Joe Fiorito has spent the morning working on a
follow-up story about two bickering parking lot attendants in
downtown Toronto. Since his first column about the lots, the feud
has escalated and one of the attendants, an Ethiopian immigrant
named Gashaw Mequanent, now has a broken wrist. It's a typical
Fiorito piece, a tiny urban story about the lives of people who
are usually overlooked in the media. We are standing on the
corner of Wellington and John streets at lunch hour and the
sidewalk is streaming with pedestrians. "I'm going to get
philosophical now," he warns. "People get caught up in stuff.
Shit happens. Not everyone knows how to avoid it, but it's how
people deal with things that I find interesting. I like all of it
because it's about being human." Suddenly, he motions toward the
sidewalk and says, "Look." There, in the midst of the flow of
human traffic, a scrappy pigeon is trying to peck a discarded
peanut butter sandwich out of a sealed Ziploc bag. Eventually it
wanders off, leaving the sandwich unopened. "Stupid pigeon,"
Fiorito says. "You gave up."
Pointing out "stuff"-a
word he uses constantly-that people are too busy to notice
themselves is pretty much all Fiorito says he wants to accomplish
with his thrice-weekly column in the National
Post. By combing the city streets looking for
slice-of-life stories about the working class and the underclass,
52-year-old Fiorito has carved out a niche for himself as
Toronto's tough-talking, old-style reporter. His columns have
covered a diverse range of subjects: the building at Bloor and
Lansdowne that houses both a church and a strip club, for
instance, or the Tibetan man caught shoplifting fade cream to
make his skin lighter. Like other city columnists of his ilk-most
notably Jimmy Breslin?he possesses an unwavering compassion for
the underdog, a storyteller's instincts and an ability to portray
the dignity of everyday people.
It's a rare combination
and one that some say is lacking in Canadian journalism. "There's
a very important spiritual aspect to life that we tend to grind
out of journalism, and that is that each human being is unique,"
says journalist and media critic Robert Fulford. "That human
uniqueness is something we beat out of newspapers because it's so
hard to report, it takes so much sensitivity and you can't assign
it. As a result, even the arts get covered in a very brutal,
simpleminded way. Fiorito doesn't do that."
have sometimes criticized Fiorito's tendency to ignore the middle
and upper classes. But ask him why he doesn't broaden his scope
and Fiorito doesn't back down. "Rich people don't need anyone to
stick up for them. So, I'm a bleeding heart, so what?"
So, at last count, Fiorito was the only working-class bleeding
heart with a regular column at the National
Post, a paper that often reads like an advertisement
for the Canadian Alliance in the front section and a
how-to-be-hip manual in the rest. And although he writes more
about people than politics, his columns definitely carry the
underlying message that society should take care of its weaker
members-a sentiment distinctly out of step with the overall tone
of the Post. "From a social perspective," he says. "I still think
that the best measure of any society is how well it takes care of
its weakest members. We don't take care of ours very well."
Given his politics, he must have been apprehensive
about writing for the Post. Did it bother him?
"No," he says firmly. But when pressed, he concedes. "Yeah, at
first I was concerned about it because I didn't know what
direction the paper what going to take. But [editor Ken Whyte]
said he just wanted me to do what I do, the way I do it, and
that's the only direction he's ever given me."
populist, it's not a right-wing, left-wing thing," says Barry
Brimbecom, t0he Post's Toronto assignment
editor until last November. Fiorito more or less agrees. "I don't
see myself as occupying any particular role politically. But I
have some personal inclinations that lead me into certain
territory." The territory he explores certainly doesn't provoke
much criticism from other journalists. Most of my attempts to
find other writers?including Globe columnists
Peter Gzowski and Allan Fotheringham and National
Post media critic John Fraser-who would say anything
negative about Fiorito's column proved futile. And even the usual
right-wing suspects such as David Frum declined to comment. "I
can't think of anyone who will criticize him," says John Fraser.
"His edge is his own personality-he is basically just a decent
person trying to tell people's stories. Usually the people he
gets angry at [in his column] are pretty loathsome. So, you're
going to dig up your dirt with people who are themselves kind of
I am on the verge of succumbing to such desperate
tactics when I find Don Obe, a writing professor in the magazine
stream at Ryerson's School of Journalism, who describes Fiorito
as "a poor man's Jimmy Breslin" and says he finds his column too
sentimental. Without naming names, I run this past Fiorito.
"Sure I'm sentimental," he says. "I would use a
different word. I'd use the word empathetic."
person used the word corny.
"Fuck him. Seriously, fuck
him. That's fine. Anyone can think anything they want. Some
people think any kind of sympathetic light cast on the underdog
is corny. Let them read Joey Slinger. Let them read Robert
Fulford. Let them read Rebecca Eckler. I don't do that stuff. I
do my stuff. And there is a place for my stuff in the paper."
The only other criticism I can dredge up comes from a
business writer and friend of mine who doesn't want to be named.
Although my friend leans to the right, he says that's not the
reason he doesn't read the column-he just finds Fiorito too
predictable. "It's always the same," he groans. "It's always
about some crack-addicted whore on the corner." I hesitantly
repeat this to Fiorito. "Fuck him," he says offhandedly. "There
aren't very many other columnists who actually get out on the
goddamn sidewalk and talk to real people about what the fuck
The first time we talk, Fiorito is a
little guarded. I leave a message at the National Post
and when he returns my call I'm engrossed in
The Closer We Are to Dying, Fiorito's moving
and honest memoir. I'm reading the part where Fiorito explains
why his ancestors fled to Canada from Italy-his great uncle had
just killed a man. He tells me he doesn't give out his home phone
number-even though he's only been to the National Post offices
four times in two years. He seems so apprehensive that I ask him
if he wants to know anything about me. So he quizzes me on why I
want to be a journalist, what I have done with my life so far and
why I have chosen him as a subject. I tell him it's because he's
an old-school city columnist who actually spends time on the
streets of Toronto, which he seems to find amusing. "I can't act
cagey or you'll write I acted cagey," he says, and eventually
hands over the number?but he is acting kind of cagey, no
We agree to meet for coffee at the Lakeview
Lunch, an old-fashioned diner on the corner of Dundas and
Ossington. He shows up right on time and orders his coffee black.
He has combed-back dark hair and is wearing Levi's, a leather
bomber jacket and a light-coloured shirt. He looks like a
middle-aged version of "The Fonz."
Initially, he seems
to take himself too seriously, only lightening up once during a
two-hour interview when I ask what kind of car he drives ("It's a
Subaru, very middle-class, with two airbags and four- wheel
drive"). He cracks only one tiny smile, when he leaves me to pay
the bill, walks away, and then comes back to check if that's
okay. "You pay'n'?"
He continues to seem wary about the
piece for our first few interviews. "There's an element of risk
to it," he says the second time we meet, while walking from Queen
Street East to the parking lot on Wellington Street.
"What is it that you are you nervous about specifically?
"Off the record?"
don't want to look like a pretentious jerk."
you been called a pretentious jerk?"
"No, it's my
"Why is that off the record?"
He laughs, "Okay, you can write that."
Weeks later, when I summon the courage to tell him I
didn't like him at first, he smiles. "I might have been a little
diffident because I wasn't sure what you were after," he says. "I
take what I do very seriously, and when you transcribe passion
into print, it can come across as goofy."
think this is just a simple story about a couple of guys slotting
cars in a parking lot? Shows how much you know. This ain't
simple, this is war and it's every bit as vicious as Chapters v.
Indigo, or Onex v. Air Canada. This is Gashaw v. Tim. See,
there's a little parking lot on Wellington, close to the CBC,
patronized by the downtown crowd. For the past few years, as far
as anybody knew, it's been the bailiwick of Gashaw Mequanent, a
sweetheart of a guy. As far as any of the customers knew the
little lot on Wellington was just one lot, and Gashaw was the
man. Then suddenly a couple of weeks ago, one of my informants
pulls up and finds Gashaw, as usual, directing cars in the cold
grey inner-city morning. But he's not smiling. And he's not
alone. Over there, on the west side of the lot, stands a new guy,
a guy named Tim, and Tim is hustling cars over to his side and
nobody knows who he is or why the lot is suddenly split in two,
but Tim's charging a buck less.
the feud as vicious is no exaggeration. Gashaw, his mangled wrist
in a cast, is now sitting across from Fiorito in a coffee shop on
Queen Street, east of Yonge, close to Gashaw's apartment. Unable
to park cars, he has been fired by his boss, whom Fiorito refers
to as "the Old Greek." Gashaw hasn't been able to collect
employment insurance, welfare or worker's compensation, his wife
is unemployed and their rent is coming up due.
happened? Set it up for me," Fiorito says, scribbling in a little
"How can I explain," Gashaw says.
"Something is wrong with his [Tim's] mind. He's moody. But I
never saw him like that before. He was very aggressive." Gashaw
explains that it was a busy night with a baseball game on at
SkyDome. Tim thought Gashaw was gaining an unfair advantage by
placing his sign too close to the road, so he kicked it over and
punched Gashaw in the neck. Tim hit him again and Gashaw fell
over and landed on his wrist, spilling the change he was holding
in his hand. When he tried to pick up the change, his hand
"I said, 'My hand is broken.'"
"What did he say?"
"He said, 'I don't
"I've got some more calls to make on this
one," says Fiorito and we head off to pay Tim a visit.
When we arrive at the lot, Fiorito checks in with Gashaw's
replacement, before he heads over to the other side. Tim Mielen,
a white guy probably in his late 20s with small teeth, is wearing
a baseball cap, green-tinted sunglasses and a CBC Sports bomber.
He has his own version of the story: Gashaw took a swing at him
and then tripped. "They're not the angels they're making
themselves out to be," he says and accuses Gashaw and another
parking attendant of rusting the keyhole of his booth by
urinating on it. Tim says both sides hurl insults at each other
constantly but denies he has said anything racist. "I lived in
Jamaica for a year. So I know how to deal with them," he says,
even though Gashaw is Ethiopian.
"Keep your cool,"
Fiorito says and walks off. "We're trying," Tim calls after him,
grinning. "We're trying to be one big happy family."
"It's a 'he said, he said,'" Fiorito comments as we leave.
"But who do you believe?"
Fiorito's compassion for the underdog and
determination to show readers what daily life is like for those
who don't have a voice in the mainstream press are the direct
result of being raised in a rough family and neighbourhood in
Fort William, Ontario. "Everything I know, I learned there," he
says of the hard-drinking, blue-collar town that merged with Port
Arthur to become Thunder Bay in 1970. "I learned it in part by
seeing what my parents did and in part by seeing what other
people did. I learned the value of standing up for myself because
that's what people did there."
Before he was old enough
to attend school, Fiorito stood up for his mother by leaping onto
his father's back, saving her from being strangled to death. He
describes the experience in the first few pages of his memoir:
I was sitting on the couch with my arm around
my brother; he was too afraid to cry. My father tore off his belt
and began to whip her. He hit her arms, he hit her shoulders, the
thin belt raised red welts. Grace fought back. And then he
dropped his belt and his hands were at her throat and he was
choking her now. She was a fish out of water in his hands,
wriggling, gasping for air. He squeezed her neck, and she made a
choking sound and then she weakened and her legs began to buckle.
And I knew he was killing her. I jumped from the couch and ran
across the room and leapt on his back. Don't hurt my mother,
don't hurt my mother, don't you hurt her. I clung to his
shoulders. He tried to shake me off. I wasn't sure if he'd turn
on me but I didn't care if he did. She might be able to break
free. And then he let her go.
Having to be on
guard in his own home taught Fiorito to observe. "And I began to
study him," he writes. "If I sensed a certain brooding, if the
air around him was charged, if there was a scent of alcohol in
his sweat, I hushed my brother and plotted the route of my own
escape. I glanced at my mother every time he came home. We shared
the intuition of prisoners."
And although his father had
what Fiorito refers to as "complications," he refuses to demonize
him. "It's only WASPs that want to turn him into a villain," he
says while standing in the kitchen of his Parkdale home, chopping
vegetables for the spaghetti sauce many of his friends have raved
about to me. His home is simply and tastefully decorated. More
than 200 cookbooks line the shelves of his kitchen. And not far
from where he is standing, a poster advertising the German
edition of his book-of a man wearing a white undershirt in bed,
propped up against the bedpost, clarinet in hand-hangs framed on
the wall. "I can't condemn him, what's the point of condemning
him? I made an unconscious decision early on that I wasn't going
to be a victim of a whole bunch of stuff. Do I look like a victim
"Yeah, but if your dad beats up your mother, is
that all right?"
"It's who he was. I don't do that. I
wouldn't do that. I'm not condoning it. I don't condone it. But I
refuse to judge him. Anyone is capable of doing anything at any
given time. You just don't know." "So it was the circumstances he
was under?" "The circumstances of who he was, the circumstances
of his time, the circumstances of his generation, the
circumstances of what happened to him in his life. That's what it
did to him."
"So, he's the victim, not your
"What's with this victim stuff?"
"You brought it up, I didn't."
"Listen, we're all a
product of the things that work on us."
"Sure, but you do what you can.
And some people are capable of doing more than others, and some
people are capable of doing less. I'm not going to run around
condemning everybody who I think is less than Mother Teresa."
Fiorito credits his father-a postman who moonlighted as
a "bushtown bandstand idol," playing the trombone and singing in
bars around Thunder Bay-with teaching him the art of
storytelling. They would sit at the kitchen table together late
at night and his father would tell him stories about the family.
Today, Fiorito believes that because every person is capable of a
wide range of human behaviour, judging anyone is hypocritical.
And so he shines a sympathetic light on the lives of shoplifters,
drug addicts and prostitutes. In the process he often discovers
what drives them.
The security guard has all
the information he needs, but I have some questions of my own for
the small man.
"Please tell me why
you took the cream?" No answer. "Why did you take the cream?"
"Yes, but why
did you take the cream?" The small brown man looks at me
pleadingly. He touches a hand to his cheek and says, "Because of
"What do you mean?"
"To make lighter."
"It will be better,
He thinks it will be better for him if he has
lighter skin. He's new here. He doesn't know. He must have
thought. He didn't think.
didn't write his first column until he was 43, he first realized
he wanted to write at age 16 after reading the poetry of William
Carlos Williams. "That he made art out of people's lives really
struck a chord with me," he says. "That's when I had the first
real glimmer of wanting to be a writer." That summer, because he
couldn't find employment and couldn't stand hanging around the
house, he rode the bus around Thunder Bay scribbling
surreptitious notes about who got on and what they looked like.
After high school, Fiorito attended Lakehead University
for a few months. "I was only there long enough to inhale," he
writes. He dropped out and moved to Toronto, working in an ad
agency as an office flunky for nine months, doing the usual
photocopying and errand running. From there he went to Manitoba,
where he spent four months as a labourer on a dam. Next stop was
the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean, where he spent almost a
year "learning how to drink bad wine and write bad poems." Soon
after he moved back to Thunder Bay, a shotgun marriage at age 23
delayed his writing aspirations.
The marriage lasted
roughly two years?during which time he worked as a surveyor?and
when it ended, he got custody of their two-and-a-half-year-old
son. "She had her own demons to deal with," he says of his first
wife. Around this time, Fiorito worked as a regional consultant
for the Ontario Arts Council and then as a community developer
for the city of Thunder Bay, reviewing local theatre for CBC
Radio on the side. The freelance work led to a job managing a CBC
Radio station in Iqaluit, Nunavut, for five years. Then, in 1985
he moved to Saskatchewan, producing Saskatchewan Today
at CBC Radio for three years before a two-year stint as
network producer. After that, he produced a show about food for
six months and worked on the executive of the now-defunct CBC
national radio union. It was at union meetings that Fiorito met
his second wife, Susan Mahoney, now a senior producer at CBC
Radio's This Morning. "She's really smart,
she's got a good heart and she's got a really good bullshit
detector," he says proudly.
His son, now a punk-rock
musician and silk-screen printer in Vancouver, moved out at 17.
"We went through his teens like a pair of Shermans burning down
each other's South," Fiorito writes. "The civil war is over now,
thank God." Friends of Fiorito say he was a strict father. "Was I
strict?" he considers the question. "I suppose I was. Why? Have a
kid and tell me. Nobody knows better how to break your heart than
your kid. I was afraid that he was going to take some wrong turns
that were irreversible. He's such a beautiful kid and he's turned
out to be really thoughtful. He was just a rock at both my
father's death and my brother's." Having a child young worked out
for the best. "By the time he was old enough to pack up his
guitar, tell me to fuck off and head for the coast, I was still
young enough to start a second life."
In 1990, one year
after his son left home, The Food Showwas cancelled. So when
Mahoney received an offer to produce CBC's Cross Country
Checkup in Montreal in 1991, Fiorito took his
settlement package from CBC and they moved east. After spending
two years in Montreal writing poetry and "getting paid five bucks
for something that took me two weeks to write," he walked into
the office of Hour, a new alternative English language weekly
just starting up, armed with three columns about the emotional
and sensual role of food in people's lives. "I said, 'Here, this
is what I can do. If you need them, call me.'" The editor called
him the night before the first issue hit the stands and asked if
Hour could use one. The next week, Hour asked
to use the second one. After that, the paper ran the third and
wanted more. He was paid a mere $70 a piece.
1994, Comfort Me with Apples, a collection of
these columns, was published. The book was well received and the
Montreal Gazette tried to lure him away from
Hour to become its food columnist. Fiorito
turned the paper down. "I said no-with great trembling because I
wasn't interested in writing about food anymore and because I
wasn't interested in leaving the paper that had given me a bit of
a break." The Gazette responded by offering
him a position writing a weekly column about anything he wanted.
This time he accepted, and he continued to write his food column
for Hour. He was still getting paid a pittance
at the Gazette, $250 for his weekly
column-eventually that went up to $350-for writing so good that
it won a National Newspaper Award in 1995.
loved Montreal, when his wife was offered a job too good to
refuse in 1997, the couple moved to Toronto. Less than a year
later, Ken Whyte, who says he was a big fan of Fiorito's, called
and offered him a column in an upcoming new paper, the
Joe fiorito leaves a message
on my machine. He is working on a story about an after-school
program in St. Jamestown. He gives me vague directions, tells me
it's hard to find and hangs up. I give myself enough time to get
The Homework Club takes place in two adjoining
rooms in an apartment building on Bleecker Street. There are only
three tutors for almost 40 children. It is complete chaos. Kids
are goofing around, asking questions, competing for the tutor's
attention. But in the midst of the commotion, the majority of the
kids are getting things done. "Will you check this for me?" one
little girl asks me, holding up a math sheet. She drags a chair
loudly from across the room for me to sit on. The program leader
stops her, gives her a little lecture, and then apologizes when
he realizes why she took the chair. There are no extra chairs.
There are few extras, period. All the peeling cabinet doors in
the room are padlocked except one. It contains the things most
people get to throw away, washed and rewashed plastic cups, bowls
and spoons. Nothing brightens up the faded mint-coloured walls
except a torn map tacked onto a bulletin board. For two hours
Fiorito sits there watching and taking notes.
often, the program leader runs kids downstairs to the basement. I
go downstairs to see what's going on. A chubby black guy is
directing the children as they bang away on steel drums. Some of
them aren't much taller than their drums, but they play really
well. The last song I hear is an upbeat version of "Amazing
When we leave, it's starting to get dark.
"Look," Fiorito says and motions toward one of the most decrepit
apartment buildings in Toronto. I take a mental step backward and
really look at it. "It gets really hard to break out of this," he
says. "I have no hope the column will make a difference. But what
it may do is make people a little bit smarter about what happens
in St. Jamestown. Life is hard, and when people are busy, they
tend to pigeonhole stuff. It is my privilege to say, Wait a
minute, this is what is happening here. It's not violence and
it's not gangs. It's something reasonably positive."
BACK WHEN FIORITO was living in Montreal, his poker
buddies had a custom of razzing whichever one of them might be,
say, moving or publishing a new book. "So we wouldn't take
ourselves too seriously," he says. Just before he left for
Toronto, the guys-including writers Mark Abley, Trevor Ferguson
and Bryan Demchinsky- composed several columns that parodied
Fiorito's tough-talking style. In his dining room after dinner,
Fiorito shows them to me. "Can I copy some of this down?" "Ouch,"
says Mahoney, who is lying on the couch reading the paper.
Monday morning and the first light on the
plateau cracks through the eyelids of bums and the city awakes. I
step outside, looking for a story. If you think it's easy being
the one who must shoulder the burdens of the poor, the miseries
of the working class, the pains of the destitute and sick, the
worries of the abused, the complaints of the cheated, the howls
of the robbed, the cries of the misunderstood, the shouts of the
deaf, the thirst of the drunkards, the hunger of the famished,
the anxiety of the old, the impatience of the young, the kindness
of the unfortunate, the ambitions of the besotted, the breasts of
the unclothed, the rancor of the brokenhearted, then ask Christ
how much he enjoyed the experience. And he didn't have to write a
column every week.
So, the guy can laugh at
himself. He can also be both humble and proud?often at the same
time. He isn't falsely modest, which is refreshing. When he
deserves it, Fiorito gives himself credit. He tells me he does
his job "really well" and that he can turn a phrase, but then
adds, "Not all of my columns are brilliant. But over the course
of a given month, there will be something in there that touches
your heart, something that pisses you off, something that makes
you smile and something that makes you go, Yeah, that's what I
Still, what emerges more powerfully is his
passion for the people he writes about. He's quick to point out
that there's already an abundance of columnists in Toronto who
write about social issues from an official, bureaucratic point of
view. "I'm the only guy that I know of who is actively, three
times a week, on the sidewalk. There's a handful of notes that I
ring, and I'll go on ringing them because nobody else is doing