, der’s two roads … de 161 go dat way an’ de 63 go dis way.
Der’s a church righ’ in front der. I’m goin’ der to sign up. They feed people der an’ also they sell them food for one dollar. But they do it in the afternoon.
What kind of things will you be doing there?
Cleanin’, helpin’ in de kitchen.
I know you’re really involved with food because your diabetes means that you have to be careful about what you buy.
An’ what to eat.
Is NoFrills a good place to get the kind of food you need?
Yeah, because you get cheap vegetables, you have to always eat vegetables… I have to always eat a bush amount of greens every day.
Do you and your daughter Camisha eat out?
She love that plenty, Camisha. If she could eat out every day, that what she need.
You’ve told me that Camisha doesn’t like to eat at home?
She don’ like West Indian food. She likes the fried chicken, barbecued chicken and stuff like dat. She likes the fast food. Chips and stuff like dat.
In your neighbourhood here, do you ever go to a park?
There’s a park right next to me on Vaughan and Winona. I go there and sit. I like to look at de children.
Are there places that you don’t like to go because they feel dangerous?
I don’t like to go out in the night.
You don’t like to go out anywhere in your neighbourhood when it’s dark?
I don’t like to be outside after eleven.
Does Camisha think you shouldn’t be afraid?
Yeah, she says nothing wrong will happen. But sometimes you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. So we always keep off the road when it’s dark.
“In my country you can’t wear this colour.”
The military camouflague pattern? Why?
“Because the police force down der’ wear these colours. So if you wear it you could look like you are a police so they take it off you.”
This one isn’t open. What do they sell in here?
“Panties an’ things like that. See those shops down here? They’s very expensive. I don’ go into those ones.”
“I go to this health store. He says he have a tea for diabetes.”
We’re coming to the wig shops right?
“Camisha, my daughter, she do all the hair.”
Yeah, I saw your latest style on your Facebook page.
So, how many wigs do you have?
“I have three.”
Do you share them with Camisha?
“No. She has four.”
Here there’s a sale on Brazilian hair. I wonder what that is.
“I like this colour. I like when I buy a wig it must have plenty hair. I think that one fit you so nice. That’s you colour.”
Do you remember when I had blonde hair?
“You know why I love this one? Because it would fit my face so good.”
To store owner: “OK dahlin’ comin’ back anoder day.”
“These are jumble barrels, they cost fifty bucks.”
Tell me about what you put in them and the importance of sending stuff back home.
“Because, my country stuff der is very expensive. So I buy rice, sugar, macaroni, because the kids like macaroni and cheese. No Frills sometime have milk for eighty eight cen’s, so I go an’ I grab like ten today an nex’ time I go grab like another ten. In St. Vincen’ milk is like four dollars.”
Are you talking about powdered milk?
“Skim milk in de pan.”
OK canned evaporated milk.
“An’ I buy hot dogs in de little pan. Dollar Store sometime have some luncheon meat. You ever see them?”
“Yeah, you could eat it like dat or you could fry it. So when dem on sale I buy dat. When de barrel is full, I lock it and send it off.”
You’re always putting stuff in and slowly it fills up.
“And if I go to a clothes store and panties are on sale for a dollar, maybe I’ll grab twenty and I’ll put dat aside an I’ll go back another day an’ I’ll buy another twenty. That’s how it is.
If I have two barrels I sen’ one to my kids and one to my sister. The big one I pay $55 an’ de small one I pay $45. An’ when dey reach St. Vincen’ dey pay another fee for dem. Dey pay twenty-five Vincy dollar’ for de paper work and $85 for custom. And they have to pay somethin’ to drop it home.”
“I buy big tubs of this (points to hair product) and send it to my girls.”
You put it in and then it’s easier to braid?
For their braids?
“Yeah, for when the mom braids we say ‘plats’ their hair.
(Points to rollers.) “Did you ever use them?”
“I use them all the time to make my hair long and straight. We call them collars.When you plat it’s like natural hair.”
That’s the hair colour you like right?
“Yeah, because I’m so dark I need sometin’ to brighten me up.”
What’s the difference between Eglinton and St. Clair?
The same kind of warm-ness, nothing different.
You’re still discovering the city right?
“Yeah,’ I have a Jamaican girlfriend she come for me and takes me to shop at places where I don’ know.”
You keep connected to home through St. Vincent radio that you get through internet right?
And Facebook keeps you connected too right?
“There’s a guy who sings about the Prime Minister and I have him on my page. So you listen to his songs and you know what’s going on back home.”
Because the songs are political commentary… He gives you all the news and gossip.
“Yeah, it’s good to hear about life back home.”