Lest my fellow Torontonians think I’m trying to portray a sanitized version of scuzzy Yonge St to my far-away friends, here’s a cultural landmark far more typical of the part of the downtown strip where Elm (Arts and Letters) intersects.
Coming up on it’s sixtieth anniversary in 2020, the Zanzibar once featured live music (The Guess Who played there) and then introduced topless dancers and burlesque, before finally going full strip-club in the seventies.
As a sixteen year old idiot in the early 80s, I worked at the Papaya hut (last of the soda-jerks!), right across the street from both the Zanzibar and it’s much-missed neighbour – Sam the Record man – which was a great temple for recorded music (featuring geeks with encyclopaedic knowledge in every department – classical and jazz had especially awesome collections of niche-wisdom – and so many truly great ‘sides’, everywhere you dug).
We had the best and fastest (least break-wasting) coffee – so the strippers all came in, the music geeks from Sam’s came in, and the speed-chess maniacs from just around the corner on Gould also came in quite regularly – and still populate my head as most-memorable characters to this day. They’d give you ten minutes on the chess-clock to their own two – honestly – and then kick your ass in one and take your fiver anyhow, just by sheer dint of practise – along with highly effective (sublimated) intellectual blood-lust. Exhilarating – even to lose!
Thanks to very steep discounts, the beat-cops would always stop-in too – and the hookers who hung out at Ford drugs across the street preferred our food. By the time you have a three hundred pound accountant in a cheap grey suit arguing politics with a male stripper (and proselytizer for certain techniques which I won’t go into here) a wall-of-garlic chess master, a brilliant saxophonist lost to the bottle, a smart-ass jockey and a couple of cynical working girls, you have got yourself a true Yonge St. Quorum – as of 1981, anyhow – and just wait ’till the Leafs game gets out at ‘the gardens’ just up the street.
My role? The idiot who carried all the juice, pumped rolls of quarters into video games at the 24hr arcades, had a crush on every single girl at work, and wrote horrendous songs at the drop of the hat (sung them quite shamelessly, too).
Like I said, sixteen.