A Walk Through Forest Hill

by Geoffrey Clarfield (June 2011)

(For my friend Norman Doidge, who has joined me on countless walks through Forest Hill)

L et me take you on a walk through Forest Hill. It is a walk that I have done hundreds, if not thousands of times and over the years the walk has gotten longer for as I have become older, the places that I have walked to have been farther away, farther away both in time and space. And that is where the walk stops, for after that I left Forest Hill.

My walk starts before I open the door, in my parents’ house. I lived in that house for the first 25 years of my life and as I got taller it got smaller, which is the way with parental abodes.I usually start from the side door for in our house the children were encouraged to use that to exit and entry. I put my hand on the metal handle of the screen door and step out on to the sidewalk. It is usually a sunny spring day, late May or early June and the air itself is filled with promise. Who knows, perhaps during today’s walk I will meet the love of my life or, barring that, bump into a friend or acquaintance and share a cup of coffee?

But it rarely happened and, it took years for me to discover the pain and pleasure of the fact that I had Forest Hill to myself, for the life its inhabitant’s lead is almost as enclosed as the Moorish houses of Marrakech where I once lived, years later.

You will rarely if ever see the residents of Forest Hill sitting on their front porch or strolling across the street to spontaneously greet their neighbors or, invite them over for a cup of coffee. The citizens of Forest Hill love the Mediterranean at a distance, once or twice in a lifetime. They live interior lives. Space keeps them away from each other.

It is the telephone that connects them and the telephone is best used for scheduling which is high on the agenda so that each social engagement, or even the playing together of kids who cannot ride their bikes to each other’s houses, becomes an exercise in the Protestant ethic of deferred gratification. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I look at the blank wall of our neighbor’s garage, always shades of beige and brown and walk across the grass to the street.  On the ancestors of that grass (I must have been two at the time) I have seen a film of me straining at a harness trying to walk towards the street. Later, when snow lay three feet deep, I took my favorite bath toy; a yellow duck named Cleo, and buried her on that grass under the snow, just beyond the side gate.  When the spring snow melted Cleo had disappeared. Perhaps I thought, she had joined the migrating birds.

On that grass my two childhood friends, Morty and Steven would die a thousand deaths as we slaughtered each other with the best toys the fifties could produce, plastic sub machine guns which made an incredible racket, silver plated ivory handled (at least we thought they were) pistols which turned us into Paladin or Wyatt Earp, plastic black rapiers with matching Zorro outfits and 18th century muskets replete with cork balls and ramrods that fired with a recoil, a puff of smoke and the feeling that someone had just hit you with a sling shot.

It was on this grass that I would run back home from what were locally termed “wars” when all of a sudden groups of neighbors would be pitted against each other with scrap wood clubs. The fear was real and you realized you could get hurt, but peace would break out and the whole thing would be suppressed until the next outbreak of hostilities – a slight taste of the state of nature. Smaller skirmishes kept us agile as when we would make mudballs from the garden and hurl them at a passing vehicle (there were few cars and little traffic) and then hop the fence to take refuge on the neighbor’s grass. There are no records of these incidents, none of it is mentioned in the local histories and I might be setting a precedent by dredging it up from the collective memory.

Later, on that grass I would sit near the front porch with my brother’s friends. I was by then a teenager. They would talk about women, politics and what they studied at university. I felt like the youngest member of Robin Hood and his merry men, allowed to join the solidarity of the men in green and their manly concerns. But then my twenties arrived, my brother and sister had long left the house and I was alone. And each time I pierced that loneliness I would lead my girlfriend by the hand and we would open the screen door and return to the room from which I have always started my walks.

I reach the road. There is no sidewalk and I walk down the street moving from the curb to the edge of the road, admiring the green, fluted metal lampposts with their engraved glass covers and which always make me think of Sherlock Holmes and London mist. I turn the corner and walk two blocks West towards the circle park. In the circle park there is a bed of roses that blossoms in the spring. From Grade one to five I would occasionally pick one and bring it to my teacher at West Prep public school.

I was never rebuked for this chivalrous act. No one criticized me for destroying the environment. There were no signs that said I could not pick the roses and somehow, I realized at that tender age that if I did it every day, there would be no roses left.

The last house on the right as you turn up Old Park Road faces the playground of Forest Hill Primary school-West Preparatory School or locally known as West Prep. It is on odd house and you can still see that delivery boys often leave copies of advertisements for the Star, the Globe or the National Post in the handle of the front door. It is a two-story house whose windows have been shut for more than fifty years. No one goes there on Halloween and I never saw a harried house wife carrying her groceries in from the car on the rather nice gravel drive way. The reason is clear to see if you walk around the back (but since this is an invasion of privacy, in Forest Hill few people do so).

This house is an empty shell and covers the electrical generator that provides power for the neighborhood, covering the eyesore of the exposed green wires and convoluted tubes of any electrical generator and that always reminds you of a nuclear power plant, for even in Forest Hill, raw power must be domesticated and made respectable.

Yet a few yards away there is danger. A railway line passed behind the houses that lie parallel to the generator along Elm Ridge Avenue and two or three times a week, a train would drive by. If it passed us at recess every student in the playground would run to the fence, climb up a few rungs and wave at the conductor as the caboose moved into the distance. None of us knew that the train’s days were numbered and that we were witnessing, on a daily basis, the vestigial remnants of the technology that made Canada a nation and that had provided us, the grandchildren of immigrants, with a common identity, an identity that journalist historian Pierre Berton was more successful in making us aware of, than could our teachers and history text books.

We never knew where the train went or where it came from. But the tracks went on for some miles and if you had a friend who lived at the edge of Forest Hill you would walk home with him after school, following the tracks, every once in a while turning your head, for that train that could bring you to an early grave. The more adventurous among us would stalk the train, lay a penny on the track and when the train had passed, bring the hot crushed coin back into the playground for the admiration of all our fellow students. These were brave souls. The railway line is gone now and where once dogs ran free joggers now use this shaded passage to get some exercise and give their dogs a stroll on a leash.

My early walks ended at West Prep public school, a gracious red brick New England kind of building perched on a slight rise with a weather vane that looks like the top of a Massachusetts’s town hall or community church. That was as far as I got by myself for the first 12 years of my life although the corner store and Tops Toy Town, just two blocks farther down, were considered within range by our parents.

My father and mother taught me how to save by explaining to me that I could not buy everything I want when I want to, but if I saw something at Tops I could save for the day that I could afford it. (Yes, Jackie Mason the comedian says “Jews don’t buy things, they afford them.”) I never doubted that the serious looking black haired man that ran the toy store was anyone other than Mr. Tops himself, as I assumed the store was named after the family who ran it. In the film A Serious Man by the  Coen brother’s, the main character looked and talked like Mr. Tops. Who knows what kind of fears and anxieties Mr. Tops lived with? As a kid I thought anyone who sells toys must feel like someone let loose in a candy shop. I had no idea about profit and loss, let alone inventory or the downward mobility that may come from a life in retail sales.Tops was located on the northern side of Eglinton Avenue.  If we crossed Eglinton Avenue and entered the neighboring borough of Cedarvale, we knew we had left all hope behind.

The playground of the primary school was where we played football, baseball and hockey in the winter, where we would bring a kite and fly it on the weekend, where during warm months we would learn to throw a basketball and where once a year at some pre-agreed and unspoken date, alley season (glass marbles) would descend on us and carnations, puries, pury biggies and bibi gun pellets would be set up in between the outstretched legs of seated kids of all ages and one could become rich in glass if your aim was good, your luck held out and you conserved the beauty and effectiveness of your season’s collections.

The same could not be said for baseball cards, which depended less on luck and more on skill, as you would play, “knock down the leaner.” He whose card knocked down the leaning card would collect all those that had been thrown by other players. To my surprise, I learned how to spin a top at this playground through the assistance of wandering young men who sold them and taught us how to play the Duncan spin top. I became so good at this that I could spin a top, lift it on a string while still spinning, throw it in to the air, catch it on the string and place it down still spinning, only to once again yank it onto my hand and start in on a another trick.

What we learnt and studied inside the school, reading, writing, history and arithmetic paled in excitement to the games of chance that went on in the playground for the play ground was also the place where you watched the girl that you had a crush on as she played skipping or yogi (an elastic band jumping game) while you threw a ball with your friend. The school was committed to the enlightenment and all that was rational and modern, where in the playground we spontaneously recreated the sense of magic, revelry and chaos dominated by the games of chance of a medieval fair. I would have to one day go to the great square called the Jmalfna in Marrakech, Morocco, years later to once again capture that feeling as it is a place filled with snake charmers, story tellers, dancers, musicians and games of chance.

There was one connection between what we studied inside school and what was happening in the world outside. Americans were trying to get to the moon in those days. I read many sci fi books about the moon and there was a book in our school library that showed men in space suits bounding across the jagged moonscape.

In winter the school would flood the playground and create a skating rink and a hockey rink with boards. By late January or early February the buildup of snow around the skating rink would often reach nine to twelve feet. Coming home from school after a late stay in the school library I would find myself at dusk, looking up at the stars and hearing the crunch of the snow under my winter boots.

I would climb to the top of the biggest snow heap and walk along its ridge thinking that this jagged snowscape must in some way be similar to the jagged moonscape that waited for the first astronauts to step on its surface. I hoped that one day I would become an astronaut. Instead of looking up at the stars and moon from my school’s skating rink, I would gaze down on the earth from the frozen lunar wastes.

I pass the school and continue down Old Park Road. There is a boulevard that divides the road and there are trees in the middle of the boulevard, but I do not cross the street and continue until I come to Eglinton and Old Park where the first street light stands.

Eglinton is noisy. There are many cars and it is lined with stores, largely clothing stores and restaurants, mostly Chinese and Italian and here is the psychological beginning of the City of Toronto. You can get a bus on Eglinton Ave. that goes East or West for miles, right across the city. You have left the Upper village of Forest Hill and if you cross it, you enter the Lower village.

Eglinton is the boundary between childhood and adolescence for as puberty set in we were sent off to the junior high school, far from our homes, a forty-minute bike ride away and more than a hour’s walk for those who missed the bus in the morning. My childhood memories of Eglinton are of restaurants, clothing stores, toyshops and comics. My comic collection by that time included all the first editions of Spiderman, Daredevil and all that Marvel comics could marvel up.

But by the time I was thirteen, and as Saint Paul once said, I put away childish things and gave away my comic book collection. My mother had instilled in me a love of reading. She told me that comics were not great literature. She was right. But they were great myth and brought me and my friends into a new world of pagan fantasy, one more sophisticated than that of the medieval fair of the primary school, one whose landscapes were populated by scantily clad female superheroes and male role models whose testosterone level was unquestioned.

But the source of a revived paganism, pouring out its myth in weekly doses from the corner store, was counteracted by a greater force, for in order to cross Eglinton, and enter high school, it was necessary to pass through the Synagogue and read from the scriptures that portion that falls on your thirteenth birthday.

In Forest Hill this rite of passage was truly a right of passage. Once completed, parents were remarkably tolerant of their children walking or riding their bikes through all the four portions of Forest Hill, north and south of Eglinton and East and West of Bathurst Street. Going East on Eglinton would bring you to the subway, the gateway to Toronto, now open for business on evenings and weekends for those who could afford its diversions.

Beth Sholom, the house of peace, stands as a gray mass of a building with a raised tower upon whose face is carved the Ten Commandments, those rules of daily life that define our society and those who are against it. It was here where I heard my first Bible stories, my favorite being those of Genesis.

I was intrigued by the idiosyncratic nature of the patriarchs for each one of them had his or her unique personality, personalities that I later came to understand Western writers could not recreate until the time of Shakespeare, depicting the twists and turns of the character of a real person. Years later I was adopted by a tribe of Beduin Arabs who lived on the Sinai Negev border and who, like the Israelites, wandered the Wilderness of Zin in the wastelands west of Canaan. I suppose I trace my motivation for joining them to the stained glass windows of my Synagogue, a descendant of Abraham, among the sons of Ishmael.

Beth Sholom is a Conservative congregation, not quite Orthodox Judaism nor Reformed, but traditional enough for a Rabbincal Assembly in Israel fifteen years later to declare me the legitimate son of a Jewish mother and father. Beth Sholom encloses sacred space and its Torah scrolls are crowned in silver. I could never concentrate on the liturgy of any of the services I went to, and my mind wandered up and down the stained glass windows and in and out of the English translations of the five books of Moses. But these ancient writings presented me with a history and myth deeper and more paradoxical than anything I had heard in school or yet seen on TV. It was the first real challenge to the protected garden that was my suburb.

Let us pause for a moment and stop in at one of the many eateries that can be found east of the Synagogue as we walk along Eglinton towards Forest Hill Collegiate Institute (the local high school). There has always been a coffee shop. In those days there was only one kind, and if you were lucky you could order cinnamon toast to go with your drink. After high school a bunch of us would go to that one and only shop, sip tea or coffee and talk. We would talk about literature, history, music, films or science. Yes the talk was real and the exchange sincere. We did not know it at the time but we had created a spiritual descendant of the Viennese Café. We all read Kafka and spoke about him as if he was a close relative.

I remember a friend describing his first acid trip. He said that he could see through his body, through his skin, organs, circulatory system skeleton in near shamanistic wonder at the creation of man in God’s image. No, he did not have a bad trip and this experience probably made him a better person. Once a friend said he was bored and wanted me to tell him an interesting historical fact. I mentioned recent research on the Jewish Khazars, a group of central Asian Turks who when confronted with the decision of becoming Christian or Muslim chose Judaism because when the Priest and Mullah were questioned by the Turkish king what would be the second religion they would choose, they both answered, “Judaism.”

There was lots of talk about music, not just the Beatles and the Rolling stones, but blues and folk music and when friends walked home with me after coffee they would get to listen to my growing collection of world music, hearing the voices of Ethiopian minstrels and Moroccan Sufis coming out of the hi fi as we studied for our next math quiz or history test.

Forest Hill moved against the family. The teachers felt that they were the source of enlightenment. They were good, kind hearted and intelligent Canadians who were attracted by the idea of teaching secular but highly motivated Jewish children the ins and outs of Western science and history. They certainly steered clear of western philosophy (you did not want to recognize the existence of a serious counter culture smack inside of Western civilization; that would have been like letting in a Trojan horse).

The lines of the building are clean, beige, red brick, lots of glass, and lots of lights, wide corridors, a swimming pool a public library that is no more than one hundred feet from the school, a huge green football field and a student parking lot. When I was there it used to have a motto on the portal of the entrance hall: “The truth shall set you free” a rather ecumenical New Testament quotation. It was set under a mural. One of them included a picture of Moses holding the tablets. On my last walk I noticed it had all disappeared. You have to go down the street to the Synagogue to see them now, as some politically correct school administrator has excised them from the entrance to my school.

If the Beth Sholom echoes the architecture of the ancient near east, the school and even more, the library of Forest Hill has a classical feel to it, Athenian in spirit even though it lacks any imitation columns. There the teachers did their best to teach us western science and their own watered down version of western civilization. It was not a bad try and affected many of us. It made me love the Greeks and think of them as contemporaries, people that you could learn from even though like Solomon they lived thousands of years ago. I must have read the Odyssey every year until I graduated.

But let us cross the road and enter the wide, tree lined almost forested streets of the lower village where all the houses were bigger than in my part of the suburb and some as large as European estate houses. As we walk down Old Forest Hill Road there is one on the left. It resembles a Tudor dwelling. It is set on a couple of acres and surrounded by a black painted trellis with a gold trimmed entrance arch. Every time I walked by I would hear in my imagination Renaissance lutes and madrigals and imagine courtiers entering and exiting on Machiavellian errands. Or, just down the street to the left was the Italianate mansion of my friend Joel, whose father was an established doctor and once again I would hear Vivaldi’s four seasons in my mind every time I rang the doorbell.

Trees and houses from every period of English domestic history, a veritable pot pourri of architectural eclecticism meets your eye as you walk through the deserted streets of the lower village. You will rarely see any one walking, and if you calculate that each house must house at least five people you begin to wonder where they are hiding.

For many years I was so taken by this architectural diversity that as my network of friends widened and I began to visit in these houses, I would expect as diverse social, emotional and intellectual variety from the people who live in them. By my last year in high school my initial hypothesis had been disproved. We were all cut from the same cloth, with similar attitudes and expectations. I was beginning to discover that in our suburb you could differ as much as you wanted on externals as long as the internals were the same, a unique twist on life in the land of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver.

As you walk through the lower village you cross St. Clair and walk across the stone bridge beside Winston Churchill Park or the ravine, as we used to call it as kids. Just before the steep hill that divides Forest Hill from Toronto there is a 19th century castle, Casa Loma, the Castle on the hill in Portuguese. It is a castle that combines imitations of four of Europe’s most famous castles. It was built by an Ontario self made entrepreneur turned aristocrat at the end of the 19th century and stands as a symbol of the nostalgia for the Old World that characterized the rising elites of early Ontario, but with enough new world gumption assuming  that even the greatest of European castles could be amalgamated and improved upon.

During high school we hosted a high school from somewhere in the southern part of the U.S. Each of us had to host a kid from that school and then they would reciprocate. One of my classmates picked up his guest at the airport with his dad’s car, drove into Casa Loma, jumped out of the door and yelled, “We’re home!”

Casa Loma marks the end of Forest Hill. It is set on a ridge that parallels St. Clair Avenue and I was once told in the seventeenth century the water of Lake Ontario came up to close to the bottom of this hill.  I doubt it. But since then the city has crawled out into the lake creating what is now Toronto.

For all of the spiritual and secular gifts that our suburb gave its post war children, there was one missing. From WWI to the sixties the ballads that were once part of the Anglo American tradition and, that were also reflected in the traditions of other immigrant traditions, were no longer sung. A rich folk tradition that went back to Shakespeare had disappeared from daily life leaving an existential hole.

I can now explain much of the attraction of the music of the sixties to my generation because those young singer songwriters revived this tradition and using its forms and poetry, found a way to express the full range of their post WWII emotional lives. Although we had been given Tennyson and Eliot at school, we had been cut off from a river of song that had given meaning to people from the time of Beowulf to the rise of radio. So, it should come as no surprise when I recount that my teenage years were almost completely dedicated to listening to and  playing this music. Only now do I understand why during Grade Ten I read every page of the Oxford Book of Ballads.

And so for five years Toronto had one meaning for me, music, but I would never walk there. I would always ride the subway or, I would hitch hike. I was standing at Avenue road with my thumb up. I must have been fifteen and I was off to a concert. A van stopped and a guy in his twenties with shoulder length hair and a headband gave me a lift. We talked about this and that and he gently said, “You know nothing is going to change until people start growing their own food,” a real Hippy, and somehow, the warm vibes of California had broken through the cold distance of Toronto folk. It only lasted a few years, but it made the city a more bearable place to live in, for a while.

On another evening I was on my way to a Livingston Taylor concert with a girl from my class. We struck up a conversation with an older couple in a park. They invited us over to their house to sample the wine they had made in their basement. We drank a few glasses. They told us they hoped it would be a good concert and we heard Livingston sing Dixie with the buzz of the wine in our brains: an age of innocence on the edge of experience.

Toronto was where I left behind the drab high school band that I was forced to play in and sample the wonders of America’s music in its entire story telling detail. I saw John Lee Hooker, sat on a picnic table with Elizabeth Cotton, watched the Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens, the Procul Harum in the open air, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix,  Paul Butterfield, the Band, Jerry Jeff Walker, Taj Mahal, Janice Joplin and jammed with children’s bard Rafi, at a friend’s house before he discovered children’s songs. As a boy I had sung in the opera at Okeefe Centre and sang in musicals with the late Jackie Burroughs but this was different. It was the poetic voice of the immigrant, whether Anglo or African American.

Anthropologists distinguish this “little tradition” from the “great tradition” of written poetry. I have yet to find a substantial difference between them. The two are different streams in the ocean of verse.

At the same time Canadians were discovering their post war poetic voices. My friend Norman and I had become high school poetry fanatics. On warm spring afternoons we would climb the one or two trees in front of the library and recite Byron out loud. We would then climb down from our trees and venture down town for free readings by then unknown poets – Al Purdy, Earle Birney, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and Gwendolyn MaCewen (whose Greek husband opened a music club that I later frequented). For me they were simply, older, downtown poets who made the coldness and distance of Toronto something tangible, something that could, oddly enough, be expressed in verse. I had no inkling that one day they would become household names. Unknowingly, I gave away many of their first editions copies from their Coachhouse press. We were all socialists then.

Downtown Toronto was my adventure and now I had it on my own terms.I was a regular visitor to the Riverboat folk club in Yorkville. Although under age, I did a guest set there accompanying a new Canadian songwriter. The owner came up to me after the set and asked how old I was. I lied and said sixteen (I was fifteen at the time). He told me to come down and accompany an act that was playing that Saturday. The singer was songwriter Tim Hardin. I did not show up. I later found out he was a heroin addict. I suspect that not showing up in this case was a virtuous act.

My undergraduate studies took me away from Forest Hill and Toronto. I spent four years in the suburbs studying world music with a group of enlightened and generally rootless cosmopolitans, most of them American, some European and Indian. So in a second hand sort of way I felt, like my American friends, I had “gone off to college.” In the summertime I began to explore the music of the Mediterranean. I was “adopted” by a clan of Kalderash gypsy musicians who lived downtown and played the immigrant clubs with them.  But some years later I found myself married with a young son, living in my grandfather’s house, down the road from Eglinton Avenue, just outside of Forest Hill, walking each day to the University in Toronto, the one we all assumed I was supposed to go to from an early age.

The University of Toronto covers a large part of downtown. Its main circle is a masterpiece of Victorian Gothic revival and some of that Victorian hypocrisy still permeates the institution in a number of subtle ways. Things had changed and the hippy veneer of the sixties was gone. Instead, famous tenured radicals taught me social science, one of them who said to me one day in class, “you know nothing here is going to change until the police desert the state.” This was where I got my first exposure to the “Frankfurt School” whose influence is now so pervasive that it has become the unconscious ideology of much, if not most contemporary social science. Nevertheless, there were some well trained men and women there who gave interesting courses but the institutional culture was the same, cold and stuffy.

I still went for long walks, back and forth up the ravine past Winston Churchill Park, past Castle Loma, St. Clair, the Collegiate and Eglinton Avenue. But these were for exercise now. My point of reference was no longer the room in the basement of my parents’ house and I was no longer a resident of Forest Hill. Like Lot before me, I imagined myself beyond the cities of the plain. Soon after, I found myself wandering with camel nomads living close to a state of nature, embroiled in the war of all against all, on the desert frontiers of Ethiopia, far, far away.


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