Toques, Speed Freaks and Sirens

Me around this time

Me around this time

The first couple of years I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, I lived in rooming houses in the Annex. The first of these was on Lowther near Yorkville. Recently I tried to find the house, but it has been renovated beyond recognition and is probably now home to two lawyers, a Filippino nanny and the Canadian equivalent of the Little Emperor. The time I’m referring to was pre-gentrification, as in forty years ago.

I didn’t last long at my first rooming house. My fellow lodgers were, for the most part, rough-hewn man-boys from Northern Ontario, who said ‘eh’ a lot and never took off their toques. I was from the American South. They were from the Canadian Shield. I didn’t get toques. They didn’t get a girl studying ecclesiastical history. Then again, not many people did, including, eventually, myself. A disassembled car engine dominated the kitchen table of this rooming house at all times – nothing was ever done to it; possibly it was an art installation – but the scales for measuring weed were all business, as I discovered one day when I attempted to use it to weigh cheese.

The only other female lodger lived on the third floor, in the room directly over mine. She had a speed freak boyfriend with whom she fought constantly – which is understandable, there being nothing more annoying than a speed freak. One night, after I heard her yell for the umpteenth time, “Get out of here! You heard me! Get out! I never want to see you again!” I decided to woman up and go to her aid. I charged upstairs, collared the freak, dragged him down two flights of stairs and threw him out onto the street. I weighed one hundred and ten pounds in those (halcyon) days; when the winds were gusting, the City of Toronto issued wind warnings for people my weight and under, but I had no problem manhandling the speed freak. As it turned out, he was mostly hair. “You heard her,” I told him sternly. “She never wants to see you again.”

The woman took him back the very next day. Well, of course she did.

One afternoon while I was living at this house, I took a walk in Yorkville, even then an upscale shopping destination. My head was full of Latin declensions and conjugations; in my dreams the street signs were written in Greek. Up in my shabby room, leather-bound volumes of German editions of fourth century texts by Church Fathers were piled high upon my sagging bed. Downstairs the boys from Northern Ontario were getting baked. I felt INSANE.

A young man of Middle Eastern ancestry and aspect approached me. “Excuse me,” he said.

“What?”

“Forgive me, but you have attracted me to you like a siren.”

I blinked at him. Like a siren? What kind of siren? An ambulance siren? An air raid siren? Then I realized that he must have meant the sirens who attempted to lure Ulysses and his men onto ship-wrecking rocks with their beauty and their hypnotic song. I glanced down at myself. I was wearing a flannel shirt, blue jeans and clogs. I smelled like Bazooka Bubble Gum. “I don’t think so,” I told him.

He shrugged. “Well,” he said, “It was worth a shot.”

Shortly afterwards I decided it was time to pull up stakes and find another rooming house, one without boomeranging speed freaks and auto-mechanically challenged dope dealers. Also I left my hot plate on one day and practically burnt down the place. That was embarrassing.

That’s when I moved into 502 Huron St.  wherein lies another tale.

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