The souls of the departed and ghost of Christmas past don’t just cease to exist. Their ectoplasm still gather amongst the homes and commercial establishments of Cabbagetown. They still convene in the early hours at the chapel of Prospect cemetery. Maybe our lives never really disappear despite our limited days on earth. Maybe the energy of all those that walk our tree lined sidewalks remain silently in place long after we’re gone.
And maybe not.
Contributed by Doc von Lichtenberg owner of Docs Leathers and Motorcycle Gear at 726 Queen St West Toronto. Doc@docsmotorcyclegear.com
We tend to view history through the lens we’ve lived it. Every generation takes a swing at getting it right. At the end of the game we take our experiences to the grave. Or maybe not.
Maybe life in Cabbagetown is one long interconnected link that never disappears despite the fact that new and future generations wander through it. We all get our “kick at the can” and most of us make a bit of a mess of it. Many of those mess makers (myself included) have walked the well worn sidewalks of Cabbagetown. My father used to bring me to the Riverdale Zoo in the 1950’s. It is now known as the Riverdale Farm. The remains of the hippopotamus house can still be seen amongst the horses and cows. It was a great way to see the animals without having to walk the multi kilometres between displays at the “new” zoo.
I moved into the general area in 1977. My experiences were (no doubt ) very different from those that came in 1937. And their’s were profoundly different from the Cabbagetowners of 1897.
After a few years of establishing my home (and Leather & Motorcycle Gear biz), I was asked to join the board of the Old Cabbagetown BIA (Business Improvement Area). That illustrious Chamber of Commerce was headed by the ever impish Carl Orbach QC., and included the always avuncular Jim Reneris (from Home Hardware) along with the permanently impatient Dave Weenen. He loved military history and I suspected that he was a fan of the 17th century Defenestration of Prague. We tread lightly around Dave and fortunately our monthly board meetings were held on the ground floor. Rounding out our quorum was a man of few words (but a fine bean counter) good ol’ Sol Wayne (Wayne’s furniture). And of course leading the way was the real estate magnate and visionary Darryl Kent.
Over the years we were joined by the local “Aldermen” (now known as city councillors) such as the warm, wonderful, and inimitably mono-tonal Barbara Hall (who later became Mayor of Toronto). She sat to my left……the far left.
Our defined mission statement was aimed at bringing support and business success to the merchants and purveyors of services in the neighbourhood. The streets were never paved with gold in Cabbagetown, but we did try to make it a family and business friendly locale.
One year I volunteered to coordinate the planting of the trees on Parliament St. from Wellesley south to Gerard. In actuality, all the board members lined up and everyone but me took a step backwards. It was not without Its complications; the sidewalks belonged to the “public works dept”, the trees to “parks and recreation”, the poles were owned by Toronto Hydro and the hydro lines came under the auspices of Ontario Hydro. Maybe it was the other way around. Nonetheless, it was a logistical nightmare of bureaucratic red tape. It took years of persistence. Those old beech trees are now 25 feet taller and 35 years older. Thankfully they are known for thriving in areas of car pollutants.
And thriving beneath those trees were artists, authors,anarchists, matrons and murderers, playboys, conmen, thieves, politicians, philanthropists, actors and the indigent.
Josef Skvorecky, Czeck dissident and author of the Bass Saxophone never stopped looking over his shoulder for communist assassins from the USSR. There was the velvet mafia of gay men in the real estate racket. They knew how to market and who to market to. They were responsible for much of Cabbagetown’s colour and success. And most of them became wealthy in the process. Despite properties flipping at a feverish pitch in the 1970’s the market crashed.
The standard bank home mortgage rates gradually rose from 11-20 % per annum. When the proverbial bubble burst in 1982 our home values dropped by 50%. We saw another painful market decline in 1989. That one left us holding on by the skin of our teeth.
Every spring there was a resurgence of Tony Brady and his alter ego Bridget the Clown and their annual Forsythia Festival.
South of Winchester St. was the perpetually cheerful Terry from the Cabbagetown Butcher. South of Wellesley was dear Mrs. Winkler who never knew a plant that she couldn’t persuade to bloom. She also knew how to handle her occasionally rowdy rooming house with a broom stick at the ready.
With files piled 3 feet high on his desk was the ever-hatted, kindly and generous barrister Paul Dineen.
Across the street was John P. our leather clad biker from Patty’s florists. His Harley was out front and nobody messed with his bouquets.
Perpetually calm Garrin was the enigmatic owner of iguanas at the Menagerie Pet store.
And who could forget motherly Marg, grumpy Donny and the always excitable Christine at Nettleships Hardware. Did you know that they had a gas pump out front built into the sidewalk in the 1920’s. Was there really a “floating crap game and booky joint” in the basement?
There was the Swiss tag-team of Walter and Teresa at the Cabbagetown Deli—the hardest working soup and sandwich duo in Toronto.
We also had our “Madam” at the ever discreet S. and M. dungeon on the east side of the north block. She held court surrounded by her minions of local and international “slaves”.
No one was more annoying or lovable than Jim at Jim’s Superphoto north of Gerrard St. There was a time when we purchased rolls of film, thread it through cameras and when the 24 shots were done, returned it to be processed and printed. It could take a week. The oft beleaguered Jim was the happiest merchant on the street despite the lack of respect he garnered daily from the behemoths of machines that did the printing. Jim’s modus operandi was to hold you and your film hostage until he finished telling you his (“Dad style) — joke of the day. They were long, drawn out , laborious affairs, usually including a variety of clergymen walking into a bar. He meant well but if you were in a hurry you wanted to murder him. He was one of the nicest men I ever knew.
There were the rowdy patrons of the Winchester Tavern including those that lived in shabby rooms above the venerable establishment.
One afternoon a newly minted constable assigned to 51 Division was tasked with investigating the strong smell of bleach coming from the second floor. He reached under the bed and pulled out a pair of breasts attached to a torso. He left the force soon after.
We did have a distinctive array of colourful cops that included the published poet Hans J., and the permanently pressed Joe Smith who was as colourful as his name implied. Always available were our community relation cops; Gerry Jones from the U.K. who spoke with the elegance of a British Lord. And by his side was his partner in crime Danny Forsythe who longed for the fresh air of Muskoka. And who can forget the always wild and resourceful Wylie Sheridan and the enigmatic McCormack brothers who built careers despite their Dad being Chief of Police.
Our streets were well lit and colourful, thanks to the many and varied convenience store owners like the hard working Mrs. Woo and her family. There was also the perennial Fairway Market run with efficiency for 3 generations by Dom and his parents. Another of the convenience stores would call me regularly. They knew that I was on the BIA board and decided that it was my responsibility ( as an elected Director) to remove the dead cats, rats , dogs, and raccoons from their property. Who was I to disagree ?
There was the ever present Arthur Conway of Aberdeen Ave., who knew all, saw all and kept many a secret. He wouldn’t murder anyone but he did know where the bodies were buried.
Harry Rosen, the men’s suit magnate told me about the early years in his first shop on Parliament St. In order to make ends meet, he had to rent out the second floor apartment. Unfortunately, in order to access the unit the family was required to walk through his titular haberdashery; kids and groceries in tow, while he saw to his well heeled customers.
We do what we have to do in order to nurse our small businesses through their formative years; often the hungry years.
Despite being property poor, I allowed myself the pleasure of eating four times a week at the Parkside restaurant north of Carlton St.
Spiro owned the block and he fed us terrific steaks on round wooden plates for decades. Those were the days before the health department outlawed wood. Some of my favourite and affordable meals were served on those red table cloths during Spiro’s reign and later under Peter’s ownership. Nobody made a better rice pudding with whip cream. It was served with panache by the cheerful Sadie from the east coast. Unfortunately the Parkside became a regular watering hole for the Nazi publisher Ernst Zundl and his Neo Nazi disciples. They always kept their backs to the west wall, leaving an unobstructed view of the entrance should the allies land on their Juno Beach. It took a few years but we got rid of them.
There was the ol’ gang at the donut shop at Prospect St who arrived in the morning and stayed all day smoking, chatting and playing table top video games. It was their country club. It provided a home to many seniors and lost souls, along with an eternal blue haze of cigarette smoke and grease.
And of course there was the Cabbagetown Monster, a well documented half ape, half cat creature that burrowed through the basements of many older homes. The Toronto Sun did diligent work on that story and it included an artists sketch of
Of course there was the CBC Parliament St. studio where we went to watch the taping of radio shows such as the Royal Canadian Air Farce. They got fan mail from across the country marked simply, “RCAF Cabbagetown Studios”.
It was free, live and air conditioned at a time when most of us couldn’t afford live entertainment nor air conditioning.
The gay mens bath house that was designed and built to open on Parliament St was unceremoniously castrated by the locals before it could open. There was also the short lived lesbian bar at the former bobbin factory north of Carlton St.
There were the splendid sartorial stylings of the Volpe Italian Mafia brethren; always well coiffed and adorned with the requisite pinky rings. Cadillacs were their favourite mode of transportation. Mind you, Paul was found shot dead in the
trunk of his BMW.
We hired Dale, the roving sweeper of streets (broom and bag in hand) to be our candy cane ambassador in a Santa costume. After 30 years he’s still sweeping up the detritus of Cabbagetown, despite becoming a man of means. Never underestimate the value of hard work, persistence, and a municipal salary.
On Carlton St behind the gas pump signage was the taciturn Jeff Chapnick our town barrister and virulent defender of the cities 1% bikers and club members.
Other members of the neighbourhood included the eccentric Geoffrey Pimblett. He of the eponymous restaurant on Carlton St that hosted monthly transvestite tea parties. They were well attended by the hefty matrons and dowagers from Gerrard St’s “On the Wildside”. They laboured to stay atop their size 11 highheels as they lumbered northbound on Ontario St. to attend high tea.
Woven into the fabric of Cabbagetown were many of the leaders and foot soldiers in the trenches of the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970’s and 80’s. They did the heavy lifting , got jailed ,physically attacked and changed the world long before “Pride”.
he souls of the departed and ghost of Christmas past don’t just cease to exist. Their ectoplasm still gather amongst the homes and commercial establishments of Cabbagetown. They still convene in the early hours at the chapel of Prospect cemetery. Maybe our lives never really disappear despite our limited days on earth. Maybe the energy of all those that walk our tree lined sidewalks remain silently in place long after we’re gone.
And maybe not.
Doc von Lichtenberg
owner of Docs Leathers and Motorcycle Gear at
726 Queen St West Toronto. Doc@docsmotorcyclegear.com