GRASSI PLACE

It’s all about the neighborhood where Bob was born. Oh, it’s a sizzler—full of four-lettered words like “darn!”

Robert Thomas June 7 1958

GRASSI PLACE

It’s all about the neighborhood where Bob was born. Oh, it’s a sizzler—full of four-lettered words like “darn!”

Robert Thomas June 7 1958

GRASSI PLACE

It’s all about the neighborhood where Bob was born. Oh, it’s a sizzler—full of four-lettered words like “darn!”

Robert Thomas

One thing I’d love to do is to write a book that would make as much money as Peyton Place. I've even started one about the Toronto neighborhood where I was born. I’ve called it Grassi Place, after the name of a softball park two streetcar lines north of where I lived.

answer

PEYTON

PLACE

It’s all about the neighborhood where Bob was born. Oh, it’s a sizzler

full of four-lettered words like “darn!”

One thing I’d love to do is to write a book that would make as much money as Peyton Place. I've even started one about the Toronto neighborhood where I was born. I’ve called it Grassi Place, after the name of a softball park two streetcar lines north of where I lived. I’ve set the mood of violent passions and undercurrents with an introduction that starts: “February had come to Grassi Place like a wanton woman.”

But either 1 lived on the wrong street or I wasn’t as observant as Grace Metalious, because 1 can’t remember anything happening worthy of my description of February. I remember a young man whom 1 used to see occasionally from my back bedroom window shadow-boxing in the moonlight all the way up our lane, and a CNR section man who used to coast home on a mauve cloud on Saturday afternoon, smiling amiably at all the women, who cut him dead. But for the most part people were pretty busy going to work at such places as Eaton’s and Colgate-Palmolive, and falling asleep after supper.

Whenever I think of mid - February, though, 1 do remember a Mr. Graham who ran a men’s-furnishings store where I worked as delivery boy. He was a gentle, fatherly, dapper little man with hair parted into two iron-grey wings, and when February arrived like a wanton woman, sulking halfway between Christmas and spring, Mr. Graham would sit on the parcel desk at the back of the store watching the front door for customers so long that his eyes would go a bit out of focus and you would have thought he was dead except for the faint swinging of his feet.

It was during the mid-February slack

season that Mr. Graham was most likely to yield to the only weakness he had that I know of—a way he had of making up customers’ minds. A woman would wander into the deserted store, pick out a tie for someone’s birthday, stand there doubtfully and ask Mr. Graham how much it was. Mr. Graham would take the tie out of her hand, throw back his head and look at it underneath his glasses, make his mouth into a studious little buttonhole, then say slowly, “Oh-h-h-h-h . . . suddenly close his fist over the tie and say, “Give me a dollar.”

Bike in the night

He’d do this in a way that implied that he was a reasonable man and that he'd just go so far trying to make money. He'd take the tie back to the parcel desk, put it in a bag fast, as if to say let's get this wrapped up before some practical-minded busybody comes in here and tells us friendship isn't everything. He'd never mention that the tie was ticketed a dollar and worth seventy-five cents. He'd go back to sitting on his desk, like a neat little angel sitting on a greenlinoleum cloud.

Although the store was a small one, Mr. Graham had a manager, a brisk businesslike man with a ruddy peeling face. His name was Mr. Kirk. Whenever he saw me doing nothing he would start me whisking hats. This wasn’t often, as Mr. Kirk used to send me off on trips on my bike that took the bigger part of an afternoon or evening, and which I’d finish draped over the handle bars as if I’d been shot in the back, watching my feet and my front tire and sometimes shoving my knees down with my hands and just

looking up every block or two hoping to surprise myself at the distance I’d covered since I last looked up.

Mr. Kirk was honest and straight-laced, except for one thing, a secret passion to gyp the Toronto Transportation Commission, with which he had a peculiar feud as long as 1 knew him. He never believed in paying two streetcar tickets if you were coming back again within an hour or two. Whenever a delivery had to be made to some place so distant that even Mr. Kirk didn’t think I could make it on my bike, he would get busy working out a route by streetcar that would take me around the city in a circle, with a transfer point within a block of the place I was to make the delivery. Mr. Kirk figured that if I ran the minute I got off the streetcar I could be back at the car stop in time to catch the next car with my transfer. He'd turn red with pleasure when he looked up from his chart, knowing he'd beat the TTC out of another nickel. He’d hand me one car ticket. He never gave me an extra one to use if the plan didn’t work.

The conductor would sit there behind his gas-pipe fence, studying my well-perforated transfer for miles, trying to figure out where I'd been. Occasionally he’d peer down to where I sat looking innocently out the window, then he’d go back to studying the transfer.

One time he came down to me and said, “You know, you missed one point. If you'd come up Coxwell, you could have taken a tour of the car barns too.”

I’ve no doubt that these weren't the only sins that were taking place around Grassi Place. continued on page 45

Grassi Place continued from page 25

i

“The real test of worldliness was to get out a cussword without removing your cigarette”

After all, I couldn’t see into all the houses, but if people were leading secret lives behind closed doors, they must have had to work fast, because the door-to-door peddlers on Grassi Place wouldn't have given anyone time for a full-blown life of sin between peals of the bells. Grassi Place was a regular Indian trail for peddlers. You don’t see them like that any more. They’re all on TV now, I imagine. But in those days they were hard-working men with cold noses and no nonsense about them and they conned the housewives from morning till night, selling encyclopedias, soap, brushes, medicine, Snap and strawberries. They’d give the bell a twist that would make you leave your seat.

My mother couldn’t resist them. She was a tiny woman who got a lot more fun out of life in her own anxious way than most people today seem to get from their two-car garages and revolving aerials. She really listened to people, her face taking on a wide variety of sympathetic expressions. When she listened to a peddler she hung on every word, drew in her chin and looked sideways at him, went, “Tsk! Tsk!” and said, “Imagine!” at just the right time. Everybody tried to stop her buying things, including my father, but she’d come in with something like a liver regulator and say, "He spoke so highly of it.”

My father would say, “Confound it, if it was as good as all that why the Sam Hill didn’t those big outfits like Parke Davis sell it?”

This was the kind of language, by the way, I had to listen to all the time when I was a boy. Those words Grace Metalious uses were known around Grassi Place, but as far as I know they were used only in contests among the boys when we were baking potatoes over a fire up the Don Valley. We would see who could come out with them in the most offhand familiar way, preferably without removing willow-leaf cigarettes from our lips. The real test of worldliness was to come out with one of these words, making your cigarette jiggle horribly and spitting between your teeth, all at the same time.

But in family life such expressions as “Confound it!” seemed to serve all purposes. I’ve seen my father working at a broken screen door, pulling a nail out or something, drop his hammer, bark his knuckles, and fall halfway into the kitchen, explode with a “Pshaw!” and take a stroll down among his asters to pull himself together. I did have an uncle who filled a shiny blue suit as if it were blown up with a bicycle pump, who used to say, “Damn,” frequently in front of my aunts. One of them, a plump little woman in black, would say, “Davie, why don’t you just say, ‘Corks and bottles!’ ”

"Damn corks and bottles!” he’d say with a red face, eating vanilla ice cream.

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of which he was inordinately fond. As long as I knew him, my uncle was hooked on vanilla ice cream.

There were girls on Grassi Place, of course. But there again my exposé falls fiat. Not that we boys didn’t have the

same general ideas about girls as the boys in Peyton Place, but somehow they never seemed to reach the point worthy of a three - hundred - and - seventy - fivepage book. In the spring we would try to pick up girls in a restaurant or an ice-

cream parlor with what we called “a line.” The idea was to keep talking rapidly and as if it came naturally to you, saying things like, “Does your mother know you smoke?” or. "What arc you going to do when winter comes?” which we’d

keep up with a sort of blasé deadpan look. All this time the girls would be sitting there, looking at us as if we’d gone crazy. Finally one of them would say something like, “Why don’t you pull your socks up?” and we’d all sit there as if we’d been stabbed. We’d all wander around Grassi Place after that, trying to look as if we’d forgotten the whole thing, but soon after that we'd go home and start looking for things to sell.

For when the first disturbing signs of spring came to Grassi Place it not only made us think of girls, but, for some reason, started us all thinking of making money. It was a bad time for the peddlers. We’d try to sell them mattresses and Coke bottles and old suits as fast as they tried to sell us college courses and complete sets of books on Great Circle Navigation. This brisk business would reach a dangerous point when we’d start looking longingly at our fathers’ suits hanging in the clothes closets.

One dealer we all used to wait for was a chunky little man in a peak cap and horn-rimmed glasses who used to use a technique that was sort of a TV announcer’s style in reverse. He'd make the merchandise look as bad as possible. He’d take the suit we were trying to sell, accidentally drop it on the veranda, reach down and pick it up by hooking one finger through a hole in the lining and hold it in front of us like something that should be sprayed.

"Look, I'll make you a deal,” he’d say.

“What?”

“I'll buy you a cigar if you don’t sell it to me.”

The fact is, the people around Grassi Place just didn’t have time to do all the things they are always doing in today’s books by authors who dedicate their work

“To Mother” and then go into a busy day’s biological functions. Mind you I don't say these things didn't go on. But the truth is a quantitative matter, and although it’s true that I couldn't know of everything that went on, it’s equally true that 1 could keep track of time. Even if Mr. Kirk, say, spent every free moment ruining women, he simply couldn't have spent a quarter of the time at it that he did whisking hats and plotting against the TTC. Even if. by a stretch of the imagination, my father started to swear the minute he went to work and kept it up till he came home, the fact remains that for at least sixteen hours a day, he never said anything more lurid than “Pshaw!”

There was one man who just might have had a sinister secret life, a tall man with big bloodshot eyes and buck teeth, who walked past our house twice a day for ten years in a trench coat, without looking right or left. Nobody knew who he was or where he lived. "Somewhere at the top of the street,” we’d say. Occasionally when I go back to Grassi Place 1 still see him, grey now and a bit stooped. He might just conceivably be living in the depths of depravity, but he at least racks up his opium pipe in time to go to work every day, and I have a suspicion that if 1 could look into his life I'd find nothing more shocking than a habit of looking at the last page of a mystery story or sneaking spoonfuls of pure peanut butter in the middle of a diet and smoothing over the rest of the peanut butter in the jar. Which, after all. doesn’t measure up to the way February arrived at Grassi Place like a wanton woman.

In fact, about the only thing February did when she arrived at Grassi Place was catch a few colds and ankle off in time for spring, if