There it was, THE BED. As I stood outside looking through the glass window at the bed on display, I wished I could crawl through the glass and snuggle into it under the beautiful comforter. One never understands how important something like a bed is, until it is no longer affordable, and a true luxury. I didn’t have a bed at the time, and every night I would walk by this unattainable source of comfort and dream about what it would be like to sleep in it, even just for one night.
I couldn’t help but think back to a couple of years earlier when I was living at home in the suburbs of Montreal and attending school at Concordia University. Ironically one of the only things I can remember from all of the lectures was my professor, describing how as a struggling actor in New York City he was so broke, he looked up at the enormous skyscraper and thought to himself “I could not afford to buy one single brick”. Now that’s broke…..
I was THAT broke. I had moved to Ottawa after finished my undergraduate degree, and I was trying to make something of myself, and I would take any job that I could get to make ends meet.
I worked as a telemarketer for the National Arts Centre selling season tickets on straight commission; I worked as a hostess at a local restaurant for minimum wage ( $4 an hour); I even tried to sell satellite dishes for some fly by night company that never paid me. It was rough, and I lived in a rough part of town in downtown Ottawa, and I was often scared. Safety and comfort was missing from my life, these are things that I took for granted growing up.
Although I had several part time jobs on the go, I needed a steady job, with steady pay, so that I could buy the three things that I needed: a bed, mascara, and a pair of winter boots that didn’t leak. I also needed to move to a safe part of town, but first things first. There was a recession going on at the time, and companies weren’t hiring. I had very little experience, and I had a degree in English which didn’t seem to be helping, I just couldn’t get a break.
I remember meeting a young entrepreneur at the restaurant, and he asked me to come to his office for an interview. I jumped at the chance of getting a steady job. I put on my best clothes and went to the interview all nervous. It turned out, he was really asking me on a date. He took me out for lunch for the “interview” and as we walked he put his arm around me. Sorry pal, I am just not that into you!
I wasn’t always so poor. Growing up I never wanted for anything. I drove my parent’s nice car, a SAAB, complete with heated seats and a sunroof, which was something back in the ’70s. I don’t think that I was spoiled, although some would say I was. But after University I set out to make something of myself with nothing but a suitcase full of clothes, I moved to Ottawa and ended up staying with a friend of my sisters until I could get started.
The place we shared was a dump. It was in a bad part of town. My room-mate Katherine was a young successful scientist who worked at a high tech company. She was a high school friend of my sister’s, and I had known her since I was a child. She had her car damaged when a man, carrying a gun, ran right overtop of it while being chased by police. She felt nervous after that, and was looking for a room-mate. I needed a place to stay, so I moved in. I borrowed a worn out piece of foam to sleep on, an old black and white TV (with no cable) and a stereo. That was all I had, but I made the most of it. I can remember dancing to “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen on that stereo, and watching old war movies on the TV, they were black and white anyway. The piece of foam served its purpose, it was sightly better than the floor.
Katherine would frequently stay at her boyfriend’s apartment, which meant I would be home alone. I could hear the alcoholic neighbours fighting through the walls, and when it got too violent, I would phone the police. I feared for my safety and I hated it.
I used the Laundromat on the corner to wash my clothes. This was also a place where, in the winter, homeless people sometimes gathered, as it was a warm shelter from the cold. One time several drunks were hanging around while I did my laundry, I went to use a machine only to discover, to my horror, that they had vomited in several of the machines. I went home and called the police. I watched them get taken away, and then I went back and found a vomit free machine to use. It was really really bad.
Another time I noticed that my neighbours son was lying on my back porch. Katherine’s dog Boo, stepped right over him to come into the house. I wasn’t sure if the boy was dead or alive. I thought about calling an ambulance, but when I looked again, he had disappeared. I later learned that he was likely high on glue. Another time a rather strange character walked right into our house, I learned the value of a good lock through that scare.
Putting food in my stomach was also a challenge. I learned that I could take back soda bottles for a refund and use the change to buy Kraft dinner, and a small container of milk. I could get two meals out of one box by splitting it in two. It was a hot meal, and pretty close to “home cooking”.
Funny enough I also learned that if you stair at the ground you might get lucky and find money. I can remember finding enough money to buy beers at the local bar in the Byward Market for myself and my friend (who was also broke) just by looking at the floor. We were pretty resourceful…one night we found enough to buy two rounds. Sweet sweet success!
I also discovered was that it wasn’t wise to wear skirts that were too short. I was actually approached by a vehicle when I was standing on the corner waiting to cross the street, they though I was a working girl. Funny, yet rather unnerving,
The truth was, I longed for safety, security and comfort. I pounded the pavement looking for work. I HAD to get out of this poverty, and I needed a job so that I could afford to move. This was long before computers were commonplace, you had to mail away a job application, or drop it off in person. Nobody had even heard of email yet, and cell phones didn’t exist. So I applied everywhere I could, until finally I got a job, it was the break that I needed. The company brought me in for 5 interviews, and finally I was hired to sell computers, and it paid $12,000 per year, I was rich! I later learned that the strategy of the owners was that if a person showed up to an interview 5 times and was always on time and dressed neatly, they were likely a good hire. I passed their test.
The job was my ticket to a better life. As soon as I got my first paycheck, I bought myself some mascara, some boots that didn’t leak, and a bed. I moved out to the suburbs and started on a path to success. That job was tough, I didn’t know the first thing about computers, but I was determined to make the most of it and learn everything I could. As I look back, I realize that taking the job was really the “TSN turning point” of my life.
Nothing was easy, and nothing was handed to me, but as a result of those difficult times, I will never take my good job, my cozy bed, my warm dry boots, my mascara, and the comfort and safety of my home for granted.
“Happiness, it turns out, is not the result of having it all but of appreciating what you have and enjoying the process of continual achievement.” Dan Baker