Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tales from the City

            When my family moved from Toronto to Strathroy Ontario in 1976, we left it all behind us. Actually, they left it all behind them. Any chance I got to go back, I took. Toronto has always been a huge part of my life and continues to be. So do the people that fill my visits. Whether socially, working, or while simply walking down the street, I think of Torontonians as my kin, in a manner of speaking. Although I live well over 100 kilometres away, in Kitchener, most of my friends live there. Most of the people I spend my time with reside in the Greater Toronto Area. My family might argue that Strathroy was where we grew up, but I know it is the Big Smoke that constitutes my hometown.
            I love the place, more than words can express. Almost every segment of my life has ties there, one way or another. I was born there. I lived there with my first partner. My fondest and fiercest memories of my youth are centered on its suburbs and the downtown core. It may be the largest city in Canada, but for me it is an escape from the complications that come with modern living. I can disappear on its streets and hide in its pleasures. Toronto means adventure and art and culture. The people represent the civilized world to me, an example of diversity through immigration and Pride and tolerance. In spite of its flaws, and its current Mayor Rob Ford, I hold it, with great bias, as the best city in the world. Most certainly, it is at least one of the best.
            The heart of a city is the people who live there. With over 9 million in the Greater Toronto Area, there is much spirit and soul to the place. I have travelled extensively throughout my adult life, yet I find this city thrives because of the people who call it a home. It is a rare thing when someone is hospitable, especially in places like New York City or Los Angeles. It is a natural thing once you cross our border. People are friendly and people are courteous, for the most part. Yes, it has its own forms of darkness; there are always good men and bad men. Yes, it has its skeletons; it comes with warts and all.  It is the people who make up the essence of this glorious place. All the architecture, all the history, yet the entire city would hold little without the very lifeblood that flows from the population. Each person has a story to tell, or we have stories to tell about each person. Each face, each being is part of an eclectic mix of those tales from the city.

Lunch with Bubba

            I had managed to go without fighting for a few weeks when Shawn Savoy attacked from behind. All I had done was to ask, in class, a question, and you would have thought the world had ended. I suppose in public school five extra minutes at lunchtime is an eternity, but that is beside the point. As I walked out the west end hallway and onto the schoolyard, he pounced. Being given a gender-nonspecific name like Kelly taught me to fight early on. Four siblings and a myriad of friends didn’t hurt my battle skills. I grabbed him from behind and whipped him over me, ducking down to shift gravity. He fell hard on his back and ass, screaming nonsense the entire time. It was over before it really started. He stood up and took his swing, only to be met by a barrage of punches and jabs. I had learnt quickly that you have to fight if you're going to win.
            So began my war with Shawn Savoy. Even though I have not seen him since my family relocated away from the city, he remains my greatest childhood adversary. I hated his guts.  I guess I still do. He lived just across the way, but he might as well have been from another planet. To this day, I am not sure what his problem was. The only time I ever reacted violently or abusively towards him was when provoked. He was my least concern. Perhaps the problem lies therein. Maybe completely ignoring him, excluding  him and mocking him behind his back, was enough to build a rage towards me. I would have thought that after endless black eyes and bloodied lips that he would have learnt his lesson, but he always kept on coming. He was an odd and angry little boy. I know we all suspected that abuse was a factor in his home, although no one ever cared enough to try to prove it. In fact, his entire family was as disposable to the neighbours as Shawn was to me. When I wonder what he is doing now, I have visions of orange jumpsuits and him having to take forced lunches with some guy named Bubba.  
            Without a doubt, his worst offence occurred when I was bitten by an Irish Setter. He was a witness to the carnage yet did nothing to help. Instead, he stood laughing, pointing at me like I deserved what I got. I can see him standing twenty feet away, only a chain-link fence between him and me and the beast. For the longest time I wished him harm, some sort anyway. He brought out the worst in me and I allowed him to every time. When I am walking down the streets of Toronto, I occasionally try to picture what he would look like, what would he be like if we crossed paths one more time? For all I know, I have stood in line with him, ate at the same restaurant as him or even roared at the same Toronto Maple Leafs game as him. When I imagine we somehow meet, our eyes recognizing one another after all this time, my instincts are still the same. I turn my head and I simply walk away. He will always be disposable.   


            Doug and I lived right across from Kensington Market, near Toronto's Chinatown, for most of 1994. We had decided to try the big city and sold most of our belongings for the cash and to save on space. Our basement apartment was quite nice considering the area, and had just enough room for us both and our two cats, Gizmo and Felix. That year was more like one long party than a quest for direction. Instead of building future endeavours, we pissed away our money on beer, tequila and cab fare. Having the Market so close was a nice touch, not only for the fresh produce but for the quaint cafés and shops scattered throughout the streets that make up the area. Two hundred feet across the way from our house was a splendid patio-bar with umbrellas and sports channels blaring on the TVs. If we were not to be found, we were either there or downtown at the Loose Moose on Front Street. Two dollar Tuesdays were a given.
            I sure can't drink alcohol like I did back in the day. Obviously I can't speak for Doug, but I am sure he too would have tired of a world lacking responsibility and mature behaviour. We used to drink and drink until the money ran out or one of us ended up with our head in a filthy toilet. It was a coin toss which one of us got shitfaced first. The Loose Moose was a draw for the young crowd. University and college students came for the prices and stayed for the decadence. When the night was over, taxi cabs disappeared like presents on Christmas morn. For two piss-drunk hedonists, it was a very long walk home. From Front Street to Spadina Avenue, then across to Dundas Street, seemed to take forever, as we both battled passing out or spewing on the sidewalk. We knew the area like the back of our hands, so we occasionally took a shortcut down a side street or a back alley most people were too afraid to travel by. We used to talk about how much we loved living in Toronto and how much we would miss it when we eventually moved for financial and other reasons. For the first time since I was a child, I was home again.
            When Spadina meets Dundas Street, you have to head west to meet up with Kensington Market. We lived on Bellevue Avenue, which was connected by Denison Avenue to Dundas Street. Like most other Tuesdays, once we had spent our cab fare on a few more beers, we stumbled towards home with little regard for anything other than our buzz. On Denison Ave., I stopped to tie my shoe, hoping to avoid falling on my butt. Doug walked only a little way ahead and was stopped by Darlene. She had been standing, pacing across the street at a tiny park near our home. Lots of girls like Darlene frequented the area. Bellevue Park, like most parks in the downtown core, had drug and vice traffic, but we had yet to be so exposed to this seedier side of city living.
            She was a tall drink of something, that's for sure. Despite the night, her African Canadian ethnicity was as clear as the two teeth she maintained in her mouth. Her hair was nappy, and from a distance you could almost smell her lack of care. A smell later confirmed by Doug. She wore a faded jean jacket, a light pink halter top underneath and a revealing short skirt. The strangest thing was that her shoes didn’t match, fashion victims of crack cocaine, we later assumed. She approached Doug, reached out and touched his chest and then asked for a dollar. When Doug informed her of his current poverty, she insisted that if he gave her a dollar she would "treat him real good." As naïve and sheltered as Doug was, he handled her like a pro would, so to speak. He removed her hand and proceeded to give her all the change in his pocket. The price she would have to pay would consist of leaving him alone. She took the money, stood back from him, and once again offered him sexual favours for more small change. I stood from my position, walked over and took Doug by the arm. "Back off sister," I said. "He my man."

"Find yourself in people city
Stay awhile if you can
With folks who will be tomorrow's faces
Kickin' the traces
Showing you places
In Toronto
That's people city
Where love takes hold
Makes old dreams happen
She makes you feel things
So very feeling
Take on old meaning
In Toronto
That's people city
Winter's white in people city
Green ravines make summer pretty
When leaves start to turn
Then the rainbow burns
That's when you learn
That you're in Toronto
That's people city"
(People City, Tommy Ambrose and Gary Gray 1973)

 Over the Rainbow

             The walk home from work was always an interesting experiment in social interaction. The radio station, located near the Bloor and Jarvis Street intersection, sat on the fringe of the gay village. I walked through it every night after my shift, up to College Street, then to home. Although not a long journey, I travelled along Church Street, spying on the night life as a form of entertainment and great amusement. It always seemed to me that the most interesting and unique specimens came out to play at night. I often found myself standing, watching some bitch slap contest or drunken leather daddy battling civility and the coming dawn. The heart of gay Toronto is made for sublime viewing and even the occasional offbeat adventure.
            While most other parts of Toronto seemed to rest after midnight, at least from a populace point of view, Church Street festivities carried on through the night. As the morning approached, the sidewalks and alleyways would empty of huddled masses and stragglers heading back from where they had been. Hints of light always seemed to chase away the strangest and most distinctive citizens, but a few carried on into the sunrise. Finishing up around 5 A.M. usually meant for silent streets. The rays of light seemed to banish these nocturnal dwellers into hiding as if they were vampires, denied their feeding come the break of day. Somewhere between the night and the morning, I always found myself walking this way back home.
            I hit Church Street where it meets Isabella Street, and turned southward in the direction I followed each night on the return to my abode. Knowing that Cawthra Square, a small park containing the city’s AIDS memorials, was a danger zone this late in the dark,  I crossed to the west side of the thoroughfare, hoping to avoid any problem that might arise from my presence. Once I passed Wellesley Street, I believed that the coast was clear. I forgot that strange creatures dwell beneath the waters off this coastline. As I headed south, I saw her coming north, across the road from me. I wondered to myself why such a sharply dressed and pretty woman would be walking alone at this hour, near daybreak. I could tell she spotted me. She cut right across the street in my direction. Her five inch stilettos calmed any fear I might have had of impending doom. She smiled, took a smoke from her dainty ebon handbag, and then stopped dead, right in front of me. Raising it to her mouth, she proceeded to ask me for a light.
            She must have stood only five and a half feet tall, although those heels added nicely to her persona. Her hair was deep black, rather short and seemed frozen in place, lying tightly to her head. Beneath her silver beaded dinner jacket was a tuxedo shirt, unbuttoned to just above her naval. A small cross hung carefully around her neck, the metal makeup of the chain and ornament disguised by the shadows of approaching dawn. Somewhere on her person was a very short skirt, although for the life of me I couldn't spot it. Her coat dropped past it to just above mid-thigh. Her earrings were modest, although they may have been diamond studs. Black velvet shoes and her purse matched perfectly, accenting her look and suiting her to a tee. For a moment I thought she was Judy Garland, then I realized that was exactly who she was supposed to be. Politely, I lit her cigarette, then reached into my back pocket, grabbing one for me as well. I wished her a good morning and tried to go about my business.
            She briefly followed me down the street, irritating me with what seemed like endless questions. Finally, she must have decided to throw everything into her basket and asked me if I wanted some company. Like an idiot, I thanked her, then informed her I was gay. "Me too," he sang. I had never met a drag queen up close and personal, but I knew instantly, once made aware, that the real Ms. Garland had a better chance than this guy of getting into my pants. Relentlessly, he offered me an experience I would never have imagined to that point in my life. As I reached Maple Leaf Gardens, his pursuit turned to desperation. "You don't know what you're missing," he cried out as I turned onto College Street and walked away. I was never much of a Judy fan, so most certainly, I was not going to take this ride over the rainbow.


            Winter in Canada can be extreme. The harsh northern wind, the terrifying temperatures, and a deluge of snow make for treacherous conditions both in the rural areas and inside the cities. Toronto gets no exemption from the grip of Mother Nature. From November to April, chances are that her streets will be covered in one form of freezie or another. One day in January might be warm and sunny, with a southerly flow, and the next day the town closes down under two feet of the white stuff. Our weather is unpredictable at best. Canadians are known for their perseverance in the face of such assailants. We may not like weather after autumn, but we can handle it. At least, most of us seem able to face the dead of wintertime.
            Like every major city in North America, and I assume most of the world, Toronto has a homeless crisis. No matter the season, the streets are riddled with beggars, panhandlers and victims of the concrete jungle. When the winds of December blow hard and cold, warnings of frigid temperatures have city volunteers searching the streets for the less fortunate from our society. The local news channels report on frozen men and women, duped into believing an exhaust vent or shelter by a building will save them from the relentless and bitter sting of hypothermia then freezing to death. As with most things you see every day, or hear about all the time, you become ambivalent, walking past them as they beg for change or sleep in the snow.
            I have never been a stranger to this ambivalence. Even though I cannot help but see them as they sit alone, sometimes with their dog, dirty and defeated, I don't want to see. I have tried to help, I have reached out to many of them, but the experience always left a bad taste in my mouth. I've been assaulted, belittled, spit upon, violated, screamed at, cursed at and everything in between. All this was just for the honour of asking if they needed my help. While the majority of the visible homeless population seem to sit with a cigarette in one hand and a Big Mac in the other, while asking for change on Yonge Street, it is the invisible factor that I feel for the most. We cannot see their need and they have no face we can relate to. Still, they are out there, beyond our line of sight and compassion. It really can be a cold, cold world.
            I still drop loose change in their hats and I always help them if they ask for help, but I refuse to place myself in a situation to which harm may find me. I guess you could say, once bitten twice shy. One winter, just after the new millennium began, I was stuck in Toronto, trying desperately to find a way home and out of Toronto. The city was covered by ice and snow and even the taxi cabs seemed to have disappeared from their roosts along Gerrard Street and up along Bay Street to the west. I left my friend's house wrapped in layers of sweaters and winter clothing, protection from the -25 Celsius wind chill and the 80 kilometre gusts sent by Lake Ontario. The Great Lake sat frozen at the foot of the metropolis. As I crossed Yonge Street, heading towards the Greyhound Station, I spotted a man lying in a pile of snow, huddled against a lamppost. His blanket was covered in at least 5 centimetres of snow and it blocked any air flow from the vent below. He was heavily covered in matted and old gear, but ice and snow was starting to build up on this body. His face and his hands were exposed to the unforgiving temperatures and I was unsure if he was breathing. Compassion defeated fear, so I walked over, I took him by his left arm and gave him a shake. I called out to him in hopes he would awaken. Suddenly, he sat up and started screaming at me to leave him alone. He reached down into his blanket and pulled out some kind of sharp weapon. It looked like a shank from one of those bad prison movies made in the 1970s. He just growled at me, as if feral and fearless, so I backed off slowly and went on my way. For all I know, he could have been Shawn Savoy.
The Harbour


            The Toronto Bay is a natural harbour located on the north shore of Lake Ontario. It is protected from the fury of this Great Lake by the Toronto Islands. The harbour acts as both a recreational area and a commercial port. The waterfront is well developed for residential living, cultural and recreational events and enterprise. The port handles well over one million tonnes of traffic each year and is rated by Statistics Canada as the 15th busiest port in Ontario. Main industrial traffic in the bay consists of sugar for the Redpath refinery and other related materials. An airport is located on one of the islands while public beaches dot the western end of the main body of water.
            The view from that water is stunning during sunlight hours, but especially at night. The CN Tower, Skydome (The Rogers Centre) and the entire skyline light up the bay as if painted by Van Gogh himself. Runners and dog owners have miles of boardwalk and trails to journey on daily. Wharves and piers are scattered all about the beachfront and rock climbers fall over the bluffs located east of the harbour. Considered a relatively shallow lake, the swimming conditions in Lake Ontario fare well, despite its size and the industrial growth surrounding the area. These waters even host their own version of the Loch Ness Monster. Known to Torontonians as Gaasyendietha, the beast has been spotted out in the lake itself, as well as in the harbour. The creature is a Native Canadian myth handed down from the Seneca tribe.
            The harbour is a busy place. Heavily travelled shipping lanes make for active waters. The Rochester Ferry service from Pier 52 to Rochester, New York only adds to the traffic. Day and night cruises, yacht clubs and recreational sports like sailing, waterskiing and jetting, all blend together with the many personal and business craft. On a warm summer day, a nautical mosaic of shapes and sizes litters the lake. Each mode of transportation is unique unto itself. Some vessels are small and some are gigantic. Some are maintained and pretty, while others show their age. Each mode has a path it must follow in the water. Deviations from the lanes may result in casualties. More often than not, these ships just pass each other by. Regardless, each one is part of the whole; we all make the waves. Even the most dishevelled boat adds its movement to the rolls in the almost blue. Everything works together to make a productive and efficient way for travelling, a microcosm of floatation devices.
            Toronto is a lot like its harbour. To see the resemblance we must first recognize that everything on land is as interconnected as anything out on the waves. The city flows through co-operation and an unconscious agreement to be civilized.  We are bound to social expectations. There are exceptions to every rule and they usually interfere with this collective stream. Sometimes we have to look outside our own little world to understand how someone might have gotten so far off course. This should not automatically disregard their right to exist. We may come to the city on different ships. We may even pass in the harbour, only aware by sight of each other's journey. We should be careful the direction we steer. In the end, we might find ourselves in the same boat.   





Fenside Public School

Bellevue Park

Church Street

University and Queen