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One of these stairs will snap, then this paint shaker is going to plough over my face and kill me. And then you’re going to have to live with that.”
Fifty-year-old paint shakers are impossibly heavy pieces of hardware. My brother and I discovered this fact as we lugged them down three rickety flights, from the abandoned suites above my father’s shuttered paint shop to the bin in the alley behind 757 East Hastings, where 92 years of crap and history were being neatly piled.
Ted Harris Paints was a family business. Ted, my grandfather, grew up in a four-room apartment at the back of the shop until he, along with his two brothers, was sent away to a Jewish orphanage in Winnipeg during the Great Depression. He was kicked out at 15, having beaten up a headmaster who’d beaten up his littlest brother, Harry. A few years later, in 1947, he returned to the paint shop’s apartment, in back, with his newborn son, my dad. My grandfather must have had a certain respect for fighting. He installed a boxing ring in the basement for the neighbourhood kids. Doug Hepburn, the club-footed world champion weightlifter, trained there.
The street my dad played in as a child was far gentler than the desolate block in today’s Downtown Eastside. What was once a makeshift stable is now a parking lot behind the store. The string of heritage homes is now a strip of warehouses. Where women once loitered and gossiped with baby carriages, they now wait for johns.
Dad sold yardsticks (lifted from the paint store) out of his wagon, which he dragged up and down Hastings. (Thirty years later, my mom would park her Volvo there and remind me to lock the door.) He attended Strathcona Elementary, where he got the strap for running through the girls’ play court. He took his 25-cent weekly allowance and would choose one of three theatres down the way to spend it at. “A block west of Main there was the Avon-that was 10 cents. A little further this way was the Luxe, which cost 15 cents. And in the next block there was the Majestic. That one cost the whole quarter.”
When nothing good was on, Dad and his friend Lesley would go down to the railway tracks and wait for bags to rupture while vegetables were being unloaded. They’d snap up turnips or cabbages and give them to local families. On one scavenge, a chicken escaped from its crate; the boys imprisoned it in Lesley’s dirt-floor basement and, one evening, killed, cooked, and ate it.
Last fall, Dad announced he was calling quits. He had hit retirement age and, in a way, the street felt exhausted, too. People came through the door in tears. Eighty-year-old Mr. Brodie-who had bought paint for six decades-paid his respects. John Mackie wrote a long eulogy in the Sun, mentioning that my two brothers and I weren’t interested in carrying on the century-old family business. This inspired one ornery reader to write, under the heading “Slacker Sons”: “What a shame and loss to Vancouver History. Shame on those boys!!” As though we had a responsibility to work there, whether we wanted to or not, like my dad, and his dad, who had worked there from childhood onward whether they wanted to or not.
Through the decades, as shops down the block boarded up their windows, as the streets became so intimidating no shopper would stroll them, Ted Harris Paints stayed afloat because half its business came from outside the area. West End apartment blocks and suburban hotel chains and even the Vancouver Art Gallery used Ted Harris white paint to cover whatever came before.
“If we were just a neighbourhood business, it wouldn’t have worked,” Dad told me as we cleared out the junk. “A big part of the population in this area doesn’t spend money on paint or shoes or groceries, so local-based shops can’t make it.” A monoculture of poverty is not a neighbourhood, and a shopless Downtown Eastside has proven to him that “it takes a butcher, a baker, and a candlestick maker to have a strong community.”
When I asked what he was going to miss (aside from the customers), he said, “The building. It’s my first home. And it’s where I worked all my life.”
I myself worked there three days. One day I swept. One day I picked up condoms in the parking lot. And that last day, I lugged antique paint shakers down from the attic and heaved them in a disposal bin. As my brother and I stood around with Dad and the fading light spilled red down the alley, we felt a flush of elation at finishing a day’s work. The future’s uncertain; if nobody wants to lease the building, Dad will have to sell, breaking generations of family ownership. Dad looked back at the tired, abandoned space and spread his arms expansively. “Just think,” he said. “One day all this could be yours.”
But we all knew it wasn’t true. VM