By Mike Sauve
In the Shade of the Allan Gardens Greenhouse
In the late 19th century George Street “caught the refined tone”* of Toronto’s noblest family mansions on neighboring Jarvis Street. Today it rots and rages with the bitter pulse of strong beer and crack cocaine. Inside Seton House, called Satan House by those in the know, live 600 homeless men. It’s an alternate universe created by the synthetic horror of cheap crack and all the foul additives irresponsibly mixed in. It’s the most dangerous street in Toronto according to police.
So many are high the air is charged with bizarre energy, almost always negative, excluding those heart-wrenching seconds after a crack-blast when euphoric peace blooms for a few seconds before vanishing like it was never there.
Satan House also has a wet rehab. 150 of the most regularly hospitalized men (12-16 times a month on average) get one drink an hour for eight hours. They sit around swilling it and begging for sips. The only councilors who’ll work there are frightened new immigrants. An old Mexican janitor shaves lousy heads once a week. All 600 men receive $27 a week to provide for their basic needs on Thursday morning. Then the crack dealers swarm.
The rest of the time the crack dealers sit in broken homes on their couches, boasting about guns, accidentally shooting one another (Robyn Doolittle, Toronto Star, Aug 14), eating fast food. The enterprising crackheads cook and treat batches of Orajel, a mouth-freezing agent made to look like crack and sell it to newcomers who say, “People just don’t try to fuck you like this in Nova Scotia.” Same newcomers maybe try to get a telemarketing job, get some bad directions and end up going the wrong way on a streetcar for an hour, paying another fare all to end up late for the group interview like they’ve always been. Swearing and drunk later they wander into the inferno that drew them here in the first place.
The newly initiated get the Orajel, a hazy brain and some unpleasant confusion, maybe some brain damage. No one considers it much. If you want it bad enough you risk robbery or a punch in the face. The people who regularly buy crack have nothing to lose and know what they’re doing. On rare occasions you can deal honestly with these people.
I came out of Fillmore’s strip club having drank more than two people should in a week and having only eaten a handful of Family’s Best chips—the most dehydrating chip on the market. I commission a crackhead hoping to get $5 worth of crack out of my $10 bill. We negotiate. “I know what a ten piece looks like,” I caw, a drunken menace in my own right. I would not have remembered what he looked like were it not for his garish gold jersey, which had a brighter shade of gold lettering Washington Wizards. He gives me more. I stumble home, salivating and it’s Orajel. I smoke every piece to make sure, and then collapse while my dog barks in fear.
The next day is a big community event in Allan Gardens. Across Gerrard Street from the crack horrors of George Street and Satan House are Sri Lankan dancers, moon-bounces and bums lining up for free samosas and water, inevitable crazies possessed and screaming, families mostly, the usual Sunday morning beer-drinkers having found somewhere else to go you must suppose…politicians and their supporters handing out buttons, awareness-raisers.
Allan Gardens is one city block located between Jarvis and Sherbourne at Carlton Street with elegant foliage and a New York film dream quality that wows tourists who never heard of it, but have seen it in plenty of romantic comedies where it poses as Central Park and Boston Common somehow. There are 5 churches on its four corners. Wild-eyed Baptists preach in the park on Sunday evenings (Mike Sauve, National Post, Sept 29, 2007), Jamaicans play dominoes in the shade, pretty girls suntan and have picnics, banjo-picking hipsters smoke marijuana. Entire societies of dog walkers gossip and giggle. There are also entire societies built on buying crack, turpentine huffers, kind black women who feed the bums macaroni and hand out bottles of water. Bums who say, “God bless you,” to these ladies. Bums who try to steal bikes from weaker people. Bums who mostly yell and fight with each other if they’ve even got the strength to stand up and bother anybody.
The saddest bums will need to be picked up off the ground by somebody, God knows who. If you call their Seton House landlord they aren’t particularly interested in corralling a wayward tenant. The sun is here and it’s taking something away from them. They are replacing it with 8% beer.
I choose a specific park bench in shade of the greenhouse and play an MP3 of a police officer saying, “You are under arrest” on my tape recorder. I also hand my camera to an accommodating Chinese student and ask if he’ll take my picture sitting on the bench. In the foreground I hold a toy police badge from the Dollar Store.
There are a lot of cops in the park. I ask this one cop, “I know this amateur just came from Sudbury who got his hands on way too much crack against all odds, he’s selling to pregnant teens, exhaling big clouds of crack smoke outside the Eaton Centre. It’s getting ugly. If I arrange to buy off him an ounce will you be around for the bust? This guy trusts me, thinks I’m some kind of well-heeled remittance man. I’ve seen him in Allan Gardens a bunch of times so he’d think it was normal to meet me here after the community party’s done.” They ask me a lot of hard questions, wonder why I’d want to set someone up, tell me about the risks. But I wasn’t a crackhead nor dressed in a careless fashion, so the law bought my concerned citizen routine and accepted my card. Five minutes later I get a call and the whole thing is arranged with some undercover guys working the park.
Normally if you’re going down George Street looking for drugs the best bet is to look like absolute shit. The more you fit in the less of a mark you appear to be. I was happy to look like a mark on this occasion. I found the dead-eyed slunk who’d sold me the Orajel, still styling his gold jersey, still right outside the strip club. It struck me as an intelligent place to push Orajel.
“Hey there’s my man.” I said conspicuously.
His eyes shifted. “Yo you need something?”
Did he recognize me? Was this savvy, idiocy? It didn’t matter. “Ya man you hooked me up with that ten piece last night. I didn’t smoke it but I sold it to some of my boys at twice the price and they loved it. Want me to pick up a half-O if you can give me a good price.”
Nobody buys half ounces or even grams of crack on George Street. I deliberately gave the impression of being a foolhardy resident of nearby Ryerson University.
“How much you think that will be?” I asked.
“Man you lucky because I know this guy he’s got the top shit goin’, give it to you $1000. You be getting all your friends high, make $10,000 of that easy money. You lucky you know you came to the right guy come on.”
They always want to lead you somewhere. Back to the crackhouse for a hard knock on the forehead or some insulting splinters of crack followed by angry yelling once they had your money.
“Nah, deal this big you meet me in Allan Gardens in 3 hours.”
“I can’t get that kind of shit on credit,” he said instinctively…the truth was he probably couldn’t scrape up the money for even enough Orajel to make a believable looking batch.
“Well you’re going to have to.” I was confident if he let anyone in on the $1000 miracle score he had coming he could generate enough cash to buy a few tubes of Orajel. Then he could cook it on a crack house stove used exclusively for crack and Orajel preparations. No Sunday night mashed potatoes for these households.
“Meet me in Allan Gardens, the benches in the shade under the greenhouse.”
“Man that place is full of undies.”
“We can do it slick enough, you pass it to me, I get a quick look then I pass you the money. I want to do it there so there can’t be a big robbery scene. A person can’t be too careful.” He agreed with a sneer and a nod and I returned home past the congregated crackheads flailing their undying hatreds in the 3pm downtown humidity.
I stopped at the bench and played the recording one more time for good measure then went home and watched a 3-hour documentary on Tom Petty.
When we met in the park he was obviously nervous. I’d smoked a couple of joints and felt like Tom Petty. He knew there were cops around and didn’t want to be seen with an ounce of Orajel that looked like crack cocaine. I had given the police the exact time and bench so I figured the undies were in place. An old man wearing workboots seemed particularly observant.
The golden wizard instructs me to stuff the bag immediately under my shirt. But I prolong his furtive pass by holding it between us, his hand still in contact as a Korean dog walker snaps a picture while the man in the workboots shows his badge. “You’re under arrest.”
There was something otherworldly about the old work-booted man: his white hair, his face that resembled legendary hockey coach Pat Quinn. The crackhead looked at me and knew I was up to some spooky shit. He did not cry out: It’s not real…perhaps used to being busted, or else he perversely didn’t want to give up face in front of his mark, or else it had even been changed to crack in his mind by then.
He could be back on the street the next day, and I’d have to watch out for him. People sometimes need to be forgiven. But he messed with the wrong guy when he sold me that brain-freezing garbage. Brain damage can’t be undone. It’s dangerous casting a hex on someone, they can come right back at ya and twice as hard. But shit has to be taken care of sometimes.
* Toronto Past and Present (1882) Charles Pelham Mulvany
In the Shade of the Allan Gardens Greenhouse
Copyright © 2009 by Mike Sauve, All Rights Reserved