As a nocturnal creature without a job to go to, I'm no expert on the celebration of public holidays. Meet at high noon on a smoggy Bloor corner by a defunct coffee shop named after Shakespeare? Okay, if that's how the literary set do Canada Day, I'm there.
This tour of the Annex is compliments of Murmur, an audio archival project that is part of the Scream Literary Festival. Murmur plants big green ear signs on posts around Bloor. There's a phone number you can dial for a story about the area by or about local literati.
"Use your mobile phone to call the number,' says the sign. This is a bit of a stumper for me, unless I'm meant to use your mobile phone. Today, though, we're here for an in-person schlep around the "literary power point" radiating from Walmer and Bloor. Paul Quarrington, Dennis Lee, Dorothy Livesay, the Callaghans (Morley and Barry), Peg Atwood, Barbara Gowdy - I can't keep up - they've all walked by here or lived close.
Just north of her ex-hangout, poet Gwendolyn MacEwen is demortalized by a shoddy parkette with a missing sign. And she had to die here to get that. Writer Maggie Helwig tells in her audio story of Gwen's compassion and care for strays, including the transplanting of writer Marian Engel's garden when she died. When Gwendolyn died (mean Toronto breaks the best), the garden went to the reference library on College. When the library was rebuilt, the garden was destroyed. That's the Toronto I know.
Helwig reads a lovely MacEwen piece about meeting old Barker Fairley, the painter, in a blizzard. The poet asks, does the artist have to suffer? He thinks artists aren't meant to suffer but to bring joy. Yeah, just don't bring it around here!
One of the poets on the tour sets the tone. "I was living at 7 Walmer Road in 1993 when I began to write poetry,' she says. Then there's a cute story about Margaret Atwood-spotting and a lot of name-dropping and recollections about the famous Blue Cellar and the Hungarian restaurants. Perhaps I'm making this sound lively, but actually it was dense.
Unfortunately, I begin to have memory lapses - meaning I lapse into remembering some of the male poets I met way back. What big egos they had! Somewhere in the glut of information from presenter Stephen Cain, I mentally exit the tour to recall the local story told to me by the only resident of the Annex I know, songwriter sans pareil Bob Snider, who rents a room around here. Bob knows a story should be pithy, preferably funny, but definitely short.
When Bob says, "I've got a ghost story,' you listen. No asking questions like mouthy me. Course, I can't tell his story as he can, but it involves an apparition of a woman in a red dress in a recently departed drugstore.
Helwig stopping traffic with a kind of tai chi stance as we cross intersections is my favourite part of the tour. Honest Ed's exterior is duly noted as a text shrine. After the reading of the e-mails disputing whether Dooney's is good or not, I'm thinking about who Canada belongs to when a man with a camera asks me how I'm doing. I'm always wary of trick questions. His next one is, "Are you Indian?'
"Which way?' I ask, since I'm wearing Pakistani shoes. "What? You mean because I have a braid?'
If one more person asks me if I'm native, I am going to Germany to sell dreamcatchers. Then he tells me he's the official photographer, with a car and everything. I suggest he get a bike, and he goes right off me. See, even on a group excursion I'm always on a separate trip.
"You are poetry!' I have been told, almost in exasperation by my favourite poet, Al from Vancouver, who, of course, considers himself a songwriter. He's prolific but doesn't publish. He recently read me some translations of heartbreaking Hungarian lyrics that prove I'm not wrong, just in the wrong place. Michael Ondaatje ate at El Basha, gone, which kept a first edition of In The Skin Of A Lion on display.
First Nations presence at Spadina and Bloor. We get handouts of the Canadian Apartheid Pie Recipe. I'm looking at a map of pre-Canada aboriginal nations as writer Matt Cohen is being discussed. He's obviously worth more to somebody than Gwen MacEwen. He's commemorated with ugly giant marble dominoes and hunks of writing that may resist a few more seasons.
The Pita Pit used to be Longhouse Books. Writers worked at Book City. The first two Coles stores opened here. There's the JCC, Rochdale, the Small Press Book Fair, Kinko's as a small press.... Down bp nichol lane to venerable Coach House Press, where we find a welcome spread of fruit and refreshments out back.
It's all very well done and full of details about the used-to-be. But kind of like English CBC - just not for me.
Several lifetimes later, in other words that night, I'm doing the door for a friend when a man offers me a CD. When I decline the technology, he hands me a poem on paper. Turns out he reads with a band at Grossman's. Reggie Bovaird knows the best time for poetry is after midnight.