Early in the morning, in the hour before dawn, the haunting, ethereal squeal of subway trains leaving the Greenwood yard wakes me, and I dress in play-clothes and go quietly down the stairs to the kitchen. There I take twenty-five cents from a pile of change on my parents’ kitchen table and slip out the front door and down the steps to the sidewalk.
Across the street at Mrs. Nosy’s house, no curtains twitch in the gloom, meaning that for another morning I am safe from the neighbourhood voyeur. I am safe, too, from the bantering jocularity of the teenaged Stamatopoulos brothers who live next door and spend their afternoons leaning against cars whose radios play a ceaseless round of “Stairway to Heaven” and “Xanadu.”
The street is still, but the silence is deceptive. Amid the gloom is an entire block’s worth of cats, preening on the sidewalk or posing on porches, and I greet them all as I walk past the darkened houses. Garbage bags spill across the sidewalk, and I greet them, too. Almost always I find something interesting to bring home: on one occasion a huge pile of interior decorating paint and wallpaper samples; on another morning a rusted but working toy forklift; on yet another occasion a giant grey stuffed elephant my parents make me leave on the back verandah.
Down at the corner, where Highfield Road meets Gerrard Street, the morning is already busy with foot-traffic and streetcars. Arriving at the corner is like entering a clearing filled with light. And here by the streetcar stop is a battered, rusted, red Toronto Sun newspaper box with a cascade of bright yellow suns on its side, advertising “the little paper that grew.” I put my sweaty quarter in the slot, hear it drop down into the hopper, crank open the wire-fronted window and pull out a copy of the Sun. I turn and walk back up Highfield, the metallic smell of traffic and the tang of fresh newsprint in my nose.
At this age (I am seven or eight) I do not know that the Toronto Sun is denigrated as a tabloid. I know it mainly for its accessible-to-me news reporting, and for the scantily-clad Sunshine Girl who fills most of the page inside the front cover. I tell my mother I would like to be one, someday, and she never dissuades me, never calls them “trash,” never criticizes the Sunshine Girls for allowing themselves to be objectified and ogled. It is 1979 or 1980, and these words, these concepts, have not yet entered the popular lexicon.
I read the Sun voraciously. I read outraged letters to the editor, which are usually followed by a three or four word take-down from the editors. I read the advice columns, the comics pages, and the horoscope. I read about Terry Fox, whose fund-raising run across Canada is covered almost as breathlessly as his decline and death from cancer. I read about fatal house fires, gangland murders and an abducted girl whose body is discovered in a garbage can.
I read about everything in the city we never learn about at school, but which surrounds us, begging explanation. By reading the Sun I am able to understand things our parents refuse to discuss in our presence, like the forbidden allure of the Zanzibar Tavern on Yonge Street, or the screeching of tires on Walpole Avenue, and an ensuing silence punctuated by the wrenching shrill of a mother screaming her son’s name. I learn about things I have sensed while tiptoeing down my street at dawn: that a city is composed of undercurrents, of hidden things needing to be noticed and given voice.
Amy Lavender Harris is the author of Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press), which was shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian literary criticism, and won the Heritage Toronto Award of Merit. Her next book, Wild City, explores intersections of culture and nature in the contemporary city. www.amylavenderharris.com
“She would make that noise with her tongue and tuck the rest of the pack into her purse.”