Thursday, April 30, 2015



My friend Paul Corey was doing some routine shopping the other day and found that he had bought a nice story in the process.
Paul is a professor of stats but he's much more interesting than that sounds, a gifted teacher who is easy with people even when he suspects them of being infected with BS.
So he was shopping, on orders from his wife Mary, who has adjusted to his ways. He was in Bruno's, that fancy supermarket with the fancier prices (the one on Dundas near Royal York) when he found the store's electronics had crashed so he couldn't use his credit card.
He discovered this in the middle of kidding a young woman behind him who had switched to his line only to be stalled too.  She replied the credit machine at the other checkout was out of order too.
He confessed to one and all that he didn't know what to do with his groceries which totalled around $62 in cost because "my wife hasn't given me my allowance yet." (There is a possibility he wasn't kidding because Paul has been known to become exuberant on purchases especially when it is the discovery of a great new wine.)
Then the young woman said she would loan him the money and he could mail repayment to her. She had nice eyes to go with that kindness, Paul remembers. He said he lived nearby and it turned out she did too.
Paul then fished out his wallet and found to his surprise that he actually had $50 and some change. He handed it to the cashier who told him not to worry about the rest because he could pay  the next time he was in.
Wow! Doesn't that restore your faith in good old T.O! No wonder this big cold city is now up there in the surveys as the greatest place to live.
Now cynics might argue that this did take place in the pleasant paunch of Etobicoke, the best of suburbia in the GTA. And Bruno's may be known for its great selections in fine food but also for its helpful staff at the four locations. Paul and Mary are regular shoppers, because as great entertainers they are used to buying gourmet goodies for expansive dinner parties. So Paul may be a familiar face.
But to hell with rationalizations.
I think it was a generous moment on a quiet Thursday because of a trusting lady with nice eyes - and we men are accused of always looking somewhere else - and a cashier, Daisy,  who should be promoted or at least given a bonus for her astute judgment of some old fart from U of T.
Bruno's saved me with a delicious turkey and all the fixings one Christmas when Mary and I were both limping around  but I really am a Costco fan, especially for the meats.  I have found courteous service there when I have glitches but no Costco clerk has ever offered to let me pay some of the bill the next time I'm in.
What fine service to go with fine food!

Saturday, April 25, 2015



There's a faithful saying that goes this way. "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad."
In Toronto, there's one quick path to going mad, and that is trying to make sense out of the city's utility bill.
It is so convoluted and mystifying that it is almost comic satire. I just know that if there was still a practical solid city treasurer around like William Campbell, who bizarrely was the grandfather of that clown Rob Ford, he would have eviscerated with his common sense the creators of the modern bill for water supply, sewers and the system of bins and arcane rules that has turned us all into garbage pickers.
My latest bill has 31 numerical listings on it,  like 0.613698630, which I guess is supposed to impress me about how far the bureaucrats have gone in precise calculations, but the result really resembles in the end the scrawls of a door-to-door salesman who is trying to rent you one of those water heaters at an exorbitant price.
And if that doesn't paint the picture for you, it resembles the product of a council of 44 men and women whom you and I wouldn't trust to buy our groceries.
They have certainly achieved their hidden goal, to so confuse us as to what our utilities really cost, we won't question just why they cost so much.
If someone from another city were to ask what I pay for these services and bins, I would have to confess I have no idea. All I know is that the charges go up every year, the privatized collection service works well most of the time,  and the numbers that are blitzed at us with every bill continue to be as baffling as the thought that we actually need 44 councillor and one mayor (doing his best to be all things to all activists)  to run this place in such a costly way.
No, I won't saying it was better in the old days because then we had more of those city workers pretending to work as hard as they did at election time in support of the councillors that they had conned into caring more about them than the taxpayers.
I threw the utility bill into the garbage. Probably in the wrong bin but even petty revenge is sweet.

Thursday, April 23, 2015



So what is it really like in the real world when you have a disabled parking pass, transportation and transit companies promise to help 100% with accessibility issues, and ramps and special seating are  familiar parts of daily life?
It is still a mixed blessing. You can go from smiling thanks for the help from strangers and even governments to cursing anger with the latest stupid barrier or inept stranger.
My wife has trouble walking. Her world is one of walkers, canes and a light foldable version of a wheelchair called a transporter chair. Her aids are God-sends. Without them we couldn't travel a block.
I am an awkward steward of my wife's transportation because I had a taste of the problem.
 Three years ago after three months in four hospitals I couldn't stand or walk. I have climbed out of that pit but it has left me with a temper still swollen from outrages like the heavy doors in places like Roy Thomson Hall which are difficult to move while also helping Mary.
The days when I strolled for miles, even 32.8 miles in one charity walk, are an ancient memory. But I can walk some distance, with pauses, so I'm not complaining.
The latest mountain for us to climb was a visit to my son John Henry in California. He and my son Mark assured me that Air Canada when notified in advance would help me with Mary in her transporter chair which you can buy for around $250. Mary can use it as a walker or I can push her in it even though floors tend to sag and wander and even descend into ruts and mini potholes in terminals, subway stations and especially city sidewalks.
There was a little confusion with Air Canada but it generally worked well.  A helper pushed Mary to the side of the plane - she could handle the walk to the seat - and the chair was stowed underneath and produced quickly in Los Angeles minus one part which was retrieved. There was no one at LAX to help so I had to push Mary through construction to the luggage carousel where my son and his Marie, the artist and jewellery designer, came to my rescue.
The return trip went better because there was an Air Canada helper to push Mary the extraordinary distance between the gate and customs.
There we sat waiting in a straggle of wheelchairs at a special desk which wasn't that special in processing. After about 30 minutes of waiting, and wondering whether my son Brett would now not connect for the trip home, we reached the customs official while I contemplated complaining.
He studied my slip, asked if I was the writer, said Downing was a nice name, and waved us through. (His name was Persaud.) A soft answer, especially praise, always turns away wrath, so I would judge the trip there and back to be a great success despite that hiccup in Los Angeles.
It would have been far easier for John Henry if I had flown into John Wayne Airport south of L.A. so he wouldn't have to drive into L.A. with its terrible traffic (still better than in Toronto) but that would have meant changing at O'Hare. The transporter chair is a wonderful help but you still have to husband your energy and running around that giant Chicago airport is to be avoided if possible.
A week later I was going to take Mary via that chair to a luncheon for the Canadian Helen Keller Centre at the Royal York. Finally I went alone. Thank heavens! I worked near Union Station for 50 years but despite my intimate knowledge I got lost three times in the construction maze in and outside the station. It has been an aggravating disgrace for far too long. It is like a Devil's project designed to show off how best to screw up a major downtown.
The TTC to its credit has personnel wandering around giving directions inside Union Station.  I had to interrupt three of them gossiping with each other to get confused directions. At one point I had to be rescued by a TTC employee who took mercy on me and said I was right to be grousing.
The experiences of the last months of trying to take Mary around via the TTC and an international airline - because our damned traffic makes driving downtown a gauntlet of dangers and costly parking - have proven to me again that despite the good progress we have made in helping the movements of those who because of age or disability just can't handle the stairs and slopes and stupid heavy public doors, there is room for improvement.
After all, for the disabled, it is a daily struggle. Something I wish that tall fat bottle blonde of around 30 would have remembered when she sprawled with her parcels over two of the subway seats that are supposed to be used by those who find it difficult to stand and clutch a pole.
I wish I had taken her picture because she could be symbolic of those who really don't notice or give a damn whether some of those around them are coping with the trip.
Fortunately, I can say in my regular report card about disability mobility that most of us are doing much better. I even have praise for Air Canada, which astounds even me.
Of course that extends only to its wheelchair assistance. Service and conditions inside its planes would be considered satisfactory only by people who could sleep in a coffin and figure a jail cell is a fine living room.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015



I hope Bill Davis and his adviser buddy Clare Westcott saw the news story about a Japanese magnetic levitation train setting a speed record of 580 km/h.
It is now more than 40 years since they dreamed of mag-lev trains floating above the right-of-way zipping from Toronto to Ottawa, and if Quebec cleaned up its act in time, from Windsor to Quebec City, a fabled link that has seized the imagination of transportation engineers since the 1960s.
We didn't realize at the time but Davis turned out to be our best premier, and the most successful, for the several decades after the Tories seized power in the 1940s.  Davis intended when he began in 1971 to keep the Big Blue Machine humming with schemes cooked up by Westcott who could charm the spots off a ladybug..
One way was to cancel the Spadina expressway, a stupid decision but one that endeared him to the lefties and gLiberals who normally would vomit at being associated with a Tory.
Another was to create Ontario Place, which was a chance to recreate the charm and mystique of the Ontario Pavilion at Expo '67.
And then there was the creation of an urban transportation experimental agency using the same bright guys behind Ontario Place and the successful display at Expo.
The idea was to create trains that would float on magnetic cushions and thus be very fast and efficient because it wasn't wheels grinding on steel rails.
The first test was to run a train around the Ex, and there are still a few bits of the concrete supports left there, almost as a memorial to the 60 trees that were cut down.
The Sun was new and I made it a campaign to hammer the idea on Page 4 every day. I attacked it as expensive and massive unproven technology - which makes it sounds like something proposed by the Liberals.
The Tories dispatched the top bureaucrat to try to shoot me down in a meeting with Sun publisher Doug Creighton. Doug called me in and listened impassively while we shouted insults and facts at each  other and then phoned his friend, the premier, and said he wasn't about to muzzle me.
Ontario spent hundreds of millions but no mag lev vehicle ever carried a passenger in Ontar-ar-ario, the way we sang about the province in the Bobby Gimby folk anthem made famous at Expo. The big problem was that it couldn't go around a curve because then the space changed for the power pickup.
mericas(Strange when you consider the teething problems of new train technology. The Rapido, the train that was supposed to revolutionize trains in North  America, couldn't keep the passengers warm in winter, which was a considerable problem when you consider our 10 months of winter and two months of bad skiing.)
Queen's Park sold some transit bits of new people carriers  to Vancouver and Seattle and managed to lose more millions in the process. And then, thank heavens, it went out of the business and restricted itself to endless arguments about new subways in Toronto.
Decades later. since the world also started dreaming about the advantages of magnetic levitation if it really could be made to work, there was actually a stub of a mag-lev system running to the Shanghai Airport. And now we have train speed records being set in Japan.
But let me issue a warning, folks! IT WAS ON A TEST TRACK!!!
Yes, the hot dream of train experts is still not quite here as a regular train service. And so, the grandiose Conservative announcements  of 1972 still have not been fulfilled with regular mag lev service over any distance longer than a midway ride.
It might seem a long time but, after all, this was a political promise, and they take a very long time to come true in Canada, and never, it seems, in the United States where failed process is still their most important product.
I write as  someone who wanted it to work, even though the transportation engineers working for Queen's Park would say I had a funny way of showing my support. It was just they fibbed about every tiny success.



You use an elastic band these days that has been touched by the sun for a few hours and it snaps. To me it's symbolic of the lousy quality control that means everything from your refrigerator to your weed wacker stops working the day after the warranty expires.
I have a regular supply of elastic bands since the newspaper delivery guys use them whenever they don't leave my papers in a puddle or somewhere beyond hailing distance of the porch.
I use the bands to anchor a disabled parking permit in my car. It's a great aid by society to my wife who has trouble walking and I want to make sure the parking vultures see it. I find that two elastics are good for several days if I don't touch them.
I realize that kitchen appliances that used to last forever now blow up after 10 years plus one day. I have come to accept that the computer on which I am typing this seems to be obsolete after a year or two and one sneer from a millennial.
All this bugs me a lot. And thanks to the lousy manufacture of the elastic bands used by the Star and Post, I am reminded regularly of this when a simple elastic band can't stretch in the sun without getting melanoma.
(It also bugs me that there is this evil coalition between the electricity producers and the appliance manufacturers that pump out the propaganda that any device older than a year is a terrible waster of electricity.
You know, almost as much as the smart meters that don't work yet are used to savage me with high bills for an unused cottage.
I inherited a fridge when I bought my house half a century ago (which actually seems just yesterday. ) I used it for 10 years and then it spent several decades as a beer fridge as we bought several replacements which were a lot larger and a lot weaker.)
I know that most Canadian appliances are made by just one company. You would think that with all the practise they would make a better product. They slap different names on them, and the more expensive ones have costlier trim, but are never sturdier for some suspicious reason.
And yet the various provincial and municipal power vultures, which are supposed to care more about the public  than private companies,  encourage us to scrap any old fridge that lasts on the grounds it's a power hog. Well, it takes one to know one!
I remember when an elastic band was sturdy enough to survive a morning of being shot around a public school classroom at any exposed neck, except for the girls of course who tended to tattle when you hit them.
The good old days, when things didn't wear out just after you took them out of the package.