Monday, July 18, 2005

Memories of Hogtown

Still in Ottawa, and so drugged by television and home cooking that I'm not sure I'll make it back. I'm reading the autobiography of British-born Canadian punk diva Carol Pope. Her amusing book paints a picture of Toronto in the seventies and eighties, and reminds me that that city can sometimes be a fun place, despite its grisly history of once having been the hog-slaughtering capitol of the western world.

I lived in T-O, or "T-dot" as the homies sometimes call it, in the nineties, when I was just a young man setting off into the world. There was a burgeoning spoken word scene going on at the time, and I started hanging out with the poets. Most of these people, myself included, wanted to be Leonard Cohen, and we hung out in cafes and at open stages, reading our latest poems and trying to look morose. The only two exceptions to this rule were a fellow named Nick Beat (who wanted to be Jack Kerouac) and Cad Lowlife, who was like a cross between Jackie Gleason and Andy Kaufman.

Cad called himself a "hipster braggadocio" and even had business cards printed up with this title. He was the soul, as far as I can tell, of our whole little scene, and newcomers often didn't know just how to take him. Was he for real? A short, pot-bellied Jewish guy with a thick, New York accent, Cad would take the stage with his unabashed stories of pimpin' and "doin it" with "broads and dames". Women meeting him for the first time would usually find him repulsive, but if you spent some time with him it became apparent that behind his brash misogynistic display of ghetto sexuality was a heart of gold enwrapped in comedic genius.

Cad was something like the court jester at the Orgasmic Alphabet Orgy, an open stage for poets and musicians held every Tuesday night in a small room behind the bar at the old Gladstone Hotel on Queen Street West. The hotel back then had quite a bit of mystique to it. There was rumored to be some kind of European princess who lived in the penthouse, and a Reubenesque knock-off painting hung on the wall behind the bar, to give all the unemployed cowboys something to stare at when they were drinking.

In recent years, the hotel has received a face-lift, and the neighbourhood is slowly becoming gentrified. The Gladstone is now a trendy place for hipsters from The Duke down the street to come for some post-cocktail slumming. The Orgasmic Alphabet Orgy was evicted from their dank, beatnik haven in the room behind the bar years ago. When last I visited the Orgy, it was holding court in the upstairs of a Chinese food joint on St. Clair. Cad had a talent for searching out new venues, and convincing restaurateurs that the Orgy crowd would be good for business. But the night I showed up there were only three or four of the die-hard regulars, including Cad and the host, in attendance.

The whole spoken word scene, at least as I knew it, seemed to die out sometime in the late nineties, to be replaced by some other fad. Dub-poetry? Scratch DJ comps? Monster truck rallies? I have no idea. What I do know is that Toronto was a fun place to live for a guy in his twenties who thought of himself as a poet. If I could travel, like Dr. Who, back in time and visit myself, I would probably be a little embarrassed. There's no experience like inexperience, and I had plenty of it back then (probably still do, in fact).

When I visit the city now, however, I hardly know my way around. Everything has changed. I see young people enjoying their first tastes of the kind of freedom big city life can offer, but I don't envy them. And I don't really think of myself as a poet anymore either--at least, not in the Leonard Cohen sense of the term. A crossover hip-hop blogger lyricist maybe, but poet should be a term reserved for the truly immortal wordsmiths, and these fakie musings are but a flash in the digital dark.

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