Don’t anyone ever say that the Christmas spirit is not alive and well in Toronto.
On the Tuesday before Christmas last week, my husband, who is the chef in our family, went to do his final shopping for Christmas dinner. He is seventy-six and looks his age (although he insists that he is still only thirty-nine). He uses a cane for balance and to alleviate the pain in his back.
He went first to Fiesta Farms, our favourite local supermarket known particularly for its organic foods and excellent fruits and vegetables. He went early in the morning, assuming that he would beat the crowd. Alas, when he arrived, there was already a long line-up of customers all masked and appropriately socially distanced. The line-up was the longest he had ever seen since we returned to Toronto. It stretched across the front of the store, around the corner and all the way down Christie Street to the end of the store at the back. As he walked down the sidewalk beside the line-up, several people suggested that he join the line-up ahead of them. Each time he demurred, reluctant to jump the queue. When he got to the end of the line-up, the woman ahead of him also suggested that he go to the front. He insisted that he could wait like everyone else. He wasn’t there more than a couple of minutes when the store employee staffing the front of line-up approached him and insisted that, no, he was to come into the store right away. Apparently someone from the line-up had told him about my husband, and getting him into the store ASAP became a priority. That saved my husband at least a half hour of waiting.
My husband then went to the local neighbourhood butcher shop, Vince Gasparro’s Meat Market on Bloor Street West. Again, there was an unusually long line of people, maybe fifteen, lined up on the sidewalk outside. Again, a woman ahead of him suggested that he go to the front of the queue. She said that she knew the woman at the head of the line and she would not mind. My husband responded that perhaps the people between them would be less keen. Whereupon, his neighbour went down the line asking each person if they would mind my hubby going ahead. None did. The woman at the head of the line went into the shop and spoke with Pat Gasparro who was working the cash register. My husband is a regular customer there, long known to the family. Pat stepped out of the shop and yelled, “Irvine, get your ass in here right away.” And he did.
When my husband got home, he was delighted that the shopping had gone so quickly and that he had been treated so well by his fellow shoppers. Are people with canes treated this well all the time? Or was it the spirit of the season? Whatever. It was a community act of kindness which was much appreciated.
In recent years, the City of Toronto has started naming laneways. It’s an interesting endeavour which is greatly enriching the city. It includes all different types of people. In learning about past residents, we learn about our neighborhood and we build community for the future.
The first such endeavour near us was the laneway between Manning and Euclid Avenues, south of Harbord Street named after Frank Kovac. The proprietor of a local car repair shop at the corner, Frank had a reputation for honesty, ingenuity, and providing the best possible deal on any repair brought to him. When he died of cancer at an unduly early age, everyone in the area wanted to recognize him. Naming the laneway after him seemed the ideal way.
Another laneway south of Harbord between Markham Street and Palmerston Boulevard was named after Lucie Tuch. She and her sister were the children of eastern European immigrants who lived in the large house at the corner of Markham and Harbord. Both girls became dentists and practiced together in the family home for decades. Lucie also died of cancer prematurely, a great loss to her family and her patients (including myself) who loved her.
While we were in Vancouver, eight other laneways were officially dedicated in the area.
One is in honour of Alan Borovoy, who was raised on Grace Street and later was General Counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for forty-one years. Apart from numerous test cases on civil liberties before the courts, Borovoy and his organization were instrumental in securing the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Another lane is named for Wayne and Shuster, Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster who, after high school at Harbord Collegiate, appeared more than 65 times on the Ed Sullivan TV Show in New York City. They became Canada’s most famous international comedians. Wayne grew up on Palmerston Avenue. He died in 1990 and Shuster in 2002.
Another of the laneways is named for Beatrice Minden. She attended Clinton Street Public School and Harbord Collegiate and, after the death of her husband in l966, created the Beatrice and Arthur Minden Foundation to support cultural and medical organizations and scholarships in Toronto and Israel. For her 90th birthday, friends and family created the Beatrice Minden Endowment at Inner City Angels. This gift brings two artists to work with students of Clinton Street School each year. For Clinton’s Centennial in 1988, Beatrice funded the creation of “The Art Room.” She died at 99 years of age, after fifty years of philanthropy.
Morley Safer Lane is named for the son of an Austrian-Jewish upholsterer, born in 1931. Morley attended Harbord Collegiate and, briefly, the University of Western Ontario. He decided early that he wanted to be a foreign correspondent, so quit university to become a newspaper reporter. He had a 60-year career as a broadcast journalist and reporter, best known for his long tenure on the CBS news magazine program, 60 Minutes.
Joe Bertucci Lane runs parallel to Clinton Street south of Harbord. Joe Bertucci was described as a “neighbourhood character” and long-time resident of Little Italy “who sat on his porch and always provided a helping hand for his neighbours.”
Then there is the Huggins Family Lane. John Huggins and his wife Wyvonie immigrated to Toronto and bought their first home on Clinton Street in the 1960s. For many years, they were the first and only black family in the area. John worked as a porter for the CNR, Wyvonie raised four children who attended Clinton and then King Edward School. Their lane connects Manning and Clinton.
The laneway between Euclid and Palmerston south of Harbord is called the Jewish Folk Choir Lane. The choir began in 1925 and became one of the most popular choirs in the city in the l940s and 50s. Apparently, “songs of resistance and solidarity… had been part of the Choir’s repertoire during its heyday.” Conductor Emil Gartner and his wife Fagel Freeman, the accompanist for the choir, lived on Palmerston Avenue. Their home became the centre for choir activities even after the conductor died in 1960.
The Via dei Giardini Lane, meaning “Way of the Gardens,” is unique. It is named for five families: the Vellones, the Decarias. the Rizzutos, the Dadettas, and the Soldanos, all of whom emigrated from Southern Italy to the Palmerston community in the early 1960s. They lived next to each other and, together, created a garden where they used to grow and then can peppers and tomatoes. Working and harvesting their joint garden was a tradition for 45 years. This laneway is between Euclid and Palmerson south of Ulster.
Check out the laneways in your area. If they are not named, there is an opportunity to do so through the city. If they are, it is worth the effort to find out the stories behind the names.
I used to ride my bicycle to work all the time. Then, thirteen or fourteen years ago, a car knocked me off my bike while I was riding on Bay Street. The car did not stop. I was sufficiently stunned that it took the urging of pedestrians on the sidewalk to get me to stand up and move off the road. That was the last time I rode a bicycle in Toronto.
The expansion of the bicycle network during the pandemic is an incentive to climb back onto a bicycle and make cycling part of my life again. Last week, my son took my old bicycle to “Dave… Fix my Bike” on Christie Street to have it serviced. This week, I picked it up. Dave warned me that I should be wearing a yellow vest all the time, and that cycling in the city is not easy. I just came back from my first excursion and learned that he is right.
I went out very early on Sunday morning, when I thought there would be little traffic. I planned to cycle east along the bicycle path on Harbord Street, then down the new enclosed bicycle track around Queen’s Park, then back along the old bicycle path on College Street, and up Palmerston Avenue to our back laneway. A short jaunt which I figured would be manageable as my first bicycle venture in years. It was manageable, but not without some trauma.
I knew almost immediately when I rode my bicycle up our laneway that the seat was too low. But I had insisted upon that, and was glad of it for the moment. I needed to make sure that I could put my feet on the ground and prevent a fall if I should lose balance.
Once I reached Harbord, I learned that bicycle paths are not without their hazards. The old paths are not protected from traffic and veering out of the bicycle lane is a constant fear. The road surfaces are cluttered with debris, gravel, and even glass, and it’s necessary to beware of potholes. The worst are the streetcar tracks which are a notorious trap for bicycle tires, so much so that even I remember that it is necessary to cross the tracks at a ninety degree angle.
Watching the road is not sufficient. One must also watch for the cars, on the road and also parked or parking. Madly ringing my bell, I was petrified of being doored by any one of the many cars I actually found stopped beside the cycle path. And then there were the other cyclists. Most knew that I was a very slow-moving hazard blocking the path, and passed to avoid me. The occasional one came up behind and we exchanged comments.
Generally, the venture went well, except that my bicycle basket fell off and I had to brake to avoid hitting it. I pulled the bicycle onto the sidewalk, re-attached it and proceeded on my way. But then it fell off again. This time I decided to carry it, held by my left hand over the handle for the front brake, hopefully in a position which did not block my knee as I pedalled. The basket was a pain but I managed to get home without feeling obliged to jettison it. Next time, no basket.
Next time, I will also use the derailleurs and the speed controls to manage the bicycle. This time, I put my right hand on the handle and the rear brake and did the entire trip without changing the controls. At Queen’s Park, the track goes up and then down a little hill. Frozen as I was, without the confidence to let go, I could not take advantage of the bicycle to enjoy the change of pace.
Coming up Palmerston, I was on a small local street which I had to share with passing cars. It’s less reassuring than when riding on a designated bicycle lane or track. At the corner of Ulster Street, I had to make a left turn. I was frightened to make the appropriate hand-signal and asked two women pedestrians if I could make the turn. They assured me that I could. When I explained that I hadn’t been on a bicycle for years, they suggested that I get rid of the basket and raise my seat. Right on.
As I rode down Harbord, it occurred to me that if I were to fall, I would hurt myself and it might take months to get over it. I wondered if I should be doing this. But then I told myself that cycling was on my bucket list and I couldn’t give up. If I did, that likely would be the end of it for me. So I went on. I’m sure that it will get easier. When I ride the ravine tracks and the Leslie Street Spit, I will be happy that I did so.
We know we are back in Toronto when we can walk around the corner from where we live and find a first-rate new restaurant. “Y Not Italian!” is very small, with 24 seats inside and just a few tables on the patio. Last Saturday afternoon, our son and daughter-in-law suggested we try it. I assumed a reservation would be necessary and was sceptical that we could ever get one on such short notice. When I phoned, they had a table for 5:00 p.m. which was just what we wanted.
“Y Not Italian!” Is an off-shoot of the larger (96-seat) EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil) restaurant at 138 Avenue Road. It opened in mid-February and closed because of the pandemic less than a month later. During the pandemic, it has survived preparing take-out and also Meals for Front Line Workers, twice a week, for several local hospitals. Its menu is similar to the pop-up patio menu at EVOO, and features delicious, home-baked EVOO bread and EVOO olive oil. Both restaurants are owned by Peter and Nikole Catarino. Prior to opening EVOO in 2016, Peter had a restaurant called Spuntini (meaning “appetizer”) on Avenue Road for over twenty years.
We had three courses each and were delighted by what we ate. My daughter-in-law had the Sardine alla Griglia as an appetizer, which featured three large sardines. I had the Melanzane Parmigiana, eggplant topped with tomato sauce and cheese, which was the best eggplant I have ever tasted. Among us, we had two salads, the Insalata Caprese like no other such salad we had ever had. The Gnocchi con Formaggio was very good, and the Fettucine al Divo with chicken, roasted red peppers, white wine, sun-dried tomato pasta, and cream sauce delicious. My husband had a veal scallopini with mushrooms in Marsala wine sauce. Probably because we were having such a good time, and the early evening air was so pleasant, we all opted for dessert. My Tiramisu was a real treat. All portions are very substantial.
Prices are more than reasonable. The three-course meal for four people, without drinks and tip, came to $150. The service was excellent. The waiter was masked, the food was nicely paced, and we had no sense that we had to hurry. Because I had made a reservation, the restaurant had my name and telephone number to meet the public health requirements.
During the pandemic, take-out has been the mainstay of the restaurant. One Google reviewer noted, “the kids loved it and even better, the adults loved it as well!” Other reviewers have called it “a little gem.” The promo indicates that the take out is “good for groups.”
“Y Not Italian!” is at 538 Manning Avenue M6G 2V9, at the corner of Harbord Street. Reservations are essential for the patio. It is open after 5:00 p.m. to 9:00, Tuesday to Sunday. The telephone number is (416) 546-7576. Delivery can be ordered through Uber Eats.
My husband and I went to Vancouver on January l9th for the winter. We were booked to return to Toronto on March 26th. The pandemic intervened and we elected to stay in place in our apartment on the west coast. Our house sitters were exceedingly generous and insisted that we stay away until we felt safe to return by air. We had assumed it would be the end of April. But then the end of April dragged into May and then into June. Clearly, we had to come back. Our house sitters had a life of their own, and we wanted to come home. It appeared as if Air Canada was “physical distancing” by declining to sell all the middle seats on the aircraft. That seemed safer, but the policy was only in effect until June 30th, so the time to return was now.
Returning home after an absence of five months presents challenges. I have no idea where whatever I need is stored in the kitchen. It’s there, for sure, but where takes some thought. The garden is overgrown and number one priority is to get the gardener in to do a “spring cleaning” and plant whatever is necessary for the summer. Then there is the car. The winter tires need to be changed, and because it has sat for five months without being operated, the brakes need to be rotored. Post-pandemic lock up, I need to get a haircut, and a pedicure. Still on the list is a visit to Costco to replenish basics, a window cleaning from White Shark, a chimney sweep, and a meeting with the accountant to finalize the income taxes we were not able to file from away. The list gets longer daily.
Apart from the domestic issues, Toronto as a city has all sorts of appeal. In the drug store, I found Lysol disinfectant wipes on sale at $3.00 off. In Vancouver they had been hard to find. At Fiesta Farms, I found cleaning alcohol which I never could get in Vancouver. Fiesta Farms has shopping hours for seniors, pregnant women and the disabled every morning from eight to nine Monday to Saturday. Those hours are much more extensive that we have experienced elsewhere.
People in Toronto are wearing masks and masks are now mandatory both on the TTC and in all public places. In Vancouver, masks are recommended on public transit and “when physical distancing is difficult” but are not required. Wearing masks takes some getting used to, and the protocol for how to deal with them (when eating for example) is not clear, but they are reassuring.
In Little Italy, there is considerable change. “Il Gatto Nero,” one of my favourite bistros which has been in the neighbourhood for forty years, has now closed. Around the corner from our home, an old café which I have never seen open has now put out a makeshift patio onto the sidewalk and we actually saw someone sitting there eating takeout. Across the street, a new restaurant opened in mid-February at the corner of Manning and Harbord. Called “Y Not Italian?” It is an excellent restaurant which we visited Saturday evening and which I will write about in a separate post. We probably got reservations on short notice only because the restaurant patio just opened last Wednesday. Within weeks, I predict that it will be swamped and tables will take some time to get.
The prevalence of bicycles in the city is refreshing. The new 25 kilometres added to Toronto’s bicycle network, in addition to another 15 kilometres already approved for 2020, is sufficient to get me back on a bicycle. That City Counsellors voted 23-2 in favour of the expansion saves years of future hassle. Although the addition is considered temporary, I cannot imagine that, when people become used to cycling on the expanded network, there will be any desire to do away with the changes. More likely, this will be a stimulus to further growth. For all the problems of the pandemic, some good is clearly coming out of it.