Thursday, September 30, 2010

Old City Hall

I was in Toronto’s Old City Hall today.

It’s a glorious building, richly decorated and stately. From the outside, the towers, peaks and projections, with their gargoyles and various window embellishments, are varied, so that each section is a bit different than any other. Inside, there are historical mosaics on the walls, telling the story of the region (from the view of its European settlers) and engravings of names and dates reflecting important moments in the city and province’s history. The halls of this massive building are floored with thousands of tiny tiles, irregularly shaped, and less than one inch square, forming a decorative pattern that includes winding vines with flowers and leaves. My mind numbs at the notion that these tiles were set one by one, by human craftsmen. The manpower to accomplish this seems incalculable. The lower parts of the walls are sheets of marble, aligned in the order in which they were sliced from whatever quarry wall, so that the grain markings of every sheet match and mirror to varying degrees those of its neighbouring panels on both sides.

This is perhaps the first building in Toronto to capture my imagination and affection, long before I noticed these details I recite. At the time, I appreciated it’s 19th century stylings, and the contrast it made with the still futuristic New City Hall next door. Its main significance to me though, had to do with the fact that I was married there, one week and a day after coming to this city for the first time, and several months before I took up residence here.

Today I was there to accompany one of my clients to court. Some of the courtrooms and offices in the building are as ornate and grand as what I’ve already described, with impressive columns and polished wood railings and benches. But other rooms, like courtroom 114, where my client was scheduled today, are more ordinary. They lack the finer detailing, and what embellishments remain have dulled and grayed from daily use and cursory cleaning. One of the courtrooms, which I’ve visited several times, now has plexiglass barriers, to isolate prisoners who are brought in, still handcuffed and in their jailhouse orange jumpers, directly from one of the jails.

A dull and demoralizing atmosphere prevails in this old building. I’m always reminded, when I go there, that crimes against persons and property are primarily committed by and against the poor. As much as our moralizing may state otherwise, robbery, burglary, theft and assault are crimes most often committed by the needy and the desperate, and against targets of opportunity. You don’t break into a car for a stereo that will net you maybe twenty bucks unless that twenty bucks is going to make a difference in your perceived quality of life over the next twenty-four hours. Which just doesn’t fit the bill for those of us who are home owners or who have – or are confident of being able to get – decent paying jobs. And these realities are sadly visible here in Old City Hall. Folks here for trial dates, or disclosures or to enter a plea, are mostly either casually dressed, wearing clothes suited for manual work, or, if they’re looking to impress the judge, look like they’re on their way to the club. The homeless, with whom I work, show up in whatever they have on, or can pull out of a backpack that’s a bit less soiled. Those who look like they might belong in an office are generally lawyers or other courthouse staff. There’s lots of waiting. Often, the accused come and spend several hours, only to get another date on which to return and do it all over again. It seems as though there’s an assumption that no one has anywhere important to be, and this waiting is a mere appetizer to the fines, probation or jail time that may well lie ahead.

I used to arrive at these court dates anticipating an air of anxious hopefulness. Shouldn’t an appointment with the administrators of justice provoke a little of that? Even if one is guilty, the chance to explain things from one’s own point of view is at least a window into possibility. But there’s little of that sense here. Instead, resignation, boredom, suppressed anger. And, despite the numbers of people packed into the courtrooms, there’s a sense of loneliness, the almost palpable feeling of being small and of little importance. Get it done. Say your piece and make way. Don’t waste the court’s time.

To my knowledge, civil marriages are no longer performed on the second floor. My ceremony here, many years ago, was as perfunctory as the proceedings in the courtrooms. But it didn’t matter so much. There was my bride, members of her family there to support us, and our own optimism about the future. The solemnity of the surroundings, the sour faced, all business Justice of the Peace didn’t diminish the event for us. The building itself, with its sense of weighty time, and of consequence, was enough for us to know we’d made an important passage with our exchange of a few simple words.

Not then, but now – today – I think about the labourers and craftsmen who constructed this building. They couldn’t have known, or even suspected, all the life that would transpire between the walls they raised, all the living souls with their troubles and hope and lack of hope who would walk upon their expertly assembled tile floors. But of course, they had their own hopes, their own time, their own lives to live, that are unimaginable to me. The Tao te Ching has a passage in it that has always resonated with a strange power for me. From one translation: We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. Amen to that! And yet...that wood.... If nothing else, it leads us to where that inner space is. The walls of this building guided my client here today, a step in the process of facing a charge: assault against a police officer. From his perspective, he was trying not to go back to jail. He’s already spent too much of his young life imprisoned. I don’t think he notices the building he came to, all its fine detail. He’s in that inner space. As was I when I came here with my bride.

The marriage didn’t last...not forever. And yet, for a time it had a weightiness and endurance about it, like these marble walls and the ever patient gargoyles. She and I had a laugh, when we came here to buy our license three days before the ceremony. There was a huge painting on the wall of the office to which we were sent. It depicted a confrontation between a pirate ship and a vessel it had come upon. It showed the ships side by side, the pirates clambering onto the deck of the victim ship, and a pitched battle taking place, with blood and swords and all the rest. What an image to have on the wall of the office where they issue marriage licenses, we laughed! A warning. And an accurate one.

These buildings and spaces we live in and pass through...they are markers, and signifiers. They can be beautiful and ugly in their own right. But whatever those qualities, they come to carry the flavour and the essence of all that passes inside. Memories too, and the experiences they mark, can be heavy like stone, or transparent as glass, as grimy as untended floors, as beautiful as a work of art put into the shape of a building. And this particular building has a strange mix of memories and energies, of odd beauties for me now. And I love it still.

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