The Niagara St. Two-step

The Niagara St. Two-step is a set of little stories written in installments, stories from the years I lived in the old casket factory at Niagara and Tecumseth in Toronto. I’m going to add to it periodically, and I’ll let you know on the main page of this blog when I do. Feel free to comment.

I knew it was time to leave when…

One Christmas morning, someone slid an envelope under my door. I opened it up. It was a love note from Nestor Shylock, my landlord, announcing my rent increase.

I was on the verge of leaving in any case. My father’s health was failing and he needed someone around the house to make sure he ate well, took his medications, and had everything he needed (including frequent rides to doctors). He wanted to continue to live independently, and as much as I hated the idea of giving up Niagara St. it was starting to look like the right thing to do.

I called the landlord.

“What’s the meaning of this outrage,” I asked.

“What do you mean? I have to raise the rent.”

“On Christmas morning? How can you be so cruel?”

“OK the timing was unfortunate, but I have to raise the rent.”

“Well, then I have to leave”

“Leave?” He didn’t expect that.

“Yes. In fact, if you want me to stay, you’ll have to lower my rent” I knew the best time to negotiate is always when you’re prepared to walk away.

“I can’t lower the rent.”

“I’ll be gone at the end of February.”

I really wanted the studio to sit empty for a few months. It would have made me feel better. Unfortunately he had it rented in minutes, even at the new outrageous rent. I moved out to Etobicoke to look after my father. In the fullness of time, it was clearly the right choice. My father and I shared some good times over the next couple years, even as his health problems persised.

The old studio has since been split into two studios.

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New Studio

The ad in the paper brought me to the corner of Niagara and Tecumseth, just north across the tracks from Old Fort York. The scene was surreal. Seven or eight people were sitting at the picnic table outside the Speedy Restaruant, which I would later learn was universally known as Billy’s. There were several people having lunch, wearing white smocks, covered in blood, blue hard-hats, and featured orange ear-protectors pulled down around their necks. On lunch from the abattoir, these boys were enjoying chicken wings and rice, the special of the day.

Stan had a splendid studio. It was on the third floor, north-west corner, with windows all along the north side. Stan liked to paint under natural light and put a premium on north light. The space was like a U-shape with some painting racks dividing the two sides. Stan was in the north-east corner. The part for rent was by the door, in the south-east corner. Two others had the other two corners, both nice people, it turned out, neither of whom spent a lot of time in the space.

Leaning against the south wall was a large inflatable boat. It wasn’t inflated, and was just leaning there against the wall, wishing for a lake. This was one of those inflatables that were significant boats, with a solid floor, the kind you hooked up a motor to. Stan was selling it. I was in Stan’s studio just a couple weeks ago, now fifteen years later, and couldn’t help but notice a large inflatable boat leaning against the wall.

Stan had a large, insanely detailed painting up on the wall, featuring figures flying through the urban landscape. I liked him right away and signed up for my share of the space. This was to be a different experience for me. I had lived in my studio for several years – a storefront on Ossington Ave, a former hardware store. I was used to having my paintings around me all the time. Now I would be coming to work when I came to the studio. It was a different discipline, but one I never quite got used to.

When I heard of another studio coming open, one I could live in, I couldn’t resist, and moved across the building.

The Junkies Next Door

I learned very quickly that there were a group of junkies living next door. Actually, I don’t know how many of them actually lived there, but there were always several people I could hear coughing through the walls. They scored, shot-up, got beat up, dealt, got beat up some more, stared into space, shot-up again and so on. Anytime all-the-time I heard the tell-tale knock on their door, as someone showed up to score some jazz.

If there were no junkies in to meet the needs of the knockers, they would sometimes knock on my door.
“I can’t help you.”
“Why not?”
“I don’t do that?”
“Oh. When will they be back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh.”

Many times, the hopeful visitors would be guys in Armani suits and women in upscale dresses, looking for a little something-something. I had no idea there was such an active heroin scene in Toronto. Periodically, I’d be out with friends and I’d meet someone, a friend of a friend.
“You live in that building on Niagara?”
“Yeah.”
“You must know so-and-s0?” hmmm.

I figured if they wanted to stick needles in their arms and numb themselves everyday, that was their business. However, I was seriously concerned that they were going to burn down the building. I was also growing tired of the constant knocking on their door. One of the tenants decided to take matters into his own hands. He painted a huge sign on the wall in the hallway with an arrow pointing at the door. In letters two-feet high, it read, buy your heroin here. The next day, I saw Buddy the junkie out there painting over the letters. He had recently been beaten up and was black and blue, and he looked like hell. I felt tremendously sad.

Soon after, they disappeared. Rumour had it that the landlord had given them $1000 to be gone by morning. I have no idea if there is truth to that. The unit stayed empty for only a short while before Peter the Painter appeared, but more about that later.

Contravening the Zoning By-laws

By the time I started living at Niagara St., I was already an expert at contravening the City’s zoning by-laws. I had lived in an old hardware store on Ossington Ave, and when challenged, ended up successfully helping my landlord fight the City at the Ontario Municipal Board. There were many good reasons why nobody should have been living at Niagara St. However, the City was pathetic at enforcing their by-laws and like many artists, I wanted to have a certain kind of affordable space where I could live and work together.

I recall my meeting with the building superintendent. He knew full well I was going to live there. He said, “This is a commercial building.” I said, “I’m a painter.” We understood one another.

From time to time, the City wanted to satisfy itself that nobody was living in the building. It was the silliest theatre you could imagine. The landlord would send out a notice saying what day the inspection would be. The notice said the City would be looking for beds and stoves and we’re confident they won’t find any. Be informed. Be prepared. Be cool. And so, everyone in the building figured out a way to hide or disguise their bed and stove. There were as many solutions as their were tenants. My favourite was the guy who set up camera lights as if his living situation were a photo shoot. Nice.

The City reminded me of a referee in a professional wrestling match. You know, everyone in the audience sees the foreign object he pulls from his tights – except the ref, who is oblivious as The Sheik beats Haystacks Calhoun to a pulp with a little piece of metal. It was incredible to me that an inspector who wasn’t legally blind could look at that building and not realize that everyone was living there.

After the inspection, we often received a notice that said the City was happy that nobody lived in the building, but should the zoning by-laws be changed, the inspector wanted to be on a waiting list for a place.

The De-commissioning

They started testing soil in the area for lead. Behind our building there was once a lead smelter. At one point, opportunities were provided for people in the area to get tested. A number of people I knew had the test and were OK.

There were some houses on the street with veggie gardens though, and that had to be a worry. There was even one guy on Niagara St. who had a rooster and some hens. From the studio window, I used to see them occasionally escape. The fellow would chase them around Niagara St. Finally, all the soil in the area was replaced and they started decommissioning the smelter.

Guys in space suits appeared, with big hoses. They took down the building one brick at a time, and always there were guys spraying the building down as they did it. One day I brought my camera up to the roof of our  building and walked over to the edge to take some pictures. Angry men appeared immediately. “Get off that roof!” I got some good shots off of the guys in space suits. They’re in a pile of pictures somewhere or other. One day they’ll surface.

The whole site was fenced off. I have no doubt that one day it will be cured, as if by an act of God, and condos or perhaps “lofts” will appear.

The Loading Dock

The building had a magical loading dock.  It helped needy artists furnish their studios. When people in the building upgraded their sofas, dressers, televisions, stereos – whatever – they’d take the old ones down to the loading dock. I recall when the junkies next door finally left and Peter the Painter arrived, he furnished his whole place from stuff he found on the loading dock. He found multiple working televisions. He often watched two at once. Peter found electric heaters, fans, stereos, hot plates, coffee-makers, plants, window blinds. In short, everything he needed appeared on the dock for his use. In fact, things seemed to appear as soon as he needed them. Marvellous how the universe unfolds sometimes, isn’t it?

Recently, I visited Peter again after not seeing him for much too long. His accumulation of stuff from the loading dock had reached astronomical proportions, leaving only a pathway and a small live-work area. When I got there, he was watching a football game on two televisions.

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