A Secret Handshake on Pape (with cheese)

18 October 2018 – I’m walking north on Pape and stop at the corner of Wroxeter for a fond smile at The Schmooz, where I enjoyed many a fine coffee during my Toronto stay last winter.


(There’s only one of me. Something about that reflecting glass doubles me up.)

But that’s not the best. The best is the café’s sidewalk sign, both sides of it.

A “secret handshake!” I chortle.

And now we digress.

The term is the invention of Douglas Coupland, who first burned his way into the global mind by inventing another term back in 1991 and writing a novel about it: Generation X.

By 2014 he had long since added other media to his initial reputation as a novelist. That year, he had an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in his sort-of home town, called everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything. (Though not born in Vancouver nor always resident there, he is very much claimed by the city.)

One of its sections was The Secret Handshake.

Said the VAG:

Through a wide range of media Coupland has persistently investigated Canadian cultural identity, both benign and menacing.  Using imagery and objects latent with symbolic meaning for Canadians, he delineates what it means to be Canadian, offering a “secret handshake” not easily understood by others.

In April 2015, The Secret Handshake was one section of a Douglas Coupland exhibition in Toronto, and I blogged about it. With no pretence at originality, I called that post The Secret Handshake.

End of digression.

We’re back on Pape, with The Schmooz’ addition to the canon of secret handshakes.

North side of sign:

South side of sign:

If you’re not Canadian, but you get the references, then welcome! You are an honorary Canadian, and entitled to say “double-double” with the rest of us.


Secret Handshakes (& more)

23 April 2015 – The Douglas Coupland exhibition is partly at the Royal Ontario Museum (see Art With an Echo), partly at MOCCA — the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art out Queen West near Shaw.

So here I am on a sunny day, back amid some stacked-up Coupland plastics, then suddenly face to face with something else — something I immediately recognize, even though it isn’t really that something.

Thomson Lone Pine Variant, 2011

“Thomson’s Jack Pine,” I mutter to myself, even though I know it isn’t by Tom Thomson, obviously not. I read the label: Thomson Lone Pine Variant, it says, created in 2011 by Douglas Coupland.

Right Got it. But here is what I have bouncing in my mind:

Jack Pine, by Tom Thomson

The real thing, Tom Thomson’s Jack Pine, created in 1916-17.

Then I read the big poster for this part of the show. “Secret Handshakes,” it is called. It’s all about being Canadian, in a world that so often blurs us into kinda-American. The poster concludes…

… By using imagery and objects laden with symbolic meaning for Canadians, Coupland has created a ‘secret handshake’ not easily understood by others.

Well, I am into this. I take in more of the works (including a not-Lawren Harris that is so very Lawren Harris), enjoying the concept.

I move into the next room. More Secret Handshakes, including a sculptural work that has a whole cluster of laughing admirers. We must all be Canadian. We are all, as t’were, in on the handshake.

part of Secret Handshake exhibit, MOCA

I’m not sure you can explain a joke without being really, really pompous, but — for the sake of non-Canadian readers — let me try. That’s the CN Tower, emblem of Toronto, toppled and burned at the base. A good Canadian joke, since — right from Lester Sinclair’s 1946 radio play, We All Hate Toronto — hating this city has been seen as a patriotic duty, a unifying force from sea to sea to sea.

So there is the tower, aka Toronto, SPLAT. With a very apologetic, so-very-Canadian “SORRY” writ large beneath it. That’s right! Even our vandals are polite!

And — my favourite bit — the numbers “905” above the SORRY. This may reduce the whole thing to a Toronto secret handshake, not a national one. Perhaps only we know that 905 is the area code for the suburban horseshoe around the 416 inner city core, with each set of numbers used with pride or derision depending on which code you inhabit. (I hear a woman practically choke with laughter when she sees the 905.)

The smaller images are anticlimactic for me, but I do immediately recognize them.

in Coupland's Secret Handshake exhibit, MOCCA

The still young (but front-toothless even then) hockey player Bobby Hull peeks out from behind a big RUSH poster, a Canadian band of the 1970s that sold more than 40 million records worldwide and ended up with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, so perhaps not totally a Canadian-secret handshake after all.

It’s all pure Canadiana once I’m back out on the streets & poking through the alleys.

RUSH has me still thinking music, and I eventually find myself in what I call “Music Alley” for complicated reasons — anyway, an alley south of Queen West, between Niagara & Bathurst. Appropriate to find a musician painted into a doorwell, don’t you think?

alley s. of Queen West, between Niagara & Bathurst

After that, the images dance to other beats. And beasts.

Here’s a Birdo-beast, for example, along with a beast by a colleague whose tag I can’t decipher.

Birdo & friend, "Music Alley"

There’s a secret handshake of sorts about mid-alley, as I catch a band of red & white blocking my view up the cross-alley.

cross-alleys with TTC

I know it’s a TTC streetcar, maybe you do too. If so, we’ve just exchanged the secret handshake.

I linger a bit here, find myself chattering with a doorstep-sitter who opens the conversation with a fairly aggressive “You like graffiti?” that turns friendly when I answer “Yes!” We throw names around like old pals, he directs me to look at all those canaries over there, we agree that Uber sure can draw little yellow birds … and it’s all swell.

Across Bathurst, heading east into another alley south of Queen that I have just learned in fact has an official name: Parry Lane. Well, I’ll be darned. I find that on-line, not on the street. (But it might even be true.)

Under any or no name at all, this lane also coughs up some art along with boring scrawls. I am taken with this bit of art criticism, not that I totally understand it …

in Parry Lane, s. of Queen e of Bathurst

… and I nod in sympathy with Mr. Sugar Daddy Penguin’s lament.

alley s of Queen, e from Bathurst

Maybe he bought her the wrong designer?

Milling About

Abrupt change of topic, no attempt at a segue; you don’t mind, do you?

I hope nobody tried to follow my off-hand subway reference as directions for our Tuesday walk (River to Lake) down the Humber River. “Don Mills subway station” will never get you there — not least because it doesn’t exist. Try “Old Mill.” That will do very nicely.

My thanks to my friend Kay for spotting the error — what was I thinking? — and my shame-faced apologies to the rest of you.


Art With an Echo

14 April 2015 – I don’t mean echoes of sound (BOOM! boom-boom-boom), but of memory. The bounce-back of one image being overlaid with an earlier image, or even with a cluster of emotions. Either way, just for a moment, time & space fly wide open all around you.

And so I stand just inside the Doug Coupland show at the Royal Ontario Museum, and blink at what I see, and at what I “see” superimposed on what I see.

I see stacks of bright plastic (Meditations in Plastic), in front of patchwork walls of slogans (Slogans for the 21st Century).

Coupland show, ROM

The plastic columns are beguiling, and signature Coupland. My mind’s eye leaves the ROM, and revisits Concord CityPlace where much larger variations on these columns fill a kiddies’ splash pad.

Bobber Plaza, Concord CityPlace, artist Doug Coupland


Back to the ROM. Past Meditations to take a closer look at those towering walls of slogans, each in its own glowing plastic square. Some I find silly, some clever-boots, & some thought-provoking, especially ones touching on the technology/human dynamic. (This, after all, is the man who defined a whole generation, and launched his own career, with his 1991 first novel, Generation X.)

I linger, picking out slogans I want to think about. Other visitors do the same, some practically bumping the wall with their intensity.

Slogans for the 21st C., Coupland show, ROM

This time the echo takes me to another wall, not plastic & definitely not in a gallery.

I’m remembering one of the murals that fill “Graffiti Alley.” It’s a Toronto alley but known nation-wide, because this is where CBC-TV’s Rick Mercer films his rants.

in "Graffiti Alley" (s. of Queen St. West)

One final ROM echo, a deliberate detour on my way to the (relocated) main doors. There, still soaring up one of the stairwells, is the first totem I ever saw — long before my visit to the great totems of Ninstints, in Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), a long-abandoned village now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

ROM totem pole

Back out to the sunny day, more walking north & west before turning homeward again, and I think I am done with echoes. But I’m not.

Eyes flick right from long habit as I pass an alley heading south from Harbord St. just east of Bathurst. You never know what you’ll see, do you?

I see a mural on the convenience store’s side wall. Goofy-fun-silly.

Croft St. at Harbord St.

Then I see it’s signed “Buck-Teeth Girls Club” — and BOOM! (boom-boom-boom), there’s the echo.

Phyllis & I followed the West Toronto Railpath one day, goggled at all the murals, and giggled at this one.

mural in West Toronto Railpath

Then I discover this alley has not only coughed up another Buck-Teeth Girls Club mural for me (only #2 in my collection), it seems full of interesting garage art all the way south.

Next I discover it isn’t an alley, though it sure looks like one. It is Croft St. where, long ago, through murals at the southern (College St.) end, I learned about the eponymous John Croft, the one fatality in the Great Fire of 1904, still the worst fire in Toronto’s history.

So I start south with anticipation for the far end, as well as curiosity about what might lie in-between. First up, an echo of something we have never seen, but should remember even so, and honour.

garage door, Croft St.

Nothing lost about the subject of the next mural! These guys are all around us.

garage in Croft St.

Also not lost, Harbord Street, half a block to the north.

Croft St. garage art

I am just finding a good position for the next shot, realizing I need to take in a double garage, wondering which owner persuaded the other to make it a joint project, when — Zzzzzzz — up goes the right-hand garage door. In rolls the car. Out comes the driver, smiling at me & my camera. Zzzzzzzz — down goes the door.

Turns out he owns both properties, so no persuasion necessary. “My wife hired the artist, & it was a great idea. If you have a mural, you don’t get tagged.”

garage in Croft St.

He raises a cautionary finger. “But it has to have street-art style, you know? If it’s too pretty, they’ll tag it.”

detail, double-garage, Croft St.

His is not “too pretty.” His wife chose well.

Farther south, there begin to be a few residence doors on the street, rather than just garages. Still lots of garages, though, and a continuing back-alley feel to the street.

garage, Croft St.

Good-news / bad-news about the Great Fire murals. Bad news: The ones facing onto the alley have been defaced: some clown has used opaque silver paint to obliterate the story with his own ID in giant script.

Good news: for the first time in my visits here, there are no cars parked in front of the fire mural on the north wall. Hurray! I can finally see it whole.

part of Great Fire of 1904 murals, Croft St.

I’m happy. I’ve seen new art, I’ve played with my echoes of art,  the sun is shining …

… and it is almost warm.



    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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