The Bain Push

Jake Gittes leans on a doorbell button but, inside, Ida Sessions won’t hear a sound. She’s dead. The “push” pictured below is just like the one Gittes was pressing but it isn’t L.A. circa 1938 and it isn’t the movie Chinatown. This push is in the Bain Co-op (Toronto) which was built in 1913. The Bain has a variety of pushes, as they were first called…

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The ancient and non-functioning pushes reside next to the more modern and sometimes-working renditions. Two  varieties from different eras pictured below – two, because the postman always rings twice.

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The old buttons – dead as Ida Sessions, dead as a doorbell – are covered in layers of paint. Two more varieties, below.

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Joseph Henry invented the doorbell in 1831. The push later became known as the “push button”.

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Bells, buzzers or chimes for your home or office, doorbells became de rigueur, hitting their stride in the postwar 50s. No doubt my co-op had doorbells from its inception, as some units are located on the 2nd floor with their front door at ground level.

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Pictured below is my neighbour’s push from the 1960s.

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Just kidding. I did this in post but if it were real wouldn’t it be groovy, even not working?

Burning the midnight oil I look out my window & see these little glow-spots on my neighbour’s stoop. They’re threatened by encroaching light pollution and occasionally rivalled by a cigarette flaring up as some insomniac takes a drag in the shadows. “Forget it, Jake. It’s the Co-op.”

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Merry Christmas, Baby

“Shipping and mishandling,” Martini says, lifting packets of broken gingerbread out of a dented box. “Geez. All the Grande Dame had to do was get the kit home from the store.” Martini gets an idea as Fizz pokes listlessly at the rock hard fragments.

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“Hey, Fizzy, let’s make it look like Santa’s sleigh crashed into the roof.” The suggestion puts the Christmas pizzazz back into the nine-year-old Fizz, who immediately decapitates one of the gingerbread men then runs to the kitchen for red food colouring.

As Martini looks for tin foil for sleigh building, their mother’s voice cuts through the air like a sharp shiny blade: “No, Virginia, there most definitely is not a Santa Claus!” The siblings tiptoe from the kitchen to stare silently at the door to the den. The Grande Dame is in there talking to herself.

Her name is indeed Virginia, although no one calls her that anymore. As a child she was Ginnie; as a teenager she became Gin. No one is quite sure whether the sobriquet begat the drinking habit or vice versa but – Tanquiri, lemon or bathtub – Virginia took to the juniper infusion at an early age, like a rat to garbage.

When she was twenty-one, a forty hour labour produced her first child. Before she asked to see the baby she asked for a drink; under the influence she named him Tom Collins. Eventually his name got shortened to TC because calling him became tiresome: “Bedtime, Tom Collins!”

Three years later, following a blessedly easy labour, her second child arrived and got named after Gin’s favourite cocktail. The name did not get shortened, as “Marty” sounded too working class (an impression Gin got from the movie of the same name). So how many times had the wee one come running at the bark of “Martini!” only to find Gin was actually ordering a drink? Eight years after Martini, Fizz was born, an afterthought, an aperitif, a nightcap, with a name so short the child hardly heard it sometimes.

Now the Grande Dame sweeps through the living room in a long black velvet dress and her seasonal scowl, leaving in her wake the mysterious scent of Shalimar. Her kids scurry back to their project, and their mother stops to look at the gingerbread catastrophe as Fizz splashes food colouring on the mangled cookies.

“Is this what the birth of Christ has come to mean?” Gin hisses. “Broken gingerbread houses and blood-spattered gingerbread men?” Martini looks at Fizz and sees the merriment drain out of the little girl’s already too pale face. The last vestiges of Christmas spirit are crumbling like so many assembly-line gingerbread houses and Martini feels the desire to run away from the circus.

For years Martini has longed to leave the Grande Dame far behind and find an exciting life that she can’t rain on. But leaving Fizz alone in the downpour would be out of the question. TC got out, fled two years ago without regard for siblings. Of course, it helped that Gin banished him; no one remembers why anymore, except perhaps TC, whom they haven’t heard from since.

Martini stares into a silver ball hanging from the Christmas tree and sees the distorted reflection of a changing face: one moment the mirror image echoes a glamorous movie star, the next it suggests a wounded six year old. Just what is in store for Martini, the alleged son of a wastrel who split years ago and a gin-soaked mother who also seems to have split years ago, is uncertain – he could kiss his mirror self with its evolving identity or crush the emerging authenticity under his shoe.

“What would Kate do?” Martini asks his silver ball self.

Every birthday Martini adopts a new celluloid role model then watches all her films, plucking lines and bits of business to use as life hacks. Last year for sweet sixteen the model was Anna May Wong (“I dance in that – or not at all.”) This year it’s Katharine Hepburn.

“The calla lilies are in bloom again.” These words have brought many an argument with Gin to a sudden end. Oh the argument is never really over but this scrap of dialogue resonates with his mother just long enough for Martini to make a quiet exit. Stage Door, the flick from which the line is lifted, holds special meaning for Gin, echoing as it does her own youthful love affair with the theatre. She has been left muttering “calla lilies” beneath her lethal breath more than a few times as Martini escaped the contretemps du jour.

Martini’s favourite Hepburn flick is Bringing Up Baby, in which Cary Grant and Kate sing to a leopard named Baby in order to calm it: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby…” This movie suggests a useful bit of business for Martini’s purposes now.

Gin is mixing her favourite cocktail at the kitchen counter when her second born sidles up and spears an olive. She glares at this complicated teenager of hers as he balances the olive on the back of his hand. With a slap to his fingers the olive is catapulted into the air. Dipping with open mouth to meet the airborne garnish he misses and it lands in the cat’s water dish. Fizz lets out a yelp of laughter at the tiny plop.

Kate couldn’t catch the olives in Baby either, resulting in Cary slipping on one, landing on his ass and crushing his top hat. It’s a hilarious scene that the whole family has laughed over in countless screenings. But that was before TC left. Things have taken a sour turn since then: Gin Sour.

Martini flips another olive, this time catching it and provoking a howl of laughter from Fizz. Gin fixes her youngest with a steely stare that could bring the Grinch to his knees. Then, scooping her drink up, she vanishes back into her lair, slamming the door behind her. Christmas always did this to her. Ah, life always did this to her.

Martini chews on the salty catch as Fizz picks at a blue Smartie from the gingerbread wreckage. The clock chimes seven. Christmas eve. The siblings are about to give up on the cookie fiasco and go play video games when from behind the den door comes the sound of their mom’s voice, not talking to herself this time but singing: “I can’t give you anything but love, baby.”

Martini and Fizz stare at the door. The disembodied voice chirps: “That’s the only thing I’ve plenty of, baby.” The sibs look at each other, count a beat, then sing: “Dream awhile, scheme awhile…” The door opens a crack, Gin’s auburn head pops out: “We’re here to find…” Martini and Fizz take a step closer: “Happiness, and I guess…” Gin steps outside the door and the three harmonize: “…all those things you’ve always pined for.” Musical pause, then all together: “Gee but it’s good to see you looking swell, baby.”

Gazing at tinsel and ornaments on the tree the three croon like the chorus from an MGM musical: “Till that lucky day you know darn well, baby…I can’t give you anything but love.” Christmas has arrived in the Frost household.

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First in the Frost Family series.

Photo by Aaron Schwartz

 


& called it macaroni

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You may have a right to your opinion but you have a responsibility to make it a well-informed opinion. Which doesn’t mean just googling or reading a few articles. It means getting out there in the field – talking to people, getting the facts, checking your sources; & checking your preconceived notions at the door. Okay, if you’re sounding off about the weather you don’t have to become a meteorologist, but if the issue concerns a person or a people then you need to take a walk in their shoes. I don’t care if you find their shoes uncomfortable or not to your taste, that’s the point: for a little while you become someone else & you feel what it’s like to be inside their skin. Until you do that, don’t be surprised if you see me covering my ears & singing Yankee Doodle Dandy at the top of my lungs when you open your mouth to speak.


Trashing My World

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6 a.m. – A loud crash-boom from the street. I awake instantly and go to my window. A large man is standing amidst the street trash wielding a sledgehammer. Repeatedly he brings it down on a small black box sitting on the sidewalk – a microwave or computer or stereo. Crash-boom! Finally he stops and bends down to withdraw the box’s heart, some kind of motor. Severing its arteries, the last wires that hold it to its battered body, the man takes his prize and his sledgehammer, gets into his idling car and drives off.IMG_5540_phixrI live on a street of great garbage: good finds for your house or garden, stuff to upcycle or restore to its old glory. But of course, there’s a downside, like the lumberjack at dawn, or the many idling cars that spew exhaust into the air while their drivers pick (city by-law limits idling to 30 seconds but many motorists are oblivious) or the professional pickers who noisily rummage around through metal bits at 2 am. And, of course, one must become an expert in pest detection and control if one is to consider street furniture or objets d’art. I know people who steam clean found items and then wrap them in plastic for months before bringing them into their homes.IMG_2317_phixr_phixrSaving these wonderful discards from landfill is another great reason for rescue but you need to know what you’re doing. And if you’re doing it outside my home, do me and the air a favour and turn your engine off while you pick. Also, ssshhhhh…please…especially if it’s morning. Merci!

 

 


The Notorious Ward

In the 19th & early 20th century St. John’s Ward was a nasty festering pool of poverty & disease located in the heart of Toronto. Known simply as The Ward, it was defined by its borders of College, Yonge, University & Queen. The Ward housed TO’s poorest, people who had travelled from afar looking for a brighter future who then did their best to set up housekeeping in TO’s worst slum.20150520-Ward-Harris_phixrIt’s hard to reconcile that description with Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris’ depictions of The Ward: brightly-coloured, sun-kissed cottages with picket fences (above: In The Ward. 1919). Harris’s vision of The Ward included the colour and warmth that settlers brought to their homes and neighbourhoods. Many of his Ward paintings do show the ramshackle nature of the buildings but the scene is always colourful and lively.

But another artist was at work in The Ward, depicting a seemingly different reality. For 37 years Arthur Goss was Toronto’s Chief Photographer. His official assignment, in part, was to document the unhealthy living conditions of Toronto’s immigrant families. But Goss was an artist and he left behind some of the most haunting images of life in The Ward, while recording it for Toronto’s Department of Health. (below: Goss. 1914)2012110-goss-ward-1914_phixrEarly inhabitants of The Ward included Irish immigrants escaping the potato famine and slaves fleeing the States via the Underground Railroad.  (below: Harris. In the Ward. 1919)harris,lawren-in the ward toronto_phixr

A bustling Jewish community cropped up until it moved west to Kensington Market. Then came an influx of Italian immigrants who created Little Italy before moving west to College St. The Ward then housed TO’s first Chinatown, until it moved to Spadina and surrounding streets.

There were buildings of note in the ward: Osgoode Hall at University and Queen and Old City Hall, seen in the background in the photo below (Goss 1913). Where the row house stands in the foreground there is now a skating rink in Nathan Phillips Square.2012110-slum-city-hall-goss4_phixr

Mary Pickford was born in the Ward in 1892 at 211 University Ave. She started life as Gladys Louise Smith and went on to become a star of the silent screen and “America’s Sweetheart”. At the height of her fame she posed in front of her old Ward digs. (photographer unknown. 1924)urbantoronto-2756-7895_phixr

One of the last largely untouched pieces of The Ward exists down an alleyway just south of the Toronto Coach Terminal (Bay at Dundas). People come from all over to catch a bus or eat a piece of cheesecake from Uncle Tetsu’s Cheesecake –  hungry customers line up just south of the alleyway entrance for the coveted dessert, oblivious to the time capsule just steps away. (below: last of the ward. 2016. photo: MW)IMG_2284_phixr_phixr_phixr

The area that once was The Ward is now called “Discovery District” in honour of its pioneering doctors. Where once disease spread like wildfire now researchers are discovering cures. And down a little alleyway is the last reminder of a place that existed for 130 years in all its colourful humanity, as depicted by Harris, and all its drab inhumanity, as recorded by Goss. (below: The Group of Seven by Goss). 2012110-group-7_phixr


Portals of Home and Hearth

IMG_5312_phixrThe mail slots in these old wooden doors have a rather quaint word printed on them, bringing to mind quill pens & foolscap or at least ballpoint pens & onionskin paper. These doors hark back to a time when this housing complex in Toronto, now known as the Bain Co-op, was called Riverdale Courts. Multiple layers of paint applied over the years hide the original wood finish of the doors, and many of the old mail slots are no longer used. IMG_5285_phixr-2

The doors in the co-op are as varied as the occupants who live here, of which I am one.

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Welcome to 10 The Aberdeens…bring your dog for a visit…IMG_5278_phixr

“Cead Mile Failte” translated means: “A hundred thousand welcomes” at 5 The Cedars.IMG_5379_phixr

The address tiles below were made by former co-op member and potter extraordinaire Karen Franzen. They read: “One The Aberdeens – Downstairs” and “Two The Aberdeens – Upstairs”. Our address system confounds almost everyone, from pizza delivery guys to the police, but there is a method to the madness.IMG_5274_phixr

Each courtyard is named for a kind of tree and those tree names are part of our address system. There’s The Elms, The Pines, The Lindens, The Oaks, The Maples and The Cedars.IMG_5314_phixr-2

But what about The Aberdeens? They sound like trees but aren’t. Rather, this part of the co-op was named for Lady Aberdeen, who was married to Lord Aberdeen, the Governor General of Canada from 1893-98. In Canada Lady Aberdeen fought for women’s rights and founded the National Council of Women. She also helped establish the Victorian Order of Nurses. Many places and structures in Canada are named in her honour; a section of our co-op is but one.

There are two hundred and fifty-six units in the entire co-op and many, but not all, have back doors or balcony doors. So many doors! And only seven of them are naked, as in striped of their layers of paint, taken back to their original wood finish. These doors are beautiful.IMG_5295_phixr

Not so beautiful are the new fire doors. They are regulation portals, a tad institutional and lacking in character. You’re not allowed to tamper with them but they’re magnetic so you can stick interesting stuff on them!IMG_5388_phixr

The Bain Co-op is located in Riverdale, between Withrow Park and Riverdale Park. Its early 20th century Arts and Crafts style buildings sit on five acres of land replete with vegetable and flower gardens and trees, some of which lend their names to our addresses.


The Shmooz

IMG_5334_phixrBubbie’s Chicken Soup! This & the Cup of Kindness Program are just two reasons why I love this new Riverdale café. Chef Barry Muskovitch (also co-owner) uses his bubbie’s recipe and the finest ingredients to achieve soup bliss. Get a big bowl – it will warm you all day. And get a sandwich. The house-cured salmon – served on a croissant with dill cream cheese, capers & cucumbers – is heavenly. While you sip and munch check out the wall mural by artist Frans Groenewald.IMG_5329_phixrThe mural depicts places & activities in our neighbourhood but I think I also see a nod to It’s a Wonderful Life in there – (anyone else see that?) – must be because here at The Schmooz it is indeed a wonderful life. The Cup of Kindness Program means $1 from every bag of coffee beans sold goes to support either the Toronto Wildlife Centre or The Red Door Shelter – your get to choose between supporting human or nonhuman animals. And the coffee is superb!IMG_5352_phixr-2

Don’t forget to take in the aromas of the 17 varieties of tea. And then try a brew. Who could resist a cup of Jasmine Champagne (especially with a fresh-baked almond croissant)?IMG_5211_phixr

The Shmooz owners also have ideas for after hours gatherings (regular cafe closing time is 7pm): “…competitive games of scrabble, travel shows, nutrition and creativity workshops, and other possible ventures that the community requests.” – from their website.IMG_5203_phixr_phixrThe Shmooz is located on the northwest corner of Wroxeter and Pape.


Mars Food

IMG_5234_phixrA guy shuffles out of the kitchen with a cornmeal muffin on a plate, puts it in front of me & places a fork & knife on a napkin beside it. He pours my coffee, while chewing on something which he now swallows so he can ask: “Cream?” Shuffling off he mutters to his coworker, “Those cornmeal muffins are pretty good.”
IMG_5227_phixr-3Mars Food, a diner on College Street, opened in 1951 and hasn’t changed its decor since. I used to hang out in the back booths in the late 70s, smoking and drinking coffee into the wee hours, reading books by Susan Sontag and letters from my friends who were travelling, friends who’d let me hole up in their places while they were away (and even when they returned – thank you, friends).IMG_5238_phixr-2

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IMG_5242_phixrAlso known as the Muffin King, Mars is famous for – wait for it – muffins. Back in the day, I think it was Mars that invented the oversized morning-glory version that we now take for granted. My server was right, this cornmeal muffin is pretty good, not amazing but a suitable companion for the Mars cup of coffee, and they come hot out of the oven.

IMG_5239_phixr-2 Mars Food is on the north side of College Street at Bathurst.


Mr. Pecknold, Picasso & Me

Originally published in The Globe & Mail, the following story is a tribute to my Gr. 9 English teacher, Lynn Kenneth Pecknold.  I hadn’t seen “Mr. Pecknold” in 46 years when my story reunited us in 2014. We met each others’ spouses (& few family members), posed for some photo ops & did some serious catching up.

After Picasso

After our parents’ divorce, our mother moved her bedroom to the den and my brother took over the old conjugal quarters. Like a 1960s version of Tom Sawyer, he sloshed a purple-wash over a beige wall, then got his teeny bopper little sister to finish the job. I was only too happy to turn the whole room into nighttime for his new black light.

I was a skinny girl of 14, limbs flying loose from oversized wooly sweaters and mini skirts, flailing in this direction and that; legs dancing, leaping, flying; just as free as all those answers blowin’ in the wind Bob Dylan sang about. But when the school buzzer sounded its mechanical call I stifled the wild child and filed into the drab hallways and classrooms of Como Lake Junior High, an institution where I was about as far from free as my hem was from the grey linoleum floors.

Forced to sit still in a little prison they called a desk, I clenched my fists and dug my nails into the palms of my hands while my hormones raced to the beat of some wild symphony only I could hear. While the teacher’s voice droned on in the stale air, I sought salvation in daydreams but if I was called back to answer questions, I had to confess I hadn’t been listening and I didn’t know the answers; they were blowing in the wind.

What is the square root of Free?

My creative and theatrical impulses made themselves evident even in school. When I had to sneeze I made the loudest “aaa-choo” in the land, making kids laugh and teachers scowl – except for my English teacher, Mr. Pecknold, who encouraged that sort of bold expression. “Bravo!” he would say after a volcanic sneeze punctured the sedate pen-scratching soundtrack of his classroom. He was also an Art teacher, although not mine, and when he found out how much I liked to paint, he lent me a handsome volume with page after page of colourful plates of great works of art.

I decided to copy one of the paintings onto a canvas board in my brother’s studio. Every day after school, I rushed home to my very own Girl Before a Mirror in progress. With a kind of ecstatic concentration I endeavoured to mix the same blues Picasso had once mixed. I squeezed and stirred the oozy colours, rust red, spring green, tar black. The smell of the oil paints as I slathered them on was as fragrant to me as the hyacinths that grew in our rockery.

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On the closet door that used to hold our father’s tie rack, my brother painted three fluorescent hearts. In one he inscribed “Sonny and Cher,” in another I put “Romeo and Juliet,” and in the last he wrote: “Mom and Dad.” Since our mother and father’s marriage had ended in nasty betrayals and terrible battles, this neon pink inscription made us smile ironically beneath the black light, glowing teeth concealing pain, confusion, fear.

One day while I stood before my easel in breathless abandon, a blob of turquoise paint landed on the book my teacher had given me, right next to the Girl, on a border as smooth and white as virgin snow. I was mortified and hurried to wipe it off, but the pigment had seeped in and left a vivid blue stain. I had deflowered the Girl, and the repercussions I imagined for this deed gave me nightmares.

When my masterpiece was done, I took it to school to show my teacher. Appraising the two-foot by three-foot canvas he smiled thoughtfully, and in a voice full of warm approval, said: “Call it ‘After Picasso.’ ” He told me to enter it in the school art show. I scrawled its title on the back and entered it that day.

Then, mustering all my courage I gave my teacher his book back. Quivering in my white go-go boots, I opened it to the blue blemish and apologized. He eyed the blotch with the same critical eye he’d given my painting. Then he looked at me and said: “I am honoured.”

My painting won a prize. I was awarded a sketchbook.

Thirty-six years after Pablo Picasso painted the Girl, I laid eyes on her for the first time in my teacher’s book. Thirty-nine years after that, I finally saw the original at MOMA. That was last year, and as I gazed at the painting, so large and vibrant and colourful, I became intensely aware of something about the Girl’s face. One side of her face is a soft lavender pink, the innocent child; the other side of her face is bright yellow accented with rouge, lipstick, and eye shadow, the emerging sexual woman. I realized then that I had painted a self portrait.

I had come a long way since tying my blonde Twiggy hair up and wearing bell bottoms. As the seventies kicked in, so did my sun-yellow woman, but I was still the lavender girl, too. Picasso painted the Girl’s future as contorted and anxious in her reflection in the mirror. I too was destined to know the dark night of my soul.

Violet, ochre, rust, black, verdigris, they’re all me. But mostly, I am that renegade splotch of turquoise paint that landed in my teacher’s book so long ago, that dash of joyful colour that didn’t go where it was supposed to, that runaway blob that made its worthy mark. And to be all those colours, I am honoured.


Night of Wonder

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Was the ghost of Frederico Fellini walking among us? Or had the carnival come to town? Bells tinkled, tea lights flickered, creatures lumbered and danced down a hillside. The air crackled with magic and wonder.

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Voices sang quietly, lazy notes from a clarinet wafted on the summer breeze. A big round glowing moon floated down the hill. Was Glinda stopping by to greet Fellini? The moon came to a stop and –

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– a shadow king appeared on its illuminated surface. A story was told in both English & Mandarin. It was acted out in silhouette behind the luminous sphere, while people in white prepared colourful lanterns off to one side.

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More people in white, lit by tiny red spotlights, moved rhythmically in a circle and began chanting. Now it seemed Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival had arrived in the park. Something wicked this way comes…

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Was that ET’s mom looming over the small crowd that had gathered to watch, ghostly white and expressionless? The chanting grew till it seemed a holy frenzy would ensue. Then all came to a hush & finally to a halt.  People & creatures bowed as applause erupted from the crowd. This had been a presentation of the Bain Arts Collective, a creative & questing group of artists, of which I am one.

Thanks to the many wonderful souls who made this a great event. And a special thanks to Aaron Schwartz for his support and for doing the post on the top photo here.