As the year turns, I consider my blessings - and amidst Toronto's chronic accommodation crisis, I'm truly grateful just to have a decent home.
For years I didn't. Once I was the first to arrive to view a room for rent at Bathurst and Dundas. It was tiny and expensive. "What is that smell?" I asked, eyeing a dead mouse on the dirty carpet. The landlord saw it, too, but wasn't at all fazed.
"If I rent it, can I remove the carpet?" I inquired. "No!" was his abrupt answer. Folks desperate to find a cheap room were already lining up outside.
I didn't take that place, but for much of almost three decades of living in Toronto, I inhabited cheap rooms or tiny bachelor apartments.
Images of them come back to me: a room in which cockroaches walked across the table where I kept a hot plate and some canned food; a small, ugly bachelor where the walls seemed made of cardboard, letting in sounds of my neighbours' brokenness drunken fights, fits of craziness; most recently, 13 years in a place where I shared a bathroom with an alcoholic neighbour.
These experiences don't compare to the brutal reality of the real poor. My situation was the result of my own choice to live simply in order to write and do non-violence workshops and ongoing resistance to war. (Did you know that the Canadian government spends about 600 per cent more on war than on affordable housing?)
Unlike the invisible poor, I have a community of friends who help me find work in my trade, feather-edge drywalling.
In 2003, I moved into the Riverdale Co-op at Queen and Greenwood, where robins and blue jays feed on succulent saskatoon berries outside our bedroom window.
Even now, neither my wife, Anna, nor I take such gifts for granted. It's the first time in the city that either of us has a tiny yard to linger in, a dry basement to store tools and wash clothes and room to receive tired guests.
Any home would have been welcome. For a few months after our wedding, we lived apart simply because we couldn't find anything affordable that would accommodate our new little one.
Anna lived in a former rooming house where one of her neighbours was a cocaine addict. He was intelligent, well educated and likeable when not ingesting his seductive, deadly poison.
When he was evicted, I spent an entire day with him checking out rooms in hell until he found something.
We got to know all our respective marginalized neighbours, and we try to keep in touch with them. They live vulnerable lives in a harsh housing culture. If my former neighbours didn't have very compassionate landlords, they'd be out on the streets. Just after Anna left, an elderly woman living in the next-door rooming house died all alone in her room.
In sharp contrast, in 1995 I helped my mother die peacefully in her own Riverdale Co-op home at 62 Grant Street. Friends and neighbours helped out or were lovingly quiet during her illness.
In the capitalist view, good housing is a reward for those who compete and win. But if Anna and I are to not only live together but live well together, we need to learn to cooperate with each other, with Luc and also with our neighbours.
We want our son to grow up in a rich, mature culture of reciprocity, in which there is a genuine attempt to search for ways to transform conflicts and to treat houses as homes.
We're glad to be with all who are tending this precious garden called co-op housing.