photos by Sara Harowitz
A building is just a building until you put people in it. Then it comes alive. It begins to breathe, to grow, to change, along with the humans who inhabit it. The building becomes a person in its own right, providing warmth and comfort and peace.
I’ve worked in the same building on Dundas Street East (on and off, I admit) for over two years. And though I’ve always known there was something special about this particular building, I think it took me until now to realize just how rare it is.
The people of most workplaces, especially when it comes to the service industry, pride themselves on being a family. They laugh together, they cry together; they get drunk together, they sleep together. But having worked at a handful of restaurants, I can say with all honesty that there is nothing quite like the community at the Imperial Pub.
Family-owned and run for over 60 years, the pub is an antique crockpot, letting all the wonders and absurdities of Toronto’s downtown core stew to perfection. It’s the kind of place where the same people go daily, thriving on the chance to catch up with their pub friends. It’s the kind of place where you know as much about your customers as you do your friends. It’s the kind of place where your bartenders have felt so impacted by their time at the pub that they get the number 48 (its address) tattooed onto their body, a constant reminder of the clan they’ll always belong to. It’s the kind of place where the 19-year-old bartender fiercely swears that even once she no longer works there, she’ll continue to come back and visit. It’s the kind of place that leaves you tickled, its soft jazz music buzzing in your head and its characters’ friendliness tugging at your heart.
I admit that I have not always understood this family, nor have I ever fully immersed myself in it. This has, though, provided me with a unique position that is half-inside and half-outside the group. And after two years it’s as if I have finally seen the heart that beats beneath its beer-soaked skin.
Recently an ex-employee and current regular customer of the Imperial died. It came as a shock to everyone: my boss, co-workers, and customers. I was asked to cover a shift at the pub the day of the funeral so that one of my co-workers could attend it. Little did I know the pub would hold a funeral of its own.
Around 1 p.m. that day regulars started trickling into the pub, all looking particularly somber and well dressed. I soon learned that a bunch of funeral goers had planned on meeting at the pub first, a way for everyone to gather their strength and march into the ceremony a solid unit. My boss, forever the father figure to this mismatched family, paid for the cabs that got everyone to the funeral and back. I admit that I felt uncomfortable serving these tender souls, because I didn’t know the woman who died. She was just a name and a story, like someone from a history book. I was unrelated to her in every way except for one: we both had the pub.
After everyone had a drink or two, the family (as dysfunctional as any other, I might add) got up and left for the funeral – but a few hours later, they came back. One of the first people I saw was a co-worker, one of the people hit the hardest by this sudden loss. Usually feisty and full of cackle, at this moment she appeared broken and vulnerable. She held a tissue to her red nose as I asked her how she was doing. She looked at me, eyes still glossed with tears. Said nothing and yet said everything.
The group was quiet at first, ordering drinks and pairing off to reminisce about the life of this woman in smaller groups. Slowly, though, the room began to come alive with the spirit of memory. Everyone was laughing and smiling, collectively lifting off the weight that comes with the pain of losing a loved one. And sure enough, the load began to feel lighter.
The day of the funeral was also the birthday of another regular customer. And so, the family mourned the loss of one life and celebrated the gain another. A cake was brought in and Happy Birthday was sung. And in those moments, of which I felt so disconnected and yet so involved, moments so intimate I was scared to make a sound, I was hit with a renewed clarity of what I’d known all along: the Imperial is not just a pub. It is a life, born and nurtured and grown and lived and taken away but never forgotten. Except the Imperial lives on – it will live on as long as its people continue to hold it tight in their warm embrace.
It became evident to me then that while these people continuously put the soul into this building, sometimes those same people need the building to put the soul back into them. And it does. Every time, it does.