Republished February 2024
(A Toastmasters Project)
Originally published in Forte 2018-2019
My second apartment was in Toronto's High Park district, just north of Bloor and close to the subway. It isn’t worth mentioning my first apartment since the place was a cockroach headquarters and I didn’t stay long.
The second place seemed a great abode at first, notwithstanding a few oddities. It had no door. My digs encompassed the upper level of a brick house owned by a Greek family. Parents, two teen boys. It was a great space with a huge bay window looking out to the street. My understanding was that none of the family members would invade my premises barring some sort of dreadful emergency, but I soon discovered that the youngest son had his own opinion on the matter. It was clear that he was a troubled fellow, and quite a large one at that. He hovered outside my bedroom door at night. I came home from work to find him in my bedroom a few times. One evening, he was the only one home. There was a tremendous banging going on in the kitchen and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t cooking.
I decided my best course of action was to evacuate the scene. Backpack in tow, I aimed for stealth mode all the way down the curving, creaking old staircase. When I got to the bottom, a glance back to their kitchen saw him framed in the doorway, holding an enormous butcher knife. I set my personal best on the sprint to the subway station.
Time to move. My next place was a gem, south of Bloor just off Roncesvalles, the entire ground floor of an old house. What a neighbourhood that was! Still largely Ukranian and Polish to the south, with shops selling everything from distinctive wooden products to pastries and sausages. Roncesvalles was home to the renowned Roxy Theatre, where I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show many years later. Further to the north, the first health food store I encountered.
I stayed there for quite a long while, but eventually ended up further northeast at St. Clair and Spadina, another marvellous area to explore in those days. I met some characters in the building. My next-door neighbour was a hostage negotiator living with her fiancé, an undertaker. They were good people if somewhat reminiscent of the Addams Family in appearance. The guy on the other side was a fiery Scottish dude who had his fingers in pies of every flavour going. I left Toronto for a few years after that, moving to Northern Ontario. Check out Reporter Reminiscences for that story.
On my return, I settled in to Lawrence and Keele. My unit was ground level and beside a ravine. I thought the greenery would be lovely, until I learned that a multitude of hoary little biting spiders invaded the place every spring and survived until October.
In fact, it was great. I never had the slightest qualm about going down to the basement laundry room at night. The guys were friendly and we all pretty much kept to ourselves otherwise. At least we did until we had a building garage sale. I don’t think anyone made much money, but my cheeks hurt from laughing when the day was done. I learned that my neighbours were highly vocal when it came to expressing appreciation for attractive male passers-by and, at Jarvis and Isabella, it was usually reciprocated and then some. That wasn’t quite my style, but I have to admit that I couldn’t fault their taste most of the time.
There was always a strong police presence. Between that and the obvious fact that no evil deed-doer was likely to concern themselves with a petite woman as innocuous as myself in such a pulsingly sexual environment, I felt very safe there. Having said that, any smart woman living in the city avoids putting herself in potentially compromising situations and I did that, although the stars failed to align a couple of times.
I used to go to a bar in the seediest section of the east side with a woman I knew from work and her friends, all of whom had experienced a much rougher, tougher life than I had. Dancing was involved and we always had a great time, so it became a regular for me on Saturday nights for quite a long spell. They were biker chicks. They had a strong community, and they welcomed me in to it. Their tradition was to celebrate each other’s birthdays with a cake decorated in edible male genitalia both large and small, crafted in chocolate, icing or meringue. I’m sure it’s unnecessary to paint a picture of the drama with which these delights were consumed. I hung out with them long enough to earn my penis cake and, despite the absurdity of it all, I felt quite honoured at the time.
I digress. Back to the story. My friend’s sister was a taxi driver and she usually delivered me from home to the bar and back again. I got there okay, but something happened. She left on a venture of some sort and never returned. Nobody had cell phones then, so I waited for her until it became inarguably evident that there would be no reappearance. By that time, the buses had stopped running. I learned that cabs didn't hang out in the east end.
Living in Toronto was always an interesting ride. Back in the High Park era, I hung out regularly at the El Mocambo where I was fortunate enough to hear many of the old blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. The gentlemen were always charming and most took the time to come to our table for a chat with the young’uns who liked the blues. Entertainments changed through the years from the flashing 80’s clubs to the elegant restaurants, but it never failed to please.
I loved the vibe of city life throughout those years. Its vitality and despair, its wealth and its need, its sophistication and its tawdriness. Those days will forever be part of who I have become, and I am grateful for the experiences.