Public Squares Everywheres!
Joy and Love in Toronto Streets as we remember the Blackout of 2003, a moment when a break-down became a building-up. Businesses cooked in the street what they’d otherwise waste, and people came together for a night bright with enjoyment of each other and our public spaces. Year after year I marvel that police watch politely as hundreds crowd downtown intersections with music-making, fire-spinning, and dedications to communal revelry. This year we danced in the centre of Church and Front streets, an area that, as Michael J of Lemon Bucket Orchestra said from his body-borne canoe, has been a place of peaceful trade for 4500 years.
Let’s waste less, and buy less, and dance more.
entertaining folks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for Underpass Park, steps from a warehouse I spent much of my time from 1998 to 2006: the home of the person who started this band - both he and the cinder-blocks he loved gone for six years. The loft would have been behind those white trailers, where the construction equipment is starting an Athletes Village building for the Pan Am games. .
To the left of those windows was a motorcycle-repair shop, which had a sign in old-fashioned black and white letters, backwards: Don’t Let the Bastards Wear You Down. There was cracked asphalt, chain-link fence and old poplar trees, a sign-maker and a carpenter, and us.
Alright, that’s my Little Miss Nostalgia moment. The condo-monsters are eating my gritty city! But watching kids (brought in by officials) climb on the new, surprisingly awesome playground equipment, I had a wild hope that this place becomes something unexpected and alive. That good policies might seed a real neighborhood, not just implant a rarefied monoculture.
Officials, planners and politicians are making reasonable noises: building three-bedroom units (sad that the need for these is a revelation, but so be it); some affordable housing. But Waterfront Toronto’s description of River City’s “sleek white” and “edgy dark” towers is not promising.
Queen St. East is trading its dusty diners for “gastropubs.” For the neighborhood to thrive, though, the fancy hamburgers have to be kept in harmony with the Good Shepherd and Annie’s Tavern. Developers sell “sleek” towers, thinking this aesthetic expresses the “downtown” ambiance created by overpasses and old brick; but it’s the roughness, the sense of slight neglect that made this area a hub of students, artists, and all those other unwitting homesteaders for corporate investment. If the gastropubs take over and all the low-renters leave, these condo subdivisions will be, like all monocultures, more vulnerable to the whims of fortune.
With Underpass Park the city has made disused space into a community resource; I want to believe that signifies a dawning understanding that continued wealth depends on strong communities.
Joyous Chips in the Living Mosaic 07/01/2012
Join us on Sunday, July 8th at 5pm at Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto to celebrate Samantha Bernstein’s new memoir, Here We Are Among the Living. There will be a kick ass bonfire, some Samba Elegua drumming, and s’mores.
Come join us!
Last weekend Samba played in the Pride Parade for U of T’s Queer Alliance. My brain is now emblazoned with the image of Ty shirtless in the searing sunshine balancing on the back of a pickup truck, strutting in time and wailing on his repenique, the light obliterating the drum, making it another small sun. In a beaded black bikini top – a wonderful burlesque thing Michelle lent me – I was harnessed to my surdo and wedged into the truck’s bed with four other surdos and players, bottles of water and knapsacks, Ty conducting the rest of the band from the edge. On the pavement Michael in an undershirt and Michelle in leather short shorts and knee-high platform boots, collar around her neck where later Ty would lead her on a leash, shook their shakers valiantly in the mid-day heat, the crowds behind the barrier cheering and squirting water guns. Bare-assed, bare-titted, draped in beads, in uniform, in wedding attire, on stilts, in bondage gear, on elaborate floats on flat-bed trucks flailing multi-coloured sweat from their painted bodies the revelers flooded Yonge St., while around us a million bodies – straight, gay, young, old, every race and creed – strained to cheer us on; all of downtown pulsing Madonna, Bollywood pop, every club beat imaginable, and buried within it all, the tenacious boom-clack of Samba Elegua. Only through Ty, man, only through Ty would Mike, or Jamie or Michelle or I, or most of the people in this band, find ourselves in the middle of a mile-long parade.
At the end Ty said it looked like people were dripping off the buildings, and really it did: people were leaning over the roofs of the brick apartments above the stores on Yonge, they were perched on window-sills, legs dangling from the ledges, there were faces in every window. And everywhere rainbow flags fluttering against the buildings, draped off balconies, Yonge St. itself like a disorganized rainbow, a bright mosaic of bodies and floats stretching up the city’s longest artery and spilling through half of downtown. So much skin, hair and cloth amid the bricks, concrete and asphalt, changing everything. It made me immensely glad to have been born in this city at this time. To think what Toronto was forty years ago! A parade like this seems a kind of proof that consciousness does change, that, under the right circumstances, humans improve.
…we sat in this park reading e.e. cummings and knowing
"I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”
… this building used to be red brick, before the stucco-monster ate it. Below, a slice of how I first knew it, in 2001.
So down I went to Crawford St., a charming old low-rise where he and some other Brits he met when he first arrived in Toronto have a three-bedroom on the top floor. We sat on the tiny patio overlooking the street and I noticed how very nice he is to look at – watched him as he thought about fair Tyler Bratt, who has become his inseparable friend. I divined it might be more than that, watching Joe’s face after he’d described to me a day they’d recently had together – sitting in a park, strumming a guitar, quipping Smiths lyrics, afternoon into evening, liquor in a bag. Loopy feelings of youth, hearts open and racing like boxcars through the night.
You are a little in love with him, I said; I think, if you don’t mind me saying.
He smile-frowned and knitted his brows. Winced a slow O God, it’s true. It’s so fucking cliché.
Smiling into his hand, rubbing his head.
What can you do, I said? Cliché or no cliché we feel how we feel. And patterns have reasons.
He liked that, and so we talked for awhile about stereotypes and how clichés happen; and a little more about the torment of loving straight boys. I liked his quiet self-consciousness, he was graceful in it. He seemed shyly pleased to be able to speak about himself, and I felt I was being of service.
And since then we’ve hung out a lot - going to the park after shifts, or back to 420 for joints and tea, poetry at his kitchen table beneath a bunch of daisies. He reads a lot, and it’s nice to have someone around who’s not in school but who likes to think about words.
“Caveat: This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to people living or dead is intentional and encouraged…. New experience is always a comparison to the known - Michael Winter, This All Happened
When we see illustrations in books, do they change what we envision for the story? I can’t think of a single picture – etchings in old novels, for instance, or pictures in children’s books – that altered the image I had of the characters. No matter how pretty or evocative, the pictures always seem distinct from the story itself. Images might fill in something about the environment, impart a mood or sensation that attaches itself to the words, but they can’t make the story be about the subjects of the pictures. Even if those pictures provide a template, the real characters as they interact with their world look and sound as we imagine.
In some of these videos of me reading, there are photographs from the time about which I write. You can certainly view them as little windows into a life, postcards from my past – for that they are. They capture (and have helped make) images that are in my brain, but those images have changed even for me in the writing of them. They are not what “really happened” in the book.
In memoir, the writer-as-character embodies how each of us is a narrative we tell ourselves, and which others are telling about us. Although the people in my book are real, and the events all actually occurred, they are still made up, mutable tales. I have included the photographs for texture– but please don’t let them keep your mind from making any associations it should wish; please people the book with your own characters.
Samantha reads an excerpt entitled New Millennium NYC from her memoir Here We Are Among the Living.