FRONT PAGE / POSTS
The Global Hole
by Kathryn Borel| Toronto, Canada
Wednesday, 22 September 2010
tags: americas, culture, global vectors, global/local, uncategorized
On the eve of the new year in 2008, I was in a New York bookstore with my novelist friend Sheila. We’d had an ecstatic tourist’s day in the city – eating fried plantains in the morning and buying skirts to wear to our dinner on the lower east side, where I planned on doing whatever I could to corner Sheila’s handsome editor and force him to give me a midnight kiss. Our feeling was sort of a buoyancy-in-negative: We weren’t high off New York City’s compellingly scummy fumes; that day in New York had made us realize that our home, Toronto, was our soul city, the most correct of all the cities for a couple of writers like us.
We talked about Toronto’s cultural mosaic, one that did not have the kind of overarching macro-narrative which forces its inhabitants to fall into step with “the vibe”. There were too many neighbourhoods for that, we said. What unified Toronto was its patchwork of micro-communities. Of the Azerbaijani family that sold Sheila her cherry flavoured cigarellos. Of the Chinese man who spoke fluent Spanish and would always give me great deals on Brazil nuts at the dried foods store. We talked about the Dundas streetcar, and how you could step onto it after a lunch of pierogies in Little Poland, then watch as Koreatown, Little Portugal, and Little Italy rolled past until you rang the bell in Little India, where you could get off, eat the greatest authentic dosa of your life, then walk north to Greektown for a dessert of perfect, crispy baklava. We loved our city for these things – we were both children of poor, miserable immigrants who’d come to Toronto and forged new lives, new identities. Toronto did the same for our writing: Our voices were wholly our own. We had control over how much geography we wanted to incorporate into our stories. In New York we surely couldn’t do that. We’d be left standing outside the New Yorker building in high heels and sophisticated belted coats, shouting into our bullhorns, begging for the city to give us its very specific kind of recognition.
Sheila suddenly took one of my frozen hands into hers and pulled me off the snowy sidewalk and into the bookstore. She ran up to the cashier and asked for Pico Iyer’s memoir The Global Soul, which has beautiful passages that reflected what we loved about Toronto. Sheila said, “We’ll read it to one another over dinner.”
At the restaurant, we took turns reading aloud between courses. It was snobby as hell, but we didn’t give a rat’s ass. We just sat there in the warmth and took turns reading Iyer’s words by candlelight over sweetbreads and fish, drunk on good wine and high concepts and the confidence that our sense of place had given to us.
During my early days in Toronto, I found myself spinning through cultures as if I were sampling World Music rhythms on a hip-hop record. Every day, I'd wake up early and hand my laundry to the woman from the Caribbean who guarded the front desk of the Hotel Victoria with an upright demeanor worthy of a Beefeater. Then I'd slip around the corner to where two chirpily efficient Chinese girls would have my croissant and tea ready almost before I'd ordered them.
I'd stop off in the Movenpick Marché down the block-run almost entirely by Filipinas (the sisters, perhaps, of the chambermaids in the Victoria)- and buy a copy of the Globe and Mail, which nearly always had news on its front page of Beijing. Then, not untypically, an Afghan would fill me in on the politics of Peshawar as I took a cab uptown, consulting an old-fashioned newspaper that (with its Grub street column and its "Climatology" section) seemed to belong to Edwardian Delhi.
For a Global Soul like me – for anyone born to several cultures – the challenge in the modern world is to find a city that speaks to as many of our homes as possible. The process of interacting with a place is a little like the rite of a cocktail party, at which, upon being introduced to a stranger, we cast about to find a name, a place, a person we might have in common: a friend is someone who can bring as many of our selves to the table as possible.
In that respect, Toronto felt entirely on my wavelength. It assembled many of the pasts that I knew, from Asia and America and Europe; yet unlike other outposts of Empire-Adelaide, for example, or Durban-it offered the prospect of uniting all the fragments in a stained-glass whole.
By the time we got to the cheese course, our eyes were misty with emotion. Then we smelled smoke and realized that our eyes were in fact misty because there was a grease fire in the restaurant’s kitchen. The sommelier ushered us all out into the street as a group of lantern-jawed firemen put out the little blaze. 30 minutes later, when everyone was allowed to return to their tables, we saw they were dotted with small cakes – an act of apology from the pastry chef. Sheila and I looked at one another with wonder and joy. Of course scummy old New York would have a grease fire in fancy restaurant on New Year’s Eve! We then looked around the room with wonder and joy and noticed that at the table next to us was Keanu Reeves, a native Torontonian. Of course Keanu Reeves would be sitting next to us! By now I was very drunk and thought it would be a grand idea to offer Iyer’s book to Keanu as a gesture of goodwill, a sort of enactment of Iyer’s global soul. Sheila was a Hungarian Jew who’d travelled all over the world, I’d moved 17 times throughout Europe and North America, Keanu had surely spent some time in Los Angeles and in The Matrix. We were family, pretty much. And The Global Soul was our bible, clearly.
Sheila, who was not quite so drunk, shrunk into her seat in embarrassment, whispering violently that I should not go over and disturb his dinner. Shrugging, I teetered over to him, the book lying on top of my two hands like a platter of grapes.
I said, “Keanu, I thought you should have this. I earmarked the pages about Toronto.”
He looked at me dumbly.
I continued, “Keanu Reeves, you have to read these pages about Toronto.” Words were failing me. I paused and took a breath.
“Keanu REEVES, you are from Toronto.”
Keanu Reeves held up his hand and said, “Yeah, I am. But what am I supposed to DO with this?”
“It’s a book, Keanu Reeves. You read it.” I turned on my heel and walked back to the table, where Sheila was convulsing with shame. The unity and joy I’d been feeling all day dissipated until a large dark cavern was created inside my body. It stayed with me for the rest of the trip, even after I’d successfully shoved Sheila’s editor up against a wall and kissed him to ring in the new year.
A few days later, when I got back to my apartment in Toronto, I noticed that the lids for my three outdoor garbage cans were missing. I was surveying the scene with what I assume was a dumb look similar to the look that Keanu Reeves had given to me. My old Portuguese neighbour Manuel came outside and stood next to me. Manuel was a janitor at the hospital down the street for decades, until he retired in the late 90s. He didn’t speak much English, but we’d communicated for years through his summer gifts of cucumbers from his garden, and me baking him pies that he always complained were too sugary. I’d never had to pull my garbage cans to the curb on garbage day, because for the near decade I’d been living there, Manuel would have done it for me in the earliest morning, before I’d woken up.
He shuffled out of his home in his little glasses and woolen hat and came to stand next to me.
“Katreen!” He pointed to the lid-less garbage bins.
“I know, Manny. It’s so weird. I can’t figure out who took them.” I shook my head, puzzled. He patted my shoulder and I felt warm. Suddenly, I had an ally in this totally inconsequential mystery.
“You look so young today! Very beautiful.” Manuel put a long, liquid emphasis on the “e” and pronounced the “ful” like “fow”. I blushed at his non-sequitur.
“I know who took these, Katreen.”
“You do?” I said.
“Yes, Chinese people.”
I thought I’d misheard.
“What?” I said.
“CHINESE people.” He shouted as though I were deaf and pointed east, to Spadina Avenue, where our street connected with Chinatown.
“Uh. You think?”
“Yes. They… they take. They take everything.” He waved his arms around madly.
I dropped my head and stared at my shoes feeling the flush in my face turn to one of hot embarrassment. I wanted to run back into the house immediately. I opened my mouth to begin to protest, but we didn’t have enough of a shared vocabulary for me to make him understand how wrong and racist he was being. Not knowing what to say, I mumbled:
“Okay, well, thanks Manny. I guess I’ll just go buy some new lids.”
That weekend, as I was washing the windows of the 2nd floor of my apartment, I noticed three plastic circles lying on the bit of roof outside the glass. They were my garbage lids. Some joker had obviously used them to play Frisbee. I wanted to run downstairs and triumphantly knock on Manuel’s door with the lids in my hand, but then decided that it didn’t matter.