Normally I write satire, but instead tonight I’ve put together three brief memories from the many I have of the Danforth, a part of Toronto I’ve criss-crossed and frequented my entire life, and became especially close to when I learned to drive, and later when my parents moved to where they now live, a few blocks north of that vibrantly living, deeply hospitable strip of Toronto tarmac.
I doubt there are many Torontonians who don’t have dozens of their own stories set in this part of the city. It’s with that in mind that I tell these (and would love to hear those of others). As a reminder that it is simple stories, and the people woven into them, that make up the quotidian living of this neighborhood. Not the awfulness of violence.
My high-school girlfriend lived in East York, a few kilometres northeast of the Danforth. My mom had a manual, 1994 Ford Escort; green, with a modest, factory-installed spoiler. Juliana liked Greek food. Mom didn’t mind if I borrowed the car so long as I didn’t return it empty, and was home by a reasonable hour. Inevitably, the first place I headed as a fully-licensed automobile driver was down to the Danforth.
Going along O’Connor Drive on a warm summer night, I found focussing on successfully changing gears so difficult that I had to tell Juliana I couldn’t talk right then. She turned the radio on. It would have played songs like ‘Lovefool,’ by The Cardigans, ‘Ready or Not’ from the Fugees, or ‘Killing Me Softy,’ by the inimitable Toni Braxton, whom I still cannot stand. Eventually we got reached the Danforth.
Somewhere west of Coxwell I stalled, badly, and for a good deal longer than I’d have liked. I also ground the gears more than once as we rode along the main drag, loudly enough to make pedestrians turn and look. Each crosswalk I approached with an irrational fear that an unvehicled human might drop out of the sky into my path, and it took us nearly half an hour to find a parking space that I didn’t have to parallel park into. By the time we were walking along the strip, my shirt was soaked with sweat and my confidence was lower than the trade-in value mom would get years later for that well-loved Ford. But things changed when we entered the restaurant we’d been heading for: the old Mr. Greek.
That particular location is closed now, but on a sunny evening in 1996, as a dilapidated 17-year-old me rolled my frayed nerves in through the doors behind a stylish-as-ever Juliana – who’d found my novice driving hilarious – the host acted as though we were Mr. and Mrs. Greek themselves, freshly returned from discovering even better ways to batter calamari.
“Hello!” the white-shirted man shouted as we entered, throwing his arms in the air, and stepping forward as we made our way into the muralized restaurant. “Long-time no-see you two.” We’d never been there before.
The entire meal was like that. I was a kid, but they treated me like the mayor of Mykonos. The food was copious, and while I can hear those who might read this wanting to share the ‘best little Greek place you’ve never heard of, forget that Mister joint,’ I can’t pretend I didn’t emerge from there feeling like I’d just sailed out of Santorini. Afterwards we walked along the street. It was lovely. On the way back, I didn’t stall once.
When our son was two, my wife found a small, miniature piano for sale online. It was $20, in GUC (good used condition), and was in the east end, not far from my parent’s new house. So, on one of those crackingly cold January nights after Christmas, when most of the lights have been taken down and the buildings and cars are covered in hoarfrost and saltcrust, I set off in the car.
The seller was a woman living above a store on the Danforth. I parked where she’d said to, having no trouble finding a spot on a cold weekday, and then texted like she’d asked. Before too long a door that I hadn’t noticed opened, and a middle-aged woman motioned me to come inside.
Upstairs her place looked like she was either moving in slowly, or moving out in no especial rush. Boxes were everywhere, and it was immediately clear that she was one of the increasingly rare group of people who smoke in their apartments with the windows closed. Additionally, she was a women dressed almost entirely in a sense of loss.
She explained that this little piano was one that she and her brother had grown up with, and that she’d held on to for years, thinking one of them might yet have children of their own, before admitting that this hadn’t happened.
I stayed for about 15 minutes. She asked questions about our son, and loved the idea of a child playing that little instrument after all this time. I promised to send a picture of it in use, and after some more chat, headed back down the darkened flight of stairs, across fifteen feet of January, and into the car. On the trip home I drove along the Danforth, which was silent and unmoved in the frigid, clear air. Few vehicles were out, and no people, and it was impossible not to consider the thoughts of those who smoke alone in apartments above shopfronts.
On Boxing Day of this year, a pack made up of my own family, and the families of two of my sisters, headed out from my mom and dad’s house, a few blocks north of the Danforth. It was a freezing day with a stiff wind that made it feel untenably cold; but in the post-Christmas excess it also felt deeply cleansing, and as the kids were climbing the walls, it was an obligatory outing.
We crossed the Danforth at East Lynn Ave, trailing children in toboggans behind us, who were thrilled to be fording such a major street in such uncommon transport. Drivers in cars smiled at the little people – rugged up, legs outstretched, rolling into each other with every bump over the rutted tracks of the frozen road.
Despite the weather the park was busy. Kids and parents flew down the steep, west-facing hill, speeding in the direction of the setting sun. Dads risked injuries they’d just finished warning their children about. Moms caught air. Little ones couldn’t feel their toes, and said so from deep under scarves and hats, before shrieking that they didn’t want to go home, but really had to pee.
As the sun moved towards the horizon, families began heading towards their warm homes. We towed our kids back to my parent’s place, trundling back across the road just as the streetlights came on. The Danforth was quiet, and empty. It stretched broadly in both directions; a thoroughfare, a route, a place in itself.
These are just a few of my memories of the Danforth. Please feel free to add any you might have in the comments. I’d love to hear them. And I’m sure we’ll all be adding new ones in the coming weeks, months, and years.