Big Question Marks

Monday, June 28, 2010

Pure Michigan

This past weekend's jaunt to Dayle's family's boat in Michigan came with a hefty dose of Americana. A few years ago, her family traded in their last Canadian powerboat (after scoring a great deal on a snazzier boat down south) and said goodbye to Georgian Bay after years of boating up north. Gone are the days of anchoring overnight in serene, rocky bays; the Group-of-Seven landscapes, tiny northern towns (with a severe lack of decent restaurants, to Dayle's mom's dismay) and swarms of sunset mosquitoes were a thing of the past. Boating south of the border — actually just across the St. Clair River from Canada — comes with a new type of adventure, more of, cultural kind. Small-town America tends to surprise and thrill in little ways: the joy is in the details. It begins with Jobbie Nooner....

We were at the border crossing sometime after midnight on Thursday night, and with only two lanes open, it was very slow. Great, we've gotten the border guard who asks too many questions, we thought. When it was finally our turn, we were met with the usual "Where are you going?" and "For how long?" and Dayle's dad tells the guard about their boat in Algonac, Michigan, where they visit every weekend. "Ah. You heading to Jobbie Nooner tomorrow?" the guard says with a grin, and waves us through. Jobbie WHAT?? Dayle's parents have a good laugh and explain that Jobbie Nooner is a Michigan tradition, an informal annual holiday invented by auto workers ("jobbies") in the 1980s, who decided to knock off work at noon on a designated Friday and head to Gull Island, in the north part of Lake St. Clair, and get drinking. The tradition caught on and gets bigger and bigger every year, with more drinking and debauchery (ie. plenty of Mardi-Gras-style boob-baring for beads). It's been known to break up marriages and get people arrested, but depending who you talk to, it's one awesome/awful time. Even Kid Rock played an impromptu concert there last year, from a barge. It's 'Pure Michigan', apparently.

Friday morning was beautiful, hot and sunny, but there would be no Jobbie Nooner for us (not really our crowd?). We kicked off the day with a big, bargain American breakfast in one of Algonac's many tiny breakfast diners — something Dayle's parents were really growing to love. Two eggs, bacon, potatoes, toast, and coffee for $3? Yup, and for that price, you get way more food than humanly possible to eat. Charming touches at the diner included many "American" food choices, including "American cheese" (processed orange cheese?), and "American potatoes" (basically hash browns cut up in slices instead of grated). We also enjoyed the duck and deer paintings, the NRA sticker on the front door, and the waitress who told us we say "thank you" too much! But after leaving the wood-paneled diner, we headed out into the hot sun for a lovely afternoon of anchoring out in the lake, swimming, sunbathing (and burning!). Good fun... but as we were all dying of curiosity about Jobbie Nooner, we managed to do a bit of a cruise-by on the way back to port. From our distance (out of vomiting range), we didn't manage to catch much Mardi Gras action, but it was definitely a sight to behold: thousands of boats (more than 4000, said the news later on) anchored around the island, many tied to each other, full of party decorations, pirate flags, beer-drinking, and people. We turned on the radio to the coast guard station and were entertained for quite a while by calls from inebriated "Jobbies" who were reporting fights, border guards getting punched out, all that kind of stuff....

After all that hot sun, the next day we found ourselves craving another American tradition: ice cream. Dairy Queen wasn't far from the marina, but we decided to do as the locals do and drive a few blocks for ice cream. Of course, our "small" Blizzards were impossibly huge to eat, but it seemed appropriate to pig out in the riverbank park, under the shade of some trees by a cute old white clapboard house/local history museum, located between a huge flapping American flag and a war memorial. And we really couldn't resist a cruise through town, taking in excellently-named sights like the Fifth Third Bank, The Shop The Shop, and St. Clair Flats Taxidermy. Unfortunately the taxidermy shop was closed, but we managed to peer in the windows at the walls covered in deer heads, snarling boars, toothy possums, and a group of squirrels playing cards. we even met an old guy waiting in his car in the parking lot to get his ducks "fixed". He had Florida plates on his car, and an interesting sticker on the window showing a green skull and some writing — Adrian asked him about his "interesting sticker" and the man explained to us that he's part of a "Special Ops unit of former soldiers", who go on secret missions or something. Only in America! There are just so opportunities to feel like you're in a Michael Moore movie when you cross the border.

After a beer run/short exploration of the local grocery store (beer is SO cheap in the States!), we realized we'd never seen so many kinds of Pop Tarts in our lives, especially in one aisle (seriously, three shelves??). And not that cotton candy, fireworks, chocolate milk by the gallon, or alien-shaped cereal were on our shopping list.... but if they were, it's good to know we could find them at the grocery store!

But two full days of in-your-face Americana couldn't have prepared ourselves for Saturday evening. After a meat-filled dinner at Outback Steakhouse (but to our delight, Aussie beer like Boag's and Cooper's!!), we met Dayle's parents' boat friends in a roadhouse along the highway. The bar wasn't exactly one any of them would normally frequent, but the Lighthouse Tavern was owned by Diane's sister and well, it was Saturday night. When we pulled into the parking lot around the back of the bar, "Bad to the Bone" must have popped into all of our heads, as well as that scene in Terminator 2 when Arnold walked into the biker bar demanding some clothes, boots, and a motorcycle. It was that kind of place. We walked in slowly and found our friends at a long table in the dimly-lit bar, all looking a little timid. And then we learned it was karaoke night, much to Adrian's delight. He grabbed the thick book of songs from some redneck types at the next table, and made his picks as we all watched other patrons croon country songs next to Cyndi, the emcee with a seriously badass long blonde mullet. There was just so much to gape at: guys in leather vests with devil heads and something like "Hell to Pay" embroidered across the back (Hells Angels maybe???) and confederate-flag bandannas, an old cowboy sitting at the bar in a Stetson and a t-shirt reading 'Boot Hill Saloon' on the back, a polo-shirted jock type who sang some bad 80s song, a raspy guy named "Smokin' Joe" who growled songs onstage like "Turn the Page" (and wore a hilarious t-shirt reading 'On board, Off board, All Aboard, Never Bored"), and lots of bad high-waisted jeans and big hair on the ladies. It was pretty much a scene from a movie. Luckily, Adrian's songs got some good fan appreciation and we were allowed to stay (OK, it really wasn't like that — it was a pretty laid-back place!), but when we finally left out the back door to the bar and found the biker-types outside, we certainly weren't expecting the prim and proper "Good night, ladies" that we got.

And on Sunday morning, we couldn't leave the country without one more gargantuan breakfast feast for the road — and Adrian made sure to help stop terrorism by peeing on Osama bin Laden (we're not joking! The men's room urinals at the diner had Osama's likeness on the urinal mat, which read "Help Fight Terrorism: Support Operation Enduring Freedom") So, what can we say really? Americana...bring it on! Much as we like to poke fun at our gun-toting, flag-waving, highly carnivorous neighbours, they really do know how to have a good time. We're kinda sad we didn't score any Uncle Sam postcards, but well, there's always next time.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Originally uploaded by bigquestionmarks.
We're not really sure when we first noticed the Sunday-afternoon gatherings happening outside our apartment building. But what we do know, is our door to the fire escape gives us a perfect view of the mysterious little weekly event.

At first, we thought perhaps it was a garage sale — strange though, since it only looked like paintings and chairs were for sale, with a few interested buyers milling about. Another week, we decided the garage sale — which was only oddball semi-abstract paintings, and no shoppers — must just have been an artist who was drying his freshly painted canvases. And then, another Sunday happened upon us, and we snapped this sneaky photo from our kitchen, and we figured it had to be some sort of group called Artcrime, conducting weekly meetings at the end of the driveway (hence the sign!). The only constants were the paintings, the location, and what looked like an old bleached-blond punk guy, a Billy Idol type. We were puzzled.

Adrian once went by to say hello — but didn't learn much other than our Billy Idol was pretty friendly and had some sort of European accent. In fact, it probably would have been easier to just head down the fire escape stairs and inquire what all the hubbub was about. But when it comes to apartment neighbours, it's always more fun to hypothesize about what's going on than to find out the truth.

In fact, it was total coincidence we were discussing our mysterious neighbour just this morning — and only a few hours later, Adrian was flipping through Saturday's Toronto Star Entertainment section (found on our front porch), and who's on page E14? Well, what do you know? It was our neighbour, pictured in all of his Steampunk-ish glory, in front of those very-familiar paintings and the Artcrime sign!

You'll have to read the story — tres bizarre — but in a nutshell, it turns out he's a pretty established "arts performer-provocateur" named Istvan Kantor (and many other names). He was born in Hungary and has been in Toronto for a few decades, where he has been banned from museums like the AGO (for his over-the-top, controversial, and bloody performance art) but has still managed to receive prestigious awards like the 2004 Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts. Our neighbourhood becomes ever more intriguing...

The Star's story:

The artist's own page:

CTV's story on Kantor winning the Governor General's award:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Being home

Last weekend we got to revisit something we're pretty good at but haven't done in ages: be tourists. And in our own town, no less. We'd been looking forward to a visit from our friends Megan & Justin for ages — and suddenly there they were, collapsed on our front porch with their backpacks, after 20 or so hours of airport-hopping and flying from Melbourne. We were their first stop on a four-week whirl of cities around North America.

In the weeks leading up to their visit, we'd been trying to brainstorm what was cool about Toronto (Ontario, even), but I guess when you've lived in a place for ages, the tourist attractions all seem cheesy, and your own city can definitely seem a bit dull ("Yeah, one day I should go up the CN Tower..." is a familiar refrain). But maybe we all just need some out-of-town friends to visit once in a while, to shed our snobbery and our "I'll do it someday" attitudes for a bit and to see things in a new way.

And that's what we did. On M & J's first night in, we finally got around to having dinner at Fresh, a great little veggie establishment on our street (where we hadn't yet eaten in the 8 months we've been on Crawford Street), and it was delicious. The next day we embarked on a little road trip... all the way to Niagara Falls! We tried to warn our friends how cheesy the town was, since that was what truly stuck out in our memories — I don't think any of us were actually prepared for how terrible it actually was — and rediscovered that the falls themselves are pretty impressive, despite the countless waterfalls we'd visited across Australia and Asia over the past few years. I guess all the fuss about Niagara is sort of justified — though I don't know about it being the "honeymoon capital"! After ooh-ing and aah-ing at the falls for a while, we did the usual obligatory walk up Clifton Hill, and promptly forgot about the stunning waterfall behind us. Giant rooftop burger-eating Frankenstein, roaming Reese Peanut Butter Cup and Spongebob mascots, and haunted houses galore will do that to you. It wasn't long before we decided to flee the circus on the hill for another few years. That night we headed to Toronto staple Sneaky Dee's to watch some bands and drink beer (definitely a main attraction, in our opinions!). But by then, we realized our friends still hadn't seen anything of Toronto.

Sunday morning — er, afternoon, thanks jetlag! — we moseyed down to Kensington Market for the lively Pedestrian Sundays fest which happens every week in the summer. Browsing vintage shops and watching street performers: that's more the Toronto we love. It was a scorcher of a day — bit of a shock to Megan and Justin, who in Melbourne were getting into winter about now — but easily fixed with a giant, tooth-dissolving frozen Slurpee from 7-11. (One thing you don't notice when you've lived in North America most of your life is the massive food portions everywhere. It was kind of fun watching our friends' eyes bug out at the serving sizes! Though we did keep telling them: just you wait 'til you get to the States!)

We spent the rest of Sunday meandering the streets of Toronto, and came to the realization that, in downtown Toronto, everything is just "a little bit further". We're in Chinatown — hey, let's check out Queen Street! Just a bit further south. And hey — there's the Skydome! Well, it's only a few blocks that way. I guess we could have kept walking for days in this manner...

On Monday, Justin & Megan's last day in Toronto, we decided to meander a little bit less and instead, hit some prime destinations. Mission #1: Find those two crazy kids a pancake-and-maple-syrup breakfast! Not the easiest thing to find for vegans, but we totally lucked out. Having read about a place called Sadie's Diner, we eventually found it at Adelaide and Portland Streets, and all had the most amazing and animal-friendly breakfast feast (I think we're all still dreaming about it). Even Adrian begrudgingly loved his fake bacon and sausage! Lesson #1 for us: Toronto is a pretty awesome place for vegans and vegetarians to hang out (though now maybe not as much, since M&J bought the city's entire stock of soy ice cream).

Mission #2: Do the most touristy thing possible in Toronto — ascend the CN Tower. I was surprised to learn Adrian had never been up the tower in his entire life; I myself had avoided the place since the first time I went up at 5 years old and a very confusing space 'game' at the base of the tower printed off a ticket for me with my "alien name" and a fictitious space-age health condition- "Martian Dropsy". I've grown spots in fear every time I near the tower since then. But this time, no dropsy for anyone (phew) and it was fun! Though I still don't think Toronto is anything that special to look at from above. Lesson #2: The glass floor in the CN Tower gives even the bravest of us vertigo after enough jumping around on it.

Mission #3: Take in the all-American sport of baseball... in Canada. Yes, we hit a Jays game — M&J spoiled us with some great tickets and it was great beer- and heckler-filled fun for nine innings vs. Tampa Bay! (And poor old Carl Crawford — still getting heckled at the Dome) Lesson #3: Some of us were born to heckle, some born to be heckled. Sorry, Crawford.

Anyway, the moral of our long-winded tale is that being a tourist is always fun — but sometimes you just need the right people around to put on those knee-high socks and sandals with. Stay tuned for part 2 of our tourist adventures- our weekend in NYC with Megan & Justin...