My Misspent Youth

A raw account of growing up with drugs and crime in Toronto's Regent Park

Photograph by AshtonPal
Since 2005, much of the low-income housing that defined the neighbourhood has been demolished, as part of the Regent Park Revitalization Plan. (Photograph by AshtonPal)

It’s 1962. In just over a year, the president of the United States of America, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, will fall to an assassin’s bullet. I’m six years old, in first grade at Regent Park Public School in Toronto.

The bell rings and I head toward the path home for lunch, up the eight concrete steps that lead off school property. A group of older children races up the steps behind me and I’m accidentally bumped hard, causing me to lose balance and tumble head first into the edge of one of the steps. The concrete slices deep within my forehead. As I get back onto my feet, I hold one hand against the gash, pressing hard. I reach for my fallen textbook with the other hand.

“Leave that,” says an older student. She leads me back into the school and down the hallway to the principal’s office, yelling for help. The principal appears. “What is wrong? ” she asks the girl. “Him,” the girl says simply. The principal fastens her gaze upon me. “And what is wrong with you? ” she asks. I remove my hand, and look down at my palm, red and sticky. As I lift my head back up blood gushes forth from the deep wound, flowing down my face. The principal faints. She hits the floor, flat on her back. Teachers race to her assistance. But as they draw closer, they notice me and leave her lying on the floor. Someone dials the police. One teacher picks me up, while another applies pressure to the wound. I’m carried out the back door of the school and into a police paddy wagon. With sirens blaring all the way, my head spinning, I’m whisked through the emergency doors of the nearby Sick Children’s Hospital.

At six years old, it is my first ride in the back of a paddy wagon. The first of over one thousand.

Regent Park is Canada’s first social welfare housing project, located two kilometres east of the city’s downtown core. Four blocks wide, by four blocks deep. Established in the late 1940s, it provided low-income families with “affordable” housing. Based on their number of members, families were either placed in row houses, an apartment in one of the many three-and-six-storey buildings, or in one of five high-rise towers. The infrastructure of brick and concrete left no illusion that this neighbourhood was anything but a project. From the onset, Regent Park was regarded as a high crime area, with the highest rates, nearly every year, in the city. Notorious for violence, renowned for illegal substances—outsiders ventured in with great trepidation.

In the summer of 1956, my family took up residence in a row house. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in south Regent Park. Considering the hardships each family endured within their own lives, the neighbours were generally friendly, but aloof. Those more familiar to one another, whether by proximity or social ties, would often converse. People respected each other’s privacy, unless action dictated otherwise; child endangerment definitely prompted intervention. Otherwise, interloping was regarded with disdain.

Men, fathers, were rarely seen. They worked long hours, had died, or were divorced of families who lived in Regent. Children attended one of two elementary schools within the project. The women busied themselves maintaining households while nurturing their young. Like my mother, who raised eleven children, their lives were strenuous. But as a child, ignorant of the outside world or its responsibilities, life was good.

Photograph of Edward Hertrich
Courtesy of Edward Hertrich The author in 1993.

I grew up and spent thirty years in federal custody. Looking back on my past, I hope readers will contemplate my life, and their own mistakes. I hope they also look toward their charges, for the young deserve our interest and attention; they deserve our assistance when they become confused about their life choices. They deserve care, proper direction, and guidance; and intervention when negative influences arise. Everyone knows that children will err. We all were young once, and who among us has never made a mistake in life? Some are just fortunate not to have been noticed. Some are just fortunate to grow up in the right place. It is incumbent to restore a youth upon a proper path, with his or her dignity and self-esteem intact. To do otherwise would be to fail. To do otherwise would be to help create the monsters and demons that lurk in our society.

This is a chronicle of my early life. While much can be supported by government records, these are memories—my memories—and as such, are fact to me. Nothing is meant to glamourize the violence and drug subculture that I experienced. There was no glamour. Every violent act involved some degree of concern and fear. Every high was simply that: an aberration from reality. And every contact with law enforcement was met with deep consternation, and now, deep regret.

The sky is unusually grey. Not blue at all for a midsummer morning. I have toddled out of the family backyard to sit with a neighbour girl who is around my age, on the curb of the parking lot that lays behind our row houses. She’s sad. We look at all the debris that the wind has blown into the trench that our feet are resting on. Beer bottle caps, empty cigarette packages, bubble gum wrappers. At four years old, they are treasure.

A loud bang pierces the air, then a woman screams. We look one way to see the girl’s mother racing frantically along the sides of the row houses. Another bang. We look the other way to see the girl’s father standing outside his backyard. Before the third bang has a chance to reverberate, I’m airborne. Flying high up in the air, I land on my mother’s hip. Where did she come from? “You too,” she snaps, yanking the little girl off the curb. She takes off running, a child on each hip, back to the safety of our house. She locks the door, and then peers out a window.

I don’t hear the last bang. Later I’m told the story of an unfaithful wife who escaped death, and of a distraught husband who, after failing to hit his target, sat in a chair and ended his own life.

Domestic violence was a prevalent factor in the lives of many families in Regent Park. Of course, it was sheltered “in-house” as much as possible. The neighbourhood regarded the Children’s Aid Society as “home wreckers” or “child stealers”; the police were always the enemy of the people.

My own family was no stranger to domestic violence. My alcoholic father struggled against the burden of raising eleven children on a paltry wage, and his need to be “the man” amongst his friends at the local taverns. After repeatedly beating my mother and eldest siblings, he ran from the family abode at the point of a loaded shotgun. I was five years old.

My best friend as a child growing up was my next-door neighbour Wayne. He was the middle brother of three. Each one suffered the afflictions of muscular dystrophy: they were wheelchair bound, with little control of their bodies. I would talk and watch TV with them daily. We played board games—checkers or chess—but I would have to move the pieces for them.

When I grew big enough to push Wayne in his chair, we would go around the neighbourhood to the corner stores or a restaurant. At about nine years old, he had me push him to salvage yards and the docks beside the lake. Wayne seemed to know everyone, and all the men would give him a few coins. We would be rich when we returned, upwards of three dollars apiece.

One morning, Wayne talked me into pushing him down to the CNE grounds. The exhibition had just opened, and we wanted to see the midway and go on some of the rides. We set out. We got lost. As night fell, and rain started to pour, I pushed him into a corner store in the city’s west end. The woman took one look at us and called the police. We both knew our addresses so the police drove us home. Our mothers thanked them profusely. Wayne’s mother was kissing his head. My mother was tanning my ass. But they still let us hang around together.

Wayne passed away at an early age because of his disease. His two brothers suffered the same fate.

I was fortunate as a young boy to meet a wealthy family from Scarborough. The Lowes approached my school’s principal searching for an underprivileged girl to spend the holidays with their lone daughter. They had two sons as well, but wished for someone to provide their daughter company. Since my family had eight girls, the principal directed them to my house. My mother was receptive to the idea, but none of my sisters wanted to go alone. I was sent with them in the hope of quelling any homesickness they might feel.

I loved going on vacations with the Lowes. Four of my sisters tried to form relationships, but they never lasted. They disliked the daughter. I had no such problem with the two sons. I was taken to Camelot and Nutcracker operas at the prestigious O’Keefe Centre in Toronto, and even to Fantasy Island in New York. I’d go to the drive-ins, movies, the Exhibition, tours of old Fort Henry, and country farms. I received so much attention from the couple. They doted on me, even tucking me into bed at night after saying our prayers together. This was all new to me. They took me for haircuts at a real barbershop and bought all the clothing I needed; the food they served was a huge upgrade from what I was used to at home, with my parents on a welfare budget.

After a couple of years of such holidays, the Lowes approached my mother with their hope of adopting me permanently into their family. I had no idea they were going to do that, or I could have told them that it was a huge mistake. My mother was aghast. She forbade them from seeing me any further. She could not believe they would expect her to give up any of her children, regardless of how many she had.

As a youngster, I just assumed the Lowes had given up on offering opportunities to the “underprivileged” and let me go. I sometimes wondered where my life would have gone if my mother had agreed to the adoption, but I never dwelled on the thought for long.

It’s my final year at Regent Park Public School. Classes are let out; my friend Perry and I exit the schoolyard. A huge crowd is gathering. Curious, we go see what’s happening. Two boys are holding a girl’s arms down, while another boy is trying to kiss her. I recognize the girl as Karen, a new student who recently transferred schools. She is moving her head trying to avoid being kissed. She’s sobbing.

I grab the main boy and throw him on to his butt. I yell at the other two to let her go. They do. Perry and I walk Karen home. Her parents think it was a big deal, but it doesn’t feel like it. Karen and I become good friends for many years.

Regent Park Public School ended at grade six. For the graduation ceremony, my friend Perry is named valedictorian. I am happy for him: we had become friends as soon as his family moved into Regent Park. But my mother is incensed. I had attended the school from grade one, completing each year with straight As. Perry had only transferred in for the last two years. We hung around together, and he was my study partner. Our grades reflected our closeness. My mother felt I was looked over in favour of what she called the school’s “minority equality agenda.” Perry was Japanese.

I always felt the grade-six music teacher was the deciding factor. He had lobbied hard on Perry’s behest. He had wanted me to attend his private tutoring lessons after school, and I had refused. He even asked my mother to talk to me about it, but I would not budge. He was the only teacher that ever gave me the creeps.

After graduation, my mother made Perry feel uncomfortable when he called on me, and she forbade me from assisting him in any further home studies. She wanted me to disassociate myself from him, but I drew the line. I felt she was being unfair. I remained friends with Perry until his family moved out of the project a year later. Decades later, I read in the Toronto tabloids that he had achieved the distinction of being the most-robbed pharmacist in the city. He worked just a block southwest of our old school.

The music teacher also found himself referenced in a Toronto tabloid, but as an offender to a child sexual molestation case. I was happy Perry gained a stable profession. Sad for the violence he was a victim to. As for the music teacher, I felt total vindication of my decision to avoid him.

In grades seven and eight, I meet two boys who become my closest friends. Arnold is a year older, but far more mature. He loves alcohol and girls. Bobby is different. He loves chemicals, particularly solvents. Girls are also a major focus in his life. The pair of them fall in love with a new girl almost weekly. It’s sometimes the same girl, which becomes a problem. They argue; they fight. I’m constantly asked to choose a side between them, but never do. I “go steady” with many girls, but really couldn’t care less. It’s real juvenile stuff. I just do what all the other kids do. Through grade seven, my marks are far more important to me than feeling a boob.

By grade eight though, I’m totally interested in the girls surrounding me. They, however, are interested in older boys, or those involved in crime or drugs. I’m fortunate for my upbringing. Not knowing the benefits of a middle- or upper-class life, I want for little. With such a large family, I never lack company or protection.

When I completed elementary school, my focus shifted from books to gaining social acceptance from older teens. I hadn’t matured to the point of fully appreciating those closest to me. As a young teen, I was both diminutive and passive. I had school friends, but I wanted to join the in crowd. The cool kids. I associated myself with the local drop-in community centre, a hangout for the older teens I began to mimic. We smoked cigarettes and drank. My abuse of further substances was quick to follow. It was the times of Woodstock. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Rolling Stones filled the airwaves. Marijuana, hashish, and LSD flooded the project. Mescaline, MDA, peyote, and a number of other chemical drugs seeped in too. Methamphetamine sat just on the cusp. I began to feel that the more I used drugs, the more I was accepted by my peers. And I wanted to be accepted.

My mother anguished over my change in lifestyle. She held hope that I would be successful in life. That hope was fading fast. High school began for me in Toronto’s west end. I commuted out of Regent Park, and away from my friends, halfway across the city to the Central High School of Commerce. One of my sisters, who was three years my senior, had preceded me to the same school. But other than her, whom I rarely saw, I knew no one.

The first thing I learned in high school was that I was poor. Other students did not bring their lunch in a brown paper bag. They ate at restaurants, pizza shops, or the local stores that surrounded the school. Or they lived nearby. Their clothing was relatively new, and far more expensive than my own. The majority had graduated from the same elementary schools, and so they all knew each other. Nobody from Regent Park had chosen to attend a school so far away. They went to commercial, technical, or vocational schools in the area, if they did not have the misfortune to go instead to reform school.

Being smaller than most every male student, definitely poorer, and a total stranger, my self-esteem was severely tested at Central Commerce, as it was called. I liked two girls, totally different to each other, but both more mature than me. Dorie was Jewish and cute as a button; she was experienced with older boys and drugs. Lina was an Italian goddess whose father knew it; he never let her out of his sight after school. Each day I would see him on his porch waiting for her to return home.

The first year in high school, I studied hard, got good grades, and made excellent attendance. But that did little to alleviate my daily depression. When the year ended and summer began, I revelled in illicit drugs and alcohol once again with my peers in the project. Over the summer, I hung out with an older teen named Ray. We would meet in the mornings or early afternoons and wander around stealing bicycles. We had a fence (a buyer of stolen merchandise) in the project who paid on delivery. We also stole from cars, storage lockers, almost anywhere. It paid for our food, beer, and drugs.

I introduce Jessie, a girl from high school who moved into the project, to the drop-in centre. We sit and talk for a few hours, and then I walk her home. We reach the road across from her building where a lot of police cars are parked. A cop in front of the building yells, “That’s him. You. Don’t move.” He’s looking at me. I have a small bag of pot on me, as usual, and I know I’m in danger of being arrested.

I recognize the nearest cop. He has a reputation for being the fastest foot cop in Regent. He’s waiting for traffic to clear to cross the road toward me. But I’m not waiting. I turn and run. Halfway down the street I glance back. He’s pursuing and gaining ground fast. I head for a wall that adjoins two sets of row houses at their corners. I hurdle it without breaking stride, but feel the cop’s hand brushing the sole of my sneaker as I go over. I hear him hit the wall with a grunt. I land on the other side, and speed toward the closest high-rise building. I enter one of the many ground-floor apartments of people I know. I turn out the lights and peer out the window. I see the cop and his counterparts gingerly making their way up to the building, still looking for me. I wait for a few minutes and then sneak through the project in the shadow of night. Back to my house.

My friend Bobby is outside the door, sniffing a rag soaked with nail-polish remover. Again. But something’s wrong. His hand is bloody. “Can I come in? ” he asks. “No, my mom’s home, and you stink,” I answer. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

His hand is bleeding pretty good. “What did you do? ” I ask. “Oh, punched out some windows at 600,” he says. That’s another friend’s building. “I was angry. You got five bucks? ” I give it to him.

Not long after, the phone rings. “For you,” my mom says. It’s the lead counsellor from the drop-in centre, Bobby’s oldest brother. “The cops are here. They want to talk to you. Either you come down now or I’ll give them your address.”

At the time, Regent Park’s community centre is a two-and-a-half-storey brick building. The basement floor has a washroom, a couple of small rooms primarily used for arts and crafts for the younger kids, and a large room with Ping-Pong and shuffleboard tables. The main floor holds two big rooms: a hangout space painted black with splashes of colour, which gives a psychedelic effect when we turn on the ultraviolet lights, and another with a stage and steps to sit on. Movies are shown once every so often, but usually it’s just a place to sit around and listen to music.

I head to the centre’s upstairs floor and enter the office of one of the counsellors. Two cops are there, including the fast runner I had just escaped. That one pulls up his pant leg. He had skinned himself pretty good on the wall. “You little bastard,” he says.

The counsellor glares at me. “You upset a lot of people tonight in their homes, not to mention the damage you did to the building. I’m ready to ban you from the centre, and I just might kick your ass every time I see you.”

“I didn’t do shit,” I answer. The cops let the counsellor and me talk privately in the hall.

“I was here with a girl when those windows got smashed. Ask anyone downstairs,” I tell him.

“How did you know about the windows if it wasn’t you? ”

I tell the counsellor about running into his brother, and his bloody hand.

“Shit,” he mutters. He knows Bobby and I are often mistaken for one another.

“Yeah, shit,” I say. “I ran because I had a bag of pot on me. I didn’t know anything about the vandalism.”

“I know I have no right to ask,” he says, “but would you do me a favour? Don’t mention my brother. I will arrange for them to bill you, no criminal charges, and when you get the bill, bring it to me, and I will pay it.”

I agree, as do the cops. But not before telling me that they will get me one day. And these two would.

The thirteen-story towers in South Regent had fire escapes down each of their sides. These sheltered areas provided a space where teenagers could get high or drunk without being seen by the law, especially during inclement weather. The stairwells always smelled of stale beer and urine. On good days, they smelled of marijuana.

The fire escapes were ideal in the event of police chases. No one ever seemed to get caught. We could see out the narrow windows on each landing, and monitor who was coming up the stairs. We could manoeuvre through the building much better than the cops. We would slide along the round metal railings, slingshotting our rear ends around and down each flight with the help of the vertical pole at each floor. We could descend seven floors and hit the ground running before the cops could make it down three. Going up, the cops had too much equipment to keep pace. If any exits were blocked, then we would extend the cat-and-mouse game up and down the staircases until the foot patrol grew tired, or we would simply deke into a friendly apartment and disappear.

A teenaged memory. Jesse and I reach her apartment building. I’ve been walking her home a lot recently. Some kids our age are having a party in one of the ground floor apartments. “Look at this asshole,” one of them yells out the living room window. Soon there are a few guys. “Hey baby, lose the loser and come in here.” “We’ll show you a good time.” “Hey buddy, what are you looking at? You want your face kicked in? ”

We keep walking. We take the stairwell up to her third-floor apartment and say goodnight. I walk back down to the first floor. I unhook the cover off a lighting fixture in the hallway and take out one of the long fluorescent tubes. Then I knock on the door of the party. “What do you want? ” the teen who opens it says. I punch him square in the face, knocking him back. I follow inside. A second teen jumps up off the couch. I smash the glass tube across his face, sending him to the floor. Then I go after the other two who had been instigating through the window. My first assault charge.

A week later, Bobby talks me into accompanying him down to old City Hall for his court date to appear for some minor theft. Afterwards, we smoke a couple joints and go to the Eaton’s Centre. I follow as he heads straight to the jewelry display counters. As soon as the sales person isn’t watching, he grabs some items.

“Put these in your pocket,” he says. “I don’t have a coat.”

“Fuck off,” I say.

“I do this all the time, don’t worry. We’ll go over to the pawn shops on Church Street and trade them for cash.”

Like an idiot, I relent. He walks out of the store ahead of me. I follow.

A huge hand grabs my left shoulder. “Did you pay for that? ”

“I don’t have anything. He does,” I answer, looking at my friend ten feet away. The store detective beckons Bobby to come back. I motion for him to run. As the man reaches to grab him, I drive my elbow into his groin. He lets go of my shoulder; I spin off him, take about three strides, and run straight into the stomach of a uniformed policeman. He arrests me.

After I receive a summons to appear in court, I decide to quit hanging out with my sniffer friend.

The stolen bicycle gig I have going with Ray is still lucrative. We go out almost daily. Every so often, we see cops sitting in their car when we ride through the project. Their vehicles can’t access the narrow concrete walkways, and they certainly can’t run fast enough on foot to catch a bicyclist, but they do try. We always watch from a distance after such chases, to make sure they don’t see where our fence lives.

One day, Ray and I pass a van with its keys still in the ignition. It’s full of televisions. He opens the driver’s door and jumps in. “Let’s go,” he yells.

“You’re crazy,” I say, and continue walking.

He starts the van and pulls up beside me. “C’mon, this is a great score.”

I look at him hesitantly, then hop in. We drive to the suburb of Scarborough, where we unload the TVs at his father’s place.

I tell Ray we should forget the van and take the subway home.

“Screw that, we’re driving back to Regent,” he says. Like an idiot, I relent.

It had started out a beautiful, warm, clear day. But now we’re surrounded by police cruisers and Ray has no other option than to stop.

A cop pulls me through the passenger door and throws me to the road. With guns drawn on me, I’m handcuffed and then seated in the back of a squad car. I am adamant in my story: I was hitchhiking home when a friend from Regent picked me up. I never saw any televisions. I was only in the van for six blocks or so.

The cops take Ray and me to the downtown precinct. I’m placed in a cell. Later on, he is placed beside me. He has given the TVs back. The police charge us with theft but release us on personal bail, our own recognizance. They also contact my mother.

When I arrive home, I stand before her. There is no worse feeling than to look the person who loves you the most of anyone in the world in the eyes and see pain reflect back. A pain that you caused by your actions. She punches me repeatedly in the face, but it’s little compared to the pain in my heart.

I try to justify my actions in my mind. It’s not my fault that I was born into a poor family. It’s not my fault that I have to steal to have money. But I know I’m wrong. My older brother, the one who was recently released from jail, asks his lawyer, who we all called the Lion, to represent me. Fortunately, he agrees. Ray makes a plea bargain for thirty days in custody. My charge is dismissed.

Later, I appear in court for the assault case with the four teenagers from the apartment party. The trial judge admonishes them. “Every one of you is bigger than this squirt,” he tells them, “and you called the police? ”

I’m not so lucky with the store detective and his sore groin. He presses hard, but because it’s my first offence, I receive a $50 fine.

My mother could not wait for school to start again.

I had no misgivings that my tenth grade would mirror my ninth. And I was right. The few classmates I had made friends with the year prior were now in different classes than me. I once again felt like a stranger. Although my grades remained passable, they had faltered, along with my attendance. I persevered.

My mother was summoned to the principal’s office shortly after school began for grade eleven. She arrived with my oldest brother and me in tow.

“He never showed up for the first two weeks of school,” the principal informed my mother.

“I wasn’t sure when school started,” I told him.

My mother looked at me sadly.

Thwack! My brother slapped me in the back of my head. He was thirteen years my senior.

“And then he walked into a class of students who hadn’t missed a day, and he scored the highest mark on an exam,” the principal continued. “How do you think those students felt? ”

“Did he cheat? ” my brother asked, eyeing me suspiciously.

“It was an open-text exam,” I whined. “Can I help it if the other kids can’t read? ”

Thwack! My brother slapped me again in the back of the head.

“I could suspend him for a month, but I think that would only be giving him what he wants,” the principal said. “I have to do something though, so I will suspend him for one week to give him time to think about his future.”

My mother and brother nodded at his assessment.

I went back to school; my brother went back to prison. I carried my brown lunch bag once again, but instead of food, I had small bags of marijuana. I was eating at the pizza shops and restaurants now, compliments of the profits I made off other students. I didn’t attend school half the time, and when I did, I didn’t attend half my classes. I spent my days in billiard halls or at the homes of friends. I quit halfway through the year. My mother was irate. I insisted I needed to earn money.

During the previous two summers, and on school days I skipped, I had been out stealing. My mother had her suspicions. She acceded that work was an avenue to avoid this kind of behaviour. And so I went to work as an assembler for a large power systems company. I had quit stealing, but still enjoyed smoking weed with a couple of beers on the weekends. I enjoyed the job very much, and liked the people even more. I lasted almost a year.

One morning, I came to work and found myself immediately involved in a dispute with a foreman. He had acquiesced to another worker’s request to substitute me on the assembly line. I was to work in another department. Most probably on the job the other guy did not want, but I never found out.

My replacement was sitting in my chair, at my station, listening to my radio, while he drank his coffee before the work buzzer sounded. I knocked him on his ass. He ran to the foreman, who came screaming at me. I just quit. I packed up my tools and left.

The last time he was home, my oldest brother bought the house two doors down from my mother’s residence. He had made a good profit from the drug trade. When he arrived from prison, it didn’t take him long to pick up where he left off.

The RCMP was soon out front, swarming him, his car, and his house. When he saw me watching from just up the street, my brother yelled at me to call one of our sisters. What can she do? I wondered. This is the cops. I called her just the same. She sounded unusually alarmed, and hung up on me.

I walked out the front door, down the street, and around the corner. Once there, I put it in high gear, and raced to my sister’s house nearby. She was on her porch, looking furtively up and down her block while holding a large metal toolbox.

“Go inside and watch the kids,” she told me. A taxi pulled up out front. I saw tears in her eyes; her situation sunk in.

“I have a better idea,” I said. “You go inside.” I relieved her of the toolbox and got in the cab.

My brother, free of the RCMP’s clutches, picked me up a couple of hours later. “You shouldn’t have gotten involved,” he scolded.

“She is my sister,” I replied.

“What are you doing for money? ”

“I sell a bit of pot here and there when I need it. Other than that, I’ll find a job somewhere.”

“Well, if you’re doing that, you may as well come with me and make some real money. What do you think? ”

“Sure,” I said, without thinking. I was ecstatic. I was going to work with my notorious big brother.

Without knowing, I had just agreed to make the worst mistake of my life, and one that would haunt me for the next forty years. But that’s another story, and this one seems enough for now.

Edward Hertrich
Edward Hertrich recently completed his prison memoir, Wasted Time.

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