This website is meant to record the doings in a specific downtown Toronto neighbourhood along with the Life & Death & Politics & Literature doings in the Global econoculture. There have been some noteworthy neighbourhood events in the last few weeks I’d like to document.
First of all, my neighbourhood tailor, Paul, who has a shop at 673 Bathhurst Street just south of Harbord Street called Madelaine Tailors, now refuses to charge for altering my daughter’s clothes. This is hardly a crime, but he charges so little for the other work he does for us that it feels like I’m stealing from him. He has an explanation for the no-charge policy: he wants to build up his customer base for the next generation.
Paul, whose last name I’ve been unable to uncover because he insists that I call him by his Christian name, is one of those treasures that every good neighbourhood must have to be a truly livable place. He’s Eastern European, probably Hungarian, appears to be in his late 70s, and his health isn’t always sound. Both his accent and his manners are elegant enough to make conversation with him a pleasure, but there are things he doesn’t talk about. I can’t get him to talk about his age, or how long he’s been there, because he doesn’t entertain personal questions. When you’re in his shop, he’s interested in you, not himself, and in the quality of the clothing you bring in, the latter of which he’ll discuss in detail if you’re interested, and he’s eloquent about materials and workmanship alike.
Judging from his shop and the machines he uses, he’s been there a very long time and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need to work. But he clearly loves making and repairing clothing, and the more difficult the challenge you bring in, the more loquacious he becomes. I brought him a very expensive jacket a few months ago that had become too small to wear because I’d gained some weight after quitting smoking. By lifting every seam in it, he reproduced the jacket a full size larger—and charged me less than $20. I’d have happily paid $100. My wife has had a half-dozen similar experiences, and we’ve gone out of our way to find projects for him, not because we’re trying to save money, but to give him something to exercise his remarkable skills upon. There’s a certain urgency to this, because there’s no telling how long we’ll have him around. I’d dearly love my daughter to be one of his next generation customers, but the odds are long, because old people die, even if they are very good people like Paul.
We lost another of those good people about a month ago when Frank’s Garage at 283 Harbord closed. The news of the closing, followed by that of its owner’s death, went around the neighbourhood quickly, because Frank, another Eastern European in his 70s, and his garage, were a much-appreciated neighbourhood amenity. He wasn’t the city’s best auto mechanic, but he was its most honest. If you came in with an mechanical problem, he’d often puzzle over it for hours. If he couldn’t find it, he didn’t charge you for his time. When he did, his prices were always reasonable, and if you brought in a job he knew he couldn’t do as well as someone else, he’d tell you exactly which garage to take it to, and what to expect.
Frank kept the place open until a month before his death, but toward the end, the tentativeness of his step, and his periodic absences told you he wasn’t well. As it was, the shop closed without warning when he went into hospital for the last time. He closed the business quietly and without fanfare, exactly as he did his life, which I’m sure he’d lived the same way as he ran the garage.
I never had a personal conversation with him. Like Paul the tailor, he always addressed me formally —in my case, as “Mr. Fawcett”–even though I called him “Frank” like everybody else. All we ever talked about was my Honda Accord, which he liked because it is 14 years old and still has less than 100,000 kilometres on it. Each time I brought it in, which wasn’t often, he’d mention what a good car it was and then warn me not to sell it. One time when I brought it in for a spring tuneup he sent me away. He’d checked the oil and found it clean, let it idle in the shop for a few minutes, and when I came back he told me it didn’t need the tuneup, and that I shouldn’t waste my money. That was his way of taking his work personally. I don’t imagine he left a great fortune behind running a business that way, but he left the world better off than he’d found it, and a sizable number of mourners who think the neighbourhood is a less sweet place now that he’s not part of it.
Meanwhile, I’ve got new neighbours across the street. They’re vegan lawyers with two large dogs who suffer from “separation anxieties,” which the lawyers admit is going to translate into a lot of loud daytime barking. The previous owner of the house, Alfie, had lived in it since he emigrated from Italy in 1957, and he was the most house-proud homeowner on the block. His house was fully renovated—Italian style—and immaculately kept up. He left the house so spotless the newcomers said they could have eaten off the floors, and Alfie clearly expected them to move into the place and live happily ever after without changing a thing.
Fat chance. The dumpster appeared the day after the lawyers gained possession, and it is a jumbo. The metal canopy over the front porch disappeared into it within the first hour, and the workmen are after the beige vinyl trim on the upper part of the house as I write, while another set of workmen appear to be wheel-barrowing out the remains of the kitchen floor Alfie left them to eat off, and which Alfie once showed me as the crown jewel of his good taste. I’m betting that the chocolate brown vinyl front windows are going to be gone in a few weeks, and that, by the time the lawyers are done, it’ll be impossible to tell that Alfie ever lived there.
Taste issues aside, I’m sad to see Alfie go. He was a good, perpetually cheerful if overly talkative neighbour, and the bags of smelts he distributed each spring were a true amenity, as was the three-story display of Christmas lights he put up each December. The good taste of the lawyers will no doubt jack up the house prices along the street a little more, but I’d rather have Alfie’s free smelts and the Christmas lights over good taste, enhanced house prices and barking dogs any day of the week. And it makes me more thankful for Paul the tailor’s continued presence than ever.
1200 words //May 4, 2002