Many a first time visitor to Ottawa in the carefree Sixties was apt to bed down for a night or two at the old YMCA located on Metcalfe Street at Laurier. Built in the early 1900s, it served as a key recreational centre until new facilities were opened in 1970. The old Y was then converted into a budget hotel, functioning under various names ranging from the Roxborough to the Indigo until its most recent rebirth in 2017 as a boutique hotel, the Metcalfe.
In February 1966, its location only a few blocks from Parliament Hill and Union Station (now the Government Conference Centre), with easy access to the principal sights of the capital, was a popular haven for travellers, students and newly-arrived government employees. It had clean beds and standard if unpretentious facilities, better than average recreational amenities and a friendly atmosphere.
And it was delightfully inexpensive by comparison with its relatively pricey hotel neighbours – the Lord Elgin, the Beacon Arms, the Savoy and, of course, the haughty Chateau. The Lord Elgin had been my first destination on arrival in bitter late January blizzard conditions to report for my first government job as a Fisheries Department information officer. Three nights at the stately Elgin was all my thin budget could bear.
After 12 years working as a radio-TV news reporter in St. John’s, Newfoundland, I wasn’t too flush financially. Getting the best temporary accommodation possible was my top priority pending the sale of my house so that my family could transfer later that winter.
Someone at work told me of the Y. My single bag hastily packed, I paid the hotel, and blithely called for a cab. I wondered why the driver looked at me strangely as I told him where to take me. We turned one corner, then a second and in less than a minute, the cab door opened to drop me at the Y door on Metcalfe, one street away! The fare was 50 cents – a lot of money to waste in 1966 when the train ride from Montreal to Ottawa was $3.20. An inauspicious introduction to the venerable Y, to be sure, but perhaps an omen of what was to be found inside.
My room was on the top floor. No penthouse, it was very small, even cramped, but at $3.75 a night, what else could one expect? At least it got me in from the cold – and did it ever do that! As bitterly frigid as it remained outside, the atmosphere in that tiny attic chamber was well-nigh tropical steam bath. Nothing builds up heat like the old style hot water radiator, and as surely as heat rises, the temperature in that room must have been bursting the Fahrenheit scale. No problem, though. Unlike in those modern glasshouse monsters, there was a storm window one could probably open the old-fashioned way with a lift by thumb and finger to let a bracing draught of winter air cool things down a bit.
But wait. What’s this? A plain hand written note on the dresser:
PLEASE DO NOT PUT ARTICLES ON THE WINDOW SILLS. THIS
CAN CAUSE A SERIOUS ACCIDENT WHEN ARTICLES FALL TO
THE SIDEWALK BELOW.
Oh dear, another message from management on the window ledge:
TO AVOID THE DANGER OF STORM WINDOWS FALLING TO THE
STREET, PLEASE DO NOT UNHOOK THEM. IF FRESH AIR IS
NEEDED, PLEASE USE SLIDING PANE.
Closer inspection reveals yet another instruction designed to ensure the tenant’s better comfort and peace of mind:
IF YOU DESIRE TO HAVE YOUR ROOM KEPT WARM IN THE
EVENINGS, PLEASE SEE THAT YOUR WINDOW IS CLOSED AND
YOUR RADIATOR TURNED ON FULL BEFORE GOING TO BED.
Considering myself well and truly forewarned, I could not forbear from approaching the window pane and falteringly probe its ability to slide open. Oops, what was that? A mere touch of the window frame let loose a fist sized chunk of decayed exterior masonry, which slid fast away to plunge earthward, six storeys below.
Horrified, I listened fearfully for the screams of maimed Laurier Avenue pedestrians and the wail of police sirens. But only silence, and my palpitating heart. Chastened by this narrow brush with tragedy, I backed as far as possible from the deadly dormer. No fresh air for me this night, thank you.
Just one small gesture, though, to thwart big brother Y. A tiny touch, mayhap, but a budding bureaucrat’s blow for human kind. Before lights out, I turned off that sucker radiator – all the way. It was a very warm night!
(with apologies to the Ottawa Citizen which published a version of this story in a Voices column in 1994.)