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About the Author

Joe Fiorito

Joe Fiorito was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a young man in Northern Ontario, he worked in a paper mill, surveyed roads, and laboured in bush camps prior to becoming involved in community development and arts consulting. Fiorito spent five years working with a staff of Inuit journalists at CBC Radio in Iqaluit, NWT before transferring to Regina, where he wrote, produced and directed CBC Radio's highly acclaimed "The Food Show," a weekly program about food and agriculture. Fiorito lived for many years in Montreal, where he first wrote a weekly food column for HOUR, and later signed on as a city columnist for The Montreal Gazette. His first collection, Comfort Me with Apples: Considering the Pleasures of the Table, a series of essays about food and memory drawn from Fiorito's HOUR columns,  was published by Nuage Editions (now Signature Editions) in 1994. In 2000, it was  reissued by McLelland & Stewart. Tango on the Main, Fiorito's second collection, was selected from his Gazette columns.Fiorito relocated to Toronto, writing first for The National Post and then for The Toronto Star. In 1999, he published his family memoir, The Closer We Are to Dying (M&S), which became a national best-seller and received widespread critical acclaim. This was followed by the award-winning novel The Song Beneath the Ice (M&S, 2003) and Union Station: Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto. (M&S, 2007).

Books by this Author
Comfort Me with Apples

Comfort Me with Apples

Considering the Pleasures of the Table
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Tango on the Main

Tango on the Main

tagged : urban
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My old man died on the second of June, of a cancer so muscular and aggressive that it seemed to lift him up and throw him down a dozen times a day, as if he were made of rags instead of flesh and blood.

There were hot spots all over his bones. There was a fist of it near his kidneys, an egg-sized lump under his arm and a great thick slab of it sitting on his chest, above his heart. He tried to fight it off with everything he had. He never gave up any more of himself than he had to. He died with his fists clenched, an inch at a time.

Even though the pain was swift enough to stay one step ahead of the morphine, my old man never admitted there was anything much the matter. As if naming the devil might give it power. When his doctor asked him how he was, he'd reply "Not so bad," and ask "How about you?" as if he were making a social call.

He didn't want to frighten anyone with the extent of the disease. He left it to my mother to parse the grammar of his moans at night, so she could tell the doctor what she'd heard when they went together to the clinic in the morning.

My old man was, among other things, a part-time dance-band musician who played spaghetti jobs for nearly sixty years. A spaghetti job is musician's talk in the Lakehead for a dinner dance, even when the food was roast beef and cabbage rolls, and the dance was at the Finn, and not the Italian Hall.

He was a handsome bugger with a banjo on his knee. He was a young man with a slide trombone. Later in life, he leaned against his bass fiddle and caressed it while he sang the blues, and couples on the dance floor held each other close and made love listening to his voice.

I made the mistake one night of taking a date to watch him play. She spent the evening with her elbows propped on the table, her chin resting in her hands, a dreamy expression on her face, staring at my old man, watching him work the slide of the horn sweetly back and forth. Too Freudian, even for me. I took her home and said goodnight and shook her hand.

I spent the last month with my old man, sleeping in an armchair in his hospital room, listening to him gasp for breath at night.

The first week, he was well enough to tell me stories, although he'd often fall asleep before he finished what he was saying. Not that it mattered. He always told the same stories the same way every time he told them. I know most of them by heart. The time he stole the piano. The dog who followed him home. The time his cousin got drunk and fell asleep and let the still blow up.

One night, my old man opened his eyes and lifted his head and looked at me and asked "Who brought the charges?" I asked him what he meant. He looked away. He said "There had to have been charges." He thought he was in jail.

The next night, he woke and looked at me again. He said "They can't keep my shoes from me, can they?" He thought if he could get his shoes, he could sneak out. No such luck, Pops.

The second week, the questions tapered off and something happened to the stories. He'd get stuck on certain sentences and repeat them until he forgot what he was talking about. Repeat them until he forgot what he was talking about.

As if his needle was stuck in the groove.

My old man was a small-town Fellini who brought a little magic and a little cruelty to nearly everything he did. One night, when I was a kid and he was playing in the circus band, he brought Victor Julian home for supper. Victor Julian was the guy with the dancing dogs. Victor Julian took one look at my little Trixie, she with the patch over her eye and her little dog grin and her whippet's tail.

Victor Julian smiled possessively.

He waited until I went outside after supper, and then he made my dad an offer. A week's wages, at a time when my folks had no money to speak of, and four boys to raise.

When I came in from playing after supper, the room fell silent. Nobody looked at me. My old man told me Trixie would have a good home with all the other circus dogs. She'd get to travel and see the country. Victor Julian said he'd take her with him on the Ed Sullivan Show.

I was ten years old. It hurt me to see Trixie go. I could understand about the money. We were always broke. But I thought the Ed Sullivan business was a bit much. I thought they didn't have to lie.

Trixie grinned over her shoulder at me as she trotted out the door with Victor Julian. The next day, the newspaper carried a photo of my dog, and a story with the headline "Local Pooch Makes Good."

Six months later, we got a note telling us Trixie was going to be on TV. I didn't want to believe it, in case it wasn't true. I held my breath until Sunday.

During the second half of the show, Ed Sullivan introduced Victor Julian. He stepped on stage in his tux, with his top hat on his head. Following behind him, last in a line of dancing dogs, dressed in a little skirt, with a little hat on her head and a ruffled collar round her neck, grinning ear to ear and wagging her skinny whip of a tail, was my little Trixie.

She jumped through a hoop. She walked up a ladder. She grinned at the other dogs. I forgave my old man instantly. We were still broke, the money was long gone to pay bills, but one of us, even if it was only the dog, had made it to a better life.

Not all of what my old man did ended with a magic turn. In the end, there were too many late nights and too many pieces of himself tendered easily to strangers.

It couldn't have been easy to sell my dog. I forgave him, anyway. He worked hard, he loved his sons, and if he promised us more than he could reasonably deliver, in the end he gave us all he had.

The final week of his life, my old man was down to single words, then gestures. The last thing I saw him do, at quarter to nine on the morning of the last day of his life, was raise his fist and shake it.

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The Song Beneath the Ice

YOU MAY RECALL THIS STORY from the newspapers:

A year or so ago, during a recital of Pictures at an Exhibition, the concert pianist Dominic Amoruso stopped, got up from the piano, turned to the audience, paused – and walked away with­out a word. Just like that, he disappeared.

There were suggestions at the time of an attack of stage fright; the onset of some sudden illness; a temperamental reaction to some careless noise in the audience; perhaps a nervous breakdown. I was there that night. I saw what happened. I’m still not sure I understand.

He was performing in the Walker Court of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He was playing the piece with which he launched his career, and with which he is most closely associated. He’d begun with his usual brilliance. There was no hint of anything unusual.

He plays the Musorgsky as written – more powerful, per­haps more jagged than you are used to hearing it. Closer to Richter than Horowitz; closer to Ashkenazy than Richter; but all Musorgsky. Or so I am told. I am not a music critic. But I do have particular knowledge of Amoruso. I have known him since childhood. He has the nerves of a burglar. He often joked that he could play Pictures in his sleep, that he played it better in his dreams. That night, however, he became progressively more tentative as he made his way through the music and, towards the end, his hands began to jerk back from the piano as if he feared the keys might bite him.

He appeared puzzled. Then frightened. He grimaced. He fought himself. He froze. He sat for a moment with his hands raised high in front of him, unable or unwilling to move. The image was that of a child shielding his face from the attentions of a large black dog.

In the audience: silence, whispers, murmurs, gasps. Men and women shifting in their seats. A few rows behind me, a man began to clap and a shrill, two-fingered whistle pierced the rising murmur. Someone hissed at the rudeness; then, as if to explain that the hiss was meant to admonish the whistler and not the pianist, the crowd broke into earnest, almost apologetic applause.

Dominic let his hands fall. His shoulders sagged. He pushed himself up from the piano bench and faced us as if he were about to speak. I held my breath; we all did. He made a useless gesture with his hands. No words came. He looked up and flinched as if he thought something might fall on him. He turned on his heel and walked away, without so much as a sideways glance.

The director of the gallery tried to catch his elbow.

Thomas Carter is a small slim grey-haired man who favours a crisp black suit and an impeccable white shirt. Amoruso brushed past him.

Carter took centre stage and apologized briskly on Dominic’s behalf. Said he was sure it was nothing serious. Efforts were being made to take care of him, there was indeed a doctor in the house – a remark that caused a titter. There were plenty of them in the house.

And then, with a confident smile, Carter made a few remarks about the evening’s exhibition, about which more in a moment. He invited us to join him for a glass of champagne, after which he said we might like to take a stroll through the gallery.


I caught up with Carter and asked if I could help in any way. He directed me to a makeshift green room off to the side of Walker Court. Dominic was nowhere to be seen. No one could tell me where he was. And so I resolved to find him.

I left the gallery and went to look for him in his usual post-performance haunts. I went to Pho Pasteur, Dai Nam – his favour­ite noodle shops in Chinatown: No, sorry, we ­haven’t seen him, not tonight, we don’t know where he is.

I went to the Fran’s on College St. No, dear, he ­hasn’t been in. At least not this evening. If he drops by later, is there a message? I took the subway to the Fran’s on St. Clair, the one near his apartment; the same response. I walked to his apartment building and rang his buzzer. Nothing doing. The doorman said he ­hadn’t seen him that evening, although I was sure this was an act of loyalty.

I was stumped.

As nearly as I can determine, he made three phone calls that evening: first, to Claire Weller – they were intimate; second, to his agent, the elderly but formidable Anne Langelier. And there was a brief and simple message on my machine when I finally got home: It’s me. I’m sorry. –Don’t worry. I’ll be in touch. His voice sounded altogether serene.

It seems to me that when someone does something quite out of character, says ­“Don’t worry,” and then drops out of sight, it is prudent to worry in earnest. I tried to return his call. I was not the only one – his phone rang busy all night long. Eventually I gave up – either several of us were trying to get through all at once and we were blocking the line, or he had taken his phone off the hook.

I finally got through the next morning.

His voice mail kicked in after half a dozen rings. His mailbox was full and would no longer accept new messages.


It ­didn’t add up.

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Union Station

Union Station

Stories of the New Toronto
tagged : urban
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Nobody likes a winner.

This is a distinctly Canadian thing. Toronto won all the marbles a long time ago, at least the ones that matter most. How you feel about that, and how you feel about us, is the least of our worries. We ­don’t have time to care. We have to go to work.

That’s us, according to our reputation.

We are smug, aloof and in a hurry. I say “we” because I live here now, in a city that is, pound for pound, the richest, meanest, poorest, coldest, cheapest, most diverse in the world, among people who have the softest, smuggest, hardest, biggest hearts.

You ­don’t like us? You are not alone.

Brendan Behan said it better than J.B. Priestley: “Toronto is barbaric without being picturesque. Toronto will be a fine town when it is finished.” Consider the source: Behan was a dribbling old tosspot, and he had a grudge; on top of which he ­couldn’t insult us once and get it right, he had to take two runs at it.

He lived in my neighbourhood for a time. According to the cartoonist Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, who went to school and learned to rebel at Parkdale Collegiate, Behan stayed in rooms down the street and around the corner from where I live now. Terry told me that the Irishman came to his school a time or two. Such is life around here that the local barbarians scarcely paid him any mind. He would have fit in rather nicely: blotto all the while, except for the time he clocked a cop, and we locked him up in order to dry him out and teach him the error of his ways; perhaps that was the source of his grudge.

For that, too, is our reputation: Toronto the good, the sober, the minder of other people’s business. Alas, not much has changed. Behan would recognize the neighbourhood if he fell in the gutter today, although he’d be more likely to step on a used needle than to trip over an empty bottle. We still have no good answer for the junkies or the drunks, just as we had no answer for him. But Brendan got it wrong. Most people get it wrong. Toronto will not be a fine town when it is finished.

It is a fine town because it is unfinished.

Cold, prim, smug, hard and harried: we endure such slights with patience. Our patience is not a virtue; rather, it is a tactic born of necessity. We ­don’t have the time to stop.

I have been poking around the edges of this city for a long time. I think the people who hate Toronto do not know us, nor do they know the kind of lives we lead.

This place is being made and remade every day by layers and waves of immigration; roughly 160,000 newcomers come here every year, and every year roughly 100,000 residents leave here on the bounce, the rebound or the skip. That’s a lot of coming and going, and it is a net gain of 60,000 people every year from all the countries of the world.

Nearly half the people who live here were born in other countries.

Can you speak Tagalog? We speak it here.

Men and women come to Toronto from all the countries of the world because they want what we have — relative peace, steady work, schools for the kids, an absence of automatic weapons, and the chance to vote without being blown up.

Check your race and creed at the door.

If you ­can’t make it here . . .

The city — and I think this holds true of yours as well as mine, but it is more true of Toronto by virtue of its sheer size — is not the same today as it was yesterday, and it will be different tomorrow.

Toronto is a work in progress, a bird in flight, a swollen stream in springtime; it is a mural in spray paint on a wall that reaches to the horizon; it is . . . you get the drift. Who we are today is a function of who came here yesterday.

Our high-­rises are filled with the poor, the tired and the hungry, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; ours is a hybrid strength; newcomers are what makes us strong.

Immigrants arrive, settle down, look around, and you know happens next: Korean girls marry the Portuguese boys next door. Jamaicans open shops and sell cowfoot and salt fish to their neighbours. A Somali girl who, on a cold spring morning wearing sandals and a summer dress, crossed the Peace Bridge alone now sets her alarm and rises early to attend nursing school, and if we are lucky, she will tend us when we are old. The truth is this:

The lives we lead here are the same as your lives.

And if there is a comparison to be made it is not with Montreal or Chicago or any other city of the present age. To live here now is how I imagine it was to live in New York City in 1900, its doors open to the world.

You might not like our bankers or our business leaders or our hip taste-­makers. Here’s news: We ­don’t like them, either. The wrong people have all the money in Toronto, just as they do where you live.

I am not interested in those people, or where they came from, although I have a hunch they came here from some small town; perhaps yours. There is no helping the ambitious. Let them be. They know how to help themselves. I’m interested in everyone else.

This is a contemporary history of us.

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