Cycling the Show

A man lurches into the street wearing a platinum blonde fright wig and booty shorts, talking to someone no one else can see, oblivious to oncoming traffic and (most importantly for me) my bike.

“Hey, f**k you motherf***er!” yells a fellow cyclist, handlebars eclipsed by a dozen plastic bags overflowing with a full day’s bottlepicking spoils. I wonder how anyone can maneuver a bike that’s essentially a miniature recycling depot, but people make it work. Both parties manage to avoid each other, me and catastrophe.

Welcome to another episode of The Show.

Most people know it as the stretch of Toronto’s Sherbourne Street between Queen and Carlton, home to some of the city’s roughest real estate. I call it “The Show” because you never know what’s going to happen from one episode to the next: it’s often entertaining, sometimes hair-raising or tragic, rarely predictable and never dull. I don’t use the term in a condescending or judgemental way. I don’t know the people who live or pass through The Show, their stories or how they ended up on it. Some choose to be there. Many don’t.

Sometimes you just need to give something a nickname, to take a bit of the edge off the seriousness and the occasional tragedy. Hence, “The Show.”

Bikes, Prayers and Quarters

“Hey, brother. Can you spare a quarter?” It’s a line straight out of a 1930s dime store novel. In 2019 you’d need a stack of quarters to get anything worth begging for, but maybe asking for a quarter is a more effective strategy in the long run than asking for a loonie. I have nothing to give, as my wallet’s in my messenger bag, and I’m not about to flash cash on The Show. Cyclists at work speak of it in fearful tones. They’ve warned me off biking it at all. They say unwary cyclists have been knocked down, watching from their butts while assailants make off with their ride. I was skeptical at first, but as I started biking The Show, my doubts evaporated. It’s a rough ride, and emergency services are as likely as not to make an appearance on any given day. I see police, fire, ambulance and public housing security all the time. And once, a guy peeing in the park.

I don’t worry about bike theft. My 20-year-old workhorse screams “Beater bike! Not worth stealing!” I worry more about the more fragile cast members on The Show, people with obvious mental health issues. I worry when they act unpredictably, lurching into the bike lane from the sidewalk. I worry about the guy with one hand on his handlebar, one on his phone, and eyes nowhere near the road. I worry about random behaviour, but I still bike The Show every passably clear, warm day. It has the only dedicated bike lane into downtown Toronto, and I figure the odds of surviving a collision with a human body are better than those of surviving the Door Prize (getting launched ass-over-elbows when a motorist decides to open the driver-side door without looking).

Many years ago a guy outside one of the missions on The Show promised to pray for me if I gave him a quarter. That seemed like a bargain at the time, given everything that can go wrong on a bike, but I didn’t have the time to stop. Fifteen years ago he was an old man. Given the reduced lifespan of people on the street, he’s likely long gone. I wonder if anyone prayed for him.

A Cast of Thousands

A guy is talking to himself outside the community centre on Dundas St. In the old days it was easy to identify people talking to themselves. Now you’re never sure if they’re on a headset talking to someone, or chatting to an invisible friend. I passed a guy on Queen St. once who was mumbling something about NASA beaming radio signals into his fillings. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a headset conversation.

A man shuffles down the street, singing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” ad-libbing lyrics that sound like something about garlic. Another bikes down the wrong side of the street, oblivious to impending disaster until my “Heads up!” grabs his attention.

There’s a ton of characters on The Show, some one-offs, many recurring. They’re the residents of public housing and cheap apartments lining the route; users of the community health services, missions and safe injection sites; people doing fine and folks who’ve hit rock bottom. I tell myself not to judge the less fortunate ones, the ones I see each day on my journey, and not to act self-righteous about the privileges I enjoy. A good education, stable upbringing and host of other factors have given me an advantage others don’t enjoy.

My Resolution

Deep down, none of us are any different from the cast of The Show, broken or whole, coping or not, clean or using. Different circumstances, different backgrounds and different luck leads us down different paths. I try to remember that each time I bike it, while watching out for pigeons and people. It gives me perspective.

I made a sort of new year’s resolution to give back by volunteering to help those in need in the neighbourhood. I’m not sure what that will look like, when I’ll start or how long I’ll stick with it. I know I’m fortunate, and I see the folks who have fallen through holes in our social safety net each day I bike The Show. I know I can probably do something about it, however small.

Maybe I’ve got a guest spot on The Show.

The Mayor of the Market

I have seen my retirement. It is delicious.

He used to hang around Yonge & Eglinton in Toronto, but I haven’t seem him in a long time. I don’t visit midtown much since moving out in 2010, so I don’t know what became of him.

The first time I saw him, I couldn’t decide whether he was homeless or a millionaire. He looked in his late 50s, with a smoothly shaved head, a deep, lurid tan, an earring and a big belly. His clothes were on the rough side of casual, but not ragged. He seemed to be everywhere: at the hot dog cart, occasionally helping the owner; on the corner watching the world go by; installed in shops here and there.

Everywhere I saw him, he was talking to people, casually and easily, like an old friend catching up, without a care in the world. His whole reason for being seemed to be to watch the world go by.

His Lordship, The Mayor

I nicknamed him “The Mayor,” because he acted like he was in charge of the neighbourhood, somehow responsible for its smooth operation, relying on a mix of casual observation and small talk. He seemed so natural and at ease, with no pressing or prior commitments, in some kind of laid-back, Buddha-bellied communion with the neighbourhood and its people. I thought, “That’s what I want to do.” I want to be the mayor of somewhere.

Of course, maybe none of that was true. Maybe he was homeless and had nowhere else to go. Maybe he was injured and on disability, with nothing to do but kill time. Maybe he really was a millionaire, and enjoying his neighbourhood was his idea of a plum retirement. I like to think the latter was true, because the idea of spending my golden years tending my neighbourhood appeals deeply to me.

My neighbourhood has none of the yuppie ambition or sleek lines of Yonge & Eglinton. Gentrification has largely passed it over, thanks in no small part to a mix of public housing and heritage protection. In my neighbourhood you’re as likely to run into a busker with three teeth and a sailor’s mouth as you are a bright young thing from condoland. There isn’t the variety of chic boutiques Yonge and Eg has sprouted, but the hustlers and collectors at the antique market will sell you anything from Roman coins to Tinkertoy for the right price. My hood lacks the pretense that dogs much of Toronto, and the epicentre of that authenticity is its eponym: St. Lawrence Market.

Still Life with Pork Chop

The Market holds a special place in my heart, grown over four years of living next door. My wife and I took most of our wedding photos inside, she in her immaculate white wedding gown trailing across the scruffy concrete, me in my tux. Our favourite photo features us posing in front of rows of pork chops at one of the butchers.

There’s nothing elegant about the Market. It resembles nothing so much as a cross between an overgrown barn and a collection of roadside stalls. Any ambience is a byproduct of the chaotic jumble of boxes and people crammed into a city block, hitting a fever pitch Saturdays when Toronto descends en masse.

Duelling green grocers try to establish whether you’re inadvertently trying to pay for the other guy’s zucchini. Boxes of spices overflow in the basement bulk shop, surely Toronto’s cheapest aromatherapy. A butcher rings a cowbell seemingly at random. Is it to celebrate a significant sale? Does it mark the hour? Is it just random boredom? Who knows?

The Stories that Make a Place

I’ve discovered the Market’s idiosyncrasies and details, both cryptic and trivial, over the years, like the name of the flower guy I buy a rose from each week for my wife. I know where the prison used to be when the Market was Toronto’s town hall, shackles hanging from the wall. I’ve learned that if you wait till 3:00 on a Saturday, you can find fish that’s been marked down at least once, and maybe twice. I know that the German-sounding deli is actually run by a Greek family. (“Odysseus” is the best name ever for a cheese-monger. It makes me think of some intrepid soul embarking on a ten-year journey to bring back the finest Camembert from around the globe)

Farther afield is the lunch place I visit each Saturday, where the owner knows my order before I even set foot inside (chicken salad with an extra falafel), and the barber who regales me with the latest on which businesses are moving in or out.

That’s what makes a place a neighbourhood: people and their stories. A neighbourhood needs context and history, roots and randomness, knit together by people you want to get to know. It never ceases to amaze me that in a city as big and cool-to-the-touch as Toronto, there are still places like that. That’s  why when I think of what I’ll be doing when I’m 65 (if I’m still around, healthy and financially solvent) the thought of just being a part of the place appeals to me: sampling the cheese at Scheffler’s, listening to the guitar player compete with the Dixieland combo for change, recognizing toys from my childhood at the antique market, helping out here and there if people need a hand. The thought of becoming part of the neighbourhood by becoming one its stories makes me happy.

Maybe I should visit Yonge & Eglinton to see if the mayor’s still around. Maybe I can tease his story out of him, and find out if I was right. It’s probably better if I just leave his story in my imagination intact, because if I’m right and he was (or still is) the Mayor of Yonge & Eglinton, I feel like there’s a precedent, and maybe I can become the Mayor of the Market.

Mystic Muffins

How long can the little guy with a big heart hold out when gentrification sets in?

It’s not the food that keeps me coming back: it’s the personality.

Elias is flying solo as usual, a whirling dervish of falafel and patter behind the counter.

“What’ll it be today? The usual?” I visit often enough to have a “usual,” the salad Elias has anointed the “Super Annie” in honour of his wife. I get the chicken option with extra falafel and consider how cliché it is to have a “usual” at a lunch place, and how rare it is to have a favourite lunch place where the owner knows me and my order by name.

In a town renowned for its cool detachment, Elias’s place is an oasis of eclectic, in-your-face charm. There’s no such thing as detachment when he starts shilling his apple cake for the umpteen-millionth time.

“Your wife told me you want an apple cake, something nice to take to the in-laws. You want to make sure you’re in the will, right?” Despite the shop’s name, it’s apple cake – not muffins – that Elias pushes. If it’s not the in-laws he wants me to buy apple cake for, it’s our building concierge. Or my dad in Halifax. Or the boss at work. If Elias thought buying the Pope an apple cake would seal the deal, he’d invoke his Holiness in a heartbeat.

My wife always accompanies me to Elias’s. Although delicious, never once has she suggested I buy an apple cake for her parents. Nor the concierge. Nor my dad. Nor the Pope. Walking into Elias’s guarantees you three things:

  • Good food
  • Conversation
  • A full-court press on apple cakes

A customer asks for change for $20. Elias responds, “Even better: how about I give you an apple cake for $20?”

The decor is a collision of character and chaos. One wall is covered in photos of people posing in locations around the globe, wearing the restaurant’s t-shirt (for sale along with mugs). The menu is a giant chalkboard running the length of the back wall, and the combo of the day is printed on a blackboard next to the counter. The combo “of the day” hasn’t changed since I started coming several years ago: the chalk has probably permanently adhered to the blackboard by now. Slogans that are equal parts cheese and charm litter the rest of the space, inside and out:

  • “World’s best apple cake. Must be legal eating age for a slice.”
  • “Ask not what you can do for your tuna on a pita but what your tuna on a pita can do for you.”
  • “Made with passion. Served with love.”

To his credit, most everything Elias dishes up is served with love. Whether it’s coffee and a muffin, or a bagel with cheese, everything is served “+ love,” according to the menu (taxes included). This would be cheesier than charming if it weren’t for one thing: everything really is served with love.

Elias’s shop straddles the divide between some of Toronto’s best-off and worst-off neighbourhoods, but he doesn’t discriminate based on which side of the tracks you’re from. Whether it’s well-heeled yuppies from the encroaching condos, or homeless people wandering in from the Salvation Army next door, Elias serves them all. I’ve seen people so strung out they could barely count their change get a seat just as easily as the bright young things filtering in. To Elias, they’re all just people.

“You buy a falafel at regular price, I’ll throw in a slice of apple cake for $3!” The apple cake is $3 a slice no matter what you buy. It’s one of the running gags that keeps me coming back: the food’s good, but the show’s better.

“They’re going fast. I’ve only got five left. I’ve sold thirty-two already today!” I sometimes wonder if Elias was born talking: most days he barely stops for breath. As soon as you walk in the door he’s either asking you how you’ve been or talking about his latest woes: the Italian exchange student he hired, who keeps showing up late and won’t stop moaning about girl troubles; the squeegee kid who was strung out on something so powerful he literally fell asleep standing up; how much Costco is raising prices, and how it’s going to force him to raise his prices.

Elias has barely raised his prices since I started coming. How he does it is beyond me, because everywhere else in Toronto small businesses are jacking up prices or shutting down as property values and taxes skyrocket. It’s what happened to Yonge Street. When I moved to Toronto in 2001, downtown Yonge was filled with small businesses. Used bookstores and cheap eats competed with strip clubs and sex shops, camera places and corner stores. Now steel and glass behemoths block the sun and strangle the little places that lent the street its appeal, however gritty. I’m worried the same thing’s going to happen to Elias.

The vacant lot kitty-corner to his hole in the wall is prime for redevelopment, as is the gas station across the street. A 41-story condo has been proposed for just down the block. How long can he hold out? Elias is tight-lipped, but sanguine about his future.

“If they wanted to put up a condo, they’d have to buy out the guys beside and behind me, and the Salvation Army. That isn’t going to happen.” I wish I shared his optimism. It’s more likely that if a developer showed up tomorrow with a blank cheque, the whole block – Salvation Army and all – would transform into a 50-story monster with concierge service within three years. Elias’s place is almost 200 years old, so it’s got heritage protection, but all that means is that they’d either gut it and keep the facade or build something over it using stilts. I think they’d gut it: Toronto loves scraping the innards out of character buildings and preserving their corpses like a real-world experiment in architectural taxidermy.

The city is growing. I understand that. I love watching the city change, and urban renewal is the unofficial spectator sport of Toronto: there are entire websites dedicated to it. But great cities aren’t built only of brushed steel and tinted glass. Great cities like New York have grown without completely bleaching their roots. When you walk through SoHo or the East Village, you’re never more than a few blocks from the most expensive real estate on the planet, but New York has managed to keep its neighbourhoods’ history and character intact. I fear if Toronto doesn’t do the same, we’ll end up as a museum dedicated to what used to be a really interesting city.

“You’re going to get hungry later: take an apple cake,” coaxes Elias. “You know what they say: a hungry woman is an angry woman.” We’ll keep visiting as long as there’s an Elias to visit, and occasionally we’ll buy a fresh, relentlessly upsold apple cake.