By Ed Staskus
It wasn’t until the movers took the legs off the dining room table and hauled it and the six chairs out that I realized the two town paintings in their glossy walnut frames were still on the wall. I stood in a pool of damp late October sunlight at the other end of the room. I hadn’t noticed Lucy had painted the wall a light green color until the room was empty.
A Stacey’s Moving and Storage truck was on the street. The trailer and cab were longer than the width of my house. One of the Montreuil’s and three other men were methodically tramping up and down a ramp into and out of the back of the truck. Sugar maple and white cedar leaves stuck to the soles of their boots.
Autumn was stripping the trees so that the neighborhood, concealed all summer, was becoming clear.
I turned away from the window and faced the paintings. I had seen them every day for years, but hadn’t looked at them for a long time.
The painting on the left was of the fishing docks on the Niagara River. Two men spin nets while a third slumps on the ground, his back against a two-story shingled building. He sits with his legs splayed out while a dog squats beside him. Fort Niagara is on top of the cliff face across the river, below a leaden gray and white streaked sky.
The other painting was of Art’s Coffee Shop on Main Street, or what is now called Queen Street. The pregnant woman wearing a red hat, leaning back as she walks, and carrying what would be twins is Betty White. Nineteen years later Lucy White and I got married.
The large purple dog trailing a small boy on a tricycle in the center of the painting is an Airedale, as are the other four dogs in the painting, including the one peeing on a lamppost. You probably couldn’t paint that from real life anymore. Niagara-on-the-Lake has by-laws about it.
One night my new neighbor reminded me it was against the law for a dog to bark more than twenty minutes after 8 PM.
“Your dog’s been barking for twenty two minutes,” she said over the phone.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was out and I haven’t had a chance to walk him, yet.”
She hung up.
“What the hell?” I thought, the dog’s lead in my hand.
I have a Jack Russell terrier. He misses me when I go out in the evening. The dog burns himself up whenever he spots a rat in Paradise Grove Park behind the Festival Theater. He always used to get what he was after, but he’s grown older and slower, and sometimes the rats get away.
The fisheries closed when Lake Ontario became polluted and there was too much DDT in the water. Algae blooms got so thick waves couldn’t break. It’s better now. There are even walleye to be had, although they don’t reproduce anymore. They have to be restocked year after year.
Lake sturgeon used to be the King of Fish. Then they were hunted down. They were even burned as fuel to power steamboats. No one’s allowed to try for lake sturgeon anymore, even if someone could miraculously find one.
Art’s Coffee Shop is gone, too, and it’s now called Cork’s Wine Bar and Eatery. They serve Hawaiian Meatballs and Beef Panini’s for lunch. A John MacDonald is what needs to be in your wallet for a bowl of soup and a cup of coffee.
My father got the paintings in trade from Bruce Rigg, the town doctor, the same year he got our dining room set. After he died and I inherited the house they stayed where they were on the wall where they’d always hung. We only ever took them down the year we tore off the wallpaper and whenever we repainted the room.
Bruce Rigg was our family doctor. My father was a mason and worked on Dr. Rigg’s office building on Davy Street whenever repairs were needed. It had been the high school gymnasium until after World War Two, when there weren’t any more children in town. Bruce Rigg and his brother Jackson bought the building and converted it into a medical office. They were the town doctors for the next forty-some years.
In 1957 another high school had to be built since there were suddenly so many soon-to-be teenagers in town. That one closed four years ago. I remember its mascot was a Trojan with a Jay Leno chin and a blue plumed helmet. When the Parliament Oak elementary school closes next year there won’t be any schools left in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
At the front of the Art’s Coffee Shop painting two boys wrestle like spitfires, a boy in a green shirt rides a tricycle, a girl in a red jumpsuit pushes a wheel and paddle on a stick, and a woman with a yellow stroller carrying a round-faced toddler stops to talk to Betty White.
Whenever there were sleet storms my sister and I would tie our shoes around our necks and skate down Main Street to school.
The trustees and the town debated for months about Parliament Oak. Everyone said the school was essential for the Old Town’s vitality. The Lord Mayor argued no one appreciated the growth anticipated for the town. One of the parents cried she was flabbergasted by the decision. But, there are barely any children left in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
No one’s setting their houses on fire at night.
By the time the movers took the dining room table out all the rooms were vacant. I had emptied the bookcases, packed my clothes, and taken everything off the walls, except the paintings, the day before. It was when everything else was gone that the paintings stood out, like a sudden, sharp image in a dream.
The summer before my sister was born my father drove the more than two hundred kilometers to Owen Sound and came back with our dining room set and a china cabinet. He drove a Chevy pick-up he had hired from Tommy May’s Livery Stable. The truck had a wood slat deck, so none of the furniture got scratched, although the Jack Russell’s we always had in the house left their mark.
My father lived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, went to school, and worked here his whole life, but he was born in Lancashire. He and my uncles and aunts were all born there. Whenever she was seven months along my grandmother went back to Britain to her mother to have the baby.
She took a train from Buffalo to New York City and sailed on the White Star ocean liner Cedric. She went back and forth five times in third class. She never got seasick and was on the Cedric when it collided with another ship in Morcombe Bay and sank it. The last time she sailed to Lancashire she died in childbirth and my grandfather had to take the boat to bring the baby back.
I was one of the first children delivered at the new Niagara-on-the-Lake Hospital on Wellington Street when it opened in 1953, replacing the old cottage hospital. Dr. Rigg was the attending doctor, although my father said he hardly did anything. My mother said she did all the hard work.
That’s all changed. No one works hard here anymore. The growth industry in Niagara-on-the-Lake is lawn care. Every time I look out my window some guy goes by in a pick-up with a lawn mower in the back. They cut the grass for people who are too lazy to cut their own.
No one is born or dies here, either.
They tore down the general hospital outside St. Catherine’s and built a mammoth, new one. Now all the small local hospitals are closing in its wake. Ours is turning off its lights at year’s end and children won’t be born in Niagara-on-the-Lake anymore.
They say it makes economic sense, but I don’t think it matters. Once you get involved with anything under the rule of no one, like the National Health Service, you’re not going to save even a dime. That’s a given.
When there were still docks in town Dr. Rigg painted the river and the fishermen on weekends. He and his artist colony friends had social parties at Bill Richardson’s, the local coal yard owner. Mary Jones wore a cape and Betty Lane, the bohemian of the group, played a fiddle.
They lived here all their lives.
Almost no one in Niagara-on-the-Lake now has been here long. They’re all from somewhere else. The sub-divisions are full of them. At first I noticed their high-end cars, like Audis and Mercedes. I thought it was the tourists. Everyone in town used to drive Chevy’s and Pontiacs.
But, they weren’t tourists. They were living here. And they’re all retired, getting a pension from somebody or other, most of the time the government. That’s why there are no children anymore and the schools are all closing.
Last year the veteran’s house on the corner, a story-and-a-half, like mine, was sold. They built a little porch around it, which was nice, but it was something anyone could have done on a weekend. Seven or eight years ago the house would have sold for a hundred grand.
They sold it for four hundred and thirty thousand dollars.
Nobody who actually lives here, and was in their right mind, would pay that kind of money for that house.
The out-of-towner who bought it was a single woman. She had a self-satisfied spinsterish look on her face when I met her. She was a retired schoolteacher from Toronto who had sold her house, that she bought for fifty thousand 35 years ago, for nine hundred thousand, and come to Niagara-on-the Lake.
She drove a metallic blue Audi A4 and had plenty of money left over.
A few years from now she’ll probably look like a seer.
“Oh, yes, I only paid $430,000.000 for my house. The man next door might sell you his for God knows what…”
When you live here, with one bathroom, in a small, funny house you can’t swing a cat in, and someone offers you a half million for it, you take it. Very few people are left in Niagara-on-the-Lake. They’ve all sold out and moved to St. Catherine’s, where they can get a real house for half the price.
Niagara-on-the-Lake has become, like Oakville, one of the beautiful places to live. It’s nostalgic, the houses have been tarted up, and it’s close to Toronto. Everybody used to know everybody. But, now nobody knows anybody. It’s a wealthy ghetto, although no one calls it a ghetto.
People used to work here, but all the manufacturing jobs have left. General Motors is still in St. Catherine’s, but even GM is just a shadow of what it used to be.
The federal provincial government backstopped all the pensions when it went under. It’s a gravy train if you’re on the train.
The woman from St. Catherine’s who cleaned my house once a month is retired from General Motors. She was there for twenty-five years. She’s figured out carpal tunnel. She doesn’t have it, but she got a check for $30,000.00 for having it, and she gets a monthly check, to boot, for the rest of her life.
Her first, second, and third husbands all worked for GM. The one she’s getting rid of now worked for GM, too, and they double-dip everything from the drug store to eyeglasses.
We had our own government here, in the town, once, but then it was amalgamated, and the town lost control. The barbarians in the township took over. Everybody asked what was going on, but that was it. It was all down hill from there.
A town planner from Scarborough was sent to Niagara-on-the-Lake. He was a big man with cornflower blue eyes in a black suit. He stood on the corner of Mississauga and Queen Streets twenty years ago and said, “When you look left, that’s going to be residential. When you look right, that’s going to be commercial.“
That would have been news to lot of people in town.
Scarberia is what we called Scarborough. Niagara-on-the-Lake has the oldest, largest collection of Georgian architecture in Canada and the man from Toronto was taking over. No one with any sense believed it. But, what he had in mind is what it is today.
When the bureaucrats take over there will be problems. It’s hard making sense of anything. Everything gets very commercial. There used to be fine big trees on Queen Street, their branches almost touching over the street. They’ve slowly been cutting them all down so they can grow annuals in the sidewalk flowerbeds. They think the tourists like it.
It’s a terrible idea.
There were once a block-or-two of shops, but now the whole street is commercial, although not so you can buy baby food, drop your shoes off to be repaired, or get a haircut.
There were always a few bed and breakfasts in town. Widows and orphans ran them. They couldn’t afford the taxes on their houses, so they let a room, or two. Now it’s an industry. They’re all out-of-towners running the bed and breakfasts, retired teachers and bureaucrats from Toronto with time and money on their hands.
They walk around the town, strolling here and there with a dog on a leash because it makes it seem like they’re doing something, which is the same thing they were doing when they were working.
They watch television during the day and drink at night, and after a few years give up and someone else takes their place.
The next step was to turn houses into guest cottages. They aren’t widows and orphans and they don’t live there. They rent the house and live somewhere else. There are people in the house and no one’s got a clue who they are. I mow my lawn and every few weeks I notice I’ve got new neighbors.
The Chinese own the hotels. They had to get their money out of Hong Kong in the 1990s before the Communists got their hands on it, and so they brought some of it here. They own the Queen’s Landing, the Oban Inn, the Prince of Wales, and all the other big places.
When the Queen’s Royal Hotel was still open, before the bust, the Prince of Wales was a run-down dump. It was a weasely small thing on the corner. Now the town is booming and it’s got more than a hundred rooms at $300.00 a night.
You can’t smoke in any of the rooms, either, no matter what you pay. You can’t smoke anywhere indoors. Anyone can smoke in his own house, but you can’t smoke in your own car if there is a child in the car. Or, even if a child is going to be in the car.
My wife asked me to stop smoking seven-or-eight years. I promised her I would, and I did. I didn’t mind the gruesome pictures on the packages, but the price got to be too much. The hell with it; I wasn’t a big-time smoker, anyway. She never smoked, but she got cancer, somehow, and died two years ago.
She died in the same hospital on Wellington Street she was born in.
The stores that sell cigarettes don’t let you see them anymore. They’re behind a curtain, the way they used to hide alcohol. The liquor stores would give you a pencil and a piece of paper. You wrote down the number of what you wanted, brandy or whiskey, handed it to them, and the clerk went into the back room to get it for you.
Cigarettes used to be good and booze was bad. Now cigarettes are bad and booze is good. There are more than eighty wineries in Niagara. Drugs used to be bad, too, but lately greenhouses have gone up on the escarpment growing pot. They’re going to make it profitable and then they’re going to tax it.
Niagara-on-the-Lake isn’t really a town anymore. It’s a group of people who show up here once in a while. It looks pretty because there’s so much money floating around, but it’s more a show town than anything else.
The Shaw theaters could be anywhere. They just happen to be in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Most of the theater people live here part-time, and even those who have houses aren’t here for half the year. They go somewhere else to work. Old Town is a very quiet village in the winter. The actors and musicians and everybody used to rent in the town, but they can’t afford to anymore. It’s one of their big problems, finding accommodations for all the show people.
Trains used to bring summer visitors from Buffalo and Toronto up the tracks on King Street. They stayed for a few weeks or a month and the trains went back loaded with fruit. Now the summer people come for a few days, walk up and down Queen Street shopping, go to dinner, see a play, and tramp to the wineries.
“It’s such a cute little quaint town and everyone is so nice.”
Then they drive away down the parkway back to the USA or up Mississauga Street to the QEW, racing past one sub-division after the other.
“Are you taking those pictures?” Emil Montreuil asked, coming up behind me.
“You bet,” I said, taking them off the wall. “I can’t leave them here.”
“Do you want me to bubble wrap them?”
“No, I’ll just take them this way.”
I climbed up into the moving truck with Emil and laid the paintings side-by-side face up on the wide recessed dash. I lowered the passenger side window for my Jack Russell. The dog leaned on the armrest barking at our retired schoolteacher neighbor as she crossed the street. She looked away as she went up her walk.
The low watery sky, the tops of the thinning trees, and dark house rooftops reflected off the glass of the two paintings as we slowly rolled from one stop sign to the next stop sign on Mary Street. We turned away from the town on Mississauga Street. When it became Niagara Stone Road Emil picked up speed past the big wineries.
As we passed the Niagara District Airport he reached into his jacket pocket.
“Smoke?” he asked, gesturing with a pack of Export A’s.
In the painting of the fishermen spinning nets the man with his hands jammed into his pockets and sitting on the ground, leaning on a wall, his legs splayed out and his dog beside him, is smoking a pipe.
“What the hell, sure,” I said.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.