Article 5: Snake Story

Toronto Department

Tish Fannon put her snake into a pillowcase and got on the subway at Dupont station. Her snake, a 5-foot ball-python named Aphrodite, came out of the pillowcase once they arrived at work: a spot above a subway grate at Yonge Dundas Square.

A hundred-thousand people walk by here each day and Aphrodite, sitting around Tish’s shoulders and Iron Maiden t-shirt, fits right in to Yonge Dundas Square’s carnival continuum. On this afternoon people are thronging past a mime, paint can drummers, a clown, a juggler, various street preachers, beggars, police restraining a man, and honking cars -- all under the big top glow of competing three-story video screens, the biggest in Canada! Amidst the noise, confusion, and clamor, Aphrodite effortlessly gets the attention of passerby.

In fact the moment Tish took Aphrodite out a passerby screamed from instinctive fear when he noticed her. “I got it! I got my shrieker!” says Tish. “We have at least one shrieker a day. Usually more. My favourite shrieker of all time was a 350 pound biker.”

A few moments later a woman comes up and begins haranguing Tish. “You need Jesus in your life! He’ll save you from the devil creature on your shoulders.” She leaves, and Tish takes this hellish encounter in stride: “Street preachers and people like that will stop right in front of me all the time, kill my entire crowd, and start going crazy like that.”

“OMG a snake!,” says a passerby. This person stops; they don’t shriek and there’s no brimstone, just surprise and delight. When this happens Tish does the next part of her snake act: she offers to put Aphrodite around their neck. The young man eagerly agrees, hands his backpack to his girlfriend, and Tish gently places Aphrodite around his neck. Of course, the person takes a selfie. This scene is repeated with different variations for the next few hours: people young and old are happily bewitched by Aphrodite. Most people leave a tip for the experience. The routine gathers around $100 dollars in a few hours.

Tish, who also models, is writing an apocalyptic novel, and went to school be an executive office assistant, tells me, “I’ve been busking for almost ten years with a guitar, but I was terrified of snakes. I would've been a shrieker too.” Then a friend encouraged her to challenge that fear and took her to a reptile rescue. She fell in love and volunteered there. Aphrodite is a rescue. And the woman with the snake in the middle of the busiest spot in Canada was not only afraid of snakes, but Tish has occasional flashes of crippling anxiety in crowds, which Aphrodite helps her recover from. A few times I watch as she steps away from crowd and goes into a corner to calm down and relax, and spend a moment alone with just Aphrodite. Tish kisses her head the size of a toonie, and whispers to her, “You're such a cute little girl. You're gorgeous. You have a big fat butt.”

Back in the limelight of the street, a little kid loves the snake and shows it to his mom and his brother in a stroller. Aphrodite spends a few more minutes as a celebrity, and then it's back in the pillowcase to go home, where away from the crowds she lives in a tank, curled up in a ball.

--David Stokes


Article 4: A Storefront Mystery

Toronto Department

There’s a mysterious storefront at 1280 Queen Street West. Unlike every other along Queen, it has no name or identifying marks, and the windows are obscured, a blankness making it easy to pass-by without notice; and yet despite its hidden namelessness, the storefront is painted a bright orange. Only on a hot day, when the door is sometimes partially open, can inquisitive passersby gain any insight within, and steal in midstride a glimpse of a cozy and dimly lit room. As for who and what this storefront cipher serves is a mystery you might live with forever, and if you walk by here often stop reading now and preserve the mystery, since simply noticing something beautiful is what the inhabitant here loves most. But all was gently cleared up for me, after curiosity almost drove me to Texas, by nervously peaking my head inside and asking the somewhat surprised inhabitants, ‘What is this place?’

‘You will become a new victim for our stew!’ was the reply I expected after my intrusion, but instead the response was that ‘This is the studio of interior designer William Anderson’. And I would learn this is where he has based his practice for the last thirty years. If you were invited inside, as your eyes adjust to the soft light you would see emerge three pairs of antlers hung on the walls (they are of deer, moose, and mountain goat); two Calder-esque mobiles turning slowly; a blacksmith's visor; a sculpture made of pine cones; a black and white photo of a young man naked but for the cast on his leg and the cane in his hand; a large photograph of barnyard animals posing together; a giant concrete sculpture of a seahorse; a sign that says “Support Your Local Prostitute - Parkdale Belongs To Us Too!”; a print of Diane Arbus’ “Backwards Man”; a profusion of rolled up blueprints, papers, diagrams, books, fabric, plans everywhere. All beneath a yellow, red, and blue tin ceiling. And there’s a dog, Hershey, a Basenji, who will, occasionally, yodel.

“I only bring my clients here when I want to scare them,” says Anderson from behind his desk, wearing a tank-top matching cooly slicked-back white hair. Anderson is a handsome man who resembles a cross between the handsome men Giorgio Armani, Lee Marvin, and Crocodile Dundee. The big project at the moment is a rental apartment building for Church and Isabella. “I’m in charge of all the public areas, all the corridors, the lobbies, the connecting spaces, all the amenities, the gym room, the games room, the laundry room, the gym room, the library, lounge, the party room, the dog wash, the yoga room, the gym room. I’m trying to make it look and feel like home for all these people.”

His studio is a good place to contemplate the meaning of home, for Anderson also lives here, commuting daily the 12 steps from the basement. Each morning he has a coffee, reads the paper, does the Sudoku and the ken-ken, and then has a very hot bath. The bath is so hot that the only way for him to cool down is to shirtlessly sweep the street outside the studio, steaming and kicking up dust. “All these people going to work and passing on the street this ridiculous 65 year old person without a shirt, sweeping madly, steaming profusely. I must look quite eccentric.”

He signs stuff that his assistant Kate hands him while he is telling stories to me. Just then he gets sad news over a phone call: a close friend is suddenly near death from cancer. Hanging up, Anderson goes downstairs and, after a brief absence, comes back with some beer and two glasses. “Mortality closes in on us all. I usually enjoy the whole concept of death, but I can get quite emotional from the existential element of it all.” He felt that this was as good a time as any for him to tell me how he got to where he is now. Grew up in Windsor, dropped out of architecture school at U of T, a year wandering Europe before getting in a van with some strangers and going through Africa, ending up on the island of Lamu. He eventually came back, went to Ryerson for interior design, got a job at Herman Miller, and then, 30 years ago, back when this neighborhood was an afterthought, started his own practice out of this space.

“I don’t document any of it. When its done, its over. People say, ‘oh do you have a portfolio?’ No, I don’t do portfolios. My work is all word of mouth. If you need to be convinced then it’s probably not worth it.” … “Either you’re in it to make money, or you're in it because you're kinda lost and you've got nothing else to do.” Anderson has nothing but scorn for the former. “When you drive through Rosedale or Forest Hill, you see how much bullshit is out there, 90% of the columns are wrong. They don’t have the right balance, none of the classical proportions. In this city there’s all these pretenders saying, ‘we’re world class!’ No, you’re not world class, you’re boring!”

“In every project we always push our clients. Right now, at the apartment project, I’m trying to get the painters to paint the way I want them to paint. I am somewhat of a colourist, and my approach to colour is quite different than most people's. I have to be on site, I have to test the colours, I have to see what the light is. Then I have to see how these colours interact. It’s never just one colour, I play with five or six colours, and then they all combine. It’s all about trying to achieve balance, to trick the eye and train the eye and delight the eye. I drive construction people crazy but they always want to take credit for the work in the end.”

It is nice to imagine what Toronto, our collective home, would be like if it was designed by Anderson, who lives almost perfectly the combination of art and life, work and home, daringness and humility, beauty and care for home and community. He gestures to the street a few feet away from his desk: “That’s my front yard. The other night some drunk assholes attacked some tree branches on the street. They couldn’t break them off completely, but they were in bad shape. I had some fabric samples kicking around so I wrapped the branches in fabric and took my twine and tied them all up, and they are doing fine. And now these poor branches are dressed in the finest fashion fabric from France, from Nom d’Um and Pierre Frey. No one will notice that, but I get a kick out of it.”

--David Stokes

Poem 1: I aspire to a particular shape...

Article 2: I’ve Known Rivers

Toronto Department

When you look at the job boards you hope for something unexpected, something creaturely, alive. As far as I know there is still no job where you walk out totally naked in the morning with the birds. But Matt and Leland’s job comes close to that freedom in our city. They are two handsome guys with masters degrees whose job, for the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, is to put on wading boots and walk into the creeks and rivers of Toronto. And when these waters are moving too fast to walk into, their job requires throwing ropes and weights across them like cowboys wrangling rivers.

“Sometimes you’ll be in the river and there will be large fish swimming around you. I had one run into my shins. It hurt actually,” says Matt. Leland: “I was at Don East once where salmon jump up the weir. There were 30 or 40. I guess they were taking a breather from getting ready to jump up the 3 foot weir. You’re standing there metering and they come in behind your boots and just sit there, because there is a bit of an eddie, and they just relax back in there. When you move they all scatter.”
After visiting 800 unique sites, Matt and Leland have stood in pretty much every waterway between Mississauga and Agax, in all nine watersheds of the TRCA jurisdiction, from the smallest creeks -- “we’ve gauged something a foot by a foot” -- to the widest points of Toronto rivers.

I’ve seen their office and it's a watchtower control room above a dam at the G Lord Ross Reservoir. The reservoir collects water behind the dam during storms, which keeps the river system below at a safe volume; otherwise, low-lying land near the West Don could flood, like the neighborhood of Hogg’s Hollow, destroying property and endangering people. So they are serious about watching over the dam; one guy in the control room stopped me from taking a picture of the dam’s ancient-looking computer panel, due to terrorism worries.

But today, as Matt and Leland are out on the road preparing for a river rope-toss, they are joshing each other like sports bros. “The other day one guy couldn’t get it across the river,” says Matt, referring to the rope and five-pound weight they have to throw across rivers. How many times did it not go over? “I lost count. He was chirping me, I was chirping him, but it was probably like 15 to 20 times. He was getting weaker and weaker with each throw.” Leland is going to try the throw today, and assures Matt it’ll be no sweat. “There’s a lot of pressure now,” says Matt.

They arrive at today's site, their pickup truck hops the curb behind the Miller Tavern at York Mills and Yonge and drives through the grass to the West Don river. This spot is parkland now, and this river, like all of Toronto’s water, has become on one hand a backup stormwater sewer but also a picaresque water feature, a boon to real estate values. But before its waters were narrowed, there was a saw mill at this site where the river supplied the economic heart of the area. Later on, a group of eight “Serbian gypsy” families lived here offering fortune telling to passing motorists on Yonge Street. According to an article in the Globe from June 1st, 1920, the camp’s river-side location provided access to the river for cooking, bathing, and drinking water. The reporter observed children, apparently “too numerous to count” swimming in the Don. They swim with their clothes on, he noted, “jumping into the water and then waiting for the sun to dry them.”

Nobody swims this river anymore, and today not even Leland and Matt are going in despite being ready with hipwaders. It’s a dry, sunny day, yet the river is stormwater muddy and running high on its banks, moving much too swift to stand in. This is what they expected: their office at the reservoir six km upstream is in full control of the river today. “There was a big rain a few days ago, and the reservoir went up 3 metres,” Leland says, “Now we’ve opened the dam to let out some water.” They are here to make sure that they are aren’t letting out too much. Even though they aren’t going in, Leland and Matt still put on lifejackets, they are aware of the danger of just standing beside the rivers. “I’ve been in a few spots where I’ve been like, shit, this isn’t safe, let’s do this later,” says Leland. They’ve done swift-water rescue training, thrown day in and out of raging water. “They’d throw Matt in and he’d be tearing down the river. I’d have to go in and get him.” That would be dicey today; I see a concrete weir with a big drop just a few metres downstream.

It’s time to wrangle this river. They need to get their thick rope over it so they can then attach a depth-probe-boat to the rope and pull the probe back and forth across the river. Matt finds a bridge to the other and shows up 15 metres across. Leland warms up his arm for the first throw. He heaves the weight with rope attached. But the throw is a miss, a couple metres short. The weight is slowly pulled out of the river. Throw two is aloft...a miss, close. “I’m feeling good. Next one will be better.” Things are regathered, he steadies his aim and throw three arcs across the river, until the rope catches something and stops halfway, splashing in. Attempt four is close, Matt reaches, dives, and yells No! as it slips from him into the river. Matt gathers a bundle of green plants to snag the rope and at attempt five he goes down reaching with it, but the throw is too far. The rope has been repeatedly pulled out of the water and recoiled. Leland looks sheepishly over at Matt. Matt looks skeptically over at Leland. “You’ve got no faith eh?” Leland says. Matt is a hero and buoys him up: “No you’ve got it now.” And Leland finds his groove, for attempt 6 arcs beautifully high over the river, and Matt flings his ragged bundle into the water and victoriously grabs it. Maybe river-rope toss will catch on.

In goes the three-foot long yellow plastic probe with a saucer-shaped radio. They tie another set of ropes on each end of the probe and pull it back and forth across the river. The scene is sweet: a brown river, a warm sun, green plants, orange rope, a yellow probe, a really great job. The probe’s radio waves bounce along the riverbed and measure it. A laptop on the ground in the weeds picks up data in colored bands, getting the precise shape of the river. Since a rivers’ shape changes all the time, monitoring is an ongoing process. If a river should change too much, flood risks need to be reassessed. Matt and Leland have to continuously know the rivers to keep track of these infinitely wild and changing things. “Downstream there’s houses, and a playground, in a floodplain. One big rain and...” Lelands voice trails off, and at that moment a pink pool noodle floats by on the river, a vision of the backyard apocalypses that river monitoring continues to prevent, and evidence of suburban gypsy kids still playing by the river.

-- David Stokes

Article 1: Hogg's Hollow

Toronto Department

It’s midnight, and from Yonge Street Hogg’s Hollow is hidden from view.

The neighbourhood sits at the bottom of the Don River Valley. At this hour it is empty and silent, and its bending roads are perplexing in the dark.

Standing on a short bridge we hear the sputter of the river. Its waters are the loudest thing we’ve come across in this village of towering mansions—the homes of some of Toronto’s most affluent residents—and the trees that loom above them.

There’s a park in Hog’s Hollow where we stop for pull-ups. David unbuttons his shirt and does ten on the monkey bars, followed by ten more. A fondling couple sits on a bench nearby. Soon after our arrival they stand up and walk up the path, where they wobble and grope one another. They’re gone. A group of three young men are also in the park, but they make no noise, and disappear over a hill.
Stuck in the ground at the base of each of the young trees scattered in the park are rocky plaque stones. Each stone bears a name and a good wish engraved onto a metal plate. There is little point in squatting in the dark to read them: Park tree stones are not known for the quality of their sentimental inscriptions, and I haven’t stopped to read things like this for a long time. As a child I used to think that these people were buried under the trees.

But one of Hogg’s Hollow’s greatest secrets is its stone garden of lonely well-written epitaphs. These pithy statements glow in the dark.

“Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. Rooted by family. EMPOWERED BY GOD,” reads one. Another, “To The Summer of Love, 1999”

One stone bears the name Patrick Deagle, a man born in X and lost in Y. No fond words have been written on the stone for Patrick. In a fit of rage at this poverty of sentiment, David stomps on its face, desecrating it with a smudge of poo stuck to the edge of his shoe.

The settlement of poo is located just beside Patrick Deagle’s headstone. In the dark it is impossible to see, but its smell reveals its presence. To make amends for his disrespect, David agrees to a blood offering to appease Deagle’s spirit. He kneels on the grass. I hand him my pocketknife.

The blood does not flow. Some time goes by, and David searches for another tool with which to make the incision. He finds a sharp twig in the grass. He bares his teeth and sets to work on his gums. The blood comes, and a smear appears on the Patrick Deagle’s stone. The deed is done.


We carry our bikes down the flat concrete slopes straddling the river. Ahead is a weir, where the water comes to a sudden drop and spins and foams. The water wants us to fall in.

A crayfish appears as if from nowhere. It crawls on the concrete ground at a slow and listless pace. Its body is large, like a tarantula, and delicate with moisture, and its lanky limbs carry its round body towards the weir several metres away. We do not know why the crayfish is here, and wonder if there are others nearby. If the crayfish is supposed to be here or not, we do not know. David thinks the concrete weir has forced it into some wickedness.

David shines a light on the creature. Its shell and limbs appear grey and it looks like it is becoming fatally dry; but its eyes are wet pea-sized melancholic balls of tapioca. They were filled with sadness.
“God bless you,” says David.

The crayfish follows the light with zeal. David turns off the light, and the crayfish comes to a rest. As it sits in the dark we wait to see what it will do.

The crayfish lifts itself and moves closer to the edge of the concrete. We ask ourselves if we should intervene, if we should prevent the crayfish from falling into the roiling water. The crayfish comes closer to the edge.

It reaches the edge and stumbles onto the incline. For a moment it gains traction. But the incline is too steep and it loses its hold. And in a moment of sad comedy, it slides down the smooth concrete and plops into the sloshing water. We do not see the crayfish anymore.

-- Daniel Glassman