Mar 2019 05

An elderly woman wearing a hospital gown and a very stylish hat smiles at me. She glides down the hall, spinning every once in awhile, very sure on her feet. Like she is in a dance hall.

“Where’s Shirley? Have you seen Shirley?” another woman, also wearing a hospital gown, asks no one and yet everyone. Loudly.

An older man wearing his own patient smock, and a very smart fedora I might add, almost bumps into me as I try to get my bearings. I smile and say ‘Good evening’, but he glares at me like I just mounted his front porch and rang his doorbell.

Various people jostle themselves around in wheelchairs like a soccer game, with a ball undetectable to me, is going on. Nurses talk gossip openly to each other. A TV in a common lounge is showing people a new recipe on a cooking show.

Yesterday, my father was in another wing, in a room with other patients who looked like they would never leave the hospital alive. And today he was transferred to this area. The Transitional Care Unit.

There is no smell of death. No one moaning in pain. No call bells for help ringing, unanswered due to being overwhelmed. There is an energy here of the living. Like the buzzing activity of a bus station. Of people in transit, bags packed nearby within eyeshot. Everyone eager to ship out as soon as the ‘Board on Platform 7’ is displayed on the board.

This is where patients are sent when they’re on their way to another facility – like a rehab centre, which is where my dad is heading. Success stories. People who are now well and get to go back to their lives after their next stop. The lucky.

I ask the nurse’s station where to find my dad.

“Your father’s at the end of the hall. Go all the way to that window, make a left, first bed.”

Some more pirouetting on my part to get around some soon-to-be former patients with energy to burn, just roaming the halls.

And there he is. Albert, written off for dead less than two weeks ago, and now lounging in bed with his arms behind his head propping him up as he stares out the window. No oxygen. No IV tubes. Untethered. A view of the lake. Sunset casting its early rosewater glow. First time he’s seen the sky in 17 days.

And he looks … well, bored.

We talk a bit of politics, and sports. And how my day was.

He is still wondering why he is alive. What his purpose is, at 90, to go to rehab. What is the point, he still asks. Get healthy for what? His friend, Bill, at the senior’s building died a few weeks ago. What is there to go back to? It will be the same old jell-o.

The harsh truth of living in a senior’s building is new neighbours are always moving in. I remind him that we never know who could walk into his life when he returns there, after a few weeks at rehab.

The elderly, but spry looking, man in the bed next to him offers me the Toronto Sun to read, but I pass. “What are you here for, Charles?”, I ask. He introduced himself to me with a firm handshake a moment ago. He tells me he fell and damaged his knee and it’s inoperable. He’ll be limping for the rest of his life. He says my dad looks good, like he could run a marathon. He’s envious. One person’s hell is someone else’s heaven.

The point is lost on Bert. I do not come from a long line of optimists. The glass isn’t just half empty. It’s chipped, too.

His bag stays plump and packed next to his bed. Ready for tomorrow, or the next day.

We stare out the window. From here it looks like spring is also ready to turn the tide on its own battle.

Footsteps out the door.

The woman with the stylish hat, and the gruff man with the fedora are standing together at the hallway window. The man is now wearing 3 hats, stacked on top of each other.

In silence, they stare out at the still lake and the migrating cars on the Toronto Gardiner Expressway with red tail lights trailing behind.

All in transit to new, unknown destinations.

 

 

 

Mar 2019 01

I was having lunch with my advertising creative work partner at the time, Bobby, in a food court underneath Yonge and Bloor here in Toronto. Of course his name isn’t really Bobby, because how many ‘Bobby’s do you know these days? Although if I was named Robert, I think I’d like to be called Bobby. Maybe with an ‘ie’ though.

Anyhow, this was a few years ago and as Bobby and I were sitting, him with a Korean Hotpot and me with Manchu Wok probably (I’m a sucker for that shit), I saw a man behind Bobby. He was rumaging through the food court trash.

This is a crowded food court, in downtown Toronto, and this slightly weathered man had no qualms about pushing open the swinging door of the trash receptacle where you place your empty tray on top of, and shoving his arm down into the garbage to see what he could fish out.

“Yo, Bobby”, I said – somehow for this story, ‘Yo’ works nicely with the name Bobby but I probably said ‘Hey’ cause ‘Yo’ isn’t really my thang. Or ‘thang’, actually.

“Yo, Bobby”, I said. “Check out what’s going on behind you.”

I am rarely surprised by anything I see. But I was amazed at this person’s complete surrender to just going for it and not caring who was watching. I wanted Bobby to see the spectacle behind him.

Bobby turned around.

“Oh no.”

And he dropped his ceramic hotpot spoon onto the food court tray, got up and hurried over to the man.

“Hey, you don’t have to do that. What are you doing? Are you hungry? Here’s five dollars. Can I buy you something? You don’t have to go through the trash.”

And in one swift move, Bobby had shown me who the real spectacle was. It was me. Where was my humanity? I had become one of those downtown Manchu Wok lunch eating assholes. Fuck. When did that happen? Maybe when I started vaping?

Since then I have tried to be more compassionate.

If I’m asked for change, and I have some, I happily hand it over – as long as I don’t get a ‘stabby’ vibe. And if I don’t have any or a $5 bill, I at least look them in the eye and say ‘Sorry, I don’t have any but take care’ or something like that.

Bobby reminded me to be human to other humans.

But the more I have done this, the more I realize why I numbed myself to it over the years before that lunch. Because it’s hard not to want to help everyone. I get a feeling of helplessness if I let myself get too much like Bobby all the time.

I’m a sucker for anyone with a pet. There’s one guy at Bay and Bloor. Like, just take my wallet, man. To crave companionship and want to take care of something other than yourself gives me the hard feels.

And women. That’s a tough one. I know very little about our shelter situation in this city but I have read that it’s not the safest environment for anyone, let alone a woman. Choosing the sidewalk might be the better alternative.

And people clearly on something, looking for their next fix. I feel like I shouldn’t enable them, but I give them something if I have it, always with the hope that maybe something will click with them. Sometimes I get all preachy and say “Hey, get something to eat, okay?”. And they sometimes say “Yah, for sure” and I doubt. But I go on, imagining I’m helping spread some positive energy in the universe. Alleviating my guilt. What I have to feel guilty about, I’m not sure.

Tonight, I had no money (fucking Interac Tap is ruining my actual cash holdings – remember actual money, everyone?) when I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in awhile.

He’s a man who hangs out in the Manulife Centre at Bloor & Bay, in the mall part underground. I’ve dropped coins in his Tim Horton’s cup placed on the ground on a few occasions, but I haven’t worked in that area in awhile. It was good to see him still around. He sits on the ground, usually in the tunnel between Holt Renfrew and where you’d go to get to Indigo. He’s always friendly, wearing a baseball cap. Always says ‘Thanks!’ and we might chit chat a bit.

What strikes me the most about him is he looks like something terrible happened to him. He has severe burn scars.

Tonight, I was walking into his circle of recognition and thinking ‘shit, I don’t have anything’. And then I thought ‘What would Bobby do?’. So I stopped to say hi at the very least.

“Hi, how you doing?” he beamed.

And then I remembered I had just picked up a few groceries at the market down there.

“Hey, I don’t have any money tonight but would you like an apple?”

His eyes lit up and he said he would and as he talked to me, I saw he had very few teeth – really just one I could see – and I wondered ‘How the heck is he going to bite into this apple?’, but maybe he has a knife or something.

He put out his hand to take the apple.

And then I saw he has no fingers. On either hand. They are just stubs on hands that also have severe burn scars. What happened to this poor man? What kind of horror did he endure?

Eager to cover my shock, I offered him more of whatever I had in the bag.

“What about a banana? They’re kind of green but maybe tomorrow or the next day it’ll be good.”

And he said ya, took one, and then advised me to put the rest of them on a windowsill that gets sunlight. That’ll ripen them up faster.

I thanked him for the advice – ‘I will try that!’ – said goodbye, and walked off.

I give out spare change thinking I’m fucking Robin Hood, thinking I’m finding the inner Bobby in me. But this person. This is true grace. To be pleasant and smiling to everyone when something horrific seems to have happened to him. To give out positivity regardless of getting back.

I get all pissed off with the world when someone brushes up against me on the TTC.

And here’s this person being the sunlight that ripens up green bananas.

It seems there will be more to finding my inner Bobby than lightening my pockets of a few coins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 2019 28

 

This place is like nowhere I ever go. Red vinyl booths, with dark, rich wood tops. Rows of small tables embrace a stage where a man in a crushed velvet suit gets ready to groan out some ballads of love lost. The whole place is lit only by the candles on each table, encased in smoky glass, giving a moody ethereal glow.

This is going to be a great show, and I’m here just in time.

I wander up to the bar, also red vinyl with a smooth chocolate surface, surrounded by high-backed stools. I perch myself on one and wait.

This is kind of place where someone could sit in the stool next to me and slyly palm me some microfilm. Maybe it’s blood-stained cause they have been stabbed. And then they stumble out and die in the back alley. Yes.

A bartender appears. White tuxedo. He says nothing, and hands me a drink menu.

I unfold it to reveal… Highballs. Old fashioneds. Cocktails. The kind you have long conversations with.

“Do you have any non-alcohol beer?”

The bartender looks disgusted with me.

And then I wake up.

Now I don’t even drink in my dreams. Shit. I suppose this is progress?

Fuck, I wanted that microfilm.

 

Writer’s note: this dream happened last week.

Feb 2019 26

For those of you wondering, my father is hanging in. Day 12 in a hospital.

No longer on immediate deathwatch, it’s not his body I am concerned about anymore. It is his spirit, and that takes longer to heal if it possibly can.

Finding meaning for our lives is tough enough when you’re younger. Imagine being 90. My father is going through a crisis of purpose. I think his attitude right now is “Why get better just to be healthier when I die?”.

I’ve tried the expected ‘Your granddaughter would love to see you walking around again’, and ‘You can see her grow up’ but considering he already cheated death-by-cancer before her birth 12 years ago, he feels he already checked that one off his list. She’s a young woman now and although she loves ‘G-dad’, even I can barely get her to return my texts these days. G-dad is loved, but an afterthought.

I’ve downshifted into ‘The other seniors at your residence (he lives in a senior’s building) would be inspired to see you return’. Nobody really comes back once you go for an extended stay in the hospital at that age, and they lost a resident two weeks ago. They could use the good news. But he has no close friends there, really. He likes a lot of them, sure. Finding a ‘soul friend’ as the departed resident, Bill, who passed away recently did, hasn’t been in the cards for my dad. Who in their right mind gets involved with a 90 year old?

It will be a long road to recovery. He is barely able to get out of a hospital bed after just 3 weeks ago being able to get on the subway on his own and walk around a mall with just a cane. Now, he just feels like a burden to everyone with the reality of a walker and oxygen in his future. ‘Why did I cheat death again? For what? Is this really living?’ is his way of thinking right now.

The kids next door made him a card with a crude and beautiful rainbow on it with a ‘Get well soon, Bert!’ on it. It is taped up in his room to work some magic.

I am out of things to say to him. I cannot put my life on hold to spend every day trying to inspire him, nor does he want that. He knows he can only do it for himself.

And no matter what age you are, I suppose that’s true to live your life.

Perhaps he will find another gear, despite the short road ahead.

My only weapon left is to remind him that life is strange, which he should really know by now, and we never know what will appear at our door to help us move forward towards it.

Purpose has a tendency to pop up when you least expect it. If you are open to it.

Yesterday, he certainly was not. But it’s a new day.

 

Feb 2019 25

The gentrification of Parkdale and changing world has claimed yet another victim. The corner convenience store. (below, the corner in discussion back in the 1980s – only the billboards, streetcars and little fashionable shorts have changed, really)

It has been said that Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods. Chinatown, Kensington Market, the Village, Leslieville, The Annex, Little Portugal, and the list goes on of course. Apologies for not honouring whatever neighbourhood you live in. They’re all great. Except you, Liberty Village. You suck, but we hope you find your way.

Within these self-named pockets, there are certain things that truly make a neighbourhood, well, a ‘neighbourhood’. Sure, you need neighbours. But you need more than that. A grocery store, some restaurants, a local watering hole, bakery, greasy spoon. And then nice-to-haves like a nail salon, barber shop, pet store, and florist. Even a local panhandler. All of them ingredients that add up to the recipe making ‘a neighbourhood’.

And anchoring it all is the corner convenience store.

Milk. The paper (ya, no one reads those anymore?). A lottery ticket. Chips. The under-appreciated, but always appreciated-when-you-need-it neighbourhood Mike’s Milk, 7-11, Becker’s, Convenience-and-more, Smokes ‘N Stuff.

But what does it say when the changing world can’t financially support it anymore? What does it say about our sense of neighbourhood, community, and being there for each other when the corner convenience store closes because it can’t make any money?

Here in our corner of lower Parkdale, we’re going to find out.

The convenience store on the corner of Roncesvalles and Queen is closing this week. Not financially viable anymore, says the proprietor.

For those of you not familiar with the corner, it’s a vibrant area, despite being a bit off the beaten path. Recently on the short-list for Toronto’s loudest interesection (measured in sustained decibels) in an article I can’t find anymore (so this piece won’t win any journalism awards), this is where King Street turns north to become Roncesvalles, and Queen Street West becomes The Queensway towards Etobicoke. It’s a mess of traffic and streetcar tracks, yes. But a busy and charming one. A gateway into the ‘real’ downtown Toronto, or out. My father remembers when it was just that – the Greyhound terminal was here, and further back to the early 1900’s, the train station was just down some stairs (VIA and Go still whizz by, depot long ago dismantled).

On one corner, there’s a 24 hour McDonald’s next to what is no doubt Howard Johnson’s least-bragged-about jewel in the chain – the three-storeys high, former and infamous Edgewater Hotel. On the on the opposite south-east, a clean and upstanding-looking Gyros place – no one has a visible cold sore, and I hear they serve up a mean lamb kebab. On the other, the Queen Street Car stop island to go east into ‘real’ Toronto (Queen West West!) and the pedestrian bridge over the Gardiner to Sunnyside Beach and Palais Royale (AKA: the place to make your friends jealous that your wedding venue was nicer than theirs). Dubbed ‘The Five Corners’ by Toronto Cabbies, the intersection is always busy with TTC commuters and operators transfering streetcar routes.

And on the North-East, on the final corner we’re talking about, next to the Burrito Boyz and another bustling TTC stop, is the little First Convenience, days numbered. The deathwatch is on. Surrounding all of this are a lot of houses, and other businesses, and restaurants.

My meandering point is, this is a busy intersection both with vehicular and people traffic. It should be able to sustain a convenience store, right?

Okay, does the store suck you might ask? Does it deserve to die, Andrew? Let’s face it, some convenience stores do suck – you go in and everything is past expiry and dusty. I’d say not the case, but that’s subjective, I suppose. It’s clean. Brightly lit. Friendly staff. And the owner has always stocked something for everyone’s needs. Dairy, some meats, pop and juice, ice cream, some frozen foods, candy and chips, Ramen, spaghetti sauce, soups, paper towels and toilet paper, laundry and dish detergents, bulk snack items, tobacco products, lottery, batteries and in-a-pinch tech cables etc. He’s tried many combinations over the years to get the mix just right.

The point is – everything you expect from a convenience store.

Convenient!

But it’s not financially viable anymore, says the owner. Reduced walk-ins (weather this winter) and increased theft in our corner of Parkdale haven’t helped – Hey Gord Perks (our City Councillor), where is the Police presence down here? I haven’t seen a cop in months – since before the election (ahem). And I bet the rise of Presto (no more people wandering in for tokens and tickets) and reduced smoking hasn’t helped.

Another victim of our changing society.

Look, I can walk just a block in two different directions to get milk now, other convenience stores not too far away. This isn’t, I believe, about my hankering for Mr. Noodles at 7pm on a weeknight in my pyjamas.

But there’s something more than just my annoyance that this store wasn’t sustainable. It bothers me for the sense of community we have in lower Roncesvalles.

It’s needed on that corner. It was good for the neighbourhood. It’s value went beyond anything ‘for sale’.

A woman who felt unsafe in our area of Parkdale while waiting for the streetcar could wander in and feel protected until it arrived. Ya, we’ve got some issues around here.

A kid who’s been sent to the store for butter by his parent could rely on a friendly “Hey, how are you, ____? And how’s school going?”. That same kid was in a stroller not too long ago and is now coming in on her own. She’s learning self-reliance, responsibility, and social skills.

You could go in for paper towels and end up running into your neighbour and asking them what happened last night when the fire trucks were on your street. And did you hear so-and-so’s car got broken into?

Need some sidewalk salt to help be a more responsible neighbour cause there are more seniors in the area, or strollers trying to get through? It was there.

Need the latest scoop on a restaurant opening or closing nearby, or road work (there’s always road work – it’s Toronto), or what charity walk is going on just over the bridge down at Sunnyside boardwalk this weekend? Available.

Haven’t seen one of the colourful, but harmless, Parkdale down-on-their-luck people lately and you’re a bit worried? You could ask the staff and maybe find out that they were in the other day, or walked by that afternoon and looked okay.

You can’t buy those things. Our convenience store was more than what was on the shelves.

The times change, I realize. Nobody buys newspapers anymore. Dairy consumption is down. Smoking is down. Perhaps the new homeowners of the area are above a ‘Crossword’ scratch-ticket fix. No one has pocket change anymore to satisfy a jones for a Skor bar since we’ve all gone to the bank card tap – it’s a conspiracy, people. They’re just warming us up for the implanted microchip. And Amazon and Grocery Gateway bring purchases right to your door.

Perhaps I long for a simpler time, and am just showing my age.

But this is part of a growing more troubling trend I think. We are losing our ways to connect with each other in real life. We’re isolating ourselves from each other more and more. Who notices a convenience store on the corner, when we’re face down in our phones? Who cares about the bigger picture of being a good neighbour, or good neighbourhood, or lifting up an area that is constantly on the fringes? (or just sustaining it until something big can change it – someone, please buy that derelict Howard Johnson’s!) The me-first, on demand, frenzied, and in a race with the economy of Planet Venus culture cannot sustain the corner convenience store, it would appear.

After the doors shut this week, a new Vape Shop will take its place. Juul products may not contribute to the sense of community, but perhaps they will be more financially viable for a proprietor. Business is business. Being thought of as a pillar of the community doesn’t pay the mortgage. I understand. Reality. I whine and complain, but admit I only spent about $10 a week there.

But I argue that we are forgetting and taking for granted what we need to make a neighbourhood, truly a ‘neighbourhood’. I am not sure what this says about Parkdale and what this says about the changing Toronto.

The thing about a convenience store and all the things it represents for a neighbourhood, is that you never appreciate them until they aren’t there, and you’re suddenly, yes, inconvenienced.

 

 

 

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