Lost tunnels

They’re gone, I think. Not the cockroaches. The exterminators. They’ve moved on. And the water is coming through the taps again, from the other adventure in the High Doganate this week. And everything that had to be removed from every corner (by polite request, backed with the power of law), is back on my shelves and in my cupboards, so that with nothing more than an all-night stand, or two, order is superficially restored. And ho, it even went above freezing today, in the Greater Parkdale Area. Thick overcast and drizzle.

Gentle reader will want to know what the other adventure was; or else he won’t. Either way, I am going to tell him: about tea, and the earthquake. (Tea goes with anything.)

You see, good old G.R., I was walking home, after an exceptionally cold and howling windy day as a street person, the day my flat was “done” by the bug killers. We had all to stay out there, for hours, until the pesticides had settled a bit. I pitied especially those with small children and animals, and thought of all the legitimate refugees in this world. Also, of the illegitimate ones; for the snow, it snows on the just and on the unjust.

And all the way home, through what the British call “brass monkeys,” and for a reason that I will not explain, I was thinking of the chaos I would soon be confronting, in the place where I live; but that the nightmare would soon be over and, “I will make a nice pot of tea.”

Turning into my dear street, I noticed of course the big earth-moving machines, that have been digging it up these last few months (for the fourth time in a few years). Dig, lift, fill; dig, lift, fill; … forever, as in Hell. Something to do with the pipes underground, and how they freeze and crack each winter. For this latest turn, some genius at City Hall has come up with the idea of burying them a few inches deeper.

What surprised me was the new, very large, and impressively deep hole they had excavated, just where the water mains go into my building. Our new superintendent, a sweet yet gritty woman, with no fear of work, was looking into it from the entrance patio she had recently repaired, that had just mysteriously cracked again. (A cracked patio is a magnet for lawsuits.) She had on her worn, worried, sleepless face, an expression of ineffable sadness.

Cheering at the sight of me, she said, “We have decided to install a swimming pool.”

I expressed my preference for a goldfish pond.

“I’ll tell the workmen to change the design.”

So now our water will be shut off “for some time,” I reflected. She confirmed that would be so.

There was another lady standing there, a co-tenant of face quite familiar, who expressed my very most inward thought: how she had been longing for tea, tea, in all her long ambles through the ice and snow. (“Blow, blow thou winter wind.”) I told her that we were in profound agreement.

People are so kind in a disaster. For just before I had entered the fourth stage of mourning (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), she had fetched for me a four-litre plastic bottle, charged with mineral water. And on presenting it she said, “Here, I am over-supplied.” Then added words to the effect that no one could want to make tea from the taps in this building anyway. (Cross-on-the-wall Catholic woman.)


Which takes us to the earthquake.

About Richter Six in magnitude, estimating by the clatter in my crockery cupboard. Caused, I should think, by the giant earth-moving machine, using its immense shovel as a kind of pile-driver, tamping down the earth as the crater it had previously dug was refilled. It felt rather as if the building would come down, imminently, and I pictured all my irreplaceable books in the rubble. Together with their owner.

But no, this building was erected during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was designed by another generation of builder, to withstand a direct hit from a descending Soviet ICBM. Though I wondered if they’d calculated for a hit from the bottom.

The machines, too, have now moved to the next building, obliterating yet another front lawn, at cost to the unlucky landlord; but the shaking here is now below Richter Five. And after all these months, and months, and months, I am almost accustomed to the noise. (The constant daily mechanical noise of the post-modern city, that keeps our minds off God and our salvation.)

And am once again having a cup of tea, a fine strong Assam, thinking of those cities built before the twentieth century, with the tunnels and the sewer courses run under the streets. Why? So workmen could repair little breaches and blockages without the slightest disruption to life above ground.

And thinking of people like my father, the late industrial designer, who used to preach, “Do it right the first time.”

And of his bearded artist friend (beloved John Sommer), who said, “It is a lie that anything has to be ugly. Everything is made ugly by choice.”

Whole fascinating cities underground, like ant colonies of stone, brick and mortar; sunken canals, tow-paths and arches, deep below “cut-and-cover,” in London, Paris, New York.

And even in Toronto, below the oldest parts of town.

It is true, I am a dreamer, living in the past, oh my!