November 27, 2022 — A Pleasant Summer and Fall, With Occasional Threats of Nuclear Doom

I’m writ­ing fresh from a relax­ing bub­ble bath. You all know how tough guys like me enjoy a good laven­der-scent­ed bub­ble bath. And I am fol­low­ing this plea­sure with a quick sup­per of home-made yaki­nori soba and steamed frozen dumplings. It’s time to reflect on this sum­mer and fall, and keep my friends up to date on how I’m doing.

Sum­mer was quite pleas­ant for me. The pleas­ant­ness began with a back­yard fish-and-chips din­ner with my friends Skye, Natasha, Isaac and Mag­gie. Good folk, good food, good talk, good times. When I returned home­ward, step­ping out of the sub­way at Welles­ley Sta­tion, the streets of the Church & Welles­ley Vil­lage were already jam-packed. Pride began the next day, but the crowds were already there, par­ty­ing… but I head­ed straight home to feed two cats of noto­ri­ous­ly unfor­giv­ing temperament.

The next day, after sleep­ing in, I ven­tured out on to Church Street. Pride is always a big deal in Toron­to. It start­ed in 1982, as a protest against the police raid of gay bath hous­es that took place the year before, and it grew steadi­ly in size and respectabil­i­ty from then on, attract­ing many from around and out­side the coun­try. But, of course, it was can­celled in 2020 and 2021 because of Covid. I was curi­ous to see if there would be a sig­nif­i­cant “bounce-back” this year. In the last few years it was on, I had attend­ed Pride mere­ly because it was on my doorstep, with my apart­ment only half a block from the par­ty area. Crowds and big par­ties are not real­ly my thing. Over recent years, I have noticed the par­tic­i­pants get­ting steadi­ly old­er, most­ly the same faces, and the music was out of a time warp. It was suf­fer­ing the same demo­graph­ic chal­lenge as Sci­ence Fic­tion Fan­dom. The Vil­lage was still get­ting some refugees from small town oppres­sion, and peo­ple from Toron­to’s drea­ry sub­ur­bia com­ing down­town to do a lit­tle whoopy, but on the whole, the local com­mu­ni­ty had been get­ting old­er and more set in its ways.

Well, I need­n’t have wor­ried. This year, the crowd was huge ― like noth­ing I had ever seen before. The area of Church Street fenced off for con­certs, danc­ing, booths, and food trucks, was fif­teen blocks long. It stretched from Bloor to Dun­das, a dis­tance of 1.7 kms (some­what more than a mile). Every inch of this space was crowd­ed with peo­ple, and the after­noon crowds at Pride would give way to much big­ger ones in the evening. I have no fig­ures, but this seemed to me to be twice as big as any Toron­to Pride I’d ever seen. And, to my sur­prise, the crowd was young. There were far more peo­ple in their teens, twen­ties, and ear­ly thir­ties than I had remem­bered see­ing for many years. And, boy, were they hav­ing a good time. Pride has become a kind of uni­ver­sal car­ni­val and cel­e­bra­tion of free­dom, not some­thing con­fined to LGBT+. All of Canada’s var­ied pop­u­la­tion was rep­re­sent­ed. Every­one was enjoy­ing them­selves, except for about a dozen reli­gious fun­da­men­tal­ists hold­ing up signs at the cor­ner of Carl­ton street exhort­ing “repent your sins!” But lat­er in the evening, I rec­og­nized one of them, an earnest look­ing teenag­er, still in his churchy suit, but danc­ing with a drag queen and laugh­ing joy­ful­ly as if he had just escaped from prison. Free­dom is not cel­e­brat­ed with dirges and sour faces. Think of the video for Jon Bap­tis­te’s 2020 sin­gle “Free­dom” * and you’ll get the idea of the mood that had descend­ed on Toronto.

I did­n’t catch the parade on Sun­day, which I’m told was gar­gan­tu­an. For the whole week­end it was non-stop par­ty­ing, but on Mon­day, every­thing was mirac­u­lous­ly cleaned up. For such a huge event, I must say that every­thing was well planned and exe­cut­ed. A vast amount of lit­ter must have been gen­er­at­ed over the week­end, but when I came to the epi­cen­tre at the cor­ner of Church and Welles­ley, there was no sign of it, except for a cou­ple of stray bal­loons bounc­ing down the street. I enjoyed a cof­fee at Church Street Espres­so, my favourite spot for that mag­i­cal bev­er­age, and start­ed to read Bar­ry N. Malzberg’s Herovit’s World. But the book’s peev­ish tone was not suit­able for such a day.** For­tu­nate­ly, there was a yard sale a few feet from the café, and I bought a copy of Randy Bach­man’s Vinyl Tap Sto­ries for the sum of fifty cents. As my cof­fee dimin­ished in the cup, I read his account of a con­cert tour that The Guess Who made of Cana­di­an Armed Forces bases across the high arc­tic. This was in ear­ly 1968, when they were known only in Cana­da for a few sin­gles. Bach­man wrote:

We were told to wear our warmest clothes. It was the mid­dle of win­ter, forty below in Win­nipeg, and we were head­ing north towards the Arc­tic Cir­cle. I had this cool sheep­skin coat that was bulky but warm, and we all wore scarves, toques, mitts, and boots. When we showed up [at the Atlas car­go plane that would car­ry them] wrapped up in our win­ter wear these air force guys pro­ceed­ed to give us even more clothes to put on, telling us “Where you’re going you’ll need these extra clothes.” As big as my feet are, size thir­teen with big win­ter boots on, they put them into anoth­er pair of sheep­skin-lined boots with gal­va­nized rub­ber on the out­side. With six pounds on each foot, I could bare­ly walk. They then gave us parkas to be worn on top of our parkas. As he was hand­ing me mine, the offi­cer told me, “By the way, the but­tons are made of com­pressed, dehy­drat­ed soup, and inside the hood is an alu­minum lin­ing. If you take it out, put some snow on it, and place it in the sun, you can heat up the but­tons and eat the soup. In your pock­et is some ster­no and match­es to start a fire.” This coat was a walk­ing sur­vival kit. I thought to myself, “What have we got­ten our­selves into?!”

This was the per­fect thing to read in a side­walk café on a hot sum­mer day, and nos­tal­gia for any­one famil­iar with the North.

The next week­end was anoth­er kind of cel­e­bra­tion, for Fri­day was Cana­da Day. This has a dif­fer­ent style. Much as with the Amer­i­can Fourth of July, the Cana­di­an First of July is a mat­ter of lit­tle neigh­bour­hood fes­ti­vals, free con­certs, fam­i­ly gath­er­ings, pic­nics in local parks, and fire­works in the evening. There are sev­er­al good bands that I first heard per­form­ing at Cana­da Day con­certs (Moist and Bare Naked Ladies come to mind). So I went out for a stroll in the after­noon, won­der­ing if I would come across some nice lit­tle neigh­bour­hood fes­tiv­i­ty, or some good music in a park.

Not far from my home is Bar­bara Hall Park, a lit­tle patch of grass and patio bricks with a foun­tain, a mon­u­ment to AIDS vic­tims built some time in the 1990s, and a chil­dren’s play­ground. It’s a bit sketchy some­times, but it’s a very pop­u­lar lit­tle park. An aston­ish­ing vari­ety of peo­ple use it. The poor and the pros­per­ous rub shoul­ders, and on a sin­gle day I’ve seen gay cou­ples sun­bathing, old men play­ing check­ers on a bench, an elder­ly Mus­lim read­ing the Quran under a tree, kids prac­tis­ing soc­cer moves, and a bunch of actors rehears­ing scenes from As You Like It. There was no offi­cial Cana­da Day event in such a tiny park, but there was some­thing going on. Three mid­dle-aged men had set up some bev­er­age cool­ers and a Cole­man stove. They were cook­ing ham­burg­ers and hand­ing them out to peo­ple, along with cans of pop. There was no sign iden­ti­fy­ing any char­i­ta­ble group. There was no indi­ca­tion what­so­ev­er of any “cause” or orga­ni­za­tion. It was just three reg­u­lar guys (I rec­og­nized one of them) who lived in the neigh­bour­hood, who thought that the winos, lone­ly old folks and ragged sub­stance vic­tims left in the park while every­one else had gone off to fun in big­ger places, were just as wor­thy of some Cana­da Day good cheer as any­one else. As I passed, one of them offered me a ham­burg­er. I answered “If these are for peo­ple in need, I’m not in need.” He stretched out his arm with a burg­er in hand and said “Nope, these are for every­one.” And you know what? It was a real­ly good burg­er. Not some lame thing done on the cheap, but a prop­er home­made bar­be­cue burg­er with all the trim­mings. I’ve met sub­ur­ban­ites who show undis­guised dis­dain for the inner city neigh­bour­hood I live in, which they nev­er set foot in. Lit­tle do they under­stand what they’re missing.

These two week­ends set the tone for the sum­mer, as far as my mood was con­cerned. I spent my spare time, when not work­ing at the com­put­er, walk­ing around and enjoy­ing my neigh­bour­hood. I am still recov­er­ing from can­cer treat­ment, with only a frac­tion of my pre­vi­ous ener­gy and sta­mi­na, so I’m in no posi­tion to run off to some jun­gle, desert, or polar wilder­ness for boy­ish adven­tures or breath­tak­ing scenery. So, for the moment, walk­ing in wood­ed ravines and pok­ing around Toron­to’s neigh­bour­hoods will have to suf­fice. This is more inter­est­ing than it sounds, as Toron­to is under­go­ing a build­ing and pop­u­la­tion boom beyond any­thing it has expe­ri­enced before. Not just the pha­lanx­es of new sky­scrap­ers, but con­struc­tion at every lev­el. Tons of new and new­ly repaired infra­struc­ture, much of it influ­enced by the “New Urban­ism” and “Strong Cities” move­ments. Neigh­bour­hoods I last vis­it­ed just a few years ago have com­plete­ly trans­formed. The pan­dem­ic has had absolute­ly no effect on the sea of con­struc­tion cranes and fren­zy of build­ing, except to con­vince peo­ple that they real­ly like out­door din­ing patios and want to keep a lot of the ones built for Covid. They have made the streets far more agree­able. Every­where, peo­ple are putting more effort into their house gar­dens, and flow­ers are sprout­ing in front of com­mer­cial and apart­ment build­ings that nev­er had them before. The city is now engaged in a neck-and-neck bat­tle with Chica­go, hav­ing sur­passed it in eco­nom­ic clout, but not yet in sky­line or urban mys­tique. Toron­to’s lake­front is still not the equal of the Windy City’s spec­tac­u­lar Lake Michi­gan shore. But a flock of super­talls under con­struc­tion, and huge rebuild­ing at the mouth of the Don Riv­er, includ­ing a re-chan­nel­ing of the riv­er and new park lands, are expect­ed to clinch the com­pe­ti­tion soon. While Toron­to is an extreme exam­ple, there seems to be meta­mor­pho­sis of this sort occur­ring in dozens of North Amer­i­can cities. I don’t think I would rec­og­nize most of the cities I used to know well, if I vis­it­ed them now.

But the cen­tral social prob­lem of Toron­to is only made worse by this fre­net­ic growth. As with oth­er boom cities, such as Seat­tle, San Fran­cis­co and Van­cou­ver, rents are far too high. The build­ing boom can’t keep up with the influx of new­com­ers, who need to be housed, but archa­ic zon­ing laws squeeze devel­op­ment into nar­row seg­ments of the city. I live on the edge of one of these seg­ments. Here is my apart­ment build­ing, the mid­dle of a set of three walkups built a hun­dred years ago:

Next door is a 44-sto­ry build­ing and there’s a taller one across the street. Here is a pic­ture of my street three blocks to the west of me:

And here is the same street four blocks to the east of me:

I try to walk some dis­tance every day, some­thing nec­es­sary for recov­er­ing strength from my treat­ment. Each time I step out the door, I must decide to walk either to the east or west, each of which opens a dif­fer­ent world, and has a dif­fer­ent set of options for north and south. But famil­iar as every­thing is to me, I don’t have to go far before find­ing some­thing unfa­mil­iar that has popped up when I was­n’t pay­ing atten­tion. On one per­am­bu­la­tion, I dis­cov­ered that under­neath the ele­vat­ed sec­tion of East­ern Avenue, just before it cross­es the Don Riv­er, where I had­n’t looked for years, there is now a set of bas­ket­ball courts and a rather good skatepark, and all the con­crete pil­lars and walls have quite beau­ti­ful mur­al art on them. It’s full of kids. Yet it gives no impres­sion of being “offi­cial.” Rather it seems to be some­thing that just grew there, like a mush­room sprout­ing on your lawn after a warm rain.

So I had this pleas­ant sum­mer and fall, walk­ing dai­ly, gain­ing strength and health, while explor­ing inter­est­ing cor­ners of the city. The air was fresh, a mil­lion flow­ers pleased the eye and nose, and every apple turnover, samosa, sashi­mi and slice of piz­za picked up along the way was sub­lime. A com­bo play­ing decent R & B on Par­lia­ment Street filled me with joy, and an old man play­ing a sweet-sad tune on his 二胡 in Riverdale park, filled me with calm. The cow pas­tured in the chil­dren’s “farm” [a sweet fea­ture of the park] lis­tened intent­ly, too.

Park Snacks, a sum­mer­time-only shop fac­ing Riverdale Park. It’s owned by two Montrealers.

And yet, the March of Fol­ly con­tin­ues in the back­ground. The Forces of Dark­ness, man­i­fest in the bel­liger­ent and decrepit empires of Putin and Chair­man Xi, the author­i­tar­i­an move­ments around var­i­ous small­er dic­ta­tors and would-be dic­ta­tors, bar­bar­ic move­ments of reli­gious fanati­cism, the antics of ruth­less and ego­tis­tic bil­lion­aires, and the trea­so­nous and moral­ly cor­rupt Repub­li­can Par­ty in our neigh­bour to the south. Even Cana­da has it’s por­tion of creeps, though they have not found much support.

Putin’s impe­ri­al­ism has put the world on the edge of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion, and even if he is bluff­ing, may trig­ger famines killing mil­lions. The giant fraud of Xi’s Com­mu­nist Chi­na is unrav­el­ling before our eyes. Every­where, the most idi­ot­ic kinds of crack­pot luna­cy are snatch­ing the minds of oth­er­wise nor­mal peo­ple. With super­sti­tion ram­pant, sci­ence and rea­son ignored, edu­ca­tion being cor­rupt­ed and destroyed, pro­fes­sion­al liars and pro­pa­gan­dists deploy­ing new and effec­tive tech­niques, mobs of delud­ed morons attempt­ing to over­throw democ­ra­cy where it exists, and mil­lions of nitwits now lit­er­al­ly con­vinced that the Earth is flat or that our main prob­lem is demons and alien lizards, it’s bizarre for me to feel so con­tent and opti­mistic. But I am. In fact, I’ve nev­er been so con­tent and opti­mistic dur­ing the whole of my life.

It’s easy to come to the con­clu­sion that we will either be fried to death by nuclear weapons, or slow­ly bar­be­cued by the glob­al warm­ing we have brought on our­selves, or sub­ject­ed to some infan­tile theo­crat­ic dic­ta­tor­ship that will enslave us while scream­ing ser­mons at us. Back in 1951, the pre­co­cious young sci­ence fic­tion writer Cyril Korn­bluth wrote a sto­ry called The March­ing Morons, which explored human gulli­bil­i­ty and stu­pid­i­ty with deft satire. It was bla­tant­ly pla­gia­rized in the 2006 film Idioc­ra­cy. Korn­bluth, a fine styl­ist and bril­liant satirist, died absurd­ly and shock­ing­ly at the age of 34, in 1958. He was prob­a­bly most famous for his col­lab­o­ra­tive nov­els with Fred­erik Pohl, includ­ing an acknowl­edged clas­sic,The Space Mer­chantsUnlike Korn­bluth, Pohl lived a long and pro­duc­tive life, writ­ing suc­cess­ful­ly until his death in 2019. When I spoke to him in 2003, he was still mourn­ing Korn­bluth. As for me, I read The March­ing Morons when I was kid, and the title has rou­tine­ly popped into my head when­ev­er I’ve wit­nessed some face-palm induc­ing stu­pid­i­ty of humankind. I don’t think a day has passed since 2016 when the words “march­ing morons” haven’t been in my thoughts.

Yet, I also have the per­spec­tive of his­to­ry, count­ing myself a minor suc­cess in that dis­ci­pline. Anoth­er writer approached it a dif­fer­ent way. Hemann Melville wrote a cou­ple of suc­cess­ful nov­els in his youth, but rapid­ly slipped into obscu­ri­ty. When he wrote Moby Dick in 1851, it sold only a hand­ful of copies. Its sta­tus as an icon of Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture dates only from the 1920s. But even when it was acknowl­edged that Melville was a great writer, few peo­ple “got” his last nov­el, The Con­fi­dence-Man, His Mas­quer­ade, pub­lished on April Fool’s Day in 1857 with its action set on that very day. It’s only recent­ly that this strange nov­el has elicit­ed any­thing more than head-scratch­ing, or at best been dis­missed as a “failed exper­i­ment.” Now there are at least some who con­sid­er it a work of genius. I read it when I was very young, and there was at the time no incen­tive to read it even among the most lit­er­ary peo­ple. I don’t know if I under­stood it on the first read­ing. The lan­guage is dif­fi­cult for a mod­ern read­er — it repro­duces very old col­lo­qui­al speech among Amer­i­cans of a vari­ety of regions and sta­tus, and that speech is now quite dif­fi­cult to inter­pret. It has no vis­i­ble plot. It does­n’t even remote­ly resem­ble what was con­sid­ered a “nov­el” either in 1857 or today. But scenes in it float­ed in my mem­o­ry through­out my life, and I now think that it had a per­va­sive influ­ence on my inter­ests, my atti­tudes, and my approach to life. I also think it would be hard to find a more imme­di­ate­ly rel­e­vant piece of 19th cen­tu­ry fiction.

The Con­fi­dence-Man was writ­ten a decade after the term was coined. The orig­i­nal “con­fi­dence man” was one Samuel Thomp­son, whose odd­ly direct tech­nique for part­ing the gullible from their prop­er­ty gave us the name “con­fi­dence man,” now usu­al­ly just “con-man.” From this ori­gin, we now refer to any swin­dle as a “con.” Thomp­son would dress like a “gen­tle­man” — some­thing strict­ly cod­i­fied in 19th cen­tu­ry soci­ety, even in Amer­i­ca. He would approach peo­ple, who he knew would be car­ry­ing an expen­sive pock­et watch, or a dia­mond bracelet, or a well-stocked wal­let, and ask them: “Do you have suf­fi­cient con­fi­dence in me to trust me with your watch [or oth­er item] for a few min­utes, after which I will return it to you?” It was all in the style. He was a Gen­tle­man. You could have con­fi­dence in the hon­esty of a Gen­tle­man. A sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple would give him their valu­able prop­er­ty, and he would just walk away with it, dis­ap­pear­ing into a crowd. He had mere­ly to choose a place and time where the vic­tim, slow to real­ize what had hap­pened, could not eas­i­ly pur­sue him. In his nov­el, Melville explored the many dif­fer­ent things that peo­ple choose to have con­fi­dence in, and the many ways that their con­fi­dence is exploit­ed. It is set on a Mis­sis­sip­pi steam­boat, with a vari­ety of char­ac­ters meet­ing and talk­ing to each oth­er over the course of April Fool’s Day. The nov­el is strange­ly dream­like, com­i­cal, reveal­ing the weak­ness­es of human­i­ty, and yet it does not come across as cyn­i­cal. It mere­ly observes human nature like we would observe the behav­iour of mice or lobsters.

If you think that human gulli­bil­i­ty has dimin­ished since then remem­ber these things — Item: Trump, a noto­ri­ous­ly fraud­u­lent prop­er­ty devel­op­er and “real­i­ty show” per­former, descend­ed an esca­la­tor in front of a crowd of actors that he had hired to stand around and cheer. Trump had pre­vi­ous­ly conned a vari­ety of news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, pub­lic offi­cials, banks, and cor­po­ra­tions into believ­ing he was a genius and mul­ti-bil­lion­aire, though in fact, he had mere­ly squan­dered a medi­um-sized for­tune he had inher­it­ed and then been propped up finan­cial­ly by Vladimir Putin. He had long been an “asset” of Moscow, begin­ning in the old Sovi­et days. Sev­en­teen months after the esca­la­tor stunt he was elect­ed to the most pow­er­ful pub­lic office in the world, and was in charge of Amer­i­ca and 2,821 nuclear weapons. A cult of mil­lions has not only been whipped into idol­a­trous devo­tion for him, but some have pro­gressed in stages from polit­i­cal sup­port to believ­ing that he is anoint­ed by God to rule Amer­i­ca. Among the most fanat­i­cal, he is even seen as a rein­car­nate avatar of Jesus.

Item: Just recent­ly, a young man named Samuel Bankman-Fried walked away with sev­er­al bil­lion dol­lars giv­en to him by gullible investors, includ­ing many rep­utable finan­cial insti­tu­tions. Regret­tably, the Ontario Teach­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion Pen­sion Plan invest­ed a hun­dred mil­lion. One of the scheme’s pro­mot­ers was a Kevin O’Leary, who had briefly been the front-run­ner for lead­er­ship of Canada’s Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty. Jour­nal­ists, bankers, investors, and politi­cians in great num­bers were con­vinced by Bankman-Fried’s trans­par­ent­ly stu­pid bit­coin scam. A few wis­er heads point­ed out that he was basi­cal­ly sell­ing mag­ic beans, but were ignored. Bankman-Fried care­ful­ly craft­ed his image, dress­ing and talk­ing like a young genius-nerd entre­pre­neur who “just wants to make the world bet­ter” and talked about “not being inter­est­ed in mon­ey” and “liv­ing sim­ply” while in real­i­ty he lived in a lux­u­ri­ous man­sion in the Bahamas with his “polyamorous” pals. This month, as the ponzi scheme col­lapsed, he pub­licly boast­ed that this pose was mere­ly a “dumb game” he played to reel in the suck­ers. Bil­lions have “mys­te­ri­ous­ly” dis­ap­peared, and he no doubt has access to much of this errant cash. 

Item: Mean­while, in Moscow, Vladimir Putin pur­sues his Des­tiny as the embod­i­ment of the Russ­ian Soul, pre­des­tined to defeat Evil Amer­i­ca and Evil Europe, and urges the youth of Rus­sia to sac­ri­fice their lives for him, while the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church assures them that they will have auto­mat­ic entry into heaven.

Think of these items, and pon­der the fact that there is absolute­ly noth­ing unusu­al, sur­pris­ing, or unpre­dictable about them. They are mere ran­dom exam­ples of behav­iour in high places. And they dif­fer from events in low places only in the fact that they are more vis­i­ble and record­ed by his­to­ry. At every moment there is some­body sell­ing mag­i­cal cures for dis­eases, or ter­ror­iz­ing inno­cent chil­dren with hell­fire for imag­i­nary sins, or ped­dling Q‑anon garbage while rak­ing in mil­lions on lec­ture cir­cuits and talk shows. At every moment, some elder­ly man or woman is los­ing their retire­ment check to some smooth-talk­ing oper­a­tor. At every moment, some self-declared Mes­si­ah is telling well-craft­ed lies, either to dozens or to mil­lions. At every moment, some child is starv­ing to death to buy a yacht for a monster.

And yet, I am not a cyn­ic. Cyn­i­cism is, I think, just anoth­er pose, like the “gen­tle­man” and the “leader anoint­ed by God” and the “genius entre­pre­neur” pos­es. I can­not walk through the tree-filled streets of Toron­to, look­ing at it’s fran­tic squir­rels, at racoons scam­per­ing from tree limb to rooftop, at patient moth­ers mind­ing their tod­dlers at the kid­dy splash pool, then chat with the friend­ly lady who sells me cof­fee and beg­ni­ets at the Con­go Café, and after­ward sit down at the com­put­er to write, impos­tur­ing as a cyn­ic. True, I under­stand that I am not a young woman with a new­born baby hud­dling in a base­ment in Ukraine, pray­ing that the next strike of Putin’s mis­siles will not end both their lives. I under­stand that I am not a young Uighur in one of Xi’s prison camps, fac­ing the prospect of tor­ture or brain­wash­ing, or both. I under­stand that I am not an eleven-year-old girl in a hos­pi­tal bed, going through the ago­nies of ter­mi­nal leukemia. But I’ve seen a few things. I under­stand that peo­ple suf­fer. They may despair, but those peo­ple, I can assure you, are not cyn­ics. Cyn­ics pon­tif­i­cate their cyn­i­cism from com­fort­able armchairs.

Which is why it’s good to get lit­tle reminders of dis­com­fort, when things are, as they have been for me, very pleas­ant. As Sum­mer shift­ed into Fall, I was walk­ing on a street quite near to home. The side­walk was per­fect­ly clean and dry, with no irreg­u­lar­i­ties or obsta­cles, but I sud­den­ly found myself slammed to the ground in a frac­tion of a sec­ond. My face was mashed against the con­crete side­walk, my hand some­how crushed on the curb beneath the weight of my body, shins and knees banged up and the breath knocked out of my chest. It hap­pened with­out any sen­sa­tion of trip­ping or slip­ping on any­thing — I was just walk­ing, and then was abrupt­ly squashed on the pave­ment as if it was a clum­sy cut in a film. Passers­by helped me up. I felt no dizzi­ness or any indi­ca­tion of a frac­ture or con­cus­sion. I pro­ceed­ed to the super­mar­ket uncon­cerned, only to be informed by the check­out clerk that my face was bleed­ing from the fore­head and right cheek­bone. By the time I was home, my face was start­ing to turn yel­low and pur­ple, and two fin­gers on the right hand were look­ing even worse. By the next day, I looked like I had just stum­bled out of a bar fight in Yel­lowknife.*** For two weeks, my chest was painful enough make sleep dif­fi­cult in any posi­tion, and typ­ing at the com­put­er was one-hand­ed. I popped in for some X‑rays, but they revealed no bro­ken bones, oth­er than old frac­tures from more adven­tur­ous times. All the dam­age quick­ly healed.

As Fall came on, and the weath­er fore­cast iden­ti­fied the last nice day of the year, I left the city to try a more ambi­tious walk. I have not been in the near­by city of Hamil­ton for decades, so I was curi­ous to see what it looked like now. And, with its impres­sive cliff-face, exten­sive marsh­lands, and giant rust­ing steel mills, it seemed a good pos­si­bil­i­ty for a change of mood and some inter­est­ing walk­ing. It was easy and cheap to get there by the GO com­muter train.

I was not dis­ap­point­ed. I spent the whole day walk­ing around. Right near the rail­way sta­tion, where I arrived, was James Street, clear­ly the hippest street in the city, with a mix­ture of trendy clubs and upscale shops mixed in with old Por­tuguese fish mar­kets and immi­grant busi­ness­es, all in old build­ings that have been cleaned up or restored. Some of the build­ings are real­ly fine, and despite the new­er mon­ey and ten­ants, it has not betrayed its roots as an old Por­tuguese and Ital­ian work­ing class district. 

Fol­low­ing this street led me straight down­town. Hamil­ton has a few lar­gish office build­ings, some of them old and charm­ing. Most dis­tinc­tive is the Pig­ott Build­ing, built in 1929 in the Sky­scraper Goth­ic style with some touch­es of Art Deco ― the sort of build­ing that Super­man would leap over in the old­est comics, before he could actu­al­ly fly. 

Hamil­ton’s pre-WW2 glo­ry. The Pig­ott build­ing’s spire is vis­i­ble behind two oth­er build­ings of the era.

From the 1940’s to the ear­ly 1970’s, the city was dom­i­nat­ed by its two home­grown steel man­u­fac­tur­ers, Dofas­co and Stel­co, which in their hey­days had the con­ti­nen­t’s most advanced mills. Dur­ing the 1950’s, Hamil­ton was the wealth­i­est city in Cana­da, and that wealth was expressed in it’s 1950’s style sub­urbs — as well as 1950’s style pol­lu­tion. It’s long been known as a blue-col­lar town, and has the pecu­liar­i­ty unique in Cana­da of being a Foot­ball Town rather than a Hock­ey Town. The Hamil­ton Tiger Cats (the “ti-cats”) are root­ed for with gus­to. When the steel indus­try went into decline in the 1990s, Hamil­ton drift­ed into lim­bo for a few decades. Some young pro­fes­sion­als have been mov­ing there late­ly, lured by low­er hous­ing prices, and because McMas­ter Uni­ver­si­ty has been blos­som­ing, espe­cial­ly in med­i­cine and nuclear physics. But the fre­net­ic recent growth of Toron­to and it’s sub­urbs has not yet reached it. Burling­ton, just a few miles to the east, is clear­ly a Toron­to sub­urb, with all the 2022 trim­mings, but walk­ing through most of Hamil­ton is a form of time trav­el. It looks and feels like two gen­er­a­tions ago, with only a few timid hints of this one. It’s only a short walk from the down­town office core to res­i­den­tial streets dot­ted with emp­ty lots and old two-sto­ry brick store­fronts with fad­ed paint­ed signs. 

The Hamil­ton Twi­light Zone

A nice trib­ute to Hamil­ton’s blue-col­lar roots.

To cel­e­brate this Twi­light Zone expe­ri­ence, I bought din­ner at a Chi­nese take-out place that must have been there for a cen­tu­ry. I could not resist what it had to offer: the old “Chi­nese-Cana­di­an” food that once could be found at every rail­way stop across Cana­da, con­sist­ing of chop suey, fried rice, bar­be­cued wings and bat­tered chick­en balls coat­ed in a glow­ing pink sauce that looked radioac­tive. Such things nev­er exist­ed in Chi­na, but once they fin­ished build­ing the rail­way across Cana­da, Chi­nese work­ers spread this impro­vised cui­sine to every cor­ner of the coun­try, much as they did in the U.S. You would be hard-pressed to find this old stuff in Toron­to, where the del­i­ca­cies of Sichuan, Hunan and Shan­tung are the norm, and peo­ple earnest­ly debate the authen­tic­i­ty of Mon­go­lian hot pots. Of course, this sat­is­fy­ing feast came with a for­tune cook­ie, which was terse and gen­er­al on the Eng­lish side, but curi­ous­ly par­tic­u­lar on the French side.

The last of an old breed.

When I got home, rather tired because I had not done so much unin­ter­rupt­ed walk­ing since before the can­cer diag­no­sis, I found myself back in my com­fort zone. The two cats for­gave me for lock­ing them in for an entire day. They slept con­tent­ed­ly at either side of me, and I too fell asleep. In the night, I was wak­ened by a loud crash­ing sound. I rose and walked around the apart­ment, look­ing for some­thing that could have caused it, but found noth­ing. Assum­ing that it must have been a dream, I went back to sleep. When I woke up, I went to the kitchen to make some cof­fee, which would taste best in my favourite blue cof­fee cup. What I did not know was that the “dream” sound had been real. Inside the kitchen cab­i­net, the plas­tic studs that had been hold­ing up the shelves for some unknown num­ber of decades had slow­ly aged into brit­tle­ness, and in a sui­ci­dal moment, had dis­in­te­grat­ed. The top shelf col­lapsed, cre­at­ing a cas­cade effect on the shelves below. The cab­i­net was stuffed with dish­es of every sort. When I opened the door, an avalanche of dish­es poured down upon me, smash­ing against the fridge, the counter, the stove, and my most­ly naked body. In the sud­den tor­na­do of bro­ken crock­ery, I received a dozen cuts, two of them deep gash­es. I spent a long, unpleas­ant time treat­ing the cuts and clean­ing up the chaos of bro­ken glass, porce­lain and spat­tered blood. The music nec­es­sary for this task was alter­nat­ing tracks of Prokofiev, Turkuaz and Steely Dan. I’m not say­ing this was fun, but I could reflect that my archae­ol­o­gist friends do this every day for a liv­ing. As with before, all the injuries rapid­ly healed, though one will prob­a­bly leave a long-term scar.

Clear­ly, the Gods are pur­su­ing a “let’s play tricks on Phil” agen­da (I’m look­ing at you, Loki, Raven, Coy­ote, Anan­si, Nan­abozho, Gwydion, and an assort­ment of leprechauns).
And yet, I am still not a cynic.


** I fin­ished it lat­er on, in a more tol­er­ant mood.

*** Yel­lowknife [Dogrib name: Sǫǫ̀mbak’è] is the cap­i­tal of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ry of Cana­da. Pop­u­la­tion 20,340. Record low tem­per­a­ture, −51.2 °C / −60.2 °F. See any hon­est account of this town for many lurid descrip­tions of bar fights.

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