Toronto is not slipping into a lawless wasteland even if current Mayor Rob Ford’s behavior would suggest otherwise. Its residents are still laid-back and pleasant, chugging along through their daily routines as usual, only with added bemusement about their newfound infamy. The one misconception that has come from the Mayor Rob Ford scandal is the prominence of crack — or as the newspaper nitpicks like to call it “crack cocaine.”
We dropped into Toronto Thursday afternoon to witness the Rob Ford sideshow first-hand — which, if you do have the time and inclination to watch this surrealty in person, we highly recommend you do so.
But the main purpose of our trip was to solicit crack from as many locals as possible from various socioeconomic backgrounds and neighborhoods in Toronto because, as we’ve noted, Rob Ford’s crack usage will be historically tied to his mayoral reign. So being in Toronto and not soliciting crack almost felt like being in Napa and not exploring the vineyards.
Here is a rundown of what essentially became a scavenger hunt for crack, the grimy street drug experiencing a nostalgic boost in popularity thanks all in part to Toronto’s embattled mayor, Robert Bruce Ford.
CRACK IS NOT THE NEW MOLLY
The Air Canada flight crew were very helpful. Although none of them admitted to ever purchasing crack, they did say that the best neighborhoods to look for it were St. James Town and Jane and Finch.”You gotta dodge bullets to live there, but otherwise it’s fine,” a flight attendant explained. “I did see someone bleed to death once.”
When asked about Rob Ford, they said he’s done a great job in Toronto, “apart from the crack and prostitutes.”
At around 6:30 p.m., we met a person we’ll call ‘Jean’ at the Esplanade Bier Markt, the restaurant where Mayor Ford allegedly spent his raucous St. Paddy’s evening being shit-faced and surly, blowing lines in the bathroom and buffooning on the dance floor. Allegedly. He told us Bier Markt is known as “kind of an asshole bar,” the place where the wealthy and wannabe powerful usually congregate. He doesn’t come here often.
Jean has offered to help us find things in Toronto during our trip, a pseudo-fixer, if you will. He considers himself a liberal Torontonian and did not vote for Mayor Ford. He spoke very articulately and in-depth about the scandal, but was more distressed by Mayor Ford’s aggressive spending cuts on art programs than what he does on his personal time. He was aghast at all the attention the mayor has brought to the city, but he wanted to make it perfectly clear that even though the Ford brothers may appear to have a lot of power, this particular arm of government has never been dominated by sophisticated politicians.
“It’s not like being a councillor in Toronto is a hotly contested position. It’s like being a homeowner, really,” he said. “It’s full of people who did not succeed in the private sector.” After we were all comfortable with each other, we asked Jean if he knew where we could buy crack. “For the story, ya know,” we assured him. He did not, off-hand, but maybe knew a guy who knew a guy. He called that guy, set up a time to meet. We followed along.
Jean met his guy who may know a guy at Loblaw’s, a large Wegmans-like supermarket in the Queen West section of Toronto. This part of town is a bustling multicultural area currently in the process of being overrun by young artist-types with beards on purpose. Jean and the guy met in the deli section, where Jean asked him if he’d ever dealt crack or knew where to get it. “Never seen it in the city,” his guy told him. “Once [crack] gets up to me, it becomes a novelty and it’s not a street drug anymore.”
According to Jean’s guy, crack is not the new “molly” in Toronto, nor is Mayor Ford swept up in a burgeoning crack renaissance scene. We moved westward, closer to the sections of town Jean said he tries to avoid, still searching for crack.
But first, Jean led us to Kensington Market, which is advertised as Toronto’s “most vibrant and diverse neighborhood.” By day, it’s a heavily foot-trafficked section full of your coffee shops and artisanal food shops and vinyl record shops and head shops and tattoo shops. At night it has a grittier feel, but is still a far cry from dangerous.
This was an excellent part of town, but a longshot for crack. We enter into Roach-A-Rama, a softly lit bong/pipe/weed paraphernalia shop. Jean, full of alcohol-aided charm and confidence by this point, asked the woman behind the counter if they sold crack pipes, hoping to get a lead. She was somewhat offended, but as with most of the Canadians we encountered, was exceptionally polite. “I know what you’re looking for,” she said in a terse but exceptionally polite way. “Go to a convenience store.”
We foolishly bypassed a convenience store to buy a crack pipe, theorizing that buying a crack pipe before having actual crack in hand was frivolous, and possibly a jinx. We hopped in a cab, and Jean, still full of charm, asked our cab driver if he knew where his American journalist friends covering the Rob Ford story could buy crack. The cab driver laughed but he suggested Regent Park was the corner where we would be most likely to score.
Regent Park is a section of the city where many co-op and government-subsidized housing units exist.” There is plenty of crack around there,” the cab driver said. But Jean wanted to save that part of town as a last resort.
First, we stopoed off at a neighborhood less intimidating: Bloordale. This part of town was definitely less-crowded, had darker alleys, and crumbling roads in need of repair. But it also had a new gastro pub called The Emerson, which is where we went first. We asked the waiter, a wispy man with a white t-shirt baring a NY Postian-tabloid font message, if he knew where to buy crack. Like the head shop woman before him, he was a bit taken aback.
“Most people who sell crack don’t work in restaurants,” he said in a terse but exceptionally polite way. “But you can get it right outside.” He half-heartedly pointed out the window towards the crumbling road and the dark alleyway. Then he asked us if we had any questions about the menu or the craft beers on tap and dismissed us until it was time to pay the bill.
With no real leads in Bloordale, the next logical stop for us was to head to Regent Park. Jean offered to take us there in a cab, but wasn’t too keen on spending a lot of time wandering around looking for crack.
“There are no real places to go in that neighborhood,“ he said. He wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was extremely dangerous but instead explained it with a diplomatic metaphor. “Say we stood out on a golf course holding an iron club in the air in the middle of a lightning storm. It’s not a guarantee we’d get struck by lightning but the chances of us getting struck by lightning will definitely increase.” Off we went.
Our cab driver pulled us up to a light off on the corner of Queen and Sherbourne, just before midnight. We had no real plan as to what to do or where to walk to once we exited the cab but, as it turned out, we did not have to. When Jean got out of the cab, he immediately made eye contact with a man standing right in front of the traffic light, who was watching us exit the cab. He was wearing a beat-up black leather jacket, with jumpy eyes and a weird bandage covering all of his left ear. He summoned Jean over to him. They took a walk, while we stood at the intersection, waiting for the light to change, hardly paying attention to where Jean had wandered off to. But in the less than a minute, he reappeared.
“It’s done,” he said. He looked stunned. The cab that brought us to this corner was still right in front of us, waiting for the same light to change. We all got back into the cab and then Jean informed us that he had just bought crack from the man on the corner for $20 Canadian. That was fast. That was easy. The fish had jumped into the boat.
We stopped off at one more bar on the way back for a victory drink and then took the crack over to our hotel, where we had a $130 a night room for two people. We examined the chunky gray powder wrapped up in a subway card we’d just purchased trying to figure out if it was, in fact, crack cocaine. None of us had any idea of its identifying properties.
We Googled “What does crack look like?” and came up with varying results. We Googled “How do you smoke crack cocaine out of tin foil?” and followed the procedures a message board gave us. But once we loaded our version of crack into the makeshift tin foil pipe, we realized that without a screen, it just burned and evaporated very quickly. “How do you know it’s crack cocaine?” came up with enough answers that were somewhat helpful, but not definitive, since we only had the smell of burnt tin foil to go off.
We needed to fact-check our crack with someone. Mayor Ford was not available that time of night, unfortunately, so we’d have to wait until tomorrow to find out if it was real.
COME SEE ROB FORD’S SAD CARNIVAL LIVE AND IN PERSON
Amazingly enough, with all the international interest in Rob Ford as the world’s preeminent antihero (or drunk, crack-smoking idiot), security was nonexistent on the way into City Hall. No ID checks. No metal detectors. No press passes. Just throw away your beverages before you take a seat in the large auditorium where the Toronto city council meetings take place and enjoy the show.
And Rob Ford was mesmerizing to watch, even when he’s not speaking. He was always fidgeting. Twisting in his chair, playing with his phone, paying super-close attention when he or his brother’s name comes up in the middle of council. When the meeting doesn’t revolve around him, he daydreams and sometimes wanders off the floor to the hallway to the left of Speaker Frances Nunziata’s podium.
On this day, the council was pushing forward with the first set of motions to strip him of power. Each councilor has an electronic voting machine about the size of a desktop monitor in front of them, which displays all the motions presented and the votes that are cast. They each press a button to cast their votes. Every time Mayor Ford casts a vote, he presses down on hard on his button, multiple times in succession, like the world’s most impatient person waiting for elevator doors to open. At the end of the meeting, council voted 41-2 in favor of stripping Rob Ford of overseeing emergency services in Toronto.
After the meeting, there was the usual press scrum right in front of the mayor’s office on the second floor. The 50 or so media members settled into their usual outpost in front of the elevator, waiting for Rob Ford to bulldoze his way through them, hoping for him to say something outrageous once again. The press are joined by plenty of non-press spectators – city dwellers of questionable sanity, all pushing into the same scrum just to yell nonsense and sing songs (the “nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey goodbye ” refrain was the song choice last Friday).
Also in the scrum was a boy, no older than 12, dressed in a suit jacket and cords, tape recorder in hand, ready to ask questions. We asked his mother who accompanied him if he wanted to be a reporter. “No, he wants to be in politics,” she said. “I brought him here to get a look at this up close to see what he’s in for.”
When the elevator door opens, Rob Ford’s big red head emerges, sweaty and constrained. His rotund body is swallowed up by the scrum in no time. Only the squeak of his voice is heard as he trudges along as quickly as he can.. “Not today, guys, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU,” Ford said, just like a superstar who wishes he were not a superstar today.
LET’S GET HIGH, MAYOR
Yesterday, after almost of all of Toronto’s City Council voted to strip Mayor Rob Ford of more power and he accidentally knocked over city council woman Pam McConnell, Ford went out publicly on his new Ford Nation TV show and guaranteed he’d run for mayor again next year. He said he hasn’t had a drop to drink in three months. He said he’s working with “healthcare professionals” and a “personal trainer” to work on some of his issues. “Let the people speak for themselves,” he said.
We were told by one of the media reporters we met in the scrum last Friday that George Street, between Jarvis and Dudas, would be a great place to fact-check our crack purchase. It was, and later that night, in a small room off of York Street, we sat with two people we met on George Street and watched them smoke crack.
We asked them to verify that the crack we’d purchased on Queen and Shelbourne street was actually crack. We showed them the picture of the gray gunk we bought the night before.
“Not good crack,” the man who calls himself Moony tells us. We gave him money to buy good crack and watched him smoke it in front of us.
Moony is okay with Mayor Ford’s behavior, suggesting that everyone has problems and likes to party, especially famous people. We asked him what he would say to Mayor Ford if he ran into him. “Let’s get high!” Moony’s other friend, Sharon, feels differently.
She voted for Mayor Rob Ford the first time around. He was a man of the people, she said. But all of that has changed.
“It’s embarrassing. I’m embarrassed. Even as a smoker, I can’t see how you’re going to sit down with a bunch of people and say you want help for the city.” She blows out enough smoke to change the color of the room and continues. “No one is going to take him seriously.”
Toronto’s next mayoral election is October 27, 2014.
(Photos/Video: Aymann Ismail/ANIMAL New York)