“Going out Toni?” Muck Daniels spots me in the lobby. He cradles three cans of cola fresh from the vending machine. This is mix for his evening’s fine Tennessee whiskey. “You be careful out there Babe. I don’t want to read about you tomorrow.”
Ugh. Of course I don’t respond. I hope someday he’ll stop trying. Why would he say that? I’ve been outside at night before. But I’ve never circled the same streets for three hours.
I walk north on Church and my anxiety grows with every step. Am I really doing this? Yes. Why? There’s four hundred dollar bills in my back pocket and eight more coming tomorrow; that’s why. My growing unease coalesces into actual fear. Calm down. I’m on the path to greatness right? Yes. But I haven’t been this nervous since I first came to the city, and since the glass towers beaconed me closer. I remember the first moments, the first hours and the shots I recorded. I was so proud of myself, and so certain my compositions were unique and valuable. But they weren’t any good. The work was uninspired. I outgrew my amateur styles and overcame my technical sloppiness. Nothing from my first week exists today, except in my memories; it’s all been copied over on the chips.
I open my phone and start Facebook’s Live Producer. If things get dicey tonight, I can record straight to the Cloud. Hmm Facebook or Instagram? Facebook Live has a longer duration, while Instagram Live only lets you broadcast for one hour. All I have to do is press “Start Live Video,” and my followers will get a notification letting them know I’m broadcasting. The moment the video ends, for any reason, its uploaded to my Toni Petti LIVE Facebook page. This matters because if someone abducts me and destroys my phone, the video evidence is preserved and incorruptible.
I have the proper encoding software installed to use Live Producer. If I was more skilled I could tether my camera to my phone and send my high quality footage straight to the cloud using Camra. I have a starter account there but to upload three hours of footage would be well over the freebee limit. I’d do it anyway if I wasn’t so broke. I’d do it so no matter what happened there’d be an indelible record of my last moments. Okay calm down. I’m overreacting, I know. Blue is right. Upscale neighborhoods in Toronto are perfectly safe for people like me, white girls.
I’m so accustomed to my Panasonic Lumix GH5 that I can just pick it up shoot in a moments notice and without a second thought. But that’s during the day. Recording good video at night is another story. If this were a professional shoot with clients that expected broadcast quality product, I’d do things differently. I’d rent lights and work with prime lenses. But I’m not out here to make art.
A soft breeze flaps a Canadian flag on a tall pole at the corner of Carlyle and Church. The red and white fabric glows in the last daylight. I’m here to record this place, and I’m five minutes early, which means I'm right on time. I turn-on my camera and use the flag as my opening shot. How patriotic. I hold-up my phone to use as camera slate and to record the time. When I lower the phone, I can feel the Panasonic’s auto-exposure grinding away to make a proper picture. There just isn’t enough light in the sky anymore and the aperture can’t open wide enough. I can see the noise, or grain as it were, if this were a film camera. Poor exposure on video manifests as lack of detail and image distortion same as in film. I could switch lenses. If I switched to my f 1.8 prime lens, I could utilize the Lumix’s Speedbooster feature which increases the amount of light on the sensor, but then I wouldn’t be able to creep around and use my zoom button to get closer. I like doing that. It works great during the day in the hotspots downtown, but it’ll look terrible here at night. Again, I don’t care.
I turn my back on Carlyle’s ugliness and walk ahead to Drummond, which is far prettier. At 9:05 pm, the streetlights under the maples make pools of light over expensive cars parked curbside. The green trees glow magnificently and transform the street into a huge leafy cathedral which is a luxury car showroom and testament to Capitalism, and how the rich survive pandemics. They’re safe in their townhomes enjoying open air BBQs on their rooftops while the rest of us struggle at low end jobs.
There’s a tiny park at the end of the street. A lonely snack vendor packs up his hotdog cart at the south end. His signature black and yellow umbrella is already collapsed and tied on the ground beside red and blue plastic coolers. He works at edge of this greenspace which is little more than a doggie bathroom for The Met condo building at Yonge and Carleton. It’s probably a good spot to sell sausages though, and that's because it’s so close to the pedestrian breezeway that connects this residential enclave to Yonge Street. I can see the sidewalk beside his cart is marked with chalk lines every six feet so his patrons can social distance. It seems odd to me that he can open during Lockdown when all other indoor dining establishments must remain closed. For that reason, he probably made good money today.
A purple patch of sidewalk betrays the presence of a mulberry tree. They’re all over Toronto. I don’t know why mulberries aren’t more popular in the markets. They’re delicious, and I can see this one is absolutely loaded with black thumb-sized berries. The outbreak has slowed the flow of pedestrians bold enough to eat something they find growing wild in the city. I’m probably the one-in-a-hundred who’ll give it a go. Mmm they’re good.
As I’d seen from Neill Wycik earlier, there’s a dozen little stores on Carlyle and they’re all closed except for a BBQ Ribs shop which must be doing Take Out as nobody is allowed inside. I cross the street to get the whole shopping district in one shot.
I clear the sidewalk just in time. A teenage boy with baggy shorts and a purple Toronto Raptors t-shirt rides past and startles me. I pan to follow and watch him stash his bike in a crawlspace between buildings.
One bonus feature that comes with the Panasonic Lumix GH5 is new technology labeled Ex-Tele-Conv which is short for Extra Telephoto Conversion. When I switch-on that function I can extend the range of my lens another forty percent. It works better during the day when there’s more light, but I try it now. And... Oh wow that is ugly. It looks terrible. I’ll need to swap-out this zoom lens and use my f 1.8 prime, but for now I remain nice and hidden among the parked cars on the south side of Carlyle.
On the north side of the street, the teenager bangs on the door of the rib joint in a manner that suggests he knows the owner. The entrance cracks and the youngster stands back. I hear him order Ackee and Saltfish, fries and a coke. The proprietor allows him inside to wait. I want to zoom-in, but it’s hard to keep everything in focus. I require more stability. Long lens camera work in dim light means I need to make myself into a human tripod. I usually lean against buildings, but now I rest my body against a minivan. I raise my leg on the bumper and crouch down to use my knee as a camera platform. Then I zoom even closer.
With the Ex. Tele Conv feature, I can push-in through the front window and see right into the eatery. Because it’s backlit, I can read the menu sign on the wall behind the counter. Here are postcard-sized flags of Caribbean nations and the names of many spicy dishes including jerk chicken, curried goat & oxtail, ackee and saltfish. Not many Canadians know that ackee is fruit that grows in the islands and saltfish is salted cod. I didn’t know that before moving to Toronto.
Crash! A box drops. Metal implements tumble across asphalt. I open my other eye and swish-pan to the left. Rapid camera moves are something else I’ve been practicing. A swish-pan is a really quick camera adjustment while holding a tight shot. To do it well is to make it seem effortless; it should happen at uniform speed and come to a sudden stop. The secret is to find the target with your left eye and then use your right eye to direct the lens to the perfect spot without any tweaks. It’s really hard to do during the day, and almost impossible at night. I make a terrible mess. Yet the image I find intrigues me, and when I look closer I can see it’s kind of revolting.
“Oh... How un-appetizing.” The sausage vendor had upset a Tupperware container filled with forked tongs, spatulas, knives and kebobs. It fell from his rig on the cement and now the steel utensils shimmer under the streetlight. He picks-up the cookware and wipes each piece on his pants before he puts it back in his tub. He senses he’s being watched and looks around but can’t detect any witnesses to his shame. “Mmmm.. Delicious...” I say, absently filling the soundtrack.
A sudden flash catches my eye. It’s a keychain light, or a phone screen? I swish pan back to see a dark figure approach against bright storefronts. When he steps under the streetlight I can see he’s wealthy. Gold and silver jewelry glitters. He’s Asian, a senior citizen, and his face wears a permanent scowl. This makes him appear miserly, like a Chinese Scrooge. When he crosses in front of the Carlyle Dry Cleaner’s frosted windows I catch his profile and note how he keeps his long hair in a horse tail, which is different than a pony tail because it sticks out at the back.
He stops in front of sturdy shop with bars in the windows, Rabethgie’s Jewelry. The business is closed of course and the whole storefront is safe behind a retractable chain-link enclosure. But he lingers by the door as though he’s about to break-in. To my surprise, he reaches inside and retrieves a tiny finger-sized black metal box. Oh that’s not very secure. I just learned his secret hiding spot. He slides open the magnetic lockbox, the kind you tuck-up under an automobile in case of emergencies. That could indicate the store has multiple owners and not enough door keys. That’s what Marcy’s parents had to do after she lost everything while swimming at Cobourg Beach.
The shop owner retracts the metal grill in front of the store. He takes great care to make sure it all folds-up properly and even adjusts a flange which convinces me he is the owner and not someone breaking into the place. Too bad! A break & enter would be a 10/10 good video.
The jewelry store has bars over the glass. I watch him unlock and open the entrance. I continue to zoom and catch his face again as he pulls the door closed behind him. He has a perma-frown. I watch as he turns the bolt lock. Then, mercilessly, I electronically creep even closer, using the greatest magnification possible. The picture is chunky, but I don’t care. I just want to see his angry face one more time. But instead I catch his shoulder and arm. I watch as he opens the door-alarm panel and punches the necessary code on the keypad. My amplified vision records the keystrokes and I speak them aloud, ”2, 5, 6, 3,” I say softly to myself, proud of my camera work. The owner closes the panel and disappears inside and I pull back to record the exterior again. The overhead sign, Rabethgie’s Jewelry... Wait. Stop. I can’t include this!
What I’ve just recorded cannot be displayed in any video posted to my channel. Toni Petti LIVE can’t show the world, or my Trinidadian patrons how to crack the alarm on a locked business. I have to cut that bit out right now.
I stop recording and switch to replay. I sit and watch the display, fast-forwarding through the last take right up to the hotdog vendor’s accident. Here I make a splice to separate-out the jewelry store owner’s entrance. Now I have two videos in the memory card; one is thirty-six minutes and the other is two minutes, ten seconds. The first one I label Video One, and the second smaller cast-off I leave unlabeled. I should delete it, but I don’t.
I switch-out my telephoto for my f1.8 prime. This is my fastest lens and it makes a much brighter image in the viewer. That’s better. But now I can't zoom-in and out of scenes. I’ll just keep moving slow and wide like this and that should make nice clear pictures and keep me reasonably safe. I’ll patrol these two streets at a snail’s pace and record everything I encounter. If anyone gets close or tries to talk to me, I’ll go live on Facebook with my iPhone.
On my next pass around the parkette I get footage of the hotdog vendor hitching his mobile kitchen to the back of his pickup truck. He works directly under a streetlamp and it’s an attractive shot. Very film noir. I crouch to record his vehicle’s license plate and the permit number on his cooker. I make sure to get the names Ali & Tamina Bihami on the laminated document. I also note the two and half bags of trash he leaves on the curb for pickup. That’s comprehensive. He gives me a dirty look which I ignore and move-on down the road. I pass two dog owners who stand six feet apart and discuss American politics.
I walk down Drummond again. The street is filled with flat roof townhouses that are rael tall, as Blue says. I can hear music and laughter and the tinkle of glassware. It reminds me of an earlier time in my life and something I really don’t really want to think about right now. It reminds me of the cottages on Pine Lake in the Kawarthas, and Peter Daglish. It reminds me of how, three years ago I made a terrible mistake. Then I spent almost two years afterwards learning how to take responsibility for my actions.
One tree has low boughs and only after I cross underneath do I see it. Drummond has a rear alley.
How interesting. I didn’t even see this hidden entrance on my first pass. Nor did I notice any exits on Carlyle. Maybe there is no exit? It’s possible the lane is just a dead end. Either way, the rear corridor likely runs parallel between the two streets for some length, maybe the whole distance. The alley was not marked on Fodor’s Travel Map of Toronto. It’s either too small for the tourist cartography, or it’s a private drive. I look around and find a clue. Overgrown by the summer’s untrimmed bushes, I can see a blue and white metal street sign.
The City of Toronto signpost says, Kerson Lane. I take out my phone and open Google Maps. I geo-locate and zoom-down. It’s there. It’s listed on the map and so that means it’s public property. Am I sure about that? And even if it's public, do I dare explore such a place at night? I’m a girl and this is Toronto. My Mom would be horrified if she could see me now. I'm spooked. Pretty girls don’t adventure down dark alleys in the city, or even wander the same sidewalks for hours. I’m already pushing it. Besides, Chantwell didn't say anything about an alley. I scurry ahead to the next lamppost.
I orbit towards the parkette again, past the sausage vendor’s trash and around the bend to return on Carlyle. The bicycle rider is gone from inside the BBQ Ribs shop and now the proprietor has his back turned. He cleans his stove in solitude and looks like he’s getting ready to close. The lights are turned-on in the jewelry store, but there’s no sign of Scrooge. I hear rap music coming from a rael tall rooftops on Drummond.
A white Mercedes Sprinter van drives toward me down the street. I pan to follow as it passes and let its stubby hood push my frame. I can see there are two people inside. They're both wearing dark clothes with reflective patches. The driver is bald and the passenger appears overweight or really heavily armoured, or both. He stares at me and I can see and feel him frown at my camera. Shudder. That’s the sum of all my fears right there. If I see them again I’ll turn on my iPhone and go live.
I continue down Carlyle toward Church street. Somewhere down here is the other entrance to the alley. How could I have missed it on both ends? Eventually I see what resembles the rear driveway to a four story building. That’s it. I know that must be the other side of Kerson Lane. It looks well-lit back there too and I can see plenty of parked cars. The view beckons. I indulge my curiosity.
Garages and tall fences line both sides of the alley which is only ten feet across and has a pronounced v-shaped bottom with drainage grates every forty feet. The trail is shaded by tree limbs but there’s lamps and pools of light all down the line. It looks very creepy and off limits. Every step forward requires great personal courage, a prideful belief in my own ability, and some measure of stupidity. Why am I doing this?
I hear a big dog sniff at me behind one of the fences. I take a few more steps and see more fancy cars parked behind steel gates in flagstone-paved rear-parking lots. Another dozen paces and I hear muffled voices.
A naked light bulb turns-on inside a small garage ten feet away. Double doors open and two people are backlit as they fumble with latches. Inside the shed are two gorgeous motorcycles, one is a cherry red chopper with long handlebars while the other is a royal blue Harley Davidson Fatboy with gold trim. Two men stand in front of the garage in silhouette. My heart races. A flashlight turns-on and I freeze.