31 Days of Stories 2015, Day 30: “Gentrification” by Russell Smith
Anyone searching for evidence that Russell Smith is one of the strongest stylists working the CanLit trenches today need look no farther than the opening sentence of “Gentrification,” from the author’s new collection: “It was, if anything, getting worse, the intersection.” Any less brazen writer – which, these days, seems to be most of them – would place the subject at the beginning of that sentence: “The intersection was, if anything, getting worse.” This formulation is at once more obvious and less interesting, less musical, less teasingly cheeky. (In fairness, most editors, themselves lacking a certain brazenness, would automatically rewrite Smith’s sentence if confronted with his more idiosyncratic rendering.)
But from the outset, Smith has never been adverse to taking risks with his fiction. And “Gentrification” is nothing if not risky. Like most of Smith’s oeuvre, it falls in the broad category of satire, which is not a genre most readers find amenable these days. Especially the kind of satire Smith practices, which owes more to the harsh nastiness of Juvenal than the gentle wit of Horace. Then there is the story’s subject matter, which addresses the loaded issues of class, race, and gender politics in contemporary multicultural Toronto.
The focus of the story is Tracy, who lives with his wife, Morgan, in a roiling neighbourhood bounded by factories and rooming houses, and home to a cornucopia of races and ethnicities, including a community of Eastern European immigrants who “were taping up posters in their fantastic language, with lots of k’s and i’s, a language for warfare, and all the posters had the word ROMA at the bottom, sometimes with an exclamation mark, like a soccer chant.” There is also Francis Doyle, the aging Irish relic who still blithely refers to black women as “coloured girls” and Asians as “Orientals.”
And there are Deiondre and Teelah, the black women in question, who rent a basement apartment from Tracy and Morgan. Teelah is the more feminine of the two – she “actually dressed like a girl,” in Tracy’s assessment, which makes it easier for him to ogle her “puffy brown belly” and her “enormous round butt” with its “twist of thong rising above the hip.” Deiondre, by contrast, “look[s] like a boy” in black jeans and a hoodie, her hair done up in “wild and spiky” dreadlocks. The two women have a baby Tracy has never seen, though both he and Morgan have been privy to the child’s wails during the many violent arguments their tenants engage in.
The whole neighbourhood has been privy to the battles waged by Deiondre and Teelah, which involve screaming and cursing and slamming of doors and walls, and in one case fisticuffs and hair-pulling that spills out onto the street for all to witness. Tracy tries to intervene on several occasions, but is forestalled by Deiondre’s obstinacy and the indifference of the police.
Then there is Tracy’s own reticence to get involved – even in the face of prodding from his wife, who calls the situation “intolerable” – a reticence that springs, we can infer, from a nervousness around the perception of a university-educated white male making incursions into the lives of a black lesbian couple on welfare. Tracy knows they are on welfare because he sees the cheques that arrive in their shared mailbox; he becomes indignant when he sees Deiondre getting into a cab, which he feels – with vast reserves of self-righteousness and judgment – is an unconscionable extravagance for someone in her circumstances. (Significantly, the middle-class white man sniffs that taking a cab is something he “would never have done.”)
No doubt Tracy feels a misplaced sense of superiority regarding Deiondre and Teelah; the two women, nevertheless, fully comprehend the power in the way their situation might be perceived by an outsider, and exploit this to their advantage, playing music so loud it resounds throughout Tracy and Morgan’s own living space, then suggesting that Tracy is attempting to prohibit them from their own form of cultural expression when he goes to complain: “We have a right to enjoy ourselves just like you,” Deiondre tells him. “Even right here in Canada.”
Tracy’s conflicted attitude regarding Deiondre and Teelah has much to do with his desire to break away from the constraints of his social class and lifestyle and rub shoulders with what he considers to be a rougher, more exotic milieu. Whether he is allowed to indulge his base desires or forced to repress them depends on the situation and the availability of willing enablers. Morgan staunchly refuses to continue posing for nude photos that Tracy uploads to a softcore porn site as a means of securing a little extra cash, and one of the local Roma women rebuffs him when he tries to approach her with similar intentions. Yet Teelah flirts with him and a bartender talks him into ordering doubles when he goes slumming in a local dive bar.
And the idea of slumming is key here: Tracy flirts with danger and exoticism, but shies away as soon as the otherness gets too close or begins to frighten him. He can flirt with the overtly feminine Teelah, but does not know how to handle Deiondre’s aggressive assertiveness. He finds the Roma girls exciting – “their hair was so flowing and shiny,” and they “made themselves look hot with their pudgy little bellies and supermarket clothes” – but is wary of crossing a line that might put himself in any kind of personal peril: “it would be dangerous to get involved with a gypsy girl, in any way, as the men were quite possessive and violent.” Note also the gendered nature of Tracy’s courage: he is fine approaching women he considers “hot,” but steers clear of men he assumes are violent and the butch Deiondre. (In this regard, one might also note Tracy’s own feminine name – to say nothing of his wife’s more masculine one – something he himself remarks on in the story.)
Here the story tilts in the direction of one of Smith’s abiding themes: authenticity, and the lengths people will go to construct artificial identities to fool both outside observers and, crucially, themselves. Tracy may delight in the coming gentrification of his neighbourhood because it will raise the property value of his house, but he fears the concomitant flattening out of the social stratification that surrounds him, which will deny him easy access to the kind of faux grittiness he is attracted to. On the surface, he plays the role of the upwardly mobile urbanite, cooking vegetarian meals for his university friends and assiduously checking in on his wife’s temperature and the viscosity of her mucous as they attempt to get pregnant, but underneath it all exists a piercing need for a different, more apparently dangerous and exciting lifestyle.
This is why his final epiphany – that the internet offers him a whole range of opportunities to revivify his amateur photography business, “something Morgan wouldn’t be interested in … no matter how lucrative it was” – makes him so happy. He can rent a mailbox from a location “just across the tracks” and set up a photo studio in his basement (which he will paint “clean white”) now that his two abrasive tenants have finally decamped. The ultimate irony in the story is that Tracy pretends to desire an escape from what he perceives as the boredom of his proscribed existence, yet pulls back at the first sign of any real danger. The thing he most fears about gentrification is that it will make his surroundings more closely resemble himself.