My first full time job (at 16) was working as glorified soda-jerk, just up from Yonge and Dundas, way back in 1981. We had fruity drinks and burgers, hot dogs and sausages, plus, we sold so much coffee that you’d always get a nice fresh cup any time right up until closing (long after midnight).

I did the late shift – which meant staying to clean up afterward, no matter what time the owner decided to close (and if there was a Leafs game at the gardens, or a big concert, that could be almost two AM). He always drove ‘the girls’ home, even if besotted – which was then widely considered class and gallantry.

As for me? As the token ‘guy’ on shift – for all heavy lifting and fetching chores (despite my laughable waif-scrawniness) – I simply walked the late night city. Took the long lazy Davenport diagonal on foot, nearly to Christie.

Leaving school, my crazy commune within a commune, and being alienated from family. I really wasn’t sure what to do with myself, but I had a whole lot of commune-sheltered ignorance to make up for, and I was in just the right spot to do it.

I’ve mentioned my fondness for the vibrant street culture of the time – especially at the corner just across – a night market for artisans, hucksters, and speed chess for money. They’d give you ten minutes to their two, and still trounce you with ninety seconds left! Those frizzy haired bushy-beard wildmen came in for coffee, same as the street traders, the dealers, the tourists, the strippers from the Zanzibar, the music maniacs from Sam the record man, even the street walkers and the girls from the rub-and-tug upstairs, around the back.

The downtown block upon which I worked also contained cavernous and ever-fascinating palaces of pinball and video-games. The latest machines in the front, ranked older as you went further, until an antique garden of vintage treats (mechanical shooting gallery – and ATARI night drive!) stood in the very back – still active and still hungry for quarters! I must admit I also fed many a quarter into the venerable “stripper”. But it turns out that a jittery faded slide-show of glammed-up Vegas show girls doth not eros make! (Vertigo, on the other hand…) ;o)

The conversation in the place – especially between the veteran beat-cops, smart ass angle-seeking lawyers, and all around street hustler types, was a real eye opener. Magnificent towering cynicism, impressive hilaritas also. The brand of urban stoicism that went with vaudeville – at least to my overly romantic young mind.

The Zanzibar – still scuzzy after all these years

Oddly, I think the single sharpest time capsule memory of all for me is the weirdly timestuck Ford Drugs, just across the street. It was a very long narrow building – made claustrophobic by the fact that the whole front of the store, where they had the cigarettes and the medicaments (a universal retail combo, back then), was walled-in with plexiglass for the safety of the workers. Pass money in, stuff out.

But if you kept walking past there, it opened up again and there was a perfectly preserved drugstore lunch-counter and soda-fountain. One of the last in town! By two AM, the only people sitting back there were working girls. But though they were right in the middle of a prime ‘patch’ they were completely off the clock. Relaxed and laughing with each other. Warmth, even in their hard position.

I liked to go there for a coffee and listen, even when they teased me a bit, for being a silly kid, “Ought to be at college someplace, dummy!” Practically everything they said was incomprehensible to my culturally ignorant mind – but all of it was educational and memorable. Especially their lonely camaraderie.

Yonge and Dundas in 1981 feels about a million miles away now, but it remains an historical anchor of odd power for me. Like a sounding buoy, left behind, which can be referenced, to plot subsequent drift.

It is a completely arbitrary marker (like most, if we step outside of their purposeful framing) – but also a useful one. The early eighties was a nasty time in a lot of ways. Personal assault and violent crime rates were way way higher (not just here, but in most of the advanced world), and the support systems that existed, were stretched near to breaking over the next few years as crack and AIDS added hardship to communities already job-displaced and under threat.

Also, the early eighties was the first great post-WWII ‘toughening’ – Reaganomics was a rebalancing of the economy away from workers and productive capitalism toward speculative investors. The whole modern nightmare fantasy of the ‘inevitability’ of neoliberalism starts here – investors were suddenly the more equal pigs – the super-citizens, if you will. A new aristocracy – all they needed was some sucker-serfs (guess who?)

There was a cycle in English capitalism much earlier, which gave all the warning needed, about how stupid and nationally ruinous a plan this was always destined to be. The British Empire used it’s dominance to establish a monopoly on key goods in their territories. They systematically destroyed the native textile industry in India, so that cotton mills back home could have more customers, and their production volumes and profits could be increased.

At a certain point, the workers began to think they were important in this process – which was of course true. However, by then, the owners had accumulated so much capital that they simply moved the jobs and equipment over to India for cheap labour which was not so assertive of it’s dignity, inverted the game, and turned their very own fellow citizens into their new impoverished captive market. Industrial Britain as a whole, never recovered from this allegiance to hollowing divestment.

Aiding downtown photographers for decades. (Great new roti spot back there, too).
Arts and Letters Club – St George’s Hall – just down Elm street.

I still remember laughing out loud the very first time I read the phrase “The revolution of lowered expectations,” in the Schroedinger’s Cat trilogy – a brilliant piece of political and social sci-fi satire, by Robert Anton Wilson.

And right there – that is the hardest thing of all to convey from that depressed, chaotic, often horrifying, and cold-war hot-craziness period – there was still so much genuine and widespread hope.

Everyone I knew was quite certain that the ‘powers that be’ were on the ropes – that Reagan represented a last-ditch attempt by the powerful to defend their rule, before the next generation swamped them with superior humanism and values, and simply eradicated the evil conspiracy (exploitative patriarchy and war-capitalism, most definitely included in that poison mix of foes) with irresistible good sense and heart.

It was even very common to hear (and say), “Obviously, the elastic band has swung so far over to the right, that we’re do for a true people-power wave, next.”

Still waiting for that balancing wave – and sadly, the revolution of lowered expectations is now such a comprehensively accomplished fact, that most regard desperation for the working class as unavoidable, even normalcy.

Nope – it always was a plan. A plan which worked precisely as it was designed to. “Lets use our big money, to find ways to take everyone else’s dignity away.” Thing is – we fell for it – keep falling for it, over and over. Largely, I think, because we’ve become so hopeless that we are panicky, desperate – unwise.

To clarify – for those who have avoided examining economics. It is a simple and absolute fact that how much economic work money can do, depends far more upon it’s velocity in the economy, than the mere volume of cash. Poor people spend every penny they get, just to survive – maximum activity, which makes them the MOST not the least useful economic actors. The trickle-down theory is precisely backwards! The fact that it’s ruined everyone except it’s backers, really ought to have sunk-in by now.

Small business activity (where the last few cool jobs reside), urban renewal – everything depends on the working class having steady spending money. The rich park it offshore – basically, take the monopoly money home with them, at the end of the game. In the old days, we called that cheating! Certainly didn’t worship it.

Feels like we’ve forgotten it’s not our role to merely beg the aristocracy for the crumbs we personally need to get-by in scary times – our job, my friends – as citizens of democracies – has always been to STEER!

Back in the 80s, many western leftists sourced this from a romantic belief in humanity, and solidarity with those overseas who are suffering predatory exploitation, to feed capitalism – even when we get a ‘cut’ from their suffering. Nowadays, a great many call themselves left because of their distaste or anger about the deplorable consequences of the system – of which they are still quite loyal partisans. Loudly despising one’s very own spoor, as it were.

“Can I please have the money, but not quite so many poor corpses overseas?”
To which the conventional answer is – “It’ll mean less money for you” – Which shuts practically everyone up again, practically always.

It really has been a…
One of the last holdouts – but never quite the same without the crowds from the gardens

I keep saying I miss Marxist feminists – but I really miss one particular amazing woman who gave me life-saving affirmation simply by accepting me, recognizing my true qualities – even in the weirdest and most mixed-up phase of my life.

It was never about ego, with her – but always principle – and often sacrifice. Humility and humour, constant and powerful tools for endurance and courage. Relentless in her opposition to misogyny, but never so naive or ignorant as to believe that the historically structurally patriarchal and oppressive state, was the primary means by which new social advancement may be won.

And yet much of the left seems to think this way now – good must be done to and for us, with state force – crazy crazy stuff, for those who remember even a bit of the history of the government’s hostile and occasionally even murderous relationship with serious progressives.

Generalizing (too far not to leave many exceptions, of course) our major cultural advances have been won because individual human beings with dreams were empowered by a sustained period of reasonable wages for very large numbers. Buoyed up by this economic surge, humans were freed-up to pursue aspirations that are impossible for many in the world, simply because survival anxiety, where present, takes priority. What governments did right for social movements was mostly to get out of their way (or in key places in the civil rights era, stop a lower arm of government from enforcing injustice).

Even when the principles are sympathetic, popular opposition to ‘being told’ with state force in a top-down way is automatic – and in itself, a legitimate freedom impulse. The state is not dad – we aren’t it’s kids. When things are handled especially stupidly (not that rare), this opposition can ultimately overwhelm any advances won (sometimes with outside manipulation – sometimes by sheer weight of spontaneous idiocy alone).

Practical advances, on the other hand, ARE generally well organized at scale. Universal single-payer healthcare (a no-brainer to every citizen who has it) is a very good example, as are fire services and emergency responders. Sewage is best planned for realities and long term consequences, not quarterly profits!

Which makes it especially nauseating to me, to see Canadian Union pension funds now deeply invested in privatized water services in the third world (a privatization commonly forced upon them by our western banks, as terms for some desperately needed financing). Like I say – deeply ‘capitalized’ organized left – way creepy.

Anyhow – here’s the other thing about hope – eighties style – in the face of a resurgent right-wing, doing evil both gleefully and with open pride.

Back then, you had a sense that the rebel next to you had your back. The word ‘comrades’ is way too loaded – and yet, the underlying spirit is crucial. The further we descend into Jesuitical interrogation of one another’s morality, the more we are losing sight of the crucial fight. Equity means nothing to corpses, people!

The bad guys seem unstoppable right now – and have us all precipice-bound – but they have never been more isolated from a higher percentage of everyone. WE should be (and be feeling like) the ones who are unstoppable – but we have to be able to do that special thing I miss so much about my dear friend and her brilliant circle of love. Put program ahead of ego. The world, ahead of the self.

If this sounds rather a lot like the sort of religious faith that many of that same leftist cohort openly derided, I’ll tell you a secret – yes – it really is exactly that. But here’s the great truth we don’t recognize, by keeping that embarrassed secret to ourselves – faith in all of humanity and it’s power is very serious stuff.

No less empowering, energizing, purpose-guiding, consoling, team-building and friend and love creating than any other great tradition of selfless devotion. And that very quality of devotion and sacrifice – reaching toward the goal beyond our individual grasp – is the catalyst that can turn a cacophony of recrimination into a powerful, purposeful, world-changing revolutionary movement – for real.

Who says comic books have been a cultural irrelevance? “Team-up and save the world from nefarious corporate armageddon” – actually is the big scary job ahead of us – and it really ain’t kid’s stuff, my friends.

Which means that even flawed and minor heroes, are our badly needed allies.

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