From bustles to bustles, Murph has been selling papers and answering silly questions at the busiest corner in Toronto
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
MURPH is a little man with a schoolgirl complexion, a bottle-brush mustache and silky white hair that sometimes flops over
his forehead in a Napoleonic bang. His full name is James Joseph Murphy and he gives his age as 73, but according to his sister, who says he’s not above shooting a line, he is around 71. He’s been selling papers outside the Canadian National Railways building on the northwest corner of King and Yonge, Toronto’s busiest intersection, for 58 years.
While he has shuffled back and forth to his change box, which sits on a backless, weather-polished kitchen chair, his corner has been torn down building by building, and built over again. From the curb he’s seen the transformation from bustles, dray wagons and horse cars, to neon lights, streamlined automobiles and towering buildings; and finally back to bustles again.
Murph has become a landmark to hundreds of thousands of Torontonians, an old acquaintance of many executives in the offices nearby. For years Joe Atkinson, publisher of the Toronto Star, has been solemnly raising his hat to Murph as he glides by in his chauffeur-driven car and Murph has, just as solemnly, been raising his fur hat to Mr. Atkinson. He’s on the corner most days from early morning till seven o’clock at night uttering strange remarks like, “Love that woman!” doing little jigs apropos of nothing and making predictions about the weather in oddly professional phraseology. “Light snow or rain this afternoon,” he’ll announce.
Or, “Wind freshening from the southwest; turning colder.”
In his normal, sober state Murph has a shell of reserve that’s as hard to crack as a cashew. He jealously guards his independence and, although the living he picks out penny by penny is a threadbare one, he asks help from no one. He lives with a bunch of old pensioners in a downtown rooming house, but his real home is the intersection of King and Yonge. The cop on the corner, the spatter of rain on the sidewalk, blinking taxi lights and the smell of mist from the bay are to him what the next-door neighbor, the sound of a lawn mower, the smell of honeysuckle and a tricycle in the driveway are to most men.
The caretakers in the CNR building let him use an old storage room next to the boilers as his private office and there, surrounded by files labeled
“traffic and correspondence,” he sorts his papers, snoozes and just sits and thinks. On cold nights he can snuggle up to one of the boilers and stay practically fried. When he feels like having a bath, he gets hold of a couple of caretakers’ buckets and a bottle of disinfectant and gives himself a going over, emerging onto Yonge Street rosy-cheeked and aseptic.
In wintertime, he frequently wears a hat which he claims is made of prairie-dog fur. It was given to him, he says, by a railwayman who got it from some Indians at Depot Harbor, Parry Sound. It looks like a high, shiny-black tea cozy with a stubby peak and it gives him a rather stately appearance. The beauty of it, he explains, is that the wind slips around it, unable to loosen its moorings. “It has to be lifted oil,” he says. His other clothes were passed down to him by a nephew who was in the RCAF. Murph at one time had a reputation among the newsboys of being a flashy dresser and
even now there is a worn and shiny neatness about him. He has small hands with slender fingers that are always slate-colored from t he ink of his papers. The little finger of his left hand is badly twisted from an accident he had during the war. One night, as two beer-laden NCO’s passed his stand, he clicked his heels and brought his hand up to his prairie-dog hat in a brisk salute. The NCO’s batted him off the sidewalk and left him lying on King Street, with a broken hand which didn’t set properly.
His stories almost never have a point. He’ll tell of a newsboys’ picnic at Centre Island, spend considerable time getting things straightened up about a lagoon, tell about a big storm coming up while they were crossing the bay on the way home and say, “they gave us all life belts.” You sit there in a state of suspense watching his lip twitch in and out and waiting for the big climax. It is several
waiting seconds before it
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becomes apparent that he isn’t reliving a terrible storm on the water but is watching the counterman at Bowles Lunch nearby. Asked if the boat sank, he’ll shout in disgust, “No!” The point of the story, it turns out, is that they were all given lifebelts, which strikes Murph as very amusing.
He has only a few teeth left and has a habit of accenting unimportant words, so that, though his brain is clear and logical, his conversation is often hard to follow. Getting the drift of what he’s talking about is largely a matter of slugging it out with him word by word. It annoys him to be asked to repeat anything and he shouts the words you got in the first place instead of the ones you missed.
Other times, he will sit stone-still, his pale-blue eyes focused at a point about six inches from your ear and his face oddly immobile except for his lower lip which he sucks in with peculiar, rabbitlike regularity. When the conversation touches on something he doesn’t like, he says, “I don’t know anything about that. I didn’t go very far in school,” and withdraws into his shell. It gives one an uncomfortable feeling of being brushed off.
The Family Enigma
Murph thinks he was born in Rochester, N.Y., but has lived in Toronto as long as he can remember. He was brought up on Niagara Street, near King, in a part of Toronto that is now mainly industrial. He went as far as high fourth in St. Mary’s School, then quit to sell papers. He started at the corner of King and Bathurst Streets, the western terminal of the King Street horse-car line and used to pick up extra nickels and dimes by holding the horses for the drivers while they were changing teams.
He early showed signs of a strange, secretive nature. He kept his sisters in a constant tizzy trying to guess where he went and what he did. Where he went most of the time was to a barn where he used to play poker with the boys from Johnny Beers’ hotel at the corner of Niagara and Wellington.
To his family, Murph remains an enigmatic and fascinating figure. They are a bit awed by him and, although they chuckle about him, they never quite succeed in laughing him off. Murph deliberately keeps them in the dark about his personal affairs. They have all wondered, for instance, where he got the prairie-dog hat and Murph has consistently refused to relieve their curiosity. They also speculate on his financial status and sometimes decide that he is secretly well off, which Murph neither denies nor confirms, hut which is highly unlikely.
His sister Catharine, a pleasant, elderly widow who lives in North Toronto, has been trying to take care of him for years, but his sudden and unaccountable arrivals and departures defy any organized approach to the problem. Murph won’t tell her where he lives and she worries about how he gets along and how anyone would get in touch with her if anything happened to him.
“He’d never open his mouth,” she will say. “Not him. Not Jim Murphy. If he was getting killed, you’d never hear from that one!”
Perversely, Murph has given one of the cops on the beat his sister’s address without telling her about it.
Murph doesn’t swear. When he’s agitated, he says, “bloomin’ ” and “f’r goodness sakes!” He carries tinder-dry chunks of cigars around in
mí vest pocket and occasionally stuffs a pinch of tobacco dust beneath his lip, but doesn’t smoke.
He had his first drink at the age of 30 when he was the winner of a big crap game on Queen’s Wharf which had been going on under the carbon lights until four in the morning. When the game broke up, Murph thought it would become him to buy the boys a round of beers. “I didn’t abuse it very well for a long time, though,” he says.
When he did start to abuse it, however, he abused it good. Many of his tales about his early life concern gay and apparently pointless jaunts to Montreal or Queenston or Buffalo, when the idea seemed to be to go right to a hotel with a bottle and stay drunk until it was time to go back to Toronto. Murph still takes the odd drink, but in a much more subdued fashion.
March 17 11 is Big Day
A good fifty per cent of the people who buy papers from him know him and ask about his back, which causes him trouble now and then; about the weather; and, if he’s been away from his stand (which is often these days), where he’s been. He’ll scamper over to his cigar box on his heels, his elbows working like a kid playing train, make change, say, “I went for a swim across the lake,” straighten up, throw back his shoulders and emit one of those effortless, slow-motion “yuh-yuh-yuh” laughs, without kidding. When he runs across Yonge Street to get change nr a paper from one of the other newsies, he takes such short steps that he seems to be traveling on tracks.
On St. Patrick’s day he usually gets all jazzed out with green shamrocks and ribbons, until he looks like a spring seed catalogue, to the great delight of the Jewish paper boys on the other corners.
At one time he sold more morning papers than anyone else in Toronto, which, along with his evening papers and magazines, averaged him around $10 a day. He was quite a sport, was known as “Red” Murphy, which he is still called by many old-timers in spite of his snow-white hair. Today he probably doesn’t average over $15 a week. The corner of King and Yonge isn’t what it used to be from a newsboy’s point of view. There is little “transfer” trade there now, with streets like Bloor and College absorbing much of the traffic, and the northwest corner of King and Yonge gets all the dirty east and southeast weather and the passers-by prefer to buy from the boys at the other corners, where they can search for their nickels and hold their hands out for change in the lee of the Royal Bank, the CPR or the Dominion Bank building.
In the winter, particularly, King and Yonge gets some of the cruelest weathef on the continent. Murph says he’s seen the wind so fierce that it blew a man’s glasses off and while he was searching for them, froze his ears solid.
Murph inherited the title of Toronto’s oldest newsboy from Davie O’Brien, who is now over 80 and an invalid in St. Joseph’s Hospital. There are about 40 newsstands in Toronto. The proprietorship is worked out by the circulation departments of the various newspapers, and the newsboys’ association, formally known as the Toronto Newsboys’ Welfare Fund, which uses the proceeds of boxing shows to help out newsboys’ families and old-timers like Murph. There’s as much chance of anyone starting up his own stand without going through the regular channels as someone setting up his own police force. On the average, the operator’s income is »ot very high. Three or four newsies make $40
a week or over, the rest range down from there. Many of them eventually get into another business for themselves, and one or two have ended up wealthy.
Murph’s proprietorship of his corner wasn’t always as firmly established as it is now. In the old days you slung a bag over your shoulder and hustled papers wherever you saw a potential sale. The first day Murph tried to sell at King and Yonge, he got shouldered around a bit and told to ankle off by the boys who were already there. When he didn’t leave, they kicked him a few times in the stomach as a persuader. Because of his size, Murph was never much of an active fighter, but he was a tremendous passive one. He simply took the kicks and continued to go after business. His persistence paid off. He sold out the first day, while the other boys were left with papers. Gradually he was left alone, and in about 1905, when the newspaper offices took the situation over and said who was to have which corner, he got permission from the CNR and from the City Hall and staked the corner out for himself.
Murph gets up at five o’clock and makes himself breakfast of coffee, two poached eggs, and “fruit in season.” He leaves the rooming house at six thirty and at six forty-five he gets to his corner, where the morning papers are waiting for him. He peddles his papers until ten fifteen, then he’s off until eleven thirty. He spends this time reading down in the boiler room, or maybe having a cup of coffee and a snooze in Bowles. Around eleven thirty-five he starts in to work again, this time with the home edition of the evening papers. He sells these until about one forty-five, then picks up his two o’clock home and sporting editions and delivers them to a few customers in the Yonge Street Arcade and on Melinda Street. At half past three he goes and gets his market editions. He can get his “first nights” at four-thirty. From then until about seven o’clock he is on the job with these and with the “second night” editions which are delivered to him. He pays $3.50 a hundred for his morning papers and sells them for $5; $2.10 for his evening papers and sells them for $3.
A Newsboy’s Thoughts
Murph claims that he’s a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and still pays his dues but never attends any meetings. He’s a Roman Catholic and goes each Sunday to early and late Mass, which he calls the ten-cent and the twenty-five-cent Mass. “Thirtyfive cents a week won’t hurt me,” he says. In summer, when he tires of reading, he goes for streetcar rides. He doesn’t like movies and rarely goes to them; when he does, he always falls asleep. He likes stage plays but hasn’t seen any since the Princess Theatre was torn down in the early 30’s. He still talks of plays he saw there: Hanlon’s Superba; Floradora; the Wizard of Oz; Dan Daley and Edna May in The Belle of New York; Sir Henry Irving in The Bells; E. A. So them in Hamlet; Robert B. Manteli in A Fool There Was; and dohnston Forbes Robertson in The Light That Failed.
He was at one time a first-rate ball player. ,He played second-base for St. Mary’s, a local amateur team, and in the opinion of many of his contemporaries, could have gone a long way as a professional. He was, and still is, a good cook. For one brief period, years ago, he was second cook in a nearby hotel, operating his newsstand from five until nine in the morning, and from three in the afternoon until seven, and working at the
hotel in between while a helper watched his stand. The hotel proprietor wanted to make the job permanent, but Murph preferred the independence and comparative freedom of selling papers, and was soon back at his corner stand. Today, Murph is all alone on the corner, and when he leaves the stand stays closed, covered by a tarpaulin.
Murph never went in much for women, and once said if he had a choice of a woman or a bottle of whisky, he’d take the whisky. He used to play the piano by ear, larruping off tunes from Floradora, The Golden Twins, The Wizard of Oz. His only other accomplishment, outside of keeping at normal body temperature at the corner of King and Yonge, is playing a tune with a fork on a tin plate.
He reads the editorial page in the EveningTelegram, the second and third pages of the Daily Star, the sports page of the Globe and Mail and Beverley Baxter’s London Letter in Maclean’s. He can fall asleep anywhere, any time, in any position, and infuriates his sister, who in spite of a virtuous and industrious life suffers from insomnia, by doing so every time he visits her.
Murph has little of the philosopher in his make-up. The world of ideas and opinions is as foreign to his newsboy temperament as the world of suburban respectability. His world is made up of events, incidents, people and places. He’ll talk for hours on the names of the buildings that were on Yonge Street at the turn of the century, horse car routes, hold-ups and parades, but when it comes to opinions on less tangible things, he shakes his head, becomes remote and says, “I didn’t go far enough in school.”
A few observations, however, have been forced upon him by the sheer weight of seventy-three years. He thinks people were more courteous in the old days, more inclined to say, “Thank you” and “Please,” and exchange little courtesies than today’s businessman, who grabs a paper on the run and gallops off with his ulcers. Things were cheaper, you could get gin for two-bits, see a movie for a nickel. He feels that life was simpler, and the world a better place to live. He thinks we were better off when we had horses and buggies. “You can stop a horse,” he says, “but you can’t stop a train.” On the whole, he has decided, people are a pretty good bunch.
He thinks that Canada will one day belong to the United States and that there will be no more war for 50 years. After that, he says, someone else can worry about it.
With thousands of people passing Murph’s corner, he answers enquiries all day long. Most of them are for directions to buildings or requests for information about bus and streetcar routes. But Murph has answered, or tried to answer, practically every question on earth. He’s been asked where’s the best place to have a baby, who to vote for in the municipal, provincial and Dominion elections, the addresses of bootleggers and loose ladies, directions to Simpson’s fancy goods department and the shortest route to Vancouver. On city directions, Murph is an expert and seldom fails to have the information; on the others he usually makes a good try. Occasionally the questions get a bit personal. One day a nosy little old lady peered at his prairie-dog hat sharply and asked, “What’s that hat made of?”
Murph squirted tobacco juice on the sidewalk, smeared it with his foot, rubbed his hand over his face and said, “It’s made out of human SKIN, lady.”
The lady backed oflf and soon disappeared up Yonge Street, leaving Murph to himself, which is the way he likes to be. ★