August 10, 2011
Today we made t-shirts to show our love and support of our local public library. Then, in further support of books and book-people, we drew a modern protest song from of an old classic. In our family’s take on the famous “Charlie on the M.T.A.” song, entitled “Mayor Ford in the Library,” Toronto’s mayor gets stuck in a library he’s trying to shut down. What does he do surrounded by all of those books? Dear reader, read on….
Love, Don’t Riot
Over the past few days, my kids have been asking a lot of questions about the images of the London riots they’ve seen in newspaper boxes and on the dailies littered about the transit lines. They don’t usually take a second glance at images like these…but when you love a red, double-decker bus as much as my children love a red, double-decker bus, you take particular note of the one in front of you in pictures, burning. My kids had a hard time understanding how and why these riots started and why they continue to break out — I found myself struggling, also, to discuss the reasons and rationale (or lack thereof) behind such things. We have some photographs in our dining room of Ray Walker’s mural, The Battle of Cable Street which helped to lend some context to the recent events. Still, I struggled to come up with things to say. I found myself mumbling some mixed up thesis about hot weather and human desperation drawn from hazy memories of an undergraduate skim of William Tuttle’s Race Riot.
Needless to say, the London riots changed the shape of things over here at “Stop Rob Ford, or, Cut the Cuts”-central. Before the riots, I had planned this Wednesday to be a day of protest. In light of the recent threats by the city council (i.e. Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug) to close down several of our public libraries, we had meant to make a scene! We were going to create protest signs to bring to the next open meeting of city council. I still think this is a valid enterprise – and I’m sure we’ll get around to it. Still, after the riots of the past few days, I wanted to put more emphasis on “peaceful protests” than on “killing cuts,” so to speak. So, in the great old fashioned manner of making love instead of war, we decided to make t-shirts celebrating our love for our local public libraries.
We highly recommend that you try this at home!
First, we decided on a simple catch phrase for our shirts: “I Love My Library.” I had the kids use markers to letter this phrase on a plain white sheet of paper. Then, they decorated their mottos with book- and library-related images. Tobes decided to surround his motto with a bookshelf and to fill that bookshelf with blue and green books. Later, he spiced things up with some of the shields and heraldry from the Harry Potter books. For some reason, the Slytherin motto loomed large in both drawings. I guess they’re interested in snakes, or Snape, at least.
Bea chose to surround her thick-red-lettered motto with a picture of Narnia’s Aslan and a wardrobe, that crest from Hogwarts, and the hard covers of two books, one imagined (Magical Me, by Gilderoy Lockhart, again, from Rowling’s Potter series) and one real (Doomed to Dance, from Barrow and Blackhall’s Ivy and Bean series). Of course, she substitued a heart shape for the word “Love” in the centre of her piece.
Then, we took our images from paper to cotton. We scanned the drawings and printed their reverse images on t-shirt transfer paper. I had the kids place their printed transfers face-down on the fronts of some old white t-shirts. Then, I ironed the transfers in place. After the images cooled, the kids picked off the paper backing from the transfers. Et voila – our “I Love My Library” t-shirts were complete!
The next step: walking around town wearing our shirts! And, what better place did we have to wear them than our closest library, the Main Street branch! [By the way, we love the Kew Beach and Ashdale branches, too, not to mention the Osborne collection...Oh, and renovated Malvern, here we come...This is why we weren't too specific about the name of our library on our shirts!] The kids posed for a photo-op at the front door and rushed inside to raid the shelves.
Bea has been interested in Shakespeare, lately, so she chose a kiddie version of The Tempest. The figure of Prospero on the cover looks a lot like jolly old St. Nick – gee, and all this time, I thought King Lear was the Christmas play! She also borrowed a condensed version of Jane Eyre, a copy of Clementine, and a book about Baby Bears. (Let the bear obsession continue!) It will be interesting to see how her children’s versions of classic texts compare to the originals.
Tobes is still interested in snails and snail-keeping. He keeps bringing the live ones home! So, I was happy that he found a book about snails from the non-fiction section. He also got some more Little Apple readers.
When we went up to the front desk to check out our books [The line, by the way, was quite long! I guess the circulation at Main Street isn’t low enough to put us on the chopping block!], Bea made a point of showing the librarian the t-shirts she and her brother had made. The librarian was ecstatic!
After leaving the library, we wandered around the city for a while, the images on our shirts still crisp and gleaming!
Old Protest Songs Made New, or, How “Charlie on the M.T.A.” Became “Mayor Ford in the Library”
One summer in the early nineties, while I was still an undergraduate, I attended a writing workshop at Skidmore College in New York. Another member of the workshop, Jacqueline Steiner, told me the fascinating story of how she and a friend, Bess Lomax Hawes, wrote the lyrics to the famous “M.T.A. (Boston Subway Song)” also known as “Charlie on the M.T.A.”
That song seems particularly pertinent now. So, I sat down with the kids and played them a few versions of the song on YouTube. They liked the Kingston Trio’s “original” performance as well as a performance by a young woman named “missemijoy”, and, finally, a singing banjo player who performed all three parts of a three-part harmony, mixing his video so that he appeared as a band of triplets.
We also looked at the lyrics and the story behind the song (see http://www.mit.edu/~jdreed/t/charlie.html). The kids are huge transit enthusiasts. So, they sympathized with the plight of poor Charlie, who couldn’t get off the train to be with his family because he didn’t have enough money in his pocket to pay the new “exit” fee that had been tacked on to the regular subway fare. We also talked about the lyrics of a few other political protest songs that my husband had long-ago placed on cds for their old UofT daycare: “Power in a Union” and “The Times They are a Changin’.’”
I thought the kids would like to take one of those songs and transform it into some sort of comment about the proposed cuts to city services, i.e. “Culture Cuts,” that the current mayor of Toronto has proposed. The kids went for “Charlie on the M.T.A.,” of course. But, the way they decided to imitate Steiner’s song just blew me away! Instead of making their Charlie a sympathetic figure, say, a library patron stuck in a building that had been closed by our mayor [I had assumed that this would be their take!], they wanted to make their modern “Charlie” the mischief-maker himself, the Mayor of Toronto, Rob Ford.
When the kids chose the “M.T.A.” song, I also thought they would keep most of the “train” references from the original subway fare protest. After all, one of the key words Ford used in his mayoral campaign was the “gravy train” he meant to stop by way of budget cuts and limits on councilor spending. Ford’s not a huge proponent of public transit, either. However, this was not the stance the kids chose! Instead, they wanted to imagine the mayor “stuck somewhere, like Charlie.” And, with their firm grasp of local politics, the kids proposed that Ford was going to have to be stuck on one of the urban farms he wanted to privatize, or in a particularly decrepit public housing unit, or in one of the libraries with “low circulation” that he intended to close. As it was our official “Library Day” for the summer, they chose the latter.
I had the kids do a quick rhyming exercise to get ready for our repurposing of the “M.T.A. Song.” Tobes tackled “Rob” and Bea tackled “Ford.” I don’t think we ended up using any of these rhymes in our song…but it sure helped to get them going. We also consulted the internet to identify the libraries in the city, the ones with “low circulation,” most likely to be affected by Ford’s proposed budget cuts and closures. We came up with some rhymes for these, as well.
With the original song lyrics open on one side of my computer screen and a word processing program open on the other, the kids and I went through the “M. T. A. Song” verse by verse, substituting our own imagined story about Mayor Ford for Charlie’s plight. Together, we came up with a story of a mayor who goes to close down a set of local libraries only to get blocked inside of the first one by patrons who adamantly protest the library’s closure. The chorus of the song, which is a fairly direct imitation of the M. T. A. piece, wonders if the mayor will “ever return” from the library, which, unlike Charlie’s situation, might be seen as a welcome disappearance for a good number of this city’s citizens. From there on out, the lyrics poke fun at the mayor for his inability to discriminate between famous Canadian authors. (It was actually Ford’s brother, Doug, who seemed to have this problem, saying he wouldn’t recognize Margaret Atwood if he saw her…Still, it’s all in the family…) In the place of Charlie’s loving wife, who, in the original song, has to throw food to her husband through one of the train’s open windows, my kids imagine Ford’s brother Doug outside of his local branch hoping to send his brother a “gravy”-laden sandwich and latte via the book-return slot. The song concludes with references to the current social media phenomenon in which people call for the nomination of Margaret Atwood for mayor. Personally, I’d rather read Atwood’s fiction – leave the writer to her craft, I say! – so I nominate Jack Layton’s son in the next line! The kids have often called Ford a “nuisance” (they often use it almost as verb or imperative, a curse!), and so we used this word to end our song.
Sure, there was a lot of parental intervention and participation in this exercise. Still, the kids deserve far more credit than they’ll likely be given without the proper parental defense….
Mayor Ford in the Library
To be sung to the tune of the “M.T.A. (Boston Subway Song),” with thanks and apologies to Steiner and Hawes, authors of the original.
Let me tell you the story
About a man named Ford
On a hot and terrifying day
Put a list of “budget cuts” in his pocket
Kissed his wife and family
And went off to close the libraries he’d named
Now, Ford, he handed out the pink slips fast
Down at dear old Urban Affairs
Thinking he was headed for the Rexdale branch…
But before he could even exit
Patrons cried, “Just wait there, Mister!”
Ford could not escape one hardened glance
CHORUS: Did he ever return?
No he never returned
From the library that day
He may circulate forever
‘Round those queer old stacks and bookshelves
He’s the mayor who never returned
Now all night long
Mayor Ford walks through the stacks
Saying, “What will become of me?
How can I tell an Atwood
from an Ondaatje,
Or A.F. Moritz
from a Dorothy Livesay?”
And, Rob’s brother, he goes down
To the Northern Elms branch door
___’e won’t go in!
Every day at quarter past noon
And through the book-return he sends
___’e thinks it’s the post!
His brother a fat, hot gravy sandwich
And a gravy latte, too.
Now, as that gravy rolls down
Off of his chin onto that belly
Mayor Ford, he looks ‘round and grieves,
“Well, I’m sore and disgusted
And I’m absolutely busted –
I guess this is my first last read!”
Now you citizens of Toronto
Don’t you think it’s just a scandal
That our people have to lose their institutions…
Vote for Peggy Atwood, then,
Or, perhaps, the younger Layton,
Trim the fat from our city! – Ford’s a nuisance!
Well, there you have it. We may even get around to recording a version of it one of these days.
Now, usually, we don’t ask people to “do as we do” in these pages…but for God’s sake or for Heaven’s sake or for the sake of someone or something you love, HEED OUR IMPERATIVE:
Go make t-shirts and giant signs! Go protest in song, and dance, film and paint! Go, save our city from Ford and his culture cuts!