Toronto Forget-Me-Not Part One

After having found a heart-shaped box filled with love letters exchanged between my grandparents in 1950, two years before they were married, I decided to visit the places they were addressed to. My nana, my mom’s mom, was in her late-teens, working at Woolworth’s in the Eaton Centre at Queen and Yonge, living in a series of short-term rentals, rooming houses with other girls her age. She’d told me about living at Queen and Gladstone, but none of the envelopes in the heart-shaped box contained that address. Instead, there were two other addresses: one in Regent Park, the other in Parkdale. Both places I’m at frequently, so it wouldn’t be difficult to find the homes of her youth, of her romance.

{image description: Close-up of the inside of a heart-shaped box, frayed and stained with age. My nana and poppa have signed their names in blue ink, dated February 14th, 1950.}

{image description: Heart-shaped box, laid flat and open, letters revealed. The box is red with a sot pink ribbon tied across the lid, wrapped in a flattened bow. To the left is a stack of white envelopes, postage stamps 4 cents. To the right, an unfolded letter from my poppa to my nana, from a time when their relationship had become long-distance. His handwriting is right-slanted and difficult to read.}

I didn’t read the letters. At least not all of them. Or, I read a few of them, but didn’t take enough pictures to retain memory, and I didn’t tell them that I read some of their letters. My grandparents have been together about seventy years now (!), and this Summer, they sold the little wartime house where they’d been living for twenty-five years. They brought a small amount of belongings with them to their room at a retirement home a few blocks away, and invited their children and grandchildren to see the house one more time and take what we wanted. While it was still in their possession, they referred to it as “The Cottage Up North.” Three blocks North. When they got married, they had almost nothing – a green trunk they used as a couch, and a few orange crates re-purposed as shelves.

Seeing the house sold and slowly emptied out was a devastating process – I’m still heartbroken, frustrated, and discontent. As small children, my twin and I planted twin pines in the backyard. We watched them grow from saplings to taller-than-the-house. We watered them when we visited on Sundays, and ate fresh peas and beans from the vegetable garden, admiring the poppies and tigerlilies that grew around them. This house was the only stable place – our mom moved a lot, and once we moved out, we continued moving, too – evictions, break-ups, breakdowns, etc. Nowhere to plant our own roots, and a fascination with plants that we also could not root – small pots of herbs and jades and succulents that would dry out or rot and die too soon.

With the vegetable garden no longer tended to in their older age, the property, the land, became overgrown. (But what does overgrown mean? What is undergrown, what perfect-grown?) Flowers taller, stalks thicker, the ground hidden beneath the so-called weeds. Wildflowers no longer only on the edges of the house, the garden, the fence, the borders of the so-called property, but everywhere. Forget-me-nots and harebells. My poppa, a quiet and crafty person who’s acquired most of his belongings from yard sales and discount racks, proudly told me that he purchased none if his plants – instead, he transplanted them from roadsides while on short day-trips on the outskirts of town, re-rooted and cultivated them at home.

{image description: Portrait of me holding onto a small bouquet of wildflowers I’ve been collecting in the backyard. I’m standing in front of and between the two pine trees my twin and I planted as small children. My eyes are bright, hazel, looking upward, smiling, my hair is green, greasy and curled in the humidity, glittery barrettes of purple bows, round glasses. I’m wearing a Hole t-shirt. The bouquet I’m holding is mostly made of forget-me-nots and pale purple asters. A handmade birdfeeder, which I brought home that day, hangs in the tree to the left.}

Had I more time at the house before it was out of our possession (now I am in its possession, I think, through dreams and rumination), I would have done the same thing, transplanting my grandparents’ wildflowers to my home in the city. Instead, I picked a handful and let them dry. I was late to my arrival in my hometown, my partner and I having rented a van and then daydreamed out loud on the road until I realized we’d missed our exit an hour ago. Pull over, turn around.

*

In early-August, I set aside an afternoon to visit the addresses from the love letters. Both were in neighbourhoods I find myself often, neighbourhoods I have a connection to, have my own memories of, my own histories and knowledges, live on the edges of, write, organize, trashpick. Neighbourhoods I saw on the news when I was growing up, not knowing my connections. Referred to as “troubled” and then referred to as “revitalizing” or “up and coming” or other terms that mean, We’re Getting Rid of Poor People, Please Come Shopping Here. We’re Demolishing Homes and Hearts and Souls, Please Come Live in Luxury On Top of the Remains.

*

505 Dundas bus Eastbound.

Tense hips, thighs holding my cane steady between my knees, pain on my mind. Since learning the house is gone, my the pain in my body has increased – the old, familiar feelings of sore, bruised thighs, of pelvic region joints that lock and snap and glitch, spasms of electric shock through the backs of my legs, raw burn on my lower back.

Heavy backpack on my lap, book open. I’m reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’m sitting at the front of the bus because I want/need to be close to the exit. A woman is resting her bags on the Priority seats, talking on her cell phone. At Spadina, an older white woman enters the bus, sits beside me, rests her bag on my lap. I’m still passive-aggressive in these moments. Ordinary moments on public transit can fuck me up, dysregulate me. I wiggle my leg until she picks up her bag and rests it on her own lap.

A few stops later, she exits the bus. But the woman who takes her place also rests her purse on my lap, shopping bag against my thigh. She adjusts her things, her purse taking up more space on my own lap, and this time I politely address her. “Can you please not put your bags on my lap?” I point at her purse, her own empty lap. I’m not furniture, I’m not nothing.

The bus is noisy, busy. Two o’clock in the afternoon. Two or three people with rollators. Kids, strollers, Cell phones. Bus exhaust, exhaustion of buses. I’m mostly looking down. My book, my cane, my feet. Not looking out the windows. Losing track of where we are except for the robot voice that announces each stop, a computerized system that mispronounces nearly every name.

Greyhound station, Denny’s.

A cab driver once told me the Canadian Tire kitty-corner to the bus terminal was once a park, and that’s where he met his wife.

I sit close to the exits on public transit because my crip-body will not be able to push through the other bodies to find a way out, the bodies standing in the aisles, distracted, headphones on, dissociated, wherever they’re at.

Yonge is always a nightmare. Yonge and Dundas, an intersection I avoid as much as I can. Sometimes the traffic is so jammed, the bus doesn’t move for ten or fifteen minutes at a time. People become more cranky, more frustrated, more aggressive. But I’ve always got a book, a Xanax, a mantra, a meditation practice.

An older homeless person sits across from me, wearing a pin that says ASK ME ABOUT MY PRONOUNS, trans flag behind the text. The woman beside me adjusts, rests her purse on my lap again. The bus follows the curves of Dundas, passes a strip club, the condo development across the street where I’ve graffitied their signs once or twice, wheatpasted posters for protests. A man offers a seat to a woman carrying heavy grocery bags.

I exit the bus at Parliament.

{image description: A small green bin with the Toronto city logo in white, with long-stemmed trumpet-shaped red flowers overflowing beyond the lid of the container. For more on the meaning of flowers in dumpsters and why I adore them, read my essay in Becoming Dangerous, Trash-Magic: Signs and Rituals for the Unwanted. Behind the small trash bin is a large green and white For Sale sign, with a name and phone number in bold type. A few old, tattered mattresses lean against the sign to the right. To the left, an electric mobility scooter is seen parked beside the brick wall. The ground is exposed dirt, dry, with scattered trash and petals.}

I’m near the intersection of Dundas East and Parliament, where there’s a new FreshCo, the Regent Park Community Health Centre, and the Toronto Council Fire Native Centre. There’s a burger place, a pizza place. Plenty of buildings with plenty of stories, histories, lives, futures. Cops are present, as they too often are. Slightly North, the CHC, where OCAP hosts their monthly Speakers Series. My nana’s old address is only a block or two away, around the corner.

{image description: Looking down at my feet. My lavender cane is visible to the left. Along with the handle, I’m holding onto a small spiral-bound memo pad, with a purple pen hooked to the open page. I’ve been taking notes. I’m wearing an above-the-knee dress with yellow, black, and white vertical stripes, overlaid with a floral print of clusters of roses in various shades of purple. Opaque purple knee-length tights, tattoos peeking out. Hair legs, pale. Purple socks slightly visible above my classic black Blundstone’s. Sidewalk, bright sun. The shadow of my cane crosses my feet.}

{image description: When I look up, I see the wide road with streetcar tracks, and old brick buildings on each corner. Dundas East and Berkeley. A one-way road with red and white Do Not Enter signs. The building on the Northwest corner is old red brick and three stories tall, like so many in Toronto. The building is overgrown with lush, deep green ivy, but clearly maintained by somebody, trimmed in straight lines and corners around windows that look shiny and new. The main floor is floor-to-ceiling windows, white blinds closed. It’s unclear if it’s a storefront, home, or office. The building has been all these things and more, I’m sure. The skies are cloudless, aqua. The building across the street, the Northeast corner, is old red brick, with trim and awnings painted forest green, large windows on the main floor, bay window on the second floor, and a black iron railing containing a small balcony on the third floor, accessible via the attic-alcove.}

Turn left, walk South, look for numbers on the buildings. They’re similar to the old houses on the corner, but smaller, more narrow, still containing homes, not storefronts. Only a few doors down, I see the number I’m looking for. The house my nana lived in as a teenager is still here! It hasn’t been torn down, nor built around or over. There’s no sign indicating ~a change proposed to the site~. The house is set back from the street, and a garden has been planted, blooming over the entire yard. Stakes emerge from the ground where tomatoes are beginning to grow, and there are all kinds of plants, flowers, rose bushes. I don’t know how to name all the plants, but some of them are labeled.

The flowers are planted not only for beauty, but for bees and butterflies, too. Princess Lilies, Majestic Louis Lilies, violets… Cabbage White butterflies, Monarchs, Tiger Swallowtails, Little Yellows… They’re fluttering amongst the flowers, and all over the city.

The house still has six doorbells. I don’t want to intrude (or, I don’t want to be caught intruding, I don’t want to be seen as suspicious, I’m never quite sure how strangers read me…), but I want to be closer to the house, examine the details. The garden is separated from the garden by a series of wooden beams, neither a fence nor a curb, but a kind of elevated border, which I’m able to sit on. All the blinds are closed. Maybe I’m just a stranger resting my hips, my legs – I’ve got my cane, maybe they’ll know. If anybody sees me, wonders what I’m up to, why I’m here.

{image description: Selfie, Summer 2019, taken as I sit in front of the rooming house where my nana lived in 1950. I’m shown from the chest up, wearing a black cord necklace with a heart-shaped shungite crystal, my asymmetrical below-the-shoulders hair dyed clover green, wavy, no bangs. Round, mauve tortoiseshell glasses, unsmiling and many feels, lipstick a shade called Spellbound, bright magenta. Purple plastic flower barrette, roots growing out golden. Pale skin, zits always visible under make-up and sunscreen. Outside of the frame, my elbows are resting on my knees. The dress described earlier, yellow, black, and white vertical stripes, overlaid with a floral print of clusters of roses in various shades of purple, it’s sleeveless, shoulders exposed, a golden zipper following the collar. Behind me, orange flowers, red bricks, green leaves, everything glowing in the sun.}

Since the blinds are closed, I decide I might as well walk up the brick path, might as well climb the four cement steps to the wooden porch. The door is one of the most beautiful details of the house. Wood. Oak? Naming polished woods in/on buildings is not within my skillset (yet), but I like to imagine oak. It could be pine, it could be maple. I don’t know. It’s a split door, narrow, opens in the middle. There’s a mail-slot on the left side. I aim my camera. If anybody comes to the door, I’ll be honest. Maybe ask if I can look inside. I could also ring the doorbell, see if anybody’s home. But I won’t.

{image description: Close-up of the door described above, with a focus on the mail-slot. It’s aluminum-plated steel, the silver peeling back from weather and age. It’s unlikely to be the same one my nana received her letters through, but I like to imagine it happening that way anyway. In one of her letters, she mentioned that if a letter from my poppa was delivered while she was at a work, a roommate would call her to let her know, and then she’d have something to look forward to when she was finished her shift. The doorknob and lock to the right are bronze and aged.}

{image description: Close-up of a series of doorbells to the right of the door. Most seems to have been installed at different times, mismatched from the others. Some are round, black rubber, others are rectangular, white, etc.}

I brought the Next World Tarot with me, Cristy Road’s deck. Visions of radical futures. Packed my backpack with a plan to draw one card on each property.

Here (back at the edge of the garden, no longer on the porch), I shuffle the deck and draw a card. See how I feel, absorb the image, watch my thoughts.

King of Cups.

“The Throne of Movement.”

I like the juxtaposition of stillness and motion, power and action.

The figure in this card holds a blooming lotus flower in their brown hands, sits in an electric mobility scooter on a small precipice over the sea. They are barefoot, an orange mug of tea to their right. They wear a leis, their long black hair entranced by the breeze, blowing in thin tendrils reminiscent of the vines of morning glories or other delicate plants that vine. When I hold the card before me, as in the image below, the figure’s outfit and accessories match the garden where I sit.

{image description: My left hand holds the card described above, with garden and shadows in the background.}

Cristy Road writes: “The King of Cups is the space between gentle and tough love. She runs on awareness of logic while maintaining a soft open heart. She is a healed healer who fights through unlimited access to her highest self… She can navigate intellect and emotion without demeaning her own, or anyone else’s, humanity. She asks you to articulate your wounds and vulnerabilities in order to watch them heal.”

Sounds of birds and traffic, sounds of pedestrians but only a few, lots of trees.

What does it feel like, holding the card in my hand, imagining what happened here seventy years ago, everything that’s passed since, and what’s come to be?

I’m not a healed healer. And that’s not necessarily somebody I want to become, but the idea of a healed healer is still somebody I can learn from, learn with. There is a ceiling to healing under capitalism, and I come from a traumatized family with a pattern of miscommunication, non-communication, passive-aggressive communication. The figure on the card is somebody I see in the city often, the same as the butterflies, the trash bins filled with flowers, used up mattresses, old houses renovated to convey wealth…

My highest self doesn’t always feel accessible to me. Then again, sometimes I forget to look for them. Especially this Summer – I was vaguely dissociated much of the season, but couldn’t recognize it until something in the world drew my attention to where I was, that my mind was elsewhere from my body. The next stop would be called, the public transit robot voice, and I’d be going the wrong way on a route I know and take frequently. I would lose myself with other people, not know how to answer simple questions, not know what I needed. I wouldn’t realize I was hungry until I was starving and nearly fainting. Everyday, it felt like it was three or four hours later than it was, kept losing time. I wanted mornings to last all day. Quiet mornings, when life feels possible. I couldn’t keep track of what day it was, sometimes not even what month.

Early days of Autumn, as I write this piece, the same dissociative states continue. An example: When Kink Boutique, a local queer sex shop, announced they were going out-of-business after three years and having a clearance sale, I dropped by to pick up a few things. One of those things was a silly-sexy costume, cheap, $9. The worker behind the counter mentioned it’d be a good costume for Halloween.

“Yeah, you’re right, too bad Halloween isn’t coming up,” I agreed.

Except it is, of course. My brain thought it was Spring, maybe May. It’s mid-September.

*

After sitting in contemplation for some time, I walked South, wanting to move my body before getting on the streetcar and looking for the next address. I took pictures of murals painted on brick buildings, fliers for local events, feet on the ground. At Moss Park, security cameras and warning signs, public space hostile to the people who need it.

{image description: A squat, two-story building of yellow brick, paved pathway and square, grass trimmed short. A mural is painted on the first-story of the wall, cherry blossom trees in bloom, silhouettes of cityscapes. Beyond the building, small trees, silver skyscrapers, too many condos, a clear sky.}

{image description: Close-up of the brick wall, pink puffs of cherry blossoms blooming, with a sign posted in the centre: Black allcaps on white: WARNING. NEIGHBORHOOD CRIME WATCH AREA. White allcaps on bold red: WE CALL THE POLICE. Street-sign style illustration of mysterious figure in black, crossed out in red.}

{image description: Corner of the same building, a locked door on the right, a painted door on the left.}

{image description: Close-up on detail of the mural, looking up toward the sky, now in view. Bright pink cherry blossoms, black branches, clear skies reflected in second-story windows.}

{image description: The same corner, looking up. Security camera affixed to the right. Ivy growing over a painted tree to the left.}

{image description: Turning to the left, standing in the same place. Another corner, another locked door, the cherry blossom mural, windows painted on the wall. Another security camera keeping an eye on the scene.}

Wander onward. I see another mobility scooter parked on the sidewalk, labeled Fortress 2000. Moss Park is the closest park to my nana’s old home, gold lions guarding the Rec Centre. I think about mobility aids as bodies, as homes. As depicted in the card, a cozy place from which to organize, to breathe, to create. My own, my fifth limb. How I’ve slowly taught my grandparents to be okay with their own canes, to actually use them. Like me, my nana covers hers in stickers. She also attaches a label with her name and address, prone to forgetting it places.

Down the street, a series of homeless men, of disabled men, are sitting along the edges of the sidewalk.

“YO, THERE’S A WOMAN COMING,” one of them says.

I pretend not to hear, as I so often do. Stroll by, they catcall. I don’t look in their direction, but I see their heads turn my way.

501 Queen streetcar, Westbound. Hundreds and hundreds of storefronts, less indie, more chains. I like watching poor people jaywalk in poor neighbourhoods, in used-to-be poor neighbourhoods where we haven’t been fully pushed out yet. The way poor people own the streets, know the traffic, become invincible. Regent Park and Parkdale are two of these places. Long, long histories, resisting gentrification, refusing to be pushed out, resisting racism, fighting the BIA’s and local businesses and city officials who put spikes on benches or remove them altogether, resisting landlords, real estate landlords, the bigots and capitalists and white supremacists in and out of office.

The streetcar passes by places with memories, places that have been erased, some which still stand but nobody knows for how long. The streetcar passes the hospital where I had my hysterectomy. 20-somethings hug each other on the sidewalk at Queen and Yonge, where my grandparents met. City Hall, tourists and protests. Non-disabled men sit in the accessible seats again. Sometimes I sneak photos of them, not their faces, but the space they take up. A thin, non-disabled man in a suit often chooses to use three seats – one for his body, one for his leather satchel, one for his hand holding onto his cell phone. The streetcar passes my home, passes Trinity Bellwoods, passes the places where the good dumpsters are. Starbucks logos don’t plaster every corner anymore. They’re going under, too. There’s a punk with lilac hair, a man playing googlemaps directions with no headphones. Black Market’s still here but moving, moving across the street. Torn down buildings. The empty parking lot that housed weekend fairs with jewelry and Tarot readings and crystals and buskers has been built upon. Now it’s a MEC. An ugly cube, members only. Pop-up galleries, construction sites. Legendary venues like Horseshoe Tavern and Cameron House, still here. Cranes in the distance on Spadina. Craft supplies, beads, fabrics, ghost signs under fresh signs. Velvet Underground, always read the marquee. The windows of Call & Response, where I’ve admired outfits and never gone inside. A new café with Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album art painted on the wall. Red umbrellas on patios, is it intentional? Do they know what it means? The convenience store is being replaced with a place that sells “gourmet nuts.” The place that used to sell lingerie, used to have a portrait of Bettie Page painted on the wall, I love her because she stabbed her landlord, it’s been new-in-business and out-of-business more than once since I moved to the neighbourhood, I walked by when they painted beige over Bettie Page. But she was still there when I moved here, a landmark to find my place. Lipstick and Dynamite, classic Queen West, and the free art gallery for crazy and disabled and mad people. At Dovercourt, a Starbucks went empty then became another café then went empty. Now it houses the headquarters of yet another condo development. The sign says something like “The first and last luxury experience on Queen West,” UGH. The Beaver, always wish it were open during the day. Security cameras all over the streetcar, everywhere, every angle.

Arrive at my destination. My nana’s old address is around the corner from the Parkdale Library, my home branch. Much of my writing has been done there, essays and diaries and letters to friends. The place I pick up every book I reserve online, sign out books when I’m wandering the aisles or see something interesting on display. There’s an elderly couple fighting with one another by the Polish church. And old man is pushing an old woman, likely his wife of many, many years, in her wheelchair. Her hair is a poof of lavender tint perm. We pass by one another a few times, and they’re arguing each time.

It’s becoming evident as I check the number of each building that the one I’m looking for is no longer there. I search for it on googlemaps to see if the address still exists. It does. It’s a park now, and a community garden. Of all the things demolished homes can become, this is among the best. I’m glad one of my nana’s teenage homes has become not a condo, not a chain, but public space, gardens, free food, reclaimed land for Indigenous gardeners, teachers, seekers. Free community space. A vegetable garden named HOPE, established with the local Tibetan community in Parkdale.

{image description: Looking down at my feet again, standing in the grass, same outfit described in previous photos, my left hand holding my lavender cane. One sticker on my cane says EVICT THIS, illustration of a middle finger with sharp nails. Another sticker is the classic yellow Nirvana face. I’m standing in the park, between the community centre and a church. My notepad is also in my left hand, along with a card I found on the ground.}

It’s another one-way street, cars parked on one side. Small children play on a swingset, splash in a nearby wading pool. There are old brick houses across the street, near Milky Way Lane. Many of them are under construction, in a process of renovation, renoviction, one surmises. Some are boarded up as construction happens. Another tree-lined street. Sounds of children at play, the water fountain, planes, homeless people pushing shopping carts of their belongings. The elderly couple returns, still fighting. Her wheelchair is not the self-propelled sort, but the kind built to be pushed by somebody else, often used when disabling situation is temporary. He arranges the wheelchair beside a bench, sits down. They light cigarettes together.

{image description: Close-up of a card in my hand, held between thumb and forefinger, nails painted deep violet, short. I found the card on the ground as I recognized the address I was seeking out no longer held a building. Illustration of a stingray, labeled STINGRAY in bold black allcaps.}

{image description: Close-up of the back of the same card. Description reads: STINGRAY. Fish. The stingray is a flat fish with a long tail. The tail has two spines with teeth on their edges. From glands beneath these teeth, the stingray can eject poison. The stingray swings its tail upward to wound its prey, releasing the poison. The longest stingray lives near Australia and can grow to be as long as 14 feet. Stingrays live at the bottom of the ocean in mud or sand. They are also called “stingarees.”}

Sit on the ground, draw another card.

Torontoingly Yours,

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