Joe Fiorito has spent the morning working on a follow-up story about two bickering parking lot attendants in downtown Toronto. Since his first column about the lots, the feud has escalated and one of the attendants, an Ethiopian immigrant named Gashaw Mequanent, now has a broken wrist. It’s a typical Fiorito piece, a tiny urban story about the lives of people who are usually overlooked in the media. We are standing on the corner of Wellington and John streets at lunch hour and the sidewalk is streaming with pedestrians. “I’m going to get philosophical now,” he warns. “People get caught up in stuff. Shit happens. Not everyone knows how to avoid it, but it’s how people deal with things that I find interesting. I like all of it because it’s about being human.” Suddenly, he motions toward the sidewalk and says, “Look.” There, in the midst of the flow of human traffic, a scrappy pigeon is trying to peck a discarded peanut butter sandwich out of a sealed Ziploc bag. Eventually it wanders off, leaving the sandwich unopened. “Stupid pigeon,” Fiorito says. “You gave up.”
Pointing out “stuff”-a word he uses constantly-that people are too busy to notice themselves is pretty much all Fiorito says he wants to accomplish with his thrice-weekly column in the National Post. By combing the city streets looking for slice-of-life stories about the working class and the underclass, 52-year-old Fiorito has carved out a niche for himself as Toronto’s tough-talking, old-style reporter. His columns have covered a diverse range of subjects: the building at Bloor and Lansdowne that houses both a church and a strip club, for instance, or the Tibetan man caught shoplifting fade cream to make his skin lighter. Like other city columnists of his ilk-most notably Jimmy Breslin?he possesses an unwavering compassion for the underdog, a storyteller’s instincts and an ability to portray the dignity of everyday people.
It’s a rare combination and one that some say is lacking in Canadian journalism. “There’s a very important spiritual aspect to life that we tend to grind out of journalism, and that is that each human being is unique,” says journalist and media critic Robert Fulford. “That human uniqueness is something we beat out of newspapers because it’s so hard to report, it takes so much sensitivity and you can’t assign it. As a result, even the arts get covered in a very brutal, simpleminded way. Fiorito doesn’t do that.”
Readers have sometimes criticized Fiorito’s tendency to ignore the middle and upper classes. But ask him why he doesn’t broaden his scope and Fiorito doesn’t back down. “Rich people don’t need anyone to stick up for them. So, I’m a bleeding heart, so what?”
So, at last count, Fiorito was the only working-class bleeding heart with a regular column at the National Post, a paper that often reads like an advertisement for the Canadian Alliance in the front section and a how-to-be-hip manual in the rest. And although he writes more about people than politics, his columns definitely carry the underlying message that society should take care of its weaker members-a sentiment distinctly out of step with the overall tone of the Post. “From a social perspective,” he says. “I still think that the best measure of any society is how well it takes care of its weakest members. We don’t take care of ours very well.”
Given his politics, he must have been apprehensive about writing for the Post. Did it bother him? “No,” he says firmly. But when pressed, he concedes. “Yeah, at first I was concerned about it because I didn’t know what direction the paper what going to take. But [editor Ken Whyte] said he just wanted me to do what I do, the way I do it, and that’s the only direction he’s ever given me.”
“He’s a populist, it’s not a right-wing, left-wing thing,” says Barry Brimbecom, t0he Post’s Toronto assignment editor until last November. Fiorito more or less agrees. “I don’t see myself as occupying any particular role politically. But I have some personal inclinations that lead me into certain territory.” The territory he explores certainly doesn’t provoke much criticism from other journalists. Most of my attempts to find other writers?including Globe columnists Peter Gzowski and Allan Fotheringham and National Post media critic John Fraser-who would say anything negative about Fiorito’s column proved futile. And even the usual right-wing suspects such as David Frum declined to comment. “I can’t think of anyone who will criticize him,” says John Fraser. “His edge is his own personality-he is basically just a decent person trying to tell people’s stories. Usually the people he gets angry at [in his column] are pretty loathsome. So, you’re going to dig up your dirt with people who are themselves kind of foul.”
I am on the verge of succumbing to such desperate tactics when I find Don Obe, a writing professor in the magazine stream at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, who describes Fiorito as “a poor man’s Jimmy Breslin” and says he finds his column too sentimental. Without naming names, I run this past Fiorito.
“Sure I’m sentimental,” he says. “I would use a different word. I’d use the word empathetic.”
“This person used the word corny.
“Fuck him. Seriously, fuck him. That’s fine. Anyone can think anything they want. Some people think any kind of sympathetic light cast on the underdog is corny. Let them read Joey Slinger. Let them read Robert Fulford. Let them read Rebecca Eckler. I don’t do that stuff. I do my stuff. And there is a place for my stuff in the paper.”
The only other criticism I can dredge up comes from a business writer and friend of mine who doesn’t want to be named. Although my friend leans to the right, he says that’s not the reason he doesn’t read the column-he just finds Fiorito too predictable. “It’s always the same,” he groans. “It’s always about some crack-addicted whore on the corner.” I hesitantly repeat this to Fiorito. “Fuck him,” he says offhandedly. “There aren’t very many other columnists who actually get out on the goddamn sidewalk and talk to real people about what the fuck they’re doing.”
The first time we talk, Fiorito is a little guarded. I leave a message at the National Post and when he returns my call I’m engrossed in The Closer We Are to Dying, Fiorito’s moving and honest memoir. I’m reading the part where Fiorito explains why his ancestors fled to Canada from Italy-his great uncle had just killed a man. He tells me he doesn’t give out his home phone number-even though he’s only been to the National Post offices four times in two years. He seems so apprehensive that I ask him if he wants to know anything about me. So he quizzes me on why I want to be a journalist, what I have done with my life so far and why I have chosen him as a subject. I tell him it’s because he’s an old-school city columnist who actually spends time on the streets of Toronto, which he seems to find amusing. “I can’t act cagey or you’ll write I acted cagey,” he says, and eventually hands over the number?but he is acting kind of cagey, no question.
We agree to meet for coffee at the Lakeview Lunch, an old-fashioned diner on the corner of Dundas and Ossington. He shows up right on time and orders his coffee black. He has combed-back dark hair and is wearing Levi’s, a leather bomber jacket and a light-coloured shirt. He looks like a middle-aged version of “The Fonz.”
Initially, he seems to take himself too seriously, only lightening up once during a two-hour interview when I ask what kind of car he drives (“It’s a Subaru, very middle-class, with two airbags and four- wheel drive”). He cracks only one tiny smile, when he leaves me to pay the bill, walks away, and then comes back to check if that’s okay. “You pay’n’?”
He continues to seem wary about the piece for our first few interviews. “There’s an element of risk to it,” he says the second time we meet, while walking from Queen Street East to the parking lot on Wellington Street.
“What is it that you are you nervous about specifically?
“Off the record?”
“I don’t want to look like a pretentious jerk.”
“Have you been called a pretentious jerk?”
“No, it’s my worst nightmare.”
“Why is that off the record?”
He laughs, “Okay, you can write that.”
Weeks later, when I summon the courage to tell him I didn’t like him at first, he smiles. “I might have been a little diffident because I wasn’t sure what you were after,” he says. “I take what I do very seriously, and when you transcribe passion into print, it can come across as goofy.”
You think this is just a simple story about a couple of guys slotting cars in a parking lot? Shows how much you know. This ain’t simple, this is war and it’s every bit as vicious as Chapters v. Indigo, or Onex v. Air Canada. This is Gashaw v. Tim. See, there’s a little parking lot on Wellington, close to the CBC, patronized by the downtown crowd. For the past few years, as far as anybody knew, it’s been the bailiwick of Gashaw Mequanent, a sweetheart of a guy. As far as any of the customers knew the little lot on Wellington was just one lot, and Gashaw was the man. Then suddenly a couple of weeks ago, one of my informants pulls up and finds Gashaw, as usual, directing cars in the cold grey inner-city morning. But he’s not smiling. And he’s not alone. Over there, on the west side of the lot, stands a new guy, a guy named Tim, and Tim is hustling cars over to his side and nobody knows who he is or why the lot is suddenly split in two, but Tim’s charging a buck less.
Describing the feud as vicious is no exaggeration. Gashaw, his mangled wrist in a cast, is now sitting across from Fiorito in a coffee shop on Queen Street, east of Yonge, close to Gashaw’s apartment. Unable to park cars, he has been fired by his boss, whom Fiorito refers to as “the Old Greek.” Gashaw hasn’t been able to collect employment insurance, welfare or worker’s compensation, his wife is unemployed and their rent is coming up due.
“What happened? Set it up for me,” Fiorito says, scribbling in a little black notebook.
“How can I explain,” Gashaw says. “Something is wrong with his [Tim’s] mind. He’s moody. But I never saw him like that before. He was very aggressive.” Gashaw explains that it was a busy night with a baseball game on at SkyDome. Tim thought Gashaw was gaining an unfair advantage by placing his sign too close to the road, so he kicked it over and punched Gashaw in the neck. Tim hit him again and Gashaw fell over and landed on his wrist, spilling the change he was holding in his hand. When he tried to pick up the change, his hand wouldn’t cooperate.
“I said, ‘My hand is broken.'”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘I don’t care.'”
“I’ve got some more calls to make on this one,” says Fiorito and we head off to pay Tim a visit.
When we arrive at the lot, Fiorito checks in with Gashaw’s replacement, before he heads over to the other side. Tim Mielen, a white guy probably in his late 20s with small teeth, is wearing a baseball cap, green-tinted sunglasses and a CBC Sports bomber. He has his own version of the story: Gashaw took a swing at him and then tripped. “They’re not the angels they’re making themselves out to be,” he says and accuses Gashaw and another parking attendant of rusting the keyhole of his booth by urinating on it. Tim says both sides hurl insults at each other constantly but denies he has said anything racist. “I lived in Jamaica for a year. So I know how to deal with them,” he says, even though Gashaw is Ethiopian.
“Keep your cool,” Fiorito says and walks off. “We’re trying,” Tim calls after him, grinning. “We’re trying to be one big happy family.”
“It’s a ‘he said, he said,'” Fiorito comments as we leave.
“But who do you believe?”
Fiorito’s compassion for the underdog and determination to show readers what daily life is like for those who don’t have a voice in the mainstream press are the direct result of being raised in a rough family and neighbourhood in Fort William, Ontario. “Everything I know, I learned there,” he says of the hard-drinking, blue-collar town that merged with Port Arthur to become Thunder Bay in 1970. “I learned it in part by seeing what my parents did and in part by seeing what other people did. I learned the value of standing up for myself because that’s what people did there.”
Before he was old enough to attend school, Fiorito stood up for his mother by leaping onto his father’s back, saving her from being strangled to death. He describes the experience in the first few pages of his memoir:
I was sitting on the couch with my arm around my brother; he was too afraid to cry. My father tore off his belt and began to whip her. He hit her arms, he hit her shoulders, the thin belt raised red welts. Grace fought back. And then he dropped his belt and his hands were at her throat and he was choking her now. She was a fish out of water in his hands, wriggling, gasping for air. He squeezed her neck, and she made a choking sound and then she weakened and her legs began to buckle. And I knew he was killing her. I jumped from the couch and ran across the room and leapt on his back. Don’t hurt my mother, don’t hurt my mother, don’t you hurt her. I clung to his shoulders. He tried to shake me off. I wasn’t sure if he’d turn on me but I didn’t care if he did. She might be able to break free. And then he let her go.
Having to be on guard in his own home taught Fiorito to observe. “And I began to study him,” he writes. “If I sensed a certain brooding, if the air around him was charged, if there was a scent of alcohol in his sweat, I hushed my brother and plotted the route of my own escape. I glanced at my mother every time he came home. We shared the intuition of prisoners.”
And although his father had what Fiorito refers to as “complications,” he refuses to demonize him. “It’s only WASPs that want to turn him into a villain,” he says while standing in the kitchen of his Parkdale home, chopping vegetables for the spaghetti sauce many of his friends have raved about to me. His home is simply and tastefully decorated. More than 200 cookbooks line the shelves of his kitchen. And not far from where he is standing, a poster advertising the German edition of his book-of a man wearing a white undershirt in bed, propped up against the bedpost, clarinet in hand-hangs framed on the wall. “I can’t condemn him, what’s the point of condemning him? I made an unconscious decision early on that I wasn’t going to be a victim of a whole bunch of stuff. Do I look like a victim to you?”
“Yeah, but if your dad beats up your mother, is that all right?”
“It’s who he was. I don’t do that. I wouldn’t do that. I’m not condoning it. I don’t condone it. But I refuse to judge him. Anyone is capable of doing anything at any given time. You just don’t know.” “So it was the circumstances he was under?” “The circumstances of who he was, the circumstances of his time, the circumstances of his generation, the circumstances of what happened to him in his life. That’s what it did to him.”
“So, he’s the victim, not your mother?”
“What’s with this victim stuff?”
“You brought it up, I didn’t.”
“Listen, we’re all a product of the things that work on us.”
“But we’re still responsible.”
“Sure, but you do what you can. And some people are capable of doing more than others, and some people are capable of doing less. I’m not going to run around condemning everybody who I think is less than Mother Teresa.”
Fiorito credits his father-a postman who moonlighted as a “bushtown bandstand idol,” playing the trombone and singing in bars around Thunder Bay-with teaching him the art of storytelling. They would sit at the kitchen table together late at night and his father would tell him stories about the family. Today, Fiorito believes that because every person is capable of a wide range of human behaviour, judging anyone is hypocritical. And so he shines a sympathetic light on the lives of shoplifters, drug addicts and prostitutes. In the process he often discovers what drives them.
The security guard has all the information he needs, but I have some questions of my own for the small man.
“Please tell me why you took the cream?” No answer. “Why did you take the cream?” “Please, forgive.”
“Yes, but why did you take the cream?” The small brown man looks at me pleadingly. He touches a hand to his cheek and says, “Because of this.”
“What do you mean?”
“To make lighter.”
“It will be better, sir.”
He thinks it will be better for him if he has lighter skin. He’s new here. He doesn’t know. He must have thought. He didn’t think.
Although Fiorito didn’t write his first column until he was 43, he first realized he wanted to write at age 16 after reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams. “That he made art out of people’s lives really struck a chord with me,” he says. “That’s when I had the first real glimmer of wanting to be a writer.” That summer, because he couldn’t find employment and couldn’t stand hanging around the house, he rode the bus around Thunder Bay scribbling surreptitious notes about who got on and what they looked like.
After high school, Fiorito attended Lakehead University for a few months. “I was only there long enough to inhale,” he writes. He dropped out and moved to Toronto, working in an ad agency as an office flunky for nine months, doing the usual photocopying and errand running. From there he went to Manitoba, where he spent four months as a labourer on a dam. Next stop was the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean, where he spent almost a year “learning how to drink bad wine and write bad poems.” Soon after he moved back to Thunder Bay, a shotgun marriage at age 23 delayed his writing aspirations.
The marriage lasted roughly two years?during which time he worked as a surveyor?and when it ended, he got custody of their two-and-a-half-year-old son. “She had her own demons to deal with,” he says of his first wife. Around this time, Fiorito worked as a regional consultant for the Ontario Arts Council and then as a community developer for the city of Thunder Bay, reviewing local theatre for CBC Radio on the side. The freelance work led to a job managing a CBC Radio station in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for five years. Then, in 1985 he moved to Saskatchewan, producing Saskatchewan Today at CBC Radio for three years before a two-year stint as network producer. After that, he produced a show about food for six months and worked on the executive of the now-defunct CBC national radio union. It was at union meetings that Fiorito met his second wife, Susan Mahoney, now a senior producer at CBC Radio’s This Morning. “She’s really smart, she’s got a good heart and she’s got a really good bullshit detector,” he says proudly.
His son, now a punk-rock musician and silk-screen printer in Vancouver, moved out at 17. “We went through his teens like a pair of Shermans burning down each other’s South,” Fiorito writes. “The civil war is over now, thank God.” Friends of Fiorito say he was a strict father. “Was I strict?” he considers the question. “I suppose I was. Why? Have a kid and tell me. Nobody knows better how to break your heart than your kid. I was afraid that he was going to take some wrong turns that were irreversible. He’s such a beautiful kid and he’s turned out to be really thoughtful. He was just a rock at both my father’s death and my brother’s.” Having a child young worked out for the best. “By the time he was old enough to pack up his guitar, tell me to fuck off and head for the coast, I was still young enough to start a second life.”
In 1990, one year after his son left home, The Food Showwas cancelled. So when Mahoney received an offer to produce CBC’s Cross Country Checkup in Montreal in 1991, Fiorito took his settlement package from CBC and they moved east. After spending two years in Montreal writing poetry and “getting paid five bucks for something that took me two weeks to write,” he walked into the office of Hour, a new alternative English language weekly just starting up, armed with three columns about the emotional and sensual role of food in people’s lives. “I said, ‘Here, this is what I can do. If you need them, call me.'” The editor called him the night before the first issue hit the stands and asked if Hour could use one. The next week, Hour asked to use the second one. After that, the paper ran the third and wanted more. He was paid a mere $70 a piece.
Then, in 1994, Comfort Me with Apples, a collection of these columns, was published. The book was well received and the Montreal Gazette tried to lure him away from Hour to become its food columnist. Fiorito turned the paper down. “I said no-with great trembling because I wasn’t interested in writing about food anymore and because I wasn’t interested in leaving the paper that had given me a bit of a break.” TheGazette responded by offering him a position writing a weekly column about anything he wanted. This time he accepted, and he continued to write his food column for Hour. He was still getting paid a pittance at theGazette, $250 for his weekly column-eventually that went up to $350-for writing so good that it won a National Newspaper Award in 1995.
Although he loved Montreal, when his wife was offered a job too good to refuse in 1997, the couple moved to Toronto. Less than a year later, Ken Whyte, who says he was a big fan of Fiorito’s, called and offered him a column in an upcoming new paper, the National Post.
Joe fiorito leaves a message on my machine. He is working on a story about an after-school program in St. Jamestown. He gives me vague directions, tells me it’s hard to find and hangs up. I give myself enough time to get lost.
The Homework Club takes place in two adjoining rooms in an apartment building on Bleecker Street. There are only three tutors for almost 40 children. It is complete chaos. Kids are goofing around, asking questions, competing for the tutor’s attention. But in the midst of the commotion, the majority of the kids are getting things done. “Will you check this for me?” one little girl asks me, holding up a math sheet. She drags a chair loudly from across the room for me to sit on. The program leader stops her, gives her a little lecture, and then apologizes when he realizes why she took the chair. There are no extra chairs. There are few extras, period. All the peeling cabinet doors in the room are padlocked except one. It contains the things most people get to throw away, washed and rewashed plastic cups, bowls and spoons. Nothing brightens up the faded mint-coloured walls except a torn map tacked onto a bulletin board. For two hours Fiorito sits there watching and taking notes.
Every so often, the program leader runs kids downstairs to the basement. I go downstairs to see what’s going on. A chubby black guy is directing the children as they bang away on steel drums. Some of them aren’t much taller than their drums, but they play really well. The last song I hear is an upbeat version of “Amazing Grace.”
When we leave, it’s starting to get dark. “Look,” Fiorito says and motions toward one of the most decrepit apartment buildings in Toronto. I take a mental step backward and really look at it. “It gets really hard to break out of this,” he says. “I have no hope the column will make a difference. But what it may do is make people a little bit smarter about what happens in St. Jamestown. Life is hard, and when people are busy, they tend to pigeonhole stuff. It is my privilege to say, Wait a minute, this is what is happening here. It’s not violence and it’s not gangs. It’s something reasonably positive.”
BACK WHEN FIORITO was living in Montreal, his poker buddies had a custom of razzing whichever one of them might be, say, moving or publishing a new book. “So we wouldn’t take ourselves too seriously,” he says. Just before he left for Toronto, the guys-including writers Mark Abley, Trevor Ferguson and Bryan Demchinsky- composed several columns that parodied Fiorito’s tough-talking style. In his dining room after dinner, Fiorito shows them to me. “Can I copy some of this down?” “Ouch,” says Mahoney, who is lying on the couch reading the paper.
Monday morning and the first light on the plateau cracks through the eyelids of bums and the city awakes. I step outside, looking for a story. If you think it’s easy being the one who must shoulder the burdens of the poor, the miseries of the working class, the pains of the destitute and sick, the worries of the abused, the complaints of the cheated, the howls of the robbed, the cries of the misunderstood, the shouts of the deaf, the thirst of the drunkards, the hunger of the famished, the anxiety of the old, the impatience of the young, the kindness of the unfortunate, the ambitions of the besotted, the breasts of the unclothed, the rancor of the brokenhearted, then ask Christ how much he enjoyed the experience. And he didn’t have to write a column every week.
So, the guy can laugh at himself. He can also be both humble and proud?often at the same time. He isn’t falsely modest, which is refreshing. When he deserves it, Fiorito gives himself credit. He tells me he does his job “really well” and that he can turn a phrase, but then adds, “Not all of my columns are brilliant. But over the course of a given month, there will be something in there that touches your heart, something that pisses you off, something that makes you smile and something that makes you go, Yeah, that’s what I think too.”
Still, what emerges more powerfully is his passion for the people he writes about. He’s quick to point out that there’s already an abundance of columnists in Toronto who write about social issues from an official, bureaucratic point of view. “I’m the only guy that I know of who is actively, three times a week, on the sidewalk. There’s a handful of notes that I ring, and I’ll go on ringing them because nobody else is doing it.”