Streetcar fun in big city .. is this what’s happened to Rob Ford’s Toronto?

Jun 5th, 2015 | By L. Frank Bunting | Category: In Brief

Amy Walsh-Harris : "1st Layer. Heading west on Queen E. oil on canvas 12''/12''."

Until recently Toronto’s new mayor, John Tory, was widely loved in opinion polls.  As in “Tory’s approval rating remains strong” (April 13), and “Still in the honeymoon stage … Mayor John Tory continues to enjoy a soaring approval rate” (May 8).

Yet it seems that the worm has now started to turn, as it inevitably must.

Note (the first item is June 2, all the others June 3) : “Mayor Tory not moved by Crombie Gardiner plea”; “Tory under fire for staffer carding comment” ; “Mayor Tory may not be able to smooth over criticism of police carding” ; and “John Tory allies occupy the middle while he slides right.”

In fact this may be the underlying problem — if you think it is a problem. Though judging by the thing itself, I would certainly conclude that some do not. In any case it happened to me on the westbound Queen streetcar the night before last. And I cannot remember anything quite like it in my entire … well let’s just say more than half a century of riding Toronto streetcars …

In retrospect, the whole thing seems so bizarre that I can’t quite believe it actually happened. I keep thinking I must have just fallen asleep on the streetcar, and dreamed all the subsequent streetcar fun.

I can see too how it started, in a way, not too long after I got on, in the far east end of the old city, near the end of the line, next to what the local kids just call the Water Works. (A place now immortalized in literature by Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion.)

* * * *

Around Kingston Road, I think, the streetcar driver’s voice came over the car’s sound system. He was telling someone that if they didn’t change their ways they’d have to get off.

I looked back from the line of front single seats where I was sitting. At the very end of the car a gentleman who I’d have characterized in my youth as a rummy was putting back on some shoes and socks, that he had apparently just taken the trouble to remove …

As I think about it now, however, I don’t feel the driver who stood up for the decorum of his vehicle in this way was the same driver who later embarked on “streetcar fun.” I don’t have an exact memory of it, but the drivers must have changed at the Connaught yards, as they often do.

In any case for much of the trip I was in a contemplative mood, largely oblivious to the world around me. It was a nice night, now well after dinner. I was on my way to the jazz and blues bar one stop after University. I was just sitting back, looking out the window at the south side of Queen Street, taking it all in, enjoying the motion of the streetcar.

Then, around Carlaw and Pape, there were suddenly many motor bikes parked neatly at the edge of the road. This surprised me out of my tranquil oblivion. And, accidentally or otherwise, the bizarre part of the ride seriously began.

The first sign was just a brief moment when the streetcar lights went off. Followed by a gentle burst of the quiet (mostly?) women’s chatter often found on public transit — “O the lights went out … I wonder what that was” … and so forth.

The beginnings of an answer came soon enough. The driver’s voice on the sound system asked if anyone wanted to hear a joke. There was enough of a positive response to lead him on.

(Especially younger and often quite attractive women often seem to find this sort of behaviour on the part of streetcar drivers and other such public officials amusing. Which no doubt only leads the drivers and so forth further on.)

Anyway the joke went like this. “Why shouldn’t you write with a blunt pencil?” No one got the right answer. Which the streetcar driver finally announced as “It’s pointless.”

“12'/12' oil on canvas. Heading south on Bathurst at College. st.”

The driver at least regarded the joke as successful enough to launch the big adventure. “Now,” he said over the sound system, “we’re going to have some streetcar fun.”

He went on to instruct his passengers. He would turn off the lights. And we would all start clapping. Then he would turn the lights back on. And  we would suddenly stop.

He tried the trick a few times, as a warm-up. I did not participate myself. I just sat back amazed — that a streetcar driver would engineer this kind of public entertainment in the first place, AND that so many streetcar riders would throw themselves into their part of the exercise so enthusiastically. (And again, as a somewhat older man who deserves more respect than he usually gets, I must be pardoned for thinking that it was especially the younger and even cuter women — well, everyone is cute when they’re young, etc — who took the lead in this matter.)

* * * *

“Heading East On The River St. Bridge | Oil on wood. Size: 12"/24" | 450.00.”

By the time we had crossed the river, and were approaching the old city downtown, in the romantic glow of a cooler but not unpleasant late spring evening, the trick had been perfected to the point where the driver could play it on new riders with almost dazzling effect.

I still did not participate in the clapping myself. But I’d say that a good half of the people on the streetcar did (again, especially the two cute young girls I could easily see across the aisle and up a bit from my single seat).

Each iteration of the lights-off-clapping event was followed by energetic laughter when the lights were turned back on. And I finally found myself laughing too — at the same time as I grew more concerned about my own and everyone else on the streetcar’s safety.

I was quietly pleased that I did not have all that much further to go. But it was also difficult not to join in the wild enthusiasm about such a bizarre streetcar journey that so many of my fellow passengers seemed to share.

Queen streetcar in the rain.

Once the car was in the heart of downtown, past Church Street say, the driver and participating passengers pulled the lights-off-clapping trick several times as new riders arrived at the various stops. I got to the point where I was looking for reaction on new faces when the lights went on.

At University, the driver seemed to argue with someone at the stop who didn’t want to get on his streetcar, telling them it was a nice streetcar and so forth. (And again, I am duty bound to report, to the great amusement of especially younger ladies, looking like they had just themselves bloomed, full of all the promise of the earth, like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.)

Then just before finishing the long intersection at University it did seem to me that the streetcar rather suddenly stopped, to avoid colliding with an automobile. I was especially glad to disembark at the next stop. But I did make a point of trying to get a good look at the driver as I left the car. Again, he didn’t seem to me to be the driver I remembered from when I got on. (Must have switched drivers at Connaught, etc.)

“Twilight |Oil on canvas ... Available.”

Inside the jazz and blues bar at the corner of  Queen and St. Patrick I suddenly forgot about the streetcar fun, catching up with friends, waiting for the band to start.

Then when the band started, I found myself thinking about how it was an update of the classic bop quintet invented in the 1940s.  Except it had a guitar replacing the trumpet, all manner of electronic amplification, and a repertoire that included tunes by Pat Metheny, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the band leader and guitarist (Leyland Gordon) — all climaxed by the Jose Feliciano composition that George Benson made so popular, “Affirmation.”

Then all of a sudden I remembered about the streetcar fun on my earlier journey. And about this same time a few people started dancing to the band’s music.

Odd if not exactly unprecedented for a jazz and blues bar these days.

But then I thought that when jazz actually was at least very close to America’s popular music, it was a dance music. If people were inspired to dance to the jazz I heard that night (which did have a more or less steady, rolling rhythm, as in George Benson and all that), it had to be a good sign. Jazz needs to become a music that people can dance to again.

* * * *

Heading east on Dundas.

I am much less certain just what to make of my streetcar fun journey.

(Which was certainly not replicated, I hasten to add, on my journey home — Round Midnight, as Thelonious Monk might say …  Well no: he would do no such thing, not even during the last years of his life, with his wife Nellie in the house of the Rothschild princess, who did so much for modern jazz. And besides when I got on the streetcar back to the old streetcar suburb of the early 20th century where I live, now in the early 21st century, it was closer to 1 AM.)

I think what I finally think now, with some distance on what happened, is that Rob Ford is no longer the Mayor of Toronto. But something about him is lingering on, even in the heartland of the old city where even at the height of his popularity he was not all that popular.

As I think about my last long look at the driver as I left the streetcar at the jazz and blues club, he looked like someone who might have been inspired by Rob Ford.

I think too that if Rob Ford had been along for the streetcar fun ride the night before last, he would have enthusiastically joined in on the clapping, and enjoyed the whole thing. If our new Mayor John Tory had been along, he’d almost certainly have sent the streetcar driver home in a taxicab — and then driven the streetcar himself.

Some people would say that’s progress. (It probably would be safer with Mayor Tory driving the streetcar.)  Others may be just starting to wonder …

NOTE FROM COUNTERWEIGHTS EDITORS’ : In looking for illustrations for Mr. Bunting’s piece here we were thrilled to discover the Toronto streetcar art of Amy Walsh-Harris. And we have taken the liberty of showing some of Ms Walsh-Harris’s work posted on the net, to flesh out L. Frank Bunting’s literary thoughts.

“Heading East At Queen And Broadview #1| Oil on wood. Size: 12"/24" | 450.00.”

Ms Walsh-Harris was born in Toronto and “began sketching figures at a young age. Now she works primarily in oil on canvass. Her current work is comprised of Toronto street-scenes and streetcars. Using shadow, light and reflection, Amy finds beauty and magic in seemingly ordinary scenes of people on the move.”

She had a recent exhibition (28 March 2015) at Wychwood Barns in Toronto.  She also has paintings and prints for sale and can be contacted through her website page Contact Amy Walsh-Harris.

She will as well be at the Riverdale Art Walk in Toronto this weekend, 6 & 7 June 2015, at Jimmie Simpson Park (right on the route of the Queen streetcar, not far east of Broadview) from 11am-6pm — on both Saturday 6 and Sunday 7.

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