The first time I ever visited Toronto was in the summer of 1966. Growing up in Montreal I had heard a lot of things about the city of Toronto, that it was the kind of the center of Canada for all things English, that it was growing rapidly and a lot of Canadian head offices were located there, and that it was the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team. For years, on many Saturday nights, I had heard the nasally voice of Foster Hewitt greeting hockey fans from across Canada with “ Hello hockey fans across Canada and the United States….from high atop the gondola in Maple Leaf Gardens…”
One day I decided to just go and see what Toronto was about and decided to hitchhike there. My guess is the trip along the 401 Highway that connects Toronto and Montreal took about 10 hours. I arrived late in the afternoon and was dropped off on Front Street near the Union train station. The Royal York hotel was across the street. I didn’t have much money in my pockets and there was never any consideration of paying for a hotel room for the night.
|The Royal York Hotel and Union Station in the front of it.|
I saw the newly built Nathan Phillips city hall with its two curved buildings. A bit later I found myself on Yonge Street and saw the endless neon signs that were now lit up as it was now dark out. It reminded me of St. Catherine Street in Montreal. I think I asked someone on the street how to get back to the 401 highway and was told it was quite a few miles north. I was starting to get tired and was trying to figure out where I could find a place to catch a few hours of sleep. I ducked into a three or four story older apartment building and stretched out the floor of a service stairway landing and managed to get several hours of shut eye. At around 6 the following morning I continued the long walk north on Yonge Street to the 401 and got a lift back to Montreal.
My next visits to Toronto were fairly frequent, starting in the summer of 1967 through the early months of 1968. I was working for CN as a waiter on the trains. The crew stayed at The Walker House Hotel which was right next to Union Station. We were never in town long enough to do any exploring of the city. Now and then I would grab a beer at the hotel with some of crew before bed. I didn’t make it back to Toronto for about 3 years.
I hitchhiked out to Edmonton and Vancouver in 1970. I really didn’t have much of a plan and after some time out on the coast I decided to head back to Montreal. During this trip I had my only experience of riding on a freight train, on the third diesel. The noise was deafening. A guy about my age outside of an RCMP office talked me into it. We later learned that there had been a washout somewhere and the train we were on wasn’t going to be taking us any further very soon. I ended up crashing at this guy’s parent’s place in Orillia for a few days.
I headed south to Toronto and one the lifts left me in the downtown business sector of the city close to Bay Street. What now? It was a crisp fall night in mid-October and about 8 p.m. I remembered that an old high school friend was living in Toronto and decided to give him a phone call. I had no idea at the time that I would be spending the best part of the next 2 years in the city.
I had hung around with my friend from high school for a year or two after high school before the company he was working for transferred him to the Bahamas. He spent about two years in the tropics chasing women and visiting the casino before being transferred to Toronto. He used to have a casino chip attached to his key chain and once showed me a threatening letter for an unpaid debt at the casino in Nassau. Back in the post high school days I had been a guest of his a number of times at a ski cabin he was member of in St. Sauveur, Quebec and we spent a number of weekend nights hanging around a folk singing club called the Café Andre in Montreal.
That first night we caught up on what we had been up to over the past few years. There was never any mistaking the fact that I had been living a totally different lifestyle than these two guys. For starters they both had permanent jobs and owned cars. After staying with these guys for a few days I was asked if I wanted to move in on a more permanent basis. After a few months of sleeping on the couch, I graduated to a single bed in the dining room area.
The two roommates never seemed to have a lot in common other than that they were both from Montreal and had mutual friends. Sharing an apartment seemed to be mostly about economics . They were also both avid golfers. I spent most of my time with the guy who had lived in the Bahamas. He knew that I was pretty well always up for anything and hanging out in bars was right up my alley. The other guy was more set in his ways. He had been married and had a young son by his former wife in Montreal. About once a month he would drive down to Montreal to see his kid. He also became involved with a gal who was about 10 years older than him. He wasn’t much for carousing like us other two. He had a job at a nearby Canadian Tire store that his uncle owned running the sporting goods department. He was also on the frugal side and one of the few people I knew then who bought cigarettes by the carton in order to save a bit of money.
Shortly after I moved in I got a phone call from the guy I had ridden a third diesel with and he told me he was in Toronto. He kind of reminded me of the John Voight character in Midnight Cowboy, a good looking dude without a lot of smarts. I invited him for dinner and we went to pick him up. On the way home we stopped at a supermarket . He told us not to worry about buying any steaks. When we got back to the car we learned that he had stuffed some prime packages of meat inside his coat. I ran into him a few years later on the main drag in Banff, Alberta.
About a month after I moved in a bunch of people came up to Toronto from Montreal for the Grey Cup. A number of them crashed in the apartment and I had to explain to one of them that I had dibs on the couch. (Miss Grey Cup that year was Nancy Durrell who lived across the street from me in Montreal for a few years. She walked out onto the football field in Toronto arm in arm with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Her older brother Jim was one of my first friends in life and later became the mayor of Ottawa and president of the Ottawa Senators hockey club. He was recently awarded the Order of Canada.)
|Pierre Trudeau and Nancy Durrell.|
In the close to 2 years I spent living in Toronto (1970-1972) the hippy culture was in full swing and it had an influence on a lot of people who weren’t just hanging around doing nothing. On people who actually had jobs. The roommate I spent the most time with had shoulder length hair and a droopy mustache at the time which had no negative reaction to his performance as a sales representative. It was kind of interesting back then how the hippie counterculture influenced even conservative middle aged men. Even they were wearing bell bottoms and you might very well see 50 year old man with a brush cut and sideburns.
Up to this point I had only smoked pot about 3 times back in Montreal a few years earlier. I soon learned that the droopy mustache guy was into smoking pot several times a week. Also hash. We were stoned quite a lot of the time. In fact, he had a sometimes girlfriend that worked for the RCMP who was into smoking weed. We usually bought the stuff in a high rise apartment building in downtown Toronto called Rochdale that was crawling with hippies. I remember the distrustful looks we got when we walked into the lobby with ties on and the supplier nervously fumbling with his scales and the baggies in his one room apartment.
I got a job at a company called Irwin Toy on Hannah Street off of Spadina Avenue on the eastern side of downtown Toronto. They made toys like lawn darts, Jim Dandy lawn swings, and frisbees. Luckily for me, the company was located just a few blocks from where my roommate worked and I got a lift back and forth each day.
|Old Irwin Toy building.|
Often we would hit a bar on the way home. For a number of months we frequented a nightclub called The Coal Bin that had a free smorgasbord. One night I was in this joint alone and pulled off what some might call a nasty thing. I was invited over to a nearby table by a group of folks who were out for the night. I hit it off with a good looking gal and asked the group if they were interested in going to a house party in North Toronto that some people I knew from Montreal were having. They liked the idea and I asked the gal I was interested in if she would like to dance before we left. Long story short, she turned out to have really, really fat legs. There was no turning back I thought. We drove through a snowstorm for about an hour before arriving at the house party. Someone in the car said something about not knowing anyone at the party and did I really think it was OK for me to invite them. To be honest, I didn’t want to be seen with the gal with the heavy legs. I thought for a moment and then I did the dastardly deed. I said “You are probably right. You might be uncomfortable. Thanks for the lift.” and got out the car. I was a real prick.
Another place we hung out at after work was a place called Flannigan’s in the Holiday Inn closer to home. An Irish comedian told one filthy joke after another and the patrons were almost rolling on the floor with laughter. The beer was served in pitchers. One night I threw up in the lobby on my way to the washroom and went back to my seat and drank some more. Oh to be young again like that!
We bought a poster that was a picture of three prisoners holding a birthday cake that said “Fuck You Warden” on it and taped it on the wall over the living room couch which had a floral pattern and probably part of the settlement in the other roommate’s divorce.
As I said we were stoned quite a lot of the time. I remember a lot of the music we played back then. Neil Young’s “Harvest”, Janis Joplin, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”, Iron Butterfly’s “In La Gada La Vida” (my heart felt like it was going to burst), a lot of Moody Blues stuff (very trippy). We also listened to Cheech and Chong (“Dave’s not here!”).
|Cheech & Chong|
We hung out in a pub on Jarvis street for a few months and then discovered a disco called The Studio that I think was part of the downtown Holiday Inn. This place is one I would rate as one of the all- time pick up joints. I could say that I was my roommate’s point man but that wouldn’t be true. He did it all on his lonesome. He was so good at it he could make eye contact with a gal across the room and moments later she would be standing beside him. For some reason he had a picture of a rooster over his bed. Occasionally he would go skirt chasing on his own or with another friend and the telltale sign that he shouldn’t be disturbed in his room was if there was a foreign pair of women’s boots near the front door the next morning.
I, on the other hand, didn’t have that much luck with women at the time. I wasn’t exactly Mr. Independent . I often didn’t have a job and lacked my own transportation. I do remember one night when we both picked up a couple of nurses at a club near a hospital. Another guy at our table was plotting which one of the gals he was going to take home and seemed a bit surprised when I aced him out.
For some reason, we decided to buy a gerbil one day when we were in a mall. I named him Munroe after the giant rat in one of the Monty Python shows that we regularly watched. We built Munroe a rather elaborate cage and bought a mate for him. The little buggers spent hours gnawing away on the metal mesh on the cage and broke out of their jail more than once. Somehow they found a hole in the wall beneath the base heaters and lived in there for a time only coming out to find food. They are really fast little critters and very hard to nab. We worked out a plan to catch them that worked. My roommate had a wooden “fickle finger of fate” (from Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In TV show) and we tied a string around the forefinger while resting a cooking pot on it. We then sprinkled some gerbil food under the pot. Eventually the little guys came out to eat and the string was yanked from the couch trapping them under the pot. Oh yeah. They also bred. And they also eat their young if they aren’t happy in their environment. We found a few legs but the heads and torsos were gone. Eventually the gerbils ended up at the other roommate’s girlfriend’s house.
|Rowan & Martin|
The other roommate didn’t smoke pot at all and mostly just shook his head when he came home and saw us with our eyes glazed. He had a pretty good sense of humour. One night we formed a plan to freak the other roommate out. We knew approximately what time he was expected home. We were sitting on the couch in the living room in our skivvies at the time. As soon as we heard the door open we got into position and wrapped our arms and legs around each other and acted like we were ready to kiss each other. The look on the other roommate’s face was priceless.
Somewhere along the line I was given a nickname. CT, the initials for my 1st and 2nd name.
Over the next year and a half or so we would get together with some other ex-Montrealers and play golf. For a number of years there was a kind of annual tournament. I remember seeing a friend of the skirt chasing roommate throwing a golf ball over some trees onto the green. I was never that comfortable about seeing people I knew from high school in Toronto. It just seemed kind of surreal to me, kind of like moving a cast of characters to a totally different locale like the Star Trek guys dressed up as gangsters or something like that.
We saw a few of the Mohammad Ali fights on a big screen at Maple Leaf Gardens. I recall the one with Joe Frazier particularly. One of my roommates had an in with a guy who worked at or near the Hot Stove club and we got in for free by walking in that entrance.
I quit the job at Irwin Toy. I never seemed to be able to make it into work on Monday mornings. I got a job at King Optical selling eyeglasses. I quit that too. Then I got a job in the dispatch office for Atlas Van Lines which was right next to a mushroom growing plant. I can still recall the stench and the mass of flies on the walk back home.
One day I saw an ad in the newspaper looking for summer staff at the Banff Springs Hotel. I had done some waiting on tables on the trains a few years before and this looked like it could be fun. I went down to the Royal York Hotel for an interview and was told I was going to be hired. I never heard anything more about the job in Banff and kind of wrote the whole thing off as a missed opportunity.
As fate would have it we were playing golf one weekend in early June in Toronto and one of the guys we were playing with was a Canadian Pacific personnel administrator. I told him my little story and the long and the short of it is that I ended up working at the Banff Springs Hotel for the summer.
I kind of considered Toronto kind of my home at that point and when I flew back east from Calgary that fall I moved back in.
We would go down to Montreal about every two months. Sometimes I went with one roommate and other times with the other. We often ended up at the Winston Churchill Pub on Crescent Street. One weekend the roommate with the kid in Montreal invited me to stay at his family’s country place in Vermont. Apparently he hadn’t told his parents. I remember overhearing his father from the lobby of their house in Montreal inquiring of my roommate if I had a family of my own to visit. It was a kind of uncomfortable weekend for me knowing that I wasn’t exactly warmly welcomed.
In the winter of the next year I took off to Jasper for a few months. When I got back to Toronto my roommates informed me that they were going to rent a penthouse together (Woodbine and O’Connor) and that I was going to have to find somewhere else to live. I wasn’t disappointed. They both had steady jobs and I was a bit of a rover. It was time to move on.
I found a room in downtown Toronto. I think it was around St. Clair and Yonge Streets. My room was half of an attic. It was an old wooden house with some strange tenants. One of them was an older fat guy with swollen ankles and a drinking problem. He claimed to have been a roommate of Norman Mailer at one time. The house didn’t have a kitchen but every room had a hot plate. A Vietnamese couple cooked up some stuff that almost made me gag. Some of the other inhabitants were students.
I needed some kind of job to support myself and gravitated back to waiting on tables. Over several months I worked at 3-4 different places, the oddest of which was a private club called the Primrose Club that was exclusively Jewish. A German guy in his forties was my boss. He was pretty subservient to the Jewish members and the thought crossed my mind that he must of had some guilt about the Second World War. I worked as a server/bartender in a little area off of where the poker tables were. There were a few phone booths close by where some of the members would place their bets with the bookies. There was a buzzer kind of thing that hung on a wire from the ceiling in the poker room. Occasionally I would be summoned by the buzzer to perform some task like picking up a piece of Kleenex off of the floor. I also made sandwiches for the patrons. I had never felt a cow’s tongue before. Kind od sandpapery. I hated the place. The real kicker was one night when I was asked to stand outside the downstairs door to the dining room. The reason I was to be positioned there was to be on the lookout for someone leaving a parcel bomb on the doorstep. As politely as I could, just before quitting, I told them that if someone was to leave a parcel on their doorstep I would be at the end of the block in a nanosecond. My life was worth more than a few bucks an hour.
I moved on to the Ports of Call restaurant on Yonge Street. The restaurant had a sign outside that revolved and I think it had a sailor sitting on a barrel with a mermaid on his knee. I think? All of the waiters were Greek and they made no bones about not being happy about having a non-Greek working with them. I would describe them as sleazy characters. They used to talk about “snowballs” and it took me a while to figure out what they were talking about. “Snowballs” meant adding a little zero on top of another zero to make it look like an 8 on the tip section of the credit card bill. They all deserved a good punch in the mouth. It was at the Ports Of Call where I saw a number of the Canada-Russia hockey summit games and Paul Henderson’s big goal. Farley Mowatt, the Canadian writer turned up at the restaurant one night.
|Russia-Canada hockey summit 1972.|
My last job in Toronto was as a waiter at the brand new Four Seasons Sheraton Hotel. The hotel claimed to have the longest bar in North America. It was quite a fancy place and we all wore tuxes. They had plates with pictures of the Ontario parliament buildings on them. I remember an Italian waiter who had a skin problem and claimed he had to wear white socks. Not exactly a compliment to the black tux. He was given the heave ho. I worked with a guy from France who I really enjoyed. He was what they call in fancy restaurants, a captain. I remember another waiter giving me the gears one time and the French guy telling him to F off with his delightful accent. I served Cat Steven’s back-up band breakfast one morning.
Whenever I had an excess of cash I would check out the local nightclub scene.One place I went to a few times was The Nicklodeon. Ronnie Hawkins was the entertainment. I once bet a gal that he was American and had it confirmed by the Hawk himself. I know the guy was pretty savvy in hiring musicians (The Band) but he never really seemed to be a hit maker.
In the past 40 years I’ve visited Toronto several times. I had a friend who owned a house in Islington that I stayed at a few times. I met him in Banff and we once spent a month in the early 70s skiing in the western US. He told me stories about growing up in TO including working as a lifeguard at the beaches. He became a world traveller but even after being away for months at a time Toronto was still his home base. As the years went by our lifestyles became more and more different and I imagine he is still roaming the globe.
I stayed in touch with one of my roommates for a number of years with large gaps between the times we talked. Occasionally he would be out in Vancouver on business. I had lunch with the other roommate at Ed Mirvish’s Warehouse in Toronto about 20 or so years ago.
I went to the former pot smoking roommate’s 60th birthday at a Keg restaurant in Richmond, BC about 6 years ago, along with a few other guys from high school who were living on the west coast. He wasn’t into having a chat about those days long ago when we were stoned quite often. There were some other things that were not to be discussed and I thought to myself that after all these years what we had in common was very little. I haven’t talked to him since.
He did say something on one trip to Vancouver that left an impact on me. Actually he had said the same thing more or less years before. The essence of what he said was that he thought with all the travelling around I did when I was younger and all the things I had done that I had lived a life with 3 times more full than he had. I considered that to be quite a compliment.
As far as Toronto goes it always seemed to have a kind of coldness about it to me. Too many high rise apartments close to the freeways, old people walking through underpasses carrying grocery bags, endless miles of office buildings and manufacturing plants, the back-ups on the highways and the constant lane changing in the rear view mirror. Perhaps like a lot of other Canadians I resented the place as it being the center of commerce in Canada. I guess it just wasn’t my cup of tea.