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Early Days

1996

Feb.17: An afternoon television "round about town" show has been filming an item about this unusual skating rink where you can also cook pizza. They did the inside portion of their filming last week and today they came to do the outside part, on a family Sunday, because they wanted some more bodies. So first they got some footage of the show's very blond host skating around the ice holding a pizza on a peel, smiling and talking about how much fun she was having here at Dufferin Grove Park. Then the camera man wanted to shoot a sequence where the show's host and Jacqueline are at the bake oven putting the pizza in.

All this filming was in the middle of the usual pizza line-ups on Sunday afternoons. I had to be in the picture too, according to the producer. Just ten minutes, he promised. Afterwards I went into the rink house to help Jacqueline and usher the TV people out of there. The rink was packed with skaters just arriving, the kitchen was chaos, the trash cans were overflowing, the camera man was in everybody's way and anxious about his equipment. It was a little piece of hell.

After a while, though, the skaters got their skates laced and went outside, the TV people disappeared, and the kitchen got tidied. Jacqueline and I start to laugh and we couldn't stop. A strange pizza-rink with the very blonde TV host skating around on her very white figure skates, pointing her pizza peel toward the camera. Surreal!

June 26: The kick-off concert for the Dufferin Mall Summer Concert series was today, but it was rained out. The performers a Portuguese cultural group and a Georgian choir called Darbazi (singing music from the former Soviet Republic, not the state in the U.S.) and a salsa group - came to the park anyway because for a while in late morning it looked as though it might clear up. But then the sky looked dark again and the rain fell steadily. We had the pizza oven fired up already so we thought we might as well make the performers some lunch while we waited out the rain. Half of my "youth crew" came by and we got them to help put the pizzas in the oven. As soon as they brought back the first pizzas the sky really opened, so everyone jammed into the rink house and pizzas were passed from hand to hand because no one could get near the pizza table. The Darbazi choir formed a little circle and began singing, with a background of the drumming of the rain on the pavement outside the open doors. Two of our youth crew put on Parks Department yellow raincoats and ran outside and cooked another round of pizzas. Then the Portuguese group decided to dance, and somehow they managed to find enough room in the rink house. They had an old man who plays a squeezebox and an even older woman who sang in a strange, exotic keening voice, and all the others in the group, some of them teenagers and young children, lined up across from one another and danced, and sang at the same time. They have bright red scarves and sashes that flash when they twirl.

A few people from the neighbourhood had come over despite the rain. They lined up outside the windows, under their umbrellas, looking into the room, because that was the best way you could see the dancers. There was no room inside but it didn't matter the dancers were dancing and singing for each other.

When they finished a piece, the Darbazi singers would start up again, and so on back and forth. The sound bounced back off the walls and was somehow further amplified by the torrents of rain. It was so extraordinary and so beautiful I thought I could die right then.

August 18: The wheat and oats and rye and buckwheat that we planted this year in the gardens beside the oven got wrecked today. A flock of sparrows flew down and ate up all the grain in one five-minute raid, leaving only bent stalks, like a bunch of feathered vandals.

I don't want to grow grain again like that. It was a bit of whimsy - let's plant some samples of grain, in honour of the bake-oven. But the grains grew very tall and took over the whole garden, and the wind would blow through them in waves. People used to lean on the fence and stare. I had the impression they were thinking heavy thoughts. More than once I saw someone weeping, and the tears looked bitter and painful.

So I don't want to do that again. There's no reason why memories should be happy, especially when there's homesickness, and not all stories are nice. But we don't have to play with that, to test how evocative we can make the oven. It was a mistake. We didn't know how much people would take it to heart - people for whom grain once did grow right near their oven, and who for various reasons went away, or were driven away, from all that forever.

Sept.13: Tonight when I passed by the vegetable garden, an old man who always feeds the birds in the park was in the garden with two plastic bags, stealing tomatoes. I said, "don't do that. We grew those tomatoes for putting on the pizzas when the school classes come to the oven." He smiled a smile of "oh, come on," and said, "just one bag. You have so many." I said, "we need so many. Don't take one bag, not even one tomato. Buy them at the grocery store." He looked at me and frowned and suddenly shook his fist in my face and flushed red. He looked so fierce and angry that I actually thought he might hit me. But I stood my ground and he turned around and walked off. He sits outside the rink house by the hour, the picturesque bird-man with all the little sparrows pecking around his feet. Meantime in his heart he's plotting the theft of our vegetables.

Sept.21: The old man and I have glared at each other but not spoken since that day. This afternoon I was cleaning up after a school pizza-making visit, and when I went outside to put out the garbage, four older women from the apartment building across the street were sitting on the bench in front of the rink house. We started talking and one of them showed me a photograph. It turned out the old man is her husband. The picture was of happier days, a formal family photo of a father, mother, and two teenage daughters, all of them dressed up. I found out that the old man had worked all his life on high steel construction, as a welder. He was working on the highest building in Toronto, and one day they found him dangling in mid-air from his safety harness. It seemed that he might have had a stroke while he was sitting on the steel beam. He couldn't remember anything about it. His mind was never all there after that, his wife said, and sometimes he became irrationally angry. He never worked again.

I waited for a few days and then I tried to catch the old man's eye as he sat on his usual bench waiting for the birds to come. When he looked at me I nodded and smiled slightly. He smiled too. Since then we've waved and smiled, no more clenched fist from him, no more scowls from me. I took this whole thing so seriously a tomato thief. What a dope I was.

Dec.20: David Anderson brought his giant-puppet troupe here to have their dress rehearsal for their winter solstice parade downtown tomorrow. Last week we put up signs to invite people for "the night before solstice," and today in the late afternoon, when darkness was already falling, we made a large bonfire near the oven. We put up our yellow tipi, too, just to attract attention, and made some giant pots of hot cider at a smaller campfire.

Across the street the parking lot of the mall was jammed with Christmas shoppers, none of them with time to spare for a medieval ritual of the rebirth of spring out of the darkest day of winter. At this time in December you can almost see an electric charge over the mall, the last-minute shopping is so intense, so desperate.

About a hundred people came and watched the performance of "The Green Man," drum rolls, figure of death, dragon and all. It's a contemporary mummer's play, and the little kids looked a bit daunted by the giant puppets silhouetted against the huge flames of the fire. We baked bread in the oven and cut it as it came out. The slices were steaming in the cold. After the play was over, everyone was eating hot bread and talking at once. Even the little kids were smiling, now that the play was done and the dragon was clowning around with them. Across the street there were long lines of car lights, streaks of yellow lights and red, cars bumper to bumper, entering the mall parkign lot, illuminating the solstice over there. They have immensely greater candle-power than a solstice bonfire, but maybe less warmth all the same. At least, when I looked over, it made me shiver.


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