the_diary_thing

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. strike 
04.10.02 .
 
"It is a miserable state of mind, to have few things to desire and many things to fear: and yet that commonly is the case of Kings"

-Francis Bacon
Of Empire
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streetcarTHE TRANSIT WORKERS here almost went on strike this week. They may still, but we've been reprieved for the moment while they discuss an offer from the city. It would be a real drag - a cab to work would cost $15 at least, if I could get one, and considering the traffic during a transit strike, it could cost closer to twenty-five, even thirty bucks. That's at least a couple of hundred bucks a week, for as long as the strike lasts. And while I could probably afford it (barely), what about minimum wage workers, freelancers, job-hunters and the elderly?

My sympathy for labour unions ends right about here. Police, firemen, nurses, health care workers, teachers and transit workers - there's no way a modern city can hope to function without them, so there should be no way they can walk out on the job. At the very least, there should be a guaranteed mediation process for their labour disputes, and strict laws against walk-outs, wildcats, or work slowdowns. On the other side, there should be no provision for a municipality or their state/provincial overlords to take a combative role in labour negotiations

There are, alas, no guarantees in life or politics, and the prevailing wind in local government has been blowing against unions these days. Which is why we're being threatened with our second transit strike in three years. The union is playing its cards badly - the issue of our transit system's chronic lack of funding has simmered and boiled over with the city budget crisis, and it's become an issue in the almost constant battles between Toronto and our provincial government. There's a statistical mantra that gets repeated over and over:


"With 82 per cent of its operating expenses being covered from the fare box, the TTC relies more heavily on passenger money to run its vehicles than any other major North American transit system. Far more. In New York, for example, passenger fares account for 61 per cent of transit operating revenues, in Chicago, 52 per cent, and in Los Angeles and Atlanta, only 31 per cent."

By now, these statistics have become like a word repeated over and over, losing its meaning, degenerating into gibberish. Against the apparent indifference of the provincial and federal governments, they burst almost silently, like a bag of feathers. "Eighty-two percent" has become a fact, as looming and ominous as the $200 million needed to update the bus fleet, or the $1.5 billion shortfall in funding for the system's growth plan. Another number - the twenty-five bucks an hour that transit workers are rumoured to make - tends to leach any sympathy the public might have away from transit workers. The city's in crisis, and it's a bad time to be making threats about not getting the raise you think you deserve.

I remember my first transit strike, in around 1979 or '80, when I had to hitchhike to school every day. Looking back, it feels like I'm talking about some innocent era, the Eisenhower Fifties in some small town. I could walk to the corner and stick out my thumb and catch my first ride from a quiet residential street in our down-at-heels neighbourhood. On some days, I ended up at school earlier than if the buses had been working. On the evening that they announced the strike settlement, though, public goodwill evaporated, and although the buses wouldn't be working till the next morning, I was stranded at school by the shore of a river of cars, speeding past on their way home.

It felt like something had broken, and it did. I can't imagine anyone letting their child hitchhike to school, strike or not strike, anymore. Three years ago, during the last strike, I didn't see a single thumb out while I walked back and forth between Parkdale and downtown. It's anecdotal, sure - but it's the kind of evidence that comes to mind when I have the overwhelming feeling that simple urban civility has become scarcer in my lifetime.

TORONTO'S NO NIGHT-TIME CITY, and my journey home from work every night is a testament to that. By the time I've fed the sports and entertainment editors their last photos for the night, and waited around in case something late breaks, it's usually nearly eleven p.m. I turn off the scanners and the CD burner, close all the running programs and copy today's photos into a folder on my desktop called "yesterday's crap". I turn off my machine, wish everyone goodnight and head for the subway.

The office is at the edge of midtown, and a ten-minute subway ride will get me downtown, to the corner of Queen and Yonge, where I catch my streetcar back to Parkdale. As intersections go, it's probably the hard right angle at the centre of my compass, the pivot upon which my journeys through the city turn. I've been walking up and down the stairs to the Queen Street subway station probably almost daily, for most of my adult life. In spite of if's nearly four million people, it's not a big city, this

It's dark, of course, by the time I head home, and the shopping district has been closed for a couple of hours now. I take the little-used dark stairwell by the entrance to the Eaton Centre up to the street, and walk out onto Queen facing the main Bay department store - formerly Simpsons, where I once worked my way up from the employee's cafeteria to the accounting department, then slightly down again to ToyTown. Turning left, I head for the protective hoarding across the street, built around the construction site where they're putting up the Maritime Life Tower, a distinctly uninspiring office tower built, it would seem, to fit in with all the other uninspiring office towers lining Yonge from the lake to the suburbs.

On most nights, the Maritime Life site gives off a cold earth smell, like a fog coming from its deep sub-basement, a shudder-inducing smell not too different from a late night graveyard smell, or the chill you get when you walk by a buried creek. The only architecturally interesting thing about the Maritime Life tower is right by the streetcar stop - the skin of the old Bank of Montreal branch that was retained in the interest of "heritage issues", a practice known around here as "facadomy".

The Queen and Yonge branch was my bank when I worked at Simpson's, a once-grand neoclassical building spoiled somewhat by a dropped ceiling, creeping colonies of office cubicles for the bank officers, and a well-worn early Sixties renovation. All gone now, of course, except for the carved and ornamented limestone facing of its west and south walls, behind which the girders and ducts of the new office tower are slowly forming the skeleton of a lobby.

Exposed within and without to Toronto's extremes of weather for over a year, the limestone skin has started to sweat, and excrete a chalky mineral rash from its seams and window sashes. Moisture has found its way behind the stone, through the brick subdermal layer, rough and abraded by the demolition of the building it used to contain.

On cold nights - which is to say most nights - I head across the street to another office tower, a smoked glass and pink marble edifice of Eighties vintage where laid-back night security means I can wait for my streetcar in warmth.. Every night, as I stand over a the grill of a heating duct and peer past the Victoria Restaurant and the entrance to St. Michael's Hospital, I wonder that I'm standing where, twenty years ago, there was once a row of shabby storefronts and numismatic dealer's walk-up shops.

Over two decades have passed since I'd walk up from the Queen subway station after school or on weekends, heading east, past the Victoria Restaurant, past the camera stores and pawnshops to where a small cluster of "punk rock" shops were located, by the original City TV building, which was itself in what used to be the Electric Circus discoteque. I'd probably be wearing a pair of too-tight bowling shoes, jeans my mother had (reluctantly) pegged for me, and a leather trenchcoat that used to belong to my sister, its lapel studded with "punk" buttons. Pretty harmless punk poseur get-up, except that it inspired sneers and threats, even, on the subway and in the street, an outpouring of hostility that served to reinforce my aggressive self-pity and morose nonconformity, at the very least.

While it seems on most days like "simple urban civility" has become scarce, I have to admit that Toronto has discovered tolerance during the term of my adult life. I remember when a few peroxide highlights were enough to invite shoves and curses on a crowded street; seeing a crowd pour out of a tavern to chase two drag queens down Yonge. Today, club kids in plush-toy pants with plastic chains looping zoot-suit style past their knees to their wallets, piercings, tribals and synthetic-hued hair, walking heavily but carefully in huge platform shoes, can travel on the notorious blue night network buses without fear. I'd like to know just how this happened, but I'll generally just nod gratefully at our good fortune.

That city was a run-down place, seething with a kind of resentment, and wearing out the furniture and decor left over from its last period of prosperity in the early Sixties. It was a homely, precarious town, and while I might miss the broken-down but soulful streetscapes that have been swept away, I have to be grateful for the tact and somewhat strained diffidence that seemed to fill the space they left.

I somehow manage to think about all of these things in the five or ten minutes I wait for my streetcar, imagining a ghost of myself walking past the window, pulling my coat tight, never dressed warmly enough for winter in those days. Then the three lights of the westbound car poke past the entrance to the Victoria Restaurant and I turn and run past the security guard for the revolving door leading out across the street to the stop.

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Catastrophe averted; a trip home, with a detour down memory lane; I finally out myself as a republican.

 
 
 
 
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  CONSUME

Ian McEwan, The Innocent buy it


Moonstarr, Dupont buy it

Kevin Moon is a local DJ whose career I've been following for a few years now, ever since I was assigned to take his photo in his record-lined room in a shared house on Harbord Street. He makes particularly spare but beautifully detailed techno records, and has an obsession with public transit that manages to be both his inspiration and an organizing principle in his work. A couple of years ago I tried to write an article about him for the Post - I've been trying to write about Moonstarr for anyone I've worked for, with no success - and interviewed him in a more spacious apartment on St. Clair that he shared with his girlfriend. He showed me a scrapbook of his SX-70 pictures, mostly taken on subways; spare, almost abstract images neatly mounted on black pages. They were a perfect companion to his music, I thought, and that's how I've pitched him ever since: the aesthetically complete DJ, artistically self-sufficient. He's one of the city's real artistic successes, to my mind.
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IF YOU BELIEVE MY REUTERS desktop, there are only two big stories this week: the war in the Mideast (let's just call a spade a spade, why don't we?) and the death of the Queen Mum. As I write this, a few hours before the funeral begins, nothing short of Sharon and Arafat chained at the wrist and armed with Stanley knives will knock Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon's flag-draped casket from the pole position.

There have been the usual obsequies, a few sincere, even tasteful, most merely sopping. There's been a ridiculous flap about a BBC interviewer without a black tie, the precise point of which I never understood, and the inevitable republican grumblings and cautious but sly celebrations. At work, we joke about it at the afternoon editorial meeting ("Queen Mum Still Dead!") and run at least a story or picture every day for a week.

I suppose when we're putting King George VI's wife to rest, we're putting to rest the last time when there was something synchronous in the wishes of both a people and their monarchy. Simple enough to boil that down to a question of survival in the face of tyranny, a real and palpable evil walking the face of the earth. Harder to figure out at what point those needs and wishes divided again, leaving only nostalgia and celebrity as the brittle bridges between the Windsors and their "subjects".

The fact is that World War Two was probably the only time in modern memory when the British people and their monarch - constitutional or not - really shared goals and priorities. That it even happened at all seems like an accident of history, unlikely to be repeated again, at least in our lifetimes. Britain defeated would be a Britain with no room for both a King and a Führer, which is why the monarchy and the aristocracy could so effortlessly lose whatever sympathies they might have had for fascist regimes in the "low, dishonest decade" just ending and act with common purpose.

It was the prerogatives and pride of a vast tribe of monarchs, after all, that played a significant part in turning a Balkan war into a World War, and the family Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons married into were much diminished, in both numbers and position, after Armistice Day. In the aftermath of the First World War, it was once again possible to think about abolishing the monarchy in Britain, probably for the first time since Cromwell. It was an idea whose time had finally come, and it's probably only the great goodwill that George VI and his wife earned for the monarchy that guaranteed its survival for a few decades more.

But that time has gone, its passing marked particularly with the death of George's jolly, gin-drinking widow. Her children and grandchildren have turned out to be a dull and duty-worn lot, whose every ill-concealed grimace and strained expression while under the public gaze makes constitutional monarchy seem a joyless institution. The only recent member of the Windsor clan who seemed to relish her position was Diana, and that was mostly because she actually seemed to believe in the institution, in its harsh glamour and pitiless fantasy. And look what happened to her.

I'm talking from my own prerogatives here, as much as the Windsors work to maintain their own. Royalty, and its overpopulated aristocratic suburbs, have done no favours for me or my people. As an Irish-Canadian, a Catholic, and the child of working people, there's no way I can find common ground with the Windsors, or a reason that they should continue, somewhere, to enjoy what's basically luxury without labour. I live in a world that, when it works properly, rewards merit, and it's beeen a long time since the Windsors managed much more than duty. I don't find solace in the thought that, somewhere, there's someone who, should I ever meet them, I'm expected to greet with a careful ritual of deference. It makes no sense to me and, frankly, I can't see why it would make sense to anyone else.

Wouldn't it be better to free the Windsors from the last of their obligations, to allow them a chance to earn, honestly, both their keep and our admiration, and make their mistakes, personal and otherwise, as relatively normal citizens? It's probably the only way that, should Britain find itself once again facing a crisis, they could pitch in and shoulder the burden as equals. At this point, it's not just the East End they have to look in the eye, but the whole of a country whose only hope in shedding the remnants of forelock-tugging class deference, on its way to becoming truly modern, is to retire the family whose spiritual existence relies on the persistence of an outmoded machinery of class.

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. ©1998-2002Rick McGinnis