Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Another kind of father

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In the 1960s, the bus that stopped outside our south Winnipeg home eventually meandered through the downtown area and along Main Street, all the way to the North End.

One afternoon, while riding this bus, Mom caught me staring down on a tableau of souls, dirty and sad, some steadying themselves against grimy building walls and others lying crumpled on the hard uncaring sidewalk. She told me to always remember they were once sweet little babies.

They were misused by life somewhere in their journey but were very possibly once loved and lost their hearts in return. They all possessed a life, albeit different from mine, but nonetheless a life that was most likely filled with acquaintances, both caring and not.

Recently, on a steamy summer day while riding the bus through the core area, my mind was tickled to memories by the pungent aroma that wafted through the open window from a beer-parlour door gaping just metres from the bus stop. I was transported back to those 1960s and the Roblin, the inner-city men's hotel and beer parlour owned and operated by my grandmother, my uncle and his wife. I visited the hotel often, partaking of lunch with my aunt or wheeling a deal with grandmother.

To my uncle, Tommy Roy, these old men were his friends, his colourful collection of misfits. He laughed with them, listened to their woes, sat by their beds at the hour of death, often the solitary mourner at their funerals

It never occurred to me as I traipsed up and down the winding staircase to the second floor suite that the beings occupying the hardwood chairs lining the lobby walls were ever anything other than what they were right then -- strange, bedraggled old men.

Most drank more than their share of 15-cent glasses of draft beer; their fingers were stained brown from too many cigarettes and hearts heavy with souvenirs of one battle or another. Many were veterans of more than one world war, their medals of bravery worn with pride or long lost. Some relics of recognition had been stolen or pawned and others sold to purchase necessities.

To my uncle, Tommy Roy, these old men were his friends, his colourful collection of misfits. He laughed with them, listened to their woes, sat by their beds at the hour of death, often the solitary mourner at their funerals.

They had nicknames. Cranky John was discovered one winter evening while sleeping under a piece of cardboard in the hotel garage. Uncle assigned to him Room 14 on the second floor, but he preferred to sleep on the hard chairs in the openness of the high-ceilinged lobby. In winter, he shovelled snow from the sidewalks in front of the hotel as well as the funeral home across the street. When death visited, he was buried in one of Uncle's white shirts and an elegant, polished oak coffin, furnished by the mortuary at a deep discount.

Hilliard Harris was one of Uncle's better-known gentlemen. He was a businessman of sorts, selling newspapers on busy thoroughfares for years, toting huge bundles of the Free Press and Tribune on his back, six days a week, to his stations in front of the CN depot and the corner of Portage Avenue and Donald Street.

He was a tall man with a shining bald head that almost sparkled when he stooped, thanking patrons for their generosity. He could barely see and then, only when looking upward, giving the impression he was bowing graciously to his customers.

After his shift, he returned to the hotel with unsold newspapers, always sure to drop by the manager's suite with a free one for my aunt. He stored piles of the old papers in his room until someone from a kennel came to pick them up as previously arranged and payment agreed upon.

Many of the gents ate the bar fare available in the beer parlour most days, but on Sundays there were breakfast feasts. Upon returning from mass, my aunt spent her morning frying kilograms of bacon and eggs, sunny-side up, with lightly buttered toast. She served the residents from her suite, ensuring they had at least one good meal each week.

The hotel, which was erected in the second half of the 19th century, witnessed Winnipeg in its youth and, in Uncle Tommy's day, still housed the elegant furniture from the more resplendent times. Each room had a bed and gentleman's washstand, and the manager's suite on the second floor boasted three bright rooms with an ornately carved, mirrored coat rack and bench in the hall just outside the door. The long halls were paved with a path of green-and-yellow diamond patterned linoleum, the high ceilings echoed voices and creaking footfalls. Dusty moose heads stared down through black, button eyes from the lobby walls and there was a heavy wooden table set to one side of the cavernous, oblong room. Three expansive glass windows showcased snoozing residents and evening card games, the air heavy with clouds of blue smoke lifting from the soft-spoken huddle of men concentrating on hands of hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades.

The hotel was closed forever in March 1990 and later levelled by a wrecking crew. The furniture was sold, mostly to dealers, and Uncle Tommy has since passed away. His residents moved on, some in death, others to nursing homes, the Veteran's Manor and hotels offering inexpensive monthly rates.

When sifting through pricey little antique shops, I often think of Uncle Tommy and his Cranky John and Mr. Harris. I am reminded they rested their heads in antique beds and shaved their tired faces in the reflections of gentlemen's washstands fashioned before the turn of the last century.

I know they were once sweet little babies and yes, someone did indeed, care very deeply about them.

 

Marie Sharpe Schnerch is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 14, 2014 A17

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