Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Closing the Hobbit Door

I was only supposed to be here for a year.  I wasn't supposed to like it.

But, after more than four years, the place kinda grew on me.

Despite the long, blustery winters and the almost nightly routines of digging out of my parking spot and digging back into it again, despite the cramped quarters and the beeping toilet (no, seriously - in summer, it makes a long, trumpet-like sound when you flush it), despite that long, humbling hill to get here - or maybe because of it - this place grew on me.  It's been the subject of not one, but two of my favourite blog posts.

And it wasn't just the apartment that I grew to love.  It was the neighbourhood.  I could go to a restaurant and watch surprise reunions between friends - open smiles and shining eyes.  I could watch total strangers meet at a cafe and strike up a rousing conversation about sports, or politics, or economics - even philosophy.  To each their own language - French, English, Italian, Russian, Korean - it doesn't matter.

And it's not even just a neighbourhood.  I've lived for the last few years on the nexus between Cote-des-Neiges, Notre-Dame-de-Grace, and Westmount.  Each neighbourhood is as different from the other as cities at opposite ends of the country.

CDN - very multi-ethnic, with more new immigrants per square mile than I ever saw in Toronto; your pick of nationality of food, from Ukranian to Quebecois, to Vietnamese to African - all side-by-side for twelve city blocks, and all competitively priced.

NDG - a place that used to be tired and run-down, now gentrified and prosperous.  It's where I do my grocery shopping and the bulk of my writing (excluding at home, of course).  It's here that regulars and visitors come to drink the same coffee as me, work on laptops or read newspapers, or sit outside with their dogs and their posh cigarettes and their intellectual debates.

And Westmount - the other end of the spectrum from CDN; wealthy, predominantly White and English, but chock-a-block with some of the finest, old architecture in the city.  It has a library shaped - I swear - like a medieval castle, with an arboretum next door; sprawling parks turn the neighbourhood an iridescent green from May to October.

And this, my bolthole, so well hidden it has baffled pizza delivery guys for years.  I'd finally gotten the hang of compressing the directions into one or two well-crafted sentences - and translated, just in case.

And suddenly...gone.

On Tuesday, I came home from the gym with my tired lungs full of freshly rain-washed air.  It was such a beautiful day and fine trip through one of the parks that I was on cloud nine.  Healthy, happy, ready to get to work on a book, or a blog post, anything.  Full of inspiration.

Then, my "proprio" - the person who owns the duplex and lives above me - called me up and, with his wife sitting beside me, began to explain why he was forced to ask me to move out.  Suffice to say, it's not my proprio's fault.  It's a long, drawn out problem with the city - a zoning problem, if you would.  The only way to resolve it is by having me move out.

Just like that.  A day like any other, on the cusp of a secure autumn and long-winded winter, and suddenly, life was never going to be the same.

It took about two days for the shock to pass and the heartbreak to begin.  I fought it off as long as I could by viewing apartments on line, testing theories about getting a mortgage and a house and all that; but even after I found an apartment I really liked, I came home and began to cry.

I mean, this is the house of the Improptu Limbo; the house with the very short door; the place where we managed to squeeze in six people, a drum set, two guitars and a portable mixer; the first place where I ever painted the walls and attempted to make the place look and feel like a home.  The place where I wrote ten books in one year - writing site of the Helix Series, the novelization of the Fog of Dockside City, the place where Hawkeshaw was rewritten - twice.  To some extent it's the home of Lady Butcher and the rebirth of the Alluan series.  And most importantly, it's where the Mummer series was conceived.

Suddenly, gone.

My home had been ripped out from under me.

It was the second time, too.  The last time this happened was in 1998, between the second and third years of university - a bad year all around.  I'd moved off campus because my roommates (with the exception of Susan Gunther) were jerks of the highest caliber.  I'd found an apartment about half way between school and work, and it was big basement apartment in a house, cost-effective, in a nice suburb, and I loved it.  The day after I moved in, the proprio there put the house up for sale; four months later, I had no apartment.

Out of spite, I signed up for a mortgage with someone I should never have trusted.  That Female cost me well over $10,000 in losses and debts, and sullied my virginal credit rating by saddling me with joint credit cards that listed yours truly as the primary card holder - and therefore, the only person held accountable for the outstanding balance.  But that's another story for another day.  Suffice to say, it took years to recover emotionally, and over a decade to recover financially.  We sold the house at a loss, and I was stuck with all the periphery debts of a pathological liar who had clearly gone insane.

That was then.  This is now.  Advance a few days from the shocking announcement that I had to give up my home - again.

Saturday was the day before I was supposed to head for Ontario - and later, to Muskoka for the wrap-up shindig for the 2011 Novel Marathon.  I went to the dance studio for a group lesson.  At the end of the hour, I went back into the cloak room, where countless other purses are stashed, and found that mine was inexplicably lighter than normal.  It took seconds to realize what had happened, and two full days to believe it.  My wallet - and everything in it - had been taken from my purse, and the purse zipped up again.

I scoured the Hobbit Door apartment from the ceiling to spider haven under the desks.  I hadn't lost it.  I hadn't misplaced it.  Days after I lost my home, my very identity had been taken from me.  The trip to Ontario was canceled, and I was suddenly, utterly broke.

Worse, someone had access to all my finances and could run up the same debts That Female did a decade ago.  It had taken eleven years to be able to secure another credit card on my own merit; receiving it in the mail was like a repentant convict receiving a pardon, a job and a new lease on life.  And in the wink of an eye, it was gone again.  Paid off, but gone.  And what for?  Ten dollars was all I had in my wallet - that and a Metro Pass and my YMCA membership card.  They can't use the credit card - I shut that down within four hours of the dance lesson.  They can't use the interac card - you need the PIN for that.  Because of somebody's thoughtless greed, what I needed was gone; and what was gained was an ugly wallet and a lot of useless plastic.  Gone.  Taken from me.

And I had relied on that credit card because the sum total of my savings equaled the deposit cheque I had put on a new apartment.  I had no food in the house, because I had expected to be in Ontario for a week, and I hate coming home to have old food greet me at the door.  I had no gas in the car, either - and no license with which to legally drive.

Inside of a week, I had lost just about everything but the books on the shelves and the computers under my fingertips.

Gone.  Everything utterly gone.

Add to that some 24 hours of violent food poisoning and one busted zipper on my jeans, and I call that a perfect week!

But it's funny what happens when you lose everything - or think you do.

You take an inventory of your life.  You see what you really have left to you, in terms of finances, investments, debts and possessions. 

And you take an inventory of other things, too.  Projects that you've left outstanding.  Plans you've never accomplished - and commitments you renew.  Family and friends that are eager to back you up, lend you money, give you a hand in packing, moving and cleaning.  Good friends.  Solid people good to their word.  Responsive friends.  People who surprise you by how much they care.  People who root for you and cheer when good things come your way.

In all that accounting, you count your blessings and realize that yeah, all is not lost.  You realize that you've been underestimating your life all this time.  You discover new avenues you had been afraid to pursue because you were clinging to old dreams you didn't need anymore.

Yesterday, I got a very happy call - the first good news in days.  My credit check passed, my references all checked out, and I was the new rentor of a very, very swank apartment.

And what a place, complete with French doors, a patio, greenery outside my window, separate rooms for my bed and my office - and still another room left over for greeting guests.  And a kitchen!  And hooray, hoorah - a bathtub, for which I had been longing these last four years.  All that, plus underground parking, security cameras, great neighbours, and appliances included - even a new dishwasher!  The door is taller than I am, and I can't touch the ceiling.  It's the first time I've ever rented an apartment that has ceilings I can't touch.  And it's art deco!  I write about crime in the 20s, 30s and 40s for goodness sake - all my posters are vintage - art deco, with all the original lighting fixtures!

And I can have a dog.  I've always wanted my own dog, and I've lived 15 years without one.  Now, all this is mine.

So much to be gained, suddenly, in the blink of an eye.

All I had to do was lose everything that I had been clinging to.

Best of all, it's only about six blocks away from where I live now, on the CDN side of that very same nexus.  Granted, that doubles the length and incline of that danged hill I complain about, but I don't have to completely uproot myself from the area I have so grown to love.

And yes, I'm  now under pressure to get things packed and have all my identification replaced, and yes I had to cancel my trip to Ontario...

But if there's one thing I can say is - to borrow a phrase from ING Direct:  I found out I'm richer than I think.  Turns out I had just enough for everything I needed - nothing more, but exactly what I needed.  I can't drive without a license, so I don't need gas; but  I had enough money to cover the deposit cheque, for food, and to start replacing my ID.  I can work from home, so I don't even need my security access pass.  All my other bills are paid automatically.  The replacement credit card should be ready for pick up as early as tomorrow afternoon, so I get my buffer back.

Despite everything that's happened in the last eight days, I have nothing to worry about.

And this has been a good time for reflection and accounting.

Above all else, I've discovered that, in terms of friends and family, I'm wealthier than any of those tycoons and magnates lining the hills of Westmount.  And not just fleeting acquaintances either; if solid friends are like sure property investments, I own Mount Royal.  When things blew up, I could feel family and friends nationwide rallying about me, and even when things were at their worst, I never despaired.  Everything was going to be okay, and I wasn't alone.  I was never alone.

That said, I am sad to be closing the Hobbit Door.  It's the end of an era.  I'll be signing off and closing an extraordinary chapter in my life.  But it's far from the end of the story.

There's a twist to this tale.  See, on Sunday (taking the long walk back home from church), I happened to check my voice mails.  I had missed a call on Wednesday last week - the day after I lost the apartment and four days before the wallet was stolen.

It was a message from Visa, advising me that my card was shut down.  Someone had attempted to copy the number and make purchases.  The card was flagged as fraudulent and anybody who attempted to use the card would be quickly confronted - and if we're lucky, arrested for fraud.  Bad luck for the thief.

As my favourite Old Time Radio hero would say..."Crime does not pay."  It's so awesome that I get to say that in context and with a big, smug grin.

I'm glad for a happy ending.  The good guys win in the end, and there are more exciting chapters to come.


  1. Nothing is ever thrown at you that you can't handle. And yes, when you think you're down, that's when you find out who really is a friend. You've got some great ones, as well you should. You're a great friend to many. I'm glad you're a friend of mine.

  2. What Tobin said, count me among those who are very glad to know you. Also very happy to help you pack/move when the time comes.