My grand scheme for completing Grades 11 and 12 in Charlottetown having gone down the drain a couple of months earlier, when school ended on June 30, 1953, it was time to execute Plan B, which meant going to Toronto.
Two of my sisters, Ethel and Mae, had moved to Toronto in 1947, and my brother, Joey, in 1950. I’d spent two weeks in Toronto in each of 1951 and 1952, trips made with my father. As mentioned earlier, because he worked for the CNR we could travel free on the train, and while in Toronto he bunked in with Ethel and her husband, Barney MacDonald (who was also from Morell) and I shared a bed with Joey, who was single (fortunately, the bed was double), so these trips cost us practically nothing.
In 1951 Ethel and Barney lived on Montague Avenue, in the Carlton and Sherbourne area, while Mae and Joey lived in a rooming house at 36 Gloucester Street, just east of Yonge about half way between Wellesley and Bloor. By 1952 Barney and Ethel had bought a house in a western suburb called Lakeview, which is now part of Mississauga; Mae had married Eric Grant (born in Scotland but raised in Toronto) and they started their married life in the same Gloucester Street rooming house as Joey. So, my whole Toronto experience was in the core of downtown, and I loved every minute of it.
My father had a hernia operation in the early summer of 1953 and wasn’t going to make his annual trek to Toronto until the fall. I convinced my parents that the two round trips I’d already made between Morell and Toronto qualified me to go on my own, so my father obtained the precious CNR free pass for me. Plan B consisted of my heading to Toronto right after school closed and getting a job up there. The rest of my family thought I was only going to be in Toronto for a couple of weeks, after which I would come back to PEI and find work.
Upon arriving in Toronto I once again bunked in with Joey at the Gloucester Street rooming house. We had a large room on the third floor while Mae and Eric had set up housekeeping in Mae’s room, which had been a large living room at the front of the residence before it was turned into a rooming house.
Today it’s hard to imagine a married couple living in one room with no TV, refrigerator or stove (they cooked on a two-element gas burner), but in the early 50s in Toronto it was quite common. The rest of the main floor housed the owner, Millie Jeffreys, her common-law husband, Leo Godin, and Millie’s daughter, Mary Ann. There were three Italian construction workers occupying one of two rooms on the second floor, with two social workers (sisters, whose last name was Neville) occupying the other. There was a very small room on the third floor which housed a middle-aged guy that I never did get to know, and another fairly large room which was rented to a young female office worker.
So, there were fourteen of us sharing one bathroom, which was on the second floor, and one telephone, which was in the downstairs front hall. Incredibly, it worked out just fine. During the week everyone took baths (there was no shower), and the men shaved, in the evening; and nobody ever lingered in the bathroom. Any grooming that could be done in your room, such as hair, make-up, and shaving with an electric razor, was done in your room. And from Monday to Friday there was an unwritten rule limiting bathroom time to about five minutes between six and eight in the morning. The roomers rarely used the telephone.
As I was the only one who knew about Plan B, I had to look for a job clandestinely while everyone else was at work. As soon as they hit the newsstands I’d buy a Star and Telegram (there were virtually no general want ads in the Globe and Mail), head back to our room and circle any potential opportunities in the Help Wanted sections. Because I didn’t want a long commute, I limited my scope to downtown addresses and telephone numbers.
I then commandeered the telephone (everyone but Mary Ann was at work and she was at a day camp of some kind), and started calling to set up interviews. There’d also be the occasional ad that had just an address, so if I was lucky, by noon I’d have a list of places to visit.
Nearly everyone I talked to thought I was too young (which, at fourteen, I probably was). I turned down a couple of offers because they were summer vacation jobs only, a couple of more because I didn’t like the look of the premises, and one because I didn’t like the look of the guy that interviewed me. Then, about the middle of the second week, I hit pay dirt.
The Montreal Star had an office at the corner of Pearl and University with an “office boy wanted” sign in the window. I went in and was interviewed by a sophisticated, gray-haired gentleman named Mr. McSherry. I guess newspaper companies were accustomed to hiring very young people because he offered me the job. I accepted and started to work right then. I forget what my salary was but I remember it seemed to be adequate for my survival, and it was a permanent job. I spent the rest of the afternoon learning the ropes from a young chap who’d been promoted and was moving to Montreal. I couldn’t wait to get back to Gloucester St. that evening to tell Mae, Eric and Joey; and when I did they all seemed pleased.
That weekend the four of us went out to Ethel and Barney’s for Sunday dinner and I told them about the job. They, too, seemed happy for me. Then Barney asked me what the job entailed and I excitedly described my duties. For the most part it was a typical office boy routine. But there was one aspect of which I was particularly proud. One of my tasks was to take matrixes of ads around to advertisers for their approval and to pick up payments due, which were mostly cheques but there was some cash. I bragged about picking up a few hundred dollars in cash from an advertiser up near Casa Loma (not far from where I now live) and bringing it back to the office downtown.
Mae got very upset. She insisted I was far too young to be walking alone on the streets of a big city and hit high gear when she got to the part about carrying a lot of cash. She said I’d certainly be robbed and probably murdered. She said she was going to phone home to PEI. Considering that in 1953 long-distance calls were reserved for the direst emergencies, and also that none of the others stuck up for me, I knew Plan B was doomed. By the end of the following week I was on a train heading back to Morell.
(Mae is now 87 years old, in good health, and lives with her son in Brampton, Ontario. I don’t think she worries about me anymore. Her husband, Eric, Barney, Ethel, Joey, Millie Jeffreys, and Leo Godin are all deceased. I haven’t seen Mary Ann Jeffreys since her mother’s memorial service a few years ago, but I’m sure she’s enjoying life as a retired teacher in Toronto.)