My 1970’s platform shoes
When I was seventeen, I fell in love for the first time. Four decades later, the memory of that experience remains with me as an all-pervasive deep loss and persistent dull pain that keeps me forever wondering what would have happened if things had turned out differently. I remember the details of my life that year as a means to reassure myself of it, fleeting as it was.
I embodied the lyrics of the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen,” which coincidentally came out the year I was seventeen. I was a shy, introverted loner whose only friends were the books I read. Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations; Michael Crichton, The Andromeda Strain; and the book that left a lifetime impression on me, A Separate Peace by John Knowles.
On Saturdays, I would explore the downtown streets of Toronto, buy records at Sam the Record Man or A&A records (the first 45 single I ever bought was a song called “Cousin Mary,” by the Canadian rock band Fludd); go to matinees to see double features at the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, just north of Queen Street , where once I saw Alan Parker’s dark Midnight Express, starring handsome Brad Davis, or the Imperial Six where I saw Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve; but both these movies came out three years after I was seventeen.
After the movies, I would stop at the Big Slice, too self-conscious to actually go and sit down by myself at a Fran’s or Swiss Chalet, preferring instead to eat a pepperoni pizza slice while walking towards the streetcar that would take me home, where I lived with my parents.
And yet I was also daring enough to go to the House of Lords, the coolest hair cutting place in Toronto, where once I asked for the spiked Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie inspired haircut, all the rage then. And I wore five inch platform shoes bought at Master John’s, the hipster shoe place of the time, which my plaid red-tartan wool bell bottoms with a cuff covered at least 2.5 inches of the platform (or was it my bell bottoms blue jeans? I am sure the red-tartan pants fad had already gone out of style when I was seventeen).
I was working full-time, at seventeen. I have always remembered the number and the street name where the T. Eaton Co. warehouse stood: 40 Louisa Street, a street that hasn’t existed in Toronto since around the time of the building of the Eaton Centre in the late 1970’s. I remember it as a tall brown-stoned square building with silent, empty, mysterious-looking wide wooden-floored corridors that led to working rooms behind closed doors.
Every morning, I would take a big freight elevator from the 4th, or was it the 5th floor, while talking to the operator about who was better, David Bowie or Elton John? Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd? He would fill me in on all the concerts coming up at Maple Leaf Gardens, trying to sell me tickets if I wanted any. But the only artist I wanted to see live was Bowie, which I did, for the first time, at seventeen. But there were groups I had been listening to since the age of fifteen that I didn’t mention to the short, buffed, blond elevator guy: The New York Dolls, a glam-rock band from New York, whose black and white photo album cover, showing the five band members in full drag, was enough to make me buy the album even before I had heard their music; Slade, from the UK, with cathartic teenage angst songs like “Mama Weer All Crazee Now,” and, “Cum on Feel the Noize.” I would play these records very loudly, shocking my parents and, I’m sure, annoying our Portuguese neighbours who lived on the other side of our semi-detached house. I would also play The Moody Blues, especially their “Nights in White Satin,” and Nico’s The End, an album so dark and depressing that it must have worried my parents about my mental state.
When the elevator reached the basement floor, the operator would lift up the heavy wooden-slatted door and I would exit towards a long dark tunnel that connected to the Eaton’s Annex store on Albert Street, on the way to the big Eaton’s store on Queen Street, where I would deliver merchandise to several departments. All day long we, the delivery boys, pushed our wagons back and forth, greeting each other with nods as we passed each other on the path. It was a fun job, I thought, and even though I never became friends with anyone after working hours, during the day I enjoyed a comradery that was enough to sustain my, otherwise, solitary life.
I liked to watch shoppers at the lively Annex store as they browsed through bins for deals not available on the fancy main store. I remember that I also passed a row of small shops that sold everything from decorative coloured glass balls to scented candles to psychedelic wallpaper in black and red geometric designs that I once bought to plaster my room with, making it dark and gloomy, much to the disappointment of my parents who, to their credit, indulged me in my weirdness by not saying anything.
Later, I went to work for the Fur Storage Department. Part of my job was to pick up fur coats, fur stoles, and fur jackets from the store and bring them back to our department on Louisa Street for repairs and cleaning, and then return the fixed and cleaned items back to the store. The Fur Salon was luxuriously upscale and I was deeply conscious of how inferior I looked in jeans and casual shirts while the staff there wore pristine suits and ties.
But I looked forward to going to the Salon every day so that I could interact with a young man, 28 years old, I would later learn, who had to sign my ledger book after he inspected the condition of the furs I returned. I don’t remember what we ever spoke about during the few minutes of our daily transaction, but I do remember his smile, his dark wavy hair, his tight polyester plaid pants, his blue blazer, his tie, the stone ring on his finger (or was it a wedding band), the hair on his knuckles, and how beautifully he signed his name on the ledger.
He was kind of shy, too, but he spoke to me effortlessly and easily, with that smile that I couldn’t get out of my mind, and one day I determined that we just had to become, if nothing else, friends. So, after wishing him a good weekend one Friday, I promised myself that I was going to be brave the following Monday and ask him out for a coffee-break.
The anticipation of the week ahead filled my mind like, well, someone in love for the first time. That Saturday, I went out shopping for new clothes. I bought a pair of tight brown bell bottom pants and a brown-white checkered shirt with matching knit vest. I am sure I even got a haircut.
Monday morning came and, wearing my new outfit, I went to the store, ready to ask him out. But when I arrived, he wasn’t there. When I asked about his whereabouts his co-worker simply said, in the plainest truth possible, that he was dead.
His car had collided with a tractor trailer on Lake Shore Blvd, opposite Ontario Place. He had died four hours later at St. Michael’s hospital.
But I didn’t hear any of these details. I walked into the back room and threw racks around with force, so full of anger, and then I almost fainted and was taken to the company’s medical office where I stayed for a while before being released back to work.
I don’t remember how I managed the rest of the day, but after work, already dark at five, I went to nearby St. Michael’s Cathedral. Why? Why? This was the only word I repeated as I wailed my complaint to God, hiding inside His golden tabernacle. Why had He taken him away, the first man I fell in love with and, more significantly, who I had convinced myself, would fall in love with me. The possibility had been there, in his smile, I was so sure of it.
I was too full of pain to go home, and went to High Park instead, where I walked aimlessly in the cold darkness, with the only light shining from lampposts that showed the dense snowflakes falling softly, wetting my face, on that first day of December, 1975. The dull ache and emptiness I felt then still surfaces every time I see a snowfall. And strange that it’s not the music I listened to at seventeen that brings this memory back to me, but rather certain Arvo Pärt haunting pieces I began to listen to decades later.
I went to the funeral home and everyone assumed that we had been close friends based on my tears and devastation. They were touched by my grief and couldn’t believe that I hadn’t know him beyond those casual interactions at work.
On the day of the funeral, through some confusion, I was left behind while everyone left for the cemetery. A staff member from the funeral home kindly drove me there but, by the time we arrived, the gravediggers were already getting ready to put earth over his coffin.
I approach the grave and I can still remember being aware of one of the men gesturing the others to stop their work, so that I could have a few silent minutes alone. After a reasonable time of stillness, the men continued with their job of closing the gravesite. By then the driver had gone and I was left to leave the cemetery alone. At least that’s how I remember it. Perhaps he had driven me back, I don’t know. It’s a detail I can’t recall clearly, but I do remember that I continued to feel numb for a long time, and on Christmas day, while my family celebrated with joy and laughter at my grandparents’ house, I slipped out, unnoticed, to sit alone in the snow.
His death changed my life forever but I had no one to tell of my loss. Besides, who would have understood? Who can ever understand the first love of a seventeen year old!