Samantha yelled at Tobias after he circled the block for the fifth time.
“I really don’t want to pay twenty-five bucks to park” he countered.
Attempting to inject a calm perspective into the uneasy situation.
“I get that, but I also want to get out of the fucking car, before the show is over”.
It was fast approaching the 9pm show time at Massey Hall, and Samantha really did not want to not miss the Misfits. She had been waiting over 30 years to see her favourite band. Danzig had finally gotten over himself and Jerry Only had needed a better paycheque than he had been getting without him. So the love of two minute songs and large retirement accounts had won over their former animosity.
The two founding members of the influential 80’s hardcore act had hugged it out at a lawyers office in New Jersey and agreed to cash in on the rising interest in their back catalogue. Being senior citizens now, it felt to the both of them, that it would have to be now or never.
During the 80’s, Tobias had been more Duran Duran and Flock of Seagulls than Samantha’s Dead Kennedys and MDC. He didn’t really get the allure of punk rock, but he had also missed his youthful rebellious period, due to a rare illness that kept him bed ridden through his early teens. When he and Samantha met at the 7-eleven, that used to be at Donlands and Danforth, he didn’t know his Jello from his Cretin. He can now tell by ear whether a Black Flag song was sung by Dez, Keith, Henry or Ron.
Tobias, sensing it would be a long time before he would hear the end of this, reluctantly parked in the old Sears lot on Mutual and paid the $25 with his phone app. Samantha, stretched her legs as she got out of the car threateningly pointing her well worn Docs toward Tobias’s ass, which to great effect hurried him along. She would be pissed if she missed the band playing Bullet, Skulls or Angel Fuck. She definitely loved the Misfits more than she loved Tobias.
Sonja immigrated to Canada from Yugoslavia with her family, in August of 1965, she had just turned fourteen years old. In October the previous year, an unseasonal rainfall caused the Sava River to flood, washing away much of Zagreb and leaving Sonja’s family home, uninhabitable. As both of her parents were academics who worked at the University of Zagreb, lecturing on Eastern European History and Folklore, they were provided with a small space in a cramped, over capacity dormitory on the University campus. The crowded conditions and the pause of their teaching positions due to the flood damage to the lecture halls, pushed the need for the family of six to seek out better living conditions and opportunity. Her parents applied for and were offered positions at the recently expanded York University, in the northwest corner of Toronto. It was during the summer after the flood that the family, which included Sonja’s three younger siblings, arrived in Canada, so that her parents Dragana and Bogdan could begin their new positions when the Fall semester started at York.
Fourteen year old Sonja was devastated to leave her friends and her City of birth behind. The move was hard on her and she had a difficult time adjusting to her new life in Canada. She didn’t like the damp cold climate, nor the xenophobic stupidity of the locals as expressed by the treatment she received from the other kids at her new school. The locals constantly made fun of her last name, which was Dracul. They would sneak up behind her saying, “I vant to suck your blood”. They constantly mimicked her accent and they appeared to have no knowledge of Europe, outside of England, Scotland and Ireland where most of their families had originated from. They usually referred to her as “The Communist” or “The Russian” despite her home country being Yugoslavia. While this infuriated her, she still tried like any other teenager to ignore it and fit into her new environment.
Sonja’s relationship with her parents went downhill after she turned sixteen. It was during her high school years that she started acting more like her new western peers. She started staying out late, sneaking around with boys, skipping school, drinking alcohol, all the usual teenage activities. By 1969, she had discovered pot and started hanging out in Yorkville, which had become the hippie enclave in Toronto, making it the easiest place to score dope in the city.
It wasn’t long before Sonja was dropping acid and eating peyote as often as possible with her new bohemian friends. She even started having sex with the twenty one year old lead singer of a local band called the Mynah Birds, who took on the stage name Rick James. Rick had changed his last name from Johnson to James and was now able to hide in plain sight, singing in a rock band, while dodging military duty in America. This was two decades before he would blow up with his album Street Songs. Their relationship lasted a whole of three weeks.
Sonja loved the vibe in Yorkville. The small art galleries, cute boutique stores filled with the South Asian style clothing the hippies liked to wear and the head shops with all the pot smoking paraphernalia. The highlight of the neighbourhood though was its numerous coffee shops where she could find great music and poetry most times of the day. There were cool places to hang out, where you might find Joni Mitchell or Gordon Lightfoot playing an acoustic set. One time she wandered into a cafe to find Leonard Cohen, reading poems and hitting on all the girls. Despite being thirty-one at the time, Leonard liked the younger suburban girls that hung around the Yorkville scene.
It wasn’t too long before Sonja made friends that were hanging out at Rochdale College, not far away at Huron and Bloor Streets. Rochdale was initially created as a federally funded housing co/op for University of Toronto students, which then morphed itself into an unstructured free College. Initially it was run with intention, purpose and idealism. For a period of time it successfully pursued and seemed to achieve some of the ideals of a generation that were looking to break away from the confines of straight conservative Toronto and specifically the academic stuffiness and snobbery of the U of T. With University students and an assortment of poets, filmmakers, visual artists and musicians steering the direction, the College had the best of the possibilities of the sixties built into it. It was difficult to reach any consensus and as things slowly devolved into entropy and chaos. When the Toronto authorities took a hardline and bounced all the hippies out of Yorkville, under the guise of public safety. Freaks of all kinds, including bikers, criminals and non-idealists descended upon Rochdale from a sort of out of sight, out of mind move, where shit got weird and heavy fast. Sonja had been crashing with her friend Fiona, until their unit got taken over by speed dealers. Slowly the spirit of the sixties, was put to death by nervous straights and could coinciding with the change in drugs from Pot and Acid to Heroin, Cocaine and Speed, creating bummers and general bad vibes. The summer of love had now officially ended.
Growing up in a Socialist country, Sonja understood doing for the collective good. Her original political ideology, a mishmash of Tito, Mao, Marx, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara and Tommy Douglas, seemed naive and out of place, against the backdrop of Canadian conservatism, capitalistic greed and the every motherfucker for themselves mentally being spewed from the five or six American TV channels that were available at the time. Slowly the dark reality that was now surrounding her, made her question her youthful idealism. The fascistic reaction of the state against the kids hanging in Yorkville really knocked the wind out of her. It seemed like the Peace, Love & Understanding of the era was dying with the cool winds of the season change. As the flower power wilted away, Sonja was under the pressure of her new boyfriend who was the antithesis of a hippie. Tiny was a biker, a big, scary biker and he didn’t like “Commies”. Still Sonja was smitten. She liked to walk with him and watch the crowd part to let them through, her insecurities fed off of this fear based respect, received when they were out together. She felt safe with Tiny. Under his tutelage, she learned about “the free market”. She quickly turned many degrees to the economic right, becoming a Milton Friedman, fangirl in the process, a tiny, Tiny. Tiny’s business model essentially consisted of stepping on his drugs so much that buyers of large fronts were reluctant to pay him because they couldn’t find buyers who wanted his sad shit. Then he would use his size and biker friends to intimidate and get paid. The spoils of the free market, became all the rage. He was Capitalism at its finest and Sonja was madly in love.
During the first couple of years of the new decade the huge housing building had devolved into a sort of flop house-drug den. Regular students moved out and everyday hippies, transients, criminals, people with mental health issues, all carved out space in the common areas, usually rent free. Paranoia was rampant due to a heightened police presence and all the speed being consumed and distributed out of the building. The drug scene that ran the place for a couple of years, was unpredictable, friends were hard to find and greed and self-preservation replaced cooperation and inclusion. Tiny was in and out of jail, mostly for petty crime and drug possession. His size and choice of dress, headband, leather jacket, torn bell bottoms, always brought the heat to him. Sonja became smacked out on skag and would turn tricks out of an apartment on the west wing, to pay his bail and feed her growing drug dependence.
As the Taurus moon of 1975, closed out the month, the RCMP, undercovers that had been squatting on the seventh floor, took down Tiny and his ragtag gang of unaffiliated roughnecks. The Toronto cops carried out the last residents roughly tossing them in paddy wagons and sealing the doors shut. The ideals and the hope for the experimentally open academic environment and cooperative housing, died in the middle of the Me generation.
After the building was cleared out of the rest of the students and assorted freaks the Feds took back the building, as the CMHC hadn’t been receiving its mortgage payments. “The Unknown Student” statue that had sat facing the front of the building was out turned away, towards Bloor St. as Rochdale was turned into Seniors Housing.
Walking away from him was one of the hardest things Sharona had ever done in her life. After so many years of going in circles and doing the same things, bailing him out, giving him money, setting him up-again, worrying about him, hoping for the best. She finally saw that she wasn’t really having an impact. There was no lasting change. He was still alive, yes, but it seemed like she was the only one still hoping for a better outcome. That reservoir of hope was mostly dried up now. She felt like the only one even trying. She could see that he no longer believed in himself, no longer believed in change, even as a possibility, he had completely given up. And she knew where that came from.
There were times years ago, when he wanted help, when he reached out for it even. Only to be left to free fall through the broken system, supports in place one day, gone the next. Another relapse, another bit of jail time, another period of time disappeared into the void. She understood his desire to numb himself, to forget his past, his pain, to stay away from his family of origin. But she was lost by her inability to help facilitate change. She understood that he was prescribed some serious antipsychotic medications, and that they only could do and actually did so much, even if and when he took them regularly. She also knew that the side effects from the meds could cause serious changes, both physical and mental and he told her time and time again that he didn’t like the lack of feelings he was left with, when on them. He said he felt dead, floating through a world of cotton batting, muffled, foggy, forgetful, dragged, hopeless. After all these years of trying, he still had no family doctor, no consistent psychiatrist, no access to actual therapy. It’s like he now felt about the system, how the system had always felt about him – indifferent, failed, incapable, useless.
She died a little with each parting. Watching her son walk away from her, clutching the twenty dollar bill she forced into his hand. Tears would leak from her eyes, her heart would break, each and every time.
He hobbled away from her, on the shaded sidewalk, unbelieving her loyalty, which he mistook for simple stubbornness, just attempts to assuage herself from the early turmoil of his life. She kept finding him, on the city streets, though he told her time and again that he was alright, that he didn’t need any help. Once he was out of her sight, he gave the twenty she forced on him to the next panhandler he saw. Getting rid of her energy, her dogmatic belief that he could still be fixed. He had jumped through more hoops than a circus dog and there still were no answers, no solutions, no changes to how he felt, to how he understood this life to be. Like an endless nightmare, that you can’t will yourself awake from.
At first he went to all the appointments, he tried so hard to help himself, to quiet the feelings of not rightness, his feelings of wrongness, of his reality not matching up with those around him. He never believed the lies they told, he knew intuitively that there would be no happy ending for him. Just an endless living hell, this life, and unfortunately it was the only certainty he knew. He still couldn’t figure out if his inability to accept things and have a job and kids and a family, all the “normal” things he was supposed to aspire to, he still wasn’t sure if his inability to do so was a curse or a blessing. He wasn’t sure and didn’t care, anymore. He just kept ambling alone in a world, cold with casual indifference. That hum you hear on a street corner, in between the sirens and the screaming, that is the sound of indifference, it is no sound, it is unsound, it is all pervasive. The stink of indifferent systems that loose people, that give up, that don’t fund the supports that will help, only the ones that sound good on the evening news. Ten year monetary commitments easily unfulfilled and forgotten after the next election cycle. He felt like a ball in the air, exuberant on its launch, gut punched on its decent.
It was just another July night. Hot early summer air, loud traffic moving slowly in both directions on Dundas, between Church and Jarvis Streets. He could hear bits and pieces of pop songs and the occasional hip-hop beat splashing out of open car windows and floating into the thick humid night. It was all bright lights, big city down here. He and his boys were hustlin’, flexing’, trying to make a name for themselves. Trying to make some cash. Trying to be the men they had been led to believe they should be, all the while attempting to fly under the radar of five-o.
He belonged to a small crew, run by his best friend’s older brother, J. J ran things tight, both in the hood and out in the streets. Out of line, late with a call back, late with cash owed and you just might catch a beat down. J would show up randomly, just to check in on them or with the re-up. He would drive up in a white Jeep with gold rims, Pink LED lights shining down from underneath. Not too flash, but just enough to let you think he might be a real player. Though he was just another soldier, living in his mama’s basement in the project. 1980’s paneling on the walls, decent sound system, a framed Kobe jersey on the wall next to a NAS poster, closet full of sneakers. No diploma in a frame, no assets, the car on a high interest cash lease. Twenty-five, no prospects, other than his gang affiliation.
The boys in the crew thought J was a god, they looked up to him, wanted to be like him. Saw the ride, the girls, the folded pinks and browns. Saw the respect those things gave him in the urban blocks they all lived on. While the City let the bricks and mortar crumble, they plied the old neighbourhood trade. Periodic sweeps occurred. The Babylon system sending in their uniforms every now and then to remind everyone who was really in charge. The crew knew the drill and innocently dribbled balls on the worn out courts watching as a couple OG’s running a trap house got paddy wagoned away. Laughing at 51 division as they tried to look hard, out of place, no body cared, fucking pigs.
Everyone up the line was just trying to get a piece for themselves, get a little ahead, dreamt of getting out. This fucking town, this fucking country, it did all it could to keep people like him down. Wrong colour, wrong address, just wrong, tough fucking luck. His anger somehow kept in check, most days. His bitterness, a well worn groove on the handle of the glock he kept in his waist pack. They sold what was in demand, these days fentanyl had replaced crack, so that’s what they slung. He didn’t care if these dumb street fucks died. Worst fucking dope ever. Each week a new batch. Each batch a new colour and no different than a fresh bullet in the chamber. Toronto street roulette. One puff of smoke or mainline and your life could be over, gone, exhaled. If you think the dealers care, you’re living in a fantasy, living like the fucking Cosby show, a different world all together. No not that Different World. Ain’t no one care if you junkies die. Not the cops, not the mayor, not the other street life. In this life, it’s for life, which is usually way too short.
He knows all that, as he zips his glock in a designer shoulder bag and hops on the electric scooter that will keep him moving all day. From hood to customers, to re-up, to bag man, to nothing but another job that no one really wants, though some still think they do. There is always another fool, waiting in the wing. It might seem like not working and the paper might seem good today, but tomorrow there ain’t no unemployment benefits, no sick days, no security, nothin’ but looking over his shoulder, holding a few small bags of dope, money owed up the line, a gun. Each of which could get him killed or put away for a several years, federal time. Die trying, try not dying.
He didn’t know another way of life. The housing he came up in promised no future, but this. By nine years old he was running for the bigger boys. Doing errands, watching for cops. Getting paid in dope. They wanted to see if he was an entrepreneur and flip it on his own or if he was just another joke, who smoked it, nodded out, eventually OD’d. He flipped it and slowly built the trust of the gang and moved up to his current crew, who were now all of nineteen, twenty years old.
He stood on the dirty dark sidewalk, looking up at the newly built condos. Mesmerized momentarily by the steel and glass, lights shining out into the unglamorous streets below. He heard the car stop, the door slam, he turned to look, saw a blur of movement, heard the bottle smash, down on his ass, head bleeding,. All he could smell was the acrid aroma of vodka, his skull numb, eyes blurred by the viscous blood pooling in his sockets.
“What the fuck, are you doin’, cuz?”
Was all he got out before being surrounded by four guys that looked just like him, size, age, skin colour, black bandannas obscuring their faces.
“You tell J, we own this fucking street now. Motherfucker”.
Spit the one who hit him with the almost empty twenty-sixer of Grey Goose, smashed glass scattered on the broken sidewalk, around him. As what seemed like a parting afterthought, three of them then laid a few boots to his now curled and protected torso. As they walked back towards their ride, one flashed a glock in his waistband and shot him three times with his hand, fingers pointed, thumb half-raised.
“Your dead”, he laughed, as they got back in the haphazardly parked matte black Benz.
Still alive, still in one piece, he got up off the ground and wiped the blood from his face with the front of his now stained t-shirt. He limped to his scooter, leaning against the buildings closed storefront.
Now that he felt safe, he spit blood onto the street and laughed.
“Stupid fuckers, didn’t even take my shit”. Laughing as he checked his pockets and still had a fat roll of twenties, a bag full of little dope bags and his gun. He knew J would be out for blood now, but knew he was good, nothing lost, means nothing owed.
Hiding in plain sight, was often a great strategy, an under-utilized one actually. So when he rented the empty paper clip factory he felt safe, knowing that the occasional plume of smoke out the tall chimney and the constant removal of green weed odour wouldn’t draw any unwanted attention.
He had been doing this type of work for a long time. Find a space, tap into the hydro, use the chimney to exhaust the smell and in 4 months the crop will be ready for harvest. He estimated he would get 2,000 plants in the space. A good yield would give him 4 ounces per plant which would work out to 500 pounds. At $1,500 a pound he would gross, $750,000. Half of that would go to the triad that bankrolled him and provided the distribution. In the end after expenses he would net about $300 grand. Not bad for 4 months work, which would allow him to put his growing equipment back into storage and spend the rest of the year on a beach in the Caribbean.
The only thing left to do today was to shovel all that snow off his car, so he could go to Homedepot and buy some new tubing for the hydroponic setup as well as a couple more exhaust fans. He sparked up a preroll he picked up from one of the government licensed dispensaries and contemplated the task ahead of him, as the smoke from his joint curled towards the open door of the incinerator.
He woke and looking around, everything was were it should be. He felt safe when everything was where it should be. The concrete floor was still cold, still hard, the paint cans still stacked, the gas cylinder exactly where it was supposed to be. All this familiarity made him feel safe, made this storage closet feel safe. It had been several weeks since he turned the random door knob and found the room open. He made sure to take all of his things when he left for the day, leaving a quarter in the door jamb, in such a way that the door wouldn’t appear unlocked by a casual turn or pull.
Mohammad mostly moved through the city invisibly. On one hand he stood out, with his disheveled clothes, worn out, duct taped shoes shuffling along. Often draped in his dirty sleeping bag. His hair and beard were matted and natty from too long without a brush or a comb or even hot water. Who could not notice him crossing against red lights, weaving in and out of traffic. But in many ways he felt he was invisible, when he asked for change and was ignored, when he saw people cross the street to avoid him, when random people seemed to look right through him.
One could often find him gesticulating and making small talk to his reflection in the windows of businesses up and down Yonge St. The conversations were generally civil though on occasion he would take umbrage by something he said and appear aggressive to those passing by.
Every now and then he would show up at St.Mikes, ED and tell them he was planning to kill himself. He had a long convoluted story that involved rope and the Bloor viaduct. This would usually get him on a 72 hour Form 1 and provide him with a few decent meals, a shave, a haircut, clothing and a new pair of donated shoes.
For now he had a place to call home so he would avoid St.Mikes. He enjoyed locking the door and bedding down on the floor, knowing that everything would be in its place when he woke up. He felt safe.