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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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Toronto is cool to the touch. Officially, its motto is “Diversity our Strength.” Unofficially, it’s “Don’t make eye contact.” Residents hustle down the sidewalks, wrapped in the protective embrace of their own isolation. Towering condos insulate them from each other and the outside world. With Uber Eats, Amazon Prime, Lyft and an underground path connecting condos to offices, it’s possible to live life here in splendid isolation, protected from the world and each other by shimmering layers of glass and brushed aluminum.

Yet, scattered around the city – even deep downtown – are pockets of resistance, places that haven’t succumbed to a sterile vertical lifestyle. They’re not glamorous, but they retain an identity and a sense of what it means to live somewhere and not just own square footage in it.

Gentrification has largely passed over my neighbourhood, thanks in no small part to a mix of public housing and heritage protection. In my neighbourhood, you’re as likely to run into a busker with three teeth and a sailor’s mouth as you are a bright young thing from condoland. There isn’t quite the variety of chic boutiques found elsewhere, but the hustlers and collectors at the antiques market will sell you anything from Roman coins to Tinkertoy for the right price. My neighbourhood lacks the pretense that dogs so much of this town, and the epicentre of that authenticity is its namesake: St. Lawrence Market.

The Market holds a special place in my heart, grown over several years of living next door. My wife and I took most of our wedding photos inside, she in her immaculate white gown trailing across the scruffy concrete, me in my tux. Our favourite photo hangs over the TV, the two of us posing before rows of pork chops at one of the butchers.

There’s nothing elegant about the Market. It resembles nothing so much as a cross between an overgrown barn and a collection of roadside stalls. Any ambiance is a byproduct of the chaotic jumble of boxes and people crammed into a city block, hitting a fever pitch Saturdays when Toronto descends en masse for free samples and its signature peameal bacon sandwiches. (Toronto ain’t called “Hogtown” for nothing.)

Duelling green grocers try to establish whether you're inadvertently trying to pay for the other guy's zucchini. Boxes of spices overflow in the basement bulk shop, surely the city’s cheapest aromatherapy. A butcher rings a cowbell seemingly at random. Is it to celebrate a significant sale? Does it mark the hour? Is it just a case of random boredom? Who knows? Locals navigate the Saturday crush like water flowing around rocks, while interlopers and tourists get caught in the current, taking endless photos and speaking a dozen languages.

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Over the years, I’ve discovered the Market’s idiosyncrasies and details, both cryptic and trivial, such as the name of the flower guy I buy a rose from each week for my wife (he knocks a quarter off the price because I’m a regular and never need it wrapped). I know where the prison used to be when the Market was Toronto’s town hall, shackles hanging from the wall. (Are they original or added for effect? Who cares?) I’ve learned that if you wait till 3 p.m. on a Saturday, you can find fish that’s been marked down at least once or twice. I’ve learned that the German-sounding deli is actually run by a Greek family. “Odysseus” is a great name for a cheesemonger; it makes me think of some intrepid soul embarking on a 10-year journey to bring back the finest Camembert from around the globe.

Farther afield is the lunch spot I visit each Saturday, where the owner knows my order before I even set foot inside (chicken salad with an extra falafel).

"Your wife told me you want an apple cake, something nice to take to the in-laws. You want to make sure you're in the will, right?" Elias is always pushing his apple cakes. If it's not the in-laws he wants me to buy apple cake for, it's our building concierge. Or my dad in Halifax. Or the boss at work. If he thought buying the Pope an apple cake would seal the deal, Elias would invoke his Holiness in a heartbeat.

Sometimes, I wonder if Elias was born talking, but he’s the main reason I show up each week. The food is good, but the conversation is the star of the show. He adds an essential flavour to the neighbourhood. Then there’s my barber, on whom I can rely for the latest on which businesses are moving in or out and his plans for a recurring segment on local TV. Even the buildings seem to have personalities, such as the old-school steakhouse down the road. It’s been around for some 50 years, clinging stubbornly to its little corner, refusing to budge even as it gets hemmed in on all sides by condos and towers. I like to think if it were human, it’d be the chippy, tough little kid on the playground that defies and intimidates the bullies trying to crowd it out. And succeeding.

These are the things that make a neighbourhood more than just a spot on a map: people, places and their stories. A neighbourhood needs context and history, roots and randomness, knit together by people you want to get to know, such as the antique market hawkers, who magically seem to find a better price for that vintage 1980s KISS album you’re coveting, the longer you gaze lovingly at it. Or the pasta people who I’m sure realize by now that I don’t buy all that much pasta but have yet to turn me down for a free sample. Or the mustard folk, whose 36 varieties I am slowly but surely making my way through.

It never ceases to amaze me that in a city as big and cool-to-the-touch as Toronto, there are still places like these. That’s why when I imagine what I’ll be doing when I’m 65 (if I’m still around, healthy and financially solvent) the thought of just being a part of the place appeals to me: sampling the cheese at Scheffler’s, listening to the guitar player compete with the Dixieland combo for spare change, feeling my age as I recognize toys from my childhood at the antique market, maybe helping out here and there if people need a hand and just generally watching the world go by. The thought of becoming part of the neighbourhood by becoming part of its story makes me happy.

I’ll be there this Saturday as usual for sausage, pasta, cheese and mustard samples in that order. And a rose for the wife.

Mark Farmer lives in Toronto.