Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – Jim Smith
Meet Jim. We first met back in 2004 down at Cherry Beach Dog Park. I had just gotten George, my first dog and he, puppy Bella the Crazy Chocolate, shortly after the death of Arnie, his beloved Lab. We would walk the loop a few times, a few times a week. Since then, George has passed, Gracie (my other dog) too, and I lost touch with Jim until we reunited down at Cherry around 18 months ago when I got Sunshine. We would share a few laughs, talk about his cases (he’s a lawyer), the latest in real estate, and small talk.
I always had an inkling there was more to Jim than I knew, as we were casual park friends. When I approached him about doing this story and he said yes, I wasn’t surprised to discover his life was, in short, a wild ride through the good, the bad and the ugly.
The eldest of 8, Jim was born and raised in Kingston. When we started our chat, at the first mention of the word Kingston his fist went up in the air followed by a wry smile as he bellowed, “They’re not taking me back alive!”. Jim’s early life was a “mixed experience” as he likes to put it. A tyrant of a father and a mother who he remembers fondly but describes as a virtual prisoner, Jim grew up in poverty. From Grade 1-8 he attended no less than 25 schools.
“We’d always move when it was time to pay the rent. Or get evicted. We lived in everything from ratty motels to empty farmhouses, sometimes without furniture.” His father abandoned the family in 1971 taking three of the children with him for several years. Jim took solace by doing well in school and reading everything from science fiction to James Bond to 18thc sea stories to take him away from/diffuse the situation at home.
He excelled at school where he found the praise and support denied him at home and left at age 17. In 1969, Jim went to Queen’s for English Lit and on the 2nd day of university dropped acid and never went back to class. Those were the (hippie) daze. “When my student loan ran out, I had to work”. He did everything from working as a postman for the Royal Military College to low level public service clerk jobs. “My mind was dying”. When he decided to go back to university in 1972, he was a mature student and married. After years of writing, mostly poetry, in 2nd year, he became the co-editor of the Queen’s Journal Literary Supplement and shortly after started his own magazine called The Front. Jim describes the group of contributors as ‘lonely nerds’ who wrote wild, avant garde/experimental stuff.
Jim and his wife split after four years and he left for Montreal to do his Masters in Creative Writing at Concordia. Instead of a thesis, he wrote a book, titled, “Translating Sleep: A serial poem about Alexander Graham Bell”. In between studies he came to live in Toronto with his then girlfriend and worked in various jobs, one of which was shelving books at U of T’s Robarts Library, and later as a steward for CUPE 1230. He fell into associations with like-minded writers in Toronto such as bpNichol (winner of 2 Gov General awards), Stuart Ross, who used to sell his books on the street, advertising them with a sign around his neck, and one of his science fiction heroes, Judy Merril, who he met at a writers retreat, & with whom he forged a lifelong friendship. Jim had read all of Judy’s books as a kid and would later work for her on a TVO script. Their friendship culminated in a one-man show at Theatre Passe Muraille, in 2015, titled, ‘I Love You Judy Merril’, 18 years after her death. “The play dealt with my hero worship of her, the role of science fiction in saving me as a miserable kid, and my nasty feelings toward Kingston. It was so much fun, and also scared me to death, not being an actor. I did it all in a rented spacesuit.”
In 1981, Jim was living at the Spruce co-op where he met the love of his life and current partner Jo-Anne and they moved to Leslieville shortly thereafter. Writing and living off a large-ish art grant (those were the days!) Jim fell in love with the art and Sandinista movement in Nicaragua and made several trips there over the next few years. He helped found Artnica, a group of writers and visual artists supporting and doing public education about the Sandinista Revolution. He organized 2 more tours as part of the International Book Fair until 1989, when the Sandinistas lost the election. Deflated with the situation in Nicaragua, Jim took up freelance writing back in Toronto. “I made little money but was great at writing grant applications!”. In 1994, after 7 years of some published writing, Jim started to feel a bit the defeated artist/activist. At Jo-Anne’s suggestion, he enrolled at Osgoode Hall to study law. Too smart to let that great mind go to waste, Jim graduated in 1997; the same year his mother and dear friend Judy died. He articled that following year at the Police Complaints Commission finishing at the Crown Civil/Ministry of the Attorney General. He stayed on and has been at Superior Court ever since – where he does most of his work. His love for writing never abated, and while it might seem a rarity to be artistic and yet good at facts/figures/math/law, Jim pulls it off. He’s one of the few people I’ve met that can exercise the right and left brain simultaneously and successfully.
After an 11 year hiatus, Jim released a book of new and selected poems in 2010 titled, Back Off Assasin! and was long-listed (22 books on that list) for the Governor General’s Award for Poetry and made the Indigo/Chapters Top Ten Poetry Books in April of that year. He continues to write poetry and has a voracious appetite for reading. His office is typical of most creatives. Books, papers, ideas, and art flying around the room in organized chaos.
Larger than life, Jim is kind, smart, talented, funny, – with just the right dash of cynicism and humility – not to mention lover of all dogs. He’s got that wonderful crazy we all look for in a friend. The kind that makes us feel proud to know.