I am up in Northern Ontario and on the 19th of May, I found apple-blossoms that are getting ready to open – AMAZING. Earlier today, in Oakville, I was surprised to find that the dandelions had all gone to seed and here I am some 250 miles north of Oakville and the dandelions are just in bloom. Where Oakville is two-and-a-half weeks behind Pittsburgh, Sault Ste Marie is easily three-and-a-half weeks behind us in Western Pennsylvania.
The blossoms are on my dad’s trees in his back-yard.
This is my first time flying up in at least 20 years. And I think it’s going to continue. Combining the Toronto trip and the Sault Ste Marie trip was an inspiration. Last night, I visited with my cousins, when I go back I’m visiting with Frank-and-Norma, helping Joe plant his back-yard and going to dinner with Dave-and-Seane. In the past I would have done two separate trips. It’s nice to drive only to Toronto and then fly up to visit with my parents. (The two day car trip from Pittsburgh to Sault Ste Marie is now a thing of the past.)
I took a walk to my aunt-and-uncle’s and along the way, shot every spring flower I found. I’m here at a great time – all the blossoms are on the cusp, the lawns are yellow with dandelions. A sense of hope and new-life is everywhere. (I’ve always wanted to be in Italy for spring. I want to shoot poppies in the wheat fields; eat fresh fava with old priscuitto.) In industrial Sault Ste Marie, spring disguises the dirt, the deteriorating housing stock, a west-end neighborhood full of old people.
The walk took me through streets full of memories – the recurring one is of the old sub-basement church that was St. Gregory’s. I remember walking there in the winter; we were still living at my grandparents’ and I would walk over on Saturday night to go to confession. (Talk about a long time ago and a ritual that no longer exists.)
My dad’s garden is the opposite of my uncle’s. Where Ciccio is ambiguous with his environment, Milio is exact and methodical. My father’s garden has randomness built into it; my uncle’s garden is laid out in precise, even rows. The roof of my father’s greenhouse is covered in moss; shiny glass panels front and roof my uncle’s greenhouse. (My uncle is able to grow primrose; he has several beautiful clusters that come back year-after-year. I’ve had no luck with spring primrose.)
Lunch today is gnocchi, deep-fried chicken from some fast-food place, and rapini. I complained to my mother that the chicken is full of salt, but the warning went in one ear and out the other. (I can’t figure out if buying deep-fried chicken is a convenience or a gesture to the idea that they are not hide-bound to old immigrant traditions.)
The title – vernacular – is a favorite word of mine. However, it’s always been difficult to apply it to anything other than the switching of the Catholic Mass from the universal Latin to the local language. This mental block comes specifically because I was raised Catholic and can remember Vatican II and the switch – the altar moved so that the priest faced the congregation and the old Latin became English. But my non-Catholic friends have always used the term to refer to the architectural designs common in an area. And I like applying the term to housing design. The house in the image is a typical 1920’s/1930’s frame structure here in Northern Ontario. It resembles in form, what we in the US, would call Cape Cod style. (I remember seeing similar house in the beach communities around Narragansett. John’s family summer cottage looked a lot like the house in the picture, just smaller and with no basement.) The alterations, to the typical New England cottage design, are mainly in the steeper roof pitch – understandable given the northern climate and the snow-bound winters and in the addition of a basement lifting it off the ground, off a ground that can stays frozen 5 months of the year.
Without a car, I’ve been walking everywhere and this morning I headed west and into the subdivisions on the other side of Goulais Avenue. I had never walked in this area before and it was wonderful to discover a neighborhood full of old houses that have been maintained, upgraded, but not fractured. (The house in the image does not have its front steps, but the pylons are there to support them once they are installed. Let’s hope that they don’t use wolmanized or pre-fab materials.)
The last two times I was up here in the spring, I shot these beautiful yellow flowers that lined the ditches and covered the bogs in and around Connie-and-Ron’s cottage. Connie has transplanted a bunch of the plants from the boggy back-lot across the street to the banks of the drainage-ditch on the north-side of the property. The plant is also know as Caltha cowslip and kingscup.
Naming this plant turned out to be easier than I had expected. I went to Google-Images and once I found something that looked like the plant, I was able to trace it back to a name and a genus. (This is not a plant I remember from when I was living here, but then looking at spring flowers or shooting them weren’t things I was doing or interested in. Never mind the fact that I went no where near bogs or ditches. These wet-areas were reminders of winter, reminders that we were living in a non-urban landscape and therefore undesirable. And let’s not forget, that the ditches, the stagnant waters were mosquito breeding-tanks.)
The long Victoria Day weekend is the traditional time to go out and open the cottages that line the shorelines of this norther community. The weather is cool; the land has lost its winter moisture; and the trees are full of blossoms and sap. It’s a great time to be out in the woods. The evergreens on Connie-and-Ron’s property are now mature and provide a wonderful canopy. Connie was putting in annuals and trying to rake-up all the twigs and dead branches winter left behind.
Yesterday, I drove to Toronto, parked the car at Dave’s, took a cab to City Island and got on a plane to Sault Ste Marie. (So much easier than the two-day drive.) By 5:30, I was sitting in my parents’ house having supper.
This morning, I look out the window and there are Ciccio and Dominic, at the backyard picnic-table, having breakfast – fave, wine, home-made bread and zucchini-flower fritters. It was 7:00 am. I walked out with my espresso to eat some fave and a couple of fritters. (Ciccio made the fritters without salt. Not recommended. And, I like my fave cooked; they are bitter, raw.)
When I mentioned that in the spring, online there were images of Italians eating fave, bread and drinking wine for breakfast, my dad said that in Calabria the fave were ready for the feast of St. Michael in early May. Whoa! that is two months earlier than here in Northern Ontario.
I didn’t visit long; it was in the low-sixties and I had on a tee and shorts.
Last night, Connie, Ron and I went to the reception for Lily and Michael – Marisa’s son and daughter-in-law. Lily and Michael live in Taiwan, and were married last year. This is their first trip back to Sault Ste Marie and Michael’s parents had a reception for the newlyweds.
The image is Marisa, Connie and Marisa’s mom – Commare Amalia. Connie and Marisa are old friends, they grew up and got in trouble together. Commare Amalia and Mafalda grew up together in Aprigliano and have maintained their close friendship all there years.
It was nice to see people that I haven’t seen in years. Guido Caputo, a guy I went to high-school with, came over and said hello and Ugo Le Pera, a guy i grew up with in Aprigliano, also came over to visit and chat. Had I met either of them on the street, I would never have recognized them. I also got to visit with Lina Fragomeni (née Musso) and with Franca Caputo (née Pedatello). The Musso family and my Dad were very close; they came from the same parish in Aprigliano; and back in the 1960’s the two families spent a lot of time together. The Pedatello family lived across the street. Emilio Pedatello designed, built and installed the modern looking cupboards in my parents’ upstairs kitchen.
This morning, on my walk to my aunt-and-uncle’s, I wanted to see how the vegetation changed since mid-May. The blossoms are all gone; it’s the transition between the summer and fall flowers.
Thistle-like, common Burdock is pretty to shoot, I like the spiky purple flower, but a miserable plant to interact with. I remember getting the green burrs on my clothes and spending time yanking and cutting them off. Its only redeeming quality is that the flowers provide pollen and nectar for honeybees when clover is on the wane and goldenrod is still thinking of blooming.
Already, the wild-grass is turning yellow and the unwanted, fast-growing, summer weeds are taking over. They sprout from cracks in driveways and sidewalks; they invade the weed-free gardens and the edges of flower-beds. (My mother laments the Canadian ban of Roundup; my uncle and father spend extra time weeding.) Where spring made everything look clean and fresh, the mid-summer weeds remind all of the coming cold. The frost-free growing season at this latitude is about 130 days. They could have their first frost as early as mid-September. In contrast, Pittsburgh has 171 frost-free days and the first frost is postponed until late-October.
It took a lot of searching to find the common Burdock; it was similar to the work I did to find the marsh-merigolds. In both instances it was fun to finally put a name and information to plants that I’ve seen all my life.
The most surprising and at times disturbing aspect of visiting this far north is seeing flowers that in more southern climates thrive and fill pots and gardens here look defective, stunted and out of place. The geraniums are especially stunted. Begonias, petunias and impatience grow scrawny or are totally missing from the landscape. But then dahlias and clematis do amazing well. It’s cold nights and warm soil these renegades need and that combination is here in spades. Also, Gold-yarrow and Burdock are everywhere.
I think the pervasiveness of warm-climate plants and southern housing structures makes the environment contrary. The plants that thrive here – Dandelions, Burdock, Yarrow – are all designated as undesirable and worthy of extermination. Home-owners are encouraged to buy the mass-produced, genetically modified annuals stocked by Home Depot, Walmart and every other discount chain that has invaded the landscape. The idea that native plants can make beautiful gardens and beautiful flower-beds is totally missing. Just like the idea that steep-roofed, easily heated homes work best this far north.
At one time Mother Church controlled the message – you spoke Polish, too bad, the Mass is in Latin. In modern times, corporations decide what we wear, what we eat, what we grow, where we live, how we live. And their vision, just like that of Mother Church, is focused on conformity, standardization and sameness. Best for control, the quarterly-report, the bottom-line.
Connie and I are driving up to the cottage at Red Rock and there in the middle of the road is a Black-bear. Holy Shit!! Connie thought it was great; I thought, let’s get out of here NOW. I did manage to pull the camera out and get a few shots. It looked like a young cub recently weaned and not a full-grown adult. Thank god for small favors.
In all the years I’ve been coming up here, this is my first bear-sighting. It came as we were talking about the practice of people already living in this isolated, Northern Ontario, wilderness community buying cottages to escape the urban landscape that is the small town of Sault Ste Marie, population 75,000. Having a lake-side cottage, here known as a camp, is very common. Joe Sanguinetti and I laugh. They already live in the middle of the woods, why do they need a camp a bit of an overkill, No?
Connie also mentioned how much work it is to maintain two homes. I laughed; thinking how ingrained the idea of a camp is for people up here. The whole time we were growing up, we badgered our parents to buy a camp. Mafalda claimed she had spent enough time in the wilderness helping my grandfather tend his flock in La Sila. And Cicio was busy making a living and building a house to listen to us preteen, Canadian wannabes.
This morning I walked the neighborhood south of Wallace Terrace. When I was living here back in the early 60s, it was full of Polish immigrants. The elementary school in the neighborhood was St. Stanislaus. Like St. Veronica’s, the grammar school Frank, Ron and I went to, is was made over in the 1970’s with a new skin and modern lines and like St. Veronica’s the building is now abandoned and graffiti covered. The thousands that filled these Catholic schools have all left. (In the 1970s the Soo reached 90,000. But when the steel industry went to China and South America, the immigrants stopped coming and the population dropped to 75,000. It has never seen an increase again.)
I don’t remember walking these streets before. Back then, there was no reason to go below Wallace Terrace. We had our neighborhood and they had theirs. The only Polish person I knew from this part of town – Jerry Obierski – I met in high-school.
Today the area is a mix of old Italians and Polish Canadians and families who have fallen through the social safety-net. The houses in the above image are almost derelict, but still have people living in them. They are across from mill Gate #3. It’s the Canadian version of the left-over, 1940’s mill-towns that dot the Western Pennsylvania landscape.
Back in the late Fifties and Sixties, the steel-mill the Plant was a source of pride for those of us living in this Northern Ontario town. A job in the mill guaranteed a great income; a job in the mill meant you and your family had access to the Algoma Steel Health Clinic – free doctors, free health care, free prescriptions. Calabrian immigrants flocked to Sault Ste Marie to work in the steel-mill, the Abitibi Paper-mill, the Algoma Central Railroad, the Weyerhaeuser Lumber-mill.
Going from high-school to the mill was an acceptable career path. For those of us heading to Southern Ontario for university, the mill was a great place to work during the summers. Frank worked at the Plant for over 4 summers, plus a 7-month stint from January to August of 1974. He claims, that the coke ovens and the blast furnaces have left an indelible mark on my mind. We could make enough money between May and August to cover the next year’s tuition, room-and-board, books and spending money.
I worked at the Plant the summer of 1970. My first assignment was on a steel-coil conveyor-belt. The red-hot coils came down the belt and a full-time worker and I put a band around the coil. You banded 10 coils and took a rest. I liked this assignment; it had a specific task and you did that task for 8 hours. The second assignment was in the Cold Mill. When we got there, for our 11 to 7 shift, the foreman told us to go find a place a sleep and to come back in time to punch out. I hated working in the Cold Mill. There was no way I could fall asleep on some bench in the middle of a warehouse. The third assignment that summer was at the blast-furnace. I worked with my uncle and my neighbor from across the street. The university guys moved the scarred bricks, lining the sides of the furnace, out and then handed new refractory-bricks to the brickworkers as they relined the sides. The old guys loved to mock us snots, after all we were never gonna get to feel the 3500-degree heat of hell on our faces. 1
In the Eighties and Nineties, a new reality hit – cancer was ravaging the mill-workers, young people were being laid-off in droves, the summer jobs dried up and the town’s economy went into a tail-spin. Within 10 years, the city lost 25% of its population.
But back in the late Fifties and Sixties, the steel-mill was our pride-and-joy.
1 At the end of August of 1970, I left Sault Ste Marie and never lived in Canada again.
Driving up to Toronto and getting on a plane to Sault Ste Marie is amazing. The twelve hour car ride has become a 4 hour drive. My favorite part is Porter’s inflight service. They actually serve a nice red in glass tumblers.
The only hitch is Porter, as of yet, doesn’t have a phone-app for a digital boarding pass. The pass gets sent to email and you show the QR code in the email message. (For the trip up, I printed the boarding-pass and therefore didn’t have to fuss with email on my phone.) My parents take me to the airport and I convince them to not come in, because I am going directly through Security and the waiting area.
At check-in, I show the agent the QR code from my email using my phone. When I ask about Security, she reminds me that I’m early and can wait in the outside area. (I know I’m early and one reason is to go through security quickly and without standing in line.) At Security, the agent also reminds me that I am very early and then she asks for my phone. (Apparently looking at the boarding-pass isn’t enough.) I give her my phone and start loading everything – camera case, brief, laptop, belt, hat and shoes – onto the belt. Once on the other side of the scanner, I start putting everything back together. I’m sitting in the waiting area when an attendant announce that someone left behind their cell phone. In my head – OMG, what an airhead, like totally. A few minutes later, I go into my brief to check if any new texts have come in and realize I don’t have my phone. Guess I’m the airhead! I’ve taught myself how to use the phone-apps to check-in and get my boarding pass. I’ve not used my email to do the same and interrupting my routine and handing my phone over made me forget the get it back from the security agent. I retrieve my phone and start reading on the tablet.
When the plane is ready to board, I again show the email and am allowed to proceed to the tarmac. On the plane, the attendant is checking boarding-passes and when I go to show her mine, the email is gone. What the fuck! She politely asks me to sit and wait until she’s checked in the rest of the passengers; she will use her passenger list to verify my seat. The surprise was that the next passenger after me had the same problem – her boarding pass email had also disappeared from her phone. The problem got resolved and I went to my seat. (The email QR code had not been downloaded from the server and when I lost connectivity, I lost the email.)
Had to tell Rose the story, because she is compulsive about printing out her boarding passes fearing that the technology wont work and she will be left behind. Well now she has proof that her fears are not unfounded.
something that was once an anticipation will become a memory In the stifling heat, Frank and I still got in a walk in. And like other times, we head for High Park and the trail around Grenadier Pond.
The planter is shaped like a maple-leaf and filled with red impatiens. Toronto has many such planters. On the Gardiner, on a slope across from Exhibition Place, are a number of floral advertisements that use flowers and shrubs to create corporate logos. The first time I saw these was back in the Sixties and then, the most prominent one was for Tip Top Tailors. (Their old Art Deco headquarters, on Lakeshore Boulevard, near the entrance to Toronto City Airport, has been turned into expensive lofts.)
I’m the first wave of out-of-town guests for David-and-Marc’s wedding. Tomorrow, Frank and Norma are hosting his family from Sault Ste Marie for brunch. There’s a calm sense of anticipation, but today is for politics; for two old hippies to analyze the Republican Convention. I tell Frank that I’m so glad to be in Canada while that miserable slug-fest is taking place. I do mention how I’m keeping track of the events geared to broaden The Donald’s appeal (after-all isn’t that what conventions are for?) and to gauge if they’re successful. I explain:
– Melania’s speech was well received, but then lost its impact when it was revealed that it had been plagiarized. (first effort goes awry)
– Chris Christie’s call-and-response was too much like a Nazi rally. (second effort scares the shit out of most Independents)
– Trump’s daughter is too Steford for a modern audience. (third effort misses its mark)
– Ted Cruz doesn’t endorse The Donald, rather he tells people to vote their conscience. (fourth effort gets derailed)
– Mike Pence to way too bland. (fifth effort doesn’t catch fire)
– The Donald’s speech was dark and exclusionary and scary (last effort leaves a national audience shocked)
Canada has had marriage equality since July 2005 – eleven years today. Marc and David were married by a Justice-of-the-Peace at beautiful Rosetta McClain Gardens on the south-east side of Toronto.
I’ve never been to this end of town and it was a great surprise. For the longest time, I had no idea where the area, now known as The Danforth, was; then Norma explained that on the other side of the Don Valley Parkway, Bloor Street changes names and becomes Danforth Avenue. With that reference, I knew how to situate the area in my internal map of the city.
Bloor is one of my anchors in my experience of Toronto. My grandparents lived on Jane a couple blocks north of Bloor. And when I visited, my grandfather and I would walk down to Bloor to do the food shopping. My aunt Rita and I went to see the 1968 Planet of the Apes at a movie theater on Bloor. My first ever experience riding a subway began at the Jane and Bloor station. When my parents visited, my mother and I would walk Bloor all the way to High Park. Later still, Jo’ and I came to the west end of Bloor for coffee and dessert. There were some amazing German bakeries in the area. And later still, I remember taking Christian and Seane there for lunch at McDonald’s. And I remember Seane refusing to hold hands when we needed to cross busy Runnymede.
So, taking those old memories and extending them east to The Danforth allowed me to get my bearings. And as I drove to the park for the wedding, I couldn’t help but think old Toronto. The city as I knew it when I visited with my grandparents.
On The Danforth there were no glass spires cutting the horizon; there was no clogged expressway shadowing the streets below it. The neighborhood was full of single-family homes and family-owned business and there were people everywhere strolling, eating, sight-seeing. I saw several community parks with pools and baseball diamonds and tennis courts and playgrounds; I followed the trolley as it rode the rails on Kingston. Where recently I’ve been comparing the modern city to the urban landscapes of Blade Runner, east Toronto is a throw back to a gentler more humane city.
Also, The Danforth has drawn a new generation of gays and hipsters who are gradually turning what used to be GreekTown into a modern community. The old immigrant houses are being repurposed and retrofitted to accommodate the technology, the design-sense and the reconstituted families of the new inhabitants. Plexiglass, and brushed-chrome, and barn-doors, and multi-purpose kitchens, and huge bathrooms have redefined the interior spaces of the old houses. David-and-Marc’s home is one of those renovated structures and it’s elegant in its reincarnation. The wedding reception for family and Open House for friends were both held at their house.
something that was once an anticipation has become a memory