Late one sultry night in 1993, I was curled up tight in a dingy chesterfield that reeked of sweat and tobacco. In the dim glow of a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling of the homeless shelter, I examined my life. "Yesterday, I was a lady", I wrote in my notebook.
I remembered: My family moved to NDG, a new suburb of Montreal, when I was almost sixteen. There were farms north of Chester then, and the 3-A tramway stopped at Walkley. So did snow removal. If you lived west of Walkley, you plowed home through snow banks up to your hips.
In the 1960's, my husband and I were pioneers of the Town of Dollard des Ormeaux. Our home was a pretty cottage with lawns and trees and we enjoyed two cars and credit cards from Birk's, Holt Renfrew and Eaton's (with an apostrophe 's').
I was active in politics at the local, provincial and federal levels, the development of the community and journalism.
We socialized with people who held prestigious positions in government and several who had streets and parks named after them.
My copyrighted "Original History of the Town of Dollard Des Ormeaux, Quebec ( 1689 - 1969)" was published in the North Shore News and later reprinted with my permission in the Lakeshore News and Chronicle.
Elementary school children studied my history as part of their curriculum.
Through the years, my articles, columns, photographs and hundreds of my letters to the editors were published in The Montreal Star, The Herald, The Gazette and The
Chronicle. My name was recognized and I was respected.
Chronicle. My name was recognized and I was respected.
Sadly, my first marriage failed.
Later, I married Cliff Carter, singer/pianist from New York City. Cliff was 34 years my senior, but ours was a fairy tale romance. We sang love songs together in fine supper clubs and lounges, on radio, and at home. Cliff was sweet, and younger than springtime.
When my beloved husband was close to 80, we appeared on CTV's "Thrill of a Lifetime" program. RCA Records produced Cliff's first record album, "Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter", practically over night, much to our surprise. We thought Cliff was just taping a "demo". RCA Vice President, Ed Preston, presented the first album to Cliff as millions of viewers watched us weep with amazement and joy.
Immediately, radio and the press and TV invited Cliff to appear. Suddenly, he was receiving the recognition decades overdue.
Cliff and I performed in Parliament for Harambee and dined at the home of the Kenyan ambassador. We were treated like royalty everywhere we went.
When Cliff died in 1992, just days short of his 90th birthday, the light went out. I wanted to die too. I almost did.
But how did I end up in this awful stinking place amidst delirious men and women screaming in their sleep? Here's the story.
Cliff was a gold card member of the New York City Musicians' Union, #802 - along with Frank Sinatra and many other stars.
In 1947, Cliff came to Montreal and joined the Montreal Musicians' Guild. After half a century of paying dues to the Montreal Musicians' Guild, when Cliff died, I received $1,000. There was no other insurance.
When I lost Cliff, I faced life alone for the first time. I quickly encountered "The System": I had to find work.
Handicap #1 -
I was invariably told that I was "overqualified"
Handicap #2 -
It was Quebec. My name was Carter, not Cartier.
I had no hope of finding work in Quebec.
December 31, 1992 - I put my furniture, files, clothing, china, photographs and books in storage, left my most precious personal belongings with my parents in NDG, packed some clothing and toiletries in green garbage bags and drove to Ottawa, Canada. I arrived at the top of the hill crossing into Ontario at midnight on New Year's Eve.
I pounded the pavement. I scouted personnel agencies and applied at government employment offices. The editor of the Ottawa Citizen gave me several interesting assignments, but nothing permanent. I worked for a jewellery designer for a while.
The System: I was living in shelters and in my car, looking for work every day. A couple of young social workers accused me of being "uncooperative."
"You're spending all your time looking for a job," one charged.
The second commanded "You have to find a place to live before you look for work."
That's when it struck me hard that I wasn't recognized as a lady anymore, but just another bothersome vagrant living out of an old car and garbage bags.
But I refused to sign a lease for a roach-infested apartment. I insisted on getting a job first, so that I could afford a decent place to live.
"I believe I am entitled to survive unemployment in good enough condition to be able to work again," I declared to the snippy young social workers.
"The problem with you," the social worker countered, "is you've made a job your priority."
I had folders full of application letters - and rejections.
The System: At the Unemployment Insurance office, I learned that I was not allowed to apply for certain positions - for which I was qualified - because those jobs were reserved for recipients of unemployment insurance (Federal) - and I was on welfare (Provincial). And so I sat in that polluted shelter, stunned and scared, writing down my observations.
There was the grief, hunger, exhaustion and, then, an unyielding illness - pneumonia, that was not properly investigated or treated - because I was on welfare and I did not have funds to merit a doctor's care.
I couldn't even get the best medicine for the pneumonia. The only medicine I was entitled to was erythromycin that upset my stomach. I asked the Indian lady doctor, "What if I stop taking this medicine? It makes me so sick."
"You'll die", she said, without remorse.
The System: While I was sick, I participated in a seminar series on executive and professional job-hunting at St. Richard's Anglican Church - until, one day, I collapsed on the floor during the lecture. It wasn't just pneumonia. But I didn't know yet that it was breast cancer.
A fellow participant at the seminars, Pierre Pelletier, a genuine Christian - brought me to hospital and then brought me home to his wife and children, who - with great compassion and friendship - took me in. We are friends to this very day.
I received the cancer diagnosis just after Christmas, 1993, and at the beginning of 1994, my mother appealed to me to "come home". And so I returned to Montreal to live with my parents as I continued my chemotherapy.
On October 7, 1996, I was attacked in my home and robbed of everything I had worked for all my life, by my niece, Dawn McSweeney - with the help of a Montreal Police officer.
The police officer removed me from my home without any legal procedure and without any justification, leaving all my most precious possessions and the lives of my aged parents in the hands of Dawn McSweeney and her boyfriend, Alex Lavergne.
The "kids" had suddenly moved in to my parents' home at the beginning of October. Within a few days, I was attacked and robbed. I managed to dial 911. The Montreal Police I hoped would come to help me - helped the thief instead.
The police officers left me out in the street in front of my home without as much as a coat and forbid me to return for my belongings.
A long time afterward, I learned that Dawn McSweeney had robbed my parents of some hidden cash and painted a target on my back. And I was homeless and destitute again.
At 60, I had to start all over again with nothing but the clothes in my back, my bible, my empty purse and my old faithful 1981 Pontiac.
This is what I have learned: Hard-earned status and security can disappear in an instant. If you are a woman over 35, you are "overqualified" for employment except in politics and the arts. Without diplomas and certificates, experience is not valued. Double Whammy! Your experience is intimidating to young employers and personnel officers.
A woman of infinite variety: Decades of experience came together.
Finally eligible for my senior's pension and with a wealth of experience, I created a career of my own as a private consultant in English communication. I teach effective speech, public speaking and writing to post doctorate students.
For years, I have been a tutor, editor and mentor to a Korean theologian and numerous Asian scientists and doctors - free of charge. I continued to counsel gratis in some cases for deserving, promising students, but I finally started charging appropriate fees for those who could afford it.
The System: Consequently, my taxes increased and my "Old Age Security" supplement and other benefits were drastically reduced. The claw-back devoured most of what I earned. Human Resources and Development Canada gave me this advice:
"Just tell us you have stopped working. Your benefits will increase and you'll be much better off."
But I continued to declare my income and "paid" accordingly.
I remember the night in that shelter when I was just one more vagabond with no future. No, I would not be better off retiring.
Rich or poor, I am a lady. I have work to do.
copyright - Phyllis carter - July 22, 2004. All rights reserved.
Mr. Nostalgia, Cliff Carter - http://cliffcartermrnostalgia.blogspot,com