Tag Archives: People

Chat With Rat Boy

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Walking up Bay Street from King, I saw two guys sitting on the sidewalk. It was rush hour and people were pouring from the buildings to make their dash down to Union Station. At first, I didn’t think anything of it: two more kids begging on the streets. But as I passed, I did a double-take. A rat had climbed onto the one kid’s shoulder. I stopped and knelt beside him: “Is that what I think it is?”

He smiled and confirmed that it was a rat. But he was quick to add that rats make good pets. They’re intelligent and loyal. Easy to care for. They’ll eat anything humans eat. Except potatoes. Don’t feed them potatoes. There’s something in the skins that’s poisonous to rats. The only downside to rats is that they eat a lot, almost as much as dogs. As he spoke, I had visions of Willard in my head.

He bought his rat at PJ’s Pet Store. He boarded all the way up Yonge Street to the store north of Lawrence. He’s had his rat for more than a year now. Before that, he had another rat that he bought at the PJ’s in Barrie, but somebody stole it.

“Somebody stole your rat?”

“Yeah. I think because it was black and white. So I bought a brown rat instead. Nobody wants a brown rat. They look dirty.”

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Religiosity On The Streets

There’s a breezeway between St. James Cathedral and what I presume to be the admin building for the Anglican Diocese. Photographically speaking, it’s interesting because it has a glass ceiling (for the men to walk on?) that produces good reflections when you shoot from underneath it towards the street. The other evening, I was standing there, amusing myself, when someone nearby started picking a guitar and singing. I poked my head around the corner and found a man sitting on a stone bench. The church’s exterior wall has a lot of angles that provide secluded alcoves. I asked the man if he was practising. He said yeah, he had a gig across the road, just one song but he wanted to get it right.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I asked if he’d mind me taking shots of him while he practised. He said sure, but he figured it was probably worth the price of a beer. I said I figured it was, so he did his thing and I did my thing and we both were happy. Mike speaks with a bit of a twang so I was expecting him to sing in a nasal Willie Nelson voice. Mercifully, he’s sings much better than that and his picking is fantastic. You can see from the photos that he plays a mouth organ. I grew up calling it an organ, but he calls it a harp. He plays a Lee Oskar. He doesn’t like Hohner; he says they just don’t hold up.

When it came time to make good on my promise, I realized I’d made a mistake. Normally, when I go out, I load my pockets with twonies. But this evening I’d forgotten. Well, I thought, a deal’s a deal. I held up a twenty dollar bill and said it’s all I had. Mike turned all obsequious on me and it made me feel awkward. He pressed his hands together like he was Gandhi. “Oh man, all I wanted from you was a twonie for a beer. Tell me, are you a Christian?”

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

I hate when people ask me that question. I don’t want to disappoint them. At the same time, I don’t want to be taken for a bigot or an asshole. To be honest, I don’t know what I am. I suppose I’m happily in limbo. I ended up telling Mike that I grew up in the United Church of Canada but I’m a bit lapsed these days. “Lapsed” describes most people who grew up in the United Church of Canada. “Well bless you anyways,” he said.

One day, my photography habit is going to turn me into a bona fide sociologist. I’d love to conduct an investigation of religiosity on the streets. While mainstream media keep harping at the secular/humanist/agnostic shift of the mainstream-cultures/middle-classes/people-who-pull-twenty-dollar-bills-from-their-pockets, that shift doesn’t appear to have touched those who live in the margins. In part, it may have something to do with the fact that a lot of front line services are run by notoriously evangelical Christian organizations. But nowadays even those organizations are under pressure to keep religion out of it. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, but leave their souls to the great whatever.

So where does it come from? Does it ooze up from the pavement? Is it prompted by the simple fact of poverty? Is it (consciously or otherwise) a way for those living in the margins to distinguish themselves from the secular lost and their barren normativity? Does my vocabulary and academic/investigative posturing merely underscore the barrenness?

Shut up and shoot, Dave. Shoot like it’s a prayer. Share like it’s a sacrament.

Shot NE corner of St. James Cathedral

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Followup With Scott

At the end of November, I bumped into Scott at the Tim Horton’s on Bond Street. He was working the door for tips. I took a photo of him and promised him a copy for his album, but kept missing him whenever I went back. Finally, I caught up with him the day after what I presume will be the last snow storm of the season. Although it was -5 Celsius, he was dressed in only a sweat shirt. He asked me to watch his stuff while he went inside to leave the photo with a buddy named Willy (?) who was drinking a coffee and keeping warm.

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He said thanks for the photo, but I wouldn’t say he was overly delighted. Keeping a photo album reminds him of how much he’s changed, and how quickly, too. Scott’s been sick these past few months and has dropped 70 lbs. He says he could afford to lose the weight, but not like this. Not so fast. He shows me his teeth. They’re falling out. There are three left on the bottom and their roots are exposed. He says he’s given up crack. He threw out his pipes and shit last week and he’s never going back. He’s been getting some, too. Met a woman. She’s crazy for it. Two. Three times a day. He can’t keep up with her. Told her not to come around so much. It’ll kill him. He wonders if maybe he insulted her because she hasn’t come around in a couple days.

Scott got in a fight yesterday. A native guy jumped him from behind. But it turned out all right. He’s still standing. Can’t say the same for the native guy. I ask why the guy jumped him. “He wanted my door.” There’s no way Scott’s giving up this door. It’s HIS door. His and Jason’s. Though he’s thinking of getting out of there, going up to St. Clair.

He can’t stay at the door much longer and wonders what time it is. He has an appointment with the housing people at 11:30 so he has to get back to his room. He pulls the coin from his pockets and counts it, 18 dollars in all. A quarter slips through his fingers and he frowns. He can’t bend down to pick it up. Maybe I could get it for him. I say it’s a good thing they stopped making pennies and he laughs. There was one time in Union Station when he ended up with $15 worth of pennies in one pocket, but the weight of the pennies put a hole in his pocket and they all ran down his pant leg and trailed behind him on the floor. Meanwhile, a bum (he means that in the best sense of the word) was on his hands and knees picking up every last penny. When their eyes met, the bum said thanks; he’d just paid for a couple bottles of sherry wine. “Oh well, I wasn’t mad about it. Pay it forward is what I always say.”

Almost on cue, a well-dressed woman exits the Tim Horton’s. Scott holds the door for her and she hands him a coffee. He doesn’t mention that someone else has just given him a fresh coffee. When the woman is gone, he pays it forward by giving it to me.

When I get home and look closely at the images I’ve taken, I notice the sign on Scott’s door: “Pay With Your Phone.” With dedicated payment apps and secure eWallets, I wonder what guys like Scott will do once we go totally cashless.

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Rob Ford’s Funeral Procession

Yesterday morning I walked down to St. James Cathedral bearing my camera gear like a giant question mark. I wanted to see if I could discern what makes Rob Ford tick—not Rob Ford the man, obviously, since he’s no longer with us, but Rob Ford the cultural phenomenon.

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Mourner, hat in hand, waiting for the funeral procession.

I went with a theory: that Rob Ford is an accidental postmodern. The way I understand postmodernism, it began as an intentional critique of the relationship between power and culture and supplemented its theorizing with a set of practical tools for subverting that relationship. It challenged the hierarchical structure of cultural production. The distinction which privileges high art over pop culture is a false distinction. So, too, the distinction which privileges scientific/academic discourse over lay inquiry. Professionalism over the amateur. Religious orthodoxy over grassroots spirituality. Reason over dreams. White over black. Man over woman. Straight over queer. Not surprisingly, the earliest theoretical glimmers of postmodernism coincided with the rise of practical movements: Black Power, Feminism, Gay Rights.

More recently, we’ve witnessed the emergence of cultural phenomena which, while never intended to fulfill a postmodern agenda, nevertheless bear some of its marks. They are accidentally postmodern. Facebook is a good example of this. It has ripped down the walls between our neatly compartmentalized discursive habits. Now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re reading news or advertising, gossip or fiction. Facebook makes it impossible to privilege one discursive mode over another. (The only thing that’s privileged is Facebook itself.) In the same way, Rob Ford never woke one morning and said to himself: Hey, I’m gonna be a postmodern mayor. It just happened that way.

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Consider the evidence (or don’t, since that might be too scientific). Ford occupied the office of mayor which, traditionally, evokes a sense of gravitas. The mayor is addressed as Your Worship, and he has all the powers of a Justice of the Peace which entitles him, among other things, to preside over marriages. Tradition treats it as an office marked by dignity. People loved Ford for the fact that he was accessible and casual. He was hands on. Accessibility may have come at the expense of dignity. Everybody knew he was smashed on the job. Everybody knew he worked while driving. Talked on his cell phone while driving (gave a woman the finger when she told him to hang up). But so what? He demystified the aura that enshrouds the mayoral office.

He blurred lines. With him, it was impossible to tell whether he was politicking or entertaining. The conflict of interest scandal that nearly cost him his job underscores this blurring of lines. He didn’t appear to understand that it might be inappropriate to solicit funds for a personal charity on City Hall letterhead. But why should he when such distinctions belong to an earlier time with its archaic assumptions about propriety? Or consider his personal wealth which suggests white male privilege. And yet he styled himself a man of the people. A mayor for the little guy, enormously popular with working class and Black voters. Never mind his union busting, his racist rants, his groping and butt patting, his refusal to attend LGTQ events. One could call him hypocritical or contradictory. But I wonder if, maybe, he occupied a Both/And cultural space that gave him an extraordinary sense of freedom.

Clowns in gowns pretend to be officiants at a religious service.

Clowns in gowns pose as religious officiants.

At Jarvis & Adelaide, I cut through St. James Park. I remember when this was a tent city during the Occupy Movement. Although I was early, a line had already formed in front of St. James Cathedral, members of the public hoping to get inside for the funeral. I crossed to the south side of King Street and positioned myself across from the front door. Beside me, the media had set themselves up, talking heads, live commentary, drooling experts. A man in shorts and a Santa Claus hat was posing behind them. I laughed. It seemed perfect. I squinted at the man with his goatee and cigarette. Wait a sec. Isn’t that Zanta?

Have you heard of Zanta? He’s something of a fixture in these parts. You can read more about him on his wikipedia page, but the short version is that, 16 years ago, he fell down a flight of stairs and may have suffered neurological damage. He was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. His name is David Zancai, but he has adopted the performing name of Zanta. His performance involves wearing a Santa hat, doing a lot of push ups, posing (totally ripped), and wishing people a Merry Christmess on any day of the year (except Christmas).

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Zanta (David Zancai) kneeling in front of St. James Cathedral.

Zanta lay down on the street in front of the church and started doing pushups. When he finished his pushups, he lay his sweatshirt on the pavement, pulled out a magic marker, and started writing a message on it. Three police officers stepped onto the street and encouraged him to leave, forcing him to the eastern edge of St. James Park where he simmered for a time on a park bench. I spoke to the police officer who led the push to expel Zanta. If I was going to play amateur photojournalist (or whatever the hell I thought I was doing), it seemed a good idea to do some fact checking. The police officer confirmed that, yes, the man is Zanta. He rolled his eyes. He’d had dealings with Zanta for probably 10 or 12 years now. But they had to get him out of there. It was important for the funeral to go off with some decorum.

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Police remove Zanta from the scene.

Later, I spoke to Zanta. He was pleased to hear that my name is David. He asked me if my parents are alive. Yes. Grandparents? One. How about the other ones? Well, um, uh, no (logic didn’t appear to be one of his strong suits). He said he’d tell me where they are. His rambling boiled down to this: my deceased grandparents are with Rob Ford. No doubt they’re delighted to have his company. He talked in a wandering way. It wasn’t an associative wandering. More a string of non sequiturs. It was impossible to have a rational conversation with the man.

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The pipers piped. The honour guard marched. The hearse arrived and pulled to the front door of the church. And behind it all, the rabble. People with their signs and little flags declaring their allegiance to Ford Nation and proclaiming Rob Ford the best mayor ever. They were loud and unruly. They shouted their non sequiturs, their contradictions. I turned and Zanta was gone. I caught sight of his white hood disappearing into the mob. He fit right in. So much for the police and their decorum.

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It would be easy to ridicule the Ford Nation phenomenon. I was born into a modern world, but educated into a postmodern sensibility, so I tread on fractured ground. The reasonable me, the one who likes neat categories and well-reasoned arguments, would very much enjoy running Ford Nation through my privileged blender. But the unreasonable me recognizes that my reasonable upbringing is intimately tied to stories of unjust relations. With time to reflect on the photos I took of Ford Nation’s citizens, I’m reminded of the Black Lives Matter tent city at Police Headquarters. These are not two separate groups. They merge like a Venn diagram. Their points of intersection are messy but they need to be acknowledged. As for Rob Ford, I wonder… Privileged white man with a penchant for hypocrisy? Or could he, indeed, have been an ally? And what does that make me if I dispute those who claim he was?

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Citizens of Ford Nation follow the funeral procession.

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Ross

I met Ross on College Street in front of Fran’s. He asked me directions to Women’s College Hospital. He said he had an x-ray booked there. He’d just come into town from Saskatchewan.

I think my photo might create a false impression of him, like he’s tough or disagreeable. Speaking to him, it was quite the opposite. But he was stuffing his mouth with food, so when he posed for the shot, he clenched his jaw shut to keep the food from spilling out. I think it’s the clenching that creates an impression of toughness. Or maybe it’s something else, something obvious that I’m missing.

Ross

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Birdlady

If they can have an Oscar-winning film called Birdman, then I can have an award-winning (okay, not award-winning, but at least blog-worthy) photo called Birdlady.

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I met this woman in the space south of Trinity Lutheran Church in the St. James Town area. She doesn’t feed the birds and squirrels every day, but when it’s cold she makes a point of giving them something to eat. She comes with bird seed, peanuts and, in case the squirrels don’t like the peanuts, she brings walnuts.

She loves animals. She grew up with animals. Her father kept dogs and cats. They had a chicken too. They even had a pig. Her father raised the pig as a family pet. He gave it milk from a bottle when it was little. They lived in a small town and everyone knew them. Wherever her father went, the pig followed him.

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Adam

Welcome to 2016. After a break for the holidays, I’m back at it. I hadn’t expected to do much street photography in January, but, apart from one day, the weather has been extraordinarily accommodating.

At the beginning of December, I took some shots of a guy named Scott who was working the door to the Tim Horton’s on the Ryerson campus (Bond St. north of Dundas). I’d promised to give him a print so I went looking for him. A different guy was working the door. I showed him the photo. He knew Scott and suggested I go over to the Timmies at Jarvis and Dundas.

In the meantime, I had a camera slung around my neck and a willing subject standing in front of me, so we got talking, and I did what I do. This is Adam:

Adam

I showed him some of the shots and he was pleased. I think he was worried about how he’d look because he’s missing some of his top front teeth and the bottom ones aren’t anything to write home about. I wanted to send him a copy of this shot but he couldn’t think of how that would work. In the last month, he’s had two cell phones stolen, plus he can’t use his email account anymore. His ex-girlfriend is a computer programmer and, like, psycho. She’s hacked all his passwords. He’s got to figure out something else for email.

I’m not sure how we got around to it — maybe something to do with work troubles — but his health hasn’t been great. A guy stabbed him in September. Maybe I heard about it in the news? He was in the Leslieville Value Village and this guy attacked him with a steak knife. He told me to look it up, so I did. The blade broke off and was lodged in his abdomen. They rushed him to the hospital. Major surgery. It was more than a month before he was on his feet again.

I had no reason to disbelieve him, but maybe there was something Thomasish in my expression. He lifted his jacket and shirt and showed me the scars, a small one from the steak knife, and a large one from the surgery. After things healed, he got a tattoo to cover the entry wound: a Jason character with a hockey mask and a big knife.

Knife wound

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Dull Day – Brilliant Faces

Was out Sunday afternoon with my camera and, dull weather notwithstanding, people were chattier than usual. Maybe it has to do with the approach of Christmas. Or with the fact that Christmas is still far enough away that people aren’t feeling stressed by it.

At Sherbourne and Wellesley, I met a woman waiting for the bus. She said her name is Rhiannon, like in the Fleetwood Mac song. But not a witch. She laughed. She was headed up to the rink at North York Civic Centre.

Rhiannon

On Bond Street north of Dundas, Scott posed for a photo. It was important to him that I get the Tim Horton’s sign in the background. He says I can find him in front of the Tim Horton’s every day; he’d like it if I could print off a copy of the photo for him so he can stick it in an album he keeps. The Ryerson Image Centre is just across the street so I expect a lot of people take his photo.

Scott

Finally, a brief encounter at Yonge and Wellesley. Not even enough time to exchange names. Just a tap on the shoulder while we’re waiting for the light to change. “I like your hat. Mind if I take a shot?” I raise my camera. He smiles and says “Sure.” A quick shot, then the light turns green and he’s gone.

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Mike

This is Mike. He was waiting for a bus on the northeast corner of Bathurst and Dupont. He was sitting with his back to the window of the Vesta Lunch shop. A low November sun shone full in his face. There was a backlight, too, reflecting from the shop window.

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Mike invited me to a party. He said there’d be a girl there. The whole thing would be recorded on video. Streamed on the internet. I could wear a mask if I liked. I don’t know why, but while he told me this, I was wondering who he voted for in the last federal election. I didn’t ask, of course. I didn’t want to make him feel awkward.

Mike

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Amry

I met Amry outside a dental office in Cabbagetown. He was leaning against a poster of a big perfect smile, smoking a cigarette. When I asked if I could take his picture, he said sure and wondered where I was from. I figured “fair is fair” and asked him the same question in return. He was born in Iran but has lived in Toronto for the last 20 years. I asked if has any family. He said he has two brothers. Any children? He shrugged. Maybe. He can’t be sure about such things.

Amry

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