City Girl

Cough. Cough. Big news. I’ve just decided to identify as a city girl.

Don’t get me wrong, because the expression “city girl” conjures up many images. A huge blanket scarf which is de rigueur this year. OR a beanie. Or highlighted hair. Or dark lipsticks. Or a Kate Spade agenda. Or Justin Bieber songs booming in your car. All of these are not what I mean by calling myself a “city girl”.

My swimmy moment of self-discovery came yesterday afternoon, when my parents picked me up from my first photography class on Wolseley Street, and we had lunch and had a walk in downtown Toronto. I’ve always found downtown Toronto a zesty place(although nowadays the word “zesty” itself is not quite so zesty), but always considered it not my type. I thought it was too glass-and-concrete, too clean cut, and everything there just swirls on, like a skating rink with too many people. I assumed that all cosmopolitans are the same- yes they ARE full of art and artsy people, but every one of them is like a slam poet who slams on and on every second, a ballerina who spins and spins till her black eyeshadow flies into the air and becomes nothing but black powder.

So when my parents and I rounded the corner and walked onto Queen Street West, one of the top 10 neighbourhoods on earth according to Vogue, I was judging very hard. My eyes immediately loved the colours and Hippiness, but my heart was still like a tongue timidly licking an ice-cream, trying to decide if it’s just some artificially-sweet summertime fatness, or a delicious piece of art.

Hmmmmmmmm. So there are stores. I thought. A lot of stores, in fact. There were the bead stores, looking somewhat tired and old, some of them closed. “Bling Bling”, “Hi    beads”, the shop signs were in a-bit-too-common colour schemes, but looking proud in their own way, in their own time. The fabric stores looked tired too, bolts of clothes yawning through blurry shop windows. “AFFORDABLE TEXTILES INC.”, red bold letters with black outlines upon a yellow backdrop, looking a bit cheap, but very quotidian and lukewarm. Then there was a small shop sign standing beside a small narrow door- “SPIRITUAL GUIDE… PSYCHIC / MIND READING / ADVICE”, which reminded me of Oda Mae Brown in the movie Ghost. And there was a jewelry repairing store, with a real-person sized Frida Kahlo sitting at the window with her monkey, both wearing all sorts of turquoise and red and yellow beads.

This is certainly not the most high-end part of downtown Toronto, but I was intrigued, for this is where people are. Not only glam people wearing beanies or flimsy army green jackets or nose studs, but also ajummas looking for cloth to make curtains, troubled folks wanting some soothsaying, and people like me, who are bundled up in their Canadian Goose winter coats and huge scarves, and are simply peeking through to look at this part of Toronto.

Before I go on, you probably need this point of clarification. I’m not a misanthropist who despises shopping and hates people and loathes mankind. Quite the contrary, I love shopping, just not in malls. I prefer to hunt in quaint towns and eccentric neighborhoods, where little stores breathe quietly and watch you quietly, harboring their wondrous secrets, and wouldn’t fret even if you just walk right past them. Those are places where you find hand-drawn hair-clips and hand-made masks, and when you buy them the shop-owners put them carefully in brown paper bags with the store name handwritten. These darlings lie in your backpack quietly and when you take them out to admire, the brown paper makes crisp yet gentle rustling sounds.

This is why my next discovery on Queen Street West totally swept over me- the second-hand clothing stores. In fact I just stumbled into one of them. I glimpsed through the shop window, decided that I liked their clothes and walked in without even looking at the shop sign. It was quiet in there, like underwater. The sweaters were colourful like coral reefs, the huge shirts like the ones hip-hop dancers wear, the concert T-shirts all in their dark grey colour, and leather boots with wear and tear that looked so real. Hmmm. This store is interesting, I thought. It was like somebody’s closet. It was messy, it was imperfect, there wasn’t a colour scheme as in those designer boutiques, it felt real. Then I saw the sacks of old clothes in one corners of the store. Wow, so this is a second-hand clothing store. It was the first time I’ve ever been to one. Wow. So all these are clothes with history, with opinions, and with flaws. I was thrilled.

The second vintage store I went to, MAMA LOVES YOU VINTAGE, was apparently more famous and commercialized- things were slightly more organized, and they sold things that look vintage but are really just mass-produced. However, they also had a wider variety of old clothes- when I was caressing a  floral dress and noticed a small label saying “from a 1930s household”, I got scared. I didn’t know if I should be fearful of or excited about this history behind a piece of clothing, whose first owner could be so old and frail or even… deceased. Then I decided that I liked this history- I’ve been obsessed with hand-crafted things because they make me feel unique, because they make me feel like the owner, the  collector. But here in the vintage store, it’s more like the clothes collecting owners. They shall never be uniquely yours, they are just there, flowing on through time, like how people come and go, how the shop owner of that bead store probably changed again and again, how the graffitis on the walls get covered by new ones. Good thing is, the creations of people always last. Well, not always, you might say. But just look at how they all clash in downtown Toronto, and they get old and cheesy and not so adorable anymore, and they get replaced or they get a makeover and get passed on to somebody else, or they just keep standing where they are, and there would be ajummas visiting them and still buying things from them. They might no longer be aesthetically beautiful, but they are beautiful in that they exist.

I found it quite funny how suddenly something my geography teacher, Ms Norberg said, came to mind- “The only constant is change.” So I guess that is the beauty of downtown Toronto.

I’ve been scared to call myself a “city girl”, because the speed of cities make me dizzy and scared, because in a city I do not feel unique, for it’s so big and full of amazing things, and it can never contribute to my uniqueness, because so many people share it with me; instead, I am just one of the people that come and go and contribute to the uniqueness of the city. Two weeks ago when I was curling, our team had a discussion of being a “city girl” or a “country girl”, and I listened to other people’s answers for a while, and smartly decided that I want to tell people I’m a country girl, or a small town girl, because that makes me special. That was kind of dumb.

image (1)
A splash of colour in downtown Toronto

Now I’ve decided that I love cities as much as small towns, and that I’m ready to jump into the technicolour eddies of city life. No highlighted hair, no pop songs booming in the car(I only play Eva Cassidy), none of that, but I am a city girl.


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