Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Market

This one's for my friend, Belle, with love.

Kensington Market in the heart of Toronto is infamous for its year-round vendors selling everything from fresh fish to chilies and everything in between. Small houses set among labyrinthine streets with murals, sculptures, tiny restaurants, vintage clothiers are a mishmash of unique urban adventure. With a rich European cultural heritage and several main streets occupied by family shops that have been there for generations it was a really great place to live.

It was the kind of place where one of your friend's four year old daughter could fall in love with a bunny in a cage and your friend would agree that it was a bunny worth having as a pet so she'd pay for it and they'd come back later to take it home. Later she'd have to deal with her daughter's hysteria when the bunny was presented skinned and gutted. The butcher shops didn't deal in sentimentality.

It was the kind of place that if you had another friend who was a confirmed shoplifter you remembered never to go marketing with her again after she'd shoved purloined fruit and veggies into your bag while she tasted various delicacies and argued with the vendor about the price. Being chased down Augusta Ave. by an angry Zorba the Greek was not my idea of fun.

Tall brick built houses from the 20's were well decorated with gingerbread moldings, multiple little windows and the most outrageous outside paint jobs you could imagine. Houses were often divided down the apparent middle with one side painted lime green with yellow trim and the other side colored lavender and red. I often wondered if the people living inside them ever talked to each other. Estate gardens may be a new idea here but old Toronto neighborhoods like Kensington have been growing vegetables in their tiny front yards from day one.

The vintage stores were filled with flapper dresses, kimonos, real silk Hawaiian shirts, beaded jackets, shadow dyed silk dresses from the 30's, tailored WWII women's suits and lots of shoes, beads, feathers, jewelry and general finery. I never wore clothes made in the 60's or the 70's either unless I made them myself but that's another story.

In the late 60's three of us moved into an apartment on the second floor of a house owned by a middle-aged Chinese couple. It was a nice enough place with a big living room at the front, a big kitchen and porch at the back and a long corridor in between with bedrooms and a bathroom off to one side. The only unusual feature was a tiny bed sitter apartment on the third floor that was accessed through our place. It had a little kitchen but no bathroom so whoever lived there shared ours which was no problem so long as the teenage runaway lovers from Thunder Bay lived there.. or somebody else we knew.

We got right into the spirit of the times (as well as that of the neighborhood) and painted all of the rooms ceilings to floorboards in color vibrating panels, swirls, lightning bolts, circles, moons, stars and rainbows. Our friends came by to visit at all hours to smoke dope, drink wine, listen to music, play music, joke, laugh, tell stories, plan adventures and generally have fun. We couldn't understand why the owners would peek upstairs through the window in the lower door or through their curtains whenever we went out but decided that was just their inscrutable way.

One day the kids upstairs packed their suitcases and left after telling us they were going to hitch-hike to BC. We didn't think much about it but decided we'd ask around to see if anybody might want to share the space with us and then went away ourselves for a weekend in the country. We got back late on the Sunday evening not noticing anything unusual.

Next morning I got up early to get ready for work and found the bathroom door locked. Well, that was a bit of a problem but I had my coffee and waited out on the porch which was when I noticed the sounds of splashing from the open bathroom window. Maybe Terry was up earlier than usual but he hadn't mentioned plans. I got on with washing my hair and the rest of me in the kitchen sink but the splashing sounds continued and I was getting more curious by the minute. I went down the hall, peeked into Terry's room and found him sleeping. Larry was asleep as I'd left him. As I dressed I was still wondering who could be in the bathroom? I mean there was one thing I needed to do that couldn't be done in the kitchen sink.

The bathroom door had a little hook inside for a lock so I went to the kitchen, got a butter knife and went back to the bathroom. I knocked. Splashing. I knocked again. More splashing. Time for the butter knife. I unlatched the door, flipped up the hook and looked inside where to my surprise I discovered a very tiny, very old, fully dressed Oriental lady sitting in our bathtub with laundry. There were towels, pants, socks, sheets, underwear, dresses, shirts all dripping from the shower rail and her sitting smiling in the midst of a tub filled with water and more clothes. Weird. I closed the door and went to work.

 When I got home later the boys told me a family of at least 15 people had moved into the little apartment upstairs. They'd been up and down the stairs all day long and even as we talked there were 6 kids peeking into our living room. We couldn't imagine how they'd managed to fit into the space but there was one thing we knew for sure. It was time to move.


  1. You have had a life rich in stories. I'm so glad you're sharing them with us. And those drawings are fantastic.

  2. I know the pain of having a big family and one bathroom. But... um... 18 people and one bathroom? No way! Never mind the laundry hanging from the shower rod, there is always someone who takes more than their fair allotted time in the bathroom.
    The The more pressing your need to use the bathroom, the longer they take to vacate.
    If you have to "share" a bathroom, you better learn to dance.
    Happy Canada Day, by the way.

  3. dcup - Sometimes I feel as though I've lived a life of vignettes.

    sera - Our inscrutable landlords did indeed find a way of getting rid of unpleasant occidentals - depriving westerners of full bathroom privileges will do it in a hurry.

    Thanks for the Happy Canada Day (used to be Dominion Day) cuz I get two holidays in one nice summer week.

  4. What a great story.

    I have a very good friend, who is also a relentless shoplifter, and I'm always reluctant to go anywhere with her if there's something that can be lifted.

  5. Having been to Kensington a few times--albeit a little later--I have to say I'm feeling this story. It is tres evocative. And I got a good laugh out of the image of the angry Zorba.

  6. Skinned rabbits, Zorba the greek and funky color schemes. You have the best stories.

  7. *sigh*
    just about this time yesterday, my favorite co-worker got laid off. they told her "sorry" mid-morning monday. 20 minutes later she was out the door with her little box of personal items. her empty desk seems really conspicuous. i wonder why they waited for a monday, rather than telling her friday? maybe because yesterday was the end of the month?
    happy dominion day. with the north pole melting, canadian weather must be getting balmy. don't be surprised if more americans go to canada.
    or oregon might become the new california. ohh nooo!

  8. cdp - It's difficult having friends like that. The girl I knew eventually did get caught by the pros in a big department store.

    ben - 'If I were a rich man..dadadadah. Arrgghhh!'

    rg - I can hardly wait for your response when I tell the one about the angry gay boyfriend of the bi-guy I met in London.

    sera - Have you noticed too that the people telling workers they're fired never seem leave? Most businesses are top heavy with bosses. I'm sorry that happened to your friend.

  9. landlords got away with murder then, didn't they? i had a Polish landlady once who used to snoop in the apartment my girlfriend and i shared - our first place away from home, so we didn't even know we HAD any right to privacy. and ditto on the Happy Canada day.

  10. I'm not sure why, but your comments all went to my spam filter. I "de-spammed" them, and they are shown in all their color and glory. I'm sorry for the problems. HUGS!

  11. gfid - Well, we were being pretty bad neighbours as I'm sure you NEVER were.

    sera - I looked. Oh dear. Now I'm embarassed but it's still a good line.. 'We should be grateful to those who anger us for how else are we to learn patience?' - Milarepa

  12. That's actually Tevye from "Fiddler on the Roof", but I could see either one doing the song. In fact I think the filmmakers wanted Anthony Quinn for "Fiddler."

  13. ben - Oops, you're right. I never did see 'Fiddler' but somehow the two movies have cross circuited in my mind. Anthony Quinn did indeed make an excellent Zorba who danced beautifully but never did sing 'If I Were A Rich Man'.

  14. !pop! sorry, su. that's your bubble bursting.... that polish landlady was not sorry to see us go. ....on another thread - i was the fiddler in the local production of Fiddler on the Roof when i first moved here. the music in that one is magnificent. and we had the world's best Tevye.

  15. Hi Susan
    Kensington market and streetscape sounds fascinating. As I was reading your story I was wondering what on earth you going to mention next! Maybe those terrible Chinese landlords got the idea of housing all of those folk after witnessing one of your parties.

    A great story with illustrations and filled with such a multitude of sights and sounds, you made it all come alive in my mind.
    But I guess it was also rather frustrating having to pack up and move out almost immediately. Where did you go to next? Did you stay on near Kensington? Best wishes

  16. susan - a little late...I know. But what a fascinating read this is. The part about the Chinese family is very intriguing to me because I was born into a large family (there were 7 of us) and have quite a large extended family that saw no problem with simply "moving in." Come to think of it, neither did my dad, but it was his house and he could do with it what he wanted. Thanks for sharing this.

  17. gfid - Yeah, we had a Polish landlady once too who was weird but not as weird as the girl who came to live with us during her pregnancy. She was so strange it might have to be a story sometime but I'll just mention that she'd move all the furniture whenver we left the house for more than a few hours.

    lindsay - Hah! One of our parties.. yes, that may be true but I don't know why they wouldn't enjoy Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention being played at full volume over their newly arrived relatives from Hong Kong.

    Somehow, we had a lot of energy in those days - so much that one memorable year we moved and decorated 5 different places. It was no problem :-)

    spartacus - It's never too late. Sometimes it takes me a while to answer comments but I always do eventually. I always loved big families. Every summer I used to wait for the Italian Catholic family who spent their summers at the lake. Every year there was a new baby to hold and some terrific friends to play with. I was the only child of two older parents and the big family stayed in England so I always longed for company. I never knew or cared what they did about lack of bathroom space. It wasn't one of the things that mattered til I grew up.

  18. I do like the drawings very much.

  19. divajood - Thanks. There'll be more and hopefully fairly soon. It's really an enjoyable way to share weird memories and a very new thing for me (well, as of 4-5 months ago).