They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway.
I want to know.
All I want is to go to Broadway and I want to get there fast.
I lost my job at Radio-Canada International. With only two weeks of severance pay, money is tight. I apply for unemployment insurance and think about how to get out of my lease.
I’m a failure in Montréal. I want to pack it all in and move to Toronto. There I can be with my mother and sister, live in my mother’s house, and think over my life. There are too many pressures here in Montréal.
For the summer, my boyfriend Daniel works as a tour guide and spends a lot of time away. I miss him, and at the same time, I doubt his love for me.
The walls in my living room at 8025 rue Berri are orange. I stare at them a long time and think of Daniel. Sitting on the cream-coloured Ikea couch I bought because I couldn’t afford the dusty brown one I saw in a furniture boutique, I reach for the phone and dial a number in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I’ve dialed all weekend.
“Bonjour, babydo,” Daniel answers.
“Are you alone?” I hiss, spitting out my words between sobs. “Yes,” he says. “Why are you crying, babydo?”
“You don’t love me!”
“I do, babydo, I do,” he says softly. “Are you taking your medication?”
“Fuck that, Daniel,” I scream. “This has nothing to do with my medication. You don’t love me. You are just using me. You are always away. You are never around!”
“But babydo,” he continues in his quiet tone. “I have to work. I have to pay for school. I have to help you with the rent. I know you must be upset because you lost your job—”
“Fuck that too, Daniel,” I shout and continue to cry. “I don’t care.”
“I’m coming home, babydo. I’m coming home.” Daniel cries now, too. “I love you, babydo. I do. It hurts me to hear you speak to me this way. Please try to stop shouting.”
“Fuck you, Daniel, I scream. “You don’t love me! You’re just using me anyway. I
do not want to see you again.”
I hang up, shaking. For hours the phone rings. That night I do not sleep.
I’m expected to be in Ottawa to see my godmother on the weekend but I make the decision to leave for Toronto instead. I go around my apartment, putting post-it notes on the things I want moved. That was how RCI handled the move to the Radio- Canada tower on boulevard René-Lévesque. I wonder if I can move out first thing in the morning, maybe even tonight. I call an overnight mover to see if all my furniture and things can be moved by the next day.
I will leave with only what I can carry and I’ll call my sister Karen and ask if she can pick me up at the train station.
The phone rings many, many times at my mother’s house in Markham. “Hello?” my mother answers.
“Hi, Mom. Can I speak to Karen?” “Just a moment, Donna.”
I hear rustling and whispering. “Donna, are you okay?” my sister asks. “Why?”
“Daniel called and said you’re not taking your medication.”
“Rat,” I spit out with anger. “He’s lying. I am taking my medication.”
“Well, Don, it’s just that…” My sister is hesitant. “It is important you know—” “Karen,” I interrupt. “I want to come back to Toronto for a while.”
“Good, good.” Karen sounds happy and whispers something to my mother. I can hear my mother in the background. She is saying something in a happy voice. “When?” Karen asks.
“Oh,” she says, a bit surprised. “Do you want me to pick you up?”
“Yes,” I say. “I’m taking the express train that arrives downtown at nine.”
“Ah, Donna…the Guildwood train station would be closer. Would you mind going there?”
“Pick me up at the Front Street train station at nine. Please, Karen.” More whispering with my mom. Karen comes back on the phone.
“Okay Donna,” she agrees. “Just promise me you will call Daniel back. He is very, very upset.”
“Bye, Karen. I will see you tonight.” “Bye, Don.”
I decide to leave most of my things to make up for the rent I owe and concentrate on packing everything I need into my three favourite black bags. Into the largest one go my designer outfits that would better fit a slightly smaller version of myself. Things like magazines, including Oprah Winfrey’s first, I put in my knapsack, along with some of my own writing. My expensive mini-disc, my camera and my ID fit into my letter-carrier Gap bag.
I do finally get some sleep. Fitful sleep. I dream that my mother declares bankruptcy and that she and my sister go live with my rich godmother. When I awaken, the residue of the dream brings me happiness and a sense there are good things to come.
Early in the morning I trek out of my apartment with the three black bags in tow. I leave the door open and the key by my landlord’s doorstep.
In case I decide to stay in Montréal, I plan to check into a bed and breakfast on rue Cherrier, near the Sherbrooke Metro, a nice one that I saw when the Culture Shock team had dinner together. I struggle onto the Metro with my three black bags, dragging the largest behind me. It contains my Gianfranco Ferre suit—I call it my Dracula suit—with black velvet on the outside and red velvet on the inside; my favourite grey wool “just to the knee” dress from Benetton; my long cream-coloured wrap-around DKNY skirt from when I worked there; my Jones New York grey wool winter coat with the huge boxer’s hood; and my Hilary Radley Italian wool jacket with the removable faux fur lining.
Whispers of not working from my lover. Wishes I could turn back the hands of time.
I accidentally take the Green Line instead of the Orange Line that will take me to Sherbrooke. When I switch over to the Orange Line, I realize that I have left behind my large bag. I backtrack to Angrignon, hoping to retrieve it, but it’s gone. I get back on the Orange Line and head to Sherbrooke.
I arrive at the Château Cherrier with only my Gap bag and knapsack. I ring the bell and I’m let in. “Are you looking for a single room?” a middle-aged Québécoise man asks.
I have broken up with Daniel, so I say, “Yes. I’m only staying for a few days while
I find an apartment in the Plateau.”
He shows me to a room upstairs with no carpet on the floor and bland furniture, but it’s clean.
Before I settle in, I want to pay for my room. I don’t have a lot of money to spend. I have to keep a float in my bank account.
“I only have money for three days,” I tell him, hoping I can get a deal on the room. I really have money for five.
“How much money do you have?” he asks.
“One hundred dollars and that needs to cover everything for me here for three days.”
“I cannot give you the room for so little,” he says.
I look at all my stuff and feel a pang for the things I have lost. All I have left for collateral is my Pentax camera, which was a gift from my mother. I pull it out of my Gap bag. “I will leave this camera with you,” I say. “You can use it to know I am good here for three days. If I default, you can keep the camera. The camera is the best—it’s a Pentax.”
He nods. “I know.”
I stare at him with my hands on my waist.
“Okay,” he says. “That’s fine. You look like a nice girl.” I smile.
“My name is Donna.” He smiles.
“My name is Lionel.”
I look around the entrance. It looks like a room from Moulin Rouge: deep dark reds, deep dark oranges, heavy paisley drapes, mainly in purple, and chandeliers everywhere—beautiful but a bit macabre.
“Lionel, how about if I redecorate for you?” I venture. “This hotel looks as though it could use some freshening up.”
Lionel laughs. “You want your camera back?”
“No, no,” I lie. “That’s not it. Can I perhaps pay to use your computer to work on my résumé and, oh, by the way, do you have Internet?”
He laughs again.
“You really want your camera back?” He laughs more. “I thought you said you had no more money. What do you plan to pay me with?”
“No, no,” I lie. “That’s not it.” I try again. “Lionel, do you have any children? Are you married? Why are you working so late at night?”
He smiles. “You must really want your camera back.” He hands it to me, plus the keys to the room on a black plastic ring with numbers that read “3-0-2.”
I snatch them.
“I’m going out soon, Lionel. Thanks.” I rush to my room.
“Be back by nine, lady,” Lionel calls out.
I leave my knapsack locked in the room and walk the Plateau. I decide I do not want to live in this part of the city. It’s too loud.
I remember I’m supposed to meet my sister and I head for the train station where I book a one-way seat to Toronto on the 3:40 p.m. train, and pay for it with my Visa.
It’s still morning. I have plenty of time to kill. I decide to do some work. Sitting outside the train station, on boulevard René-Lévesque, I sing, “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway,” and hold out my hand for change. I get a dollar.
Voyaging through good and bad neighbourhoods, by foot and by bus, I make it to my bank outside the L’Église Metro station and deposit the dollar. I ask them to put it in my chequing-savings account.
Then I go to work again, this time outside L’Église Metro. I sing and dance and draw a small crowd. None of them give me money. They are older men and look unemployed. We’re all in the same boat.
“You should create a real show,” one of them says. “Add music and costumes and play an instrument.” I do not take his advice too kindly. I pack up my act and jump on the Metro.
Carrying only my Gap bag, I calmly board the train heading to Guildwood. Then I remember my plans to meet my sister downtown. I call and tell her I will arrive on a different train.
I have my mini-disc with me and spend most of the ride listening to interviews I recorded while working at Radio-Canada. I come up with an idea to both make money and keep myself busy: I can transcribe the interviews, all with interesting people, and write a book.
Being on medication keeps you regular, it keeps you sane, and it keeps you in the daily reality of your everyday life. Not taking it, I realize as I travel on the train, is not dealing with the reality of my mania. My mind is in the past, and in the future, but never really in the present moment.
I listen to a conversation behind me. Two young men are talking about getting into graduate school and earning their PhDs. It’s something I can relate to. Having my master’s degree, I have my own PhD aspirations. They talk about the physical sciences, though—physics and chemistry. That, I cannot relate to because both of my degrees are in the arts, one in journalism, one in media studies. Their conversation switches to something else I can relate to. The young man on the left, who I see is blond when I turn around and look at him, explains to his friend that his father has schizophrenia. I listen to his story of growing up with his father, all that he went through, and of his father’s struggles too. I put myself to work once again, this time through journalism, not song.
I turn around and interrupt their conversation. “Excuse me,” I say.
“Yes?” the blond man asks.
“I used to work for the CBC and I still freelance for them,” I begin. “I’m interested in your story about your father who is schizophrenic. Would you be interested in being interviewed for the CBC?”
“Really?” he asks, surprised. I nod. I smile.
“Well, sure,” he says. “That would be great. I would just need to find out if it is alright with my dad. If it is, then sure.”
“Okay, great.” I pull out my light blue ideas notebook and a pen from the inside pocket of my jacket, jot down my number and tear off the slip of paper.
“Here is my father’s phone number. Call me there if your dad says yes.” I hand him the small piece of ruled paper. “Don’t worry if he doesn’t. I will understand.”
As I unload from the train I chat with the two men and with some other people. I saunter away and say “goodbye” to a middle-aged woman and “see ya” to the young man with the schizophrenic father. “Call me,” I tell him.
I look for my sister.
She is nowhere in sight.
Carrying my Gap bag, I jump into a cab. The driver and I talk about lots of things on the long ride to my mother’s house. I tell him to stop off at the hotel where Daniel stays when his temporary tour guide job brings him to Toronto.
Daniel is not at the hotel. He checked out last week. He is in Niagara Falls. I scribble “fuck you” in a note that I will give him when I see him next. I keep the note in my hands all the way to my mother’s house.
I no longer have a key to my mother’s semidetached home in Markham, so I ring the bell. She welcomes me, but I don’t really want to be here. The past hurts.
I enter her room that looks as gothic and museum-like as that Château Cherrier place in Montréal. Her room is filled with the ghosts that I grew up with. I know they should stay in the past. I should leave them in the past. But I can’t stop myself. I tell her how I feel, how angry I am at her for putting up with a man who beat her for so many years.
I’m not taking my medication. But I lie and tell my mother I am.
Something in my mother’s eyes scares me: the hurt, the pain, the anguish. I rush out the door into the night with my Gap bag over my shoulder. As I run down Warden Avenue, I drop the bag. The weight is too much. I desperately want to rid myself of baggage.
I run to a convenience store and call my father to pick me up. I can’t get hold of him.
In the dark of night, I run to Finch Avenue.
When I get there, I don’t know what to do with myself. I have no money or ID. I threw all that away. I think about hitching a ride to my dad’s house, which I’ve never done before, but that seems too dangerous and scares me. I see a bus. It’s heading toward Finch Station.
I run across the street and beg the driver to let me on. He says yes and I take a seat in the back. I’m distraught, so I sing.
“They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway.”
I sing at the top of my lungs.
“They say the neon lights can fill the air.”
People seem to be happy and one guy, white, even tells me to “sing on sister.” So
The bus reaches the subway station. I stand and sing as I walk to the door. “Shut up!” a tall black man shouts.
“You shut the fuck up,” I yell back, hurt that he doesn’t think I sound like
Whitney Houston. “Me gwanna put a gunshot in ya head if ya na shat up,” I shout in patois.
Shaking his head, he backs away and sits down until I step off.
I sing on the subway, too, getting through Toronto’s transit system with no problems. At first I sing sitting down and and then I walk through the cars singing, hoping to get change. Nobody gives me any, so I get off at the Lawrence East subway station.
I am frightened here. I have no idea where to go. From a phone booth, I call my dad again. He answers this time. I ask him to meet me at the corner opposite the Coffee Time at Yonge Street and Lawrence Avenue.
I try to wait patiently. My dad said he would be about half an hour. As I wait, I
take my performance to the streets.
I sing and draw a crowd of teenagers. Plus, I do a little performance art for them. I get a standing ovation but the show exhausts me. My father has still not arrived and I have no money in my pockets.
I walk alongside a park and think about sleeping in the bushes for the night. But I get scared and hail a cab. I thank the driver for stopping and tell him I want to go to New York, to Broadway.
“I have no money,” I say, “but I do have a friend there in Spanish Harlem. She will pay my fare when we get there.”
She’s married and has a cat and a great job. I figure I can crash at her place and I
can pay her back later.
The cab driver does not want to go. He decides not to take me anywhere and leaves me alone on the dark streets of Toronto. I am afraid and manic at the same time. I see a lovely apartment building and try to find shelter there.
The concierge lets me in. I tell him I want a job as a doorwoman. He turns me down but he does give me some cigarettes. I sit outside the building and smoke. I will wait until morning and when the manager comes I will ask him for a job.
My plan does not last long.
I walk back to the corner of Yonge and Lawrence, weary of every man looking at me. My hair is in an extension with a weave at the end, and even in my state, I look like a hot mama.
I enter the Coffee Time and get free day-old bagels and a coffee from the kind South Asian owner. I look like such a hot mama that I attract the attention of an older Greek man as I sing at the counter. He beckons me over. I tell him to wait until I finish my song.
His name is Cyril and I find out we are fellow alumni from Concordia University, which was called Sir George Williams in his time. He is an engineer and fascinating to talk to. He worked in Tanzania for eight years and we talk a lot about Africa.
We also talk about life in general. I feel very confused about where to direct my anger at the injustices in the world: the injustice of having a crazy family; the injustice of being out of work with my education and my credentials; and the injustice of having a boyfriend who does not really love me.
Cyril explains it this way: “There is a balance in life. There are no winners or losers. Who wins and who loses is a game. It’s just a game. The focus must be on balance.”
This is music to my ears.