McBride

We are all, what we are, because of our life’s experiences, where we’ve lived, the trips we’ve taken, the jobs we’ve had, and especially the people who’ve come into and gone from our lives.  Such a one for me, was McBride.  For about two years of a very formative period, he cut a Technicolor swath through my life.

Bestest friends for a while, we couldn’t have been more different.  Where I was quiet and reserved, he was loud, brash, outgoing and incurably happy.  He just didn’t have a volume control.  Even standing near enough to inspect his fillings, he always spoke as if you were across the room….or across the street.   His personality opened like a big, bright beach umbrella to cover everyone within reach.

Given the same first name as me, and only a month younger, he was born and raised in Barrie, Ontario.  When I lived there for a year, finding that the bank and I weren’t going to have a happy, long-term work relationship, he had moved to Toronto, hoping to find himself, and gainful employment.  When I moved back home for another run at life, he did the same thing.  When I moved to Kitchener, because that was where the jobs were, he did the same.  When we both found that jobs needed education, training and experience, we both wound up taking the same Adult Education course.

It didn’t take long to find that we had his hometown in common, knew the same people, had been the same places.  Besides potential employment, one reason he picked Kitchener was that his older, policeman brother lived here.  He stayed with the couple for a while, but they had a tiny little house, and two young children.  He needed a place to live.  I shared a double bed with my brother, in what was the converted parlor in a rooming house.  Always anxious to maximise her profit, the old Mennonite landlady added a cot, and let him live with us.

When 21 was the legal drinking age, and I was just learning how to wrestle Demon Rum and his friends, McBride was an experienced and dedicated partier.  I would take the trolley-bus home after school got out at 11:00 PM, but it was not unusual for him to roll in at three, or four.  One night he showed up with a big grin on his face.  Just 21, he had put the moves on, and escorted a 45 year old woman from the Secretarial Course home.  He rose to the occasion four times before leaving a happy and very satisfied gal, and walking three miles home.

He never met a beer he didn’t like, especially if it was free.  We were living on the equivalent of Unemployment Insurance.  Once he paid his rent and transport, there wasn’t much left.  He might party Friday night, because school got out at nine.  He might party Sunday night, because we could sleep in and go to school at 5 PM, but Saturday was his day at the Hotel.  Stuffy old Ontario didn’t have bars; they had closely monitored “beverage rooms” in licensed hotels.  Mixed drinks were almost unheard of.  They served beer.

He would spend an hour, Saturday morning, in the bathroom, while the landlady complained about lack of access.  He would emerge, shiny and polished, and ready to start some serious drinking.  A glass of draft beer cost 15 cents, and he was perennially broke.  He would borrow the fifteen cents for the first glass, and disappear for thirteen hours.  I couldn’t spend that long in a dim, smoky room full of noisy drunks, but he did it each and every week.  After leaving broke, he would return with a pocket full of coins and loose bills, drunk, and always well fed.  He always repaid the 15 cents, but never offered more.

Apparently, there were always games of chance/skill going on, penny-toss, the Ring Game, and something called Kadiddle.  I never found out if he cheated or was just a great player.  The first Saturday he left, the phone rang at 1:30 in the morning.  The landlady went to bed about 10.  I heard her get up and answer it in the hall, right outside my room.  Then she banged on my door, told me it was for me, and peevishly insisted that it never happen again.  It was the bartender at the hotel, demanding that I come and pick up the drunk who couldn’t stand, much less walk four blocks home.

The next couple of weeks, on Saturday night, I would move the phone and its stand into my room about midnight, with the cord under the door, as near my bed as it would stretch, and grab it on the first ring, so as not to waken Broomhilda.  Finally, I got smart, and just got dressed and left the house, quietly, at 1:15.

We were so broke we couldn’t afford to spend the afternoon, but he had great plans that we would move into a small apartment.  Back before single-use, plastic food containers, he started bringing home dishes.  If he had an order of French-fries, he put the plate and fork into his coat pocket.  He brought home a vinegar shaker, and a set of salt and pepper shakers.

Including ale, porter and stout, all beer in Ontario was served in a “lager glass.”  Shaped like a Coca-Cola glass, it had a white line a quarter inch from the rim, to assure that drinkers got full measure.  I went to pry him from his chair one night, and he clinked.  He had lager glasses in his pants pockets, across his stomach beneath his belt, down the sleeves of his coat.

Getting into the rooming-house was up two steps, across a landing, then up five more steps.  With me pushing, he made the first two easily enough.  When he took a run at the last five, he got about halfway up, lost his balance and reeled backward.  I managed to catch him and get him headed up again, but I had heard breaking glass.

I got him in reasonably quietly, he collapsed backward on my bed, and I started removing glass and glasses. He had 25 lager glasses, three of five, across his tummy, were broken.  He’s lucky he’s not a eunuch.  I dumped the broken stuff, set the empty ones on the dresser and poured him into his own bed.  When I woke the next day, he was still asleep, but six of the glasses were full of rented beer.

I last saw him about 25 years ago.  He had a regular run from Barrie to Kitchener as a gypsy trucker.  Between road trips and hard drinking, he’d lost a wife, but was still upbeat.  He opened my eyes to a lot of real life.  Have any of you had a “character” like this in your life?