It was as fat as an overfed housecat, as long as a willow switch, and every bit as ugly as I thought it would be. A rat, snooping and whiskering its way across the steel steps in back of the fancy desert restaurant in downtown Kingston.
“Oh, that’s a rat” I said to my co-adventurers.
“Yep, it sure is,” said the native Ontarioan.
“Oh, god, it’s hideous,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s a big sucker,” another one said.
“I’ve never seen a live one that big before,” I exclaimed.
“GO AWAY RAT!” I hissed.
And this plump, hypermouse, with a tail long, thick and pink like strawberry licorice, did an about face off the top rung of the metal staircase, and jumped off. Like a graceless flying squirrel it plopped to the ground amongst the garbage and filth of the restaurant’s trash heap, and sprung artfully behind a compost bin and into the back of the restaurant. Nasty.
“We don’t have rats in Alberta. Thank god,” I said, repulsed.
“What? No way. Like none?” somebody said.
“Zero. We keep them out with sub-zero temperatures and Rat Police on the Saskatchewan border.”
“Here hold the beer, I think we can get on the roof from here.” And I passed one of them the bag of Canadian, then climbed to the top of the steps, and swung my leg over the railing, straddling it like a bronco.
“If we just hold on to the support pole of this fence,” there was fence blocking the rest of the stairway up to an apartment from the rooftop, “we can swing ourselves on to the roof.”
And so I did
We had been walking around downtown Kingston for about an hour looking for a staircase to the rooftops. A friend from Kingston told me that behind a frozen yogurt stand there was a staircase to the top of the old cinema. And I had heard, from a couple of wiry kids during my first weeks in the city, that the rooftops were the spot. Well, the fro-yo backstreet was under heavy surveillance, and, after walking down a few back alleys, trying to scale a wall to get to a low-hanging fire escape, wedging ourselves between cross beams of a parkade, and then snooping around behind some backside apartment entry wells, I finally set foot on the mushy tar of the old ceiling.
Beer bottles rattling in the thread bag, I used the support of three air conditioning units to cross the first rooftop, the low hanging stoop of the restaurant kitchen. Stepping over a ledge onto the next roof was a bit trickier. In the black of the night, I couldn’t see how the roof was terraced, some being sloped, others uneven. My shoes slid on the granular shingles of the roof, the back hallway of a retail store, and I had to shuffle across squatted low to maintain my centre of balance. My friends followed.
“Careful of these cables,” I shouted back to them as I stepped over a string of electrical lines that stretched across the next rooftop. I tried stepping over them but my back foot caught on the higher one, and I stumbled across the roof like a turkey with a ten pound weight on its head. One of them was wheezing with laughter trying to keep quiet underneath the lights of open apartment windows. The rattily beer bag wasn’t helping either.
“Graceful,” the laughing one said.
From the back of this roof we had to jump down on to the rock roof of a fancy restaurant. The brick walls of the higher, neighbouring buildings were covered in graffiti. Cool stuff, too; lots of colour. On the near side was the inside brick wall of a series of lofts. On the far side of the roof, the rising brick wall of the Grand Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest arts venues, and a single, broken ladder held in place by a cinder block.
“Here, hold the beer and this ladder and I’ll crawl up onto the theatre,” I said.
Nervous but game, one of them stepped too. “Don’t fall,” she said, “I won’t catch you.”
“If I fall,” I said back, “don’t let go of the beer.”
The ladder shook and buckled but it held both of us fine. From there, a steel fire escape, enclosed by a circular metal frame to protect us, took us to the top, and the silver insulated duct work of the theatre, along the edge of the Princess street corridor. Greeting us, six kids sitting on the gabled roof of the apartment across the street. We waved at each other.
“This used to be the highest point in Canada at one time,” I said. And we took a moment to look around.
It was a surreal look from up there. Kingston felt new. And the world felt different, for a second. The lights of the domed city hall, usually prominent and stately from street level, were sandwiched in by the glaring lights of downtown condominium projects. Princess street sparkled like a crown. The tower of St. Mary’s, gothic and foreboding, glowed with orange accents, sinister looking. The Cataraqui river basin stretched out for miles shadowy and spare with leafless trees. Pedestrians walked by, unaware we were staring down at them. The city buzzed softly with life. And the red lights of the Wolfe Island windmills danced like fireflies in the inky southern Ontario night.
I opened a beer. We cracked wise. We hung our feet off the side of the baroque theatre façade. I called my Mom and told her about the rat. Red lights flickering on the far side of Lake Ontario, reminding us where we were.