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Move to Orillia a breath of fresh air

Kate Grigg, Special to the Packet & Times

KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES
The author’s former Toronto home, looking peaceful, despite occasional eruptions of crime in the neighbourhood.

KATE GRIGG/SPECIAL TO THE PACKET & TIMES The author’s former Toronto home, looking peaceful, despite occasional eruptions of crime in the neighbourhood.

I'm here.

I can't tell you how it feels because this story was written in Toronto, days before we moved back to Orillia.

I never did put down roots in the city. Maybe if I'd lived in a more interesting neighbourhood, the kind with sidewalk cafes, and awning-ed shops banked with fresh cut flowers, and old Victorian houses fronted by charming courtyard gardens. Instead of living in a dull neighbourhood where, for a long time, Tim Hortons and The Home Depot were the only amenities, things you could run across in practically any community.

Sometimes it felt like the only way I could tell I was living in the city was the murders.

It must have been strange for the people who bought homes on our street in late '40s and the 1950s -- men who survived the war, brides they brought from overseas, people who settled down in this peaceful spot to raise their children -- it must have been strange to see the neighbourhood change in ways they'd never imagined. (Beginning as a quiet family neighbourhood in 1948, the area was later troubled by crime, and is now on the upswing as the original brick bungalows are torn down and replaced by homes selling for $1 to $2-million.)

During the last 17 years I drove home two or three times to find the street blocked off mid-afternoon while a search was conducted for a gunman who had just committed murder. Once there was a body lying at the end of the street (the far end, near Eglinton). And once a police helicopter flew slowly over, so low it felt like I could reach out and touch it, scouring the backyards for a killer on the run.

One day, pre-dawn, my 90-something-year-old neighbour was abruptly woken by the police crashing through her yard in pursuit of a suspect. A woman was shot and killed by a stray bullet outside her home. Every now and then someone got stabbed. My husband, heading home after a late night gig, saw the police crouched on the side of Eglinton Avenue, rifles at the ready. An old man was mugged while walking his dog. A woman coming home from work at five in the afternoon was accosted by car thieves concealed in the shrubbery. A passerby found her beaten and moaning in the driveway.

At the Italian eatery down the hill one of the owners was shot in the parking lot. But that was the mafia, so no one worried too much. The mafia only hit their target. I walked past the bloodstains the next time I went in. The victim's widow must have walked past too, because when the store reopened she was back behind the till.

You'll think it's a jungle, Toronto. I'm just telling you how I knew I wasn't in Orillia.

There were other ways besides the violence. Being stuck in endless traffic jams, jostling on the subway or an overcrowded bus with riders who looked like they'd long since given up even pretending to be alive.

Bumping into the occasional well-known person, and not just when the film festival was on, an occasion when some of the trendier Torontonians grow even more affected and silly. (Toronto is still self-consciously trying to keep pace with older siblings such as New York.)

June Callwood once gave me a wistful smile when we crossed paths on Avenue Road. I remembered seeing a television interview in which she said she didn't mind being told she had terminal cancer. Since she'd lost her son, her youngest child, she didn't care too much about life anymore. She was glad, she said, that it would soon be over. You don't forget a smile from a woman like that.

And when Adrienne Clarkson met my gaze just outside St. George station I felt a certain sympathy. I'd heard she doesn't like her feet either -- but look how far they've taken her.

And in the heart of town you can gaze at a castle or the timeless beauty of the university, wander past the ancient trees at Queen's Park. You can see the best of everything in the store windows, the loveliest dresses, the most glamorous accessories. The doorman at Holt Renfrew will smile and bid you good afternoon.

You can be mesmerized by paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, go to Koerner Hall to hear Andras Schiff, stroll over to the Duke of York for sticky toffee pudding and a cup of tea. You can hear good or bad music any day of the week, take in a movie, a Broadway play.

But what does even that amount to? Entertainment is just a way of making people leading 9-to-5 existences feel they're alive. The desperate characters running around Toronto neighbourhoods don't need to go to the opera or take in an action movie -- they're already living flat out.

And what was Toronto compared to Orillia?

It wasn't real, not to me. I couldn't feel the tension between civilization and the wilderness that makes me want to paint. The snow looked different, a nuisance to be rid of rather than an essential component of Canadian life. The lake was too big to be charming.

I didn't feel alive in the city, at least not the part I lived in. I grew fond of the neighbours (just as friendly and caring as those in smaller communities). I made a garden. I got a dog, and then another, so I'd have something real beneath my hands, something containing a streak of wildness.

But it still felt like a half life.

I'm going to take the summer off from writing. Now that I'm no longer cooped up in the city I want to taste a bit of freedom, I want to feel the way I used to.

It will be September when I take up my pen again.

Kate Grigg is an artist and writer who grew up in Orillia and tells stories of local people in her weekly column. If you have a story you think she might be interested in, email kategrigg@gmail.com.



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