I wonder how Joe Fiorito would feel about me using a line from a Go-Go’s song as the title of a post about his book. He’d probably think it was amusing, think I was a character and would sit down and ask me many questions and then write about me, adding me to his list of interesting people who make Toronto what it is.
If the name Joe Fiorito is familiar to you, you’re likely a reader of the Toronto Star, where Fiorito has had a column for the past few years. I read his work regularly because he seems like a very genuine person who truly cares about the people he interviews, and in part, because he lives in my neighbourhood and can often be found expounding on why Parkdale gets a bum rap.
Fiorito’s book Union Station is a collection of essays on the human condition as seen in this, the centre of the universe, Toronto. Collections of essays on the human condition are a dime a dozen – every writer has a pile of half-finished character sketches of a neighbour or a professor or a particularly memorable blind date. But Joe Fiorito’s ouevre is not just that he is able to write about the people he encounters, but he is able to do so with such insight that it pulls at the heartstrings. Without being sappy.
The introduction sets the tone:
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 her 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.
He spends an evening with the guys at the local fire hall, tagging along on calls and watching them cook pasta with “Al Pacinos” (jalepenos), he explores the life of a crack-addicted hooker, buying her lunch and a pocket knife for safety in exchange for her story. Shelters, seniors homes, street health clinics, Kensington Market, a citizenship ceremony, even the story of a shoplifter, Fiorito tags along, asks the right questions and in the process tells the story of Toronto and the people who call this city home.
Union Station is a collection of stories from people from all walks of life, but it is also the story of Toronto; who we are, who we were, who we will become.
The most intriguing story is that of Lee Sew. When Fiorito finds an old Chinese cookery book on the shelves of a vintage book store, he begins a search to find the author, learning bits and pieces of his story from local restaurateurs and historians, ultimately tracking down a grave in Mount Pleasant Cemetery where the chef was buried. In the process he crosses lines of culture, digs up old prejudices and learns about the history of Toronto’s Chinatown.
This collection may not appeal to anyone not from Toronto. We are a self-indulgent, self-centred lot on occasion, and like people from every place, we like reading about ourselves more than we like reading about people from somewhere else. But I think most folks will recognize themselves in at least a few of the people Fiorito includes in his book. For , as he proves time and time again, we’re not all that different deep down.