Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Ch.14 Onward and Upward, Toronto 1959


They realized gradually, from the Hungarian newspapers printed in Toronto, that while Ottawa was the capitol, Montreal and Toronto were the really significant , important cities which were developing and progressing much faster than small, provincial Ottawa. The three friends moved on to Toronto, in fact Andy had gone even further south, as he had reconnected with a childhood sweetheart in the US and married her. The jointly owned car had been sold and this was the first time they had realized that cars are not good investments in North America.
Peter had started to seriously think about going back to school, starting university. He had written to many schools, inquiring about bursaries and help but none was available in 1959, at least none that would allow him full time study. So self financing was the answer, and finding a job that would allow somehow full time schooling.
While this was complicated, finally the chance came when he had found a job in Toronto’s St.Michael’s Hospital, as an orderly. The personnel manager who was a Polish immigrant himself, was a bit skeptical about Peter’s request for permanent night-shift duty, so that he could attend regular daytime courses at the University of Toronto. It seemed as if the middle aged manager exhibited some jealousy, mixed with a degree of superiority when he questioned, probed Peter. Why on earth was any European immigrant trying to get a university degree, when he, himself, he had already graduated from the University of Warsaw, and look, all that he could “attain” was this miserable little job, with a basement office, in a nuns’ hospital? Not much sense in studying for any degree because the “big” jobs will never be given to immigrants in this country, if they are not of Anglo-Saxon background!
In the end, he obliged and gave Peter a permanent night shift that is from September on, should Peter get accepted at the University of Toronto. But this was still at the beginning of summer in 1959, so Peter was given his training on the afternoon shift, supervised by a fellow orderly, from the south of Italy, called Vito. Poor Vito had immigrated to Canada in the late thirties, and, according to many, Vito had a tough assignment speaking English, while he himself was convinced of speaking fluently! Indeed, within a few hours, Vito could convince one that he mastered English, if all gesticulations, with hands and all were allowed. So formal training did not exist, and Peter had started on the 1-A surgical ward, with Vito, learning as he went along.
The colossal hospital was run by catholic nuns, but all the personnel from doctors to nurses came from the secular part of society. Every ward was run with military precision and the greatest of conscience by a Sister Angelica or a Sister Agatha or some such.
On the 1-A ward were the most needy or uninsured patients, in multi-bed rooms. People from accidents, unconscious and of no fixed address, from barroom brawls and the like usually ended up here. But there were also patients with advanced cancer and other serious ailments, too. The daily chores were excellent for language training. Patients, nurses and student nurses, the hospital had attached to it a nurses’ college, too, with many young trainees on the job, getting experience, they all spoke English.

Student nurses, St.Michael Hospital,1959
In addition to the regular duties, he had a chance to spend time getting to know the odd patient as well. Some had no family or friends to visit them; for them the hospital personnel became occasional “family” or friend with whom they met daily, received some help and sympathy, often the only source of human contact.
A young boy suffering from inoperable cancer became Peter’s favored patient. They would play a few games of chess on quiet evenings. He recalled his younger brother whom he had left back in Hungary, how he had taught him, just before the revolution, to play chess. This sick boy in the hospital was also very grateful for the attention, but it was even more meaningful that at least he could make this boy happy even while missing his brother.
Aside from homesickness, many Hungarian immigrants, especially those who had left families behind, felt strong pangs of conscience, too, for each richer moment, for anything that may have seemed on the level of luxury for the folks back in Hungary. Each better mouthful, each piece of clothing, the freer and worriless life caused inevitable mental anguish. Many tried to help those back in the old country, according to their means available. There was already a travel agency that dealt primarily with Hungarians located in the Bloor and Spadina streets’ vicinity which then was known as the Hungarian quarter. Peter had heard that 100 forint Hungarian bank notes could be purchased there, for about $5, and smuggled in plain letters sent home to his mother and little brother.

Later on, the immigrants could send so called IKKA parcels home, legally, with the cynical acquiescence of the Hungarian government, as they took a substantial percentage from these dollar transactions. They needed that hard currency. Many helped their families, parents with such means.
Thanks to Vito, the newcomer soon learnt the trade and even got new responsibilities. The nuns asked him to go upstairs one day, to the women patients’ ward, as his help was needed. A dead patient had to be placed on a gurney and the nurses could not manage the weight. After helping with the task, the chief nun had entrusted Peter with being responsible for the morgue, also, while he was on his shift. That consisted of opening the morgue and handing out the corpses to the funeral home people, or taking cadavers up to the autopsy rooms. At the beginning he had a rather tough time getting used to the responsibility, but then this proved to be a simple and ordinary job. Many patients had given the staff much more grief at times than those who had passed away.

Orderly, St.Michael’s Hospital, Toronto, 1959

Then again, the cooled morgue was always so much more pleasant in the terrible, damp heat of the Toronto summer than the 1A ward with stuffy and hot rooms. He would not dare to tell anyone that often he would hide watermelons in the empty, refrigerated boxes that were nicely cooled during his shift.
The job in the hospital presented excellent chances for meeting various kinds of extremely interesting people. For example, one of the patients’ elevators attendants was a well read, intelligent gentleman. He read anything and everything about philosophy. He was in contrast with most of the other workers who were invariably newcomers, non Anglo-Saxon immigrants, while this man was born in Canada, spoke fluently both languages of the country, but other than that no one knew anything else about him. And particularly why on earth did he work in this simple job with his intelligence and wisdom? Peter was struck by this intriguing man’s reading habits, as he never saw him without a book, whether in his elevator, or in the hospital’s cafeteria. If they started a conversation, he had many questions about the other person but would never allow any detail about his life. He would cite long monologues from one or another of his well researched philosophers, but declined to answer specific questions about himself. He had lent Peter many obviously well read and annotated books, and while most of these had been over his head in terms of text and thought, he had started to know something about Thomas Merton, St.Thomas Acquinas,Kahlil Gibran, Cyrill Connolly.
What could have been this man’s life story? He never found out. He would only smile when questioned about his present or past life. But this smile suggested superhuman inner strength and self confidence, exerting great positive impression on those he was engaging in conversation.
Within a couple of months Peter was invited to train the next new orderly on the afternoon shift who happened to be a sympathetic young Hungarian. Miklos was an actor who had also escaped after the 1956 Revolution was crushed, who struggled with maintaining an existence and learning English. His wife was a well known actress who now worked as a waitress.
The Hungarian duo at St.Michael’s Hospital became somewhat well known for their exceptional height and humor in many situations. They worked well together and soon shared the responsibility of the morgues as well.
Peter, who came from the country, appreciated the young actor’s savvy from Budapest, particularly the many stories about the theater which still held magic for him. Neither knew at that time that they would soon be sharing the stage of the immigrant Hungarian theater in Toronto, which was to open a year or two.
The time drew near when the forms had to be filled out for university entrance. Since Peter’s high school diploma was from abroad, he had to pass the so called English proficiency exam and his diploma had to be translated into English. After two years in Canada, this did not seem insurmountable, but was nevertheless difficult. Finally, he passed the test and was admitted.
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