Toronto the Good
Friends who visit me from the UK and US complain about the coldness of Torontonians. We don't say hi; we avoid eye contact; we are hostile and boring; and we will never be a world-class city, no matter how much fun our mayor Rob Ford was.
To out-of-town friends I say: Take five dogs for a walk. Or even one or two. Torontonians will commune with your canines, and often with you.
Really interested passersby usually coo at the dogs as they approach, so I'm prepared for a chat, although not necessarily for the baby talk: "What a cute, good wittle dog, wiff so much wuv in his eyes!" The dogs lap up the overblown and unearned compliments; yes, yes, they are gorgeous overachievers. Torontonians can be very affectionate, at least when babble-bantering with another species. A Maple Leafs victory parade, should the Leafs ever win, may generate equally bizarre, if drunken, bonhomie.
Of course, some people glare and pass by silently. Twenty-five years ago I would have done the same, so I remind myself conversion to dog can happen to anyone, at any time (although usually not if you're too busy, or too important, and if you're too busy being important, forget it).
I'd rate the ratio of positive-to-negative responses at 2:1. The other day, heading up St. George with Bronte, a stunning Greater Swiss Mountain dog, leading our pack, I encountered three people. The first, a woman whom I recognized as a senior shining light in the Canadian literary firmament, glanced at us and exclaimed in a just audible tone "Jesus!" Her gaze was not friendly. We were then passed by a young male university student, grinning encouragingly. He was followed by a woman who said appreciatively, "An armload of canines. And so well-behaved." It was a fairly typical sample of reactions. (I should think more people would be joyous at the sight of a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog. Maybe Torontonians are too cold.)
Seeing this dog on the street should put a spring in everyone's step.
Surprise at the dogs' camaraderie is common: "They all get along so well — no fighting!" I often respond by explaining that the better dogs know each other, the less they squabble — the opposite of humans, in my experience.
"You have a big family," is a frequent comment, usually said with admiration, and sometimes with obvious relief that it's not their family. Presumably these people think all the dogs are mine. I imagine that this was what life was like for women in the pre-pill era, always surrounded by a mob of dependents, with onlookers offering approval from a safe distance — from the Vatican, for instance.
Parents with children view the dog pack as either a threat, and cross the street, or as a pedagogical opportunity, and cross-examine the kids: How many dogs are there, what colour, which dog is cutest? I especially enjoy pre-lingual youngsters, mesmerized by dogs as furry, four-legged, moving beings. Their parents say things like "Woof woof!" and "Grrr!" comments which, I've noticed, I enjoy more than the dogs do.
Sometimes the kids are happier to meet and greet than the dogs are.
"You're well protected," is a remark made soley by men, always in an approving tone. At first it creeped me out; exactly what or whom did I need protection from? But when a couple of teens said to me, "No one's going to mess with you!" I realized they weren't imagining me as defenseless, but themselves. Now when I see men who are accompanied by big black dogs with studded collars, I feel sorry for them (the men, not the dogs). They feel vulnerable, the poor guys.
It's not just my visiting friends who notice what a difference a dog makes. Neighbours, especially apartment dwellers without children, have told me that no one ever said a word to them before they got a dog. So, if you're interested in breaking Toronto's social silence, walk a dog — maybe more than one. You'll help to make Toronto a chattier, more expressive place —much better than being world class.