A Quiet Place
I lived in downtown Toronto for 35 years and loved every second of it. My Trinity-Bellwoods home was my retirement plan. When the pandemic came along, I cashed in early—just like so many other claustrophobic, Covid-weary Torontonians. Now I’m in the country, far from everything, left wondering if I made a huge mistake
On the surface, at least, we had it made. My wife, Pam, and I lived across from Trinity Bellwoods Park, in a lovely three-storey Victorian house, which we bought in 1999 for $300,000. Someone in a coffee shop had told me an old lady died on Crawford Street, and her house might come up for sale.
Pam, when I told her later: “Crawford?” It was her dream street. Right on the park! With a playground and a community centre to boot! A great school nearby for our three boys. The house, built in 1874, had been in the same family for more than 80 years. And they’d never been wealthy. The house was untouched by the hubris of intervening generations and their notions of “modernization.” Through two world wars, they’d jerry-rigged anything that went wrong, and then only when they absolutely had to. And there must have been a sale on pink paint at some point, because everything from top to bottom was pink: the walls, the basement, the falling-to-pieces garage. Even a couple of high-back wooden chairs. In other words, a blank, if pink, slate. The walls were insulated with old newspapers, as we later found out: one, from 1939, read: “WAR AVERTED IN EUROPE.” I wish I’d kept that artifact, to prove I’m not guilty of writer’s embellishment. As it stands, you’ll just have to take my word for it.
Since our house was directly on the perimeter of a large urban park, “our street,” I would brag to bored people who couldn’t care less, “is kind of like the Central Park West of Toronto.” Since it was half a block from the city’s premier district for clothing, jewellery, glasses, sunglasses, Japanese stationery and specialty olive oil, “our neighbourhood,” I would brag to the same bored, couldn’t-care-less people, “is kind of like the Soho of Toronto.”
Just one little problem, a wee cumulonimbus gathering force on the horizon: in order to be able to afford to live on “the Central Park West of Toronto” in “the Soho of Toronto,” Pam and I were quietly but inexorably sinking like a horse and buggy into a quicksand of debt. And that was basically all my fault. I hope you appreciate how painful it is for me to admit that fact. As a news reporter for Citytv, Pam made her steady salary, month in, month out, and had a triple-A, pre-approved credit rating. Bankers practically offered her brie and wine as she sashayed through their doors.
Me, though, they tended to eyeball with skepticism. Looking up from a stack of papers: “Says here you’re a… writer?” One miraculous year, I became the co-creator and co-executive producer of a (short-lived) HBO (Canada) TV show and actually outearned Pam. Huzzah! Other years? Not so much.
Helping our cause—well, mine anyway—was the fact that we had another earner in the family: our humble Victorian earned on average $100,000 a year, every year. Not bad when you consider it never went to university or received any other type of formal training. Unable to help ourselves, salivating over all that toothsome equity, we borrowed to pay not only for an endless string of renovations, but also for just about everything else, including vacations, a second-hand car and so forth. Basically, we used our house like a giant, three-storey credit card, to the point where our mortgage stood at just about exactly triple the house’s original price: $900,000.
Let’s pause. I know what you’re thinking, and I understand. What does this alternately braggy and whiny boomer have to complain about? Just the other day, I was talking to my nephew. Almost 30, his two-year-old playing at his feet, he was telling me he couldn’t foresee owning a house in Toronto. He’d given up on the idea a long time ago. And it was the same for everyone he knew. Me, 60: “I felt the same way at your age.” Him, dourly: “Yeah, well, a lot has changed since then.” I told him I once wrote a novel (never published) called Born to Rent. At that, he looked up from his toddler, his eyes locked with mine, and he said, with conviction: “That’s exactly how I feel. How all my friends feel. Like we were born to rent.” So I get it. The notion of home ownership is slipping away, starting to seem like it belongs to some sepia-toned, horse-and-buggy-type era. And, believe me, it makes me sad: for him, for his kid, for his friends, for myself, for my kids—for everyone. Alas, what can I do? This is how it happened. To continue:
And so our financial situation might have continued indefinitely, the bills and collection notices slowly rising to our eyeballs like the salt water (spoiler alert) rises to the eyeballs of the sailors at the end of A Perfect Storm. Me typing furiously, pitching, hoping against hope for that miraculous call from my agent, like the one Stephen King got from his when he was still working in a laundromat about the paperback rights to Carrie (in today’s dollars: $2.3 million): “Dave, are you sitting down?”
But then this pernicious pandemic struck. And not only struck but stuck around. Covid up, Covid down, everything’s closed, stay inside. Like everyone else, we became time killers: minute murderers, hour assassins, playing chess, cards, doing the Jumble, the crossword, watching TV until our eyes began to bleed just a bit.
The articles appeared, slowly at first: “Toronto experiences record population loss as more move away from city amid Covid-19 pandemic” and “Space is the new luxury: could the coronavirus prompt an urban exodus in Ontario?” Over 12 months during the first big wave, something like 50,000 Toronto residents packed up and left the city, relocating to places like Oshawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge and Collingwood, where prices are less prohibitive and Manhattan-like, at least for the moment.
Were they happy? The notion worked its way inside my head and wouldn’t leave. Should we think about doing something similar? Outside the walls of our cozy domicile, everyone was suspicious, grumpy, wearing masks. We started to think maybe Sartre had a point when he said: “Hell is other people.” Picturing ourselves installed in that “new luxury,” a wide-open space somewhere, breeze gently ruffling the cornstalks, horses gambolling about. Fresh air, rejuvenation—all that stuff.
Pam and I started talking seriously about a rural relocation. And of course, in the mood we were in, our discussions tended to focus on the downside, rather than the upside, of our lives in the Covid-soaked concrete jungle.
Me, cheapskate, perpetually focused on money: “We can’t do anything anymore. We can’t shop, see friends or family, can’t go to the movies, can’t play ping-pong at the community centre, can’t go out to dinner, can’t go to bars or museums. So why are we paying such sky-high property taxes at this point? You tell me! And you know they’re just going to go up!”
Before I’d even finished, Pam, con allegro: “I’m sick of being stuck in traffic all the time! There is so much congestion and construction they might as well put up a sign: YOU CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE. I’m gonna lose it one of these days, I swear to God. You think I’m joking, Dave, but I’m not! I’ve actually burst into tears in the car.”
What in Hollywood they call the “inciting incident” arrived in the form of a buyout package at Pam’s work. She’d been wanting one for a while, so she accepted, signing off tearfully. Suddenly, with no office or desk job to keep us tethered to the city, the question was no longer hypothetical: could two lifelong urbanites such as Pam and me survive in the rural environment?
Lifelong urbanite is no exaggeration. I’d have to speak at the speed of an auctioneer for several hours to enumerate all the ways the city’s streets and tracks and tunnels had intertwined over the years with the twin helixes of my DNA, from the time I moved there with my family at age 11 (from Madison, Wisconsin) to the city’s east end, and my friends and I, looking like a pint-sized ragtag UN delegation, ran up and down the Don Valley like hooligans; then, to cool off, if you can even picture this now, jumped off tire swings, arms and legs windmilling, into the Don River. I lost my virginity in Toronto. I proposed to my first serious girlfriend on the rooftop patio of the Park Plaza.
In my 20s and early 30s, I went out just about every night. No lie. I was even offered a “man about town” column, an offer that was summarily rescinded when I was spotted one too many times pushing a stroller. Anyway, dinner parties, art openings, book launches… I even attended the opening of an escalator once. “I’d go to the opening of an outhouse,” I used to say. I’m kidding. Although if there were an open bar, I would have considered it.
I was always ambitious, loved my work, and worked hard during the day, but I came alive after sunset. Time to go out! Getting dressed, sipping drink, listening to music, shaking rump, pointing to the mirror: “Creature of the night!” And: “Two minutes for looking so good!”
Pam was more a daytime creature, but her attachment to city living was no less firm. Together, we sat on patios with friends, sipping mimosas and Caesars, dropping bon mots, laughing in the sunshine, waiting for our eggs Benedict to arrive. We popped over to friends’ houses, and they to ours. Along with the kids, we took taxis and Ubers and streetcars everywhere not in walking distance, by which I mean a few blocks. I didn’t even have a driver’s licence.
Every morning and evening, we walked our dog in the park, kibitzing with neighbours and other downtownsfolk while our canines sniffed each other’s derrières. There was a juice bar on the corner, where, for a mere dozen dollars (more if the juice barista squirted an ultrabiotic ingredient into it, e.g., wheatgrass or spirulina) you could obtain a special concoction with a name like “Green Goblin” or “Urban Detox.”
Tuesday afternoons we might saunter over to the farmer’s market, its farmers having practically limo’d or choppered in their wares, us urbanites paying top dollar to hear the story of our vegetables: “These mushrooms were hand-picked in a sustainable forest in the interior of British Columbia.” But we would also kibitz, exhibit babies, exchange gossip.
Most days, sometimes more than once, we played ping-pong in the community centre across the street, learning to up our game from all the fiends who played there, some of them all day, every day. In the mornings, Pam would get together with her exercise crew in Trinity Bellwoods and prance around to music, doing lunges, squats and “burpees,” whatever they are, and chat.
And so, picture now painted, you can understand the heartbreak when we sold. It wasn’t so much the structure—our crumbling, 145-year-old pile of bricks—as it was everything around it. We closed on November 13, a Friday (a portent we ignored), in 2020. The selling price: $2.5 million.
Pam cheersed wistfully with her burpee friends and others. My boys held tearful goodbyes with their friends. I was almost thankful for the way the many logistics of moving elbowed out a lot of time for emotion and reflection. There’s work to be done! Could you grab that box? Did you call that guy? But as I watched the city skyline shrink in the rear-view, I felt a hurricane of emotions, among them a worrying pang of anxiety: what if we were making a big mistake?
So now here we are. Or rather, here I am. Quintessentially, existentially alone, about which more later. Just outside Burford, Ontario, population 1,600, a charming little waypoint west of Brantford, which is west of Hamilton. I’m sitting on the porch of our newfound rural redoubt, which we’re renting for $2,800 a month. They call it “ranch-style,” which only means everything is spread out horizontally, except for a loft that functions as a rec room. Four bedrooms. Three bathrooms. A massive basement and a massive two-car garage. Built circa 1960. Also: there’s a wraparound porch. If I look up from my laptop, I see: a driveway, a field full of soybeans, some corn, trees, some… other shrubbery, a barn, and outside the barn… a paddock? Anyway, some kind of wooden-fence enclosure, which obviously used to contain an animal. Horses? It’s overgrown with weeds now.
What I don’t see: humans, or any type of building that could possibly enclose a person or people. Thus raising the tree-falls-in-the-forest type question that’s been ping-ponging around my brain since we got here: If you can’t see a person’s house from your house, is that person still your “neighbour”?
The idea is simply to experiment via renting, in case we wind up missing our friends and family and decent Chinese food too much and want to skedaddle back to the city.
Our current driveway is longer than the city block we used to live on. True story! We measured it with the car’s odometer: 0.4 kilometres. The nearest town-like concentration of humanity, Burford, isn’t even all that near; and isn’t even really much of a town, no offence. It’s like: gas-station-hardware-store-liquor-store-supermarket-pizza-place. “Home of Adam Henrique” the sign proudly proclaims as you enter. By the time you think, Who the heck is Adam Henrique? it’s in the rear-view.
(I’ve since looked him up: he’s an NHL player. I’m sure he’s very talented, but the sign feels like a charming little-brother boast from a town trying to compete with neighbouring Brantford, where “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, was born and raised. And that’s all I want to say about him, or the not-really-a-town he emanates from, for the moment—because those guys are good at fighting, and I picture him, back for a charity hockey game in the off-season, spotting me in the Foodland parking lot, dropping his winter gloves and beating the crap out of me.)
Pam and I are trying to adapt to our rural lifestyle. We even bought a ride-on lawn mower. I have the pictures to prove it, though I think some of my urban friends think they’re photoshopped. In the city, we had literally zero lawn: there was a fashionable “wild garden” in our postage-stamp-sized front yard; our postage-stamp-sized backyard was covered in paving stones. Out here, though, there’s so much lawn it would be impossible to mow it all with a push mower. I mean, I suppose it’s theoretically possible. But there are about three acres of lawn attached to our house. It’d take days of mind-numbing, back-breaking, dawn-to-dusk labour, by which time the first part would be growing back again. You’d find yourself doing little else. You’d become a Sisyphus of lawn mowing.
We’ve also learned that out here, when you’re driving around, you’re supposed to wave at every single person who goes by in the other direction. I think. I’m still working out the details on that one. To be on the safe side, Pam and I wave at everyone, even if they have tinted windows and we can’t see if they’re waving back. Apparently it’s acceptable rural etiquette to just raise your index finger on the steering wheel when someone goes by.
Still, it’s exhausting.
It’s been nearly a year out here in Burford, and I have yet to be invited to anyone’s house, apartment or mobile home, let alone any type of catered event. So sometimes I fall prey to—well, FOMO is a bit of a shopworn acronym at this point, and anyway not accurate, in my case. How about FOBLO: fear of being left out. The difference is crucial. I don’t mind missing out on things as long as I was invited. I want to be invited to things I would work actively to avoid. In the city, Pam might say to me: “Oh, by the way, I’m getting together with [persons A and B] and we’re all going to [a boring event] on Tuesday. Just so you know.”
Me: “Was I invited?”
Her: “Well, I just assumed you wouldn’t want to go.”
Me: “Yes, but that’s not the point. Was I invited?”
Not entirely rational, I know. But then these types of longings are not entirely based on reason. “Man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle said. He meant not that we all secretly yearn to run for political office, but that it is in our nature to live in a polis, or community. In the book Sapiens, the historian Yuval Noah Harari takes it a step further: the reason this weak, slow, furless, fangless, clawless creature has achieved its status as the planet’s apex predator is our ability to form communities and co-operate. And I have given up all of that. People ask me: “Hey, you made any friends up there yet?” Me, blank-faced, slack-jawed: “What do you mean?” Kidding, a bit. But I don’t see how it could ever happen. On a given day, I might see: dog, cat, owl, wife, kid, chipmunk, Amazon driver, raccoon (we have those out here, too), but that’s about it.
There’s so much I miss about city life in general, and Toronto in particular, that I scarcely know where to begin. In no particular order, a little sample platter: decent Chinese food; Chinatown in general; ultra-fresh seafood, seafood so fresh it’s still swimming around a few moments before you point to it (for me this is linked to Chinatown, where I always used to shop for groceries); non-supermarket shopping in general; grabbing lattes and, say, bagels without really thinking about it, certainly without having to drive to get them; serendipitous encounters in the street with someone you used to know, or work with, or know only vaguely; biking everywhere; having a “local,” that go-to bar you automatically meet your friends in; meeting friends for a spur-of-the-moment cinq-a-sept at said local; watching sports with a bunch of people in someone’s living room, eating nachos; playing poker around a dimly lit table; playing pool; playing ping-pong in the community centre across the street. And kimchi. O kimchi, how I miss thee—and there’s no way to obtain thee out here.
Mostly, though, I miss my friends (my mother is my only relative in the city, and we see her a lot) like a phantom limb. True, I have my best friend up here, Pam, and behold: it is enough. But they say men, in particular, shouldn’t just pull the ripcord socially and wind up with their spouse as their only friend. And it may be that I’m veering dangerously close to that circumstance.
Today, like many days, I am quintessentially, existentially alone—unless you count a dog and a cat: which, don’t get me wrong, are good company. But maybe not quite “sapient” enough for my taste. Or rather: not big conversationalists. Pam’s off doing some freelance work. My oldest lives in Quebec now. My second-oldest has a job in the city and is mostly living with my mother. And a couple of months ago, I had the perplexing, heartbreaking experience of watching my youngest son roll down the driveway in a pickup, bed and bike and other accoutrements in the back, off to university and, it felt like, out of my life forever.
The night before, we’d had dinner, just the two of us. My maudlin thought-balloon: “This is the last time we break bread together.” Afterwards, we had a beautiful conversation on the porch and he actually listened to my advice! (Study hard, but also follow your intellectual interests, even if they’re not on the syllabus; try not to drink too much, but have fun.)
The next morning, I traipsed sadly around the house, picking up a sock here, a shirt there. In the kitchen, my youngest had left a half-eaten granola bar on the counter in a crumpled wrapper. A few weeks ago, this might have annoyed me. Now I was almost in tears: “Poor guy. He must have forgotten to take it with him. I hope he didn’t get too hungry.”
My sensitivities are exacerbated, no doubt, by the silence and solitude of my current geographical location. Would being surrounded by bottle-popping, bon-mot-dropping and (ideally) Chinese-food-producing friends help alleviate this anguish? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t hurt. And of course I know I’m not the first parent in the history of humanity to experience these emotions. But damn it sure feels like it today.
In Anton Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries,” a character speaks about his brother, who’s moved to the country: “He was a kind and gentle soul and I loved him, but I never sympathized with his desire to shut himself up for the rest of his life on a little property of his own…To retire from the city, the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm—that’s not life, it is selfishness, it is sloth, it is a kind of monasticism, but it is monasticism without works.”
And I’m pretty sure a lot of my friends and contemporaries look at me the same way. Well, I know they do. One friend, knowing I was fixing to write a book out here, said in his own less-than-Chekhovian terms: “Okay Dave, take a year in the country. Write your book. But if you spend any more time out there, you’re a chump. You’re out of the game. You’re out of the show. What are you going to do if you need to take a meeting?”
Of course, the answer for the last little while has been: Zoom. The pandemic is now so familiar that people have started referring to it as “the pandy,” but there will come a time when the pandy is just a vague memory, and people are already returning to all those empty office buildings; face-to-face meetings will become important again; serendipitous encounters in the street will lead to gigs.
And that could spell trouble for me. There has been a reverie-like quality to our rural retreat. And the beauty of renting is: if something goes wrong in your house, you just call the landlord. We’ve done that twice now: when the fridge went on the fritz and when the water heater sprang a leak. Pull phone out of pocket, punch in landlord’s digits: “Looks like you’ve got a little problem.” (More politely than that, of course, but that was the gist.) He calls his guy, his guy comes over and deals with it. No charge! Whereas when you own, I noticed over the years, everything’s a thousand dollars. What’s that pinkish dust in the fireplace? Guy comes over, peers up chimney, punches some digits into his calculator, then says, “It’s… a thousand dollars.” What’s that sound in the basement? Guy comes over, heads downstairs with flashlight, returns, sits in kitchen, ponders, then: “It’s… a thousand dollars.”
Since we sold our house, there is some money in the bank. But it all has an illusory, evanescent quality. Evil tongues might say: “All you really did, Pam and Dave, when all is said and done, setting aside all the metaphors and aphorisms and word-tapestries Dave might weave around it, was cash in your nest egg early.” And they’d have a point. Yet our expenses remain. The bills keep rolling in. Oh, the bill collectors had no trouble finding us at our new address. Taxes, credit card bills, rent, gas, groceries (which thanks to the pandy have gone up a whopping 30-some per cent in a year, across the board, but also seem weirdly pricier in the country). And don’t forget tuition! As if I could, for more than about 10 waking minutes in succession. There’s also his rent and food, not to mention the expensive tastes he’ll inevitably develop hanging out with all the popped-collar, tennis-playing Gatsbys and Daisys of his fancy-pants new campus.
To make ends meet, Pam is freelancing and mulling a second act, which might have something to do with home renovation, which she developed a taste for. But it’s time for me to shoulder the financial burden, or at least contribute in a more meaningful way. I’m working hard up here. Sorry, Chekhov, but my rural retreat has been a form of monasticism with works. And hey, I don’t think I’m the first writer in the history of humanity who has repaired to some bucolic, rustic fortress of solitude to get away from all the distractions of the city. The thing is, they usually only do it briefly before returning to the city; have lunch with publisher; soak up gossip; order third martini and mention new book idea; make fresh deal; walk to bank; deposit cheque. It’s a sexagenarian’s-eye view of the whole matter, I know. But it’s also true that face-to-face encounters can have a powerful, positive effect on one’s bank balance.
I’ve alluded to what a mountain of marbles it is to earn money writing. The good news is: I have no choice at this point but to strap on my crampons and have at it. I don’t need to become Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Just earn a decent living. I know: it’s late. Early in our relationship, Pam said: “I’ll shoulder the lion’s share of the financial burden, until I’m 55. But here’s the deal: you have to work hard so you can take over at that point, so I can retire in style.” She’s 57 now.
And all I can say about that is: better late than never. (I’ve heard it said that many things—e.g., one’s favourite jeans—are at their best right before they fall apart: I’m hoping that will be my story.) So without mincing words or weaving any evasive word tapestries: at the present moment in time, we are not sitting pretty financially. We made what seemed, to our Covid-warped, debt-addled brains, like the right move at the time. But questions whirl around our financial future. Will we decide to buy again, and if so, will we be able to break back into the Toronto market? That is doubtful. How about on the outskirts, in a place like, say, Stouffville? That is unlikely. Perhaps if no one else had joined the rural migration, but expats like Pam and me have driven up the market rate for a house just about everywhere. So what then? What’s our plan? Will our rural reverie be shattered by a donkey kick of reality? Will things somehow magically work out?
The only honest answer to these questions is: TBD. In darker moments, I think that I was born to rent after all, just like my nephew. And I wonder: Will I wind up buried in the acres out back, that is if we can still afford to rent here? Of course, I (or I suppose Pam) would have to ask the landlord’s permission first. In which case I can only imagine him forming his fingers into a little steeple, and, having quietly bided his time, because as we all know revenge is a dish best served cold, smiling and saying: “Well. Looks like you have a little problem.”
This story appears in the November 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.