My second apartment was in High Park, just north of Bloor and close to the subway. It isn’t worth mentioning my first apartment since the place was seemingly the world headquarters of the cockroach empire and I didn’t stay long.
The second place seemed a great abode at first, notwithstanding a few oddities. It had no door. My digs encompassed the upper level of an old brick house owned by a Greek family. Parents, two teen boys. It was a great space with a huge bay window looking out to the street. My understanding was that none of the family members would invade my premises barring some sort of dreadful emergency, but I soon discovered that the youngest son had his own opinion on the matter. It was clear that he was a troubled fellow, and quite a large one at that. He hovered outside my bedroom door at night. I came home from work to find him in my bedroom a few times. One evening, he was the only one home. There was a tremendous banging going on in the kitchen and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t cooking.
I decided that my best course of action was to evacuate the scene. Backpack in tow, I aimed for stealth mode all the way down the curving, creaking old staircase. When I got to the bottom, a glance back down the hall to their kitchen saw him framed in the doorway with a ravaged expression, holding an enormous butcher knife. I set my personal best on the sprint to the subway station.
Time to move. My next place was a gem, south of Bloor just off Roncesvalles, the entire ground floor of an old house. What a neighbourhood that was! Still largely Ukranian and Polish to the south, with shops selling everything from distinctive wooden products to pastries and sausages. Roncesvalles was home to the renowned Revue Repertory Theatre, and further to the north, the first health food store I encountered and patronized religiously for their yogourt, natural peanut butter and raw honey.
I stayed there for quite a long while, but eventually ended up further northeast at St. Clair and Spadina, another marvellous area to explore in those days, located as it was within a good walking distance of countless art galleries, bistros and an unending cultural mix of shops selling anything one might imagine. I met some characters in the building. My next-door neighbour was a hostage negotiator living with her fiance, an undertaker. They were good people, if somewhat reminiscent of the Addams Family in appearance. There was also a fiery Irish guy in the building, a fellow who read tarot cards and had his fingers immersed in pies of every flavour going. I left Toronto for a few years after that, moving to Northern Ontario.
On my return, I settled in to Lawrence and Keele in an actual apartment building. My unit was ground level and beside a ravine. I thought the greenery would be lovely, until I learned that a multitude of hoary little biting spiders invaded the place every spring and survived until October.
King and Bay in downtown Toronto was my daily destination, so my next move took me even further east to my all-time favourite residence, and that has nothing to do with the real estate, beyond the fact that my fitness club and pool were but a five-minute trek away. My apartment was a second level unit in a three-story walk-up. I quite hit it off with the Superintendant, a gay man in his early 30’s, when I went in to apply. On moving day, he came up to my flat to tell me that I was the only straight resident of the building, and the only female as well. “I didn’t think it would bother you,” he said, with what I came to know as characteristic nonchalance. He was right.
In fact, it was great. I never had the slightest qualm about going down to the basement laundry room at night. The guys were friendly and we all pretty much kept to ourselves beyond random encounters, at least until we had a building garage sale. I don’t think anyone made much money, but my cheeks ached from laughing when the day was done. I learned that my neighbours were highly vocal when it came to expressing appreciation for attractive male passers-by and, at Jarvis and Isabella, it was usually reciprocated and then some. That wasn’t quite my style, but I have to admit that I couldn’t fault their taste most of the time.
Jarvis and Isabella was the LGBTQ capital of Toronto, long before those initials had any meaning to most people. The vast majority of the residents were gay or bisexual although it was also the primary promenade of heterosexual prostitutes galore. Transvestites were everywhere, some flamboyant and some not at all. People of all genders offered their bodies for sale, lounging provocatively against walls, doorways and lightposts on Yonge Street to showcase their wares. Some of the trans guys were particularly memorable with blonde wigs, Tammy Faye makeup and thigh high boots on a six-two frame.
There was always a strong police presence. Between that and the obvious fact that no evil deed-doer was likely to concern themselves with a petite woman as innocuous as myself in such a pulsingly sexual environment, I felt very safe there. Having said that, any smart woman living in the city avoids putting herself in potentially compromising situations and I did that, although the stars failed to align a couple of times.
I used to go to a bar in the seediest section of the east side with a woman I knew from work and her friends, all of whom had experienced a much rougher, tougher life than I had. Dancing was involved and we always had a great time, so it became a regular haunt for me on Saturday nights for quite a long spell. Most of the women were biker chicks but they were welcoming and they had a strong community, banding together as required to protect each other from unwanted male attention that wouldn't accept "no" as an outcome. Their tradition was to celebrate birthdays by presenting a cake decorated in edible male genitalia both large and small, crafted in chocolate, icing or meringue. I’m sure it’s unnecessary to paint a picture of the drama with which these delights were consumed. I hung out with them long enough to earn my penis cake and, despite the absurdity of it all, I felt quite honoured to be so fully included at the time.
That was all great, but back to the story. My friend’s sister was a taxi driver and she’d planned to deliver me from home to the bar and back again. I got there okay, but something happened. She left on a venture of some sort and never returned. Nobody had cell phones then, so I waited for her until it became unarguably evident that there would be no reappearance. By that time, the buses had stopped running and there were no taxicabs available. I did a 10K alone at 2 am, wearing the type of clothing one would expect to don for dancing in a crowded bar in the summertime. The route took me along Queen Street to Jarvis and north to my home just south of Bloor. Jarvis south of Dundas was the creepiest stretch, no police to be seen. Alleyways. Gloomy parks with lots of bushes. No traffic. As I recall, there was a bit of adrenalin going on during that walk and I was fully prepared for fight or flight the entire distance.
Living in Toronto was always an interesting ride. Back in the High Park era, my weekend go-to was the venerable old El Mocambo on Spadina where I was fortunate enough to hear many of the old blues greats like Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon. The gentlemen were always charming and most took the time to come to our table for a chat with the young’uns who liked the blues. The Downchild Blues Band appeared there so often that they were considered to be the "house band". My chosen entertainments changed over the years from the flashing dance clubs to the serene elegance of fine restaurants, but I never lost my taste for the blues, nor did Toronto's offerings of any kind ever fail to please.
I did a lot of walking for fitness in my years there although the route shortened with every move east. Initially my path took me from the finance district downtown to High Park, every weeknight all year long. In the summer, I could stop for a swim en route at an outdoor pool on Dundas. Otherwise, I took varied routes and got to know the inner city very well. The trendy bistros giving way to dusty antique and pawn shops along Queen Street, the vibrant garment district on Spadina, the gracious pomp of University Avenue, an altered cultural paradigm in Chinatown. I was a serious hobby photographer then and the streets were an unending series of potential compositions.
I loved my years in Toronto. I embraced the city's sprawling vitality, its anonymity, its many worlds within worlds. Toronto gave of its energy, its sophistication and tawdriness, its glittering consumerism and its raw realities, its fleeting moments of joy and heartbreak on the streets. New worlds were always there, just waiting to be experienced, processed and absorbed. It wasn't the place to raise a family, nor would it be a place I'd choose to live now, but it will forever be a part of the woman I have become.