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"What's Your Story?" 2017 Obpo Writing Contest Winners! Part One: Scarborough

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Every street, every alley, every corner in Toronto has a story - or many stories - to tell. To dig into that vibrant potential, the Ontario Book Publishers Organization's and Scarborough Arts’ What's Your Story? writing contest asked authors across the city to draw inspiration from their life and experiences in the city, with a focus on neighbourhoods that don't always get starring roles in Toronto literature: Etobicoke, North York, East York, and Scarborough.

Beginning today and over the coming months, we're proud to present the winners from all four neighbourhoods, moving from the east end to the west as we go.

Today we start with Scarborough. Four winning authors were chosen based on the literary merit of their submissions. All entries were judged blind, without the author's identity being made known to the jury. 

Read on to enjoy original work by our winner in the Established category, award-winning novelist and playwright Cordelia Strube, and our winners for the Emerging category: Marcus “Roi” Medford, Téa Mutonji, and Catherine Raine.

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Established Writer Category winner, Scarborough region

A Scarborough Oasis by Cordelia Strube

C Strube

In downtown Montreal, where I grew up, kids kicked balls around in back alleys, skipped rope on sidewalks, played Contamination (aka tag) in busy streets, all the while darting around parked and passing cars. I loved it. Not once did it occur to me that I would live anywhere but in the centre of a city. Downtown is a city’s pulse. Why live in a city if you can’t feel its rhythm?

When I moved to Toronto in 1980, the Annex felt close enough to downtown. I rented an apartment in what was once a grand Victorian home that had been divided into thin-walled apartments with aluminium shower stalls and mice. When John Lennon was shot, I was wiping mouse turds off my kitchen counter. On hearing the news, I stood very still, feeling as though the world had ended. But the bouzouki player in the basement went on playing, the retro hippie couple on the other side of the thin wall went on arguing, the dinner theatre actress upstairs continued practising heavy-footed song-and-dance numbers, and the mice went on breeding.

In search of lower rent, fewer rodents, and thicker walls, I moved farther west, to an apartment in a semi near Gladstone and Bloor, with a sunroom at the rear. I grew a jungle of plants and lived peacefully until a tattooed dealer, with a steady stream of boombox-carrying customers, moved into the apartment below. The smell of weed became constant. Rock ’n’ roll rumbled through my floor 24/7.

I returned to the Annex to share a rundown asphalt-sided bungalow with a friend who loved to party. Our Greek landlord grew veggies in the back yard; he kept us well supplied with tomatoes and cucumbers and invited us over for souvlaki. Being within walking distance of downtown, the bungalow became a flophouse for our bar-hopping buddies who’d missed the last subway home. Waking up and stepping over sleeping bodies, and occasionally vomit, lost its charm.

I moved south to a housing co-op where members couldn’t agree on what did or didn’t need repair, or what colour to paint the doors, or what were politically correct activities for the communal space. It became an unwieldy democracy and, as head of the Member Involvement Committee, I discovered that nobody wanted to be involved. Communal living proved too complex for me. It was time to have a house of my own over which I would have some control. I scraped together a down payment, and pounded the pavement until I found a financial institution willing to lend to a freelancer. With a mortgage in place, the seemingly endless search for an affordable house began. We settled on a brick row house near Greenwood. It seemed ideal: hardwood floors, a bay window, small gardens front and back, a porch on which to sit and watch the rain. In Montreal my family had lived in row housing built of grey stone with thick walls between neighbours. My Toronto rowhouse had nothing but plaster and lathe dividing households. On one side I had a hardened woman who worked for a meat packer and, on returning home, felt the need to crank her stereo and consequently cause our dividing wall to vibrate. On my other side, a mostly unemployed actor sang Bruce Springsteen tunes, accompanying himself on an electric guitar, into the wee hours of the morning. Row housing wasn’t working for me. I needed my own four walls.

Another long search resulted in a small detached house in the Upper Beach. My new neighbours were easy to talk to, kid-tolerant, and quiet. For years we coasted comfortably, exchanging plants, season’s greetings, and parenting worries. But as the neighbourhood became more upscale and congested, finding street parking grew challenging. Neighbours left angry notes on the windshields of other neighbours’ cars, advising them to park more considerately, taking up no more than the required parking space. A Starbucks opened on the corner, and hair, nail and pet salons, yoga studios, and trendy boutiques proliferated. My kindly senior neighbour, with whom I’d shared a mutual drive, was diagnosed with cancer and died within a year. The loss was massive, impacting my five-year-old who’d never had someone close to her pass away.

We watched with trepidation as the FOR SALE sign went up on his house, hoping a kid-friendly family would move in. Instead a cat lady took up residence with her many cats. In no uncertain terms she made it clear she didn’t want children anywhere near her cats, or her yard, or in the mutual drive. She took in strays that bred. The smell of feline spray and feces became gasp-inducing, particularly when it rained. The cat lady complained about our trees, our barbecue, our use of the mutual drive. She accused us of trespassing and called the cops on us repeatedly. When she had surveillance cameras installed, recording our every move immediately outside our home, we tried to ignore it. Why worry when you have nothing to hide? But feeling cameras on you 24/7 takes its toll. You never relax in your garden as you once did. When we asked the police if it was legal to point cameras at your neighbour, they replied that unless the cameras were focused on the interior of your home, there was nothing they — the police — could do. When I asked how we were to determine exactly where the cameras were pointed when they were encased in a plastic bubble, the police said there was no way of knowing where they were pointing. Eventually the cat lady convinced the police to charge my husband with trespassing based on her footage of him rolling a push mower over the mutual lawn between our houses. Despite our showing the police the survey where the mutual territory was clearly marked, those entrusted to serve and protect demanded that my husband be fingerprinted, and advised him to get a lawyer. We did, the charge was eventually dropped, but we could no longer live comfortably in our home knowing that the cat lady could have us charged for mowing the lawn.

But move where? The Toronto housing market was perpetually hot. Our house had increased in value but so had every other house in the GTA. We decided to venture farther east, but all we knew about Scarborough was what we’d seen from Kingston Road on the way to Montreal. It appeared to be mostly strip malls, motels, and gas stations. We started exploring the Scarborough Bluffs, walking the many pockets of treed and tranquil neighbourhoods, north and south of Kingston Road. We discovered Scarborough’s extensive parklands, biking and walking trails, its many libraries and multicultural retail offerings. We were drawn to curved residential streets with grassy boulevards that created open spaces. Suddenly I was noticing the sky because there seemed to be so much of it. Scarborough, built on low hills and dales, doesn’t feel flat like many parts of Toronto. Ravines, rivers and brooks run through it, providing lush habitat for wildlife, and rejuvenating air.

Eventually we found a house on a low hill, with skylights, hardwood floors, gas fireplaces, a long driveway and carport, and extensive gardens at front and back. Before making the offer, I talked to the neighbours, who were gracious and welcoming. When we finally packed up and moved we met more neighbours, many of them seniors who had lived in the Bluffs for thirty or more years and spoke fondly of Toronto the Good. Some of them immigrated to Canada decades ago and told stories of transatlantic crossings and the challenges of finding work and settling in their new country. When walking in our little pocket of Scarborough, neighbours from all cultures say hello. Hiking in the surrounding green spaces, we spot creatures we’ve never seen before in the city: deer, rabbits, bank beavers, owls, gophers, herons, kingfishers, hawks, red-winged blackbirds, nuthatches, cormorants, a variety of ducks. Scarborough’s lakefront and cliffs offer breathtaking views and challenging climbs. Lake Ontario can look smooth as glass or as choppy as an ocean. This Toronto landscape, new to me, continues to surprise and enthrall. My backyard, cat-free, is home to cardinals, goldfinches, black-capped chickadees, blue jays, and, of course, sparrows. The pulse of downtown, though distant, is only a half-hour drive away. When I’m in the thick of the city, surrounded by traffic and barely contained road rage, harried pedestrians on phones, speeding cyclists dodging car doors, deafening construction noise and bass beat blasted from car and store stereo speakers, I tell myself not to sweat it because soon I will be back in my Scarborough oasis.

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Emerging Writer Category winners, Scarborough region

Black Reflection by Marcus "Roi" Medford

Being your friend’s “black friend”

Used to sound pretty cool

But it’s a little bit concerning

Once you think it through.

“You’re not even black” they say.

With hints of subtle relief,

They find my people deplorable

But accept my friendship with ease.

 

Do I look like a thug because of my tattoos?

Or because I’m a black male?

I’m frowned upon for flirting with girls

Whose skin happens to be pale.

I’m offended because as black man

I supposedly love chicken.

When there isn’t a damn omnivore

Who feels any different.

It’s funny how “acting” my skin color

Is automatically comical

But when black people do it

It’s ghetto and abominable.

So because I’m black

You think that I’m likely to steal?

You say it as a joke

But how much better should that make me feel?

Why is it such a shock

That I enjoy works by Bach?

Who says I must limited

To Lil Wayne and 2Pac?

 

As a black man it hurts me

How many times “nigga” is heard.

Carelessly whipped around

As if it were just another word.

Look, a word is something more

Than sounds you say

When it’s used as an excuse

To take one’s history, humanity and family away.

An “a” or an “er”

Don’t make the roots different.

“My nigga” shouldn’t make you feel endeared

It should make you feel indignant.

Though not usually said with hate

It still reeks of degradation.

Now everyone can say anigga!

Congrats, we’ve ended segregation!

 

I rarely bring it up

It feels like it’s just the norm.

Racism hasn’t gone away

It’s taken on a different form.

But you’re not racist you tell me:

“I have a friend that’s black.”

But, if you didn’t know them

Would it change the way you act?

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There's a Bench Near the Scarborough Golf Club by Téa Mutonji

{Special Someone} took me here two summers ago after a night of whiskey and cheap beer at The Old Stone Cottage. It would have been a Thursday night. He was a combustion type of spark and heat and smoke that doesn’t necessarily harm the people around him but burns, and burns, and never goes out. I was standing by the wood when I saw him in the centre of the bar. He did the thing he was known for doing with his mouth. It trembled purposely and then he smiled at me.

It was my first night out in the city. I was a twenty-year-old renting a room. I sometimes felt the need to dance for no good reason. Otherwise, I stretched out on my mattress and cried. Also for no good reason. I had exactly two friends and ate crackers with milk three times a day. {Special Someone} and I had met downtown. We had sex in a cheap motel and he became seldom after he came. Anyway, standing there in the middle of the crowd, he smiled at me.

“You again,” he said.

“You again.”

“How are you here?”

“I just moved near Guildwood. You know you, the GO station? Apparently, this is the place to be.”

“All the best people are here.”

“I used to live on Galloway,” I said, “with my parents a long time ago.”

“Where are they now?”

“Home, I guess.”

“Where’s that?”

“I don’t know.”

I said this and then neither of us said anything. That’s when I noticed how kind his eyes were. After some time, ten minutes or so, he took me by the hand and dragged me out the bar. We bought a pack of condoms and cigarettes at the gas station behind the old stone. We sat on a rock on Kingston road and smoked. I watched as cars drove down the street, never stopping to appreciate the scenery. Life was happening to us kids and we didn’t even know it.

The moon hovered over our heads like a mistletoe.

There was one girl puking behind the bar and a crowd of young people minding their smokes in the corner. It was like this every night, the old stone was where we went to get our hearts broken and our livers soaked. It had something to do with the big old white porch.

“What’s there to do here?” I asked. “I feel like I’ve seen it all but I also feel like I only know where the mall is and that’s it.”

“Have you been to the Bluffs?” he said.

“No, but I’ve heard good things. What’s it like?”

“A blue field of goodness.”

I considered this for a moment. A blue field of goodness. I took a drag of the cigarette.

“Like an ocean, you mean?”

“More than an ocean,” he said. “If you could walk on water like you walk on fields, and the entire world could be yours and you could get lost in it. You could do with it whatever the fuck you wanted, just for a moment. Some place safe, you know? That’s what it’s like.”

“How high are you right now?”

“No, really, close your eyes! Just try it. Think of the bluest thing you’ve ever seen.”

I thought of the sky. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been by a river or a beach or felt water that didn’t come from a tap. I didn’t have those things back home. I didn’t care to know them. It was as if I was afraid of meeting these places and falling in love, knowing very well that a home is sometimes wherever you lay your head. Blue reminded me of the void we carry. Some people have it in their back pockets and others wear it on their sleeves. {Special Someone} had blue in his brown eyes.

“An ugly Christmas sweater.”

“That’s why you don’t get it. I’ll take you there someday.”

 

Later, I joined him and a few of his friends at a park. It was a long, comfortable walk from the bar. We were all a little buzzed and high, some of us crazier than the rest. With every new intersection came a new story of another time. The road seemed to carry the weight of their childhood. Every house told the story of another lady who chased them down the streets with a broom. I felt this terrible sense of belonging.

It must have had something to do with the mistletoe moon.

 

The park was empty. It wasn’t really a park but a landscape of grass with an old bench in the centre. It was lit enough that I could see the details of the tree trunks, the paleness of the faces. Everything was naked in the moonlight, the bench, the houses, the roads, the whole world.

After some time, ten minutes or so, one of the friends pulled a bottle of Crown from his jacket and raised it to the moon.

“Happy birthday, brother,” he said to no one in particular.

“Happy birthday, brother,” everyone repeated aloud. It was then I noticed the blue on the bench. I looked over to {Special Someone} and couldn’t recognize him. They each took turns feeling the bench. They did a little talking. But mostly, they stood around with no words. After some more silence, someone said “We miss you, brother,” and then I began to cry. I felt tears were necessary to authenticate the moment. Like a cascade was boiling inwardly. {Special Someone} held me tighter and licked the tears from my face. Another one of the friends, a tall one with mustard-coloured hair, passed around a joint. They traded stories about the neighbourhood that raised them, waiting for morning to come. About losing their virginities in odd places, bathroom stalls and parking garages. About getting kicked out of bars for throwing punches and spending the night on a bench.

“You were always straight. Always keeping us rugrats in line,” {Special Someone} spoke in a voice that was earnest. Full of character. This might be what I remember the most. The way he cracked without breaking the yolk. Like he perfected the art of keeping it together but as we got closer to the morning and deeper in the city, he began to lose his religion.

 

The next morning in the shower, I kissed him. First on the mouth and then I made my way to his chest. I lingered there a moment and traced my tongue over the tattoo underneath his left breast.

“It’s Macedonian,” he said. “It translates to ‘Never Give Up.’”

“Is this for your friend? From last night?”

“Sometimes, I just walk over to that bench you know, I just think and smoke. Watch kids run around.”

“What do you think about?”

He closed his eyes and pulled his face away from mine. The water was hot and the steam made me dehydrated. I pressed my thumb underneath his eyes. I couldn’t tell if I was wiping off tears or if it was water, but I suppose the gesture had the same meaning. The way drinking to a friend or sitting on his bench or walking down familiar roads reminds us all of one thing and then:

“Life, I guess. How to keep moving forward after life stops being life. How to keep people alive where they once lived.”

 

Over time, {Special Someone} grew more angry. More sad. I suspect it started long before the suicide. I was out for a run early this morning and ended up at the park. The bench was just a bench. Just an old abandoned piece of wood. {Special Someone} took me here two summers ago after a night of whiskey and cheap beer at The Stone Cottage. I heard he’s doing better now, that his mouth has lost the tremble. That blue on the bench wasn’t really blue. It was a boy who belongs to a place and to people who carry him on their shoulders. When we’re young and falling apart, they warn us not to make homes out of people. Nobody says anything about making homes out of homes.

On my run I finally went to the Bluffs. What I saw was spectacular — a field of blue goodness.

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Life at the Roots by Catherine Raine

One fall day,

a logical gully

guides me down the slope to Highland Creek.

My steps disturb a creature

who escapes under the cover of leaves,

defining a ribbon of movement

that lifts the rustling shelter as it flees.

With anonymous grace,

the animal testifies to life unseen but more real than this poem,

fusing threads of instinct without pause.

 

One summer day,

I cycle home from the college on Ashtonbee Road,

thoughts distracted from the simple path

that curves by the banks of Taylor Massey Creek.

I pass a tall gathering of yellow grasses

that erupts with red winged blackbirds.

They fly straight up from the reeds,

rising in a startled mass of flapping.

Like verses that nest unknown within us,

it takes a sudden whoosh of wheels or wings

to show life at its roots, a wild relentless freshness

that we cage with fear.

 

One spring morning,

dark green shoots

grow from my breasts, pushing up, pushing out.

Cautiously, I tug a shoot from my left aureole

and a curly leaf unfurls in my hand.

I tug more leaves and yet more leaves,

shocked by the secret depth of my roots.

Raw soil spills over my fingers,

and one last strong yank

yields a golden onion.

 

My vegetable offering

hints at the body’s food, the push of streams,

breath of reeds, and the resilient moss veiled by fallen leaves.

I believe in succulent roots

that answer winter prayers of the famished

who trace patterns of desire on the waiting Earth.

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Stay tuned to Open Book for the original texts from the winners in the regions of East York, North York, and Etobicoke over the coming months!

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The OBPO and Open Book gratefully acknowledge the support of The Ontario Media Development Corporation, The Toronto Arts Council, Arts Etobicoke, North York Arts, East York Arts, and Scarborough Arts in making this contest and these original pieces possible.