I drove along Lake Shore Blvd this afternoon, past Mimico, past the long line of condos along the lakefront, and I found myself thinking about the beginning of my university days, the beginning of a new decade – the 80s – when I held a part time and summer job in one of the many old motels west of Humber Bay.
I worked at the Universal, the U-shaped outfit with the two fibreglass horses up front, the one next door to a pub no longer standing either, called John Ducks Tavern. I worked for a family business during a time when developers were buying up properties to eventually build the condos which dominate today.
Historically, the strip of motels catered to tourists, often from the United States. When I worked there, the businesses were no longer spending much money on updating the properties. I think the motels still running were holding out for the best possible deal when they sold. Still, the place I worked at was clean, if basic, and while it was not without its problems, it was reputable. There were times in the season, especially around weekends when we had plenty of reservations and the place would fill up early, but there were some slow nights as well.
My job was evening desk clerk. I don’t remember my exact hours – maybe it was 3-11 or 4-midnight. After the family who owned the place and the housekeeping staff had left for the day, I was often the only one on site and my job was to fill the place if I could. I recall that as the evening wore on, if I still had lots of rooms to rent, I had a little latitude to cut someone a bit of deal to rent some rooms. I also had to know when to not rent a room. We were always suspicious of people who lived in the city renting a room. Sometimes people would rent a room then have a party and that could mean a huge mess at best and damage at worst. I could usually weed out the potential party animals, although I recall one time I got it wrong and I rented a room to someone who turned it into Party Central and caused some damage overnight.
The office was a time machine. Stepping through the doors transported one right back to the 50s. There was a sparkly gold sofa that had a thick layer of clear plastic over the sparkles. It had a futuristic look about it, like it came right out of the Jetsons. The rooms all had phones but customers could not dial out directly. All calls went through the office where we had a 50s-style switchboard with the old plugs and sockets.
More often than not, the guest calls were for pizza. The best pizza around the area at that time (I recall there was hardly any competition in terms of quality) was a joint called Romi’s which I think was on Berry Road or thereabouts – north of The Queensway, but still within delivery distance of the motel. Unless the guest had a particular place in mind (usually they were from out of town and didn’t know where to get their pie), I always connected them to Romi’s for their za. From time to time the delivery guy would comp me a pizza when they were delivering to one room or another. As much as I enjoyed some free pizza, I also always enjoyed chatting with the delivery guy for a few minutes when he stopped in. I don’t remember too much about him except that he was really likeable and at some point during my tenure at the motel he got engaged to be married. Some nights if I filled the place early, I would have a quiet few hours sitting around the office, and was happy for a bit of friendly conversation.
There was also a chicken joint along the Lake Shore at that time, called Pick’n Chick’n. It opened in 1953 where the “Marina del Rey” condos now stand. This place delivered, and the chicken, at least in my memory, was very tasty. Are there any chicken delivery places around Toronto these days? Maybe that’s ancient Canadian history.
There was quite a bit of land in behind the motel that stretched right back to the lake, and there was a pool back there as well. I recall at some point in the summertime, the yard in the back became mysteriously over-run with garter snakes. Garter snakes everywhere. More garter snakes than you could imagine possible. And then as quickly as they appeared they were gone, as if in a dream.
Most evenings, I had to do everything. Show rooms to potential guests. Rent rooms. Deal with issues. Give directions to attractions. Recommend restaurants. The one part of the job I disliked was balancing my cash at the end of my shift. I don’t know how many times I was off, and I don’t even remember what could have caused the occasional problems I would have with the nightly accounting. I recall that even failing to balance by a little bit was a concern for the family that ran the place. I always did my best to be diligent and accurate, but no doubt I made a few mistakes along the way.
I enjoyed meeting all the people and talking to them about our city, showing them how to get around by transit and so on. That was the best part of the job. I’d send people over to the old Humber Loop, which was just down the street. Walking through the tunnel to the loop to catch as streetcar downtown seemed like another time machine to me. The old red rocket streetcars were still running, wobbling and clanking down the tracks.
At some point, I don’t know how many years after I left, it got rougher along the motel strip and I understand there was a lot of street prostitution going on before the last of the motels disappeared and all the condos went up. It wasn’t like that when I worked there, although I recall once in a while, a guest who would gave me a number to dial – then receive an attractive visitor an hour or so later. A couple hours later, a call to Romi’s would inevitably follow.
I don’t know what year the Universal came down. I believe The Beach was the last of the motels to finally close. When I worked down there, people told me The Beach was the nicest of the motels on the strip, but I had only passed it and the others on the street so I didn’t really know. Driving down Lake Shore Blvd today, there is no evidence among the condos of the history of the area. Even the lakefront looks different today, with bike and walking paths where years before there was only lake.
For the most part, I enjoyed the motel job, especially meeting the guests. I particularly enjoyed the talkative guests who would stop by the office and tell me about their lives and their adventures.
Next installment of Jobs: The Waterbed Factory