In our weekly series, YYZ >, we speak to expat Torontonians about what they miss—and don’t miss—about our city. This week: A former Toronto punk finds out just how freaky San Francisco can be.
A “vintage guitar dealer lady” by day and a singer and guitarist in Dirty Ghosts by night (the band’s name is “based on a Norm McDonald joke”), Allyson Baker has been living and playing music in San Francisco since 2000. Before leaving Toronto, where she grew up, Baker went to school for graphic design and worked “a lot of ‘exclusive-to-Queen-Street’ retail jobs,” including stints at Groovy, Rotate This, and “a weird dog store that’s gone.” She made her name while she was here playing in bands, including local punk concern Teen Crud Combo, whose members included comedian/writer Nick Flanagan. She returns to Toronto with Dirty Ghosts for a show at the Silver Dollar (486 Spadina Av.) this Saturday (April 14).
Why did you move?
I grew up in Toronto and, as soon as I hit 15, my folks started letting me go downtown and to shows. I started playing in bands two years later. By the time I hit 22, I felt like I was pushing 40, and I needed a major life change. Also the band I was playing with at the time [Teen Crud Combo] wasn’t destined to do the things I wanted to, such as touring and trying to get outside of Toronto.
Why did you choose San Francisco?
I made a list of five cities that I felt were “happening” music cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle. My first two choices were New York and Chicago, but I feared that, since I was moving to a city alone where I didn’t know anyone, I’d be running back to Toronto every weekend to be with my friends. So I figured if, I moved far enough west, I’d be stuck there and I’d have to deal. So that left me with L.A., San Francisco and Seattle. L.A. seemed too huge and intimidating, Seattle seemed too rainy, so all that was left was San Francisco. And that’s exactly how it went down. By default.
What is your neighbourhood like?
It’s pretty dirty. I live in South of Market in San Francisco and it’s actually pretty mellow and tame compared to some neighbourhoods but, man, there’s a lot of freaks around there. You get used to it, I guess. Some days I walk out of my apartment and I look up and see the beautiful San Francisco sun, then I look down and I see a couple of used condoms, maybe a nice needle or two, a homeless guy taking a nap, broken car-window glass all over the sidewalk, and some rave flyers. My old neighbourhood in Toronto was the complete opposite; I lived on a beautiful, tree-lined street. My street in San Francisco is literally garbage-lined.
There is a hardcore leather-and-bondage fair in my neighborhood called the Folsom Street Fair, which I saw for the first time a few weeks after my move to S.F. The first time I walked into it, it sobered my ass up real fast. I turned a corner onto the main strip of the fair and, all of a sudden, I was in a sea of pants-less, sweaty, leather-vest wearing dudes with a sprinkling of bondage-looking chicks, that looked like they had spilled out of a Jane’s Addiction circa-’90 tour bus. I’ll never forget this one scene I saw there. There was a big crowd of people on the sidewalk huddled around, holding their cellphone cameras up. I pushed my way to the front and, lo and behold, in the centre was a fully nude guy with super-ripped abs, wearing nothing but the mask from Scream, casually jerking off for the crowd. It was so weird! So, of course, I pulled out my cameraphone immediately and started taking pictures.
Are you happy you moved?
Definitely. I think moving to San Francisco really made me appreciate how special Toronto is and how lucky I am to have grown up there and have family there. Moving definitely opened my life up to a lot of weird adventures and situations that couldn’t and wouldn’t have happened [otherwise]. That’s the real reason why I left. I just needed some new stuff to happen to me.
Does anything about San Francisco remind you of Toronto?
There’s this part of town that they’ve been working on the last couple of years near the baseball field, and it’s all new buildings and condos and it kind of has that south-of-King-Street vibe. Sometimes I’ll get in my car and just drive around there by myself because it reminds me of being in Toronto and it makes me happy.
What do you tell your friends in Toronto about San Francisco?
It’s a total freak town. It’s really dense and concentrated and has a unique weirdness that’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s hard to describe but if I had to sum it up I would say San Francisco is like remnants of 1969, the internet, rich people, homeless people, hippies, chefs, druggies, musicians, artists, cool old buildings, terrible murals, Mexican food, and the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow all rolled into one.
What has surprised you about moving?
That I’m still living there 12 years later. It blows my mind.
What do you miss most about Toronto?
I miss all of the things that were familiar to me about growing up. Queen and Bathurst was such a big part of my formative years. Hanging out at Rotate This, Full Blast, La Hacienda, Future Bakery, Ted’s Collision, Classic Studios and, of course, going to and constantly playing the El Mocambo circa the Dan Burke years. But mostly I miss being able to get good Buffalo wings and sit around shit-talking and making jokes with my friends Nick Flanagan and Dave Kristiansen. It doesn’t get much better than that for me.
What don’t you miss at all about Toronto?
Probably only the traffic and the schlepping from one end of the city to another.
Would you ever go back?
I would like to think so. My best friends and all of my family are still in Toronto. I go back and visit often enough that people sometimes are like “Really? Again?” But, in my head, I picture dying in Toronto.