Thank you for making 2016 a fabulous year – with even more to look forward to in the New Year.
After a quick family visit to London, England, we are back home to celebrate Christmas and to perform our sacred rituals – like nom-nom-noming the Festive Special at Swiss Chalet with Ed’s car club!
Santarchy ruled again on Dec 17th. Costumes were especially creative with an emphasis on naughty. No need for a big budget as you will see in the following pics!
This year went off without a hitch. The weather was mild and perfect for marching down Queen Street. Gathering at the Imperial Pub, we stormed Dundas Square then invaded the Eaton Centre to give out candy canes and treats to kids.
Group photo on the steps of Old City Hall, then after a long wait for the Zamboni, an impromptu slide across the skating rink at city hall dodging security guards and skaters on blades.
Get turned away at The Rex – check. Wave to Christmas-spirited cab drivers and cops – check. First stop, The Black Bull – check. The bartenders serve 50+ customers without missing a beat. Amazing!
Some great costumes below.
On to night clubs, Crocodile Rock and The Ball Room, where like the Big Lebowski, you can go bowling. At 1 pm, Ed and I called it a night and walked through the rain to the perennial late night fave, Fran’s on Shuter street. We survived and look forward to Santarchy 2017.
Every year on a Saturday mid-December 100+ Santas storm through Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre and head down Queen Street west. Flagrant rebels in search of BEER! This is a world-wide movement from Hanoi to Helsinki to Tokyo to London and beyond. Read about Santacon here.
Ed and I have been part of this rampaging mob for several Christmases now, thanks to our friend Eric. (Read more about Eric and his Grand Guignol clowning in my most popular blog ever, Charlie the Lonely Sentinel. Charlie’s a stuffed dog BTW.)
We’re polite rebels with several rules of decorum, including being nice to kids and obeying police officers and security guards. After all, we’re Canadian! A Santa suit is a must, but one’s imagination may run wild from racy to saucy Mrs. Claus. We’ve even had a Thor Santa! (Sorry, ladies, no photo). And we are led by Old St. Nick in resplendent bishop’s robe and staff.
Typically, we meet up at the Imperial Pub on Dundas St. East then march through the Eaton Centre, giving out candy canes to kids. Then on to Nathan Philip Square for a rampage through the skaters. Group photo at the war memorial on University Avenue then on to The Rex to be refused admission. (Hey, it’s tradition!) The Black Bull though is usually our first and favorite watering hole.
We wend our way down Queen Street, invading the pubs that will let us in. (To be fair, they’ve been pre-warned.) The Academy of Spherical Arts is a fav as well as the late, great Hideout. This is a way to get in to clubs who would never otherwise let you in because you’re obviously middle class and O-L-D. We’ve even witnessed Fetish Night. (Great material for crime fiction, but who would believe me?)
By 2 am, Ed and I are ready for food (poutine anyone?) and home. Many times the subway has gone sleepy-bye for the night so we’ve relied on the notorious Zoo Bus of our youth. The Yonge St. night bus is a whole quantum level more surreal and never fails to disappoint.
Interested? The info isn’t up on the website yet but word is that if you come to the Imperial Pub at 6 pm, Sat Dec 17th, you may find something to your advantage…
My friend and fellow crime writer, Cathy Astolfo, recently moved to Brantford. I’ve made flying visits there to give talks with other crime writers that Cathy arranged with her local Brantford library. My impression: Brantford’s nice and quiet – a typical small Ontario town.
How wrong can you be!
Follow the link here to fall through the Surreal Trapdoor and discover Brantford’s loveable eccentrics, like Mike on a Bike and Captain Kindness. And time warps like the Dairee Delite selling ice cream so good, Canadians line up for it in winter!
Cathy writes two series: the light-hearted Kira Callaghan series set in the ReVisions Retirement Residence and the darker, Emily Taylor series. She’s also penned the standalone noir psychological thriller, Sweet Caroline and published many crime fiction stories. Do check out this Arthur Ellis award winner’s books here. http://www.catherineastolfo.com/.
October 29, 2015 I published my first blog: All Hail Word Press!
Blogging is great! Free license to explore street art, weird stuff, books, books and more books! And it’s a procrastination tool extraordinaire when I should be working on my next book in the Danny Bluestone series, Windigo Ice.
Most of my blog’s followers by far live in the USA and Canada. The split is almost exactly 50/50. Next up: Brazil (!), West Germany and the UK. I’ve had hits from around the globe, including places as far flung as Angola, Macau and Mongolia. (Really? Crime fiction fans …or not?)
Popularity of my blog categories is pretty evenly split although Surreal Trapdoor, Eat This Book and Cyber Café have the edge. And what were my most popular posts? Check back here: I’ll be republishing them from time to time FYI.
First up, the winner: The stuffed dog – Charlie the Lonely Sentinel!!
SURREAL TRAPDOOR: TAXIDERMY and CHARLIE THE LONELY SENTINEL
This story is true. Strange things always happen to me.
Last Halloween, our friend, whom I’ll call Eric, invited us to a party at his place. It’s a gently decayed mansion divided into flats with high ceilings, narrow twisting corridors and connecting backstairs so that he and his friends have as much company or privacy as they want.
Eric is a software engineer by day but by night, he’s a gifted and well-known cabaret performer. His friends, whom I’ll call Fred and Mary, are musicians who play regular gigs in Toronto.
Costumes were de rigueur. Ed went as Tommy Wiseau , creator of The Room, possibly one of the worst films ever made. I went as a cat, aiming for so-bad-it’s-good. We were meeting Fred and Mary for the first time so knowing Eric, I expected the unexpected.
Fred and Mary’s flat was dark and crowded with denizens of Toronto’s demi-monde. Costumes ranged from drag to burlesque to clowns. Wine glass in hand, I wandered past dimly lit museum exhibits of fossils and stuffed rodents.
“That’s cool,” I said, eyeing one of the stuffed squirrels. “Very Halloween.”
“Oh, they’re here all the time,” said a fellow guest. “They live here with Fred and Mary.”
“Permanently?” I squeaked.
“That’s nothing. Did you see the stuffed dog?” He pointed to a shadowy lump on the floor next to a large potted plant. Sure enough, it was a remarkably life-like black and white spaniel.
Later Fred explained how he and Mary came by Charlie. In life, he belonged to a decrepit and eccentric acquaintance down the street. When Charlie exited this Vale of Tears, the elderly man had him stuffed. And continued walking him along the street on a set of rollers.
“That’s creepy,” I said.
“Well, the guy came by it honestly. He ran the Toronto Explorers Club,” Fred said.
“There’s an explorers club?!” What an absurd Victorian anachronism, I thought.
“Yeah, there is. And the old guy acquired a load of stuffed trophies from the club. Legit or not, who knows? Anyway his house was crammed with them. When he died, his relatives rented a dumpster and tossed all the stuffed animals into it. Mary spotted it on her way home from work. It was really bizarre, looking inside that steel crate and seeing it full of deer heads and stuff.”
Fred took a sip of beer. “What was really sad was seeing Charlie lying there on top of all that. Especially since we knew him when he was alive. Mary didn’t know what to do at first, but then she decided to rescue him. The problem was that she’d biked to work that day. So she strapped Charlie onto the back carrier and rode home with him.”
Our friend, Eric, continued the story. “I saw Mary riding along on her bike with this cute black and white dog on the back. I thought, ‘Wow, Fred and Mary got a dog! And boy, is he well-trained. Look at him sitting still and riding along on the bike like that.’ But when she stopped, Charlie kind of rotated and stayed sitting still in the same position. That really freaked me out. I didn’t know what I was looking at.”
Now Charlie now stands guard in Fred and Mary’s home: the lonely sentinel.
Just got back from Bouchercon 2016 held in New Orleans, LA. It was my first visit to this haunted city – and I loved it. Tropical heat, “painted-lady” mansions, ornate ironwork, fin de siècle French cafes, crass voodoo shops (gruesome made in China shrunken heads), a streetcar really named Desire, antique neon signs, fab music…the list is endless.
A bar culture shocking to a Canadian. Alcohol is freely available 24/7. Walgreen’s Drugstore sports shelves and shelves of bourbon. People wander freely about the streets drinking – as long as the container is plastic.
But what did I really want to see? GATORS!Swamp tours out of New Orleans end up at a nature conservancy about an hour’s drive out of the city. Tourists are loaded into flat-bottomed boats named, somewhat disturbingly, Gatorbait!
Our guide climbs on board the Gatorbait carrying a bag of marshmallows. This is not, as we first suppose, a cheap snack for us. No, kiddies, this is the true gator bait! As we are soon to learn, gators love marshmallows. And propelled by their powerful tails, they will jump out of the water for a hotdog on a stick. After all, hotdogs look just like tourist fingers!
Our guide tosses a marshmallow onto the brown brackish water. Impossible to know what lurks beneath the surface. It looks so bland and boring. Until two beady primordial eyes glide to the surface and snap! We’re back in the days of the dinosaurs.
Hey, who cares if the sugar rots the gators’ teeth or clogs their arteries? Gators aren’t endangered, the guide tells us. They’re farmed locally, from eggs collected at the nature preserve. Otherwise the gators would eat them, a twisted sort of birth control. In fact, that’s why they love marshmallows. The candy looks just like gator eggs!
In fact, gators will eat just about anything smaller than them, especially baby alligators. (More birth control.) Someone asks the guide if they eat humans. “Oh, no” he says. “My buds and I swim and jet ski all through the bayou. They’re a lot more scared of us than we are of them.”
Other denizens of the swamp share the gators’ sweet tooth: an egret, a blue heron and a baby wild hog who chomps away at the mushy treats with a wary eye on a nearby, avariciously hungry baby gator.
More interesting facts: gators are territorial (no kidding), they cool off by panting like dogs, food rots in their stomachs if the weather gets too cold and they can live to be 100 years old. Reminds me of certain presidential candidates…
For breakfast we sample gator sausage. Hmm. A bit dry with a taste reminiscent of the mystery meat served up in university cafeterias. Better to eat than to be eaten though…
You think I’m kidding, dear Readers? No need to wait for a time machine. Merely hop in your smug-emitting hybrid and head down to Huron County in August.
Fall fairs are big here. It’s still possible to be a big fish, or even a small fry, in your local pond without competing with the millions and millions served on the internet. You can find fame growing the largest vegetable, making cakes with vegetables, crafting fantasy planters, great pies or jams and pickles.
The handmade quilts and tapestries are especially awe-inspiring: all hand sewn. True artistry!!
Pies are a fall fair staple. Not only in a variety of contests but best of all for eating! The variety is huge: apple, rhubarb, strawberry, blueberry, pecan, pumpkin, raisin. If you can dream it, you can enjoy it here.
We manage to drive through Stratford regularly without getting infected by Shakespeare but summer stock comedy greatly appeals so we headed to the Blyth festival. If Truth Be Toldturned out to be a well-acted drama about local heroine and Nobel prize winner, Alice Munro. Sadly we missed the comedy about the turkey baster…
The theatre package included a country supper at the Legion. Awesome! But we hadn’t counted on the current demographic for summer stock theatre. Suffice it to say that we were the youngest by a lot!
Dinner time on the ticket said 6:15 pm. We wandered up and down the main street of Blyth and finally conceding that we were uncharacteristically early, we walked the 50 feet to the Legion. Rule #1, elderly people always arrive early. Rule #2, don’t get between the geriatrics and food or there will be blood. At 6:00 pm there wasn’t a seat to be had except two up against the wall in the corner at the furthest distance from the bar and the washroom.
Food as expected was “meat, potatoes and two veg” and the roast was cooked the way my dad liked it, black all the way through. Portions were huge and the volunteer wait staff friendly. But what’s this? Something that looked like miniature coloured marshmallows in a creamy dressing. No, that couldn’t be. But yes MARSHMALLOW salad! I didn’t think they made rainbow, mini-marshmallows anymore.
It tasted the way you’d expect it to taste. But when in Rome… And I slather chutney, red pepper jelly, etc on my cheese and meats so the sugar sin was probably the same.
Ed was delighted to find Old Vienna on tap, a beer he hadn’t seen since he guzzled it as an engineering undergrad. Huron County: the veritable Jurassic Park of retro brands.
And dessert was pie, of course, but lemon meringue and banana cream disappeared long before the waitress ploughed through the crowd to reach our Arctic exile. We settled for pecan and pumpkin – both damn good! – but skipped the watery, grey coffee. Americanos at the fancy new hipster bar across the street proved a salvation – and our true urban nature.
NEWS FLASH! Our street's cool took a hit last week when police raided our local weed shop. Sigh! Closed until further notice but its owners urge us to contact our MP's. The cat café is still there though...
Scroll down to read the full blog below: Our Street is Now Cool
Visiting Montreal, my fav decayed beauty. Drifted around its Underground City to escape the blistering 35 degree heat and stumbled upon Les Cours Mont-Royal.
Architecturally tres interessant, it sports neat tile work, Harry Potter-like staircases and a 12-storey atrium built into the courtyard of a heritage building. Lots of chandeliers – even in the food courts. The hoped-for high-end stores? Well, Montreal is broke, people…
But, readers, it was really hot outside so I drifted some more and the Surreal Trapdoor opened at the Barbie Expo. Argh!
Quintessentially American, the expo displays hundreds of Barbies in glass cases and professes to give all donations to a crippled children’s charity. Many of the dolls represent American icons, see Statue of Liberty above, as well as show biz idols. Witness Exhibit A:
Barbie is big biz. Loadsa money made from little girls who have absorbed gender stereotyping from birth. Look like the straight white American male’s sex fantasy and rake in money and status: big boobs, big hair and an empty plastic head are your ticket to ride!
Little clue, this James Bond diorama. The ultimate straight white male fantasy: every woman is a Barbie!
I guess you can tell I’m not a fan. Proud to say neither was our daughter. Her favorite trick was to put Barbie’s plastic head on her index finger and recite: “I have a little tiny brain.”
To keep up with the times, I spotted some bizarre turns. Ethnic and show-girl costumes are interchangeable. Witness more Exhibit A:
I have to admit though that I kinda liked this one:
Mt. Pleasant Road was once colourless, staid and outdated, lined with dusty antique stores. Nothing happening, certainly not in the evening after a pensioner’s bedtime.
To be fair though, it always had some neat retro stuff. Penrose Fish and Chips hadn’t changed its décor, menu or deep fryer since the 1940’s. They still wrapped your take-out fish and chips in newspaper. George’s Trains sold my fav childhood toy: electric trains! And two ancient movie houses, The Regent and the Mt. Pleasant, showed stale-dated films to tiny audiences of the faithful.
Mind you, Mt. Pleasant had, probably still has, its seamy side. Above those silent-as-tombs antique shops – knocking shops! Smart of them to hide in a deadly boring, whitebread family neighbourhood over stores bereft of customers. I’m not kidding: readthis. There’s even a “rub map” of Toronto with Mt. Pleasant taking…erm…undue prominence! (No links, guys- you’re on your own!)
Change has surged into our hapless backwater. Condos, Starbucks and Second Cup have invaded. All our favs now swept away, except, inexplicably, the movie theatres. But wondrous new things have birthed: Thobor’s Parisian chefs make the best bread and pastries in North Toronto and Belsize Public House is trying to fill The Longest Yard’s big shoes.
This week a Surreal Trapdooropened up. On one side of one of the last chandelier-crammed antique stores, I spied the Green Room, a medical marihuana shop, with a brew pub-like menu of plant materials on display. And on the other, Meow Coffee, a cat café! Police raids and grumpy Toronto Humane Society notwithstanding!
We are now 21st century – and cool! I leave you, readers, with this song by Japanese pop group, Shonen Knife about bad kitties and cat mary-jane. And guessing which shop will become my new haunt….
NYC is a maze of surreal trapdoors. Especially the legendary subway, setting of innumerable horror flicks, cop shows and true crime.
So this happened….
After visiting the Mysterious Book Shop and the twin towers memorial, we boarded the R line. We collapsed onto the hard plastic seats of the train car, the a/c bliss after the 30 degree heat.
A large Asian man wearing a green foam Statue of Liberty crown slumped onto the seat opposite us. He was clearly suffering from the heat. Not so much though his slimmer wife and teen-aged son.
“Do you live here?” the lady asked us after we exchanged a few pleasantries waiting for the train to get going.
“No,” we said, flattered. “We’re Canadian. From Toronto.”
“Well, I’ll be! That’s near Brantford, right? Have you been to the pow-wow there?” I replied sadly no, but it was on our bucket list. She broke into a huge smile. “You see, I’m Chippewa. An Indian married to an Indian!”
Dad shrugged and smiled. Teen-aged son squirmed. White liberals gringed, but Mother continued: “So 86th Street, right? Our young guy’s quite the artist so we’re taking him to see Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. We’re off to the museum.”
“No, before that we’re going to the museum. You know, The Museum. It’s got everything in it you folks need to know about The Bible.”
“You must know about The Museum. You do love The Bible, don’t you? It’s the best museum in the whole wide world, put together for our brothers and sisters.” Mother beams and leans forward. “I’m a Jehovah’s witness!”
Sigh, sometimes the penny doesn’t drop, it floats down.
“You sure do need to visit The Museum. You would love it. It’s got money problems right now, so we’re gonna make sure we see it before they move it someplace else. Can I talk you two into coming along?”
“Sorry, no, we’re meeting some friends.”
Mother now turns her attention to the other passengers in the car. She teaches us all Chippewa expressions in between urging us to Praise the Lord.
Mercifully, the train starts up. Also mercifully, it’s an express. We’re at our stop in two minutes flat.
We race out of the car, leaving Mother cheerfully proselytizing, Dad smiling beatifically and son sulking, while she aims to convert someone, anyone before Times Square.
This really happened: surreal NYC did not disappoint us!
Greetings Readers! Here’s the long-promised Surreal Trapdoor from Phoenix, Arizona.
After the Left Coast Crime conference, I took a tour of the Superstition Mountains and the Goldfield Ghost Town , a faithful reconstruction of a western gold-mining town with Disney-style staged gun-fights. Good fun, but a surreal trapdoor opened up en route at the Superstition Mountain Museum.
Ever see those 1950’s and 1960’s Westerns? They all look the same: rickety wooden buildings in the middle of a Roadrunner desert with lots of blowing dust and cactus. Well, there’s a reason for that. They were all shot on the same set: the Apacheland Movie Ranch.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the public’s thirst for Westerns faded. Apacheland became a theme park then fell into disuse. It cycled through a revival or two in the 1980’s followed by – count ’em – two, ahem, mysterious fires. The bits that survived were moved to the museum: a barn and – yes, you heard it right – an Elvis Chapel.
Our guide explains: Elvis starred in an ill-fated Western called Charro where he tried to make it as a straight actor. No songs except for one on the soundtrack. Luckily the flop didn’t hurt his career. A host of other famous stars filmed at Apacheland, including John Wayne and a young Clint Eastwood.
The Superstition Mountains themselves are perilous: the rough terrain boasts many steep drop-offs, extreme heat and arid conditions. People regularly lose their way or fall victim to heat stroke or dehydration. In fact, our guide tells us, a hiker’s body was recovered the day before our visit.
The mountains have a lurid history, much related to the mythical Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. And at least one murder. They’ve also been home to wild characters and hermits like Hacksaw Tom who robbed stagecoaches.
No doubt old Tom felt right at home with the dozen kinds of rattlers in the area. The snakes are avid patrons of the museum, as evidenced by the warning signs. And in the summer, our guide says, the rattlers especially enjoy lounging in the coolness under the pop machine. Caveat emptor indeed!