Report from Toronto

Toronto is the first city in a long while in which the locals haven’t asked me for directions. Perhaps the Canadians know the true me: the jocular jake who walks into a room and who somehow gets involved in some sprightly banter in which some questionable expertise is detected. Maybe it’s the cold knife that carves your face into redcheeked conviviality whenever you step into the cold outside. The moon is noticeably lower up here at night. “Bowed” is the first descriptive modifier entering my head mere minutes after I have touched down at Billy Bishop Airport, crossing water on a brisk two minute ferry that feels anticlimactic after the ten minute wait. (The question of why nobody thought to build a bridge over such a comically short distance is one I consider taking up, but my inquiries are put to a halt when I learn of a 1971 collective effort in which Toronto managed to stop an obnoxious Robert Moses-like project called the Spadina Expressway, which surely would have obliterated vibrant neighborhoods and is an admirable example of Canadian can-do.)

Toronto is bowed because the red hands at the crosswalks have more of a curved edge at the tips of their digits than their American counterpart. (As for the wan man who lets you legally cross an intersection, his legs are more noticeably spread, resembling the bottom half of an X and suggesting, quite rightfully, a metropolitan commitment to hardcore ambling which I quickly take up.) Toronto is bowed because the bay windows one sees in residences just north of Kensington Market jut forth with a modest commitment to bumps (and I am also impressed with the acute-angled gables, which mimic the crosswalk men) and the expensive waterfront high rises feel compelled, despite their obdurate vertical reach into the sky’s whites, to extrude half-elliptical bulges many floors above the bustling traffic. Toronto is bowed because even if you walk down a prominent downtown drag like Bloor or Yonge or Bathurst, you feel a slight but not unpleasurable list when you squint into the distance. Toronto is bowed because, from what I can tell, the taxi cabs are very much committed to free market anarchy. There appears to be no dominant color or company. I observe red, green, beige, and yellow cabs, sedans, minivans, and myriad car body types, but the only common denominator is a large TAXI sign atop each vehicle, much larger than the notices I’ve seen in many American cities. Like much of Toronto, its edge is bowed.

I’m guessing the Canadians aren’t asking me for directions (although they are talking with me and, from what I can detect, genuinely curious and highly pleasant) because I haven’t yet learned that my “restroom” is actually a “washroom” up here or because I haven’t peppered my speech with the numerous “yeahs” proffered to confirm any compelling point. I’m a big “yeah” guy myself, especially when I am in an exuberant mood and wish to encourage my colleagues and peers, but my “yeah” frequency pales in comparison to the Canadians. I am hardly the first to remark upon this linguistic phenomenon, but I’m marveled by it all the same. There is scant profanity and, aside from the occasional commitment to holding hands, far less public displays of affection than I see in New York. I observe a man around my age step out of a restaurant and painfully stub his toe on Bloor Street. He shouts out “Ow!” with the same declarative resolve in which I would loosen a “Fuck!” or “Shit!” mere microseconds after my nerves registered some minor and easily bandaged physical affliction. I’m not sure I have it in me to rid myself of this vulgarity, but I don’t want to suggest that Canadians aren’t committed to the profane. A Toronto newspaperman I meet hours after the toe-stubbing incident serves up at least five “fuckings” during our animated talk. In the men’s room (sorry, men’s washroom) at the World’s Biggest Bookstore (which I learn to my dismay is owned by a corporate chain), after my wet hands run afoul of a malfunctioning blower, a man next to me says, “No paper towels? To hell with this.” And I enjoyed his clipped yet confident masculinity, which I wish to see imported into Williamsburg back home, perhaps planting a seed among the indecisive and often passive vegan men with the pipe-thin arms who are fond of wearing T-shirts as dry in their fashion as a handful of the bad sweaters I’ve seen up here. (More bathroom notes. A graffiti in the stall reads: “GOT BLOWJOBS? ASK FOR EDDIE.” Also, American Standard is still the urinal of choice.)

The Downtown Toronto area, where I’m staying for two days, is hardly a reliable sample size with which to remark upon the multifaceted Canadian character, which keenly interests me. But on the whole, Canadians are quieter and more polite than Americans. In a bar, I observe them modulate their collective voices with a greater collective intuition than I usually see in my homelands quiet and swank places when a very young man begins fingerpicking Christmas medleys on his guitar. There appear to be more smokers here, but they tend to burrow themselves into the deep square recesses of buildings. (Did I mention that it was much colder up here? When I packed in a rush, I forgot to bring gloves with me. But Honest Ed’s, a splendorous place which I’ll get into a bit, saves my hands with a two dollar offering. There’s an almost Chekhovian beauty in this moment, but I’m getting ahead of myself.) Yet I also notice a curious geometric quality in the way people walk. Like New York, you will get cut off if you dabble on the sidewalk for even a minute. But this isn’t rudeness. It’s some collective commitment to an unspecified formula, involving time required to get freezing ass to indoor destination and minimum number of steps or this rectilinear stretch of the journey as vital variables, passed down through generations of pedestrians.

I walk up Yonge and discover a modest street theatrical scene at the corner of Dundas. There is a man dressed in a Batman costume (I am to learn later that Toronto has a fairly solid and far from obnoxious science fiction community: Bakka Phoenix remains a prominent bookstore fixture), several 9/11 truthers thumping the Infowars hard line, a handful of breakdancers, two lone drummers banging their sticks to a modestly appreciative audience, SpongeBob SquarePants, and a guy hawking copies of the Bhagavad Gita. They remind me of the eccentric types who tended to congregate around the 16th and Mission BART station when I lived in San Francisco. Yonge Street is a curious main drag, in that you will find unsightly chain stores, half-decent kabob houses (one night I scarf down a falafel for around five Canadian dollars) not far from payday lenders and adult business establishments like the Stag Shop. And judging by a few flesh-themed fliers I see bolted to poles, I conclude that Toronto has nestled its concessions to seediness within its apparent good cheer. It is remarkably difficult to purchase a six-pack of beer or liquor up here outside of a bar. For the former, one must go to a chain called The Beer Store. You will not find beer in convenience stores or pharmacies. I’ve been taking my American luxury for granted. I am told that the liquor authority is less uptight in Quebec.

I’m unsure what Toronto does with its homeless or those who don’t have a place to crash in the evening frigidity, but, beginning at around eleven at night (and sprinkled throughout the day), you can find them sleeping on grates which expel warm air. At 5:30 AM, I observe a drunken woman saunter though the Hotel York corridors, talking into a tape recorder with a curious admixture of bitterness and cheer. It appears to be some tape for some boyfriend, now long gone, about the good times they experienced in the past. I walk through various hotels at early morning hours and observe people sleeping in chairs. They all seem to be tolerated. I don’t see anybody calling the police. For that matter, whenever I enter a store, I am never asked to check my bag (unlike America). The sign so commonly observed in dense American metropolitan areas (RESTROOM FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY) is nonexistent here, and it’s not just because WASHROOM has been swapped for RESTROOM.

Nearly everyone I talk to about the local government has nothing but hostile words to say about the mayor, who many describe as a buffoon. I ask one Torontonian if he can be compared to the Antichrist just before forgetting that my American sense of cathartic invective may not quite align with Canadian civility (although Hunter S. Thompson is read here). He stops short of this, but I’m wondering what he’ll say if I ply him with more drinks. The mayor is a man named Ford who made extravagant claims about closing a major budget deficit that he couldn’t carry through. It is an old political tale. Restless population wants regime change, votes any old dummy in. But one can’t entirely blame the locals. Ford appears to have charmed or possibly played some members of the media in his rise to office. I’d be a bit pissed about this too.

If you dine at some restaurants and you use your credit card, the server will perform the transaction with a portable device at your table. This reminds me very much of a practice I observed in pre-Euro Germany, whereby the server came to your table with something resembling a bento box, the slots all filled with coins. Bookstores are more robust here than in New York. I count at least five nestled along Bloor Street during one of my many saunters throughout Toronto. But prominent literary tastemakers assure me that Toronto has, like other regions, taken a hit.

I am surprised by how few establishments are open at around 11 AM along Queen Street. I begin to believe that there’s a sizable slacker cluster in Toronto, until I am informed, rather remarkably, that the idea of stores open on Sunday has only been introduced in the last three decades. Throughout Toronto, I notice several bike racks where you can rent a bike over 24 hours for five Canadian dollars. My dormant criminal impulse, which I tend to confine to idle contemplation, begins to wonder how the appropriate bicycle authorities can trust people to return to bikes. Well, the machine sucks up your credit card, which contains your address. And if you don’t return the bike in decent condition, there are fines. And the process isn’t perfect. Some bicyclists who sign up for this scheme discover that they are being charged $2/hour atop the $5 charge, and the process of restoring one’s financial dignity involves an unpleasant battle with ruddy tape.

Yet the environmental idealist will surely have a wet dream over the fact that public trash containers are likely to give you a wet dream. They are very often divided into four slots: GARBAGE / BOTTLES, CANS, CONTAINERS / PAPER PRODUCTS / COFFEE CUPS ONLY. It’s too bad this hasn’t gone down in America. On the other hand, I do notice that residential trash containers are curiously proprietary. In addition to the addresses written in dominant type, the containers are all numbered and contain a bar code. But I wondered if, when the garbage men do come, the amount of trash is weighed and possibly scanned and collected. How much trash information does Canada collect on its citizens? It’s a fair question to ask, seeing as how CNN (one of my few news sources up here, given that I decided to largely abstain from the Internet up here) is reporting on a UN climate change conference with serious concessions and Toronto itself has some of the most impressive street cleaning units I’ve ever seen. On the latter point, I am fortunate to catch one of these vehicles, which resemble a giant vacuum. There is a long black neck which sucks up debris from the curb. It’s so much more targeted than the buffing approach in America. I am nearly consumed with a desire to start vacuuming the streets myself before I remember (a) it’s fucking cold out and (b) I am sure that there are strict and vigorous Canadian safeguards that would prevent some whimsical Brooklynite from doing this.

Honest Ed’s is a national treasure – and not just because its now dead proprietor shares my name. As someone enamored with the quietly eccentric and as someone who has maintained a pious disposition regarding the acquisition of items out of vocational necessity, I cannot say enough wonderful things about this marvelous place. Established by an impresario named Ed Mirvish, this capacious store not only sells numerous items you may or may not need (Elvis busts and seven dollar fedoras, all size 11, for example) at ridiculously cut-rate prices (and is quick to remind you of this fact), but it boasts some of the greatest cornball jokes this side of the Catskills. “Honest Ed’s a Nut! But look at all the ‘cashew’ save,” reads one sign outside. There’s another one inside in which Honest Ed is declared an idiot because of his “cents-less prices.” I had thought that my high point of Canadian cheese would be a silly TV commercial involving “The Loan Arranger,” with a man in a Mountie costume playing up the groans as he attempted to sell jewelry. But I was wrong.

The common message, listed outside Honest Ed’s in red lettering and several times inside within the maze of white and unadorned rooms, is: DON’T JUST STAND there!! “BUY SOMETHING”! And one is so alarmingly impressed by this goodnatured excitement that it is very hard to ignore. For Honest Ed’s – established in 1948 – is very much a time capsule for how a certain type of human lived in the last six decades. Upon encountering one negligee in the “lingerie department” (actually one small corner of the room), I noticed a large dark stain. But because Honest Ed had went to the trouble of getting someone to compose a friendly theme song – a little ditty on a guitar that was somewhere between calypso and Slim Whitman with the lyrics “How can be honest / When his prices are so low” – piping through the speakers, I was very hard-pressed to resist the urge. (Indeed, the shivering souls gathered outside Honest Ed’s just before it opened seemed to quiver about not so much because of the cold, but because they needed to perform some civic duty transcending mere Christmas shopping. Keep in mind that, on Honest Ed’s 88th birthday in 2002, 60,000 people showed up. There is a Mirvish Village and an Ed Mirvish Theater along Yonge.)

Honest Ed’s may very well be the secret to why Toronto is what it is today. It is cheerful, inviting, and willing to use any method of getting the casual bystander to see the humor in a common situation. I had heard of a Santa Speedo Run, whereby numerous men and women ran half-naked for charity, that had gone down and I remain certain that Honest Ed’s influence was partly responsible for such a goofy gathering coming into fruition. Yet someone who was fairly well-schooled in the Mirvish legacy told me that Honest Ed’s is now facing an uncertain future. I certainly hope this isn’t true. Every city needs its larger-than-life icon, its glorious excuse to bow in the presence of strangers.