You could be forgiven for hating Toronto if your first introduction were to be deboarding a train at Union Station and walking up Bay Street. The claustrophobic, self important bustle of three thousand dollar Armani suits and rude men in sunglasses that cost more than my rent drinking extra hot cappuccino, no foam. You sir, may make a hundred grand a year, but a cappuccino, no foam, happens to be a latte. Asshole. Ambitious young women in ugly pant suits plan their Distillery district weddings over lunch at Oliver and Bonnacini and I feel the world closing in around me like a noose. Work. Make money. Buy things. Own things, not do things. Own possessions, not experiences. Which possession will complete the collection and finally bring peace of mind from the absurdly pointless eighty hour weeks and expansive salary. Towering, sterile glass and steel that block out the sky, high heels and Italian leather Oxfords tick-tick-tick by the men who lay on the subway grates in ragged blankets. Sometimes they’re dead and we keep walking by.
Things get better somewhere around Queen Street, although I remember when Queen Street still used to have the leftovers of its Bohemian era. Its the price an area pays for becoming cool, for drawing in crowds. Rising rents that only big box stores can pay push out the places where you can buy floral silk blouses for ten dollars, or platform goth boots and the good colored hair dye, not Manic Panic. The places stocked with Tibetan wood carvings and alpaca wool toques and the antiquarian book stores have retreated to Kensington and the further reaches of Queen, in the not yet gentrified area that lies between Sherbourne and Broadview. At least Black Market is still here, an underground landmarker of ten dollar t-shirts and treasure trove of cheap jeans and bomber jackets. I love the casual, absurd fashion; a lanky man slips through the crowd in denim cut off shorts and a striped blouse with spikes on the shoulders and a flat black leather choker.
Queen West; Growing up in a smaller city an hour away from Toronto, I often went partying there in my teens. Raves at The Big Bop at Queen and Bathurst, somehow always in the winter. Tutus and glow sticks, fluffy fake fur neon everything, PVC and latex and pink hair and lip rings and the way you could hear the club from down the street, a vague, undefined roar of bass. Three floors; Kathedral, Reverb and Holy Joe’s. A big, purple monstrosity where the crowd whipped up a sweat that condensed on the ceiling before raining back down. Sweat rain. Waiting for the streetcar at five in the morning to go and spend the night in a Scarborough basement, or walking to King and Dufferin in the winter chill, cowering, the sweat freezing on your skin. Twenty people sleeping in a pile on a bachelor apartment floor. The Bop’s an upscale furniture store, now. I moved in at 221 Bathurst Street six months after it closed its doors for good and lamented the five minute walk that could have been mine, instead of the ventures into the depths of a Scarberia that smelled constantly like ramen, thanks to the presence of the instant noodle factory across the road. That’s Toronto. Remember being a baby punk with a fresh nose ring and confused ideas about, if not anarchy, equality and self-identity, and the older men in leather vests and mohawks gone to grey who stood outside smoking all day.
Kensington; when we all briefly lived in the house on Oxford Street and our friend could be found zooming around on his skateboard with his paintings under his arm and rasta dreads flying out behind him. Where you can buy just about anything from cowboy boots to angora crop tops and body jewelry to antiques and out-of-print books about tribal histories of body modification. The vintage stores in a dense, staggering line down Augusta, each with their own flavor. Some you have to sort through the irregular stacks of jean jackets and poodle skirts to find a treasure, other stores are sorted into racks of leather fringed vests and vintage rock t’s. Romeo’s, where the vendor will sell you an energy boost fruit smoothie in the morning and toss you an apple as you walk away. If you’re in the know, there’s Cold Tea in the Kensington Mall. Walking through the market at night, I think I hear music, people laughing, a patio? The sound of drinks clinking is distinct, but its quite impossible. The store front that would lead to this patio is the mall, closed for the night. But upon trying the door, it gives, and following the hallway to an unmarked door that opens onto a bar jammed into the alleyways and empty shops. Bar nights at Ronnie’s and the Embassy, filthy little holes in the wall with guttering candles on tabletops, dripping wax and ambient light. Quintessential Kensington. Green grocers with stacks of watermelon and blood oranges, cheese shops, bakeries, butchers and coffee, oh fuck, the coffee at Moonbean or Casa Acoreana, where Ossie asks, “Whadda fuck d’ya want?” by way of greeting. We bike from here to the island ferry with watermelon balanced on our handlebars and six packs dangling casually from one hand, fresh patties from Patty King stuffed into our bulging bags. Van Gameren’s here now, and Jen Agg too, El Rey and Grey Garden continuing the quiet stand off of the two chefs rivalry. This is something you pick up on when you live here, part of the fun, part of the love. You’re a part of something, even if it is only knowing that the rivalry continues and wondering who’s gonna settle the score this time; the faux dive bar with the mescal or the sophisticated front with the brass light fixtures and Shōtō’s chef de quisine.