Friends, Ageing and What Matters

Old friends enjoying time together.

When you ask people approaching the end of life what they regret, a great many say they wish they’d spent more time with friends. Who can argue with end of life regrets?

Last week I attended an exhibit “Notes in the Night” at the St. Lawrence Market Gallery in downtown Toronto, collected and curated by my long time friend and jazz historian Ralph Corum.

I met Ralph in the Xeroxing room of the Carleton University Library forty-eight years ago. He was kind, intelligent and interested in everything. Back then he would make photocopies of my badly typed English lit essays “covered in corrections and white-outs,” as he recalls today. We’d talk about politics, music and books. Over time, many members of our group of friends, moved away from Ottawa and out of contact with each other.

Ralph’s thoughtful exhibit brought five us of back together last Friday to view the photos and memorabilia he so lovingly curated. It brought me back not only to a time of a smaller, less imposing Toronto, but to the heart of memory and days well spent with friends and companions. It brought me back to what matters in life, particularly as we age, when opportunities to come together grow fewer each year.

A photo of Billie Holiday on stage at Toronto’s Town Tavern caught my eye. She looks regal, sad and serene: the ultimate Billy.  

“It was a noisy club and when Billie came out on stage everybody was quiet, even the kitchen staff stopped working and they came out to watch her,” Coram told CBC Toronto as he looked at the black and white image. “The Town Tavern was just one of some 75 clubs, such as the Montreal Jazz Club, George’s Spaghetti House, and The Colonial,” remarks Corum, “that have come and gone.”

The Billie Holiday image belongs to this intriguing display, running at the Market Gallery until late June. Every time I’ve seen Ralph in the last few years, his attention has been focused squarely on “Notes in the Night,” which creates a visual history of Toronto’s place in the storied history of jazz, it’s long-lost smoky clubs, its reliance on both conventional and innovative jazz musicians, and in Ralph’s words the “architecture of entertainment.”

For me, the exhibit merges with my memories of a bygone Toronto, the city I first visited as a girl with my parents. We drove along Highway 2, all the way from Windsor to Toronto. Stayed overnight in Paris, Ontario because the drive, along the two-lane winding lakeside road, took more than one day.  Highway 401 was not yet completed.

My parents booked into the Park Plaza Hotel at Bloor and Avenue Road (now the Park Hyatt) and it was the first time I slept in a classy hotel, called down for room service, and stayed in a hotel room alone while my parents went dancing.  It was my mother’s birthday and the weekend in Toronto was my father’s gift to her. At night my mother wore high heels and a full-skirted party dress.

During the day, when she wore “sensible” shoes, we walked the tree-lined streets, hopped on and off the Red Rocket, peered into the shop windows, visited the ROM and ate at Simpson’s cafeteria.  The CNE was running, which back then, was the event of the year and my mother loved to ride the Ferris wheel.  She grew up in Kensington Market and she showed me the flat above the chicken store where she lived with her family.

The clubs and the audience reflected in Ralph’s collection belong to this time, when jazz was on the louche side of life in Toronto the Good, when there were separate drinking rooms in bars for men unaccompanied by women, and when Swansea-High Park (today’s trendy Bloor Street West) didn’t vote to allow bars and liquor stores until 1997.

Viewing the jazz exhibit with old friends, good people all, made the photos more poignant and made me long for a time when I never considered that danger could be just around the corner.  Toronto has changed. The incidence of violence in public and in homes, and often against women, the shootings and altercations carried out in broad daylight on crowded streets, form an image of a different society where uncontrolled rage and retaliation carry the day.

The Toronto Star reported on March 15th that “an Ajax woman killed along with her two children…was the eighth female in the GTA alleged to be killed this year by a man they were in relationship with.

“These numbers are definitely alarming, it’s heartbreaking as well,” said Deepa Mattoo, director of legal services for Barbara Schlifer Clinic.”  This year Daemon Fairless has written a book about male rage called Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men for an intensive, frightening look at what happens when violent men get angry.

On the same night that I viewed “Notes in the Night,” there were not enough Metro Toronto Police squad cars to help people who were being assaulted or threatened with assault. Unless it was a life or death matter, callers to 911 were told to bide their time and to hope police would get there before the situation intensified.

I know because I was one of those callers. An angry young man, a complete stranger, threatened to assault me. He bullied me, and held me hostage in my car for more than one hour as I waited for the police to arrive. When the officers did arrive, he claimed I’d hit the bumper of his car, but there were no signs of damage.

Ralph Corum’s exhibition reminds us that maintaining the best parts of our lives, friends, family, managing anger and being safe, need to be nurtured and protected or they can fade away as did the jazz clubs depicted on the walls of the Market Gallery.

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