On my first trip to Toronto since I was a toddler, I reached out to someone who really knows the city: the Tour Guy.
Looking for the Ontario division of the Eye Bank of Canada? Tour Guy can show you where it is.
Want to see the statue of Al Waxman, who played the gruff but lovable lieutenant on "Cagney and Lacey"? Tour Guy can take you to it.
Hungry for some Hungarian Thai food? Tour Guy can tell you where to chow down.
I didn't exactly think that I wanted to see or do any of those things when I took a walking tour with Tour Guy, a.k.a. Jason Kucherawy, recently. But the 34-year-old Toronto native was eager and amiable and promised not to lead me astray.
Since April 2009, Kucherawy and a friend have been running a company called Tour Guys in Toronto and Vancouver (tourguys.ca). (Jason covers Toronto, the friend is in charge of Vancouver, B.C.) On Fridays and Saturdays, Jason gives walking tours of Toronto's cultural, financial and political landmarks for free (though he gladly accepts tips). This year, he partnered with international tour company Intrepid Travel to add a program called Urban Adventures, themed walking tours designed to get people off those clunky tour buses.
"The idea is to get under the skin of a city, to see it from a local's perspective," Tour Guy said. Unfortunately, you have to pay for the Urban Adventure, but oh, well.
We met in front of the Art Gallery of Ontario for the two-hour Kensington Market/Chinatown Urban Adventure. Joining us were Valerie Fulmer and Sandy Copeland, who'd driven up from Pittsburgh.
Our first stop: the life-size moose sculpture on the grounds of the Italian consulate, one of more than 300 that were placed around the city in 2000. Painted on this one were the faces of famous Italians and Torontonians. Jason pointed out Terry Fox, a one-legged amputee who in 1980 set out on a cross-country run to raise money for cancer research. He made it almost halfway across Canada before succumbing to his cancer.
We went on to the largest of Toronto's six Chinatowns. "We are really a city of immigrants," said Jason. "People like myself, born in Toronto, we're a shrinking majority."
We walked past signs advertising haircuts for $6 Canadian and mom-and-pop shops hawking stuffed pandas, then stopped at a corner. In the heart of downtown's Chinatown, Jason dove into a history lesson. "The history of the Chinese community here is not a happy one," he said. The Chinese were lured to Toronto to help build the railroad but found themselves underpaid and living in slums. Many, however, worked hard and were able to start their own businesses.
We moved on to Kensington Market, which had begun as a Jewish market but is now filled with a variety of ethnic shops. In the early 1900s, Jews were fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe. Those who arrived in Toronto lived, like the Chinese, in slums. But many soon realized that they could make good money selling fruit and vegetables from pushcarts. Eventually, they bought houses in Kensington Market and converted the first floors into businesses.
Jason led us down a street lined with funky stores sporting such names as the Fairies Pyjamas and Courage My Love. Many were decorated with graffiti. Spray-painted on the side of one building was a giant piece (short for masterpiece, in graffiti parlance) of, appropriately enough, Andre the Giant. "Some people say it's an eyesore, but to me it's a sign that a neighborhood is vibrant," Jason argued.
The neighborhood was undeniably vibrant. We encountered fruit stands, bakeries, butcher shops, spice shops and non-chain coffee shops. An army-surplus store inexplicably displayed a bin of kids' gas masks on an outdoor table. We stumbled upon a restaurant called Roach o Rama: "Serving Potheads Since Ah, I Forget," the sign said. On the menu was a dish called "I'm Starving Dude!!" I would have liked to try it out, but a handwritten sign notified us that the restaurant was closed. "Open tomorrow 11am," it said. Figures.
I was enjoying our leisurely but educational tour, glad that I had decided not to walk around the neighborhood by myself. How else would I have learned the identity of that bronze statue of a chubby man in turtleneck and blazer at the edge of Bellevue Square Park?
Jason asked whether we could guess who it might be.
"A comedian?" Sandy ventured.
"A mafia boss?" I offered.
Nope. It was the late Al Waxman, one of Toronto's most beloved actors, the star of "The King of Kensington" (set in Kensington Market, of course), a television show that was Canada's "All in the Family." I tried to picture Waxman on "Cagney and Lacey," which I'd grown up watching, but I couldn't conjure the image.
After unsuccessfully searching for two more moose statues (they had disappeared, to Jason's surprise), we made our way to the University of Toronto building that's home to the Eye Bank of Canada, which stores donated eyes for transplants.
"Somewhere in that building is a really creepy room filled with eyes," Jason told us, pointing to the Gothic Revival structure that looked better suited to storing works of art. Adding to the creepiness factor, he told us that a young woman had fallen to her death from the third floor last September, allegedly during a ghost hunt, and that a professor had been murdered there in 2001. "I did it," said a stranger who overheard our discussion as he walked by. Everybody's a comedian.
Our tour ended at the Old City Hall, designed in 1899 by Edward James Lennox. Angered by the city's refusal to put his name on a plaque, Lennox had stonemasons etch the letters of his name around the entire building in corbels below the eaves. Jason, of course, was able to point out each letter.
It was after 4 p.m. and I'd been on my feet all day, so I took a streetcar back. I sat gazing out the window at the buildings passing by, sorry that I had no one to tell me what was inside them.