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Catherine Hernandez: There are melodies that deserve to be heard above the riff of the city

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Catherine Hernandez (Zahra Siddiqui)

I repeated myself to our waiter, since he seemed not to have heard me the first time.

“Scarborough,” I said a little louder, over the lounge music and hum of conversation at other tables. “We’re celebrating because I just got a book deal and my novel is about Scarborough.”

“It’s about us?” He looked confused.

“Yes. It’s a bunch of interconnected stories that take place right here.” I smiled at him, this Black waiter in this very conservative, very white restaurant. He smiled back and it finally sunk in. The delight rose from his body until he did a circle of tiny jumps at the foot of our table. He composed himself to subdue his joy in this joyless restaurant. We shook hands and shared a silent giggle and a knowing nod that said, You can dress us up, but we will always be east enders.

I can’t blame him, though, especially when downtowners have referred to the suburb of Scarborough as the backside of Toronto. One can imagine readers using literature about Scarborough – or any suburb for that matter – as toilet paper quicker than one can imagine them actually turning the pages in eager anticipation. Beyond the romance of big-city life, past the ambiance of the Distillery District, and far from the pizzazz of the CN Tower, what exactly is there to write about?

Quite a lot, actually. The sameness of the suburban landscape serves as the riff to the song that I sing often in my writing. This is how a riff works in music: it is the basic repetitive theme that allows a featured melody to shine in counterpoint rhythms and jolts of sound. The drab architecture that city slickers turn up their noses at amplifies the stories of us suburban folks.

In this particular part of Toronto, the story involves a quiet, mostly white neighborhood that, after forced international migration and rising rent downtown, turns into a place where a majority of Black, Indigenous, and Brown folks can actually afford to live. Thanks to racism and classism, this story’s central characters deal drugs and guns. There are subplots involving subpar politicians building subpar transit systems that deliver poor working-class people to their jobs downtown. Add some crumbling subdivisions, organized gangs, a large assortment of rub and tugs and boom! You’ve got a bad neighborhood with a bad reputation.

When I was young, this wasn’t a story I wanted to write. Growing up in the Morningside and Lawrence area, I was always on my way out. I abhorred my long commute to theatre school and fantasized about summer nights where I could simply bike to my brownstone house and enjoy fancy takeout on my fancy stoop with my fancy friends. Only, my writing never went beyond fancy.

Other than possibly being the beginning of a joke, I want you to imagine trying to write when conversation downtown sounded like this:

Hipster 1: Like, his photography exhibit was so … intense, right?

Hipster 2: Right? I’m so glad we went to Nathan’s show at the Drake. Wanna go to that restaurant that serves vegan blowfish?

Hipster 1: Oh my God. I checked out their Instagram yesterday. We have to.

Now imagine this: I’m on the long bus ride to the Scarborough Rapid Transit (which is not rapid at all). It passes by the Rosalie Hall resource centre for young parents. A teenage girl enters the bus lugging one of those $20 strollers with wheels that can’t steer and buckles that don’t click. The baby in the stroller begins crying and I hand him a set of my keys to jingle and he’s all smiles. The teenage girl jumps the gun, assuming what I’m about to ask. She is asked this on a regular basis for she is still like an adolescent deer: all elbows and neck, but the grace is growing into her daily.

“He’s my son.”

“I can tell. He has your eyes.”

She smiles, relieved I will not judge her. We both know this is a woman-hating world. Hard women. Soft women. Loud women. Quiet women. Women who want to be touched. Women who touch too much. I was a single mom and I hold her in my gaze.

She begins to tell me how proud she is of herself for going to Rosalie Hall. She went in there as full as a whale and crying an ocean around her. Now she is a confident woman swimming chin-deep in motherhood.

This story sharing is a regular occurrence in Scarborough. I have held stories of strippers pushing blow to their coworkers to pay off their abusive partners. I have held stories of homeless folks who watch their babies learn to walk among bed bugs and cockroaches. I have held stories of children burning in house fires. I have held stories of triumph, of resilience. These are the melodies that deserve to be heard above the riff of the suburbs. These are the bursts of sound that rise for me above the plane of the page. All we need to do is listen.

Catherine Hernandez is a playwright, performer, and author. Scarborough is published by Arsenal Pulp Press.