Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Casa Mendoza

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By rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series, "Sleeping in Toronto."

I was in some trouble a few summers back. Landlord trouble. Man trouble. In between acting in flagrant opposition to every piece of good advice I'd ever been given — I mean really basic advice — I was trying to write the last poems toward my second book. It wasn't working. I wasn't working. So, knowing from experience that it is possible to run away from one's problems, at least for a while, I ran. I didn't need to go far. I knew of several motels on Lake Shore Blvd. in that exotic western quadrant called Etobicoke. And, having travelled alone on many occasions between my former digs in Victoria and my parents' farm in Saskatchewan, I was well sold on the allure of the roadside motel, on the pleasures of the interim. Of being utterly alone, out of touch, but temporarily, knowing it will not always be this way. Because knowing that it might is another matter entirely.
          Karen Solie, “Roadside Sanctuary,” The Toronto Star

Before we knew it, a pilgrimage planned, sitting by the downtown edge of lakeshore the October before and talking about an eventual trip to Casa Mendoza, somewhere just over the horizon. The travel brochures claim excitedly, “An oasis ten minutes from CN Tower! Casa Mendoza Inn offers clean accommodations with a side of award winning hospitality.” Or:

Like discovering diamonds in the grass, visitors lucky enough to happen upon Toronto's Casa Mendoza Restaurant can't believe their luck. Built by a refreshingly eccentric connoisseur, who indulged his dream of creating an authentic Spanish estate on the shoreline of Toronto, Casa Mendoza's captivating bay windows overlook breathtaking Lake Ontario & Downtown Toronto.

We only knew it existed through Karen Solie’s poem of the same name, from her third collection, Pigeon (2009). “We knew it couldn’t last,” the poem writes, “and then it did.” Driving west, talking as we went, Lainna pulling up along a series of lakeshore buildings before I’d even noticed, the Spanish-style Casa Mendoza along the lake’s long edge, a pilgrimage of utter magnificence; a pilgrimage, arrived before I even needed to remind, remember. Is it any wonder we’re so perfectly matched?

This little slice of New Toronto, around a century or more, incorporated into village in 1913 and town some seven years later. A corner extending city limits broadcast in an article in the Toronto Globe (precursor to it merging with the Daily Mail) on “Toronto’s Growing Suburb — New Toronto — As it is and what it will be.” (October 25, 1890). New Toronto, now held as the federal riding Etobicoke — Lakeshore since 2006 by Michael Ignatieff; did he win before or after Solie’s infamous stay? Standing on extended patio facing back downtown, the cookie smells of mother’s kitchen through the air, the 501 Queen streetcar line running slowly along Lake Shore Boulevard.

As Solie wrote in a June, 2006 piece on Mendoza for the Toronto Star, a perfect kind of retreat. And a top floor patio, the most beautiful view of distant downtown, the wraparound lakeshore showing off the financial district and harbourfront as a kind of Emerald City bathed in a silver-grey, shimmering and shining of the summer sun. The Casa Mendoza, as reopened by new owners in 2006, and Stephanie Dickison wrote of in Dine TO, “Gone are the pale walls, wood chairs, exposed brick posts and typical Spanish design, though the original look has been kept for the restaurant’s entranceway. The upscale look of black tiled pillars, onyx padded seats and carpeting and white hot chandelier really update the room.” Does Solie’s Toronto Star piece predate the change or come just at the forefront?

Despite the manifold charms of the Hillcrest and North American, no sojourn to the strip is complete without a field trip to the Casa Mendoza. Its patio off the second-floor bar has a wonderful breezy view of the lake. At dusk tiny bats flit over the lawns. The number of pre- and post-tryst cocktails enjoyed here is likely staggering. The decor is Raymond Chandler à la Dick Richards. Some nights it erupts into a full-bore piano bar. On one such evening we witnessed a performer whose surreal latitude of material and style and liberties with basic accuracy were astonishing to the point of subtle menace. On another, a young Polish bartender perpetrated upon us multiple shooters of recipes forged in the desperate furnaces of hell. Tabasco sauce and kir were involved. Meanwhile, a beautifully dressed wedding party sipped white wine and exchanged gifts and toasts on the patio. You just never know.

We saw no weddings, but could see how they’d fit, in such a setting. Otherwise, beside the parking lot, weeds and grass wild, poking holes through a flat-top of concrete, seemingly a former foundation where the corpse of a pink stuffed animal lay, perhaps where it fell. Is this the promise of New Toronto? Our bottles of Steam Whistle; we thought, when in Rome....

After patio drinks and breathtaking panorama, the promise we made to each other to stay at some point. Lainna pulling the car out of the hidden drive, turning west, up into the north, the showroom for a new set of condos being built, the New Toronto living she had seen with her sister, weeks earlier. Half a million dollar condos, a shore line of buildings that might eventually circle the lake. In the showroom, as she ran her fingers along black marble tabletops. I slyly inhaled half a dozen smoked-salmon bite-sized sandwiches. Is this really where she wants to live? What about the house with trees out front, some kind of yard? I remember the New York Times best-selling novel she once told me I’m to write. Really?

***

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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