In the last few months in separate incidents several people have been shot and two have died along Toronto’s Isabella Street, in the downtown core of Canada’s largest city. On September 27, 1995 I wrote a column for another paper describing life on that exact street, where I was forced to live with my family for the month before we moved into our new home. Various special interest groups sought my head because of what I wrote.
Five years later I offer an updated version of that original column. The situation is far too serious for me to scream “I told you so.” It is also, sadly, representative of every urban centre in North America. In brief, it is a portrait of decadence. Our civilizations are dying, our civility is crumbling. And our leaders give us circuses, when we want the bread of life.
Chapter One. Just around the corner from our front door large numbers of homosexual men hang about, apparently waiting to be picked up. I am out with my children to buy their mother some flowers. As we walk past the sexual menagerie one of the staring men murmurs “Someone’s been breeding lately, haven’t they.”
Nothing I can do. The speaker will not identify himself and my children are confused and a little frightened by the situation. I walk on.
Chapter Two. As I return to our apartment that evening a man in his mid-thirties offers me drugs. “Ya gonna like this s…” he says, “I’m the cheapest in town.” Further along the street a shaking, soiled prostitute offers her services in colourful language. I reply in the negative. If nothing else I admire her persistence, because she proceeds to ask me the same question at around the same time almost every evening for a month.
Behind her a fistfight is taking place between a dozen men and women. They scatter as a police cruiser arrives. The prostitute, the pusher and the thugs are within fifteen yards of one another.
Chapter Three. The local subway, a two-minute walk from our apartment, where we live like some small army under siege. The subway is fairly safe, but strangely over-populated with people who appear to be mentally ill. One well-dressed man walks up and down the train extremely quickly, punching the seats as he does and talking to himself. He gets off and on again at every stop.
Another elderly drunk has vomited on the floor. He screams at the top of his lungs that he was once sexually intimate with Andy Warhol. Personally, I doubt it. A teenager sleeps, legs stretched out and taking up what should be three seats. He is dribbling as he snores.
Chapter Four. The little store at the entrance to our apartment block is open all day, most of the night. It sells bread, milk and cookies. And pornography. Oddly juxtaposed with a picture of the Aga Khan are copies of video boxes adorned with photographs of semi-naked women. All at a height, and in such numbers, that makes it difficult if not impossible for me to take children into the store.
Call me prudish if you like, but I don’t see why six-year-old kids should be forced to make eye contact with Countess Whiplash when they’re after Count Chocula. When I ask the owner about this he smiles and claims that his English is not very good. I tell him that children of all races, all backgrounds deserve to be respected. He says nothing.
Chapter Five. The stores on and around the street are mostly of a kind. Music blares out at such a rate that it even drowns out the noise of the cars on the road. For sale are enormous serrated knives, posters of wrestlers and women in provocative posters, obscene T-shirts and multi-coloured condoms.
Chapter Six. Surprisingly early one morning I pass a gang of ostensible street kids and one approaches me. “Hey, give me money, keep violence off the streets” he shouts. I stare at him. For a long time. Finally he turns and walks away, back into a smear of pierced lips and noses, foul language and torn jeans.
I have the greatest sympathy for the poor and homeless but these youths are white, plump and, almost without doubt, not in genuine need.
Postscript. It’s 2000 and little has changed. In fact it’s got worse. Then and now I am a realist. Don’t give me perfection, just give me decency. After all, it’s my city as well as theirs.