I have always been surrounded by storytellers. Some of them aren’t aware of their gift and others pass it off as ‘just telling stories’ and never pursue the art beyond their incredibly fortunate immediate circle of friends and family.
Sometimes they are our elders- those with experience of the world and their immediate environments, having lived through times we now consider history and who tell tales of those times to those of us privileged enough to listen Other times they are younger folk- with imaginations that are rich with images and symbols that are both universal and unique.
I have previously written about some who have influenced and entertained me through their stories in song and myth-making writers whose stories entertain, enlighten and inspire my own creativity.
I will continue to write about those bards among us- the ones who are able to make a living from the stories they tell- and who live to tell their stories- but the unheralded storytellers in my life deserve to have a little of their own Interworld ink.
Since it’s the first day back to the grind after the long weekend we call the Civic Holiday (or Simcoe Day, here in TO) it makes perfect sense to start with a man who, to me, WAS Canada. And, more specifically, Toronto.
But it’s not going to be easy. I feel like any description I can offer can’t help but fall incredibly short of the mark.
He should have had his own tv show. THAT would have been ‘reality tv’ worth watching.
Gordon Lightfoot should’ve written songs about him.
Alwin was born, in Toronto, on April 17, 1904. He grew up on Clinton Street, near Christie Pits, and although his stories about the City were numerous and colourful, I don’t remember him ever mentioning the shameful riot that took place there in August, 1933. Likely because he was always one to highlight the great things about the City- especially its international character- and downplay its murkier past.
Al was more industriously employed at the time anyway. That same year, Charles Trick Currelly, the first Director of the Royal Ontario Museum of Archaeology was just about to open the magnificent addition to the Museum.
It was built at the height of the Great Depression and, in order to support the local economy, every effort was made to use local materials and artisans.
The Rotunda was the focus of the Museum’s new ceremonial entrance hall and featured an incredible architectural wonder. The ceiling was made from sheets of Venetian glass, cut into over a million tesserae- with gold leaf layered between the thin sheets of glass.
Currelly wanted the ceiling to reflect the diversity of the Museum’s collection and its patterns and symbols represent cultures throughout the ages and across the globe. Its central panel features a passage from Job: ‘That all men may know his work.’ (37.7)
Every time I walk into the Museum I pause in the Rotunda to look up and say hello to Alwin. He was one of the installers who worked for eight months to create the art deco Byzantine-inspired mosaic.
That all would know his work, when we visited the Museum together- or even if the ROM was mentioned in passing- he would look skyward and say:
“Have I ever told you about how I lay those tiles up there on that Rotunda ceiling?
He knew he had. Told me. And everyone else who would listen. The question was nothing more than a storyteller’s rhetorical device designed to make the listener draw him out. And his listeners inevitably did so. He instinctively knew how to engage his audience- the mark of a born storyteller.
Al only went as far as Grade Six in his formal schooling, but he valued education and respected it in others. I have a medal he earned for ‘4 Years Good Conduct, Punctuality, Regularity and Diligence’ from back in a day when such things were valued and emphasized in our schools.
While he contributed to the enduring placement of beauty on the ceiling of one of my favourite places in the City, he also worked deep underneath it- in the tunnels and sewers beneath the streets.
It was from Al that I first learned of the Lost Rivers that still remain under the infrastructure that keeps Toronto moving. He talked about Lake Iroquois and the Castle perched on the top of the escarpment where the ghost Great Lake used to meet the land.
He told me why the tracks of some of the subway stations are always wet, and suggested that I count the number of bridges I cross while traveling around the City. He was as interested in the geological history of the City as he was its historical, cultural and political roots.
Al spent some time as a deck hand on a Great Lakes bulk carrier, moving grain from Fort William (now Thunder Bay) to the ports of the St. Lawrence River for export. On one trip, a terrible storm hit Lake Superior, and in his succinct, understated yet somehow dramatic manner, he told us how he was washed overboard with one wave and back on board with the passage of another. The ever-present twinkle in his eye meant that we never could completely tell when he was embellishing his tales with something a little more than the absolute truth of the occurrence.
He was left-handed, and bore the brunt of superstitions associated with being a south-paw, being smacked at school with rulers and belts if he wrote with his dominant hand. As a result, he was ambidextrous, a fact that proved useful when his left arm was crushed in the doors of a garbage truck at yet another City job.
He regained use of the arm through physiotherapy that included hooking rugs- some of which adorn my floors today. He would tell the story of the accident and recovery, insisting that his doctors removed a bone from his leg to replace the smashed one in his arm. Then he’d ‘wink’ the scar on the inside of his wrist to let us know he was kidding. Or was he?
Although he traveled the world with his wonderful wife once he retired from his life-long employment with the City, he always emphasized the importance of getting to know your hometown. He loved this City- its good areas and bad- and embraced its multicultural make-up long before it was politically correct to do so.
I often dream of houses and other buildings that I can’t place upon waking. When I returned to Toronto after a period of exile and began to rediscover my town, I’d pass these buildings and the memories of walks with Alwin would return and explain why they were important enough to find their way into my sleeping psyche. The old buildings, parks and cemeteries are irrevocably liked with my memories of him.
He wore Hawaiian shirts and smoked the cheap cigars that his grandchildren bought him for every birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day. He tickled those grandchildren mercilessly and played any game they wanted to play. He kept a candy cupboard beside his La-Z-Boy chair and would tell tall tales and short rhymes when a little bit of quiet was called for.
One bright day in the middle of night two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other, drew their swords and shot each other.
He watched Hee Haw every Sunday night and loved the little vignettes and plaintive ditties-of-despair that told stories of characters too colourful to be real.
‘Where oh where are you tonight? Why did you leave me here all alone? I searched the world over and thought I found true love. You met another and PFFT! you was gone.’
‘Gloom, despair and agony on me. Deep dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair and agony on me.’
Charlie Farquharson’s small town Canadian satire and distinctive laugh resonated with Alwin’s sense of humour. Surprisingly, much of the content was Canadian (owing to the show’s two Canadian writer/creators) and its exaggeration of hillbilly life, music and comedy made Al laugh and served- consciously or not- as the model for his own tales and commentaries.
In late November, 1984, after I visited him for what turned out to be the last time, I went into the coffee shop at St. Margaret’s hospital and heard this song playing on the radio:
An appropriate last song to associate with an incredible man- uncomplicated yet sweet in its desire to participate in life and witness the flowering of potential. The words Nick sang suited the melancholic mood and the conversation I’d just finished having with a man who loomed large and important in my life.
And who would be deeply missed and lovingly remembered.
For his sense of fun, his taste in clothing, his generous and wise guidance, and for the inheritance left to us- of the love of his hometown, the stories he told and the lessons that were contained within them.
Storytellers are teachers, and I’ve had some great ones…