Monday 12 October 2009

Travelogue from Home

I have lived for nearly 20 years in the Annex, in Toronto. It's a rectangular area, the southern border of which stretches about 12 blocks from the Liebeskind-enhanced Royal Ontario Museum in the east, along the edge of the University of Toronto downtown campus, to Mirvish Village in the west. Its northern border is the Canadian Pacific railway tracks, and within some of its northern part there is a piece of Davenport Road which follows a native trail that used to run along the bank of the once-much-larger lake that is now Lake Ontario.

This area is called The Annex because about a hundred years ago it was an annex to Toronto. It's the area in which Toronto's most distinguished writer—Jane Jacobs—lived before she died in 2007 (I never spoke to her but I used to feel proud to see her in a greengrocer's shop that I used to go to), and in which Toronto's second most distinguished writer, Margaret Atwood, continues to live. Its an area of leafy maple trees, quite a few beautifully kept front gardens, and wonderful domestic architecture. Houses here were built mostly for single families, with living rooms and kitchens on the ground floor, and bedrooms above. Only a few were grand enough to have a mews or coach-house, and some of the larger houses have been replaced with apartment buildings. The whole neighbourhood was brick-built. it shows the same Victorian exuberance as the more famous family houses made of wood in San Francisco. The house we live in, built in 1906, is one of the plainest in the Annex, but it's position is good, just a hop and a skip to Jean Sibelius Park, and five minutes walk to a subway stop that will take one north, south, east or west.

Toronto is an immigrant city. White people are a minority. The city is a patchwork of little village-like areas in each of which there tends to be a concentration of a particular ethnicity. Bloor Street, as it runs near where we live, used to be Hungarian, I am told. But along the street now, shops and restaurants range from Thai and Nepalese to Japanese and Italian. There are, I think, six sushi restaurants, and two shops where you can buy futons. Further west past our strip the street becomes Korean, just near to corner where this occurs, there is a large Caribbean hairdressing salon.

The south west corner of the Annex is occupied by Honest Ed's, a huge department store, founded 60 years ago, with a dollar-store atmosphere, where immigrants can come and buy everything they need at very low prices. It is a rambling place of upstairs and down, along and around. Everywhere on the walls, outside and in, there are terrible jokes on big posters: "Honest Ed's: Only the floors are crooked," and "Honest Ed's: Unfair to low prices. They never get a raise," and so on. Ed, who died recently, also owned theatres and was in love with the theatre. On wall spaces devoid of jokes there are theatre posters and big signed photos of stars, which say, in each star's handwriting across the photo things like: "To Anne and Ed, from Frank Sinatra," and "To Anne and Ed, Best always, Dean Martin, and "To Anne and Ed, with good wishes and thanks, Ingrid Bergman." There is even is a photo of Ed with the Queen Mother who used to be a stalwart of a piece of theatre called The Royal Family whose run has outlasted even The Mousetrap. It's sad, however, that the Queen Mum seems to have forgotten to sign her photograph.

Some of Honest Ed's departments are excellent. The kitchen department is an example. At a price of $1.99 I found a little plastic colander that fits neatly over a medium size can. How it works, I understand, is that than once you have opened the can and removed the lid, you can place the little colander upside down on the top of the open can, invert the can and colander, pour out the liquid, and retain just the solid contents. And if you wish, in the kitchen department, you can also buy, for quite a bit more money, impressive stainless steel pots that are large enough to cook a stew for a whole third-year university class.

A fond memory of the Annex is from one December when my daughter was about seven. I was walking along and heard someone call to me from the other side of one of the smaller roads. It was a Chinese woman who had a seven-year old son with red hair. I knew her from chats we had as we waited to pick up our kids from a Suzuki music class held at the Jewish Community Centre on Bloor Street. "Hi," she called. "Happy Christmas!" She paused for an instant, and then said: "Are you Christian?"

1 comment:

Raymond A. Mar said...

This is such a nice piece, Keith. I lived in the Annex myself for some time, and I visited Honest Ed's upon occasion. There was a distinctly Proustian experience one day when I spotted the same ironing board my parents must have bought decades ago, when they were new immigrants, nestled in the basement of the store.

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