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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

Growing up, I was pleasantly oblivious to the concept of government-owned and subsidized buildings. My street coiled in like a snail, with the parkette and community hub in the middle. In a mainly wealthy suburb north of Toronto, this was community housing. And I never ever talk about it.

Childhood rests inside of us at the core, with its certain shades of carpet and those particular brands of beverage in the refrigerator. I imagine that kids from wealthier households don’t mind much if people see those parts of themselves. Poor kids are different. We patch wounds and wrap ourselves like mummies so no one can see what lies beneath.

The hard part is remembering that it’s important – not something to be ashamed of and pushed down. We imagine that no one has seen what we’ve seen. The shame is less of a burning cheek and more of a familiar limp that’s been accommodated for so long, it feels natural. That stuff over there? We don’t talk about it.

At some point, someone explained it to me with caustic haste: “You live in Crown Heights. Crown is government owned. That’s what that means. You don’t own it, they own it.” The barb didn’t slice me though; I was too young. Only with age did it land as heavily as it was intended: This is your lot in life. This makes you different. This is why you may not be the first choice. There’s a line around you. You need to know it’s there.

Perhaps that was the case. Perhaps there was something more than gravity drawing me to other kids from less than idyllic homes. Our schedules were certainly more free. We knew how to forage for what we needed. We were experts in parks and microwave dinners and loitering at malls.

But it wasn’t all bad. I used to sit on our front steps and write for hours on muggy summer nights. Looking out onto that long stretch of my quiet street with not a dollar to my name was where I actually felt most like a queen. Crown Heights was my place. I belonged there.

I never felt judged. There was no keeping up. There was no comparison. There was no notion of people with lesser or greater value. There wasn’t a single day that anyone there cared about furnishings or furniture. Nobody renovated. Everyone had the same carpet; a yellowish beige that got natty and matted, until one year it was replaced with purple. Our kitchens and bedrooms and bathrooms all looked pretty much the same. Our proximity to the train tracks strikes me today as something too cringingly close to cliché. After a while, it’s true, you barely notice how much the mirrors shake.

I loved the big pine trees and little dirt alley where we played marbles. I loved the easy walk to the convenience store and how at some point it started to feel important that I wear lipgloss to make the trip. Because of street hockey and boys. I loved that this place gave me the gift of feeling most at home in diversity and uncomfortable with excessive materialism and homogeneity. We lived in a rainbow of race, ethnicity and ability, with many single moms and many new immigrants. It was, mostly, a happy place. Kids played on the street. Neighbours knew each other. And it had nothing to do with the cars we were driving or the brand of our shoes.

It’s taken some time for me to talk about all of it and to put my finger on why and how my sense of the ideal continues to be some enduring vision of Crown Heights. As an adult, I suppose I see it less as a place of have-not and more a place of have.

Admittedly, this is the silver lining part of the cloud. This nice feeling of nostalgia is warm and dear, but so are the memories that come with shame. I remember scrubbing repossessed houses on weekends. I remember my stepdad’s friend, who recovered from his heroin addiction in my former bedroom. Most pointedly, I recall the time that my stepdad’s young sister, who lived with us, got shot in the neck at a nightclub. How the police woke my mom and me up at 2 a.m. to tell us what had happened, how the blood was crusted into her fingernails when we got to the hospital and how my mom fainted.

Memories of my mom stand out most for me. Back then, she was messy in the ways you don’t want your mom to be. The people and things that came and went from her life, came and went from mine. Her shortcomings were honest, but relationships crumbled in her wake, despite her best efforts. There wasn’t a drug or alcohol problem, but there was mood instability and emotional unwellness. Something that made the sweet, loving moments few and the conflict-ridden ones ample.

These aspects of my life are too thorny and raw to package up. Now that I’m trying to make sense of it, I have a greater understanding of how it shaped my empathy and understanding of how financial resources are a protective force.

Today, as a homeowner and a six-figure salary maker, I’ve staved off the burn of material discomfort and I like it that way. I have incredible agency over my time, my surroundings, what I put into my mouth and how much beauty or ugliness enters my world.

But I’m leery of the ivory tower and aware that my journey has been privileged. The world has been kind to me. It has given me chances, warm welcomes, prestigious job offers and acceptance. It has chosen my applications. It has selected me to be the trusted tenant for the apartment. It has seen potential in me that I didn’t always see in myself.

On most days, I forget how shame and insecurity used to gnaw at me. I worked hard to build scaffolding around myself in a way that my childhood experience didn’t provide.

There is no healing from the wounds of lack without love. And that love has to come from everywhere, surround sound, from within and without. No small feat.

Justine Purcell lives in Toronto.

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