Everything Old is New Again
(Filed from Toronto, Ontario at 2:15 p.m. on April 9, 2000)
O Canada! What tall buildings you have amid your shiny streets and shady boulevards...
Toronto's Financial District is shady not because of its trees (there are few of these) but rather due to the skyscraping character of its buildings. It's said that every major bank in Canada has a building in the downtown financial corridor, in most cases the home office of said bank. Torontonians, it would appear, make money for both fun and profit, since these edifices are combination shop/dine/work/play spaces. A few of these banks, such as Toronto Dominion, have multiple highrises within a city block, as if to say "my steel and glass can kick yours in the a__ any day of the week." Or something like that.
My favorite banking combo is the old and new CIBC, also known as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The old CIBC, at 25 King Street West, dates to the Depression years but you'd never know that anything was amiss at the time. Conservative stone outside, the interior is an amalgam of gold leaf doming, marble flooring and regal chandeliers. All around are portraits of self-satisfied men (bankers, one would guess) looking down at the latter-day constituency. And yes, I. M. Pei did design the bank's steel and glass tower right next door, but who's looking? Speaking of looking, you can't help but look at the Royal Bank Building at the corner of Bay and Front Streets. All that glitters here really is gold, specifically the 2,500 ounces of the precious stuff which coats this tower's windows. It's weatherproofing, of course: the gold "panels" are ideal for keeping heat in and cold out. Walk by the Royal Bank Building several times during the day and you will be greeted by an ever-changing reflection of the city's skyline, depending on the amount of available outdoor light. The golden glow around sunset is, well, priceless.
* * * * *
Fen and I are in Toronto for the 10th annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, a democratic get-together of privacy advocates and their foes, specifically the FBI, NSA, CIA and any other acronym which doesn't seem to grasp the fact that my business is MINE, thank you very much. Fen is a privacy guy from way back, all the way back to his days at MIT (although he, like most of us, managed to keep a whole lot private from Mom and Dad as a teen). As for me, I'm here to learn how all this privacy will help (or hurt) the average Jane (or Joe). Suddenly, in the age of the Internet, George Orwell's vision of the future is alternately prescient and spooky.
Austin Hill, the young and supremely confident founder of Zero Knowledge Systems (in this case, Zero Knowledge means that everyone has zero knowledge about who you are except you, e.g. anonymity in all transactions) tells the early-morning conference crowd that privacy is "becoming an issue that isn't just for academics. What civil rights and environmentalism were in the last century, privacy will be in the next century...I don't want to live in a world where my every move is tracked...you don't have to give up data in exchange for (new) technologies." Just as I'm convinced this speaker is preaching to the choir, a fellow next to me tells me that the Zero folks "are a bunch of well-meaning guys who don't understand what the marketplace wants." And therein lies the crux of the issue, or so it appears to this Average Jane: how much privacy are we willing to trade for convenience? for security? Are the crypto guys and gals, tech heads and academics, politicos and policy wonks in attendance really aware of what the public wants? Or are they too busy creating dazzling technologies to look past their computer screens and out to the masses? I hope that the answer lies somewhere in the middle and head off to the next session with Fen.
One amazing factoid (for me) emerges from the the panel on domain names, those catchy phrases that start with "www" and usually end with ".com." Ground zero of the Internet, also known as the root files, are two hundred-odd lines of computer code which are stored in a small box in Virginia. Visions of "The Manchurian Candidate" start dancing in my head...what if that gnarly Angela Lansbury character programs one of her lame-brained subjects to go after the box? what then? Hey, I want this Internet to be MINE. Security first, I say, although privacy sounds good, too.
Session number three brings together privacy advocates and a G-man, specifically the FBI's counterterrorism man in Michigan. Terrorism in Michigan? Sheesh, I thought they were just building cars there. As the discussion takes shape, I learn that the FINCEN (Financial Crimes Enforcement Network) subscribes to fifteen different commercial look-up databases, including credit reporting agencies such as Experian. Hmm...the federal government is getting its information from a credit bureau? Credit reports are always full of errors, some absolutely frightful. I'd like the G-man to explain THAT.
Unfortunately, the poker-faced G-man chooses to inform me that under the law, I have no absolute right to privacy. There are worse things, he tells me: "you can be murdered, raped, a family member could be raped..." For these reasons, the FBI and its sister acronyms need to be able to get information on me -- to protect me, of course. And if I do obtain my FBI file (I hope I don't have one) through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and it appears that my privacy has been violated, well, I can sue the FBI. So, let's see here: the credit bureaus can trash me, the FBI can thrash the trash around and then I can hire a lawyer to make it all right. Huh? I'll take security and privacy. The session closes with the G-man informing me that the Bureau is asking for a 300% increase in its wiretap budget, although only a handful of prosecutions every year accrue from wiretap data. Seems like the government's Office of Management and Budget should hire a lawyer to investigate THAT.
The conference's luncheon speaker, author Steve Talbott, is clearly not preaching to the choir on this day, but his words do resonate with me. Talbott's query to the crowd is whether the advancement of technology is good or bad. Are time-saving technologies actually taking more of our time to "do things" and less to be with people? I have to wonder, but then I once pondered this question at length. In 1988, I took a year off from just about everything and went to live in Mexico. Our neighbor to the south, lovely as it is, may purport to have technology but no one seems to be using it -- and that's the beauty of the place. In Mexico, people take the time to be with each other, whether it's over a drink, dinner or a long, leisurely walk. People converse, laugh, smile, learn and feel and they do so every chance they get. So what if "things" aren't getting done? Everyone is getting a richer inner (and often outer) life by moving slowly, appreciating the little things, things that matter. Mr. Talbott closes his remarks by telling us that "the things that offer to make life better will invariably make it worse," a comment which draws sneers from the techie audience. I silently cheer the philosopher king who had the guts to take a stand.
* * * * *
Toronto's Old Town isn't all that old, relatively speaking. It isn't even Toronto, truth be told. The old quarter here was originally the Town of York, controlled by the British after they took it from the French in the Seven Years' War in the late 1700s. The city officially became Toronto in 1834, the new moniker being an Indian term for "a place of meetings." Whether the Indians were referring to the meeting of various lakes, rivers or peoples is anyone's guess.
Fen and I stroll the streets of the Old Town, past sturdy brick edifices and a smattering of newer real estate. St. James' Cathedral, a mix of gothic spires and pointed steeples, dates to 1797, although the present structure, the fourth St. James', dates to the mid-1800s. At the base of the cathedral's organ is an ornate clock with the inscription "Dieu et Mon Droit." Neither Fen nor I is fluent in French but we still try to figure the inscription out.
"Well,' I say, "'Dieu' is God and 'Droit' is right, since 'left' is 'gauche', right?"
"Right," Fen replies, "'God is my right.' Sounds right to me."
The Flatiron Building, an 1892 brick structure a couple of blocks away with a witty trompe l'oeil on its back, is proof positive that the locals had an eye for a good time a century past. We also stroll by the Hockey Hall of Fame, another eye-catcher, but save a visit to this stone structure (and its gleaming contents) for another day. Our last stop is Toronto's first post office, a curiously small building on Adelaide Street East. This National Historic Site, dating back to 1833, was part of the British Postal Service until the Canadians started licking their own stamps here in 1851. Although this is still a working post office, visitors are encouraged to play Town of York settler by sitting at a small table and dashing off a letter with a quill pen. I suggest to Fen that he take a stab at the quill and ink. As I look over his shoulder, I notice that his penmanship has never been sloppier. Huge blobs of ink are appearing all over his sheet of paper.
"What's up with that?" I ask. "You're making a mess on the paper."
"You try it," Fen says, and I suddenly see what he means. The quill is exceedingly uncooperative, going whichever way it wants and letting out streams of ink in the most inopportune places. Our letter resembles a Rohrschach test.
"I don't think The Deddy will be able to read this," Fen remarks, referring to the intended recipient, his Dad.
"Don't worry," I reply, "he's in it for the stamps, anyway."
We leave Old Town and head for a newer part of town, namely the Queen Street West corridor. This is boutique central, a collection of vintage clothing and home furnishing stores sandwiched between coffeehouses, bars and pool halls. The shops have names like Interior Excessories (home goods), Lord of the Rings (platinum jewelry) and Quasi Modo (50s-era furnishings). We pop into Dexterity and pick up some pottery for friends back home, at which time I remark to the saleswoman that one could re-do their home, probaby their life, in this one small corner of town.
"There are twenty-two home furnishing stores west of Bathurst alone," she tells me. "I'm talking a four-block area."
She's right, the area's shopping is certainly dense, yet I can't help but notice that this Canadian version of Los Angeles' Melrose Avenue, or San Francisco's Lower Haight, is surprisingly tidy and neat. Shlock and vintage have never been so appealingly put forth, and the way-better-than-Pottery-Barn excessories are also a treat. I pronounce Queen Street West fit for a king.
* * * * *
Rodney Clark is the man to see at Rodney's Oyster House. The art school refugee turned fishmonger hails from Prince Edward Island, or "P.E.I." to the locals. P.E.I., in addition to being the smallest province in Canada, is also a land of swell shellfish. Rodney's dad used to package up P.E.I. oysters and send them to friends, using young Rodney as the delivery boy. Ultimately, Rodney started making deliveries in Toronto and finally moved there.
"I came here for the women!" Rodney booms. "They're my other hobby. It's the link with the zinc. One of my wives produced two kids and I produced an oyster house."
And so it goes with the Prince of Prince Edward Island, part marine biologist, part psychologist and all fun.
On this particular night, Rodney regales Fen and I, along with two visitors from P.E.I., with oyster tales past and present. He also provides us with a kind of Oyster 101 and allows us to sample the wares in the process.
"There are six oyster families now growing in North America..." Rodney tells us as Pete, our burly waiter, unloads bowls of lobster and scallop chowder. We get to work.
"East coast oysters are known for their sweetness, y'know," Rodney continues, "and it's the ones in the Northeast corner of America which are still fished. West coast oysters are all farmed." Rodney serves over 22,000 farmed and fished oysters to his customers each and every week and he graces our table with eighteen of 'em, shiny beauts from both P.E.I. and B.C. (British Columbia, to the west). Fen and I and our new pals slurp them down.
"Wow, the ones from B.C. are so creamy," I whisper to Fen, not daring to utter these words to the man from P.E.I.
"There are only 138,000 people in P.E.I.," Rodney goes on, "and we also have the warmest waters north of Florida thanks to the gulf stream. It's great for shellfish."
Next up is a platter of smoked fish -- smoked chum salmon from B.C., smoked Atlantic mackerel from Nova Scotia and pepper-smoked steelhead trout from Newfoundland. The pepper-smoked trout is positively addictive. I start to imagine what it would take to bring Rodney to my own small town, San Francisco.
"So do oysters lead to good sex?" Fen asks the oyster man.
"I don't know if they lead to sex but they certainly enhance it," Rodney replies, the twinkle in his eye a full-blown gleam at this point. Something tells me this plaid-shirted, suspender-clad, ballcap-wearing man must be a rascal with the ladies, albeit in the sweetest of ways.
Last platter is a massive lobster from the waters of Nova Scotia, bright red outside and soft pinkish-white meat inside. We crack, slurp, swallow and smile.
"They call me the Messiah of the Mollusk, the Baron of the Bivalve..." The Prince of Prince Edward Island is holding court at his downtown, underground shellfish retreat and we, his loyal subjects, are benefitting royally.
* * * * *
We walk into the Hockey Hall of Fame and stumble onto a couple clad from head to toe in Toronto Maple Leafs regalia. They're standing in front of a display of NHL jerseys and seem to blend in perfectly with the background.
"You must be big fans," I say to the Leaf-ers.
"You bet," replies the wife. "We're from London."
"Really? You don't sound British at all."
"No, no, London, Ontario," the husband tells me. "It's two hours away."
"Ah, got it. So who's your favorite player?" I ask the husband.
"TIE DOMI," the wife booms. "He's my favorite!"
"Oh," I remark. "I don't know him. I don't know many hockey players, but I do know people like Mario Lemieux." I point to the cutout of Lemieux behind me.
"No, that's Ed Belfour of Dallas," the husband tells me. "They won the Cup last year on that controversial Hull goal. Ridiculous." The husband sneers. I conclude I'm out of my league here.
"Um, good luck in the playoffs," I tell my blue-and-white-clad friends, hoping this isn't another faux pas on my part.
"Yeah, thanks!" the wife tells me. "We won our division this year. Should be fine."
© 2000 Elaine Sosa
San Francisco, California
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