I hated high school. I was a terrible student, shy as a mole in daylight, and virtually friendless. Despite that, at age 17, the day after graduating grade 13 (required in Ontario at the time) I hitchhiked the 100 miles to Toronto and spent the summer busking the Union Station rush hour crowd and Yonge Street night life. I made enough to afford a room with a shared bath and kitchen, eat cheaply and keep a couple of pennies for extras. It was the summer of 1975.
My brother Alec returned from the west coast and we played flute duets and found the odd gig. At one point we played a set at the recently minted Ontario Place park, we did open mike nights at The Beggar’s Banquet for our suppers, and were even hired by Xaviera Hollander (aka The Happy Hooker) to play at her latest book signing. All of this happened in a haze of dubious drugs and strange people with names like Max the Cat and Panama Blues. From our store front stage we watched the Eaton’s Center get built and the half finished CN Tower going up over the skyline. One night a prostitute dropped a red rose in my case. On others, a narc earnestly asked me where he might score a marijuana cigarette while another man wanted to smoke what I think were caraway seeds. The nights were warm and the musicians jammed until long after the street cleared out and the stores locked up. It was fun, easy and pointless.
By the time late August was scorching the streets, my perspective was changing. The gawkers came in droves to soak up the neon spectacle of strip clubs and record shops, restaurants and hawkers, chalk artists and unicycling jugglers all served up with the usual pantheon of dealers, hookers, con artists, homeless runaways and hustlers. I mindlessly tooted Bach and Tull snippets as they strolled by. I could have practiced long tones. They didn’t notice the difference. Every night was an edgy circus midway and freak show to get goosebumply over before going home to pay the babysitter. And I was one of the freaks.
As soon as that hit me, I took the streetcar home and never looked back. I did not want to be, nor be seen as, a forgettable zoo specimen that gives the crowd 20 seconds of idle curiosity before moving on to the next cage. Time to get a job and after a couple of days answering ads, a restaurant owner sarcastically remarked that if I got a haircut he’d think about hiring me. That afternoon I spent fifteen buck getting sheep shorn and went back the following day. He was so surprised he hired me to bus tables.
And so ended my short and only professional flute playing career.