Gzowski saw need for dignity

This was Peter Gzowski’s last column for CARPNews FiftyPlus. It appeared in the February issue, which had already gone to press when he died, January 24th, 2002.

A courier in helmet and gloves and enough reflective clothing to make him look like a leftover from “Let’s Make Deal” comes to my door.

When I stick my old grey head out, he looks down at his envelope and says, just to confirm, “Peter?”

I call my pharmacist. I love my pharmacist, especially since I’ve reached the age when Premier Harris pays for my prescription drugs. But I seldom get to talk to her directly.

This time, as usual, I get a “pharmacy technician,” who sounds about 12. I give my name and address.

“How can I help you, Peter?” says the technician.

The phone rings. It’s the cops. I had a little fender-bender the other day. There’s still some paperwork to be done.

“Just a couple of numbers, Peter,” says the constable-this to a man who used to give speeches about the differences between Canada and the United States, listing, among others, that our officers wore ti and called you sir.

Lack of Mr.
Whatever happened to Mr. or sir-or Mrs. or Ma’am or Ms, for that matter, for I realize the decline in manners is affecting women at least as much as men.

But sir and Mr.-or rather the lack thereof-is where I feel it.

Sir, in particular, has always been part of my life. It took me most of elementary school to figure out that male teachers actually had names though it took somewhat longer to hear how classroom formality could be carried too far.

At a parent-and-teacher night for one of my own kids, the principal told us in his speech that one morning, as he was shaving, he’d had an idea: “Mr. Evans,” I said to myself .” (I’ve changed his name, out of sympathy for all teachers — even needlessly pompous ones.)

Next page: Crossing the line

Crossing the line
I realize, too, I should be among the last to complain. For years on the radio, I encouraged people to call me by my first name.

“Mr. Gzowski was my father,” I’d say.

But that’s different from what I’m experiencing now. The Morningside listeners and correspondents were (and remain) my friends, even though there are scores of thousands of them I still haven’t met.

But the people whose informality gets my hackles up now are strangers. Most of them are doing or would like to do business with me, and they’re stepping over a boundary we haven’t agreed to.

Don’t presume
Once when he was in his eighties, I asked the great man of letters Robertson Davies what I should call him.

“I don’t think I could presume to call you Rob,” I said.

“No,” he said, “you can’t.”

From then until he died, I called him Master, which may have made me sound like a pilgrim to his ashram but was, in fact, an honorific to which, as the master of Massey College at the University of Toronto, he was entitled.

I called my own grandfather, the Colonel, sir. So did a lot of other people. He was just a sir kind of guy, straight up and down in both posture and business, shoes always shined, pants always pressed-even the khaki shorts he wore for golf.

Sir as irony
I’m not a sir kind of guy.

I’m so much the opposite, in fact, that when the incomparable Shelley Ambrose, who ran my life when we both worked at the CBC for so many years, started calling me sir, it was ironic.

And I never did like it when people who didn’t know the joke would pick up Shelley’s private nickname-although I was moved perilously close to tears at the “Morningside” farewell party when a chorus line of my women colleagues sang “To Sir with Love” to me, all set to amazingly intricate choreography.

Deprived of dignity
Mostly, what bothers me most about the decline in formality is that it’s depriving us of dignity at a time in our lives we need it more than ever.

Hospitals are a case in point. I am much more reluctant to criticize health care workers than I am teachers. But I can think of no more vulnerable situation than to be sitting in the waiting room outside, say, the X-ray machine, with your bum barely covered and your bony legs sticking out from under the skimpiest of back-tied gowns, when the technician appears with her clipboard, calling for “Peter.”

Although, come to think, of it, I’ll never feel less like a sir.

Journalist and author Peter Gzowski (1934-2002) was often called “Mr. Canada” because of his passion for this country and his respect for our heritage and culture.