Contemplating human history is peering into a rear-view mirror. People, things and events are distorted, closer or more distant, wider or narrower than they really were. In the 1950’s and 1960’s in North America, industrial growth allowed everyone to own a refrigerator, a car, a washing machine. As these new domestic conveniences became commonplace, we had more of a rare and precious commodity – time. How delicious! The prospect of ever-increasing hours of amusement in our sparkling blue-and-green playground! What would the freshly emancipated populace do with all its free time? Picnics and camping trips, mountaineering and paddling, days by the seaside, cycling excursions, rambling walks in the woods?
My grandmother was a mother of two teenage boys in the 1950’s. She used her scads of free time to shop. By the time I was ten years old, my grandmother had officially declared her favourite form of exercise to be walking through shopping malls. She knew the length in quarter miles of every floor of every mall within a 50 mile radius of Niagara Falls, N.Y., where she and my grandfather lived. She calculated how many circuits of a given mall she should complete to benefit her health. The output of factories had given her freedom, and it was the former she valued. If something was new, manmade, and labour-saving, it was wonderful. She fell in love with the thing that gave her freedom, instead of the freedom itself.
“Look!” my grandmother crowed at lunchtime one day. “Spray cheese! I don’t even have to slice it to make your sandwiches!”
My brother and sister and I, exchanging glances of dread, watched Grandma gleefully press a white plastic pump and squirt a crazy orange-coloured mess onto limp pieces of white bread.
Going for a drive was considered an activity, and given equal or greater weight than walking in a park or playing frisbee. “What are we doing today?” we kids would ask our grandparents. “Going for a drive!” Grandpa would answer. I would get the same sinking feeling I used to get before going to church, sentenced to hours of boredom, repetition, bad smells and nausea. First Grandpa would put on his ‘driving coat’ – a special outer garment for sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle – then remove his leather gloves from said compartment and pull them on slowly, finger by finger. Finally, he would place The Hat on his thin, white hair. The Hat is rare these days, but you can still spot it. The next time someone is inexplicably driving like they’re in a funeral cortege, look for The Hat. We kids would press into the back seat, resigned, and jostling each other impatiently.
In the summer of 1978 Grandpa announced that we were going for a drive “with the windows up”. This was code for ‘the place we’ll be driving is dangerous’. Sometimes we would drive through downtown Buffalo, with its poverty and black neighbourhoods. “Roll up the windows,” Grandpa would say, “and lock the doors.”
We didn’t drive into downtown Buffalo, but through Love Canal, a community near Niagara Falls. Love Canal was – intentionally, to save money – built on 22,000 tons of toxic waste dumped by the Hooker Chemical Company. Here’s what I remember: The day was sunny and beautiful, the sky a perfect blue and every plant chlorophyll green. I was hating the fact that we were once again about to waste a glorious afternoon crammed into the back seat of a car. We didn’t dicuss the gross misnomer, but I thought about it. Love Canal, Grandpa said, was a river of poison. He should know – he worked for the Hooker Chemical Company for much of his adult life.
“Here we are,” Grandpa said. “Love Canal.” Grandma was uncharacteristically quiet.
At first it looked like any other low to middle-class neighbourhood in upstate New York, straight streets of more or less identical bungalow houses, each with its requisite tree in the front yard. On closer inspection, our noses smearing the car window glass, all the doors and windows of the houses had been boarded up. Some of this plywood was defaced with spray paint, angry words emblazoned over the polluted dreams of hundreds of families. Grandpa drove to the parking lot of the elementary school, where puddles of discoloured water were full, he said, of chemicals that could kill families slowly. Tears stood in his eyes as he told us about how the Hooker Chemical Company had sold this land to the Niagara Falls School Board for a dollar.
Because of Love Canal, and other environmental tragedies involving the Hooker Chemical Company, something major happened to my grandfather’s psychology. Just over a decade later, while planting trees, I received the only letter I ever got from Grandpa, urging me to plant some trees for him. He begged me to do everything I could to protect and nurture the environment, to help him leave a better legacy, through his offspring.
Staring at our computer screens, we press our “like” buttons for images of friends enjoying themselves in the great outdoors. Maybe we’re finally learning to love the time itself, instead of the things that buy us that time.