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Reading Toronto: Yonge Street in Fiction

December 17, 2013 | Winona | Comments (7)

When I was a kid, growing up in downtown Toronto, I always imagined Yonge Street as the spine of the city.

I knew it ran all the way from the shore of Lake Ontario (the foot of Yonge, toes dipped in the lake), up along the seedy strip between Queen and Gerrard, through the busy intersection of Yonge and Bloor, straight to the top of Toronto (for me, then, probably somewhere around Eglinton), and even beyond that. They used to say it was the longest street in the world, although that turned out to be not entirely true.

Over the years I heard about Yonge Street in music, saw Yonge Street in movies and on TV (most memorably, on SCTV) and, of course, read about it in books.

Here are a few of my favourite memories of Yonge Street in fiction.

 

Alligator Pie

Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee illu Frank Newfeld

An entire generation of Canadians was raised on Alligator Pie, a collection of loopy, joyful rhymes for young readers written by Dennis Lee, Toronto's first Poet Laureate, with mind-bending illustrations by Frank Newfeld.

Alligator Pie illustration by Frank Newfeld
Although best known for its title poem ("Alligator pie, alligator pie / If I don't get some, I think I'm gonna die"), the book includes lots of other great ones, many featuring Canadian place names.

It has been 40 years since Macmillan of Canada first published Dennis Lee’s illustrated poem “Alligator Pie.” The much-beloved poem has been adapted into a short film, featuring the work of Métis puppeteer Jani Lauzon; for the stage, at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre; and now, into the form of a contest. - See more at: http://www.quillandquire.com/blog/index.php/book-news/harpercollins-canada-launches-illustration-contest-for-dennis-lees-alligator-pie/#sthash.95vUDQMw.dpuf
It has been 40 years since Macmillan of Canada first published Dennis Lee’s illustrated poem “Alligator Pie.” The much-beloved poem has been adapted into a short film, featuring the work of Métis puppeteer Jani Lauzon; for the stage, at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre; and now, into the form of a contest. - See more at: http://www.quillandquire.com/blog/index.php/book-news/harpercollins-canada-launches-illustration-contest-for-dennis-lees-alligator-pie/#sthash.95vUDQMw.dpuf
It has been 40 years since Macmillan of Canada first published Dennis Lee’s illustrated poem “Alligator Pie.” The much-beloved poem has been adapted into a short film, featuring the work of Métis puppeteer Jani Lauzon; for the stage, at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre; and now, into the form of a contest. - See more at: http://www.quillandquire.com/blog/index.php/book-news/harpercollins-canada-launches-illustration-contest-for-dennis-lees-alligator-pie/#sthash.95vUDQMw.dpuf

Bed Song

Yonge Street, Bloor Street,
Queen Street, King:
Catch an itchy monkey
With a piece of string.

Eaton's, and Simpson's,
And Honest Ed's:
Give him his pyjama pants
And throw him into beds!

- From Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee, illustrated by Frank Newfeld. Also available: ebook.

 

That Scatterbrain Booky

That Scatterbrain Booky by Bernice Thurman Hunter

That Scatterbrain Booky is the first in a triology of books for young readers about wide-eyed, irrepressible ten-year old Beatrice (nickname, Booky) and her working-class family in their struggle to make ends meet in Depression-era Toronto. Author Bernice Thurman Hunter draws heavily on her own childhood memories to offer up enchanting, episodic adventures about what it was like growing up poor in Toronto in the 1930s.


Yonge Street 1939 TPL S 1-1821
I fondly remember poring over this book (and its sequels, With Love from Booky and As Ever Booky) when I was a girl, fascinated by descriptions of events and places I recognized - the Santa Claus Parade, the Canadian National Exhibition - set in such different times. As when Booky and her mother take a TTC streetcar to Eaton's one day:

Yonge Street hummed and sparkled in the early spring sunshine. Cars honked and horses whinnied. Dogs barked, bicycle bells jangled and the popcorn man's whistle blew a long thin note.

I read all the signboards as we passed. "Smoke Sweet Caporal", "Buy British Consul" and "Drink Coca-Cola." Boy, how I'd love to drink Coca-Cola. I had no idea what it tasted like, but the beautiful girl on the billboard said, "It's delicious!"

"I love Yonge Street, don't you mum?"

"Yes," she said, chewing a Brazil nut with her front teeth because the back ones had been bothering her lately. "And did you know, Bea, that it's the longest street in the world?"

"I didn't know that, Mum!"

"Well, you learn something every day."

- From That Scatterbrain Booky by Bernice Thurman Hunter. Also included in Booky: A Trilogy.

 

Ten Elephants on Yonge Street Souster

Raymond Souster, known to many as Toronto's unofficial poet laureate, was the author of over 50 books of poetry and the editor or publisher of many more. In 1952 he co-founded Contact Press, an early publisher of Canadian poets like Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, and Anne Hébert, and in 1966 he co-founded the The Leage of Canadian Poets. His literary career spanned some 70 years until his death last year at age 91

Yonge_street

For more than 40 years, he also worked at the Canadian Bank of Commerce Building at King St. W., near Yonge. Yonge Street is featured in several of his poems (over 40, according to Stephen Cain in The Canadian Modernists Meet), including this one:

Yonge Street Saturday Night

Except when the theatre crowds engulf the sidewalks
at nine, at eleven-thirty,
this street is lonely, and a thousand lights
in a thousand store windows
wouldn’t break her lips into a smile.

There are a few bums out,
there are lovers with hands held tightly,
there are also the drunk ones
but they are princes among men, and are few.

And there are some like us,
just walking, making both feet move ahead of us,
a little bored, a little lost, a little angry,

walking as though we were honestly going somewhere,
walking as if there was really something to see
at Adelaide or maybe on King,
something, no matter how little
that will give us some fair return
on our use of shoe-leather,

something perhaps that will make us smile
with a strange new happiness,
a lost but recovered joy.

- From Ten Elephants on Yonge Street by Raymond Souster.

 

Basic Black with Pearls

Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig

In Basic Black with Pearls, the city is a labyrinth, a complex, ever-changing landscape littered everywhere with memories like "explosive devices", dangerous as land mines. Helen Weinzweig's experimental, at times surrealistic, novel tells the story of an unhappy suburban housewife who attempts to escape her mundane existence (characterized by the anonymous outfit she wears like a uniform, or a disguise, a simple black dress and a string of pearls) by roaming the streets of Toronto in search of her lover, a mysterious and, as the reader comes to realize, imaginary, foreign spy. 

Loew's Yonge Street
The Globe and Mail called it "a brilliant performance" in its review, with "marvellous set pieces as Lola wanders the city." It went on to win that year's Toronto Book Award.

On Yonge Street I found myself part of an indeterminate crowd. They will, I know, finally go into Simpson's or Eaton's or Woolworth's for something to do. I stayed on the east side of the street in order to avoid the same temptation. I crossed only after I got to Elm Street, although I did linger in front of Loew's Downtown to look at the stills of movie stars about to make love. At the corner of Dundas a sudden chill wind came up. The United Clothiers showed overcoats and parkas in their window.

 - From Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig.

 

In the Skin of a Lion

In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje's iconic Toronto novel combines myth and history, mystery and romance, archival documents and poetic imagination, to tell the stories of the lives of the immigrant labourers who built the city's Bloor Street Viaduct in the early 20th century. This book won the Toronto Book Award in 1987 and the inaugural Trilliam Book Award that same year.

20130918-Rooftop-YongeNightBW

Toronto is as vivid a character as any of the others in the novel, like Patrick, a dynamiter, and Caravaggio, a professional thief. Yonge Street makes a surprise appearance in this passage:

There is an image of Caravaggio among the rich which Patrick will always remember: meticulous, rude, and confident. A parting in his dark hair like Yonge Street at midnight. Dressed as a pirate, he had leapt off the motor launch on that midsummer night with his dog and Giannetta and Patrick, yelled his greetings to total strangers, and strolled into the false moonlight of the Yacht Club ballroom claiming to be Randolph Frog. Society women accepted his name with a straight face – the rich, being able to change everything but their names and looks, would defend these characteristics with care. In this circle a man with the face of a pit bull was considered distinguished.

- From In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. Also available: ebook | talking book.

 

Kicking the Sky

Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa

In the summer of 1977, 12-year old shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques, son of Portuguese immigrants, was found violently murdered on the roof of a massage parlor on Yonge Street. The gruesome crime shook Toronto the Good and galvanized the city's close-knit Portuguese community. Kicking the Sky is a coming-of-age novel told from the perspective of another 12-year old boy, Antonio Rebolo, with the real-life tragedy as backdrop.

POSTCARD - TORONTO - YONGE STREET - AT DUNDAS - LOOKING SOUTH - EATON CENTRE NEW - LATE-1970s

Author Anthony De Sa grew up in the Little Portugal neighbourhood in the city's west end where most of the novel is set. But Yonge Street looms large throughout; as De Sa has said, "When we were younger we would get on our bikes and ride up the street because it was electric...There was something about it. It was magical and exciting and dangerous, and as kids that was something we were drawn to.”   

"Do you know anything about the kid that's gone missing?" she said, her eyes searching the street below.

"He doesn't live in our neighbourhood."

"I know that, stupid. I'm just wondering what you've heard."

"Not much. We're going to look for him tomorrow." Emanuel had last been seen by his brother and a friend on crowded Yonge Street, across from the new Eaton Centre, our first real mall, which spread across two full city blocks and sparkled like an enormous glass cage. That's where we planned to start our search.

"The cops have been looking for two days and haven't found him, but you and your little friends think you will. Good luck with that."

 - From Kicking the Sky by Anthony De Sa. Also available: ebook.

 

Girl on the Subway

CradKilodney_Malignant Humors_TimMcKenna_PhilMcLeod

No recollection of Yonge Street in fiction would be complete without a nod to Crad Kilodney. For years he was a fixture on Yonge, where he'd stand selling his self-published books, a sign around his neck advertising his wares: "Dull Stories for Average Canadians" or "Easy Books for Imbeciles" or "Pleasant Bedtime Reading" or "Putrid Scum." 

To my mind (and I'm not the only one), Crad Kilodney is a Toronto literary legend. But I almost had to leave him off this list because it was a bit tricky finding something, well, sufficiently innocuous to be posted here. Then I lucked upon this passage:

You would have seen Henry on the southwest corner of Yonge and Bloor, outside of Stollery's clothing store, preaching the gospel. I say "preaching" out of deference to him. I'm not sure it deserved to be called preaching, for reasons I will get to in a moment.

He was in his seventies and had white hair and very pale skin that evidently avoided the sun. He wore clothes that were old but clean, and he had a preference for a black topcoat in the winter and a black suit in the summer.

He was a frail-looking man who stood very stiffly and walked slowly. He would stand in front of the Stollery's window facing Bloor St. He would hold a Bible, but he never read to the crowd from it. He kept it merely as a reference in the unlikely case he should get into a discussion with a passer-by.

From Girl on the Subway and Other Stories by Crad Kilodney.

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Interested in reading more works of fiction set in Toronto? Check out the Library's lists of books that focus on Toronto during different time periods.

Looking for more memories of Yonge Street, or want to share your own? Visit youryongestreet - the Library's interactive digital exhibit of people, places, and events on Yonge.

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