Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Tree Grows in College Street

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A Tree Grows in College Street

This morning, like most mornings, I’m on my date with Johnny Zampini. No, he's not my husband, nor my therapist, nor my stylist. He’s my barista.

I woke up at my usual time, completed my ablutions, then spent the next hour or so herding my somnambulant teenage son off to high school. Then I threw on my coat and headed west on the north side of College Street to Crawford. I confess: I love College Street at this time of day. The housewives are out in full force. Many are shopping for fresh produce at Kenny’s, whose Chinese proprietors can wax lyrical, in both Italian and Portuguese, about the best basilico, funghi, and salted bacalau. The men are standing about in small knots, smoking cigarettes in front of the Caffe Bar Azzurri, still discussing Maradona and Mussolini. They tip their caps as I pass. I feel privileged that I can soak up the atmosphere of the street, long, long before the twenty-somethings descend from Vaughan and transform it into Clubland. (Though, I must say, the sight of an army of svelte twenty-somethings, packaged in leather and spandex, has its own charms.)

So, now, it’s 9 a.m., and I’m composing this blog, sitting in my usual spot, perched on a high stool at the first table along the windows of the Caffe Il Gatto Nero. I like this spot because I can gaze out upon College Street’s sole apple tree. It grows miraculously out of the pavement like The Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In the spring, it’s covered in magnificent blossoms, which eventually waft down and blanket the newly opened patio like a fragrant pink snow. As summer progresses, the tiny red fruit swell with pride, hanging like decorative bulbs. Caffe proprietor, the lively septuagenarian, Carmine Raviele, says he never sprays them ("I just trim the tree a little"); the apples, nevertheless, are really good to eat. (Is car exhaust a fertilizer?)

At the moment, the twisted branches of the tree are completely bare. But I still enjoy their spare, mot-juste beauty as I wait for Johnny. I don't have to order. My man knows what I want: a super short cappuccino, with little milk, lots of foam, and a generous sprinkling of chocolate. These days, I am tempted to ask for a pain au chocolat, as well—ever since The Cat switched suppliers and is bringing in their pastry from St. Clair Avenue’s wonderful Pain Perdu.

I am not, of course, the sole artist in the city who has discovered Il Gatto Nero. The Cat, even first thing in the morning, is hardly off-the-beaten-track. My fellow artists are all around me, tapping away on their laptops, meeting with friends and colleagues, dreamily staring out the windows at the grey fall sky. There, over in one corner, is filmmaker Bruce McDonald. Working at a separate table is his wife, fellow filmmaker Dany Chiasson (who just finished her extraordinary personal documentary on Joan of Arc). I also see burgeoning novelist Niloofar Hodjati; screenwriter and storyboard artist Matthew Taylor; journalist and retired CBC-ite Richard Wright; thespian Matt Gordon; and visual artist Francesco Galle. Galle, by the way, actually paints with coffee, and his iconic image of Sophia Loren hangs near the front window. He's also a true neighbourhood boy, who spent his youth in Italy and speaks fluent Italian.

Don't get me wrong, quite a few of the longer-standing neighbourhood folk still patronize The Cat each morning, including Nick Carnovale and Micchele Marchitto. Sunday, after mass at the St. Francis of Assisi church on Mansfield Avenue, is a good moment to catch the old-timers watching Formula 1 racing on the wide-screen TV at the back. Johnny, I warn you, will not be manning the macchina (though you'll likely find him seated at the bar). But Sam Cerundolo also makes a fine cup of coffee (as does Carmine!), and I love the fact that he plays opera and bel canto music.

Though I am, at this moment, busily taking notes, I don't usually write at The Cat. I more often use the respite to make my way slowly through a novel. As I said on my Open Book Home Page, I am, at the moment, reading Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. For those of you who aren't familiar with the work, it's a long, rollicking picaresque classic, which loosely follows, and takes liberties with, its author's life. (Check out the eponymous 1930s flick starring Leslie Howard and Bette Davis--who plays the greatest bitch on the silver screen.) Right now, I'm at the part where Maugham's alter-ego, Philip Carey, is sitting at a cafe in the Latin Quarter of Paris, passionately discussing Impressionist Art. And I suddenly don't know whether I am reading the words of the characters on the page, or overhearing my cafe-mates around me. While I decide, I think I'll order a second cappuccino...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page