Neill-Wycik Residence is twenty two stories tall with one hundred and fifty apartments, most of which have five bedrooms each. There are seven hundred rooms in total, and from September to May they’re all filled with university students. During the summer months however, the building transforms into the Toronto Backpackers Hotel which means anyone can stay here.
The front lobby is practically wallpapered with green and white City of Toronto Coronavirus-19 pandemic warnings which are plastic laminate sheets with advice to wear masks, practice hand-washing and maintain social distancing. These are pasted on doors and walls, and overtop of existing safety protocols and recommendations. Neill Wycik likes to make it clear they’re not affiliated with any of the major colleges and universities in the area, even though its address at Gerrard and Mutual is practically inside the Ryerson campus. A sign says, ′Neill-Wycik is a part of the Ontario Student Co-operative Associate (OSCA), the Ontario Co-operative Associations (OCA), as well as the local, regional and national co-operative housing federations – Co-operative Housing Federation of Toronto (CHFT) and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada (CHFC)′ .
The messaging continues. ′Please have fun while you live here, but remember that pranks such as tampering with fire safety equipment and alarms or throwing things out windows will affect your residency. Please do not let strangers into the building when you enter. You’re responsible for the actions of your guests and your flatmates. Please remember to pay your rent on time...′
Rent is a problem for me. I haven’t paid anything in one month, twenty six days and that’s an issue. I cringe when Yian comes at me with his iPad.
Yian Dahlo is a twenty-four year old Asian PhD candidate and the building’s Rental Liaison Officer. He’s from Singapore and unnaturally tall. He came to Toronto on a basketball scholarship and has a closet full of running shoes. He washed out of sports and now he’s just trying to finish grad school. He hosts tech workshops in the basement and makes money teaching others how to jailbreak cellphones, buy and sell cyber currencies and how to disguise your computer’s IP address. Yian was the second person I met when I arrived in the city two months ago. He rented my room to me. He put his neck on the line for me with the office too, and now he probably regrets it.
My rent is five hundred and forty three dollars a month. When I showed up in May, I didn’t have the required First & Last which totals one thousand, eighty six dollars. I only had a paycheck from Marcy’s parent’s gas station for six hundred and twelve dollars. Yian vouched for me. Because of his pledge they let me move-in with just one month paid. I promised to settle the balance immediately. That was fifty-six days ago. I’ve paid nothing since. After almost two months in arrears, I can barely meet his eyes.
“Saturday is the first Toni.”
“It’s in Cobourg.” I tell him, for the tenth time. I refer to my CESB cheques. The Canada Emergency Student Benefit or CESB program provides financial support to college students who’re unable to find work due to COVID-19. I applied to the program even though I was working at the gas station. There’s at least two of these cheques in Cobourg, and that’s more than I need, but my stepfather has them and wants me to sign them over to him.
“Toni. Everyone pays their share. Right now you’re letting us all down.” The PhD student reminds me that Neill Wycik is a co-op.
“I know Yian. And you’ve all been real cool. Listen I just recorded a great video. Everything is going to change for me now.”
“Do you think you can pay eleven hundred before Friday?”
“Oh... That much huh?”
“Nobody else in the whole building is two months behind...”
“Okay... I’ll do the trash. Or, sweep up, or...”
“Toni.” He shakes his head at me like I’m a silly girl. “You owe four M.C.P. hours too.” He’s losing patience. “The paid positions are long gone now. Everyone wanted those jobs.”
“Yeah, figures.” In addition to paying rent, all residents must participate in the Membership Contribution Program and complete MCP hours each month. None of the tasks are very hard or last very long. The worst is recycling duty. My flatmates completed their hours by attending events and tweeting or Facebooking pictures with special hashtags afterwards. The staff try to create community with regular events held outside or on the roof. A six-dollar per month Social Activity Fee is automatically included in the monthly housing charge, but of course I haven’t paid that, or anything, beyond my initial deposit.
“No more units to paint?”
“No.” Yian towers over me. “Management’s clamping-down too. There’s gonna be a shortfall.”
“What happens if I don’t pay?”
“You’ll go before the board. If you can’t pay the balance there, you’ll get sent to Member Relations. They issue legal documents.”
“Today is Tuesday July 28th. Can you try to get me something before Friday?”
“Yes. I can.” I turn my back on him and head for the stairwell.
I consider my options as I climb five flights of stairs.
Tonight, I’ll call Mom and beg my stepfather to send my CESB cheques which I know he’s hoarding to recover the six thousand dollars I borrowed for my trial lawyer. He has at least two cheques now and I bet he’s already counting the money. That’s gonna to be a real unpleasant discussion, and why I’ve let it fester.
I came to the city at the end of May, right after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. I couldn’t stay in Cobourg after that because Toronto erupted in protests. History was happening here and I knew I could use my Panasonic to capture moments. What better way to get noticed than to shoot Current Events? I’d just finished a six-month photo video course at Loyalist College and my teacher told me a secret. News broadcasters hire the people they know or want to know; my videos are my resumes. All I have to do is publish good pieces on YouTube and get their attention. With that in mind, I resurrected Toni Petti LIVE, my high school account, and I bought a one-way VIA Rail train ticket.
Fifty six days later I’m here, well-placed in this historic summer, but dead broke. I try and sell stock shots but so far I’ve only sold two clips; one of my Banker Takes a Break videos was downloaded last week, and Pidgeon Wave was my first sale ever, the week before. Total revenue generated: twenty eight dollars, and Pond5 won’t pay-out until I get over a hundred USD and even then it takes forty days to get a cheque. I’m not likely to square my rent that way.
When I first arrived in May, Yian Dahlo showed me apartment 505 which was entirely empty. It’d just been professionally cleaned and it looked spotless with new appliances and freshly grouted bathroom tiles. I rented Room-D and was the first to take occupancy in the flat. My room is a square cell at the end of the hall with one window. My view faces north over the dumpsters. Our unit has two bathrooms plus a kitchen which I share with four other people and we each pay five hundred and forty three dollars a month. I can hear mice in the walls and cockroaches appear at night, but there are no bedbugs and that’s because the mattresses aren’t soft and fluffy. They’re harder than normal and likely composed of insect-repellant material.
I smell Gordon Atkinson as soon as I enter our apartment, even though he’s in his homemade smoking box in the living room. When COVID-19 first struck in March, the Green Plus auto parts store installed plastic sneeze guards around their cashiers. In June they upgraded to something better and Gordan pillaged their used Plexiglass sheets. An engineering student, he cut and glued the material to make a smoking chamber for himself in our living room. He’s a pudgy white guy, nineteen years old with greasy skin, dark hair and a dark mind. He assembled his supposedly air-tight chamber beside one of two sliding glass windows in the TV room and he sits in there and smokes and drinks whatever alcohol he can afford. I’ve lost all respect for Gorie, as he calls himself, because three weeks ago I saw him on the street picking up discarded cigarette butts. That’s desperate.
Amelia Travers lays slumped on the couch beside Gorie’s cube. She’s a pale white girl, a year older than me, from Chatham. She was a fulltime waitress at The Salad Bar on Front Street before the outbreak. Liberal minded, Amelia makes her own clothes and always seems lost in thought. The pandemic finds her unemployed and directionless. She says I’m moxy, which I had to look-up, before I decided that I liked it, and I like her. She’s a wallflower and when I let her into my room she just sits in the chair by the window and watches me and I soon forget she’s there.
Chlamydia is the secret nickname I’ve given Camilla, almost as a self-dare not to ever slip-up and speak it to her face. She’s Egyptian, an African diva. She’s territorial and likes clear boundaries and yet shamelessly pries into everyone’s else’s private lives. She has organized the refrigerator and pantry to give all five flatmates their own shelves and cupboards. There were two bathrooms as I mentioned, one at either end of the unit and Camilla practically lives in the one with the bathtub. The door is closed now and I know she’s in there because I can smell her mango-scented Aussie Mega hair shampoo and conditioner combination.
I look for Sam but he’s not present. His door is open but that doesn’t mean anything; he seldom closes the door to his room, even when he’s away. Samuel Parris is a foreign exchange student from the United Kingdom. He resembles a young Patrick Swayze. He styles himself as an English aristocrat in exile and speaks curious old words like you might encounter in a Shakespeare play. Zounds! I’ve heard others using his lexicon now and even catch myself speaking his lingo. The way I say I reckon comes from him, I reckon. He calls it British-style and he wears paisley shirts and listens to electronic music at comfortable volumes. He’s cock-sure of himself and normally his type repulses me, but there’s something extraordinary about Sam. His blond mullet, a Tiger King haircut, frames his handsome face. He’s got straight white teeth and a dimpled chin. All his stories are set overseas in yacht clubs and ski resorts. He says he came to the colonies to better enjoy his bachelorhood, but he isn’t a snob; he’s super-friendly and overly generous. He’s always giving away his possessions.
I like him, I’ll admit, and I know he likes me. That’s why I leave my door open when I enter my own little room. I’m hoping he’ll turn up. I didn’t see him yesterday, or when I’d left this morning and he isn’t around now. I do kind of miss him.
My room has a cute little desk, bed and closet. It always looks empty because I only have one bag of clothes and a pair of black leather boots. In a shoebox on the shelf is a used Hero3 GoPro camera and a plastic bath toy I’ve hollowed into a nanny-cam doll, a doll in which I can hide the GoPro camera. I made it myself, but it’s not set up. My bedroom door locks and nobody would ever break-in so there’s no point assembling it. My three most valuable possessions are usually with me in my backpack during the day anyway. I carry my camera and lenses in my bag, my iPhone in my pocket, and it’s rare that I leave my Lenovo laptop behind, but I did today.
Amelia appears in my open door and watches me unpack. I nod at the chair and she moves past to occupy her usual spot by the window. My room looks north over the private parts of the complex and she enjoys that view. I watch her search the green and blue squares for any anomalies.
“Are you going out today?” I ask, but it’s not what I want to know. I’m probing to find where Sam has gone. I can’t ask directly though for it'd make my attraction seem too acute.
“Do you want to go out?” Amelia comes alive at the idea. What she’s really asking is, will you accompany me outside?
“I was just out.” I feel sorry for her. “Look. I’ll show you a good video.”
I push my camera’s memory chip into my laptop. A moment later I drag two videos from the card onto my PC's desktop.
The first video plays and Amelia watches the blond man in the brown blazer exit the taxi. She comes alive and points at his face.
“That’s Ryan Dewer! Number Twelve. He’s Right Wing.”
“Right wing?” I ponder her strange outburst. “He’s a... Politician?”
“No silly. The Maple Leafs.” Amelia shakes her head at me for not knowing or being able to recognize a Maple Leaf, a member of Toronto’s professional hockey team.
“Ahhh... Really? Are you sure?”
“Looks like him. Just like him.”
I turn up the volume. It’s at the part where the female executive in the blue pantsuit appears in the background. She calls out for ′Mr. Dewer’.
“It’s him!” Amelia declares.
“Wow. That’s... Terrific.” That makes this video even better. Shots of celebrities in public are always valuable, and videos of pro athletes doing anything illegal is pure money. I realize then this video is TMZ worthy and that’s probably why Pink Shirt was all over me to make a deal. This clip could be worth five thousand dollars after all... But slow down now. Think about this... Is it better to sell the media exclusively as entertainment news? Or should I do as I intended and use it to propel my own career and create new status as a Canadian Charter Rights auditor? It’s a tough call. This is a perfect ID Refusal, but that doesn’t pay very well. But any celebrity laundry show looking to smear a Toronto Maple Leaf won’t care about the police encounter afterwards and probably wouldn’t even show it. Hmmm... What to do?
“Are you going to use this to wreck Ryan Dewer’s career?”
“No.” I make a decision. “I’m going to use it make my career,” I decide. “This’ll get me a contract as a stringer.”
“Just wait. Here’s Part Two.” I play the second video and it starts with Mr. Pink Shirt. I point to his assistant and give Amelia some context. “That gal’s on the phone with the cops...”
We watch the movie together on my laptop and I pee myself with pride. The sound is crisp and the picture is crystal clear. We both giggle as Mr. Pink takes my picture and the police arrive.
Amelia stares in disbelief when the female cop questions me and asks for my ID. My timid friend gasps in amazement when I refuse to sit on the ground. “You’re so moxy!” She exclaims. The clip ends and she claps. “That’s a good video.”