Monday, July 20, 2009
This is a photograph of the Flatiron Building in Toronto, one of my Dad's favorite structures in the city. There is of course one--the famous one--in New York, and oddly there is also one like this in Fort Worth, where I now live. Odd because in my city there is a pride in making buildings that reflect our own culture rather than that of Back East. Anyway, when I walked by it after I'd made my way through the Saturday crowds at the St. Lawrence Market, which used to be one of our favorite places to go at lunch during the year we worked in the same office at the police force (or,police services, as they are now politely called in Canada) headquarters, I thought of him and smiled.
My Dad and Mom grew up in rural Ontario and we stayed there as a result of my Dad's work through my entire childhood. Then, when I was in second year at university and much to my delight, he received an offer to work at General Headquarters in Toronto, and my parents decided to take a leap and go off to the Big Smoke, as the city is known in Canada.
This meant when I went home from school it wasn't to a town of 1,800 very boring people--only those who grow up in cities think small towns are filled with interesting and tolerant people--but to the city which at that time represented everything I aspired to be. I was thrilled, and I spent most of the first several months walking everywhere I could, up from the shore of Lake Ontario past Bloor Street. This habit continued for much of the decade I lived in the area.
So my trip was about seeing friends, and walking. The first night I met my friend who is in the money business, and we had drinks at a bar in the financial district, then continued to tony Yorkville to see and be seen, and catch up on several years of personal history. But since we used to go for a beer almost every evening when we were in university and pretty much grew up together there like brother and sister, our friendship is such that it felt like we'd seen each other only last week.
Before I met him, I skipped along Queen West, which has changed from a very grungy strip to a slightly gentrified strip the locals lament. That said, The Rex still has blues playing all the time and, as I can confirm from walking past the doorway, still smells like Molson Canadian lager.
My second day included a walk past the University of Toronto and a recollection of the graceful lines of the architecture on the campus, followed by helping a woman find Women's College Hospital, where my daughter was born almost thirteen years ago.
I got past Bloor where University becomes Avenue Road, and could not resist heading towards the apartment where I lived for several months with the man who would become my husband. I got to Davenport and looked at the spot where he had parked the 1971VW bus when he rolled into town from Arkansas two months before we married. I remembered the bus at 45 degrees on the tow truck coming down when we bribed the driver with a partial fee, and then moved the vehicle I remember not where. I continued along the street to look for the Idler Pub, a place intended to subsidize a literary magazine owned by the same man, where we'd gone for pints and fries afterwards. The pub was demolished and replaced with a small but ugly concrete building. Back I went to see the doorway to the staircase up to the apartment where we lived. The flower shops downstairs still smelled lovely, and as I approached, one of the current tenants happened to be coming home from her workout, and I had a brief glimpse up the narrow passage where we once tripped over a homeless man someone had let in on a night when it was thirty below.
I met a dear friend where a storied bookshop has now become a Starbucks, went to Chinatown, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and had a beer at another favorite pub that remains intact on Madison Avenue. Then to The Beaches for dinner with another friend and met daughters who had not yet been born when I left. Saturday I went with the first friend with her family, sitting on a lovely deck looking at the sailboats on the lake at the National Yacht Club. I ate fish and chips to compensate for the Malbec I bought at the LCBO the evening before. Then I headed to the suburbs on the GO-Train to see still other friends who've known me since I lived in that town of 1,800, but were well and truly the exception to the boring rule.
The entire time I looked to see what was different. Some things, like the demolished pub, the slight reconfiguration of neighborhoods, were. But the city's spirit was the same. It is still impossible to sort out the tourists from the residents (apart, to my chagrin, to a few Americans who clearly do not live in walking cities) because there are so many languages being spoken. I found myself comparing Toronto to other big US cities I've visited in the intervening years, and although it's still wonderful, it didn't awe me the way it did when I first stepped out of Union Station in 1987. And evidently I sound (and perhaps look) differently, since the waitress at a pub on my first evening said, "Wait! Let me guess: you're from Mississippi. No, Georgia." When I said I was from Ottawa, she said she didn't believe it.
The Yacht Club friends, who are also both expats to Canada and in addition spent several years in Texas, told me I have a Southern drawl. (My Texan friends will find this uproariously funny, with good reason.) Then they asked me what had changed the most in my Toronto visit. "Me," I answered without much consideration. It's a good thing, one of them said. And I must concur, although this trip I remembered fondly the girl who walked out of Union Station in 1987. She really knew what exploring meant.