Amid the chaos of frazzled commuters, cellphone chatter and log-jammed traffic, Kate Atherley is the picture of serenity.
With the quiet clickety-click of her knitting needles, her tension unravels as the rows of stitches grow. On an unpredictable streetcar ride, knitting is a constant pleasure for Atherley, 42, who never hops on board without a project in tow.
"It's done in time that would otherwise be unproductive," says the professional knitter, who teaches, designs and writes about the time-honoured craft on her website, wisehildaknits.com.
It's a common theme among hobbyists who've made it hip to knit on the 501 Queen streetcar.
"I'm not one who just sits idly on the streetcar and stares out at traffic," says Robbie Laughlin, a 31-year-old computer teacher who first picked up needles five years ago. "Knitting gives me patience, and it's a great way to relax."
With yarn stashed in his messenger bag, he's knitting "all the time on the streetcar — anywhere I can squeeze it in."
For Beach resident Jane Gutteridge, a sock-in-progress is her constant companion on the daily commute along Queen to her downtown job as community marketing manager for the National Film Board.
"You never know if there will be a delay," she says. "It helps pass the time and it's a way of zoning out, a calming experience."
The "huge fan of public transit" can churn out more than a pair of socks a week even with stops along the way at her favourite bakery, ice cream parlour and wool shop.
Knitting's a great icebreaker for fellow riders, Gutteridge, 57, observes. "It gives people the courage to talk to strangers because they can ask about it without being threatening."
"Sometimes I see people eyeing me so I will hold it up and say, ‘It's a sock.' Then they'll tell me about their mother or grandmother who used to knit."
Atherley, who can practically knit in her sleep, finds herself people-watching as her fingers feel their way around the wool. In fact, she can identify the day and time by the passengers.
There's the Saturday morning crowd still in their Friday night party clothes, taking their "streetcar ride of shame" home. Eyes down or fixed on the passing scene, they keep to themselves, she says.
Then there are the weekday evening dinner- and moviegoers who give her "funny looks" at the sight of her busy hands. But the Saturday afternoon riders are the friendliest. Many of them visitors to the city or folks enjoying the weekend, they're quick to strike up a conversation, Atherley says.
Like her, they love a good yarn.
Wise Hilda's Basic Ribbed Sock
More interesting and better fitting than a plain sock, but not so interesting that you have to pay attention.
This sock design was developed as a solution to two problems: socks with a plain stocking-stitch leg can fall down, and I find k1/p1 ribbing very tedious.
Women's S (shoe size 5-7), Women's M (shoe size 7½-9), Women's L (shoe size 9½+), Men's S (shoe size 6-9), Men's L (shoe size 9½+)
100 gm/400m fingering weight sock yarn
1 set 2.5 mm needles — dpns, two circulars or a long circular as you prefer
1 stitch holder (optional)
32 sts, unstretched, across 4 inches/10cm in (k3, p1) rib with 2.5mm needles.
ssk: slip 2 sts, one by one, knitwise, insert left needle into the fronts of these two slipped sts, and knit them together.
Cast 56 (60, 64, 64, 68) sts onto a single needle. Distribute sts evenly across your needles as you prefer. Join for working in the round, being careful not to twist.
Ribbing Round: *K3, p1; repeat from * to end of round.
Repeat Ribbing Round until sock measures 17 (18, 20, 20, 20) cm/6.5 (7, 8, 8, 8) inches.
This portion is worked flat.
Heel flap row 1 (RS): K 27 (27, 31, 31, 35). Put remaining 29 (33, 33, 33, 33) sts onto a holder if desired. Turn so that WS is facing.
Heel flap row 2 (WS): Slip 1, p 26 (26, 30, 30, 34), turn.
Heel flap row 3 (RS): Slip 1, k 26 (26, 30, 30, 34), turn.
Heel flap row 4 (WS): Slip 1, p 26 (26, 30, 30, 34), turn.
Repeat the last 2 rows 9 (10, 11, 11, 12) more times. RS is facing for next row.
Heel turn row 1 (RS): Knit 18 (18, 21, 21, 23) sts, ssk, turn.
Heel turn row 2 (WS): Slip 1, purl 9 (9, 11, 11, 11) sts, p2tog, turn.
Heel turn row 3 (RS): Slip 1, knit 9 (9, 11, 11, 11) sts, ssk, turn.
Heel turn row 4 (Ws): Slip 1, purl 9 (9, 11, 11, 11) sts, p2tog, turn.
Repeat last two rows until all sts have been worked. 11 (11, 13, 13, 13) sts remain, and RS is facing.
Re-establish Round and Create Gusset
Knit all heel sts. Using that same needle, pick up and knit 15 (16, 17, 17, 18) sts along selvedge edge at side of heel, using slipped sts as a guide. With a new needle, work in rib pattern across the 29 (33, 33, 33, 33) sts of instep – those sts that you'd set aside on the stitch holder. Using another new needle, pick up and knit 15 (16, 17, 17, 18) sts along selvedge edge at other side of heel, using slipped sts as a guide. Work 6 (6, 7, 7, 7) sts from the first needle, to the center of the heel.
The beginning of the round is now at the center of the heel. If you're working on two circulars or magic loop, place a marker in this position.
There should be 20 (21, 23, 23, 24) sts between the start of the round and the start of the instep, 29 (33, 33, 33, 33) stitches on the instep, and 21 (22, 24, 24, 25) between the end of the instep and the end of the round. 70 (76, 80, 80, 82) sts total. Rearrange the stitches if you need to. If you're working on dpns, those first 20 (21, 23, 23, 24) sts should be on your first needle, the instep sts on your second needle, and the other 21 (22, 24, 24, 25) sts on the third. If you're working on two circulars or magic loop, the instep sts should be on one needle, and the other stitches on a second needle, with a marker for the start of the round at the mid-point.
From here on in, the 29 (33, 33, 33, 33) instep sts will be worked in the rib pattern, and the gusset and sole will be worked in stocking stitch – that is, knitting every round.
Gusset setup round: K5 (5, 6, 6, 6), ktbl 15 (16, 17, 17, 18), work across the instep sts in pattern as established, ktbl 15 (16, 17, 17, 18), k to end of round.
Gusset decrease round: K to 2 sts before instep, k2tog, work across instep sts in pattern, ssk, k to end of round.
Work an even round, keeping ribbing pattern on instep.
Repeat these last two rounds until there are 13 (13, 15, 15, 17) sts between the start of the round and the instep, and there are 14 (14, 16, 16, 18) sts between end of instep and end of round. 56 (60, 64, 64, 68) sts total.
Work until foot measures 6.5 (18, 19, 19, 21) cm/6.5 (7, 7.5, 7.5, 8.5) inches, or 6 cm/2.5 inches less than foot length. (Note that the finished sock should be a little shorter than the foot. This makes for a better fit.)
From here on in, you'll work entirely in stocking stitch. Rearrange the sts so that you've got 28 (30, 32, 32, 34) on the sole and 28 (30, 32, 32, 34) on the instep. If you're working on two circulars or magic loop, you will have the same number on each needle; if you're working on dpns, divide the stitches of the sole evenly across two needles.
Toe decrease round: Knit to three stitches before start of instep, k2tog, k2, ssk; k to 3 sts before end of instep, k2tog, k2, ssk, k to end of round.
Work 3 rounds even.
Work a decrease round followed by 2 even rounds, twice. [6 rounds total]
Work a decrease round followed by 1 even round, three times. [6 rounds total]
Work decrease rounds until 8 stitches remain.
To finish, cut yarn, draw through the final stitches and tighten. Weave in ends.
On an unpredictable streetcar ride, knitting is a constant pleasure for Kate Atherley, who never hops on board without a project in tow.
MATTHEW SHERWOOD FOR THE TORONTO STAR
Wise Hilda's Basic Ribbed Sock.
Trevor Johnson and his black lab, Tascha, in 2010. Tascha's health was in decline then. She died Sept. 20, 2011.
Late one recent evening, Tascha collapsed on the kitchen floor of her east-end home, helpless. Too weak to move.
When Trevor Johnson and partner Ron Zaharia found her that way, they feared she wouldn't make it through the night. She'd been ailing for months, frail with age, her life winding down.
The men tenderly covered Tascha with blankets, and then bedded down next to her on the floor, one on each side. Anxious and sleepless in the wee hours, they watched their 15-year-old black lab as her eyes began to close and her breathing slowed. Then it stopped.
They were devastated.
"I've had other pets in my life but Tascha was extra-special," says Johnson, 42, an Air Canada flight attendant. "I got her from the pound when she was six weeks old and basically brought her from cradle to grave."
But a grave for Tascha? Not in Toronto.
There are no official burial sites for animals — no pet cemeteries — in the city. Neither are there animal crematoriums.
Johnson couldn't bear the thought of leaving his dog on a vet's cold examination table and simply walking away. He also wanted closure, which didn't happen when he and Zaharia lived in Winnipeg with a beautiful white husky named Max.
Pets at Peace is a service for grieving pet owners. Tascha was cremated with her favourite breakfast treat — two slices of peanut butter toast.MARY ORMSBY/TORONTO STAR
Max had a crippling stroke in 2007 when the two men were away in a remote part of Thailand. Family members couldn't reach the couple and had Max humanely euthanized.
"All we had (left) were our memories, some photos and a lot of guilt," says Johnson of the husky.
"Even though Max had a great life, all we could think about was his ending. We didn't get a chance to say goodbye."
Things would be different for Tascha.
Zaharia searched the Internet for burial options and found Pets at Peace, a service for grieving pet owners at Queen St. E. at Beech. Owner Helen Hobbs' business includes transporting a deceased pet from home or the vet's office; individual cremation (pets are driven to a site near Hamilton, Ont.) with the option of watching, decorative urns for storage and online memorials.
Tascha was cremated with her favourite breakfast treat — two slices of peanut butter toast. Her ashes were spread in a Winnipeg park where "she was happiest" as a younger dog, Johnson says.
Hobbs, 54, was a licensed funeral home director for humans for seven years who noticed how deeply acquaintances mourned their dead pets. Inspired by a friend who remains suspicious that the ashes her vet's office returned might not be those of her cat, Hobbs — who has three cats and a dog — established Pets at Peace seven years ago.
In 2010, she moved from the Kingston Road location to the Beach. Gentle music plays in the background of the main floor space, an area warmed by wood flooring and brick walls. Animals are taken to a basement morgue. Twice weekly, the crematorium picks up the animals.
Ashes are returned to the owner, who can purchase a variety of urns or use a plain box.
"Throughout history, people have acknowledged family members and honoured their lives after they've died with rituals and customs," says Hobbs.
"In this day and age, people's pets are family too and owners are seeking out this option."
Pets at Peace owner Helen Hobbs' business includes transporting a deceased pet from home or the vet's office; individual cremation (pets are driven to a site near Hamilton, Ont.) with the option of watching, decorative urns for storage and online memorials.
MARY ORMSBY/TORONTO STAR
A lawyer's office does not have to exist in a gargantuan highrise in the city's financial district.
A lawyer's office could, instead, be a diminutive street front in Parkdale, with replica antique pendant lights and a welcoming glass front and a real live lawyer who walks to work from his house just five minutes away.
Sometimes Warren Sheffer walks home for lunch, a regular Atticus Finch who checks in with the commercial neighbours. Coriander Girl next door (flowers, cards, soaps), Poor John's across the way (a café.) His daughter — not Scout, but Ella — attends school in the 'hood. The mailman's name is Ron. Who knows the name of their mailman in this day and age?
The Queen 501 car, wrapped in candy-colour advertising for Vitamin Water, rumbles to the Wilson Park stop outside his door. What is that sound? Not really a rumble. "I was listening for it today," says Sheffer. "There's a bit of a hum to it." The noise might drive some people nuts, he acknowledges. "But I don't mind it at all."
The mail slot in the door, through which Ron slides the mail, is uncovered. Doesn't it get cold in here? Not with that monster radiator near the entranceway. If anything, it gets a bit stuffy in the winter months.
This place is tiny. Sheffer thinks perhaps 250 square feet.
What's the appeal? Nice neighbours. Affordable rent. Proximity to life.
Sheffer's world has revolved around the west end. Growing up in Etobicoke, he sold hot dogs at Exhibition Stadium and later worked as a teller at the old Queen and Roncesvalles branch of the Royal Bank, which is no longer.
He calls Yonge Street "the watershed." Through his adolescent years the Queen car was his connection to downtown, taking dates skating at Nathan Phillips Square, that kind of thing.
He's 42 now.
What about Parkdale's sketchy reputation?
Sheffer once lived a few blocks over, right on Queen, above a convenience store. That was the early '90s. There was more "excitement" then, he says, meaning "what people would construe as the pejorative stuff." Meaning "nefarious activity" in the wee hours.
Sheffer doesn't see as much of that going on. He gets involved, as chair of the Queen West Art Crawl and chair of the Parkdale Community Development Group. He tries to weigh in with the residents' association, which is working on the establishment of a historical society.
Sheffer has beautifully preserved the store front, scripted with his name and that of his partner, Marian Hebb. For years the name Luigi Barber Shop was plainly stamped in simple white letters on the glass above the door. Luigi was a landmark on the strip. The red and white tin street numbers from Luigi's day are still there, minus the first numeral, which adds to the charm of one man's interaction with the street.
Copyright lawyer Warren Sheffer at his office in Parkdale. The Queen 501 car stops outside his door at the Wilson Park stop.STEVE RUSSELL/TORONTO STAR
Lawyer Warren Sheffer chats with neighbour Alison Westlake of Corriander Girl while on a tour of his neighbourhood.CARLOS OSORIO/TORONTO STAR
Fred Davis is prying apart and lifting segments of a bee hive, as if pulling folders from a filing cabinet.
"This is a drone layer," he says. "Not good. She's laying drones. She's not mated."
So Davis the beekeeper launches a plan. He'll combine this hive with another in the hope that female worker bees will ensue instead of drones. "I'll let the queens duke it out."
In a word: reginacide. Which seems apt, since the hives in question are on the roof of the Canadian Opera Company's new home, just above the spot where commuters alight from eastbound streetcars at Queen E. and York Sts.
This might seem like a strange locale for a pampered colony of bees, but the Paris Opera House has been doing a flourishing trade in honey for years, which is where Davis got the idea.
At the height of summer, more than 300,000 honey bees will call the COC home, residing in six hives akin to little wooden apartment buildings.
To the delight of gardeners, they'll forage up to five kilometres away, pollinating all manner of plants as they buzz from blossom to blossom. Which translates into a lot of honey.
This past year, Davis harvested roughly 250 pounds of honey from his hives here and at Casa Loma, leaving just enough to nourish a much reduced colony over the winter.
By the time the snow flies, each hive will house only a queen and between 2,000 and 5,000 bees. All the rest will have died off or been banished by their former peers, as if to proverbial ice floes. And that includes every single drone, those layabouts whose only work all summer has been trying to impregnate whichever queen they can tempt.
The royal one and her little coven, meanwhile, will spend the winter nibbling and lounging under a heavily insulated "bee cozy," awaiting the first clover, dandelions and basswood blossoms of spring.
For the queen, especially, it's a well-deserved rest. After her nuptial flight, in which she'll have mated with half a dozen drones, the queen has spent the summer laying up to 1,200 eggs a day.
She is, after all, a queen in name only. "The queen is not in control," says Davis, who is just finishing his second year of beekeeping at the COC, which gets to keep half the honey he produces there.
"She's pushed around by the collective. They tell her when it's time to lay. They tell her when it's time to swarm."
The latter event is precisely what beekeepers don't want to happen, since decamping for a new location "takes half your production away from you," says Davis, who toils by day as a contract manager with Accenture. "They take the factory workers."
The other danger: varroa mites. That's why a recent afternoon found Davis on the roof, cleaning up the hives and inserting yellow wafers of the pesticide Thymovar, which resemble melba toast on steroids. "If you don't medicate, they'll destroy your hive."
Not that there are as many simple certainties about beekeeping as you might imagine. "If anyone tells you they know everything about beekeeping, he's lying," says Davis. "You're always learning."
Beekeeper Fred Davis tends to one of his six hives on top of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at Queen and University. To the delight of gardeners, they'll forage up to 5km away, pollinating all manner of plants.
LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR
Beekeeper Fred Davis keeps about 300,000 honey bees on top of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts at the height of summer. This past year, Davis harvested roughly 250 pounds of honey from his hives here and at Casa Loma.
LUCAS OLENIUK/TORONTO STAR
My father, Jimmy, has never been one for giving advice. Everyone, he believes, is entitled to the education of their own mistakes. There is, though, one bit of counsel he bestowed on his heirs with the certainty born of hard experience.
At the end of one memorable night shift, very early in his career as an operator for the Toronto Transit Commission, my father was running his Queen streetcar into the Russell yards, at Connaught Ave. in the city's east end.
In the back seat, he discovered, alas, a passenger sprawled in besotted slumber. And good-mannered to a fault, my father touched the man gently on the shoulder, saying, as one might stir a child, "Sir. Wake up. It's the end of the line."
To which the chap came up swinging, rewarding Jimmy with a glancing right to the jaw.
"Boys," my father would thereafter remind his four sons, invariably rubbing his chin as he spoke. "If ever you're needin' to wake a drunk, best to come at 'im from behind."
It was the first, but far from the last, lesson we learned from the rolling social studies class that is Toronto's Queen streetcar.
For 34 years my father, now 80, worked for the TTC, and most of it was spent driving the old PCC cars — the Red Rockets — back and forth along of the longest streetcar routes in the world.
Most mornings, his alarm went off at 4:30, a nerve-jangling, filling-rattler of an old clock that started the day with a household panic attack, likely making any lurching and jerking the streetcar might later do seem calming by comparison.
My father would make his way in the morning dark, often by foot, the mile or so to Russell yards and often his would be the day shift's first Queen car out.
In time, he came to know the regulars, the city's community of the early morning — the posties, the orderlies heading to downtown hospitals, the hotel staff, the factory hands whose workday began before first light.
"Mornin'" was usually all the talking that got done. Though in the dark or chill of a winter morning, there's comfort in the mere presence of other human beings.
Sometimes, there'd be an observation about the hockey game, or the weather, or the government. Every now and then, there'd be an inveterate yakker who would sit up front, starting the day off with running opinions on everything under the rising sun.
On that job, my father became acquainted with folks whose names he never knew. But let them not show up at their regular stop a few mornings in a row, and he'd be worrying for their welfare.
For generations, there were few better ways to learn about Toronto and its people than riding the streetcar, rolling through the neighbourhoods that are really small towns within the city, the squeal and grind and clack of them part of the local soundtrack.
For us, the earning of my father's daily bread taught, first, the dignity of labour. But it also taught us the geography and some of the history of the city, carried us to and past locales sacred (the churches) and profane (the saloons).
From his streetcar, my father took tutorials in human nature, reporting back on the petty scams of passengers and the petty tyrants in management, telling stories as well of the random kindness of strangers and the city's general goodwill in any kind of pinch.
The load and mood of his clientele, the human ebbs and flows, told of the Toronto's daily rhythms, its lulls, its rushes, the high points of a year. We absorbed it all, almost without noticing.
We knew the language of his world — the "sign-ups" that set work schedules, allotting the "crews," the "swings," the "trippers."
He started out driving streetcars in days when operators — oh, innocent age! — sold tickets, made change and carried wads of cash.
No Ed Sullivan Show juggling act was more impressive than a man making change while driving a steel behemoth through rush-hour intersections with passengers, as the old fellow liked to say, "packed to the gunnels."
When we got old enough we'd sometimes ride with him, usually when he'd pulled a weekend shift and things were quiet, sometimes just making the trip to Neville and back, sometimes the dozen miles or so west to the Humber Loop.
We'd see the tools of his trade in action — the hole-punch to validate transfers, the change dispenser that spat out coins. We'd marvel at how he called out mile after mile of stops, seemingly from memory — "Jones! Carlaw! Broadview! Change for the Broadview car!"
We beamed when he sprang from his seat to help mothers aboard with their prams, or to assist an elderly passenger climbing gingerly down the stairs toward St. Michael's Hospital.
We admired how he'd take a crowbar from its rack to smoothly switch the tracks at junction streets.
Or, most heroic of all, those occasions when he'd go out behind the car, usually in the foulest weather, to replace the pole that sleet had knocked off the power lines, plunging the suddenly disabled car into darkness.
Of his passengers, my father tended to favour the dreamers and schemers, the lost and the subversives, most men of the working-class harbouring no small empathy for those brazen enough to try thwarting any system.
He would come home to tell us of the tattered old soul who never failed to pay her fare, but always with a button.
He'd tell of the man — my father couldn't decide if the fellow was ingenious or daft — who wandered up and down the aisle of packed streetcars chanting "I've got a seat and no place to put it!" until someone offered theirs.
From the distant west end, which might as well have been another country, there would be dispatches on fires at Dovercourt, or some sort of kerfuffle involving police near Roncesvalles, or a fender bender at Spadina that turned traffic into a nightmare and had the cars lined up, by God, as far as the eye could see.
From his rolling perch, our father became a distant early warning system for all the demographic changes in the city, how neighbourhoods were evolving, who was moving up and who was moving in.
More than anything, my father the streetcar driver loved stories of near-misses, how some pedestrian had slipped on the greasy rails and narrowly avoided a header, or how some idiot motorist had failed to stop at the rear doors and come within a hair of wiping out a cluster of debarking passengers.
Mind you, nothing, but nothing matched the CNE in those days for packing crowds onto his car, the passengers happy and giddy en route, worn out and cranky on the way home. Oh well. Come Exhibition time, there was overtime for the asking.
As a result of such tales, we wished nothing so much as to one day drive streetcars ourselves, to climb into the operator's seat and take part in the daily adventures of the city.
As boys, we'd sit in the single seat just behind the streetcar driver and fish transfer stubs discarded into a little garbage pail. Then we'd use them as fares as we rode our wagons up and down our street, offering lifts to younger kids or the hauling home of a lady's groceries.
The TTC, in those days, was a man's world. And on rare occasions when our father took us into the building at Russell — the Division, he called it — there was the noise and bluster and bawdiness of men.
As kids, we knew lots of drivers. And most would click a dime from their changer to hand to each of us. Sometimes, we knew their schedules. And we'd skip a streetcar or two if one of Dad's pals was due along.
A good many of the TTC fraternity were partial, as was our father, to the nearby Greenwood Racetrack. Those with morning shifts would spend sunny afternoons there. Occasionally, systems were devised whereby an eastbound driver could pass money to a buddy to place a bet, then learn on his return from the loop at Neville how his horse had run.
Across the road from the track, the Orchard Park Tavern was a favourite of TTC drivers, as were other east-end haunts of working men. Every now and then, a driver who'd been pinched by police when over-refreshed would lose his licence and put in a sedentary term of penance in the subway booths until it was reinstated.
In our house, my father's job opened windows on the occasional indignities endured in even the grownup world.
They were days when strict dress codes were enforced by the TTC, inspectors monitoring an operators' hair or sideburns for length, intervening if sleeves were rolled up, ties loosened, hats not worn — even on the hottest summer days.
In our part of town, it was the Queen streetcar that provided glimpses of life's vicissitudes — images of faith, charity and fashion.
We'd ride it to Leslie St. and St. Joseph's Church, farther west to St. Paul's at Power St. if we'd slept in and needed a later Mass.
We'd try not to stare, though intrigued, at the cluster of gents down on their luck at Sherbourne and huddled in doorways.
As teens, we'd take that streetcar to the Thrifty's store at Church St., which was, once upon a time, just about the only decent place in our part of town to buy blue jeans.
When my father retired, the TTC gave him a sign of the sort that marks streetcar stops. This one had his name on it. For years, it stood at the end of his cottage laneway, a little bit of Toronto in the Ontario countryside.
When he moved to an apartment, my father gave it to me, a Toronto keepsake, and part of a cherished inheritance.
For generations, there were few better ways to learn about Toronto and its people than riding the streetcar, rolling through the neighbourhoods that are really small towns within the city.
BORIS SPREMO/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO