Life from a ladder

Russell Wangersky
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I spent Regatta Day in St. John's on a ladder, stuck up high between the neighbour's house and the side wall of our place, working in the narrow gap between the houses, getting the clapboard walls ready for the painters. It's a very narrow spot, gravel and dirt on the bottom on a slight slope, barely enough space to properly foot the ladder so that you can work safely. The neighbour's house is an ochre red: ours is blue, and from the top of a ladder, unexpectedly high.

The higher you get, the scarier it seems, and the more you want to be finished. And the less you ever want to be a painter for a living.

Lots of things changed through the cycle of that single day: the morning was grey and cool, moving into the afternoon sun. The tides of people were heading to the lake until around two or so, when somewhere, the moon's gravitational pull switched around and hauled them all back out again, the biggest difference being the number of stuffed animals they were carrying.

By five o'clock, the steady flow had slowed to a trickle, and the crying children had almost stopped completely. Almost.

Other things don't change. Caught between two houses, I had a particularly narrow horizon. It was cooler in there - and damper, as it often is - and looking out towards the street gives you the impression that you are somehow in the seats and that the street is a brightly lit stage, albeit one with many, many extremely short acts.

Often, the players speak only a few words over the span of maybe three steps, and, unless they talk loud enough that you can hear them coming up to the space and again after they pass, you get to hear only snatches of conversation.

"I don't know why he's still seeing her ..."

"We're almost there, OK?"

"All grey fabric ..."

For anyone with an imagination, it's all a wonderful starting place, a kind of regular game where you get a glimpse, hear a few words, and try, in your own head, to finish the conversation. Almost every time, the imaginary conversation unrolls easily, almost effortlessly: it's not like writing a story or a column, it's just letting the world unfold the way it should, or the way it does. It is, for certain, a fine way to pass time on a ladder while doing other things and trying, most of all, not to fall off.

Sometimes, the walkers would look in and see me.

Almost always, then, a double take.

Most would pass by without even looking, completely oblivious to the idea that there might be someone in there, even if they were silhouetted against the sky.

Now and then, someone would stop and stare for a while, as if the roles were reversed, and it was my turn to be on stage.

It is remarkable how long someone will stand in a gap between two houses and watch you work from a ladder.

My favourite?

The man who stopped late in the afternoon, when I was sweaty and filthy and ready to pack it all in, a man who summed up the day's work in just nine words: "You say heritage, I say pain in the ass."

It's funny, though: it occurred to me up there that, regardless of how well you know other people, you really are likely to only know the same sort of sliver of their lives, the bit you see in the gap between the houses. Each one of us is a great long continuum, all the way back to our childhoods, but even someone who knows you from childhood is really only likely to know the face you put on when they are around.

What do I know of you? What do you know of me, or of anybody?

I used to cover court occasionally when I worked for the CBC, and I used to like the little maelstrom of Courtroom #7, first appearance court, where the newly arrested would file in, when it was early in the process and either accused or their family members would be wearing that peculiar face, that face you also see in emergency rooms and at accident scenes. That face that says "I am here, but I don't understand the dots that connected to put me here."

It's worth remembering.

We are all our own planets, spinning around and showing our surfaces, glimpse after glimpse.

And heritage?

Sometimes, very much a pain in the ass.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. Email:

Organizations: CBC, The Telegram

Geographic location: St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Pierre Neary
    August 05, 2012 - 08:02

    Enjoyable read.

  • Winston Adams
    August 04, 2012 - 12:47

    How well do you know other people. True. It reminds me of Uncle Joe Lynch, an old man who lived next door in Bishop's Cove. When about 80 his wife died . About 5 years later he married his sister in law, an old woman whose husband was long dead, and she lived just up the road. The marriage didn't last long. Uncle Joe told my mother "You don't really know someone until you sleeps with them." Russell, maybe it's better sometimes not to really know someone!