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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

To comment on this essay, please click here.


If you have enjoyed this article and would like to read more by Geoffrey Clarfield, please click here.