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Union Station

Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto

by (author) Joe Fiorito

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Apr 2007
Urban, Ontario, Urban & Land Use Planning
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2007
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Apr 2006
    List Price

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The critically acclaimed author of The Closer We Are to Dying now turns his penetrating gaze to the big city he calls home.

Toronto is the city that Canadians love to hate. But they don’t know this city, says Joe Fiorito. Even Torontonians don’t really know this city because it changes every day. It’s not a finished thing, it’s a work in progress. It’s New York in 1900, arms open wide to welcome the huddling masses.

Union Station is Fiorito’s tour of his adopted city, from his own neighbourhood, Parkdale, through corner stores and local bars, to the suburban high rises that are home to new immigrants, and to the shelters that offer a tough bed to the many homeless. Fiorito’s Toronto exists here, on the street, in places where diverse cultures jostle side by side and where mercy is free.

Fiorito’s subtle and detailed observations of life in the city are matched by his precise, sinuous prose. On every page, these talents provide a dazzling showcase for the vivid, tender stories he crafts. In the end, we have to agree when he says Toronto will not be a fine town when it is finished. It is a fine town because it is unfinished.

About the author

Joe Fiorito was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario. As a young man in Northern Ontario, he worked in a paper mill, surveyed roads, and laboured in bush camps prior to becoming involved in community development and arts consulting. Fiorito spent five years working with a staff of Inuit journalists at CBC Radio in Iqaluit, NWT before transferring to Regina, where he wrote, produced and directed CBC Radio's highly acclaimed "The Food Show," a weekly program about food and agriculture. Fiorito lived for many years in Montreal, where he first wrote a weekly food column for HOUR, and later signed on as a city columnist for The Montreal Gazette. His first collection, Comfort Me with Apples: Considering the Pleasures of the Table, a series of essays about food and memory drawn from Fiorito's HOUR columns,  was published by Nuage Editions (now Signature Editions) in 1994. In 2000, it was  reissued by McLelland & Stewart. Tango on the Main, Fiorito's second collection, was selected from his Gazette columns.Fiorito relocated to Toronto, writing first for The National Post and then for The Toronto Star. In 1999, he published his family memoir, The Closer We Are to Dying (M&S), which became a national best-seller and received widespread critical acclaim. This was followed by the award-winning novel The Song Beneath the Ice (M&S, 2003) and Union Station: Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto. (M&S, 2007).

Joe Fiorito's profile page

Excerpt: Union Station: Love, Madness, Sex and Survival on the Streets of the New Toronto (by (author) Joe Fiorito)

Nobody likes a winner.

This is a distinctly Canadian thing. Toronto won all the marbles a long time ago, at least the ones that matter most. How you feel about that, and how you feel about us, is the least of our worries. We ­don’t have time to care. We have to go to work.

That’s us, according to our reputation.

We are smug, aloof and in a hurry. I say “we” because I live here now, in a city that is, pound for pound, the richest, meanest, poorest, coldest, cheapest, most diverse in the world, among people who have the softest, smuggest, hardest, biggest hearts.

You ­don’t like us? You are not alone.

Brendan Behan said it better than J.B. Priestley: “Toronto is barbaric without being picturesque. Toronto will be a fine town when it is finished.” Consider the source: Behan was a dribbling old tosspot, and he had a grudge; on top of which he ­couldn’t insult us once and get it right, he had to take two runs at it.

He lived in my neighbourhood for a time. According to the cartoonist Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, who went to school and learned to rebel at Parkdale Collegiate, Behan stayed in rooms down the street and around the corner from where I live now. Terry told me that the Irishman came to his school a time or two. Such is life around here that the local barbarians scarcely paid him any mind. He would have fit in rather nicely: blotto all the while, except for the time he clocked a cop, and we locked him up in order to dry him out and teach him the error of his ways; perhaps that was the source of his grudge.

For that, too, is our reputation: Toronto the good, the sober, the minder of other people’s business. Alas, not much has changed. Behan would recognize the neighbourhood if he fell in the gutter today, although he’d be more likely to step on a used needle than to trip over an empty bottle. We still have no good answer for the junkies or the drunks, just as we had no answer for him. But Brendan got it wrong. Most people get it wrong. Toronto will not be a fine town when it is finished.

It is a fine town because it is unfinished.

Cold, prim, smug, hard and harried: we endure such slights with patience. Our patience is not a virtue; rather, it is a tactic born of necessity. We ­don’t have the time to stop.

I have been poking around the edges of this city for a long time. I think the people who hate Toronto do not know us, nor do they know the kind of lives we lead.

This place is being made and remade every day by layers and waves of immigration; roughly 160,000 newcomers come here every year, and every year roughly 100,000 residents leave here on the bounce, the rebound or the skip. That’s a lot of coming and going, and it is a net gain of 60,000 people every year from all the countries of the world.

Nearly half the people who live here were born in other countries.

Can you speak Tagalog? We speak it here.

Men and women come to Toronto from all the countries of the world because they want what we have — relative peace, steady work, schools for the kids, an absence of automatic weapons, and the chance to vote without being blown up.

Check your race and creed at the door.

If you ­can’t make it here . . .

The city — and I think this holds true of yours as well as mine, but it is more true of Toronto by virtue of its sheer size — is not the same today as it was yesterday, and it will be different tomorrow.

Toronto is a work in progress, a bird in flight, a swollen stream in springtime; it is a mural in spray paint on a wall that reaches to the horizon; it is . . . you get the drift. Who we are today is a function of who came here yesterday.

Our high-­rises are filled with the poor, the tired and the hungry, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; ours is a hybrid strength; newcomers are what makes us strong.

Immigrants arrive, settle down, look around, and you know happens next: Korean girls marry the Portuguese boys next door. Jamaicans open shops and sell cowfoot and salt fish to their neighbours. A Somali girl who, on a cold spring morning wearing sandals and a summer dress, crossed the Peace Bridge alone now sets her alarm and rises early to attend nursing school, and if we are lucky, she will tend us when we are old. The truth is this:

The lives we lead here are the same as your lives.

And if there is a comparison to be made it is not with Montreal or Chicago or any other city of the present age. To live here now is how I imagine it was to live in New York City in 1900, its doors open to the world.

You might not like our bankers or our business leaders or our hip taste-­makers. Here’s news: We ­don’t like them, either. The wrong people have all the money in Toronto, just as they do where you live.

I am not interested in those people, or where they came from, although I have a hunch they came here from some small town; perhaps yours. There is no helping the ambitious. Let them be. They know how to help themselves. I’m interested in everyone else.

This is a contemporary history of us.

Editorial Reviews

“[Fiorito] is opinionated but not angry, cranky but not a zealot, funny and indulgent without sentimentality.”
Literary Review of Canada
“Fiorito turns the stories of supposedly ordinary lives . . . into workaday, whimsical poetry.”
Toronto Star

“Joe Fiorito writes like a rough-hewn angel.”
— Bronwen Drainie

“A storyteller of remarkable gifts.”
“The world needs more books by Fiorito.”
The Spectator

“Fiorito’s writing is masterful and poignant. . . . Single sentences paint entire canvasses.”
Ottawa Citizen

“Fiorito is that wonder of wonders, a deeply curious and perceptive reporter who is also a fine and imaginative writer.”
Montreal Gazette

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