9:00 p.m. – A Chinese restaurant
The fortune cookies are on my side tonight.
My cookie: You will soon be rewarded handsomely for your effort and talent.
Her cookie: A man is a volume if you learn to read him.
9:20 p.m. – Corner of Bay and College Streets
The cookies lied!
“A” for effort, “D minus” for outcome. Sometimes looks, brains, charm, incredible luck and accordion power just aren’t enough. These things happen.
But dammit, I thought the cookies were going to push me over the top.
I briefly contemplate doing what I never do on a Friday night — go home and watch a DVD — but then decide that it feels too much like “giving up”. So I decide to hit the next stop on the agenda, some kind of party for some York University Eco Art and Media Festival. The mere name of this shindig fills me with dread; I am envisioning sweat-reeking Ecuadorean sweaters and bad poetry readings. The Sex and the City DVDs I got for my birthday are sounding better and better, but I can watch those anytime.
9:25 p.m. – Walking across College Park
Grumble grumble chicks grumble grumble.
Every city has one main street with a main drag: a cheesy, overly-lit strip of strip clubs, video arcades, riceboy cars with stereos loud enough to fill a club, never mind a Honda Civic, “grey market” electronics shops, dollar stores and pizza, pizza, pizza!
In Accordion City, that main drag is on Yonge Street, between Gerrard and Dundas.
When I was seventeen, I made some good money selling snow-cones on the main drag in the summer. I met every kind of person, including Yonge Street’s regular assortment of strivers, poseurs, thugs, freaks and small-towners wanting a taste of the big city and looking for a fight — in other words, a whole mess of people who look like they’d kill to be in the audience of the Jerry Springer Show. During that job, despite several valiant attempts, nobody managed to rob me or mug me, but one of my co-workers managed to get his truck stolen by a con man (long story). In almost twenty years, the only really noticeable change is that the strip clubs got better signage and the adult video stores went “upscale” and now look like Blockbuster.
That is, if Blockbuster prominently displayed dildoes and movies with titles like Slammin’ Granny in the Fanny. (I’m not going to link to it, but if you’re morbidly curious, go ahead and Google the title, you sick little puppy.)
I didn’t pay any mind to the trio of scruffy drifters outside the Yonge Street Mission until one of them walked right up to me.
“You look like you loooove Yonge Street, man! Walkin’ with big leather jack-et, fancy cowboy hat, and “Hustler”! You look like a man who’s into the finer things. Wanna buy a matching watch?
(I was wearing the famous flaming cowboy hat and underneath my leather car coat, which was unbuttoned, I was wearing my black mechanic’s jacket with the “Hustler” patch, bought from the L.A. store bearing the same name.)
“No, not interested.”
He pressed on with the sales pitch. “But look! It’s a Tag Hoo-er!” He pulled back the sleeve of his Chicago Bulls jacket and Toronto Maple Leafs Jersey to reveal an expensive chronograph. A man incapable of coordinating his sport clothing worth a shit and who cannot even properly pronounce the name of the watch probably did not buy it.
“Hoy-er,” I corrected his pronounciation automatically. Geez, I’m becoming my parents.
“C’mon, man, I’ll sell it to you for only, like one hunnert’ fifty…”
That’s when I noticed that one of his buddies was moving an arm for my left jacket pocket. I’ve lived in cities of a million people or more most of my life, and I know never to put anything of value in an outer pocket.
“A hunnert’ twenty, if you give me the hat! I really like it!”
My left arm, after four years of accordion playing and a serious year at the gym, is now my good arm. A quick motion, part of the exercise that we always did to that cheesy Shape of My Heart song in Body Attack class foiled the would-be pickpocket.
What do you know, I thought, these goofy classes are useful.
9:45 p.m. Imperial Public Library and Tavern
The Imperial is a decades-old dive that does a thriving business thanks to the variety of clientele: Yonge Street winos, working class men and women, Church Street hookers on a Jack Daniels break and Ryerson University students. In addition to the usual bar accoutrements, they also have dusty plants, dusty photographs of jazz musicians and dusty bookshelves packed solid with dusty books. I once spent an underage afternoon here drinking Labatt 50 and reading their copy of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad.
A sign pointed out that the Eco Party was upstairs. As I climbed, I noticed that the bar was unusually quiet. Oh, God, no…
“And now,” said a voice over the sound system, “a poem that I wrote while I was sick with the Norwalk virus.”
I stayed, if only to distract myself from that sinking it-didn’t-work-out feeling from ealier. The plan was working, simply because most of the poetry was pure crap. What follows isn’t exactly what was said, but pretty damned close:
Go to Israel and you’ll understand, they said
Go to Israel and it’ll all be clear
And suddenly I’ll decide it’s okay to kill people not like us
After all, we’re the chosen ones right
Cause God is on our side
But they say God is also on their side
It looks like God is on everyone’s side
And the killing goes on
And the killing goes on
And the killing goes on
And the poetry went on. And the poetry went on. And the poetry went on.
(I’ve never been to a right-wing pro-war hipster gathering. Do any exist, and does anyone know if they’re more eloquent?)
My attention bounced between half-listening to the rotten verse, saying “hello” to a couple of people whom I recognized and others who recognized me, and half-reading The Ryersonian, a shockingly amateurish rag — even by student publication standards — considering that Ryerson has a journalism school. I’ve seen better paper after wiping my ass. Maybe I caught them on a bad issue.
I’d set my cell phone to “vibrate only” out of politeness to the poets. Mind you, after hearing them go on, I began to wish it had a “Guns ‘N’ Roses for Manuel Noriega” setting. While I was contemplating this, I got my first call. I stepped outside to answer the phone.
Okay, the first good news of the evening. It was Sean Baillie, owner and engineer at Electric Machine Studios, where I recorded some accordion tracks for Lindi last year. A band with a “Toim Waits meets Randy Newman” kind of song needs an accordion track. Would I be available next Wednesday, and is fifty bucks all right?
“Fifty bucks is cool,” I said. “Sean, I have so much fun there, I feel that should be paying you.”
“I fucking love that hat!” said two very drunk women entering the bar. They pointed to the mouthpiece of my phone, which I pointed at them. “He’s got a fucking cool hat!” they yelled.
“I’ll let you get back to your drinking,” said Sean. “See you Wednesday.”
You’re all a bunch of working-class slaves
Nine-to-fivers in your working class caves
Okay, that might make a good lyric, but the delivery was from the standard school of bad poetry. That’s when the next phone call came.
I looked at the display. 604 area code. Vancouver.
Who could that be? I thought. My in-laws? Drew or Brad? William Gibson?
It was a friend who’d gone out west to follow a boy, and a week later, it hadn’t worked. I talked with her for a while, telling her that it’s better she found out now than later.
“Keep in mind that most people, when presented with opportunities like the one you had, miss the boat,” I said. “So it didn’t work out. Better to try and have it not work than to not try and wonder for the rest of your life if you’d missed out on something.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s just disappointing. I miss Toronto, I miss my friends, and I miss you.”
I told her what happened earlier this evening.
“You poor thing. We can commiserate and snuggle when I get back.”
“First good thing I’ve heard all evening.”
11:30 p.m. Mullins Pub
The poetry finally ended, and the highlight of the show, a hip-hop version of Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax wasn’t bad. What they lacked in rhythmic sense, they more than made up for in enthusiasm. That, and the girls who played the barbaloots were cute.
I decided to pass by the open mike night at Mullins Pub and say hello to its host, my friend Dave Ellul.
I walked in. One of the regulars, Ben, was in the middle of Denis Leary’s single, Asshole. I threw in some accordion accompaniment.
At the end of the song, Ben pointed me out to one of his friends in the audience. “See? The Accordion Guy! I told you he was real!”
The friend said “I didn’t believe him. I thought he’d made you up! By the way, nice hat!”
My own personal mythology! The evening’s improving.
12:45 a.m. P.J. O’Brien’s Pub, near Front and King Streets
My neighbour (and landlord’s son) Hector gave me a ring. He wanted to do some drinking at one of the Irish pubs, and I figured “why not?”
I left Mullins after a Guinness and took a cab to Yonge and Dundas. The Jamaican cab driver asked me to play something, and I responded with Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds. Cool runnings, mon.
From there, we walked to P.J. O’Brien’s, an Irish Pub on Colborne Street. A woman with a Spanish accent asked me to play accordion for her table of Japanese guests, and after a rousing You Shook Me All Night Long, they gave me a pint of Guinness for my effort.
Things were winding down in the downstairs part of the pub. The only other group of people was a party of eight, many with Irish accents, half of them unconscious. We decided to try the upstairs, but they’d already closed that bar. A woman, probably in her early 40s, asked me to play a tune for her, but the bar staff didn’t want to encourage people lingering.
She sized up Hector. “How old are you, anyway? Are you legal to drink?”
“Eighteen,” he replied. It didn’t matter, he knows the owner of the pub.
She turned to me — and what are you? You look twenty-two.”
Uh-oh. My cougar sense is tingling.
“Reeeeally? You don’t look it. And hey, I like your hat. You boys should come join us; we’re going down to Betty’s pub.”
“King and Sherbourne, right?” I know the place well.
“Well. come if you want to. See ya!” And with that, she ran off to join her friends.
“Let’s head to [Bar that will remain unnamed],” I told Hector. “It’s closer.”
As we walked, I proposed that we make a television show called Cougar Hunter. I started on a Steve Irwin impersonation: “Crikey! Lookie ‘ere, she’s got a BMW 7-series!”
1:30 a.m. [Bar that will remain unnamed], Front Street
[Bar that will remain unnamed] is run by Z., a skinny guy with a really laid-back attitude. It’s a comfortable basement bar with pool tables a plenty and cute staff. I got two pints of Guinness and we took a table beside these two guys with white dress shirts, khakis and haircuts cribbed out of Details magazine.
Hector excused himself to make a visit to the gents. I checked out the crowd. A gaggle of girls, white and asian, all wearing that one-strap tank top, were on the dance floor. A skinny black guy at the DJ booth dropped some very good beats. Three people played pool at a table beside us. I made eye contact with one of them, a blonde, and activated The Smile.
What the hell, I thought, can’t hurt.
She walked over, and I held out a seat for her. She put on my hat and sat down.
The Mack is back.
“You held out my seat. Finally, a gentleman in T-dot.” She tapped my hat, “I like your hat, too.”
Definitely not local. Nobody who lives here calls it T-dot. At least not without irony.
“Lots of gentlemen in this city,” I said. Hector came back. “Here’s one right now. This is Hector. Hector, this is…?”
She introduced herself.
“You’re from out of town?” I asked.
“Kitchener. Me and my friend, we’re visiting that guy. I saw the hat and accordion and thought I had to talk to you.”
“Hey thanks. So –”
I never managed to finish the sentence, because she got off on a rant.
“And these guys,” she pointed to the junior accountant (or JA, as I shall call them) in the khakis beside us, “are total bitches!”
“Yo, shuddup, you ho,” said the taller JA.
“Wanna make something of it, bitch?” she sassed back. “Wanna get beat by a girl?”
She turned to me and said “I learned how to fight at Oktoberfest.” (Kitchener has a big German population — until WWII, the city’s was named Berlin.)
Her guy friend stopped playing pool and leaned over the railing where we were. “You got a fucking problem?” he asked the JAs.
I stood up. “Hey, we’re all just trying to have a nice peaceful drink here…”
Everybody sat down.
She continued with her story.
“So these assholes next to us, they wave to me and call me over to their table. I’m thinking, ‘Cool! Guys inviting me for a drink!’. I sit down with them and the first thing they say is ‘Your friend, that girl you’re with, she’s hot.’ And I’m like, ‘Fuck that!’…”
I nod, while thinking THAT’s what the fighting is all about?!
She raises her voice. “And these total bitches have no idea how to approach a lady. Not like this nice accordion playing gentleman…”
“Look, bitch,” said the shorter JA, “we just said your friend was hot. You don’t have to get all offended…”
Things started to descend rapidly into TV-people behaviour. The girl started yelling “I’m ten feet fucking tall and I’m fucking invincible and my Dad’s a CEO and your clothes are cheap-ass Tip Top Tailors knockoffs of GQ shit and…”
I was beginning to think that drinks with the cougar at Betty’s might’ve been the better option.
I stand up and tell her “Look, it’s not worth it…”
Her friend rushes to the scene and I tell him “Look, it’s not worth it…”
The two JAs assume some kind of fighting stance — it’s all posturing, they look like sad Gap ninjas — and I tell them “Look, it’s not worth it…”
Z. the bar owner steps in, along with our cute waitress and talks to the JAs. He convinces them to leave. On the way out, the JAs shake our hands.
“Hey man, I know you were trying to calm things down,” the tall one said to me. “You’re a couple of good looking guys. You seem like straight up dudes. You can do better than that bitch. Oh, and I like your hat.”
Z. escorted the JAs out of the bar. Ten minutes later, the girl and her two friends left.
As we walked out, we said goodbye to Z. Hector asked if they were open for St. Patrick’s Day.
“No man, closed Sundays and Mondays,” he said.
“Aw, too bad. It’s my birthday.”
“Happy nineteenth,” he said. He’d pegged Hector as underage right from the beginning.
“Eighteenth, actually,” said Hector, and that got a laugh out of Z.
2:45 a.m. Outside the fast food stall mall on Queen Street West
Hector and I were talking about accordions.
“Yeah, I should get one,” he said. “The city needs more accordions.”
“Accordions are the future mack-cessory.”
Hector had to relieve himself and there were no washrooms in sight. He ducked into an alley while I played for two couples who asked me to play something. After I finished, two guys from inside the food stall mall mentioned for me to come in, making an accordion-playing motion with their arms. There were about a dozen or so people at the submarine sandwich place.
Two black guys with cornrows and head-to-toe FUBU asked if I could play In Da Club by 50 Cent.
“No, but here’s one you might like,” I replied, and broke into Afroman’s Because I Got High.
“You’s a cool muthafucka!” they said at the end of the song. “Stylin’ hat, too.”
A cute brunette took my arm and held it for the rest of the session, during which I played whatever requests the two young Greek guys leaning agaist the counter yelled out.
“Nirvana!” I played the lick from Smells Like Teen Spirit.
“Beatles!” Let It Be and Hey Jude.
“Something Greek!” Never on a Sunday.
“Hockey Night in Canada song!” I played that.
At the end of it all, Cute Brunette thanked me for the music, gave me a peck on the cheek, let go of my arm and went back to her date’s. Easy come, easy go. Maybe it’s Jeebus’ way of telling me that it’s time to go home and call it a night.
“By the way,” she said as she left, “I like your hat.”
“I have got to get me an accordion.” Hector said.