I came home the other day to find a crew at work up the street, taking down a 200-year-old oak tree that was here before there was a street or even a city. It's a sad but majestic spectacle when one of these things goes down, so I took out my phone and tried to capture the moment. And yes, I know that sentence wouldn't make a bit of sense to me not so long ago.
Once it was down I tried to imagine what a skilled furniture maker could do with all of that beautiful wood. I'd heard that a lot of my neighbours were really unhappy about the tree going down, but it was in the middle of the lot, and I couldn't see how the new owner could do much without building into the tiny footprint of the existing house - one of the remaining shacks that were the first homes built in neighbourhoods like Earlscourt.
As for the house, I suppose you could have called it quaint. I took a photo of it two summers ago, when the last owner was probably still there, judging by the mowed lawn and the flowers in the window boxes on the porch. Tar paper over a wooden frame; it might have been good enough before Vimy Ridge or talkies or television, but in a city where home prices go up twenty or thirty per cent a year, it was a goner.
|114 McRoberts Avenue, July, 2012|
With the tree gone, on the morning of its last day, it looked cornered.
I'd gotten to know the new owner, who let me take a look inside while the excavator idled outside on the lawn, its huge steel bucket nosed into the earth next to the front door. You couldn't help but notice the details - the thesaurus/dictionary on the nearly empty shelf; the nearly full package of adult diapers on the couch.
It didn't smell very nice - the usual mix of cat piss, dirty clothes and sweat: Old man smells. The rooms were small and the floors were dirty, but it was hard not to feel sorry for the place when you read the numbers written on the tile by phone, next to last year's calendar. It was nasty, but it was someone's home, and they'd left so much of their last moments there that it made you imagine a hasty exit, distracted and involuntary.
The front lawn might have been torn up - a lost battle still half fought - but in the overgrown backyard you could still imagine the refuge this mean little house gave its owner. I don't know what happened to the old man who lived here, but when I took this picture the house had minutes to live.
Watching an excavator at work demolishing a house is truly remarkable, no matter what you might feel about the work at hand. The man at the controls began by taking tiny bites out of the roof, like a kid eating the white from the middle of a crusty roll. With the teeth of the bucket, he'd delicately pull off bits of siding and nudge roof beams away from the neighbour's wall, then with the enormous weight of the steel jaws, he began pulverizing the contents of the house, punching them into the basement.
There are strict by-laws about separating building debris, so the huge bucket would reach in and scoop out the fridge, the chest freezer, the sink and the flimsy frame of the plant shelf and the grow lights. As more of the house was pushed into the earth, the treads of the excavator would roll forward, till finally the last wall was knocked down, picked up again and tossed casually to the ground.
While I stood on the sidewalk watching the house go down a neighbour joined me, an older Italian gentleman who used to run the corner store down the block - now closed - for twenty years. He said there had been a family here once, a mother and a daughter and then finally a son living there alone. He had been a postman, but that was a long time ago.
Before the lunch hour was over the house was gone, pushed into the ground so that the excavator could get at the garage behind it. There was nothing left the next day but a few piles of cinder blocks, and the ghost of the house - a smudged outline on the wall of the house next door, open to the sun and air for a few brief weeks until a new house rises to cover up its last trace.