I must have been eight when Linda’s house on Second Avenue burned down. The news of her burning house spread by word of mouth – people passing it on as they walked by – people milling about in the street, perhaps shouting to a passerby “Did you hear about the Matts’ house?”
My grade three self reeled in shocked disbelief. Linda was a grade before me, and it seemed like the most horrible thing that could happen to a human being, shattering my sense of a secure world that could be taken completely for granted.
The day after the fire, we walked over to see the smoldering ruin. I remember the piles of black rubble, and a still-standing chimney. My sense of horror remains. I obsessed about it for days, insisting that we buy a toy for Linda, as they now had nothing. I still remember the doll we bought for her.
As it turned out, the fire did ‘ruin’ them. They did not have insurance, and joined ‘the poor’ in the neighbourhood. A few years later they were in a rental flat next door to us, and my now 10-year-old mind saw Linda only as ‘the girl whose house burned down’. I knew that the black dress she wore was meant for a woman – probably her mother – and that she didn’t have many choices.
In those days, poor people didn’t have TV or order in pizza. And there was no ‘poor ghetto’ – they had to live next door to people who could afford a more luxurious lifestyle, with the embarrassment of the difference.
From Linda’s lost home, I learned about insurance and very vividly about how poverty can happen. I learned about how dramatically life can change overnight. That experience has been reverberating in me ever since.