Diamonds & Coffee

5:45 a.m. The deserted streets of New York City. A lone yellow cab approaches along Fifth Avenue to the melancholy harmonica & strings of Moon River. The cab stops in front of Tiffany & Co., & a lithe young woman steps out. As the car pulls away she looks up at the iconic clock; her sleek black gown & stunning pearl & diamond necklace are as gorgeous from the back as from the front. She walks to a display window where glimmering things float in reflective surfaces, including her own early morning image: oversized sunglasses & swept-up hair adorned with sparkling ornament. From a white paper bag she takes a pastry & a cup of coffee: Breakfast at Tiffany’s. One of the best opening credits in movie history.

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And then two scenes in, Mickey Rooney spoils it all with his monumentally ill-conceived portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Worse even than his Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935),  Rooney’s racist mugging in Breakfast makes me want to hit him over the head with a champagne bottle (empty, of course); catastrophic casting in a flick that is full of missteps. So we look for the gems, both literal & figurative: a mailbox perfume atomizer, jewels in earrings that sparkle for miles, the fire escape crooning of Moon River, purple tasseled earplugs, turquoise eye mask with gold eyelashes, more Givenchy frocks, a few elegant hats,  Audrey.

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And then there’s the charming feline star, Orangey, who won a Patsy Award (Picture Animal Top Star of the Year), for his performance as Cat. Meow. The world would not tolerate a remake of Breakfast but if such a thing could ever happen Holly would be more fucked up & Paul would be gay, just as Capote wrote them & hoped they would appear on screen. They could still wear spectacular clothes & dig NYC but the pain & grit would be more evident & ultimately more satisfying.


She Gets Too Hungry…

…for dinner at eight… So my beloved cooks earlier than eight & it’s always sublime. First a glass of pink champagne. Then, a plate of pickles and chips. Aaron pickled these beets. And then he pickled the eggs in the pickled beet juice (the chips are out of a bag)

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Chowder with baguette & olive oil…

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Linguine!

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I’m also very hungry in the morning and so he makes this…

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Or this – star fruit, dragon fruit, prickly pear, yogurt with good stuff on it!

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And that’s why this lady is devoted to this guy (or one of the reasons anyway).

Next up: Snacks!


Sketches of Aaron

To converse with Aaron is to have doors flung open in your brain that you didn’t even know were there. His mind never ceases to amaze: original, insightful, educated, open. But be sharp; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly (genuinely humble fools exempted). Prepare to be challenged. And to laugh.

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                                                              Library Bar @ the Royal York Hotel

Aaron and I met 13 years ago at a Valentines Day party given by our good friends Tony and Phillip. After midnight, we bid our hosts adieu and walked home together. These days we meet at a sort of secret getaway for a drink after completing our day’s work. We listen to music, sometimes we dance. He has a martini, I have pink champagne. And we talk. The way he sees the world, in all its stunning complexity – the good, the bad & the beautiful – enlivens me day after day.

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                                                                 Allen’s on the Danforth

When Aaron is interpreting the law, his wisdom will shake your snoozing mind awake. If he’s discussing art, his perspective will bust your pea-brain notions wide open (also your highfalutin concepts). You grow. Everyone should be so fortunate as to sit and talk with Aaron.

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                                       I don’t know where I did this sketch, maybe Canoe @ TD Centre 

PS. His grey matter is not the only thing I love about him!

PSS. When I first posted this piece (on FB), a woman commented that now she had exciting new things to add to her list of qualities that she wants in a partner. Here’s another one to add to the list (it’s the subject of my next post): He Cooks!


If I Ventured in the Slipstream

 

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1969. I’m sitting on the floor of my high school gym with my friends, wishing we were outside sitting in the garden. Yawning at the monotone promises of Student Council candidates and picking the neon-pink polish from my nails, I glance up at the clock. Time never crawled so slowly. My stomach growls.

And then, a young bearded man dressed in white robes takes the stage. He is presidential hopeful Timothy Treger, and I am suddenly alert. A restless murmur goes up in the audience as he announces he will be reading from John Lennon: In His Own Write. This is no usual campaign speech, this is a nonsense story called Snore Wife and Some Several Dwarts, and mere words into it I’m rolling on the floor with laughter. (I mean, I really did roll on the floor with laughter. The story was funny, and if my friends and I found something funny that’s what we did –  even if we were out walking we’d stop and fall to the sidewalk to split a gut if something had tickled our funny bones.)

Timothy did not become president of Centennial Senior High in the sleepy suburban land of Coquitlam, B.C. Jocks and preppy kids were not ready for this peacenik with the long hair and flowing robes. I voted for him of course. And the day after his speech I spotted him in the cafeteria, incognito in jeans and a T-shirt. I introduced myself to him and he invited me over to his place after school.

Tim had his own apartment in the basement of a house and there on a hotplate he cooked brown rice and vegetables. A vegetarian with his own pad, how utterly new all this was to me and how very cool. Tim told me that out of respect for the earth and the people who grew the rice I should eat every last grain in my bowl. I did. And after we ate, he lit some incense and put Astral Weeks on the turntable. I’d never heard Van Morrison’s first solo album in its entirety. Now, as Van growled and whispered and cajoled out the title cut, I sat in silence, my eyes closed. I was floating “in another time, in another place” and Van’s sensual swirling utterances were taking me there.

“Got a hormone high,” I heard him sing over and over again. Years later I would discover the lyrics are “got home on high”. In keeping with the musician’s oft repeated theme of transcendence, “home on high” connotes a place above the throng: “We are goin’ to heaven.” But “hormone high” is what I heard back then. It is also what I felt, at age fifteen, as I tripped out in my crushed velvet bellbottoms and love beads. And the mounting intensity of the seven-minute-long Astral Weeks track was a sublime musical accompaniment to my coming of age. The song reaches ever so sweetly for climax then upon arrival sustains the ecstatic mystical moment with shimmering instrumentation wrapped in soft spiralling vocals.

This was the time of free love but Tim and I were never lovers, at least not physical lovers. We went on peace marches and attended sit-ins together, shared wine and cheese with other protesters, rubbed tiger balm on our temples. At school we started our own chapter of SDS without really knowing what it was. I wrote angry missives for the school newspaper and Tim booked Big Brother and the Holding Company for a school concert.

“I’m nothing but a stranger in this world”, Van croons in Astral Weeks. Those lyrics cut deepest for me, floundering in a sea of adolescent insecurity as I was. But the day Timothy Treger walked into my life, dressed like Jesus and reading comical stories out loud at sombre events, was the beginning of the end of my strangerhood. Some people shrink your world, others expand it, Tim did the latter in spades in one exciting eventful year in my life, a year that confirmed for me that rolling on the sidewalk laughing was better than staying in your room crying, sewing clothes out of tablecloths and bedspreads (I did both) was better than not going out because you had nothing to wear, and that being kooky was better than being cookie-cutter.

Morrison was twenty-three when he put Astral Weeks out. It arrived at the end of the sixties, the end of an era to be sure but simultaneously the beginning of something fantastically new for me. That visit to Timothy’s place with the grains of rice and quivering music, heralded a new dawn: I was stepping out into the world and I was doing it to a soundtrack played by the one and only Van Morrison.

I never saw Timothy after that school year ended. He was moving in universes I was barely aware of at the time. I bumped and banged my way into the seventies and university, went from ragged patched jeans to corduroy hot pants, from psychedelic light shows to discos with revolving coloured lights; David Bowie and Lou Reed took the spotlight. But there was always Van the Man, transporting me, transporting a generation. And every time I hear him sing “We are goin’ to heaven” I am reminded of the man in the white robes who, just by virtue of being who he was, gave my soul permission to fly.

*

Photo: left: the author (age 15) with her friend Suzanne & some cats. In the rockery at 616 Rochester, Coquitlam, B.C.

Title: from Astral Weeks: “If I ventured in the slipstream, between the viaduct of your dreams…”

Wardrobe: Dress on Suzanne created for the author by Terrill Marlow, big sister extraordinaire.

 


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.

*

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.