July 28th, 2017
My alarm goes off and I check the weather network. The first time I met Stan, he agreed to go on tape only on a day the winds were over fifteen. When they’re below, he’s out fishing.
Today, they’re at sixteen, but I call just in case.
Typically when we begin a recorded interview, we state the date and location. Stan has me add the time.
Stan Edmund Garrah grew up in Rideau Heights, the neighbourhood just north of the Swamp Ward. Despite a comparatively glamorous name (Heights versus Swamp), Stan’s childhood neighbourhood was even rougher around the edges than the Swamp Ward. In the 1960s, they marked Xs on the doors and “raised” Rideau Heights. Stan’s residence avoided execution by bulldozer because of his father’s handiwork. He and his family made do in what Stan refers to as a “renovated chicken coop.” Out of the ten houses on Wilson Street, Stan believes three were left standing.
Like his father, Stan has done well with his hands. He built his house on Raglan Road when in his early thirties. His shop, Custom Carpentry, is in a charming old building across the street.
“What do you want to know first?” is what kicks off the interview, and the following hour and fifty-four minutes record that Stan knows a lot. But while he passes on quite a few pieces of family history and childhood trials and shenanigans, he’s evasive sometimes too. Often Stan tells me I’ll have to go see them, or look into this, or verify that. He wants me to get closer to the source.
An hour and eleven minutes into the interview, Stan pops another question:
“Do you want to go to the Worm Room?”
“Really?” I say.
“Maybe,” I say.
“Yes,” I say. I’ll go to the Worm Room.
But first we have to walk down the street. I’m happy to see an upstairs window slide open as we near Mrs. Brites’ front porch. Mrs. Brites, who is Portuguese, is the one who started the worm business. She’s home, Stan says; we’ll just have to wait for her to come down. He’s the one who added the second storey onto the house. It looks to be fine piece of work, indicative that the worm business was indeed a lucrative one. According to Stan, Mrs. Brites is about four foot six or four foot seven and she has history. I’m very happy to be introduced.
Stan says we can take his van, but I request the bike. When we spoke about motorcycles in his interview, I wanted to know a) whether he and his buds scared anybody back in the day, and b) whether they wore leather.
“No, we weren’t very scary. We were sixteen year olds on hundred and fifty CC, two stroke motorcycles.”
And it’s a negative to the leather, too. That wasn’t part of it either, he says:
“Most of us were just in t-shirts and jeans. Just running around town.”
I wore a dress to the interview, so Stan lends me a pair of work pants to throw over my tights. Then we head out.
The Worm Room doesn’t have an address, but according to the girls who work there, the taxi drivers who drop them off on early mornings almost always know it exists. And now I can attest to that also. It’s a free standing garage at the end of Weller Avenue. I didn’t meet Joe Brites, son of Mrs. Brites and present manager of Brites’ Wholesale Bait, but I understand he’s the one who collected all the old signage that covers the walls from floor to ceiling.
Emma Simpson and Cassidy Scott are summer 2017’s employees. You could call them Sports Fishery Bait Allocation Technologists, and they are fabulous hosts. Worms are sold by the unit, not by weight. I am given a pair of gloves and they set me to counting within five minutes of my arrival. I learn that not all worms are right for packing and selling. Dillies: too small. Joes: too funny looking.
In June, Gary Bennett told us about the flats of strawberries that Bennett boys would collect from Wolfe Island. A lovely image, no doubt, but these flats of worms get me more excited. Stan reckons I did about ten sets of eighteen, and didn’t wriggle in disgust once!
On the way back Stan and I take a slight detour to a place he and his friends used to call Stone Point. It’s a rocky piece of shoreline about fifty meters from the where the City Dump once was, and there are boards and plastics floating in the water. Stan doesn’t like to see things this way. Rideau Heights and the Swamp Ward aren’t as rough as they used to be, but they’re still getting treated roughly, which sometimes means they’re not getting treated at all. As Stan puts it, the north end continues to be treated like it’s the north end. I’ve seen the renovation fences up around Breakwater Park near Queen’s, so it’s hard for me to disagree with Stan. City money is still going south.
We stop in at Quattrochi’s Speciality Foods, 662 Montreal Street. I’ve listened to Scott Rutherford’s SWIHHP interview with Joe Quattrocchi in June, so I’m curious.
Shopping here is another first for me (on top of the motor biking and worm counting), and I decide to start with fruit. That’s what Joe’s grandfather started with when he began business in Ontario. He was a Sicilian born and raised boy who set roots in the Ottawa Valley fruit wholesale market between the wars. Eventually, Joe’s father set up shop in Kingston.
By this time, the work pants are returned, I’m home and I’ve had enough excitement to tuck in for an afternoon nap.
When studying the past, it seems that more often than not you hear how much things change. But not everything does. My soft spot for worms survives from childhood, Stan still wears a t-shirt and jeans on his bike, and Mrs. Brites continues to be a woman of influence even at 89 or so years of age. For example, Stan told me about how he spent the day before:
“Mrs. Brites put in a request for some perch so she could have a fish dinner, so we spent three and a half hours fishing with worms for perch.”
The crew failed “miserably,” Stan said, and then modified this adverb to “perfectly,” for in fact they caught nothing at all. I’m not sure whether they faced any consequences when they returned empty handed to the Queen, but the girls on Weller think she’s wonderful. Emma and Cassidy say she came in last week, raised her arms and said “all of this is mine!”
Now that Stan has us introduced, I hope I can visit and talk with Mrs. Brites. Stan hints of stories about the “worm wars,” and that’s a lead I think I just have to follow up.
— Ella Mackay Singh