I’m a long way from downtown Toronto these days –- in more ways than just physical distance. So sometimes news from the Big Smoke is slow to reach me.
But the other day at the dog park, folks were talking about a funny local obituary and somebody asked if I’d read the one about some writer with a really odd name who used to sell his own books on the streets of Toronto.
And I immediately knew that we had lost Crad Kilodney.
I don’t know if the people of Toronto or any in its communities of writers marked Crad’s passing. But for me it marked the end of an era that probably ended quite some time ago.
It’s always been tough to get past the Gatekeepers and carve out your own space in the creative industries. Many with talent die without succeeding. Some instinctively realize the struggle is a dead-end path and pave a road of their own.
Crad Kilodney was of the latter group.
In another time, he might’ve been considered an odd duck, a Bohemian or simply unemployable. But that would have misunderstood his wonderfully transgressive and anarchistic character, slathered in satire and layered with dark comedy.
I never knew where Crad came from (New York, apparently) or what brought him to the streets of Toronto. I first encountered him near the corner of Yonge and Bloor, standing silently in a doorway, a sign around his neck reading “Putrid Scum” holding a pipe in one hand and a clearly home-made “Zine” in the other.
Through the 1970’s and 80’s, the “Zine” was today’s version of Wordpress or Tumblr. Descended from the underground comix of the 60’s, they were the print model of choice for those shut out of the legit worlds of publishing.
Zines were often hand-written, hand-drawn or cut and paste jobs consisting of images and text culled from other sources. The cost of production was whatever it took to run the original pages through a Xerox machine and staple them together.
Crad’s content was his own fiction or essays on contemporary subjects. His titles were designed to shock or amuse, seldom having anything to do with what lay inside that volume’s heavy card cover.
And the work was peddled directly to passers-by at $3 or $4 a pop. According to Crad, some days he didn’t sell any.
And I remember wondering when he wrote his books because he seemed to be on the street 24/7, rain or shine, blizzard or heat wave. He was continual street furniture. A Yonge Street fixture. Part of what helped make Toronto’s main drag, along with the Sam’s Records sign, The Brass Rail and the many T-shirt stores and grindhouses, so famous.
How many of these publications did he produce? I doubt that anybody knows for sure. There must’ve been hundreds.
The second or third time I bought a book from Crad, I tried to engage him in conversation. But that seemed to catch him off guard. Or it might’ve been he was terminally shy.
And although I became a frequent buyer, he never asked what I’d thought of his work, who I was or what I did for a living.
Some of his obituaries claimed he was a misanthrope and hated Toronto. But for me, that doesn’t fit with a writer willing to meet his readers face to face –- especially the ones who’d forked over a few bucks for last week’s screed.
At one point, I was doing a play that worked the same black comedy and satire furrows in which he toiled and asked if he wanted a couple of free tickets. He was non-committal, so I just picked up a couple of comps and pressed them into his hand.
That night I peeked out at the crowd and he was there. The next time I bought a book, he nodded and half smiled, to my mind offering the same level of feedback he wanted for his own work.
After Crad’s death, one of his friends shared a letter he’d written after he’d been covered in a local literary magazine. It reads as follows:
“Yes, I liked reading about myself in the Excalibur review, mainly because it’s still new to me – that is, reading about myself. But I think I’d feel terrible if I got panned. Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that being inoffensive is as important as being talented. I don’t want to be a target for anyone, and I’m very careful of what other people will think of me. I come off as being extremely shy and grateful for the slightest praise. I don’t bad-mouth people behind their backs, and I would never intentionally make an enemy . . . My ego is the source of all my problems. I constantly have to shift between extremes. On some days I’m terribly vain; on others, I have an inferiority complex. When I act too self-effacing, I feel stupid, and when I get carried away by my pride, I feel guilty.”
I don’t remember the last time I saw Crad on the street. But several of his books still reside in my library. And through his obits, I learned a couple of things about him that made me like him even more.
The first is that Crad (real name Lou Trifon) loved tweaking the Canadian literary establishment. He regularly submitted short stories or poems written by Canlit icons to their own publishers under assumed names and treasured the rejection letters that inevitably followed.
In one instance he submitted works by Chekhov and Hemingway and other Nobel laureates to a CBC literary contest. All were unanimously rejected by the esteemed jury of cultural elites.
Perhaps, better than some of the rest of us, he understood the true abilities and intelligence of the Gatekeepers.
The second thing I learned is that he received a large inheritance late in life and passed a good portion of it on to Toronto’s hospitals as well as the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Room at the University of Toronto, where he apparently often wrote.
There will come a time, if it hasn't already arrived, when Toronto will name a library after Margaret Atwood or Irving Layton. The city might even do the same for the likes of Hart Hanson, David Shore or one of the other screenwriters it has nurtured. At the very least, they’ll all end up honored on its “Walk of Fame”.
Perhaps the same honor should be awarded to a writer who actually worked the town’s sidewalks and sheltered or wrote in its libraries.
And perhaps those of us who reaped vast benefits after we got past the Gatekeepers should follow his lead in giving back –- both to future writers and to those who choose to stay out on the street.