The Varsity Magazine Presents: The Cost of Living

Table of Contents

  • Habitat: Convocation Hall with Head Usher Rachel
  • In Season
  • U of T’s Electrical Grid
  • Features

  • The invisible 40 per cent – If you’re a student who takes care of a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, or your kids, you’re not alone – U of T just treats you that way
  • This ain’t your dad’s recession… yet? – Three students get the recession talk from their parents. Dads have good advice!
  • In transit – Read this while hiking it up to the north pole. A long look at our lives as commuters
  • If that place goes, the whole block goes with it – Workers at the Korex soap factory have been striking since June. Why hasn’t anyone noticed?
  • Is the SPP Dead? – If that place goes, the whole block goes with it – Noticed an awful lot of policy “harmonization” with the U.S. lately? If the ultra-secretive security and prosperity partnership were a conspiracy theory, it wouldn’t be this scary
  • A Complicated kindness – U of T sponsors refugee students for their first year, but they’re on their own after that
  • Remembrance Day Supplement

  • What would an Afghan War memorial look like?
  • The Individual Soldier
  • Culture Wars
  • Editorial Address

    When the Great Ice Storm froze eastern Canada to a standstill in 1998, I was in Grade 7. My dad and I woke up early one morning in Toronto, and drove up to our cottage near Parry Sound, loading the SUV with pretty much anything you might need if facing an ice storm. We then drove to where the majority of my parents’ family trees live, in the belt between Kingston and Ottawa. It was a fun and surreal experience. I learned a valuable lesson about how the times you grow up in affect you for the rest of your life.

    My dad’s parents lived in what was once their summer cottage. They had absolutely no electricity when we reached them. When we got there, we unloaded our supplies, including a generator that my dad and his brother-in-law set up for my grandparents to use.

    If you’ve ever had to use a power generator, you’re very cognizant of just how much electricity a house uses. You can’t run everything at the same time. You have to make choices, tradeoffs. An argument quickly ensued at my grandparents’ house. My dad and uncle thought it was important to have things like heating. My grandparents were very sure they needed to run the freezer. During an ice storm.

    As far as my grandparents were concerned, the matter was perfectly clear. You’re allowed to freeze alone in the dark, but you do not let food go bad under any circumstances. This is was what being young during the Depression taught them.

    In this year’s Massey Lectures, Margaret Atwood spoke on the subject of debt, how our views on the subject have changed, and where they’ve remained constant. Atwood reminds us that aside from what we owe to the bank, everything we think we own we’ve actually borrowed from the planet. Andrea Yeoman’s map of campus electricity use is an important first step in examining what we’re borrowing.

    In her lectures, Atwood recounted her parents’ attitude towards money. Given the Maclean’s cover story a couple weeks ago on the joys of frugality, it seems we’ve come full circle. More and more, I find I have questions for my grandparents, were they still around, about their experience of the Great Depression and how it influenced their life choices. I wonder how living during the current world financial instability will influence our own. Kelli Korducki has compiled three unique perspectives on this subject: students interviewing their parents on how they made it through the last time around.

    Our finances are to some extent the fruits of our own choices. But the cost of living in this country are also determined by the machinations of a small group of elites. If you’re a Canadian or an American under 20 years of age, you’ve lived your entire life under the North American Free Trade Agreement, or the FTA that preceded it.

    Those agreements have shaped our lives. There are secretive talks in the works about an add-on to that agreement, called the Security and Prosperity Partnership. Alex Molotkow sets out to find out what the SPP could mean, and is already meaning, for you.

    Nominally, this issue is about the cost of living. Unintentionally, it’s become an issue about families

    There’s another theme running throughout these stories: U of T is a commuter school.

    What we don’t talk about often enough is how this commute permeates every aspect of our lives. Shoshana Wasser’s story of how difficult student refugees find the move out of residence tells us that being a commuter is really a different way of life.

    Jane Bao’s piece on the cost of commuting details some extremely long rides to school, but the frustrations of those travels are ones we all know. They’re opportunity costs—school, work, money, family, friends—all traded in the strange currency of the GO Train schedule.

    Those who worry about a super-lefty nanny state are missing the point when it comes to funding public housing, transportation, and family care. Cutbacks curtail personal freedom and the ability of the individual to rise above their circumstances. As one student caregiver asks in Allison Martell’s story, “How much of my life do I have to put on hold?” Student caregivers are some of the best multi-taskers U of T’s got. Why is the city, the province, and—because of U of T’s national prominence—the country, losing it’s most important resource in transit?

    We often hear that those who fought in the World Wars were fighting for our way of life. For Remembrance Day we examine the human, emotional, and cultural costs of war. Whatever your opinions about wars past and present, we must consider what it is we ask soldiers to put their lives on the line for. Remembering is important—it’s our debt for living.

    Culture Wars

    Professor Jens Hanssen’s office is a cramped room on the third floor of U of T’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations. Stacked bookshelves line three walls, forming a library in a variety of languages, but mostly English and Arabic. A few titles stand out: The Economy of Cities, Problems of Everyday Life, and Transforming Loss into Beauty. These three books represent a cause close to Hanssen’s heart, the preservation of Iraqi cultural institutions in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.

    Hanssen was part of a group of Middle East Studies professors who traveled to Baghdad in June 2003, just weeks after the end of the “shock and awe” bombing campaign by Coalition forces.

    The group, known as the Iraqi Observatory, produced a 30-page report on their fact-finding mission, describing the conditions of the city’s libraries, archives, and universities, and recommending what must be done to save Iraq’s cultural history from destruction.

    “The decision [to go] was made even before the invasion,” he says. “We anticipated that the universities were going to suffer. I was watching like everyone else, with tears in my eyes as Baghdad went up in flames. I just had to go.”

    Hanssen downplays the obvious risks involved.

    “This was before the UN headquarters were bombed. It was even before critics could imagine how horribly wrong the US occupation would go. In hindsight, it was perhaps the only window that was safe.”

    Upon his arrival, Hanssen found a city torn apart by the bombing campaign, and a society degenerating into chaos and civil disobedience.

    “At the border, there were no visas or passport controls. The way we got through was [my colleague] Keith Watenpaugh, the only American, would ask these young kids, the soldiers, ‘Where are you from?’ They would say mainly southern states, Texas or Arkansas, and Keith would say, ‘Oh, I have a cousin there.’ And that was our carnet de passage.”

    “The Americans were just not in any position to guard the border at the most basic level. That’s to be blamed for the insurgency coming across the borders.”

    Over the course of this nine-day fact-finding mission, Hanssen documented what he saw with a handheld video camera. Upon his return, the footage was edited down to two 10-minute videos entitled The Destruction of Baghdad’s Cultural Heritage.

    The videos, which Hanssen has made available for public viewing on YouTube, provide a unique perspective of post-war Baghdad—one that’s impossible to find on the evening news.

    While the Western media focuses on the monumental tasks of installing an autonomous government and ultimately, the withdrawal of Coalition troops, Hanssen’s work highlights the challenges faced once the bombings subside—the reconstruction of Iraqi culture.

    He begins at the Iraqi National Library and Archive, burned and heavily looted in the chaos that followed the Coalition invasion. In his video, the salvaged books are piled six feet high, without any attention paid to classification.

    An official from the Iraqi Academy of Sciences suggests that the looting was perpetrated by specialists who sought the most priceless volumes for sale on the black market.

    Looking back, Hanssen disagrees. “To be honest, for textual and archival stuff there’s not a great market. I don’t think it was market-driven. But many of the libraries that we visited had very valuable editions, and we still haven’t really got a sense of what went missing. There are other people, Iraqis, who are [working that out].”

    Dr. Saad Eskander is one of those people. Named the director of the INLA in 2004, Eskander took on the task of restoring the library’s collection, even if it meant conspiring to steal back thousands of volumes.

    The subject of features in the Washington Post, The Guardian, and GQ, Eskander has become the face of the movement to rebuild Iraq and preserve its cultural heritage. He’s also put his life at risk in doing so, as the INLA has become a primary target of insurgents who aim to disrupt Iraq’s reconstruction.

    Hanssen is sympathetic to the struggle of Eskander and his colleagues.

    “We tried to get a sense of not just the destruction, but also the sense of powerlessness on the part of these librarians,” he says. “It’s natural that [they] should blame dark forces, how else to comprehend this cultural looting that wasn’t in anybody’s interest? And that it would be done by Iraqis themselves…”

    Politics play a role in every aspect of Iraq’s reconstruction, especially with the Hawza, a secretive group of non-state officials who form a volunteer security force at the INLA.

    “The Hawza is the religious college of Shiites. We asked ourselves, ‘Why would these well-organized, well-drilled young men come in and cart books into their mosque in Sadr City?’”

    Hanssen believes they acted with political interests in mind.

    “These guys were extremely loyal and organized. They probably wouldn’t have done the looting, they were genuine. But it wasn’t necessarily out of a greater sense of the historical and cultural value of these books. To guard these books was a bargaining chip—the Hawza can present itself as a guardian of Iraq’s heritage. Groups were forming in anticipation of some future Iraqi state.”

    The building of such a state would include a strengthening of not only libraries and archives, but academic institutions as well. Hanssen recalls the strong sense of community he perceived at Baghdad University and Iraqi Academy of Sciences in 2003.

    “It was a period where everybody was pretty hopeful. Anxious, but hopeful. Most people, even the thousands who held Ba’ath membership, were genuinely happy that Saddam’s regime was gone. You had men and women sitting on benches, laughing, socializing. It didn’t feel any different from other campuses in the middle of the summer.”

    Hanssen conducted his report during the period between the fall of the Ba’athist regime and the rise of the violent insurgency that threw Iraq into turmoil.

    “Our report was critical, but if we’d written it three months later, we would have been far more critical. We were so optimistic. We made these recommendations thinking it would only be a matter of time before we can start rebuilding. We couldn’t foresee just how bad things were going to go. Since we spoke to these professors, some of them have been killed, others went into exile.”

    The principal recommendation of the Iraqi Observatory’s report was to integrate Iraqi universities into the international community of higher education. In the five years since Hanssen’s trip, many initiatives have been proposed, including a plan to build a state of the art American campus in northern Iraq.

    Given the strength of the insurgency, Hanssen believes current prospects are grim.

    “These are isolated [ideas]. To build a parallel, Americanized higher education system I don’t think will work. When Obama withdraws, should he withdraw, any treaties and contracts might be null and void. Even if there are all the right intentions, people are hedging their bets. The [Iraqi government]—I don’t think it stands on firm ground. The future will tell us.”

    In Season

    1 THE ART GALLERY OF ONTARIO opens its Frank Gehry-designed doors free to the public November 14 to 16. With a 50 per cent increase in viewing space, and Canadian contemporary showings from Seth, Shary Boyle, and Tim Lee, we’re so excited we might just stop studying for eight seconds.

    2 They say Bloor and Ossington is the new Queen and Ossington. Notorious party promoter Trevor Coleman (Circa) is set to prove it with THIS IS EXPLODING! MULTI-ACTIVE FUN!, a DJ dance party featuring U of T alum ANIMAL MONSTER (stuffed likeness pictured here) with “Conversations With Smart People” for a scant five bucks. Set at Ethiopian restaurant Habesha Club (875 Bloor St. W.). There goes the neighbourhood.

    3 Quash your Halloween blues with Toronto writer Derek McCormack’s THE SHOW THAT SMELLS (ECW Press), a macabre carnival kitch-o-thon that tells dead baby jokes like no other. Perfect streetcar material, if you can keep your jaw from dropping at McCormack’s ephemeral prose.

    4 DIABLOS MUFFINS are the grab bag of campus baked goods. You think it’s blueberry until all of a sudden there’s a chocolaty Nutella centre and a cream cheese filling. And what’s more, the Mohawked barista gave you accurate change this time! Way to keep us on our toes, guys.

    5 We all have our Harry Potter fantasies, it’s just that studying in THE EMMANUEL COLLEGE LIBRARY allows us to live them. With its immense chandeliers, creaky bookshelves, and sneering librarians, you’ll be muttering the imperius curse in no time—even if it’s just to your jerky Policy TA.

    6 There might be more to life than indie rock, but after listening to Chris Berube’s radio show ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, we don’t really care. Airing each Friday from noon to 2 p.m. on CIUT 89.5 FM, this U of T undergrad has managed to score interviews with the genre’s hottest debuts, including Of Montreal, Girl Talk, and Lykke Li. Download the podcast at podcast.thecatseye.ca.

    7 Just in time for winter slush piles, get a free tune-up from the fine folks at BIKE CHAIN, U of T’s on-site bicycle repair centre. Bike Chain is located in the basement of the International Student Centre (33 St. George St.), and offers free instruction on how to repair your 10-speed.

    8 When it comes to traversing a wintertime campus, you’re going to need waterproof boots. May we suggest these TRETORN WELLIES, available for $79 at Get Outside (437 Queen W.)? With fur lining and an array of shiny metallics, you’ll avoid the post-lecture soaker.

    9 Screening The Godfather, Shoot The Piano Player, and Apocalypse Now this month, THE BLOOR CINEMA is a great way to catch your classics on the big screen for cheaper than a rental. Sweet talk a Varsity staffer and we’ll get you in for free. Check out bloorcinema.com for a full schedule.

    U of T’s Electrical Grid

    From 1990 to 2005, St. George campus underwent major changes. Its population grew by 13 per cent while gaining 23 per cent more floor space. Over this time, electricity usage also increased, by 29.3 per cent. While a portion of this increase can be attributed to the inherent demands of supporting more people and space, it is also due to the amount of electricity-demanding technology used on campus. While computers and other devices now permeate nearly every building on campus, this wasn’t the case in 1990.

    Prior to 1995, off-site suppliers provided St. George campus with all of its electricity. Today, Toronto Hydro and Ontario Power Generation provide only 75 per cent of campus electricity. The other 25 per cent is generated on campus, using an eight-megawatt gas turbine. Installed in 1995, this co-generational turbine creates energy at the central steam plant via natural gas combustion.

    St. George campus’s supply is by no means unlimited. In many areas, the infrastructure that distributes this power is working at full capacity, and needs to be replaced. This complicates renovation in buildings that use excessive amounts of power from the St. George distribution system. Substantial modifications will be needed for renovations incorporating large research equipment, especially in the southeast area of campus. Research will need to be cut back or moved to another location to avoid brown-out situations. Already in some buildings experiments with large electricity needs can only be run outside of peak hours.

    The Wallberg Building is the number-one priority when it comes to energy insurance. Loop 1 of the campus’s 4,160-volt system currently feeds electricity to the building. Any changes made to the electrical system would need to include the Pratt building, Engineering Annex, and Electrometallurgy buildings, as they are sub-fed from the Wallberg building. Loop 1 is further strained by providing power to the Mechanical Engineering, Rosebrugh, and Fitzgerald buildings, as well as the Sigmund Samuel Library and the Canadiana Gallery. Should one part of the loop fail, the other sections wouldn’t be able to handle the increase in power, leaving many buildings in the dark.

    Habitat: Convocation Hall with Head Usher Rachel

    If he’s in a good mood, facility co-ordinator Bruce Anderson will talk about the secret agents who stake out Convocation Hall. No, really.

    One lesser-known point of interest regarding U of T’s foremost rotunda is that undercover operatives regularly snoop around the premises during high-profile events. (Excluding commencement, unless you know something we don’t). Even Margaret Atwood, who became Canada’s secondary head of state when she forced Stephen Harper to retreat from his war on art, didn’t rate one Mountie. On the other hand, Al Gore, who became America’s secondary head of state when he was actually elected in ’92 and ’96, brought a battalion of security to the dome last year.

    “CSIS, the FBI, MI6…we’ve had all sorts of security in here,” Anderson recalls.

    MI6? I imagine Britain’s secret intelligence service, which has somehow

    maintained its cosmopolitan air of Cold-War romance, operating in my old sociology classroom.

    Anderson oversees the ushers of Con Hall—the irregular, constantly changing event crew that guards the entrances, points you to your seat, and generally blends into the background—though not quite as impeccably as the suit-and-ear-radio crowd. Any student can sign on to usher an event, getting a free seat and payment in cash. Another point of international intrigue: Con Hall is one of the few places foreign students can legally work without a green card.

    The most senior usher, Rachel, has been working events in Con Hall for six years, ever since she was an undergrad. Hoping she could shed some light on what MI6 gets up to on their visits, I ask what it would take to get black-bagged and dragged off.

    “Get in the way,” she laughs, before offering assurance that the national security types are ordinary people who mostly make sure no one blocks a politician’s path. No doubt they’ve already gotten to her.

    Next time you’re in Con Hall, if you’re not on the lookout for men whose bowties are actually cameras, try and spot the handiwork of the ushers’ arch-villains: engineers. Con Hall is a bull’s eye for the manic, purpled, cannon-monkeys whose undergraduate attempts to annoy civilization give way, ironically, to careers spent building sturdy trusses and keeping city sidewalks well-surveyed. According to Anderson, they usually go for windows—the higher the better. Well-equipped applied scientists bent on ludicrously dangerous break-ins have been known to scale the building’s exterior wall or even, in one case of Batman-like ingenuity, “walk directly up” the protruding brickwork.

    Great minds, no doubt.

    The invisible 40 per cent

    Three years ago, Karolina Szymanski was working, studying part-time at U of T, and caring for her father, who had terminal cancer. She was also pregnant. The morning after her father’s funeral, she went into labour. Szymanski, now 25, is a full-time student in fourth year balancing a Work-Study position and a full course load while raising her two-year-old son. Szymanski’s story may be dramatic, but as a student caregiver, she is far from unique.

    “There is this general perception that your typical undergraduate student doesn’t have family responsibilities, which is not true,” says Magdalena Rydzy, interim manager of the Family Care Office, which advises and advocates for caregivers on campus, and serves thousands of U of T students each year.

    According to the National Survey of Student Engagement, more than 40 per cent of U of T students spend time each week caring for a dependent. We might imagine student caregivers as older, part-time, or graduate students, but the NSSE shows that many full-time undergrads also have family responsibilities. Caregivers are as diverse as the student body. Some, like Szymanski, are parents, while others look after siblings, sick or aging family members, or disabled loved ones.

    When crunch time hits, Lindsay Foster wakes up at 5 a.m. instead of 6:30. Early morning is the best time for the 42-year-old single mother of five to get work done.

    “I dropped out of school in grade nine. I was a drug addict for about 15 years, and was married to a biker,” she says. After leaving her husband, Foster entered treatment, high school, and finally the Transitional Year Programme at U of T. She is graduating this spring, and hopes to go on to a Master’s in social work.

    Foster’s kids range from age 11 to 20. The four that live at home attend three different schools—some mornings, Foster makes two trips in her van before walking her youngest daughter to school. Then she hops on a bus for a 45-minute trip to campus. Driving is just too expensive.

    The commute is a common stressor for student caregivers. In recent years, the United Way’s Poverty by Postal Code report has tracked the movement of low-income families to the inner suburbs, where housing is cheaper but services are scarce.

    “Lots of students live in the suburbs and they commute,” says Rydzy. “Students have told us that if they could find affordable housing close to campus, then their lives would be really simplified. They wouldn’t have to commute for such a long time, and they could find childcare and other resources downtown.” Foster agrees.

    “If there were affordable housing units close to campus, my life would be radically different in terms of having more time with my kids,” says Foster. “It’s really tough to have any sort of quality time with them. It seems like in the evenings, after I pick them up, it’s just a steady stream of chores.”

    U of T operates Student Family Housing, a 713-unit development east of campus, but there’s a waiting list.

    When her children were younger, Foster was able to depend on her mother for help. Other parents are not so lucky.

    “We don’t really have a very good childcare plan as a nation,” says Rydzy. “There are no childcare spaces. Most of our full-time students qualify for childcare subsidies, but if there are no spaces [in local daycares], they can’t really access that resource.”

    Szymanski started trying to get her son into daycare when he was only three months old. It took two years to line up both the subsidy and the space. “It felt like a miracle that I should happen to get them both in the same week,” she says. There is a year-long wait to obtain a spot in on-campus daycare.

    Parents are the most visible student caregivers at U of T, but they are not alone. Amina Stella, a third-year employment relations student, has three step-siblings under the age of nine, who she looks after a few times a week. Stella cooks, cleans, and entertains. She also works part-time and plays soccer.

    “I do get a chance to go out, but I have to plan,” she says. “I have to tell my mom or my dad in advance, and say, ‘This is what I want to do, I’m not going to be here, so figure something out.’” Even so, Stella’s situation is more flexible than many—the Family Care Office works with students who have primary responsibility for younger siblings.

    Not all caregivers look after children. Liem Vu is a fourth-year criminology student. Five years ago, his grandmother had a stroke, which left her partly paralyzed.

    “Before, my grandmother was really healthy, she was able to make her own meals,” says Vu. After the stroke, “she wasn’t able to cook or even use the microwave safely.” Vu’s grandmother, now 89, lives with two of her daughters. Three afternoons a week, Vu pitches in.

    “I go over around lunch time, heat up her lunch, take her downstairs, making sure she gets down safely, and just sit with her while she eats,” he says. “On other days my brother comes and takes my place.”

    A care worker comes by twice a week to help Vu’s grandmother bathe. This is about as much aid as most families can expect from the government, says Lynne Gallagher, who works with caregivers for Family Care Toronto.

    “If somebody needs 24-hour care, the most they can get is 20 hours a week, and those are people who are really in critical need of support,” says Gallagher. “Most people get a couple hours a week.” An aging population is putting stress on the system, and funding has not increased along with demand.

    Vu’s family is managing, but others struggle to bridge the gap. The majority of care has always been provided by families. “There is a perception that the families are there, and that they are able to do it,” says Gallagher. But families can be more complicated than the government assumes.

    Daniel Bader, an upper-year English student, spent years estranged from his father. “He was a very mean person. He was an abusive person, to some extent,” says Bader.

    In 2001, Bader’s father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now he has difficulty walking, and cannot drive. A care worker visits four days a week to help. Bader doesn’t consider himself to be a caregiver, but he drops by a couple times a week.

    “I go over, and I do his banking for him, I cook sometimes, I get him groceries. Most of the time we just talk,” he says. He isn’t sure what role he should take on as his father gets sicker.

    “It’s an open question, as to whether I will need to [become a caregiver], whether if he becomes worse he won’t be able to afford the help,” says Bader. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, and I’m a bit scared about that. How much of my life do I need to put on hold?”

    It’s a question all caregivers ask themselves at some point, and the answer can be discouraging. The result is stress, even mental illness. Caregivers are particularly susceptible to depression, as Rydzy knows well from her casework at the FCO.

    “A few weeks ago I saw a graduate student who is also a caregiver of her elderly mother, who is ill. She commutes an hour and a half every day to campus downtown, and she works, and her mother is sick,” says Rydzy. “This student is under stress, she feels guilty, and it’s really challenging.”

    Rydzy argues that administrators could do more to support student caregivers. Most part-time graduate students qualify for little or no funding, with daycare subsidies and grants restricted to full-time undergrads. In some cases, this forces students into full-time status when they would rather study part-time.

    “Before having my kid, I was balancing work and school, because I did not wish to take OSAP,” says Szymanski. “I just felt uncomfortable with the debt.” But as a part-time student, Szymanski could not qualify for Dollars for Daycare, UTAPS financial aid, interest-free OSAP, or a daycare subsidy. The university advised her to become a full-time student.

    “Finally someone at the Family Care Office sat me down and said, ‘Listen, this is what you have to do to stay afloat.’ Without them, I would not have done it, and I would have been in a terrible situation,” she says. But student caregivers need more than money.

    “Especially for full-time undergraduate students, there is little flexibility for accommodating students for family care issues,” says Rydzy. A sick child may not excuse student parents from a test. Some students depend on the compassion of individual professors. Others become mired in bureaucracy.

    “When I was eight months pregnant, I walked into my registrar’s office [to reschedule an exam] and I had to provide documentation for the fact that I was pregnant,” says Szymanski. Since then, Symanski has had to exhaustively document every family responsibility.

    “I think it would be really nice if people could just take our word for it. I find that trying to prove all these things all the time is a strain, and it’s also a financial strain.”

    Despite bright spots—help from the FCO, an emergency grant from a registrar, a sympathetic professor—student caregivers feel invisible, even unwelcome, on campus.

    “We cannot compete [in terms of marks] with your average single 18-year-old student. The fact that we can do these three things and still survive—that shows you how valuable we are as people and as students,” says Szymanski. “I really wish that U of T could see that.”

    This ain’t your dad’s recession… yet?

    The recession-proof powers of the Jheri Curl:

    Jon Medow interviews his father, Dan Medow

    Jon: Tell me about your experience running a business during the recession period of the early ’80s.

    Dan: The early 1980s. That was the era of the Jheri Curl.

    At that time I owned a company called Standard Distributing out of Detroit, Michigan, and we were suppliers of ethnic hair care products to major chain stores across the United States. If we’ve pegged this period correctly as the period of the Jheri Curl, then I can tell you that the company did not have a recession.

    Until that time, [the Jheri Curl] had only been done in salons, where they would charge patrons in excess of $100 to effect this particular style. Well, there was a company based out of Texas by the name of ProLine and its owner, Comer Cottrell, came up with a retail version of this salon treatment. Comer called it the ProLine Curly Kit, and this kit sold for $6.95. Suddenly, a style that had cost over $100 dollars could be achieved for less than $10.

    So what happened was that this took off and was, at that time, our fastest-selling item. We were selling it literally by the truckloads. We could not get it out fast enough. They could not make it fast enough.

    Other people, of course, caught on to the technology and brought out similar items. We had a definite advantage here, so we sort of blew past the recession at that time because the style was the driving force of the market, as it often is.

    The interesting thing is that because the industry at that time was style-driven, this could happen. If we hadn’t had that style, we probably would have been in the tank.

    Jon: So, without the Jheri Curl, the early ’80s could have been disastrous for you?

    Dan: Yes, they could have been. But on the other hand, we were selling products that were not terribly expensive, so people could use them no matter what. In the African-American community at that time, probably the majority of women were straightening their hair. And if they were going to straighten their hair, they were going to straighten their hair. People are going to do their hair no matter what; one of the last things that will go [in times of economic hardship] is appearance. People will wear clothes until they either become very out of style, or need to be replaced, but hairstyles, haircuts, makeup, lipsticks, will continue to be used on a regular basis. It’s safe.

    Intellectual cops and industrial salt:

    Kelli Korducki interviews her father, Rick Korducki.

    Kelli: What was your experience of recession?

    Rick: My experience of recession happened approximately between the years of 1975 and 1980. During this time, I was in university.

    While I was in school it was so difficult to find employment, even for students. You felt really fortunate if you were able to find a job. There were hardly even fast food jobs available.

    Then, when we graduated, we faced a horrible job market. If you didn’t come out of school with a very specific skill that just happened to be in demand, you found yourself going for all sorts of things.

    I remember knowing people who were very overqualified for the jobs they were doing. I knew a guy who graduated from university with high distinction, very bright, and he was selling clothes in a clothing store for some time. He eventually wound up becoming quite successful, but for people who were leaving school at that time, it took three or four years longer to get into a meaningful professional career path than it probably would have otherwise. There were a lot of people who were in a holding pattern, underemployed, while waiting for the economy to turn around.

    Kelli: Do you see any parallels between what you experienced then, and what’s happening with the economy now?

    Rick: Definitely. Of course, we’re not really in it to the extent that we will be soon.

    I had a friend who was a police officer in a Denver, Colorado suburb that only hired university graduates. So I went out there and actually applied for a job as a police officer, and of course it didn’t take them a long time to figure out that I was very ill-suited for that type of employment.

    Employment was so bad that I remember interviewing for a job as an industrial salt salesman. I answered an ad in the classifieds and drove down to this place in the industrial valley in Milwaukee. This guy sees me and he asks me if I have any sales experience. I say, “Not really,” but explain to him that I’m a liberally educated person and that I have a university degree.

    So, he walks me out and we’re standing next to this mountain of industrial salt, like about two or three stories high and he tells me, “Well, there’s the salt. It’s really a product that kind of sells itself.” And I said, “I guess it better.” Needless to say, I didn’t get that job.

    Kelli: What was your degree in again?

    Rick: My degree was in Latin American Studies and Spanish Literature.

    Everybody in Argentina has a story:

    Bill Rios tells his son, Dan Rios, his side.

    The best story of terrible things—stupid things—is the story of what happened to us while living in Argentina.

    We have the visa to go to Canada. We have our ticket and we sold everything we owned. Anything that had to go to Canada had already been sent: we were ready to roll.

    We sold our apartment and signed the papers after the banks closed on April 1, 1982. We wake up the next morning to find that Argentina was invading the Falklands. Money exchanges were shut down across the country—we couldn’t exchange the Argentinean pesos we were given for American dollars.

    In an act of desperation, I went to a foreign exchange dealer and bought third-party cheques in U.S. dollars at a 40 per cent premium. In one day, we lost 40 per cent of our life savings.

    A month later, when we were leaving, I could have bought two and half apartments like the one I sold with the money I had. The peso’s value dropped like a rock. We knew that the war was lost, but it took 48 hours for Argentineans to learn they had lost the Falklands to the British.

    The economy went into a tailspin. It kept going for the next six years, to the point that the elected president had to turn over governmental power to the newly elected president before his term was up. The entire country was falling apart. This was Carlos Menem, who sold the country and privatized everything. Then it collapsed again.

    The problem only stopped when Menem took the drastic measure of declaring one peso equal to one American dollar. It stopped inflation dead in its tracks—but it caused yet another governmental bankruptcy.

    You learn to live with the inflation. You don’t have a budget, you don’t know how much money you are going to earn next month, and you can’t save. The money that you save loses value. The trick is to be constantly in debt as much as you can. The more money you owe, the better off you are.

    How do you handle the crisis? Ignore it. You have to disconnect. A trick we used to have for going to the supermarket: because the inflation was so high, they would re-mark the prices twice a week. You would go to the market, and if it was one of the days when they were changing prices, you would see where they were adjusting the prices, and run ahead to the other parts of the store that weren’t yet changed. You could save five to seven per cent if you did this.

    How do you deal with it? You have to be resilient, you have to be adaptive. You have to have guts.

    Everybody has a story in Argentina.

    In transit

    Hop on a morning rush hour bus, and just about everyone is asleep, heads lolling towards their lap or a stranger’s. You can spot the students even before the backpacks give them away: they’re the ones snoring into their notes. During a ride in late September, I found myself eavesdropping on a couple toting calculus books. They seemed to be wrapping up a talk about their relationship.

    “So we need to focus better, because this year is going to be very busy,” the girl concluded seriously, brushing her bangs out of her face. “Yeah, we need to make more efficient use of time,” the guy said, leaning in towards her.

    For a second I thought they were going to make out, but he was only reaching into his messenger bag for printouts of lecture slides. He handed a copy to his girlfriend and the pair commenced underlining and flipping pages like a synchronized study team.

    That’s one of the weird things about public transport: people know full well they’re in public, but act and talk with a surprising lack of inhibition, as though they’re each in their own little bubble. In a way, they are. Commuting is spent in the company of strangers, instead of the million other things you’d rather be doing. Complaints come easy—time lost, constant waiting, sheer monotony—but loneliness might be the highest price paid.

    “There’s a simple rule of thumb: every 10 minutes of commuting results in 10 per cent fewer social connections,” said Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam in an April 2007 New Yorker article. “Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness.” Putnam didn’t explain how he came up with those figures, but U of T commuters probably have some idea of what he’s talking about.

    Lonely Hearts Club

    Take Kristopher Morrison. He used to trek downtown from Newmarket, or “Hell,” as he calls it in a September 2008 issue of The Mike, the St. Michael’s College newspaper. “Being a commuter leaves you as unfulfilled as Clay Aiken’s ex-girlfriends,” writes Kristopher, who now lives 20 minutes from campus. “I know how hard it is to get a hookup when you live two hours out of the city.”

    “Character is destiny,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is said to have declared. For the tens of thousands of commuters at U of T, it might be more accurate to say that geography is destiny. Commuters account for 85 per cent of undergrads across three campuses, and there are 8,000 residence spots for over 53,000 undergrads. The majority go to St. George campus, which sits in the middle of a 60-kilometre arc between U of T Scarborough and U of T Mississauga. St. George students come from across the GTA, from Brampton to Markham, from Etobicoke to Whitby. Once on campus, getting from one class to the next can be a commute in itself.

    “Connection is still a mystery for many students,” said Deanne Fisher, communications director of the Student Life office. “We’ve got geography working against us. It’s a long way from Vic to Physics, St. Mike’s to Geography. Our students are travelling longer distances than other universities’.”

    It’s common wisdom that the vast urban campus doesn’t serve students as well as smaller schools do. In the Globe and Mail’s 2008 survey, for instance, students at small universities gave their school higher satisfaction marks than their big-box counterparts. U of T scored a C- for sense of community on campus, lower than the B- national average.

    U of T’s effort to engage students is decentralized, with colleges and faculties looking out for their own. “We try to strengthen the college system, and run more things during the day,” Fisher said. Her job is to make sure students know what’s happening on campus. She pointed to the newly retooled Ulife website, which carries a searchable event catalogue, as an attempt to facilitate student engagement.

    Commuter nation

    Student commuters might just be getting a head start. Statistics Canada’s 2006 census found a nationwide trend of longer commutes compared to five and 10 years ago. The average Canadian spent 12 days out of the year on the road. For Torontonians, an average of 79 minutes per day translates to 14 days of the year. Public transit users—surprise—reported significantly higher levels of unhappiness. According to a 2005 StatsCan study, the number of people travelling to the GTA for work was greater than the number of workers living here, a fact apparent to anyone who’s happened on the ghost town that is the financial district on weekends.

    “A commute is a distillation of a life’s main ingredients, a product of fundamental values and choices,” writes Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker. For his article “There and back again,” Paumgarten rode along with several “extreme commuters,” so called by the U.S. Census Bureau because they travel more than three hours each day.

    Among the extreme commuters profiled was Judy Rossi, a legal secretary who travels 6.5 hours per day from her home in Pike County, Pennsylvania, to work in Manhattan. That sounds insane, but consider that Rossi was commuting for an 8-hour workday, whereas some students come to campus for classes as short as a single hour. That’s why any commuter student worth her salt bundles like mad. “I try to fit as many lectures and tutorials as possible into the same day so that I will not have to go back to school for a one-hour class on any day of the week,” says Tiffany Tom, a second-year at UTSC.

    The New Yorker also cites a study called “Stress That Doesn’t Pay: The Commuting Paradox,” by Bruno Frey and Alois Stutzer, economists at the University of Zurich. Using data from Germany, the study found that for a two-hour round trip, a commuter would have to make 40 per cent more in salary to be as satisfied as a non-commuter. Furthermore, said Stutzer, workers who travel long distances report lower wellbeing because they trade social goods for material goods. According to Frey, as with other systemic mistakes, commuters who do not change their behaviour are stuck in their habits and begin to undervalue their own quality of life.

    Pierre Belanger, an assistant professor in U of T’s architecture faculty who studies mobility and urban development, offers a different view. “There are plenty of reasons why living outside the city centre and commuting with mass-transit would be the intelligent way to go,” he says.

    “If it wasn’t for urban decentralization, some students wouldn’t be able to live with their families or have the size of space they might need for a variety of different reasons.”

    To Paumgarten’s credit, he points out that the Zurich economists’ analysis assumes commuting is a rational choice, where people try to maximize benefits and minimize costs. But not every student can afford to weigh the social costs of commuting versus moving out.

    Rez fees run from $5,960 to $13,474 for the academic year, depending on the residence and meal plan. That’s a good chunk of change commuters aren’t spending—perhaps because they don’t have it to spend.

    “You learn over time to just deal with the little quirks,” Oliver Truong says of his 90-minute round trip from Brampton, where he lives with his family. Four days a week, Oliver gets up at 6 a.m. to catch the 7:40 a.m. GO train to Toronto with his older brother, who works downtown, so they can drive to the station together. The brothers go home on the 5:45.

    “By far, the worst thing is that you run by their schedule, so everything you do has to be planned with the transit system in mind,” he says. Happily, the GO train schedule hasn’t kept Oliver from table tennis intramurals, the Vietnamese Students Association, or VicXposure, the Victoria College photography club: “U of T is my school […] just because I don’t live on it, doesn’t mean I’m not a part of it.”

    Oliver met his girlfriend through a First-year Learning Community, a program offered to first-year students in a handful of departments including Life Sciences and Economics. FLC students take a number of courses together and meet regularly outside of class. “Through that, I got to meet a lot of people that I still talk to today,” he says.

    Don’t hate, participate

    As two yellow school buses pull up outside Hart House, an expectant stir travels the line of students headed to UTM. But the doors stay closed and the drivers appear to be on break. Incommunicative and rude drivers are a pet peeve for Katie, an OISE student from Milton. Twice a week, Katie drops off her five-year-old son at private school and walks 10 minutes to catch the shuttle at UTM. “I love what is waiting for me, so I learn to manage and enjoy my commute,” she says. It’s usually too noisy to read, but Katie doesn’t mind. “I’m a sociologist, so I enjoy just listening to lively conversations around me.”

    Not Mike Silla, first-year mechanical engineering student and aggrieved commuter. “I hate commuting, but I can’t afford to move downtown.”

    The shuttle leaves at five after the hour, so Mike has to scramble lickety-split after class. “I have class down there,” he gestures towards College Street, “and I have to run up every day.” After a 30-minute ride to UTM, he spends another 40 minutes getting home. “I always make it though,” he says. Nicole Yeo, the fourth-year next to Mike, is a little more sanguine. “I just take my time,” she says. “But it would make a lot more sense if the bus left at 6:15.”

    Petty annoyances from the daily grind add up quickly, and commuters love to compare notes. Commuter talk has its own lexicon, whether it’s comparing itineraries or horror stories. Those who don’t have far to go try to adopt a thankful tone without sounding smug. Cyclists are downright enthusiastic, and extreme commuters revel in a kind of perverse pride even as they grouse. They bond over the discomfort of bouncing buses and debate the merits of drivers with surplus good cheer. (Creepy or cute? You decide.) And though they’re always on the move, the persistent ones manage to form communities.

    Home away from home

    The smell of pancakes fills the University College commuter lounge on St. George Street. I definitely picked the right day to show up—it’s 2:30 p.m., but brunch is still on. A guy in a blue T-shirt offers me “spooky pancakes” in honour of Halloween. Tyler Ricer has been here for almost eight hours. At 4:30 p.m., he’s the last one left washing dishes. Tyler’s part of the University College Off-campus Commission, which he joined during a mixer for new commuters.

    “There’s nothing really bad about it,” he says when I try to prod him into venting about his hour-long commute from Richmond Hill. This guy is, in his own words, “exceptionally mellow.” Adjusting his heavy black-rimmed glasses, Ricer admits his level of gung-ho is “maybe a little atypical.” He’s part of UC’s mentorship program and joined the Wallace residence as a “house associate” (for $20, he gets access to their common room and a listserv that sends out house activities).

    “I love this room,” Tyler sighs. People are splayed out on couches or studying with ski-hill backs. Lockers cluster around the entrance. Someone helps himself to pizza from the surprisingly full communal fridge. In the carpeted annex, there are completed crosswords proudly stuck to the orange walls.

    As Tyler looks around fondly, a tall kid in a hoodie and vest plunks himself down and gripes that discount metropasses are sold out. “I don’t wanna pay an extra 10 bucks! Every time I wanted to get one, there were people in line,” says Dushyaan Sri Renganathan, a first-year.

    Tyler, a more seasoned commuter, got his metropass on the first day of sales. He waves over one of the two UC off-campus dons, Arman Hamidian. (“That’s Armani without the ‘i’ and Hamidian, which rhymes with comedian.”) “Last year I got offered residence don but ended up taking commuter don,” says Arman, who’s on campus from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. six days a week. He goes home to Richmond Hill to study and sleep. “I rarely spend much time with my family, which kinda sucks.” Commuters seem to fall loosely into two groups: those who only spend time on-campus for scheduled activities and those who, like Arman, seem determined to make their trip worthwhile by staying downtown for hours on end.

    On the plus side, travelling during off-peak hours reduces the commute. “You have the commute down to an art,” says Tyler. “You get on at a certain point so when you stop you’re right near the staircase [to transfer to a bus or another subway line].” He beams. “I picked that up in first year.”

    “And that saves like, minutes,” says Arman, nodding.

    “At St. George I go by the bench, right now it’s the Private Practice poster on the wall—stand in front of it,” Tyler instructs.

    During the course of the afternoon, more than a dozen people have passed by to say hi or park themselves at the table. There’s mock wrestling and a lot of giggling over costumes for tomorrow’s Halloween pub crawl. These are the core Off-campus Commission members. I can’t decide whether they form a service group, a club, or just a group of really close friends. They’re probably most like roommates who have adopted the lounge as an unofficial residence: a place to keep your stuff, nap, and microwave your food, a home away from home.

    Nuts and bolts

    The bottom-line issues for public transportation are frequency, reliability, comfort, and cost, according to Professor Belanger. “Mass transit during rush hours should be more than affordable, it should be free. Ridership would explode, just imagine the empty highways, while the urban areas are teeming with people.”

    Free transit would be nice, but prices are going the wrong way. The Toronto Transit Commission has raised fares eight times in the past 11 years. Since the University of Toronto Students’ Union started buying metropasses in bulk in 2005, the discount price has gone from $87 to $96. (The regular adult metropass now costs $109.)

    During peak months of the school year, UTSU orders 12,000 metropasses per month. In October, they sold out faster than ever. “We buy the passes on credit and it’s not feasible to buy any more than that,” says VP external Dave Scrivener.

    Scrivener is negotiating a Universal Pass with the TTC, along with student unions from OCAD, Ryerson, George Brown, and York. The U-Pass would give unlimited travel on the TTC and York transit for even cheaper—$60 or $65 per month—but only if all undergrads buy one. In a March referendum, UTSC students rejected the U-Pass proposal, sending negotiations back to the drawing board. Talks are going slowly, Scrivener says, but he hopes to put the matter to a student referendum by next year. UTM students already have a U-Pass for Mississauga Transit, at $89 for the entire school year.

    Most students I spoke to didn’t much care for the TTC’s reliability or frequency. It’s alright if you only need the subway, they say, but try waiting for the bus, and supposedly “frequent-service” streetcars, in the dead of winter. Hard feelings over the strike in April, when drivers walked off the job over derailed contract negotiations, have mostly dissipated, but students haven’t forgotten that they and other commuters are at the mercy of the transit system. Some upper years still shake their head over the wildcat strike in 2006, which hit the city without warning and shut down transit for a day. On Oct. 30, city council narrowly rejected a proposal to ask the province to designate the TTC an essential service, which would have made it illegal to strike.

    Arrested development?

    Much ink has been spilled over disaffected twenty-something slackers who work McJobs and sponge off mom and dad. Those trite criticisms do contain a grain of truth: more and more students are postponing the flight from the nest.

    StatsCan reports that in 2001, 57 per cent of those aged 20 to 24 were living with parents, a 16 per cent jump from 1981. Nesters are likely to be single, full-time students with lower incomes and parents in large metropolitan areas. The study “Parents with adult children living at home” notes parents born in South America, Asia, and Europe (excluding the U.K.) were much more likely to host adult children. As these parents spent more time in Canada, the likelihood of parent-child co-residence decreased.

    The findings correspond with anecdotes from students who don’t find it a hindrance to live with their parents, and for whom family is a bigger attraction than money in the bank. “I feel like I can be more like myself. After I moved out and came back, my relationship with my family grew,” says Tiffany, a boomerang kid who moved back in with her parents after first year. “I’m still the same person, but something has changed and I’m not sure what it is. I’m grateful for not living too far from school.”

    Living at home offers Tiffany less distractions and a healthier lifestyle: “When I lived on residence, I went as far as having only one meal every 12 hours or so.”

    Commuters can definitely avoid big-time hassles like exploitative landlords, sketchy roommates, and laundry. “During frosh week, I wondered, ‘Why don’t I live down here?’” Dushyaan says. “It’s because I’d miss the comforts of home.” Even if your parents still nag you for staying up late, familiar arguments are easier to handle than the unknown. For one thing, mom and dad are less likely to destroy your stuff after an argument over loud music or chores.

    But when it’s about coming into one’s own, comfort and support can be false friends. The title of the StatsCan study says it all: young adults who live with their parents are “adult children.” For most university students, these are the years where they transition from adolescence to adulthood. A choice to commute is often a choice to live at home. Is that decision delaying our generation’s coming of age?

    Oliver doesn’t think so. “I’ve forced myself to learn things that I would have to learn had I gone to residence, like cook!, because I know I’d have to learn someday.”

    “It was a little tough in first year between my family and I because they weren’t used to me staying up really, really late studying, or being as stressed out as I was.”

    For other students, acquiring life skills simply isn’t a priority at the moment.

    “It would be nice to be independent, but this is the time to focus on your education, not learn how to make your way through life,” said Ash, a final-year student. She picked U of T for the convenience and sees no reason to move out. “I come from a tad traditional family, so usually you don’t move out until you’re married.”

    Ash spends around 20 hours a week on campus, for classes and for work. “Usually after every class, I have to go off-campus to work [at a second job] or volunteer,” she says. “It’s really busy this year because I have to do a lot of things in order to apply for teacher’s college. It costs a grand just to apply.”

    Education is about more than just the classroom, she says, but she doesn’t have the time to hang out on campus at will.

    Of the 3,800 commuters at UC, only 300 are on the off-campus listserv. Commuter don Arman says he’ll be using U of T’s Portal to send out messages so more students know about events, but he doesn’t think apathy towards campus life is the end of the world. Toronto offers students a wealth of opportunities, says Arman, and he knows plenty of people who are active off-campus. “As much as you want people to be involved with the university and love it, the fact they’re doing something else is good.”