When you’re a very young, very only child in a bourgeois neighbourhood, you grow up wandering around aimlessly for long periods of time. When you’re young enough to wonder and old enough to remember it, you find yourself thinking, to your later retrospective amusement, about what makes something a thing. Silently and characteristically quite alone, you stare at a weirdly bricked wall or at a broken street lamp or at someone’s old briefcase for as long as possible. Things forgotten in the context of a day become unforgettable in the context of a lifetime when you’re a very young, very only child in bourgeois neighbourhood.

When you’re a less young, less only child in a less bourgeois neighbourhood, you grow up between the school, the commute, and the pulses. When you’re young enough to notice it and old enough to understand it, you feel that pulsing in the ignited streets…in the stillness of your old neighbourhood…in your newfound friends’ eyes…in your own. You are busy and important now – everything is urgent, and everything is memorable. At some point, you decide that you are too old to be young, too outgoing to be only, and certainly too worldly to be bourgeois.

Tonight I had another chance opportunity to find myself back in the concert hall. Cellist Steven Isserlis and Pianist Connie Shih made their Royal Conservatory debuts at Bloor Street West’s Koerner Hall, playing Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata no. 1, Liszt’s Romance oubliée, and other selected works from the 19th and 20th centuries. Something strange happened at intermission.

The building has a south-facing balcony. I remembered it from my last visit in June to be an extension of the bustle of the lobby: people talking about the performance, about music in general, about news, about sports, about the building. (People at intermissions of performances always seem to be in quite a different world – a more satisfying one.) Stepping out of the glass doors and onto the balcony, I found it empty and freezing and dark. The skyline seemed to be trying to impress somebody: lights kept flickering and changing colours. I stood by a heat lamp.

“Sure is nice of them, hey? Putting these heat lamps here for the smokers and all.” I heard the British voice of someone who had definitely not been there before. I turned around to see a well dressed old man with a short white beard. He was not smoking, but he took out a pack and offered me a cigarette.

“No thanks, I don’t smoke,” I said.

“Me neither,” he said.

I stood leaning over the railing with my quasi-smoker friend until it became clear that he was not going to explain.

“So why are you outside?” I asked. “It can’t be very warm with that jacket on.”

“I could ask you the same question.” He replied quietly. He was right – I wasn’t exactly bundled.

“And the cigarettes?”

“What about them?”

“Why do you carry cigarettes if you don’t smoke?”

“You never know when one of your mate’s’ll need a cigarette.” It made sense at the time. We breathed normal cold air exhale clouds.

“Play something, kid?” I must have look confused. “You know, like an instrument? Flute, violin, didgeridoo…”


“You like it?”

“Yeah, a lot.”

“Good… good.”

Then he left, and disappeared into the crowd of bustling happy people. I looked out one more time over Toronto and then did the same, but not without first stopping to look at the strange brickwork in the corridor.

Steven Isserlis: Photo by Tom Miller