Mickey Rooney and the Trees

It’s the wrong time of the year to be doing a Christmas-tree story, but I’m going to go for it anyway, because last Christmas reminded me of it, and I started to write this blog then, and got sidetracked. Now, this isn’t a tear-jerker in which the little girl sees the star at the top of the tree and—well you’re familiar with the rest of that sort of thing. No, this is just about growing up in the Toronto suburb of East York long before it incorporated Leaside, and many more years before it was sucked under the Toronto umbrella and lost its individuality—none of which will mean anything to any of you if you’re not of a certain age and didn’t grow up in Toronto’s East End.

This is about Sammon Avenue (Sammon and Donlands, to be precise); and it’s about a time when neighbours were truly neighbours, when the world was smaller, simpler and a lot easier to understand, a time when you knew the bad guys from the good guys by the shade of their cowboys hats.

We lived on Sammon Ave. just up from Donlands. The Rooneys’ house was around the corner, on Donlands, and backed on to our house, separated from ours by a paved parking area, which provided the required space for Mickey Rooney’s trucks. (Our Mickey was about the same height as the Andy Hardy version, by the way.) Mickey Rooney could have been the prototype for the Energizer Bunny: he never stopped, he had a large van he used as a moving truck, a smaller panel van and a flatbed truck he used, among other things, to carry sod. Lawn sodding was particularly lucrative in the year following the Toronto June bug infestation of the mid-1950s, when the resulting white grubs devastated the city’s grassed areas, and you could roll up lawns like carpets. Mickey never stopped working.

In the winter, the truck he used for sod in the summer was stacked with burlap sacks of coal, which Mr. Rooney sold and delivered to houses in the neighbourhood and beyond, including our house for years until we got hooked up to natural gas. I can remember sitting in the Rooneys’ kitchen when Mr. Rooney would come in after a day of delivering coal, which meant hoisting a truckload of hundredweight sacks of the bituminous variety of the black mineral, carrying them up walkways or driveways beside houses, and pouring the coal down a metal chute, which he had slid through a basement window that had been opened by a housewife and held open by a hook on the window engaging an eye on a floor joist. There was almost always a housewife at home because women generally didn’t work, and the coal deliveries were scheduled.

Back to the Rooneys’ kitchen: Mr. Rooney would arrive home with his face and neck and forearms as black as if he’d been in a minstrel show (not impossible in those insensitive and bigoted days), he’d peel off the top of his BVDs, letting it fall against the back of his legs, exposing a body as pale as the underbelly of a great white shark.

He’d snap a cap of Red Cap ale and pour half the bottle down his throat, then begin his ablutions at a wide, deep sink in the corner of the kitchen, using a laundry-size bar of Sunlight soap and a scrubbing brush. After a time, he’d pause and down the rest of the Red Cap and then return to the scrubbing. I have no idea how long Mr. Rooney lived, but when I think about it now, I can’t imagine it was that long with all that coal residue he ingested one way or another.

I liked Mr. Rooney. I don’t think he said two words to me, but in those days, kids almost didn’t exist in the eyes of adults. The thing is, he never had a harsh word for me.

The Rooneys had the first TV in the neighbourhood. It had an 11-inch screen and three channels, one CBC Toronto, CBLT; and two from Buffalo, WBEN first and then WGR. The Rooneys’ house was a sort of small-scale community centre—at least for me and Norman Patterson, who lived one door north of the Rooneys on Donlands. Without knocking, without even saying hello to anyone, including Mrs. Rooney, we would march into the house and ensconce ourselves in the front room to watch Sagebrush Trail and Uncle Mike and Buttons on WBEN. Often Uncle Bob—whoever’s relative he was—would be sitting at the end of the couch sucking on a one-inch stub of a cigar, held with a toothpick. He never spoke to us, and we never said anything to him.

One day, there was a noise from the direction of the kitchen, and Michael Rooney, the second oldest of the Rooney kids, came running into the front room and started to turn the corner toward the hallway just as Mr. Rooney caught up with him and swung a broom across Michael’s back, snapping the handle in two. I remember as clearly as if it happened yesterday that Norman Patterson and I looked at each other, shrugged and went back to watching Bob Steele in a Sagebrush Trail western. Today, Mr. Rooney would likely be accused of child-abuse—but this was a different time.

The trees: Every year in the middle of December, a load of Christmas trees would arrive in the Rooney’s parking lot. The stake truck that carried them was piled perhaps ten feet above its stake rails with flattened trees. We waited with great anticipation for the trees’ arrival—the Pattersons—Norman and his older brother, Donald—and me

The Rooney boys were there of course: Eddie and Michael and little Terry. Linda Rooney was too young, and a girl, so irrelevant anyway. And there’d be the one or two boarders—fresh from the old sod—who used to stay at the Rooneys’ for a time before finding their own place in the city where the streets were reputed to be paved with gold.

We stood in a line beneath the high-piled truck, our hands sheathed in leather gloves, our shoulders pushed up, our chests pushed out, and then someone standing on the top of the pile—I have no idea who it was—somebody who knew or worked for, or was in partnership with, Mr. Rooney, I imagine—began to toss down the trees—balsam fir and spruce—and we caught them and leaned them against the house wall and the hedge and fence in the Rooney’s backyard, from where they were to be sold. A few large, perfectly shaped trees were stood upright, wired to stakes that Mr. Rooney had already hammered into the ground at the same time as he had strung a line of light bulbs from poles around the perimeter of the yard.

None of us got paid a penny for this, and we didn’t expect to be paid. The young ones, like me, were delighted to be doing grown-up, actually useful, work. And after the trees were put in place, we helped to sell them. They ranged in price from seventy-five cents to a dollar-fifty. (That’ll tell you how old I am.) We had the selling spiel down pat, we knew where to find the best trees and we’d pull them out and bang the bottom of the trunk against the ground to get the branches to fall, and hold the trees up, so the best side was facing the customer, and we knew the particular assets of each kind of tree, and there were none of those fancy, long-needled, Scotch pines favoured by people like my trendy older sister who lived in the suburb of Scarborough in a brand-new house in what we called a “subdivision.”

The trees arrived and were sold within about two weeks ahead of Christmas. The “Holiday Season” didn’t begin, as it does now thanks to our greedy retailers, in October/November, it came and went just before Dec. 25. And that was it, almost all the trees were sold and the Rooneys’ backyard (actually a sideyard) was returned to normal and Norman Patterson and I would meet daily in the Rooneys’ front room, Norman coming from the north on Donlands and I coming from the east on Sammon.

We never talked about the trees, about their arrival or sale, about the success of the season. It was just something that happened each—and every—year, and as far as we were concerned, would somehow continue to the end of time.

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