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I grew up poor.

Not in abject poverty. Not in squalor. Not on the wrong side of the tracks. But as an only-child to a single mother, things were always tight. We didn’t have a car until I was 10. My clothes were often second-hand, and while others luxuriated in the land of colour and cable, our TV was black and white, stood on four legs, and listened for invisible signals with its rabbit ears.

But we got by.

And sometimes I think I was made better by it. Nothing came easy.

You had to be tough to be poor. When kids teased you about your clothes, you had to slough it off. When you didn’t have the cool “stuff” they had, you had to pretend that you didn’t care. When your mother couldn’t afford gymnastics lessons anymore, you pretended you wanted to quit anyway. Put on your game face. It’s like the real world showed up, just a whole lot sooner.

And that's probably why I loved to read.

I got to inhabit a million worlds outside my own, transported across the globe or across the galaxy with the simple flick of a page; glorious alternate lives at the ends of my fingertips.

The library was my sanctuary. I loved its hallowed halls, its creepy back-stairway bathroom. I loved the privacy of the stacks and the mouldy smell of the paper, the tiny cubicles where you could set down your things and set down your thoughts. The cranky librarians shushing in the barely restrained quiet, running my fingers along the spines of a million lives, all catalogued by Dewey and his decimals.

But mostly, I loved that it was free.

I don’t think I’d realized that some people actually owned books. Like, their very own copies, that they never had to return. Or share. Or watch for due dates circling around on the calendar.

And then one day, I met Arthur Black.

Now, if you’re not Canadian, or you’re not into the CBC, or the radio, I can understand how you might not know who Arthur was. But unbeknownst to 10-year-old me, he was a pretty famous cat in the place from which I hailed: Thunder Bay, Ont. He was a humourist, a columnist, an author and a CBC Radio host. And he was also a really good man, who took time out of his busy life to visit schools and read passages from his book.

And that's how I became aware of Mr. Arthur Raymond Black.

In retrospect, I think an audience of 10- and 11-year-olds might have been a little young for his brand of sarcastic delight. But I was transfixed, instantly captivated. An advanced reader for my age, I was over the moon. He was witty and charming, and I was under his spell. And then I discovered that you could buy a copy of his book. Your. Very. Own. Copy.

Now luckily, I was a resourceful young lady, and had been saving money from my paper route.

And because my customers thought I was a good kid, they often tipped me, little bits here and there. I had been saving my pennies for a camera, but at that moment, nothing could divert me from my mission to get my hands on that volume. Nothing.

So, I gathered my cloth collection bag, tip money safely ensconced within, and took the bus downtown to the local CBC station. It was a different time then, a kid could take a bus without anyone giving you side-eye or calling children’s aid on your parents. We weren’t coddled back then.

With all the confidence a naive youngster could muster, I marched up to the front desk and asked to speak with Mr. Black. I have no idea what they made of my me showing up at the station, asking to speak to their premier radio personality, but to their credit, they fully indulged my juvenile whims.

I was directed to his office, and within minutes of my arrival, I was sitting with Mr. Black, explaining my unannounced presence and my desire to purchase one of his books. Without so much as the raise of an eyebrow, he got right down to business. We discussed the price, and I plunked my money onto the table, ready to proceed.

That guy was an absolute rock star.

Because I paid for the entire thing in coins – before loonies and toonies existed!

He patiently helped me count out quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies until we reached the agreed-upon price. I remember telling him that I thought he had miscounted, because I was going home with a suspicious number of coins left in my bag. But he insisted that his numbers were accurate. Only later, through the lens of time, did I realize that he short-changed himself on purpose. Because he was generous. And gentle. And kind. And probably amused.

Before I left with my precious treasure, he signed it for me:

To Angel:

Happy Reading!

Arthur Black


I still have that book. It’s one of my most prized possessions. Something I would grab if my house were on fire. Irreplaceable. Beat up. Torn up. Loved up. The book that came before all the other books.

As the years went by, I often thought of dropping him a line asking him if he remembered me, that spunky little girl, on her mission with her bag of coins. But time marched on, and I never got around to it, it never seemed important enough. I just assumed he wouldn’t remember anyway.

But it’s something I will never forget. A treasured memory, of someone who gave a little bit of their time, of someone who took a young lady seriously. And maybe changed her life in some small, unknowable way. Making a difference. One small act of kindness at a time.

You were a class act, Arthur.

Angel Turcotte lives in Winnipeg.

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