May 2-4…. Sweet.

Algonquin_1995A couple of weeks ago, my brother Richard posted a terrific Brown family photo on Facebook. It had been taken in May 1995. If memory serves, it was our last day — probably our last few minutes — in Algonquin Park on the Monday of the May 2-4 weekend. We’d just finished three days of outdoor living (if you’re one of those people, like me, who calls living out of your car trunk at Lake of Two Rivers ‘outdoor living’). Hiking, eating, drinking, campfiring, laughing… we’d done lots of all of it, and we were spent, as I think you can see here in the somewhat disheveled faces of me, my mom, my two brothers Richard and Anthony, and our assortment of friends. We were all clustered around Noel Henderson’s Blazer — Noel’s the guy on the far right with the big grin hidden under the baseball cap. 

Looking at this picture, I think of the carefree, almost euphoric mood that characterized that entire weekend — and many May 2-4 weekends for me. There’s something about this first long, warm-weather break that feels as if summer is bursting open. As we get closer to it, we begin to see the signs: the tented garden centres popping up around the city… the amped-up traffic reports for cottage country… trailers and motorhomes reappearing on driveways… banners proclaiming FIREWORKS SOLD HERE!

And when that Friday morning finally arrives and, with any luck, the day is sunny and warm, there is a palpable buzz. People can’t wait. Even if they’re not going anywhere, they still can’t wait. Everyone senses that summer has finally arrived, and their collective spirit lifts, if just a little.  

On this particular May 2-4 in ‘95, I remember the weather being great. I remember good weather most May 2-4s. Granted it was cool some years, but for the most part, we were treated to bright, blue-skyed days that mellowed into cozy evenings around a campfire, bundled up in sweats and hoodies, with lots of cold beer and hot chocolate and good tunes. Give us a long stick and a cooler or stump to sit on, and we were set. Nowhere to go, nothing to do. Perfect — just so long as no one got their shoes too close to the fire and melted their soles.

On that note, what’s a May 2-4 without a little reminiscing?

Like the time we were in Algonquin, around just such a campfire, when the sky went from starry to stormy in a matter of minutes. With no warning, the rain began to pelt down, and as we all scrambled to find shelter, the only concern seemed to be our supply of cannabis. “Grab the weed!” I heard someone yell. “SOMEBODY GRAB THE WEED!” Amidst a picnic table scattered with cameras, phones and watches, the big question was: Is our marijuana safe and dry?

It might have been that same weekend that Noel (Mr. Blazer), capped off our final night al fresco with a ceremony that has gone down in the annals of Brown history: The Burning of the Socks. I can’t recall whether Noel came with just one pair of socks, or whether these particular socks simply had the crap walked out of them; regardless, by Sunday evening, they were a grubby, smelly mess.

Noel decided to put them out of their misery by draping them over a stick and roasting them. We all ooohed and aaahed as they erupted into flames and disappeared into wisps of smoke as elusive as our weed.

I should add, by the way, that neither my mom nor dad were in attendance that weekend; they would not have approved of the (then) illegal drug use (though I’m pretty certain they would have enjoyed the Burning of the Socks).

Mom and Dad were big campers. They especially loved Allegany State Park, down south of Buffalo. The park didn’t officially open until Memorial Day, but it was so popular with Canadians that it welcomed the steady stream of Ontario plates that filled its sites a week early. I have blissful memories of B-14 in Red House, many to do with the four-footed locals: the skunk that sauntered under my mom’s legs late one evening, scaring the be-jezus out of her… the raccoons fighting in the middle of the night with the lid on the Carnation Hot Chocolate… the chipmunk that darted across my dad’s breakfast plate, one foot landing PLOP! in his fried egg.


Red House Lake and the park office at Allegany State Park 

I remember Dad listening to Paul Harvey on the radio as we ate, the coffee percolator bubbling away on the Coleman stove. Around us, through the trees, we could see other folks up and about, sitting and sipping coffee in PJs, making their way to the bathroom, zipping their way into and out of tents. And I remember one May 2-4 at Allegany being so warm that we swam in Red House Lake. It was… refreshing.

One of the most indelible camping memories I have, however, comes from a somewhat infamous weekend at Murphy’s Point, in the Ottawa Valley. One of the smallest of Ontario’s provincial parks, it is a gem, with a fabulous swimming area and jump-off point on the Rideau Lakes. It also is — or at least was — one of the most strictly regulated. By a fellow we came to know as Big Jim McBob — so-dubbed by Noel because of his rigorous adherence to rules.

It started the Friday night we arrived. We all were coming from Toronto, which is a fair haul up to Perth, a good hour north of Kingston. We were coming in different cars, and arriving at different times. So when young families around us were tucked in for the night, their campsites dark and quiet, we were just getting going.

I guess we got a bit loud. The next morning we had a visitor: our introduction to Big Jim McBob, the merciless, self-important warden who made it his mission that weekend to get us out of the park.

The irony was that my mum at the time was editor of Outdoor Canada, a national magazine that advocated strongly for conservation organizations such as Ontario Parks. What would it look like if she got kicked out of one of their finest?

Mum, the world’s consummate democrat, went to the park office to negotiate our sentence, and while we were allowed to stay, as memory serves, we spent the rest of that weekend under the watchful eye of Big Jim, who took every opportunity to stop us, check us, question us, tailgate us.

It made for an interesting weekend. And it continues to make for great storytelling around a fire.

As I write this, the sun is shining without a cloud in sight: a grand finale to what has been a gorgeous start to the summer of 2016. Wherever you spent your May 2-4 — at a cottage, in a tent or, like me, chillin’ at home — hope it was memorable and safe.


If it ain’t broke…

George-spaghetti-houseI couldn’t tell you the first time I went to George’s Spaghetti House, but I must have been pretty young. My dad, who was an ardent foodie before the term ‘foodie’ existed, loved to eat there, and we visited the place quite a few times during my childhood and teen years. George’s was where I first tried zabaglione. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

I’m writing about George’s because I was downtown last weekend to see a concert at Massey Hall. Leaving the parking garage under Nathan Phillips Square and heading over to Yonge Street to have dinner, I began to reminisce, as I often do when I’m downtown, about the different places I used to go in Toronto when I lived there. George’s came to mind.

George's matchbookGeorge’s was one of those places that somehow managed to hit that sweet spot between ambiance and comfort — between dressed up and an easy night out. And I think part of the reason the vibe there was always so good was because George’s didn’t try too hard to fix it. George’s just… was. And no matter what mood you were in, it always felt right. It was funky, but it was cozy. It felt darkish and urban, but served good ole pizza. By all appearances it was just another restaurant, but it played super-cool jazz — at a time when cool jazz in Toronto was probably about as scarce as a drink on Sunday.  

I remember going there for my 15th birthday. My boyfriend Greg White had asked me where I wanted to go for dinner, and George’s was it. I felt so grown up in my new Fairweather suit (with peplum jacket and padded shoulders), sipping white wine, and listening to — as luck would have it — Moe Koffman.

Yes, I came for pizza and zabaglione, and unexpectedly got some Moe Koffman on the side.

Because along with being a legend in Canadian jazz, Moe was, for many years, the booking agent at George’s. Understandably, he often booked his own band, to the point where people calling the restaurant would joke, “I’d like to know who’s playing tonight, and I won’t take Moe for an answer.”

hi-moe-koffmanEven at 15, I knew Moe was a big deal. So to show up at George’s for my birthday dinner and be treated to some Swingin’ Shepherd Blues was too perfect.

As an aside, another less perfect scenario always plays itself out in my head when I think of George’s. I was about the same age, and my dad decided he’d like have dinner at George’s. We — me, my dad, mom, and two brothers — piled into the Buick Regal. It was a good 45-minute drive from our home near Jane and Bloor down to Sherbourne and Dundas. And with my short-fused father at the wheel contemplating a plateful of pasta, it was not the kind of journey to be three quarters finished and then interrupt with, “I think I left the curling iron on.”

If shit could have hit a fan…

We turned around, and drove home. Dad swore and banged the steering wheel, while I tried, tried, tried to visually recall unplugging the f&*#@! curling iron.

And when we finally pulled into the driveway and I practically fell up the stairs on the way to the bathroom, there it sat on the side of the sink… unplugged.

So. We got in the car again, and went back. Thankfully dinner made up for the drive.

SSB recordThe man who bought George’s in 1956, Doug Cole, didn’t have enough money to change the restaurant’s sign. It would be a few years before business took off (this was jazz in post-war Toronto, after all). But when it did, Cole left the sign as is, and it remained George’s Spaghetti House until Cole sold it in 1983.

Hey, if it ain’t broke…