A Walk in the Park


Toronto’s new mayor has prompted a revival of civic spirit, including a push to celebrate the city’s public spaces. But what if your experiences in its parks are memorable for all the wrong reasons?

I moved to Toronto for film school when I was 18 and spent the next four years realizing that I would never, ever break into the motion picture industry. So, after graduating, I taught elementary school, and then I packed up for Montreal and a girl who claimed to love me but in fact ended up loving some guy in big headphones named Bruno just a little bit more. Last September, like a boomerang made of shattered dreams, I returned to Toronto.

Toronto has changed. It has a new, silver-haired mayor full of exuberance and ambitious recycling ideas, and its people have launched a concerted effort to promote the city as a great place to live. Among the recent developments is Spacing magazine, which celebrates Toronto’s landscapes, urban and suburban, gray and green.

I would never dare try to write for Spacing. My experiences of the outdoors tend to be mired in misanthropy, and often fear. So what follows, I guess, is a sort of anti-Spacing article. I really do admire the magazine; I just can’t imagine its editors would ever want anything to do with me.

The Kortright Center

On a Saturday morning this past March, with winter fading, my friend Kate and I decided that we needed to go to a sugar shack. We wanted someone in big boots to pour sap onto snow and then serve it to us on sticks, and we wanted maple-smoked bacon, and we wanted maple-smoked sausages, and we wanted pancakes smothered in maple syrup tapped fresh from the tree. So we took her dog Taylor and drove north of Toronto toward a place named Bob’s Sugar Shack that Kate had found on the internet and which promised us all the things we wanted in all-you-can-eat quantities.

But when we got to the address where Bob’s Sugar Shack was supposed to be, there was no sign of anyone in big boots, or maple syrup of any kind. From behind a screen door, a woman in leopard-print leggings and pink lipstick nodded at Taylor and told us to watch out for her dogs, even though there were no dogs in sight. Apparently, Bob had passed on and his Sugar Shack had fallen into less enterprising hands. Kate and I got back in the car, feeling glum. “What about the Kortright Center?” she said.

This sounded to me like the sort of place where fat white men in suits would plot the destruction of the ozone layer. But Kate explained that the Kortright Center was in fact a conservation area near Newmarket, just outside Toronto. And what do you know: When we got there, there was a maple syrup festival going on! Who knew such a thing existed? And, more importantly, who knew that such a thing would cost $18 to attend? But we were on a mission for maple syrup, and this seemed to be the place.

About the Kortright Center, I have this to say: Despite the people dressed up in pioneer garb talking in pioneer “accents” and boiling maple syrup in cast-iron kettles over open fires, I would have much preferred the bottomless brunch of Bob. Also, Taylor got diarrhea from eating a napkin. Rest in peace, Bob. May we one day meet, God willing, in that great sugar shack in the sky.

Tommy Thompson Park

Tom Thompson was a contemporary of a group of renowned Canadian landscape painters called the Group of Seven, and the victim of a tragic and mysterious boating accident on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. In short, the stuff Canadian folk songs are made of. Tommy Thompson, a former Toronto parks commissioner, perhaps less so. (Although, to be fair, this place used to be called the Leslie Spit, so I won’t complain too much about the new name).

Tommy Thompson Park is a peninsula that wraps around the back of the Toronto Islands into Lake Ontario, celebrated among bird-watchers as a great place to watch birds. I do not like birds. I find them weird and suspicious, always with the pecking and the swooping, the cawing and the feces. Tommy Thompson Park, for me, is a place good only for getting a sense of what the world will look like after avian flu wipes out mankind, especially if birds are somehow able to develop antibodies against their own disease, the bastards.

The park’s terrain is largely gravel-based, with strange craters and dubiously green ponds and mechanical refuse strewn about everywhere, not to mention birds in great squawking flocks roosting in the trees, watching your every move. One day last summer, I made the mistake of letting someone talk me into going for a walk out there, the lowlight of which was that the shape of the park forced us to retreat over ground that we had already traversed and that had already once made me loathe being alive.

The Park Near My Old House at Christie and Davenport

I do not know what this place is called. It is just one of those nondescript parks: jungle gym, used-condom-clotted wading pool, tennis and basketball courts, grass. That said, it does have a really nice view of the city. But one thing not to do here, while gazing out over this magnificent view, the city spangled golden with the lights of buildings and the heavens alive with stars, is soil yourself. Especially on a date. And I will leave this story at that.

Sir Winston Churchill Park

The place I taught at in Toronto was an “alternative, independent, arts-based primary school,” where the curriculum bordered on Wiccan. (Solstice celebrations, holding hands, and the ceremonious burial of things all figured heavily.) I was hired to run some make of phys. ed program, something that had never existed in the school’s 30-year history.

Due to a lack of facilities, phys ed happened at nearby Sir Winston Churchill Park during lunch hour—the students’ ostensible free time. This program was named “Park.” The absence of the definite article (“Today you will play and enjoy sporting games at Park,” etc.) struck me as sort of Draconian. And my first day, with the students slumping dejectedly along to Park, lunchbags in hand, felt a bit like shepherding youngsters to a callisthenics display for die Fuhrer.

Getting kids who prefer “creative movement” and express their frustration in “‘I’ statements” to play sports is always a struggle. Not only was the idea of competitive play completely foreign to them, but so was the concept of running, or even walking at a brisk pace. We tried to play soccer: Kids cried. We tried to play baseball: more tears. Capture the Flag was critiqued for its militaristic undertones. One by one, the students began to refuse to participate; instead they would sit in a row with their arms crossed, quoting their therapists, calling me a “Sports Nazi.” Park, it seemed, was not working.

So, I told them to mobilize. “If you’re going on strike, do it right. I want to see pickets and slogans. You’ll need to make placards, select representatives, list demands.” And the little Bolsheviks did! They were inspired, it seemed. Back at school, kids would come up to me and threaten, “We’re going to take you down, Malla. All. The way. Down.”

And this would all have been wonderful, this mini-revolution, were it not for something called Parent-Teacher Interview Day.

Trinity Bellwoods Park

Last winter my friend Ian invited me to join in a weekly game of shinny hockey on rented ice in Trinity Bellwoods, right in the middle of Cooltown, i.e. Queen Street West. While I am a rabidly loyal fan of the Montreal Canadiens, I am not much of an actual hockey player, per se. But, whatever. Soccer season was months away and, having earlier that week collapsed while moving my clothes from washing machine to dryer, I figured I could use the exercise. And, hey, at first it turned out to be pretty fun.

I adopted a technique of careening into the boards rather than practicing the highly overrated “power-stop,” and felt alive and significant under the January sky with the floodlights beaming down and the ice bright and gleaming and my toes numb with frostbite. Everyone except me was good, but there was this one friend of Ian’s who was something else entirely, a joy to watch, weaving slickly through opposition and teammates alike with the puck on a string in his toque and jogging pants.

“He used to play Junior B,” Ian told me. I nodded sagely. “I can tell.”

A few plays later, I found myself with the puck and this guy cruising in, about to lift it from my stick in some dazzling display of defensive skill. Thinking myself crafty, I tried to flick a wristshot past him. Instead, the puck flipped directly upward, smacking Junior B right in the face.

I have never seen a nose actually explode before, but I can think of no other way to describe what happened. The puddle of blood on the ice was two feet wide, easily, and quite dazzling under the lights. I spent the rest of my evening in the E.R. with the wounded superstar, apologizing, fetching him paper towels, listening to him explain how the doctor would probably have to re-break it, but in fact feeling more sorry for myself than for him. Because it was at that moment that I knew that I would never go back to Trinity Bellwoods Park, because I was a tool.