An excerpt from
Wandering in Exile
Danny rode the elevator down to the lobby where the heater blasted every time the door was opened. He walked across the carpeted floor and was shocked when he reached for the metal handle. There were a lot of things to still get used to. It was fuckin’ freezing all the time and everyone was talking about the wind chill—that that was what really got to you. But everyone still went out in it.
He and Martin had holed up from Christmas to New Year’s and only went out when they had to. But Martin went back to work and Danny started getting cabin fever. Martin told him he had to start going out on his own. He’d have to get used to it when he was working, and all. Martin had friends looking out for anything Danny could do while he was getting his band together.
He tugged at the zipper of his anorak that was nowhere near as warm as it had been in Ireland. It didn’t really block the wind; it just deflected it down to his thighs and made his arse freeze. He kept one hand in his pocket as he cupped his cigarette with the other.
The wind made smoking miserable as it squeezed down between the high-rises and scraped the length of Davisville Avenue. Martin had told him how to get to the subway and gave him a few tickets, too. He would go southbound and get off at Bloor. It was just a few blocks east of there—whatever a block was.
He was a bit disappointed when he got to the subway platform; it wasn’t really underground like they were in London. The platform was open to the winds and he shivered until the train arrived.
It was warm and clean inside and he settled by the window and watched the graveyard slide by until the train tunneled beneath the street. “St. Clair station,” the distorted, scratchy, voice announced and Danny checked the map again. Summerhill, Rosedale and then Bloor; it was only going to take a few minutes. Martin had even suggested where he could go for lunch.
Dooley’s wasn’t what he had expected. It was large and clean and bright with deliberate little Irishisms everywhere. It was the type of place he would have to bring his parents to, after he got settled, and all. The young woman who came to take his order didn’t look very Irish. In fact she looked Vietnamese, or Filipino, but she was friendly. She smiled and asked what type of beer he wanted. Her skin was clear, a yellowish brown and her eyes were dark like pools. Her lips were almost too big for her face and her hair was straying from under the white hat of her maid outfit.
“What type do you have?”
He ordered Carlsberg. It was what Martin had filled his fridge with, along with some anemic light beers that were for David. Danny tried one but couldn’t finish it and, without thinking, said he thought it was “faggoty.”
“Over here we’re called ‘Gays,’” Martin had warned him. He also asked Danny to stay out for the day. David was coming home and they wanted the place to themselves for a few hours. Danny didn’t mind, it would give him a chance to explore his new city.
After lunch, he wandered toward Parliament Street in the bright cold sunshine. He wanted to see Corktown and the old church down on Queen Street. Martin had marked it on the map for him; even though he hadn’t been down to see it.
Martin’s tour led him through Gabbagetown, where the Irish had migrated to from Corktown, once the Irish ghetto that waited for those who survived the “Fever Sheds.” He had read all about it and wanted to see the places for himself; where the children of “Black 47” had fought their way up. Martin had suggested that he not talk like that in front of other people; that it was all in the past now and besides, Canadians got very sensitive when immigrants criticized them. “And they have every right to, too. People come over here from the backend of nowhere and, no sooner than they get set up, they start telling everybody they’re doing it wrong, that everything was better back in the old country. Don’t be one of those guys, Danny. Please?”
Still, he had to go where those who had gone before him had been, and he’d pay his respects. A lot of Irish had come to Toronto and had to claw their way up. Just the Catholics, mind you; the Protestants got to run the place right off the boat, but Martin said it was better to forget about all that, too. “It wasn’t like being Catholic was such a great thing.” Danny knew what he meant.
Still, the houses along Winchester didn’t look like the kind of houses that Irish people would own. The Irish had moved into them when their more Anglo residents had moved up the ladder. That, Martin had told him, was how it worked. Each time a new group of immigrants arrived, they started near the bottom. “That pushes everybody up a bit. Well, almost everybody.”
Most of them were rooming houses now, with rows and rows of buzzers implanted into their Victorian facades; a public notice of their continuing decline. Danny had noticed a big change in his uncle, too. Now that Martin was openly gay, he wanted people to start accepting each other, and not judge. And not just gays; he was on about the way Danny talked about black people, too, but that was understandable.
Danny agreed and tried but, sometimes, it was just reflex. Everyone at home talked about black people like they were afraid of them. Most of them never met one but they inherited the attitudes of those who said they had. But Martin was right; Danny didn’t want to be a part of anything he was back there. He was being given a new beginning—just like everybody who came over.
Martin was still Irish, but in a different kind of way. He always acted like he never missed it but sometimes, after they had been drinking, he’d let it slip out. He also made it plain that he had no time for religion anymore. He missed Ireland—not being Irish. It was understandable. The Church was against people having sex unless they were trying to have children and there was no way two guys were ever going to be able to convince anyone that that’s what they were up to.
He shivered in the blast of wind that met him at the edge of Riverdale Park, and the noise of a highway right in the middle of everything. Right beside the overgrown river, white in its winter stillness, except for a few bits and pieces of garbage that flew off the highway.
Most of Toronto was clean. He couldn’t believe it, almost sterile, but Martin bristled a little at that and said that he needed to see the rest of it before deciding. Sometimes, Danny was beginning to wonder if he ever really knew his uncle. Most of what they had shared had been all about him. That’s why he wanted to try so much, for Martin’s sake.
The cold cut his tour short but he did get to walk along a part of Queen Street. It wasn’t what he expected, especially around Sherbourne where a steady flow of shabby-looking men filed in and out of the tavern on the corner. It was called the “Canada House” but it didn’t look like the type of place he’d go to.
He did stop in at McVeigh’s New Windsor Tavern. Martin had marked it on the map, too. It was dark and smoky and warm, and he felt at home in a moment. It was a quiet afternoon but Martin had told him it was the place to go when you were in the mood for being Irish.
Danny was. He missed Dublin and he missed Deirdre, even though they weren’t really back together. He felt totally alone and wanted to be somewhere warm and familiar for a while. He wasn’t second-guessing coming over—he had no choice, really—but it was hard to get used to. Everything was all very different, now that he was actually here.
“What can I get you?” the waitress asked.
“I don’t suppose I could get a pint?”
“Not the type you’re thinking about. Most of the guys who come in drink ‘EX.’ It’s a bit like Carlsberg but they seem to prefer it.”
“Can I get a pint of that?”
“Most of the guys drink it by the bottle.”
“Okay, then, that’s what I’ll have. Thanks.”
There were a few others tucked into the shadows and alone with their thoughts, glowing every once in a while when they pulled on their cigarettes. But one was different. He was very dark-skinned but he had a white beard, a neatly trimmed hedge along the side of his face. He wore a beret and a checkered shirt, like the ones lumberjacks wore. Only his was blue and black. He was very tall, even though he was sitting down, and when he crossed his legs, Danny could see that he was just wearing sandals and no socks. He reminded Danny of a Yeti, or something from the bar in Star Wars.
The beer brought little comfort. It had a hard taste to it, but, if it was what the locals drank, he’d get used to it. It wasn’t bad, it was just different and the bottle was weird, a short stubby little thing with a big label on it. He thought about having another but decided against it. Sitting alone in a pub always made him feel like his father. He’d head back towards the apartment if it wasn’t so early. Martin and David would have just got home.
So Danny Boyle walked along Yonge Street as the city rushed home from work. But the cold got to him again and he stopped at the Duke of Gloucester. It was packed. They served beer in pints and you could stand along the bar—just like a real pub. He even got talking with a few people, a Brit and two Scots who had been over for a few years and acted like they owned the place. They spoke about Toronto, and Canada, in terms of them and us; them being all the non-Brits. And, after a few beers, implied that Danny was one of “us.” His Irish might have bristled at that but he was happy to feel included. They assured him he’d be okay as long as he stuck to his own kind. “Canada, mate, is British,” the Brit explained. “And all these foreigners need to remember that.”
“You’re right there,” one of the Scots agreed, burping beerily.
“It’s really more Scottish when you think about it,” the other insisted, smiling as he said it.
“Yeah,” the Brit agreed with both of them. “But the main thing, Paddy, is that we all stick together over here.”
“My name is Danny, not Paddy.”
“Danny, Paddy, Jock or Tommy. We’re all the same over here and we have to stick together.”