The Co-Op Kid
Growing up, my family was kind of poor. Imitation Kraft Dinner poor (the food bank only ever gave out boxes of No Name Macaroni and Cheese Dinner). Watching Roseanne and being jealous of how nice a house they had, poor. Bi-Way and Bargain Harold’s and donated clothing poor. No money for school trips so I always had to stay behind with the one or two other poor kids, poor. Zellers was the “fancy” store poor. Mother’s allowance poor. Welfare poor. Living in subsidized housing poor.
In retrospect, I don't see any of this as objectively negative. We had a caseworker assigned to do home visits, sure. I never owned my own books until I became a teenager, but libraries are awesome places to go when you're poor. Public school was alright. I made friends and further hardened my soul there. I shared a bedroom with my little brother; at least I was never alone.
None of these are necessarily bad things for a child to experience, but hell, did I ever think I had it bad!
Some of the other kids in my co-op may have felt the same. I’ll never know. All I recall are the shenanigans we got up to in our ample free time:
Making Crayola marker signs on no-name Bristol board, on the backs of school assignments and standing on street corners. The signs read “Honk for the Leafs!” because every kid knows that a surefire way to get attention is to appeal to the most basic human instinct: making loud noises about sports.
Chasing down neighbourhood cats in a feeble attempt to “rescue” them from their harrowing outdoor existence, only to chase them into traffic and watch them get hit. This only needed to happen once before I stopped trying to catch neighbourhood cats. I was poor, not stupid.
Checking out my friend’s dad’s motorcycle on the street pictured below. Her dad was of the absentee, deadbeat variety - like my own - but damn, was his ride sweet. Even if I leaned on the muffler and suffered a massive burn that left a really cool permanent scar on my shin. Worth it.
Having backyard sleepovers in a tent out in the common area. Sweet, innocent pre-teen slumber parties whose memory are forever sullied by one of my friend’s later insistence that they somehow revealed to her that I was gay. I was not. Maybe she was, though. She told everyone she knew that because I was gay, we were no longer friends. Then, the people she told also decided to avoid me. Maybe even fake gayness was contagious back then. Maybe low-key bullying was her way of coping with her own identity.
Making elaborate plans to leave a bag of dog shit on a mean girl’s front porch. We all lived in the same co-op and there was dog shit everywhere. On every second lawn, and in the big common space, dog shit was easy to come by. Paper bags, less so. The courage to actually leave the shit on this mean girl’s porch? That proved elusive. But meticulous plans were laid.
Writing out “Enviro-Facts” and pinning them to the bulletin board in the main building. I did this to educate all of the co-op residents about such early 90’s concerns as cutting plastic 6 pack soda can holders to Save The Sea Turtles. The bulletin board was located at eye level on the way to everyone’s mailboxes, so in my mind, every resident was forced to read my child-splaining eco-rants.
Watching my neighbour across the street strangle his wife with a phone cable. None of my friends actually witnessed this. No, I got to enjoy this on my own, home alone after dark. I heard screams hurtle in through our open kitchen window, and then I couldn’t look away until the police and ambulance arrived.
In retrospect, many of these tales read like normal childhood experiences. Abject poverty, this was not. The co-op was downright pleasant-looking. I grew up interacting with a mixture of typical, fractured, LGBTQ+, immigrant, and minority families and learned a variety of methods of looking out into our world. All of us were considered “poor,” but surely not everyone felt ashamed like I did.
It was more than just the poorness that fed the beast of my shame.
Growing up this kind of poor left me strong, curious, empathetic, and rich in perspective. It’s a privilege to look back on it all, wistfully.
There is but one poor-kid thing I will never get over: Bargain Harold’s underwear. They pinched and puckered and rippled and ripped, and just completely sucked. They were a constant reminder that we never bought brand-name clothes. Nowadays, I know that fast fashion in general, is garbage. The only garbage that most folks can afford.
Perspective is everything.
great writing…love the memories.