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Category: toronto

source.of.undying.love

I must have met Masimba, appropriately, at Love Movement. I say must have because, though I don’t quite remember ever meeting him (in my mind, he’s just always been there, an integral part of the city’s scape and air and life and sound, a role occupied by but a few special ones in Toronto), the man put up some photographic evidence:

image

He snapped this in the basement of Alto Basso on College Street, late in the summer of 2003. I have only a vague recollection of this moment: Love Movement’s resident DJs Fase and Nana hamming behind the decks, me posted up with a Heineken in hand, smiling at them over my shoulder, not realizing I was included in the shot. When Masimba posted it to social media some years ago, I admit to feeling some combination of touched and horrified. The photo is not flattering, y’all, but it was from an important time. I was 21 and had just landed home for the summer, back from a semester abroad in Madrid where my Cuban rapper/DJ neighbours in Lavapiés and I would spend afternoons talking music and race, and weekends dancing til dawn. One of many worlds to navigate. Back in this other world of Toronto, I spent a short summer sneaking out of my (strict, immigrant) parents’ house to hit rap shows, open mics, and weeklies all over the city, often rolling solo because I didn’t yet know many people who were also into the music I loved. I didn’t yet know myself, either. I’d only recently started to DJ (that didn’t last long), started to co-host a hip hop campus radio show (neither did this), and started to freelance for music magazines (my first-ever published review, unpaid of course, was for an Oddities 12-inch I purchased myself). One of Masimba’s friends wrote last week that, pre-Drake, the Toronto rap scene was like a family. The distant sweetness of nostalgia makes me inclined to agree. I was the chubby, frizzy-haired Portuguese writer girl at the rap show, screwfaced, shy, and happy to be there. Nobody made me feel like I didn’t belong. The basement of Alto Basso filled every Monday night with unfamiliar faces that, over time, became friends, nods of recognition became hugs, and some friends eventually became family.

To look through Masimba’s FB albums is to journey through recent Toronto hip hop history. Jokes and candid moments from places that don’t exist anymore or are called by other names: Bamboo, IV Lounge, Movement Culture parties hosted by Sandra and Noah. He captured Fatski’s million-and-one variations on the b-boy stance, TT’s finger-in-di-air holler, Nehal cheesin, and El looking like the coolest cat in the room from absolutely every angle. Sa’ara B’s electric smile. Big Tweeze in his classic lean. DJ Serious on the decks. I love all of these photos.

These were the days of street teams pressing flyers in your palm for the next show as you walked out of the last one, and Georgie Porgy pushing CDs on the corner, all: Do you like real hip hop? The days of shows at Revival and B-Side and The Comfort Zone and The Big Bop and The Hooch and NASA, Planet Mars (before my time still), Peachfuzz, In Divine Style, Never Forgive Action, Cell Division mixtapes. Of making pause tapes to the Mastermind Street Jam on Energy and Real Frequency on CKLN. Of spotting people in Equinox199 ‘Balance’ and Too Black Guys t-shirts. In the winter, a Big It Up toque on every head’s head.

Then there was the Sagittarius Coolout. I think I looked forward to Masimba’s birthday more than my own, to those sweaty dance tangles and happy-to-see-you! reunion vibes that cut through winter’s alienating chill. I look back so fondly on those nights, even as we’ve all changed, moved, grown older, and grown apart. I’ve missed the Coolout the last few years, rolling back into town for my holiday visit a week too late, but I was counting on returning to Toronto early this December. I hoping to catch up on hugs and cut up a dance floor with my people again. Hoping. Was.

It’s been two weeks since Masimba left us to join the ancestors, since the flurry of long-distance calls and messages, since heartful tributes from friends and strangers flooded my timelines. This lovely man who called me young lady or sis, a brother to so many, he himself went by DJ Son Of S.O.U.L., and his presence was love. Revisiting photos and memories, reconnecting with dear ones I’d lost touch with, all of us mutual and willing victims of time and geography, has filled me with gratitude. This aspect of his legacy lives on. Of course, then there’s the music.

I posted a tribute back in 2008 to DJ S.O.S. and his birthday fête, including a link to one of his sets. I’ll happily re-share it here: The Sagittarius Cool Out 2007, Parts One & Two. The download will be live for the next week, so play it, laugh loudly at the ad libs, throw a finger in the air, dance. If you come around late, hit me up and I’ll gladly post it again.

This isn’t a eulogy — there have been too many this past year. Instead, this is a hug. Along with music, hugs are one of the sweetest gifts and most healing blessings he bestowed, and so I’m offering up the biggest, warmest, most open, joyous one I can muster.

Hugs for the past and future journeys, for yours and his and mine, for wherever they may take each of us, whoever may join us, whatever may come. Hugs whenever we may cross. Hugs for magic. Hugs for peace and love. Hugs honouring where you’re from, for the people who made you, for forgiveness, hugs for knowing yourself. Hugs to hold up the ones who need them. Hugs to celebrate dreams coming to life. Hugs to try harder, be better. Hugs, just because.

interlude

 

I woke up
And forgot who I was
But remembered a thunderous dream
Of having to be someone.

/mia-skye sagara

 

It is a strange thing to feel in exile at home, rather than at home in exile.

My last real home, or closest thing to home, was Port-au-Prince. I spent nearly four mostly-consecutive years in Haiti, but a few months ago decided that I needed a breather. I wanted to be quiet and still and nowhere for a little time, to think and to write, before packing up again and either returning to the heat or moving elsewhere. Nap swiv.

And so I landed in West End Toronto for the summer. The friends who have gotten used to seeing me pop in a few times a year for short visits are not quite sure what’s up now that I’m hanging around longer. They are almost startled to bump into me on the street or at parties — Oh, you’re still here? Others, who I haven’t crossed paths with in years, are confused about where I’m supposed to be. How’s New York? they inquire. When do you fly back to Paris?

I blame my blog name in part. I’ve used “nowarian,” a word born of the playful genius of Caribbean English, as my username, social media moniker, and blog identity for nearly a decade. In that decade I have moved house at least 22 times (that I can recall) in five countries. This has made me very good at packing and unpacking, a master at airport security lines, more graceful with goodbyes and heartfelt with hellos, and kept me from accumulating more than I can carry. My shoulders have never been stronger, my keep-or-toss decisiveness never sharper.

But lately, I’ve been complaining to friends, the word has started to feel like a burden. What if I want to accumulate things? What if I want to lay down roots? What if I don’t want to be from nowhere? After so many years away I’m a ghost in my own home town, a foreigner in my fatherland, and the last place I felt entirely in my element is a country that, even should I decide to live out the rest of my days there, will forever view me as an outsider.

Adaptable Otherness, in a way, is my jam. This is how I was raised in West End Toronto, crashed up against all these other kids whose parents’ life choices and migratory options forced us to grow together, all different skin tones and hair textures and cooking spices that seeped into our bargain bin, hand-me-down, and home-made clothes. I can’t recall if we asked one another where we were from. I’m not sure we cared at that age. At lunchtime we traded leftover curries, cured meats, greens, thick soups, beans and rice, spicy roasted peppers smothered in olive oil and garlic. We taught each other how to swear in our respective native tongues, played tiny interpreters at parent-teacher meetings, and developed a collective way of speaking that incorporated our many accents. Nobody stuck out as different, because we all did. I romanticise those days, though I know I shouldn’t. The poorest kids were sometimes shunned for being too fresh-off-the-boat, frayed fabrics, faces dirty, bruised. Mr McLean choked one of the Jamaican kids up against a wall after recess. The French teacher screamed at the Mexican kids, calling them gangbangers. I still sting with the memory of the school librarian taunting me, her British accent echoing, asking if I knew how to speak English.

In 2008 I called up Dr Winford James in Saint Augustine, Trinidad on a day when he was feeling “good and strong, good and strong” to ask about nowarians. He was as solid an authority as any, it seemed, as he helped write the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage. Dr James explained that the word has origins in Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Tobago, and Trinidad. There was no one correct way to spell it (nowarian, nowherian, nowhereian, nowierian), just as there was no single agreed-upon meaning. He walked across his office, found his copy of the dictionary, opened it to page 409, and read aloud an official definition:

no-wher-i-an 1. A person who is not connected with any church or who professes no religious faith. 2. [By extension] Sb who is not respectable; sb of no consequence. 3. [By further extension] [Derog] An unkempt looking knockabout; a person of no fixed abode.

Yikes, I said. Dr James tried to mellow the harshness: “It’s a term that has a kind of semantic potential,” he said. “It has shades of meaning.” Shades that can shift and migrate. If a nowarian can be from nowhere — disconnected from his or her roots and surroundings — then a nowarian can be from everywhere too. At the time, I found some comfort in this.

“I don’t belong here,” a friend said to me one night in Port-au-Prince before I left, as so many have on so many Port-au-Prince nights. This one was a blond American, a foreign aid worker. She hadn’t grown up questioning, in ways subtle or enormous, whether or not she belonged in her Northern California town. This discomfort was new for her, and no matter how long she stayed or the effort she made, she said morosely, she would never belong in Haiti. Of course she wouldn’t, I thought. Aloud, and naively, I wondered: why was that so awful? She looked at me, bewildered by the question.

*   *   *

 

[Because it needs to be addressed: Sorry for the silence in this space. I have drafts on drafts, accumulated over the past year plus, but none of them felt right. Like everything else, I’ll throw blame on the burden of that word, hungry for motion, nowarian.]

welcome to somewhere

Being away from West End Toronto for the bulk of Euro2012 made me terribly homesick. I’ve spent most of my adult life away, but that scrappy cement patch of autobody shops, faded warehouses and parkette drug deals will always be my most primary of homes. No one does international futebol championships quite how we do. The flags! The honking! The aggro traffic-stopping revelry! The drunken giddy shouting at strangers! My current home of Port-au-Prince appreciates a good match, and while I was warmed to hear the neighbourhood men yelp as though collectively wounded with every near-goal and near-save, this soccer crowd just didn’t cut it for me. I wanted excessive public rowdiness. I wanted to be home.

Maybe distance has made me nostalgic, but I now look through love-lidded eyes at my old immigrant-enclave hood. I smile at the Portuguese sports bars (and the Super Bock-tipsy aging construction bachelors), recall the corner store where I used to buy patties after school, and take delight in the dilapidated discount strip mall that has slowly emptied over the years. I used to scowl at the noisy gino-mobiles, the ugly flat-top buildings, the dull desolation. The drug dealers made me furious for taking over the playground (also my shortcut to the bus stop), coming and going in a constant cycle of street, arrest, jail, street. I often had the feeling that I lived in an abandoned space, one where people were resigned to carry on because they didn’t have the heart to give up completely. Tired faces, low wages, drop-out kids. Our area didn’t even have a name, like the Annex or Corso Italia, presumably because no one could be bothered to coin one.

It was so depressing it became funny.

“This neighbourhood is where dreams go to die,” I would tell my brother, and he would crack up. “Yeah,” he’d say, forcing a straight face, “I went to the Galleria a few days ago, and I’ve been depressed ever since.” The strip mall was the apex of this mini-empire of hopelessness. My classic illustration: every December the mall would set up Christmas decorations and a modest throne for Santa to sit in —- to take gift requests and snap photos with little mall rats, as is the great mall tradition — but Santa never came. In the 20+ years I lived in the area, the Galleria’s Christmas chair was always empty. I laughed when I got older. Why would he come here, anyway? Not like anyone on this block was getting presents.

The neighbourhood is changing, though. The Zellers discount department store in the mall is slated to shut down this month, skeevy off-track betting joint PM Toronto is already boarded up, and the rest of the Galleria is to be demolished and built-over with condos. On recent visits I’ve started to notice people jogging, bike locks have sprouted, and there are now creative-class espresso shops and hipster bars up the block from the working-class bakery/cafes and sports dives, competing for new residents’ attentions. I have mixed feelings about this. Not bad, just mixed.

 

 

 

On my last Toronto visit, I spent time at the first official hipster bar on the Geary strip, chatting up one of the owners about his choice of locale. I had never bothered to hang at the spot’s previous incarnation — a decidedly manly bar named Copas, where the rare client who pulled up on bicycle had probably just gotten a DUI. This new space was beautiful, filled with art and vintage speakers, the pants tighter and beards longer than on the previous regulars. The new owner said that most of his friends now lived in the area, refugees from the increasingly pricy Queen West scene they had helped make popular, and that they were hurting for a decent hang out spot. So, it made sense to open up, he said, here in the middle of nowhere.

Hey, I said. I grew up here. It’s not nowhere. People live here. Families live here.

Both his words and mine fell awkwardly, because here we were — him, opening a front-line gentrifying bar, and me, sipping a pint of Steamwhistle while contemplating gentrification. I read through articles and blogs about this bar, rejoicing its arrival in “the middle of nowhere,” heralding a Williamsburg-esque transformation that by some is seen as inevitable. What?

I felt alarmed. I was pleased to have spicy mojitos within walking distance, but worried that these new residents would dismiss the area… much the way I had, growing up. Guilty. Would they be the kind of migrants who flush in, dismiss the working-class community, and go about re-paving things their way? Would they see the beauty in the brokenness? Would they compliment their new surroundings? Would they shop at the Mexican bakery, the Portuguese fish market, the churrasqueiria? Would they scowl at the Dufferin bus stop like a local, or wait with mild-mannered patience?

It’s a strange thing to slip between classes and social groups. I thought I would be used to it by now, but having multiple worlds collide on my home turf has been weird, particularly because I don’t even live there anymore. So every visit will make me feel like more of a visitor. The rest of the city, the people who ride bicycles by choice, do yoga, and pay too much for watery coffee, is creeping up. I suppose am one of those people, minus the bad taste in coffee, but I sprouted from this space. The bargain stores will close. Warehouses become rehearsal spaces become lofts. More immigrants will leave, pulled to live with their children in the suburbs. I’ll fly back to see my parents, and before they sell their house and move on, I’ll get together with friends at a bar around the corner, where they play 45s and screen vintage cartoons, for cocktails and fish tacos to wax nostalgic about how my neighbourhood is gone.

falling down, springing forward

I’ve been working almost non-stop since I got back to Toronto. The late shift suits me. I push off on my bike at around quarter past two, pedaling hard between hesitant cars and past red lights down down down. Shaw Street hills into Bellwoods and across Wellington, past condos and cops, past portly shirtless old men in socks, past couples lounging lazy in the grass, pedal pedal pedal.

All those weeks in wintry South Africa I couldn’t wait to come back to a warm summer. But I’m here now and I can’t feel the heat. Can’t feel the sun, can’t feel the stickiness, can’t feel it pressing on my skin, filling my lungs, creeping through my clothes, or trickling down my back. I can’t feel any of it.

The newsroom stays quiet on a summer Sunday eve. I try not to wander.

At the end of the night I walk though a dark, narrow alley to collect my lonesome bike. I don’t even see the shadows. Don’t see the blinking reds and greens at the intersections, don’t see the inky blackness between the full nighttime trees, hardly see other bikes and cars and people on the road. Hardly see the road. I don’t feel the darkness, don’t feel the breeze. Don’t feel the ache of my weakened thighs pushing uphill, don’t feel the moon in my belly. I don’t feel the sleeplessness that tugs on my eyes, don’t feel the exhaustion heavy on my shoulders. I’m up by five the next morning because my body doesn’t feel the time. All it feels is the past. Somewhere else, I would be waking up now. Somewhere else, this would make sense.

ó tu mortal

Today I took some dried bits of tobacco I had balled up tight in my left fist and ground them into a stone monument atop an Iroquois burial mound in Scarborough.

Five hundred bodies below my feet. Sun in my hair. Long clouds shoving their way across the huge northeastern sky.

As I scraped my palm along the grey rock, the back of my hand all yellow and sickly-looking from clenching, I thought of my generations. My grandmother, died November 1st not so many years ago. My grandfathers. Their parents, whose names I don’t know. Three and four and five generations back, complete mysteries, an empty space, blank faces and unknown names. I may never know my family’s histories, but I can imagine them. I closed my eyes, hoped I could honour the ones come before, and asked forgiveness of the ones come after.

Crunch crunch crunch for the dead. Autumn wind, gusting, took much of it away.