Excerpt: Hugh Segal's ‘Bootstraps Need Boots’

In his new memoir, the former Conservative politician explores the roots of what became a lifelong fight against poverty
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Dec 31, 2019
Steve Paikin interviews Hugh Segal on The Agenda.

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The missing toy box

We are not rich by what we possess, but by what we can do without — Emmanuel Kant

At the age of nine, you don’t have many possessions that are deeply important. My little bedroom, off the kitchen and beside the furnace room, was fine. It had a single bed, a bright, if threadbare, rug, and a small closet. It was not far from our second-floor balcony, which overlooked the back laneway that we shared with other triplexes and fourplexes in the neighbourhood. We lived in lower Outremont, on Avenue de l’Épée, near Lajoie. In the back alley, we played street hockey and wall tennis, bouncing the ball off the stucco walls. Trucks sometimes drove up the lane, delivering coal (later, oil) to our basements. We enjoyed playing “cowboys and Indians” or hide-and-seek in the lanes that connected de l’Épée to Bloomfield and the cross-street at Lajoie. It was a happy place, where kids could play outside all afternoon until called to dinner.

book coverThe central “altar” of my bedroom was a mahogany toy box about five feet tall. Its large lidded compartment served as a seat. It held many toys, from stuffed teddy bears, small trucks, and cap guns, to a constructed Davy Crockett hat. We couldn’t afford a real Davy Crockett hat with the faux-raccoon tail, so mine had a cloth tail in a greyish tone. There were soldiers made of pipe cleaners, Dinky Toy cars, several Slinkies, and some colouring books and pencil crayons. There was a whistle on a cord for hockey games, a small bat and a baseball, a bolo bat, and a Tonka tractor that I especially loved. The box also contained a series of cereal-box submarines that were magically powered by baking powder (the original non-polluting fuel?). I had a small three-car pull train made of wood (alas, more than 50 years of asking for an electric train has been futile), along with a skipping rope or two, and some street chalk. Not, perhaps, wealth in objective terms, but it was my little treasure trove. The back of the box was carved in the shape of a beaver, and it had brass pegs from which to hang coats, bathrobes, peaked hockey hats (vaunting the Canadiens, of course), and scarves.

I don’t remember where it came from — a hand-me-down from a wealthier relative? Something given to me from my grandparents’ house? I’m not sure. But it was my home base. For me, it was like today’s desktop or laptop computer or CPU. I could leave schoolbooks on the seat or hide stuff in the secret compartment. The toy box was at least as important as my bed, though not as important as the fridge just around the corner in our large eat-in kitchen, replete with a chrome-legged arborite-topped table and soft plastic-upholstered chrome-framed chairs.

So my shock could not have been greater when I entered my room late one afternoon in the dead of winter to find all my stuff piled neatly against the wall and the toy box gone.

My dad was not at home, so I went to my brother Brian, who was 15 and a student at Outremont High.

“Where is my toy box?” I asked accusingly.

“Dad had to use it for something,” Brian said in an uncomfortable voice.

“When will I get it back?”

“Better ask Dad.”

I was troubled and at a loss. What could my unemployed father, out looking for work, want with my toy box? It made no sense.

Dad came home around 6:30 p.m., having stopped at the Steinberg’s up the street for some groceries. I heard him come into the kitchen and start making supper. I put down my pipe-cleaner men and wandered into the kitchen. My father expected the usual hug.

“Hi, Touie,” he said. “How was school?” (As a child, I could not pronounce the “H” in Hugh or Hughie, so my nickname became Touie.)

“Okay. Mr. Michaeli was sick, so we had a substitute teacher.”

“Any good?” he asked.

“Her Hebrew had a different accent. Some said maybe Moroccan.”

Dad was making patties, mixing ground beef with egg yolks, bread crumbs, and some mustard. Fried in a pan with onions, accompanied by mashed potatoes and green peas from a can, those patties were one of my favourite meals. My father was making dinner because my mom had already gone off to her nightshift job as a cashier at the Medical Arts Pharmacy at Guy and Sherbrooke, about a 45-minute bus ride away.

“Dad?” I started. “Could you —?”

He stopped me cold. “Touie, I gave your toy box away to the people upstairs on the third floor.”

“The Lacroix family?” I asked, puzzled.

“They needed it for heat in the furnace.”

“My toy box?” I began to cry.

“They had no money for the coal man. It’s very cold outside — and their welfare cheque isn’t due till the end of the month.”

“So you gave them my toy box!”

“Had no choice, Touie. They asked for money. I had none to lend, so I figured they could burn the wood until they got some coal. The mahogany will burn slowly; the wood is really thick — it will help.”

“Dad, that was my toy box!”

“We’ll get you another one someday.”

“When? Besides, it won’t be the same.”

I stomped off to my room and slammed the door. Anger, desolation, and despair (but mostly anger) flowed through my veins.

About 20 minutes later, Dad hollered, “Brian, Touie, supper!”

I stayed where I was. A few minutes later, Brian knocked on my door. “It’s going to get cold.”

“Not coming,” I said with some flourish.

“Touie, it’s your favourite! Schnitzel!” (For reasons that were never clear to me, my mother called this hamburger dish “schnitzel,” but breaded second-cut veal was called “veal chops” — go figure.)

“Don’t care, not coming!”

After he and Brian had finished eating, my dad brought a plate of food to my room, along with a glass of Eskimo Nectar (its actual brand name) ginger ale.

“Touie, here’s some supper,” he offered, knocking on my door.

I didn’t answer.

He poked his head in. “Touie, have some supper. I promise to get you a toy box as soon as I find a job.”

“It won’t be the same, and I’m not hungry.” The first part of this statement was an assertion, the second a lie. But I was determined to be angry and tough.

I fell asleep in my clothes and woke up at about 11 p.m.

The hall was dark. Both my brothers were out, and I could hear my dad snoring. My parents’ bedroom was past the bathroom and down the hall, near the dining room. It was far away, but his snoring had serious tonal depth and volume. I changed into my pyjamas and went back to bed, listening to the wind rattle the loose windowpane just a few inches from where my toy box used to be. I cried myself to sleep.

The next morning, as usual, Mom woke me up.

“Good morning, Touie. You have to catch the bus in an hour and fifteen.”

I took a shower, brushed my teeth, combed my hair, and put on my thick wide-wale corduroy pants, a hand-me-down flannel shirt in shades of green, a red sleeveless sweater, and my Savage shoes. My breakfast routine involved cereal, frozen concentrated orange juice, a banana, and a huge tablespoon of the most foul-tasting cod liver oil in the world. I often tried to pour it into my orange juice to dilute the taste, but Mom would not allow it.

“Dilute the oil, and it won’t heal!” she would intone.

Brian and I sat quietly, listening to CJAD’s Morning Show With Bill Roberts. Mom seemed preoccupied, and Dad had gone downtown already to talk to someone in a clothing factory about a job. After breakfast, I went to the furnace shed to put on my heavy flannel leggings, my duffle coat, and my brown vulcanized rubber buckle boots.

“Touie, I made you lunch,” my mom called. “The cold schnitzel from last night will make great sandwiches. Don’t forget to eat the celery, and don’t eat the Dare cookies first.”

I said nothing.

Mom joined me in the furnace shed. “I guess you skipped supper last night. Daddy told me.”

“I wasn’t hungry.”

 “Touie, you’re always hungry! Why did you skip supper?”

 No answer.

“Daddy said you were angry.”

No answer.

“About your toy box.”

Brian was putting on his boots to walk to Outremont High. He didn’t have to wear leggings or take a bus to school. He left before my conversation with Mom continued.

Finally, I said, “He gave it away without my permission.”

“Oh,” said my mom. “Your permission.”

“Yes.”

“Young man” — it was never a good sign when she said that — “I am really disappointed in you.”

“In me?”

“Yes, in you.”

I began to tear up.

“Hugh David Segal” — also not a good sign — “you know where the box went.”

“It was my toy box!”

“Touie, Mr. Lacroix had no money for heat, and Dad had no money to help. How do you think Mr. Lacroix felt, having to ask Daddy for help? How do you think Daddy felt, having nothing to give but a wooden box? And you’re angry? I’m ashamed of you! How could you be so selfish?”

I walked out the door, holding my mom’s hand, bawling my eyes out as we went up de l’Épée to Bernard. She got on the bus with me. I cried all the way down to boulevard St. Joseph and Park Avenue, where my school was located. It was the worst moment of my whole nine years.

I didn’t understand why I was in trouble, when it was my toy box that had been burned.

I hadn’t understood that there were people poorer than we in our triplex.

I didn’t understand anyone telling me that the box really didn’t matter. It mattered to me.

I did understand the guilt I felt for upsetting my mother.

Weeks passed. Whenever I was in my room, I thought about my toy box, now replaced by shopping bags full of my treasure.

About three months elapsed before I began to understand. No one could stand by, or should stand by, and see a neighbour go without something as basic as heat. I did not forgive my dad. But I began slowly to understand why what happened had happened.

This was the lesson that activated a nascent sense of conscience in me. Guilt is a powerful force.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from UBC Press.

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