Accidentally Torontonian

Toronto is never satisfied. It obsesses about its shortcomings, even as it lands near the top of “best cities in the world” lists, a pessimism born from privilege. Toronto is the commercial, financial and cultural centre of the country even as it dreams of becoming New York City when it grows up. It’s the centre of its universe, but also the centre of self-doubt, perpetually comparing itself to everywhere around it.

It was only supposed to be a year: move to Toronto, get the certificate, move back to Calgary and continue with life.

23 years later, the move back to Calgary hasn’t happened. I have become, accidentally, Torontonian.

That was never the plan. I never had any desire to move to the Big Smoke.
Growing up on the east coast, Toronto seemed incredibly distant, a mysterious chunk of population somewhere past Montreal where folks moved later in life, and from where repairmen ordered parts for your fridge.

Later, it gained an unfortunate reputation as a breeding ground for snobbery. I remember the handful of kids transplanted from Toronto. Young and naive, many of them assumed us yokels would be awed by their big city pedigree, and flaunted it accordingly. That was a bad idea that backfired consistently, leading to ostracism and the conclusion that TO was a jerk factory.

After finishing school, I was faced with a decision: Halifax’s economy was small and sputtering, and I felt the need to move somewhere with more opportunities. Toronto’s economy was in the dumps, Vancouver was too expensive, I’d already lived in Ottawa, and I didn’t think my French was good enough for Montreal. Calgary beckoned with an oil economy firing on all cylinders, and I made the leap.

Soon after landing, I discovered something Calgarians share with Haligonians: antipathy for Toronto. The more folks I met, the more I realized those feelings of resentment travel across our great land. In fact, the unifying force in our country isn’t the great outdoors, maple syrup, poutine or even hockey: it’s animosity for Toronto.

Some of that has nothing to do with the town itself. It’s probably aimed at residents of every big city around the world, from Beijing to Buenos Aires. I think it stems from the inhabitants’ sense that they’re from somewhere just a little more sophisticated, important or awesome than anywhere else. I breathed that in when I landed in Hogtown in 2000.

I loved Calgary. I had no intention of leaving, until I hit a ceiling at work and needed a diploma to keep moving up. I found a program at Humber College, packed everything in boxes and bought a one-way ticket, confident I’d return in a year.

Toronto didn’t impress at first: it felt too big, impersonal and uncaring. It seemed less like a city with an identity or personality, and more like a sea of people crammed together on top of each other.

That feeling started to change when I moved to a friendlier neighbourhood, and found parks and shops I liked, a favourite pub and a go-to coffee shop. I started to discover what there was to like about this big fat city. There were neighbourhoods branded everything from “Little Italy” to “Little Tibet”. There were festivals and a theatre scene I stumbled into after an acting class. There were the bucket list concerts I finally got to see, museums, restaurants and all the other things tourist bureaus stuff into ads.

I ended up staying another year. I found a job and then a girlfriend. I got another apartment. I found another job and another girlfriend. I kept discovering more things to like about the city: bike trails, the islands, ravine hikes and more.

Years passed with the plan to move back to Calgary quietly receding in the rear-view mirror but never overtly abandoned. And then something quite unexpected happened: I started becoming Torontonian.

I’ve transformed, and I doubt the me from 23 years ago would recognize the current one. I’ve become that guy, the infinitely impatient one muttering under their breath at people lollygagging on the sidewalk when they’ve got places to be right now. (Could you walk any slower, buddy?) I talk about how the vibe in places like Kensington Market needs to be protected from gentrification, as if “vibe” were something that shows up on Google Maps. I read blogs and magazines about the city as often as I read ones about Canada itself. And I’ve embraced the idea that there’s something impressive about living in the biggest city in the land.

Recently I had to confront just how Torontonian I’ve become. Part of me will always hate myself for admitting it, but one night in front of the TV — how can I really be saying this?

I found myself cheering for the Leafs.

You can’t spend 23 years somewhere and not have it change you. Halifax will always be home, because home is where the heart is. But home is also where you hang your hat, and that’s Toronto. It’s where my condo leers over the perennially pissed-off drivers on the Gardiner Expressway. It’s where my cats constantly fight and make up. It’s where I found my wife, and where all but a few friends live. It’s the city that needs constant reassurance, but which is somehow quietly certain it’s the Centre of the Universe.

That’s what makes a good city great: a balance of contradictions.
A friend had a theory that life sorts you into the city in which you truly belong, by size, temperament and so on. Calgary is young and a little conservative. Ottawa is bureaucratic, well-planned and restrained. Halifax is friendly and loves a good time.

And Toronto? Well, Toronto is never satisfied. It obsesses about its shortcomings, even as it lands near the top of “best cities in the world” lists, a pessimism born from privilege. Toronto is the commercial, financial and cultural centre of the country even as it dreams of becoming New York City when it grows up. It’s the centre of its universe, but also the centre of self-doubt, perpetually comparing itself to everywhere around it.

That describes me a little: a collection of contradictions. It’s what endears me to the city. Like me, Toronto doesn’t have just one identity. At a certain point a city becomes too big for that, and its identity becomes the sum of its parts. Or maybe that’s way too Zen and Toronto is just like every other big city, with its good, bad, beauty, ugliness and endless complexity.

By my calculation, sometime in 2025 I’ll have spent more than half my life here. Assuming I last long enough, will I retire and end my days here? Will I move back “home” to Halifax? Maybe I’ll go back to Calgary. Maybe I’ll find a villa in Italy. Who knows? But this town has shaped me as surely as any other has.

I have become, unexpectedly, Torontonian.

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.