Coach House Books asks Howard Akler a few things about The City Man
CH: Have you ever pickpocketed anyone? What made you want to write about pickpockets?
HA: No, I have never pickpocketed anyone. Pickpockets live in an intensely physical world and rely on a heightened form of communication (slang and kinesic) that is entirely unique. Imagine being able to walk up to a stranger, gather all that tactile information and tell your partner about it – without anybody noticing. All in seconds!
CH: How historically accurate is your depiction of 1930s Toronto?
HA: My version of Toronto is expressionistic, I think. Certain details are exact: the Starbuilding is at King and Bay, the newspaper cost two cents. But I don't care for novels where the research takes over the mood of the story.
CH: Much of the book is set in Kensington Market. What was the Market like then, and how has it changed?
HA: The Market was primarily Jewish back then. As the first generation of Toronto Jews settled into affluence and moved out, the next wave of immigrants moved in, looking for cheap rent. There’ve been Italian, Ukranian, Portugese, Chinese, Somali immigrants … These days, the Market is becoming a little hip, a little upscale. It's still about cheap rent, but less about nationality.
CH: Mona is Jewish and Eli is not. Would that have been a problem then? Can you tell us about how the Jewish community was treated during the Depression?
HA: Yup, that would've been a problem. Mainstream Toronto was notoriously a white Protestant burg. There was a veneer of acceptance, but nothing too deep or widespread. Newspapers like the Telegram could be anti-Semitic (although I think the Star was the most liberal of all). In 1933, just prior to the events in the novel, we had the infamous riot at Christie Pits. There was also something called the Swastika Club in the Beaches, which prohibited Jews and dogs, but, thankfully, that was shut down.
CH: You've written a non-fiction book about Toronto and lived here all your life. What makes the city still fascinating for you? What are your favourite secret places in the city?
HA: The city is fascinating simply because I have lived here all my life. I’d like to learn as much as I can, and then re-imagine the place, make it a bit more of my own. As for secret places, if I told you then they wouldn't be a secret anymore … Although one spot that I’ve always loved and included in the book is Glen Baillie Place, an alley off Spadina just north of Dundas. There are a few houses hidden away there, but you'd never know it from the street. Perfect spot for pickpockets to live!
CH: You use authentic thirties slang through the book, like 'whiz' (pickpocket scene) and 'judy' (woman) and 'beef gun' (call the cops). Where did you learn it all? What are your favourites?
HA: Much of the slang came from a terrific book called Whiz Mob by David W. Maurer. The late Dr. Maurer was a linguistics professor at University of Louisville and his specialty was slang. He gained the trust of pick-pockets, con men, moonshiners, drug addicts and other underworld types and then recorded their argot. He really shows how flexible the language is! As for favourites, I like ‘bang a souper’ (steal a pocket watch) and ‘throw the hump’ (set the frame) and ‘gave up her kisser’ (allowed someone to see your face).