Garbo and Walter

Artwork of Garbo and old movie theatre created with public domain photos

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” – Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire

Nostalgia is less a yearning for the past than it is a desire to dream again. My loveliest memories are of days spent dreaming.

Like the summer I turned sixteen. Nothing very tangible happened to me that summer; I didn’t get felt up at the drive-in, nor did I get drunk with the carnies behind the funhouse at the CNE. I was never grounded and nobody ever kissed me.

But it was a quiet, pleasant summer. The air was sticky sweet, like strawberry popsicles, and the skies were full of bumble-bees as plump and lazy as well loved cats. I spent my mornings eating stale chocolate chip cookies and licking envelopes for the Cancer Society, an exciting volunteer job because it required me to take two buses and the subway, even though it was in my hometown of Etobicoke.

In the early 1990s, Etobicoke was a juxtaposition of mom & pop milk shops and corporate Kmarts; of shiny new office towers and oak trees as old as elephants. Substitute “Costco” for “Kmart” and “condos” for “office towers” and it’s pretty much the same today.

The Cancer Society was down the street from a Jumbo Video, where I’d catch my first bus home. Sometimes, on a particularly hot day, I’d wait for my bus inside the air-conditioned store, munching on free popcorn even though I didn’t have a membership card. I’d loiter in the classics section where Audrey Hepburn, her shellacked beehive like warm honey, and Marilyn Monroe, with her soft cotton candy bob and sumptuous flesh, beckoned to me; their smiles plastered on waxy cardboard boxes bearing the titles of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Some Like it Hot.

“You have a lovely profile,” an elderly gentleman kindly said to me one day, as I stuffed my face with salty popcorn.

He was heavyset and wore jeans with suspenders. I’d never seen anyone wear suspenders in real life before and they suited him. He introduced himself to me as Walter. The name stuck with me: I’d never met a Walter before, either.

“You remind me of Garbo,” he said and paused. “She was a famous movie star when I was a boy.”

I had yet to see any of her films and although she was nowhere to be found in Jumbo Video – their “classics” section only going as far back as 1950 – I knew who Garbo was. No first name needed, those two syllables conjured up images of smoke and glamour, of black & white drama and sempiternal beauty. She had died four years prior and I’d seen her obituary photo in one of my father’s magazines; her long eyelashes casting shadows along her cheekbones, like the wings of a broken butterfly.

I knew Garbo’s catchphrase was “I want to be alone” and I knew that being alone and being lonely were two different things.

I spent most of my time alone. Standing barefoot in my backyard on a rainy night, my arms stretched out to the sky like a witch. Huddled under my blankets on a sunny day, dreaming dreams that would one day become memories. The people I knew called me “stupid”, “airhead”, “loser”, “weird”. But here was this sweet old man telling me that my profile made him think of Garbo; the greatest star of all time. It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. People could be cruel – I knew this – but sometimes they could be kind, too.

Years later I would finally see my first Garbo movie and I’d remember Walter. I think of him now, on the dark evenings when the ghosts come back to haunt me. I remember the kindness of strangers – the angels who picked me up when the people in my world knocked me down.

Written by Heather Babcock, 2021

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