On his four-kilometre walk, reporter Jon Wells discovers a groovy baby, words of love, the limits of his stomach and people’s perception of beige pants
By JON WELLS
The sun also rises on Barton East, washing the old street in light under a powder blue sky – the rare morning this season that captures spring’s annual promise of resurrection.
That makes it a good day to walk Barton, a street and community that many Hamiltonians imagine as dark, sad and dangerous.
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It’s a good day to walk four kilometres of it – west to east, from Wellington Street at the hospital all the way to Ottawa Street. A day to write what I see, hear, eat and drink.
“What do you think, Greg … is Johnny going to make it?”
It is 10 a.m. and Joel Hulsman, who owns venerable Kenesky’s Sports at Barton and Wellington, directs his question about my trek to repair guy Greg Galante.
Greg pries the old kick plate off the front door with a crowbar. It is the same front entrance that a tanker truck carrying gasoline crashed into years back.
I have never met Joel Hulsman. And pretty much nobody but friends from high school days call me Johnny.
But Joel is pure Barton, a throwback, a guy who is funny and ribald and makes you feel as if you’re one of the boys after talking for 30 seconds.
He is also a pro at what he does, which is offer old-school customer service that, he suggests, the big sporting goods chains can’t and never will.
Kenesky’s is a landmark. Founder Pops Kenesky was the first in the world to build goalie pads, upstairs by the windows and the light of a single bulb.
Autographs from NHLers who have made the pilgrimage here over the years adorn the wall, including that of Bobby Hull, who once staggered up the steep flight of stairs with a couple of buddies after a big night out.
Joel has worked here 45 years. He grew up on Cannon, but now lives in Ancaster (Awn-castah he says in mock haughty-speak.)
But back to the issue at hand: Will Johnny survive the walk on Barton?
Greg the repair guy looks me up and down. My beard might help keep the barbarians at bay, he offers. The pretty boy shirt, beige pants and fancy brown shoes, not so much.
They are teasing. I think. Joel says things have become much safer on Barton over the years.
While he knows as well as anyone the issues that persist here, he also knows that most people who live and work in the area are as solid as they come.
“They’ll give you the shirt off their back.”
He says it’s tough to attract folks from the upper city to Barton, but not so much for him: His is a destination place.
Kenesky’s turns 100 in 2015.
“We’ll have a big party. Maybe offer five-cent skate sharpening.”
Walking east, across from Hamilton General Hospital, I hit West Avenue, and the former West Avenue School, built in 1885.
It is a beautiful and timeless building converted to apartments. A striking art installation decorates the courtyard.
A young woman opens the gate. Patricia Bannan, who is 19, just got back from Burlington; took her an hour-and-a-half on the bus to apply for a job. You do what you have to do, she says.
She has lived here three months. She fell in love with the apartment when she saw it.
“They say the building is haunted. I haven’t seen anything yet, though.”
I’m curious to see inside one of the units. My instinct is not to ask, but there’s something so unguarded and easy about Patricia’s manner.
“Can I see your place? For the story?”
She agrees without hesitation.
She turns the key in the front door.
“Is this the part where you kill me?” she says.
“Not as far as you know,” I reply, and she laughs.
Her bachelor pad has wood floors, two exposed brick walls, a towering ceiling in the kitchen. It is a cool spot. Rent is $529.
Her pet shih tzu, Harlo, can’t stop jumping up on my shins. Must be the beige pants.
Patricia likes the area, does not fear Barton, not even at night when the drug deals and prostitution that anger residents are most visible. Patricia hates it, too, but she grew up here. It doesn’t get to her.
She leaves the apartment with Harlo to take a walk in the courtyard. Security in the building is solid and she knows her neighbours. She doesn’t lock her door.
She wears a black dress and heels. Dressing to the nines is what she does, reflecting her firecracker personality. She is 35, born in Budapest, worked in marketing before seeing a crêperie doing gangbusters business in Toronto and deciding to try it here. Crepes were big in the old country.
“The first year is the toughest, ” she says. “I found that most people didn’t know what crepes were, and they don’t eat much ice cream in the winter. Who knew?”
She laughs. You need a sense of humour on Barton Street, she says.
It takes that, and a sense of hope, and toughness, to be a pioneer here. She is all that. She believes in the street.
“I know I’ve got a good thing going here. It’ll come. You watch.”
I’m her second customer this morning. A couple was here, the husband receives treatment at the General. They had a chicken paprika crepe. I go for something lighter. She gingerly flips the sizzling batter.
She makes me a peaches and cream crepe, half-size. It is heavenly and light. And I’m full.
One of the customers is Scott Redding, wearing green scrubs. He’s a porter at the hospital and walks here on his half-hour lunch break.
I should have a legendary Duarte’s sandwich out of principle. But I can’t. The crepe has seemingly tided me over for the rest of the week.
I cross the narrow street again, in just a few paces, and pop into a place at Smith Avenue with a wooden red-lettered sign announcing J. Rumor Supermarket. It’s been here 34 years, doing a good business with meat orders.
Lina Lourenço, daughter of Maria and John from Portugal, is reorganizing the place following a renovation. The reboot includes getting rid of items that have decorated the shelves for years: a black and white TV, stereos, figurines, a stuffed tiger, Mexican sombreros. They are gifts from grateful customers over the years.
It is nearly 12:30. Crepe or no crepe, Duarte’s calls. The air is filled with the smell of cooked lasagna. I order a thick pile of Montreal smoked meat on a kaiser, which costs an outrageously inexpensive $2.50.
It’s listed at $2.50 and that’s the total. Two-fifty. I feel embarrassed handing my money over the counter for this thievery.
I’m not hungry, but the sight of the pink meat, the aroma, the crumbs of the bun on my fingers scrambles my brain. Maybe I’ll eat half.
And now it’s gone, all of it.
I pass a revived building at 407 Barton, where an investor has renovated four residential apartments (with four more on the way) and four commercial units.
More common along the street are closed storefronts and beaten-down apartments.
I’ve spent time down here recently, for interviews, research. On one visit, I was propositioned by a hooker and saw a man and woman lobbing f-bombs at each other on their front porch until a police cruiser arrived.
This is the Barton most expect to see. It exists.
Next stop is Groovy Baby, the name of a store that sells discounted baby clothes, but also novelty items displayed inside and on the sidewalk, from toys to paintings and a patio heater in need of repairs.
Bonnie Smith, a woman of kind face and heart, runs the business with her husband, Fred, who heads out to collect donations in a bright yellow van.
There are no price tags, everything can be bartered or traded for. It is a business, not a charity, although she says one-third of what they do is charitable. Food banks send them supplies.
She gives needy young moms formula and diapers that come to her by donation.
“We don’t ask a lot of questions.”
It is a popular place and Bonnie is beloved in the area. She doesn’t call it this, but she is engaged in what has been called business philanthropy; making a modest living by helping those in need.
“We get by, but we are looking for sponsors. We enjoy what we do. There is no one else like us.”
Out on the sidewalk, Tijana Marshall pushes her nine-month-old baby, Lilly, in a stroller. Tijana is 20. She says the area is OK to live in, but laments the prostitutes and drugs on the street. The library just up the street at Birch Avenue is perhaps her favourite spot. She’s taking Lilly there.
I pause at Westinghouse Street, where, a block north of Barton, there is a striking six-storey brick building, vacant, with more than 100 shuttered windows.
It would make a terrific spot for loft apartments. The property owner’s Toronto phone number is on a sign. Later, I dial the number; the guy who answers says the owner is out of the country. Then the connection seems to go bad. When I call back no one answers.
At 541 Barton, at Westinghouse, is a former bank building that will soon be a café called The 541 Eatery and Exchange. I’ve written about this building, it is a great story, a place that will help those in need but also serve high-end cappuccino and food, and offer a place for students to work on their laptops, something Barton has never had. It should be open by July.
I linger and take in the vibe.
“You queer or something?”
The question comes from a ruddy-faced man standing a block away in front of JR Liquidators, huddled with a couple of grizzled-looking men in the open doorway.
Clearly, he is perturbed that I’m standing here just looking around, in beige pants.
I walk into JR’s and introduce myself. The ruddy-faced guy turns his back and refuses to look at me.
Is Johnny going to make it?
Next, I enter Mendonça, a café and bar at Wentworth. It might be the only place on Barton that serves top-drawer espresso and has Wi-Fi. There’s a story behind that: I was here a while back on a day most folks were ordering beer, but I asked Manuela, the Portuguese woman who runs the place, if she could make me a latte.
She looked puzzled at first but fired up the espresso machine. And then I asked for the Wi-Fi password so I could get online on my laptop. She didn’t know the password. She gave me her daughter’s phone number, I called, she texted, I was online.
I wrote the password in my Spectator notepad and handed the sheet of paper to Manuela to put on display for others. It could bring you some business, I said. Maybe attract a few students.
Today, on my walk, just after 1:30, Manuela is not here. A woman filling in for her says she doesn’t know how to work the espresso machine. I’ll come back, I say.
Just east of Wentworth, south side of Barton, is the Ways of Wisdom Occult Boutique. It looks closed, but that’s not the case. In fact, it is open seven days a week, every day of the year but Christmas and New Year’s.
Londa Hardman is behind the counter. She loves Barton, has lived on the street for 30 years. She is not afraid of it. She came here from downtown Toronto, which did scare her.
One time years ago, when she was walking home on Barton, a drunk grabbed her by the arm. She hit him, he fell down. That’s been the only incident.
I ask if the store sells black magic stuff. She says no.
“Because that will come back to get you.”
“Back to get you?”
I open a book, The Element Encyclopaedia of 5000 Spells (UK General Books, by Judika Illes, $39.95). I read the Key to Love Spell aloud: If you find a key (inadvertently), pick it up and as you do call out the name of the one you desire; that person will be yours.
“Will it work?” I ask.
Londa smiles. Yes, she says.
“I guess I just got a spell for free.”
“You’d be surprised how many people come in here and take notes.”
Onward I go, past the Trocadero restaurant – it opened on D-Day, June 6, 1944, and is still open, but with limited hours.
Inside the little Barton library branch, more than a dozen people are inside on computers and reading, including Tijana to baby Lilly.
I pass a church billing itself as a Distinctive Southern Baptist Church, the old GibsonSchool, which would also make a great condo/apartment building, and Baltic Bread bakery.
Here is David’s Hair Design, one of several hair places on Barton. David Stewart has run the place for 21 years. He does a lot of charity work, holds a Christmas party for clients every year where he collects food bank donations.
White locks of hair fall from a man in the chair. He used to go to a barber on King Street but the guy retired. He figured David’s was the next closest.
David’s mother, Meta, who is Scottish, helped fund his start in the business.
“I always wanted to do hairstyling. I used to sit behind my mom and brush her hair constantly.”
At Sherman, where the old Britannia tavern sits closed, a man wearing a black leather jacket and sunglasses stops on his bicycle at the light. His name is Stephen. He prefers Stef. A teacher once called him that. He liked it.
“I grew up down here with the Italians, ” he says, “which was nice. You could get homemade wine off your friend’s dad.”
He worked in the steel mills, recently retired at 56.
He’s en route to the mall to pick up a game for his son. Hates the mall, though.
He grins. Nothing is getting him down.
Across the street, I pass Hamilton Sportswear. Cheeky message-emblazoned T-shirts visible through the window include the requisite Argos Suck, and also “I may be fat but you’re ugly and I can diet, ” and “Don’t flatter yourself, I was looking at your friend.”
Further along is Harmony Furniture, which has been here 40 years. The owner, John Genuardi, is from Sicily. He sells new furniture at low prices. Years ago, he sold his classic display store sign to movie producers in Hamilton filming The Hulk.
Inside the store, Sinatra croons on the radio while Genuardi sits basking in sunlight shining through the front display window, a pensive look on his face, a blue and white tuque on his head.
His best deal today?
“Everything, ” he says.
I’ve entered the Polish-flavoured part of Barton: popular Starpolskie Deli, Polimex Travel.
I’m not hungry, but I pop into Karlik Pastry, stuff a mini cream puff in my grill. It is a battle to stop at just one.
Glenn Garneau is here, having parked a massive City of Hamilton truck out front. He’s fixing it at Kenilworth Spring, where he works. He leaves with a bag full of pastry. He says he is a popular guy at coffee break at the shop.
I pass a used car lot and more churches, including a golden-domed Ukrainian Orthodox at Balsam Avenue.
I haven’t done a bar yet, and there have been several to choose from. It’s time for a beer at the Barton Touchdown Pub, just east of Gage, to wash down the cream puff, smoked meat sandwich and crepe.
To someone entering from the light, it looks as dark as the inside of a leather glove. Bartender Jeanine shines brightly, though – blond hair, blue eyes, greeting regulars with a smile and their name as they arrive, grabbing their beer of choice from the fridge without asking their order.
The pub has seen many lives; it was the Dizzy Weasel, the Avon, Avondale, Johnny’s.
“They used to tie up horses out front – that’s how long this place has been here, ” says Jeanine.
It is a neighbourhood pub, but it counts on extra business from the CFL crowd. With the Ticats playing home games in Guelph this season, she’ll have fewer extra shifts, which is bad in one sense, good in another – it means more time at her trailer in Muskoka.
Funny, while people in other parts of the city avoid Barton Street, Jeanine avoids the west end of Barton. She does not venture down there, has never been to Duarte’s, for example, although she’s heard of the place. She thinks that area is too tough for her.
She shows me pictures of her dogs on her iPad. I drink from a $4.50 pint of James Ready draft lager, which is ice gold on the throat.
A couple named Noel and Melinda sit close together at the bar. Noel is a heavy equipment operator. He’s heading to the airport in an hour to fly to Fort McMurray, Alta., to work 60 days straight on hydro lines.
They tip back beers and share the ear buds of his iPod, listening to music, Melinda’s eyes growing moist as time rushes by.
I re-emerge into the blinding sun. Next stop is Mr. Used, a massive warehouse of stuff.
They rent quirky and anachronistic items for movie sets, donate them for school plays, and sell to anyone who needs a statue of Julius Caesar for their basement, or perhaps a dusty old ATM machine, an airplane propeller, rotary phone or 1955 Austin Princess limousine (price tag for the limo: $12,500).
People show up asking for the oddest things, says employee Steve Legere, everything from 19th-century door hardware to street signs, stained glass, 1950s-era dishwashers and coffins.
“I know where 90 per cent of the stuff is.”
My last stop before hitting the finish line at Ottawa Street: Sandie’s Fresh Cut Fries. Sandie runs the operation out of a chip wagon that was a Purolator truck in a previous life.
She says she is a Newfie who loves her customers and her neighbourhood. The chip wagon is broken into once a year, the idiots never seem to catch on that she leaves nothing of value in there.
A man and woman stop by and tell Sandie a couple of teenagers are up to no good down the street.
“What are they doing?” says Sandie. “I’ll kick their ass.”
She steps out the back of the chip wagon to have a look. She seems taller through the window, elevated by the chip wagon and the box upon which she stands. Now she comes to just past my waist. She is 4-foot-8.
She keeps a jar on the counter for tips, which go to her friend Bonnie Smith at Groovy Baby.
“Not all of Barton Street is crackheads and hos, ” she says. “Some of us try to do good stuff, like Bonnie.”
A teenager named Jacob Burrell stops for a chili dog. The price is $5.65, including tax. All he has is a five. Sandie rolls her eyes and takes the bill.
“I guess today is no-tax day for handsome guys, ” she says. “I’ll just have to charge the homely ones extra.”
Sandie serves me some fries – the last thing I need at this point – but the aroma of the fries and malt vinegar is too much to resist. She says I could stand to put on a few pounds.
I reach Ottawa Street, the walk complete. I’m too tired to walk back to Wellington for my car. I board the Barton Street bus.
Some have told me that the “Barton Bus” is another world of unusual characters. I wonder how many of them try to get a deal on the $2.55 fare – because that’s me. I only have about a buck fifty in coins, having plunked most of my change in Sandie’s tip jar.
I offer the bus driver a $10 bill instead.
“It’s OK, ” says the driver, a young guy wearing cool shades. “I don’t want you losing the 10. Just pay what you can.”
And I do, feeling sheepish as I listen to the paltry cascade of change tinkle down the chute.
The bus is packed; men and women, all ages, women with strollers and groceries. Everyone seems quiet and polite.
I get off at Wentworth. It’s just after 5 p.m., the journey seemingly over, but I pop back into the Mendonça café, with its white tin ceiling, olive green walls, arched mirrors, soccer game on TV.
This time, Manuela is here. She brings me a creamy latte. It is perfect. She tosses in a few cookies. I see that the Wi-Fi password I wrote on my notepaper a few weeks ago is taped to the mirror behind the bar.
I chat with Jen, a regular, who tends bar at another place on Barton and lives in the neighbourhood. I tell her I was at the Barton Touchdown Pub earlier. She used to work there.
“Who served you?” she asks.
“She is gorgeous.”
Jen is 34, has lived here 12 years. She smiles when I tell her that Jeanine, down east on Barton, thinks this end of the street is dangerous – because, of course, Jen thinks the opposite is true.
When I tell her I’m writing about Barton Street, she laughs wickedly, as though she’s primed to dish dirt about the place.
But that’s not what she talks about. “The rent is cheap, and it’s my area, my ‘hood. We stick together here and I feel safer here than downtown. I do. You always see everyone that you know.”
She loves Bella Pizza next door, where sometimes they give her extra toppings, and also the food at Tony’s – the place is actually called the Esplanada Café, but it’s owned by Tony.
She adores the Portuguese people on this part of the street. She’s not Portuguese but she feels like one of them.
She makes fun of my pronunciation of Mendonça, which I say like Mendonka when in fact it should be more like Mendonsa.
She lives with Jeffy – Jeffy the cat, not Jeff the guy she considered marrying at one time. Two other cats as well, Ariel and Scamper.
A prostitute sometimes works the corner where Jen lives and it bothers her. But instead of calling police when the hooker sets up shop, she tells her neighbour, and the neighbour tells the woman to take off.
Hamilton is Jen’s city, but more specifically, Barton is where her heart is.
“I feel cocooned here, it is part of me, I couldn’t live anywhere else. It’s real here.”
It is just after 5:30. I get up to leave.
“See you later,” she says.
I walk back into the light, head west toward my car, crossing the narrow street in traffic.
The sun is high in the sky, air warm. Faces and places run through my head, the good and the bad.
The place is a piece of work, Barton is. Johnny would rather not be leaving just yet.