Nathan Englander is the author of five books, including For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. His most recent novel is kaddish.com.
I kept Zooming friends during those first weeks of lockdown, asking how I’d know when quarantine started. I’d already been spending a lot of time at home.
As a fiction writer, when I’m not out knocking on doors hawking books, I mostly pad around the house confused, drinking coffee, worrying about the future and mumbling to myself. Being shut in by a pandemic wasn’t that much of a change.
Also, with a six-month-old baby and his five-year-old sister, there were diaper runs and some wild times at Loblaws, but otherwise our family was pretty much in a bubble before the bubbling began. I don’t know what your reality looked like in the Before Times, but if you pull the curtains aside at 4:30 every morning and peer out into the still-dark streets, it’s not hard to feel like you’re alone in the world no matter how big the city in which you live.
In our case – that is, mine and my wife’s and the kids' and our grey-muzzled dog’s – there was an exacerbating factor as far as the specific city was concerned. We’d just moved to Toronto from New York not long before the virus spread. When the borders shut, we were still very much a brand new family in a brand new country, feeling far from our relatives and stripped of the wonderful, supportive gang of friends with whom we’d been raising our kids in Brooklyn. We had a rotating circle of other adults willing to make the butter noodles (and uncork the wine) for five-o’clock dinners a few nights a week.
On top of all that, we were manoeuvring through our first Canadian winter. And I bet you’re going to say this past winter was mild. And there’s also a good chance you might float the notion – as many folks did when learning we’d just moved – that Toronto winters are more or less the same as the ones in New York. But it was quite an adjustment. And most of that adjustment revolved around getting a willful child of junior kindergarten age into snow pants for the first time. What little interaction my wife and I might have had with our neighbours was greatly truncated by trying to get Olivia out the front door. She and I were the last to show up at school drop-off every day.
What I’m trying to establish is that when it was time to shut things down and lock ourselves up, my family came pre-isolated. We started the clock with a real deficit on the human-contact front.
I don’t want to paint too dire a picture about our settling in. We’d been taking active steps on the social front. I’d signed up for skating lessons so I could learn to skate, and then learn to play hockey, and then join one of those rickety old-man night leagues, where everyone suiting up looks like they’re going to have a coronary just from tying their skates. It was my three-year plan for making some dad friends on my own. And I really was making progress on my reverse crossovers when they shut down the rink.
I’d also been making a real effort at those drop-offs. I smiled at the parents passing the other way as Olivia and I raced to school, at the front-gate lingerers as they put their strollers in gear, and at the mothers and fathers looking pained as ECEs peeled the clingier urchins off their legs. I smiled wide at anyone who remotely seemed to recognize my maskless face when glancing my way.
And I want real credit for even trying. Smiling unbidden is a downright betrayal of everything I’ve ever known or believed in as a New Yorker and frequent subway rider. The difference between flashing a friendly grin and just plain flashing someone is marginal if measuring how shockingly inappropriate the gesture seems to me.
My wife was doing her part on the social front, too. We’d moved here for her academic job, and with the start of the new year, she was off maternity leave and trekking to campus to teach actual students, in person, in the very same room. As she spent time at the university, colleagues began inviting her to join committees and subcommittees and sub-sub-breakout-committees, and who knows – one day, a committee might turn into brunch. At junior kindergarten, Olivia was making her own friends, too, and, through her, Trojan-horse-style, my wife and I would find ourselves inside other houses on the weekends, where we’d chat needily with our hosts while trying to maintain calm. It seemed like things were maybe shaping up for us communally when the world shut down.
I kept my spirits up as best I could at the beginning, rededicating my life to wiping down doorknobs and refreshing the news on my phone. And as friends and family in the States got the virus, I focused a large part of my heartbreak on watching my own federal government fail the country in a time of grave need.
And so, I have to say, I got pretty depressed pretty quick.
Staring out that front window into the street, it now looked more or less deserted from dawn to dusk. And then one evening, I asked my wife if she heard something. And when I kept hearing it, day after day, I poked my head out and then asked my wife if she saw what I saw. It seemed that, across the street and a few doors down, a man was sitting on a plastic chair on the edge of a postage-stamp lawn, in the still-cold weather, playing a song on a tuba. We both stepped further out. Yes, he was playing O Canada on the edge of the sidewalk. And when he was done, he ambled back in.
It soon became clear that this man – bearded and sandy-haired, and always wearing the same black blazer – was indeed playing O Canada every night, without fail, and he was playing it at 7 o’clock on the dot. And just as we had noticed, other neighbours noticed, too. Other people popped out of doors up and down the block. Everyone started waving at the tuba man when he finished. And soon we started waving at each other.
As the days piled on, we, along with our neighbours, ventured further afield, edging closer to tuba man as the weather got warmer and as the anthem became a part of our lives. I can’t tell you what that routine meant, to have something as unexpectedly normal and cheery as that in our lives. To have something to break up the unbroken, a ritual sacred and inviolable, marking the passage of time. It was a gift of regularity beyond noting. And you could sense how mutual the feeling was, how great the need among us, as we all spread out in the middle of the street to sing O Canada to the tuba at 7 p.m.
As the days passed, our heroic tuba player started including the kids. He began having them count him in – “And a one, and a two” – each night. He learned all their names, and we learned his: Jerome. The adults started showing up with drinks in their hands and our dogs on their leashes. Neighbours met neighbours. And as they introduced themselves, I was surprised to discover how many other people seemed to be brand new, too. And then I understood that they weren’t new at all. It was just city life and busy life and prepandemic life, and who, after all, really knows the people behind the doors a dozen houses down? I spotted a neighbour looking quite overjoyed to meet everyone and asked her how long she’d been living on the block. “Twenty-five years” was her answer.
Jerome not only turned out to be the Pied Piper for our street, but he started to attract other musicians, as well. A neighbour, Neil, started bringing out a snare drum and a cymbal to accompany Jerome. And god knows how the Toronto tuba underground communicates, but word reached the other side of Bathurst, and then Jack started showing up, walking down the street at 6:55 with his tuba in tow, so that now we have a three-person, two-tuba band (except when Jack feels like playing trombone). On birthdays, they play Happy Birthday, and wedding anniversaries get a round of applause. For our graduationless high-school students, a retired principal was commandeered to drop fake diplomas in a bowl for contactless retrieval as our graduates marched to nowhere while Pomp and Circumstance played.
On the 100th O Canada day, we celebrated Jerome himself. We gave gifts. The kids cheered and blew bubbles. And we toasted Jerome, glasses raised but unclinked.
At this point, we even have a legend tied to the nightly rendition. It is believed by all of us that, no matter the weather, the rain will always stop for a few minutes at 7 o’clock so Jerome can play. I honestly – look it up – think that has been the case for all these months. Which also makes me wonder how many months there are to go.
Olivia has wisely pointed out that it will be great when the virus is gone but sad when Jerome stops playing. Until then, I cannot tell you what a gift it has been for us, the new arrivals, and what a tight bond has formed between neighbours, distances broken down while keeping six feet in between.
Now, when I walk down the street, I stop and wave and smile, unselfconscious and unbidden, feeling very much at home in this place. Because these are the people we’re sharing this time with, our O Canada Canadian family, while we’re separated from our own.
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