Cool Gray City of Love

By , July 20, 2015 9:17 am


Cool Gray City of Love by Gary Kamiya

Bloomsbury, 2013


I don’t tend to read happy or uplifting books. So it should come as no surprise that the gem of a book I just finished was not self-selected. Val got it as a gift from a friend of his who is currently living in San Jose, California. The book is a collection of 49 ‘sketches’ of San Francisco. I took posession immediately after it arrived in the mail a few days ago.

Before getting into the book, I want to contrast it with my usual types of books. Right now I am also reading (a.k.a. plodding through) Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956. I have been reading it on and off for about two or three months – it is that heavy. Though Applebaum is an amazing writer and fills her book with meticulous details about the events that brought Poland, East Germany and Hungary under Soviet control, she also fills her books with horrors. However interesting the stories are, they are sad and they just go on and on. It is for that same reason that I couldn’t finish her earlier book, Gulag: A History.

No wonder I grabbed Cool Gray City of Love and didn’t put it down until I finished it.

I was also deeply attracted because I have a thing for San Francisco. Most people know I’m not much of a traveler, yet I have been to the city by the bay four times (I know this is not much in the annals of travel but it is for me). Each time I’ve stayed somewhere different: touristy Union Square in a posh hotel, shoppy Union Street in a potentially seedy motel, upscale Cow Hollow in a nicer motel a block away from a granola-style restaurant, and Emeryville in a standard Hilton Garden Inn (doesn’t really count – it’s across the bay at the end of the Bay Bridge). Last time Val and I were in San Francisco, only for a day, it was a wonderful day. We picked one thing to do, walk up Telegraph Hill, and it happens that it’s Kamiya’s favourite place in San Francisco. Apparently there’s a lot more to it than the views.

Kamiya is one of those writers who fills his chapters with apropos literary references, few of which I get because I’m not a fiction reader. However, he mostly paints city pictures with his own cheeky little prose style. He meshes his personal experiences, either familiar recollections or new tours with experts both geological and historical, with the rather odd history of the city.  Socrates would have loved this guy having been a fanatical city dweller himself. What’s particularly nice and quite informative is that he goes back to the times when the Yelamu Indians lived on the peninsula and is very respectful of these now-disappeared people’s history.

The book’s genesis lies in Kamiya giving himself the task of ‘learning’ his own city, bit by bit, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. It surely didn’t hurt that he was also quite familiar with it through his years as a cab driver. What a way to learn a city, not just its places but its people. His cabbie stories don’t disappoint, especially the one about luring a gay fare away from a fellow driver. This view of the city gives him an ‘if these walls could talk’ advantage.

The other advantage Kamiya has is his sheer love of his city, warts, guts, glories and all. Natural and man-made, touristy and off the beaten path, he loves it all. He loves the mix of inspiring landscapes and spirited people. He loves their struggles to keep San Francisco unique and non-conformist. And he’s honest about the times when battles have been lost such as in the demolition of entire neighbourhoods in favour of highrises. The story of a neighbourhood called the Western Addition, which was home to Japanese families before they were forced to leave the west coast because of World War Two internment, is quite poignant. When the Japanese left, African Americans moved in. While not all the Japanese returned after the end of the war, some did and the question became what to do with them now that they were back and their homes and businesses were occupied. It reminds me of the story my grandmother used to tell of living in wartime Vancouver: all those nice Japanese people just disappeared.

Kamiya is critical of his city and some of its past decisions; he is not a booster in the 100% unquestioning sense. I can relate to this. I consider myself to live in the epicentre of a beautiful and functioning city. But that’s the view from where I am at Broadview and Danforth in my comfortable life. I don’t sit in traffic for two hours a day. I walk two minutes to the subway when I want to get somewhere downtown.

Toronto may not be knowable in the same way – it’s such a huge sprawling city and so much larger in population. Maybe the old City of Toronto (in which I live) could be approached this way.

The reason that Stephen W. of San Jose (formerly of Toronto and Kitchener) sent this book to Val is that he knows Val is a Toronto-lover. He thinks Val could write the Toronto version of Cool Gray City of Love some day. Val used to write a column on about hidden places in Toronto. I can think of more than a few times when I’ve benefitted from his knowledge. When we first met he took me on a hike on the Don Valley trails – not the well-worn paths but places that were unknown, at least to Risa from North York. A few years ago he lead a bike tour through the laneways of the east side. A little history, a little geography, a big city made little.

A lot of Val’s love of the city has rubbed off on me. I feel like I know Gary Kamiya and I appreciate where he is coming from. I don’t mind that each one of the 49 chapters ends with his unabashed, almost embarrassing love for his city.


What Is It Like To Be 13 Again?

By , July 15, 2015 7:38 pm


I have long repressed a portion of my early teenage life. Back then, 1983 to be precise, I was obsessed with the band Def Leppard.

Thirteen is supposed to be a memorable age. I definitely do remember some parts of that year such as my Bat Mitzvah and the two pretty dresses I had for the service and the evening party at our house for which my mom made all the food. We (meaning my brother and I) still joke about her having leftover rice pilaf and chicken cacciatore in the freezer.

It was also the first year of junior high – new friends, new school subjects, new routines. And a locker! I had pretty much the same locker and homeroom on the first floor of St. Andrew’s Junior High for the next three years so that hasn’t left me: 7-8-9-G.

The part I have tried to keep bottled up in the past is that I was a giddy little girl who taped pictures from teenie magazines to her walls. Not just the walls, the cabinets, too. And the inside of the cabinets. Not just any band. Only Def Leppard. Joe Elliott in his Union Jack sleeveless shirt was my man.

Why? I have no idea. I guess because he was cute. Sure I liked the music. I guess.

Why has that moment from my past been so hard for me to deal with over the years? It makes me shudder to have been that girl in 1983. Over the years when Def Leppard songs have come on the radio I would quickly turn them off. Classic repression symptoms.

My interest in Def Leppard only lasted a short while. Soon after – I can still remember the day in grade eight – a friend introduced me to U2. So I moved on. In grade ten my English teacher, Mr. Polley, introduced me to music history through Simon and Garfunkel and I never looked forward again in my musical tastes.

In psychological parlance, I went home last night; Val and I went to a Def Leppard concert. Having been married to Val for nearly ten years now, I am aware of his own past with Def Leppard. He apparently went to a concert of theirs at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1991 and he has many of their albums (which seem to be constant re-releases of their previous two big albums) among his MP3 files.

So, was last night a terrifying Freudian moment of truth? No, I unabashedly enjoyed it along with the other 10 000 or so people. No more repression. Musical geniuses they are not (at one point I yelled in Val’s ear that they are a ‘lyrical tour de force’) but they do put on an enjoyably loud and energetic show. Val even remarked that the set was almost exactly the same as in 1991. Whatever. We didn’t go for the intellectual experience.

It seemed that the band (or at least their production company) was in the mood for memory lane as well as the backdrop to most of their show was still photos and video from their own vault. Looking at those photos, many of them from 1983 or thereabouts, was nostalgic; it felt like an invisible psychologist had arranged the whole therapeutic thing for me.

It turns out that memory lane is a good place to visit once in a while.

Note: I would go on the Def Leppard Hysteria on the High Seas Caribbean cruise with Val but I get vertigo.



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