Discover more from Fisted by Foucault
Fragments vol. 1
Random Access Memories
My mother used to pick worms.
From when I was four years of age to about when I turned nine, my mother used to go pick worms for bait from April until about late October. Every weeknight around 8 o’clock a big yellow school bus would honk in front of our house. My mother would say goodbye for the evening and join around thirty immigrant women to go pick worms.
This was a lucrative business for the owner, a Hungarian woman named Elizabeth. She was older, but not really old. Her and her husband were part of the Magyar cohort that fled Hungary in 1956 when the Soviets arrived to extinguish their rebellion. Like many anti-communist refugees from Eastern and Central Europe in those days, they found refuge in Canada. My mother always praised her, insisting that she was a good woman.
The women who would board this bus every night had two things in common: 1. they were all “fresh off of the boat” immigrants (“boaters” as we kids used to call them/ourselves), and 2. they were not satisfied with the wages available in the jobs that they could get elsewhere, either in the service sector (ethnic bakeries), or factories. These immigrants were too new to get good paying jobs at automotive plants, and were relegated to textile works where the pay was much lower, but the amount of work was still the same.
Picking worms for bait meant that you could make really good money in relative terms, as you were paid for “piecework”, meaning that how many worms you picked for bait determined how much you earned that night. The bus driver would drive them out to land that was devoid of people at night, covered in grass, and had sources of water on it or adjacent to it. Sometimes they would illegally trespass onto golf courses, as these were considered the best locations to pick worms. The favoured conditions were when it would rain just before you went out. Late Spring guaranteed the best harvests as thunderstorms are very common in May and early June in Southern Ontario.
The labour was back-breaking. These worm pickers would strap a miner’s light onto their foreheads and constantly scour the turf for worms to pick. Bend over, get up, bend over again, stand up again…for hours on end. When I was four years old, my mother couldn’t find someone in our building (we hadn’t yet moved into our house) to babysit me, so she had to bring me out with her one night. She loves to tell the story about how I would run around screaming “MAMA, MAMA! I FOUND SOME WORMS!”. I have a very vague memory of this. Of course I spent most of the night sleeping in the school bus.
At the end of the night, the women would bring their buckets full of worms for the “weigh out”; the bus driver would weigh the buckets to determine how much each of them caught that night, and would log it in a binder that both he and the worm picker would sign off on. This would determine their pay.
During those years, most of the worm pickers for Elizabeth were either Croatian or Serbian, with a few Portuguese women thrown in for good measure. For some reason, Italian women (Italians were by far the most numerous of the first generation immigrants where I grew up) did not take to this job. Around a decade ago I asked my mother something about those days, and she mentioned to me that others had started up their own ventures to compete with Elizabeth, and that the worm pickers were all Laotian or Cambodian immigrants, fresh off of the boat. My mother’s cohort had long graduated to better paying and less back-breaking jobs in the automotive sector.
I must have been eight years old when my parents and I went to visit Elizabeth and her husband for dinner one night. They lived up on the escarpment in a beautiful home on large acreage. They even had a John Deere lawn tractor to cut the grass, betraying just how much land they had. Elizabeth was tall and thin with very high cheekbones. She appeared regal to me for some reason. She had two teenage daughters, both beautiful in that 1980s way to my eight year old self. As Elizabeth and my mother chatted, my father and her husband were looking at an atlas of Europe, bonding over shared anti-communist politics, partitioning Yugoslavia between an independent Croatia, an enlarged Hungary clawing back some of the territory it had lost at Trianon, and what was left over was to go to the Serbs.
My mother scored a decent paying job at a factory when I was nine, meaning that she would no longer have to break her back or face arrest for trespassing when picking worms at night. It couldn’t have been more than three or four months later that Elizabeth’s bus driver decided to have a few drinks before driving the bus. He rolled the school bus, leaving one woman killed and several severely injured (including two of my mom’s friends). He ended up in prison, although I don’t know for how long. I can still recall his face as I saw it often enough.
I think about my mother the worm picker whenever I come across the term “white privilege”. I think about my father the steelworker working six double-shifts a week. I think about how the two of them arrived in Canada with 500 Deutschmarks given to them by my mother’s father, and with me in tow, unable to speak a word of English. I was privileged, but not in the way that those who carelessly toss around the charge of “white privilege” assume. The privilege was in how I was brought up and who brought me up. It had absolutely nothing to do with our racial attributes. We came from nothing, and nothing was handed to us.
People in Europe have been asking me about the insane asylum known as North America ever since I returned to the continent. At first I would go on at length answering their questions on specific issues that they brought up. Sometimes these discussions would last for an hour or two. I eventually came to realize that I could answer their questions in a much more succinct manner, one that cut to the heart of the matter: “the culture over there insists that not only the way that we were raised was wrong, but that it was also evil”. This summation resonates with people.
You are never going to convince me that my parents are bad people. You are never going to convince me that their parents were bad people too.
Just before I turned six, my parents had saved up enough money to buy a five-year old house from an Italian family in a lovely and quiet suburban neighbourhood, only five houses away from my father’s youngest sister.
I had to change schools in the process, so I entered a new Catholic school (K-8) that May. I had three older cousins living in that house five houses away from mine, and I clung to the two sister (six and seven years older than me) for those first two months at my new school.
It was the last week of school in June, and it was a sunny day. The sun hits you different when you’re very young, although this could be a trick that my memory is playing on me via nostalgia. All the kids were in the playground behind the school, and all at once everyone started rushing to the entrance by the street as something had happened.
Across the street from the schoolyard, a girl had fallen off of her bike. The street sloped significantly downwards between the front of the school and the back, where the playground was located. On the opposite side of the street, there was an enormous 19th century farm home, almost castle-like in appearance. It had steel poles that formed the fence surrounding the property at the base of the slope. The slope of the street was big enough where your feet would clomp when walking down it. This girl, at most nine or ten years old, had ridden her bike into the steel fence. A crowd had gathered around her, and Mr. L, a grade two teacher of Italian ethnicity, was putting his hand into her mouth. “She’s swallowing her tongue!”, he cried out to another teacher, telling him to call an ambulance.
Mr. L saved the day.
I was too young to understand what was going on, but I vividly recall him saying those words. I was too scared to ride my bike down that slope for years to come.
My elementary school is no longer there. My school was torn down some 15-20 years ago to make way for a new subdivision. The school existed for only thirty years, give or take a year or two. When I was in sixth grade, we had to take French class in the girls’ change room as there wasn’t enough room in the rest of the school building or the portables outside for us. One decade later and one-third of the school’s classrooms were empty, the portables long gone.
The neighbourhood had aged out and that school was now superfluous to school board planners. It’s as if it never existed in the first place. Thirty years is a blink of an eye.
When I learned that they tore it down, I got upset. So did my brother. A physical structure that was so central to our youth and that was the location of so many of our formative experiences was gone. The school, the creek to its north and east, the sidewalk to its south that led to our homes….this was the setting of our first friendships, our first fights, first crushes, and so on. All gone. This exemplified to me the transitory nature of our society. Change is inevitable, but this one left a mark.
It must have been around 2004 or 2005, maybe 2006, when I began to grow irritated at the trend in restaurants and bars in Toronto. By this point “hipsterism” had taken over large swaths of the downtown scene. VICE Magazine, the bible of hipsterism, had its own office on West Queen West, planting its ironic flag and imprint on a city that fancies itself on the level of New York City, when it’s barely half of a Chicago.
Initially, there were charms to this rundown aesthetic. Like kudzu, it began to spread everywhere, and in forms that were nowhere as appealing as at first. For years we were getting used to (and enjoying) things looking nicer, prettier, more beautiful. Now everything was looking cheaper, flimsier, and more ugly.
Years later, a friend put this into context for me when he explained that hispterism was the Millennials’ way of tacitly accepting downward social and economic mobility.
Simultaneously, Gen X friends of mine were buying older houses in the downtown core, in areas that were marketed as “gentrifying”. These houses were pre-WW2, cost 10 times the amount that their parents paid for their own homes, and were nowhere near as nice as the houses that they grew up in. Those “gentrifying” neighbourhoods had crack dealers roaming the streets at night, and most of those same “gentrifying” neighbourhoods still do.
“Bro…..the house you grew up in was much nicer than this one. Are you still gonna be living like this when you’re 50?”
When I was thirteen, I was invited to try out for the regional footie (soccer) team, as our team was incredibly successful in the league and in tournaments across the province. Five of us from my team were invited to come out, and I was the weakest of the five. Danny, Ante, Angelo, and Dominic were all excellent players, each with their own unique skill set that set them apart from one another. My problem was that I was too physically slow.
I was cut after the first tryout. One of the coaches of the regional team, a Scottish man with a thick accent who played in the old Scottish Second Division when he was a young man, explained to me why I was cut: “Son, you have a great touch, you can pass, you can read the game well, and you have a powerful shot. Your problem is that you’re too slow. See that boy over there(he pointed to a black guy that I knew as I had played against him previously)? He’s fast. Real fast. He doesn’t know how to play, though. I can teach him how to play. I can’t teach you how to run fast.”
The coach was right. Natural ability and talent are innate and cannot be taught. I accepted his explanation without a second thought, with my father (my team’s coach) sealing the deal when he told the coach that he made the correct decision.
Janice was new to our sixth grade class. Her parents had separated, so she and her mother had to move, which meant her moving to a new school. Single-parent households were incredibly uncommon in my school at the time, and we kids were all deathly afraid of the word “divorce” (as I have mentioned previously on this Substack). We all did a good job in making our fellow students who were going through the trauma of a divorce feel as comfortable as possible around us, especially if they were new to our school.
Janice was incredibly sensitive, which made her situation even worse. She was a very thin girl, waifish in appearance. One day during gym class, she refused to come out of the girls’ changing room. After gym class, we were all wondering why she wouldn’t join us. What was odd was that the girls in class knew, but we boys didn’t know. This smelled fishy to us, and for the next few hours we were left speculating amongst ourselves as to what was going on. Janice even went to the Principal’s office, meaning that the situation had escalated.
One of the girls in our class, Michelle, ended up spilling the beans: two girls, Diane and Nancy, were talking in the change room about how their boobs were growing (both of these girls developed early). Janice was so sensitive that she thought that they were making fun of her and her appearance. The reason why she went to the Principal’s office was because she wasn’t comfortable speaking about it to our teacher as he was a male, and preferred speaking instead to a female. Our teacher, Mr. M, directed her to our female Principal, Mrs. M.
I wonder how Janice is doing these days.