Liberty

A young Samara Grace Chadwick

Incalculable are the benefits civilization has brought us … inconceivable the marvellous creations of the human sex in order to make men more happy, more free, and more perfect.
—Malcolm Lowry as cited by Georges Perec

Bright, Modern & Spacious! Liberty Village Loft-Unit Boasts 2 Balconies That Overlook Court Yard & City Views, 17 Ft. Ceilings & Lots Of Light From Dbl Wdw. Shops & Restaurants Right Outside Your Door! Open Concept Unit, Modern Kitchen, Freshly Painted Walls With All New …
—MrLOFT.ca

I

Your eye, first of all, would glide over the granite countertops, dark, reflective. During the day, the kitchen island’s surface would mirror the view from the balcony: the grid of windows from across the courtyard. And so from countertop to window to window to countertop, your eye would be caught in an eternal refraction from home to home to home, lifestyle to lifestyle. At night many of the dozens of windows would glow blue: screens of Internet, online shopping, and Netflix: screens into the lives these lives aspired to become. Reflections back and forth. 215 units in a former toy factory, authentic hard lofts and new soft lofts on the higher floor, depending on your taste.

This was a one-of-a-kind authentic hard loft, boasting 13-f00t ceilings, sandblasted exposed original brick walls, polished concrete floors and a spectacular chef’s kitchen with ultra-high end appliances. The walls would be the colour most commonly chosen by condominium developers: a white eggshell called Honeymilk, with just a hint of yellow. Over ¾ of new residents choose to keep this original colour, empirically proven to best enhance artworks, furniture and mood. In the kitchen, a poster-sized etching of bacon would be hung above the sink. In the living room above the couch, three laminated aluminium prints depicting, respectively, a black and white artist’s rendition of a map of the London Underground, a Venetian gondola on turquoise canals, and the pre-911 Manhattan skyline, neons reflected in the ink black of the East River. The gloss of the artwork too would reflect the view beyond the courtyard, past the neighbouring condominiums: a slice of the city beyond.

The view would offer no direct clues of this city’s identity. Glass, brick, and sprawling, this was a city that took pride in not being itself: it could, with a quick change of the street signs and garbage bins, look like London, New York, Chicago, or simply like Europe. Whatever your production budget, Toronto would be glad to comply. Commercials selling everything from cars to perfume to detergent would be shot in its streets. It was a city of 21st Century potential, and young arts graduates from around the country had come there for the salaries and slowly their tastes had come to colour the many spaces of the city: high-end furniture stores boasting tables made from repurposed wood, stationery boutiques with leather-bound journals and Italian and Japanese magazines, boutique hotels with pop-up stores selling whiskey tumblers and bitters, caribou skins and organic lipsticks.

They would have gladly had all these items—especially the table. For the meantime, they settled on the repurposed wood shelving on either side of the living room’s large black sofa. On the shelves, the books would be carefully sorted by colour: stripes of white, blue, red, black and green. Amidst the books, an ostrich egg, a coconut shell bikini, seashells, stones, exotic coins, and a black latex Eiffel Tower shaped at first glance like a dildo.

It would be all in greys—charcoal, graphite, fog, silver, shadow, slate—in carefully graded shades, calculated with almost too much intention. Red had been chosen as an accent colour and was featured in a chenille throw, a Plexiglas lamp, tall unlit candles, and an intact hardcover copy of Piketty’s Capital on the coffee table. During the day, the light flooding in would make the loft seem a little sad, despite the tulips (red). But in the summer, with the balcony door open and the barbecue on, electric orange Aperol spritzes being poured at the granite counter, and the blue sky spilling in across the condo’s surfaces—the polished counters, the stainless steel appliances, the flat screen TV and soft leather—it would become a haven of beauty, a land of happiness.

Many photos would be taken. Many would be uploaded, with filters that would saturate how happy they could be. She would be sitting in a pool of sunlight, woolly sweater, coffee and curls of steam #wintermood #leonardcohen #hallelujah #embracelife. He would be posing with the dog, a small terrier that would be licking his grimacing mouth, #brolove.

There, life would be easy, simple. In the mornings, they would sit around the island on the leather stools, hair damp from the shower, coffee fresh from the machine, steamed soy milk. They would read each other’s horoscopes on their phones and discuss what groceries or other things needed to be purchased. It would be early. It would be March, the thawing month, the start of a long day. On warmer days she would make them both smoothies, with kale, bananas, and six of the eight superfoods.

They would go out. They would work until the sun had set, breaking for half an hour to run to the salad bar or the sandwich shop for lunch. In the evenings they would come home and take turns working out in the building’s gym while the other walked their dog, plastic baggies in hand. They would dine at home, or go out for dinner. Pushing open the door into a small dark restaurant and joyfully, almost ritually, they would absorb the ambient warmth, the clutter of cutlery, the clinking of glasses, the muffled sounds of conversation. They would select their wine with performed precision, unfold their napkins, and then it would seem to them, as they sat in the warm, in a close huddle waiting for the hors d’oeuvres to arrive, that their life was going to be only the infinite sum of such propitious moments, and that they would always be happy, because they deserved to be happy, because they would manage to stay free, because happiness was within them.

But when they surrendered to those feelings of unblemished beatitude, when everything was in balance, deliciously calm, the very intensity of their bliss only underlined the fragility of their joy. It did not take much to make it all crumble: the slightest false word, a moment too long of hesitation, a misinterpreted gesture, and their happiness would be put out of joint; it went back to being what it always had been: a thing they had bought, a pitiful and flimsy thing, just a makeshift respite from the real uncertainties in their lives.

II

They would have liked to be rich. They believed they would have been good at it. They had studied the magazines and TV shows and they would have known how to dress, how to look, how to smile, how to holiday. They would have had the right friends and known the right parties, the best anecdotes.

Their lives would have been artful, inspired, fun. They would have bought the corner condo on the top floor with a private rooftop access. They would have bought a membership at the health club and not have had to use the shitty machines in the building. Their skin would have been smoother and their muscles more taught. They would have bought anything they pleased from the organic grocer and not just the items that were on sale. They had studied hard, they had had big plans. Toronto was where they had ended up: he had wanted to work in film, she had wanted to write. He had found a job in commercials and had worked his way up the art department. She had taken odd jobs until she finally found a one-year contract in communications for an experiential marketing firm.

He was twenty-nine and she was twenty-seven. Their work, which was not exactly a trade and certainly not a career, was not all that difficult, was at times not uninteresting, and was most of all not at all badly paid. Like almost all their colleagues, they had ended up in these jobs by necessity and not by choice. They each had a five-figure trail of student debt, and now the mortgage added an extra, abstracted, zero to that sum. They would talk aloud about their investment in the home—quoting the prices acquaintances had paid for—and subsequently sold—their properties. They were hoping it would pay off. If only they had had the means and insight to buy five years earlier, they would always say out loud. What they didn’t say out loud was that the granite countertop had already cracked and the windows would leak when it rained.

For three years their toilet ran constantly, a waterfall trickle so loud that at night one of them would inevitably wake to close the bathroom door if it had been absent-mindedly left ajar. No plumber was called. The mere prospect of the work involved unnerved them. The hassle of logistics, the dread of more expenses, the slow haze of adaptability, made the idea of repair impossible, just beyond their reach. They would have had to borrow, to save, to invest. They could not bring themselves to do it. Perhaps they had even grown to like the sound, so synonymous it was with home.

The temporary, the provisional, held absolute sway. They were in wait only of a miracle. On some Friday nights when the week had been particularly strenuous, he would buy them each a scratch-and-win lottery ticket and a bottle of Chardonnay and they would sit at their kitchen island and toast to their future fortunes, pull out a penny, and scratch away at the waxy silver squares.

Liberty

A furnished Toronto condominium

But between these too grand daydreams in which they wallowed with strange self-indulgence, and their total lack of any actual doing, no plan arose to fill the gap. They tended to be on edge, reactionary, tense. Their love of well-being, of higher living standards, came out most often as an unwanted sermon, when they would hold forth, they and their friends, on the sheer genius of a sneaker or a rap lyric; they would turn them into objets d’art. They would research health trends obsessively, comparing notes, contradictions, advice. He had come across the startling fact that soymilk was full of female hormones. Initial jokes aside, article upon article confirmed his worry that their morning coffee routine might be the cause of his love handles, her at times tyrannical moods. They swiftly abandoned the soy in exchange for almond milk, which was more expensive but infinitely better.

They knew what they wanted; they had clear ideas. They knew what their happiness, their freedom would be.

III

They were the “new generation,” the “new creative class”—on the way, but only halfway, to success. They cast their eyes enviously, desperately, towards the visible comfort, luxury and perfection of the upper middle classes. They had no past, no tradition. There were no inheritances to wait for. They would be self-made.

They were in love with liberty. It seemed to them that the whole world might be tailor-made for them. They wanted to live at the exact tempo of their thirst, and though their exuberance was irrepressible, their imagination knew certain bounds. They knew they would quit their jobs eventually and pursue something better, but that something better had not yet proposed itself. They were running out of ideas. None of their skills seemed particularly relevant outside their actual occupations. Soon thirty years old, they had concluded it was too late to go back to school.

Besides, their more educated friends were in the same—if not worse—dilemma. Their core group slowly was fracturing between the creative few who refused to compromise, and the others, who, like them, had taken jobs, which they had all at some point began to call utilitarian. Those who took contracts with non-profits and arts organizations, or who worked as freelance writers and photographers had over time moved to apartments further away from downtown, with a rotation of roommates that caused them a steady stream of grievances. These friends would show up at dinner parties with an obnoxiously cheap bottle of wine and proceed to antagonise the rest of the group over their life decisions and tastes. Recently, almond milk had been the subject of a heated argument, in which a friend had left in an explosion of expletives, summoning neo-liberalism, the horrible foreboding of the California drought, concluding with “you sick righteous fucks.”

These friends, the self-described artists, activists and academics, gradually stopped coming out to dinners. Around the table the remaining friends speculated that their choice of restaurants might have been an issue, but the idea of choosing a more affordable alternative would not be broached. They were after all dying to try the deep fried watermelon cubes and the new eatery where waiters in caramel leather aprons would wheel brass and walnut carts to their table, in which would be the catch-of the day, encased in a carapace of sea salt. The uniformly handsome waiter would cover the fish with a cloth and crack it open and then present the deboned fillets with the seriousness of a devotional offering. Some of the trendiest places didn’t take reservations, but they would stand in line for an hour, waving to acquaintances and talking about how long they had waited last time and how totally worth it it had been. The conversations at work the next Monday would inevitably swirl around the subject of who had eaten where and braved which queues, accompanied by the effusive reviews of the nigiri, the pigeon pie, the béarnaise on the eggs Benedict, and the revelation that was the ripe persimmon salad.

But like their monthly hunts for the newest hippest eatery, they were condemned to the chase. No meal was complete until it had been documented and discussed, at which point a new conquest would inevitably be proposed. They would have liked to live in comfort, amidst beauty. But they shrieked, they admired, and that was the surest proof that they were not in it. They lacked tradition—in perhaps the most despicable sense of the word—as well as true enjoyment, implicit and immanent, the enjoyment which involves bodily happiness; their pleasure was cerebral. Too often, what they liked in the things they called luxury was only the money behind them; they loved wealth before they loved life.

They would come home and collapse on the dirty couch, not even bothering to turn on the lights. The surfaces were filthy, the countertops coated in the many layers of their lives. They would rather not have such a bright reminder of the current state of their condominium: piles of discarded clothes, the distinct smell of somewhere the dog had peed, somewhere they had not yet taken pains to locate and clean up. The surface reflections were lost in a patina of fingerprints, grease smudges and a pattern of spills and stickiness. The floor even had a crunch that was unpleasant underfoot, so they kept their shoes on. Together, motionless on the couch, they stared out into the night. Around them the city twinkled electric: the strange mutant horizon of their neighbourhood: a village called Liberty.

All of the city’s roads seemed to circumvent that particular spread of land, so central and yet so invisible—friends would often describe it as a part of Toronto that they forgot existed. It hadn’t in fact existed until just about 15 years ago when the name Liberty Village in a deliberate decision to rebrand this section of derelict land alongside a six million dollar investment by the city. The old warehouses, flanked by train tracks on either side, were converted to lofts and large media corporations moved in with their hundred-strong workforce of young professionals. They came en masse, the condos couldn’t be built fast enough. They came with their dreams of new life, of health and wealth and the liberty promised in the village’s very name.

Liberty

The Toronto Central Prison

Liberty Street, the namesake of the village, had once run between the two prisons that had occupied, over one hundred years ago, this stretch of land: a men and a womens’ penitentiary. The Toronto Central Prison had been notorious for its brutality, beatings, and clandestine, night time burials, and the Reformatory for Women was the first womens’ prison in Canada, where young women who were labelled troublemakers were held against their will and subjected to medical experimentation by leading eugenics practitioners of the time. Liberty Street was the road one would take to return to real life, the road away. The Liberty of this village thus implied the ability to leave it.

Liberty Street now stretched out beneath their balcony: even in these twilight hours, they observed a circuit of girls in ponytails walking their little dogs, Übers cruising slowly in search of their ride, duos with their gym bags and young men smoking contentedly.

“Do you remember?” he will say. And together, on the couch, they will muse on time past, the bright days, youth, their first friendships, the way it felt when they had signed the papers, the first days, living on an inflatable mattress and paper plates and pizza boxes. “So here we are,” she will say. And it will seem to them to be almost a matter of course. They will feel at ease in their lightweight clothes. They will spread themselves out, her legs across his lap, his hand resting gently in hers. They will look in silence at the other windows, looking for clues at how their neighbours were living. They will notice the new deck chairs, the awful new painting across the way. They will pour themselves two whiskeys. They will look at each other with a smile of complicity. They will each wonder silently how much longer this life will be their life. They couldn’t imagine it being much longer but they also couldn’t imagine, concretely, reasonably, feasibly, how they possibly could ever leave.

Inspiration and countless original citations throughout from:

PEREC, Georges. Things: A Story of the Sixties. Translated from the French by David Bellos. First published in France with the title Les Choses by Editions Julliard, 1965. (Online here)

Samara Grace Chadwick is an Acadian documentary filmmaker, writer and social theorist. She studied Liberal Arts and Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal (BA, 2005), Cultural Studies at the Freie Universität, Berlin (MA, 2009) and received her PhD (2014) from the Universidade Federal Fluminense (Brazil), the Universita degli Studi di Bergamo (Italy), and Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle (France) as part of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate in Cultural Studies in Literary Interzones. She has spent over a decade working in documentary film production in Germany, Latvia, the US and Canada, is currently the programmer of Doc Circuit Montreal at the RIDM festival in Montreal and and is directing her first feature documentary with Parabola Films and the National Film Board. Samara’s work, regardless of the medium, involves long interrogations, especially with people her own age: she is interested in how identity is formed, and how we behave, explain, and perceive ourselves.

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