Leslieville Lives; Stories from the ‘Ville – John Makrygiannis
Meet John. When I first adopted Sunshine back in October 2014, we would start our morning walks pretty predictably. Down Sears St. towards Leslie then we’d veer off somewhere different. We passed the back of Michael and Michael, greeting the workers there, then we’d hit the back of John’s place, Park Avenue Cleaners . It was often busy with people chatting, steam coming out from all the vents and the roller door open to cool things down. A lover of dogs, John began to come to the lane and greet us, with dog treat in hand. Such a lovely, kind man. We missed him when the weather got cold, but then…we’d just go around to the front door!
Born and raised in Volos, Greece, John is the 5th born of 8 kids. He had a great family life there and two parents that he recalled never fought. ‘Except with their eyes’ he laughs. They only recently died, his father living to be 109 years old and his mother 108! “Perhaps it was the simple life that gave them life for so long – oh, and all those beans we used to eat!” he roars.
John left the family at 19 to join the army. It was mandatory in Greece and he served 2 years there, picked early on for the Special Forces as a sniper. I was a bit taken aback by that. “He seemed such a gentle kind man to be a sniper”, I thought to myself. “That’s fairly specialized work for such a young man isn’t it?” I asked. “Oh yes, they watched everything we did. Even how we made our bed. I must’ve impressed them!” He smiles, but then turns solemn. “The army training was a very hard life. It makes you hard. We were woken up at 2:30 a.m. to hike mountains and valleys and get yelled at. But despite the toughness, it also taught me how to respect others, nature and animals. I was always an animal lover, but more so after that.” John never went to war, but Greece was often on the verge of it with Turkey in the late 60s.
John was also an aspiring singer and when he returned from the army, was offered a place in the music school in Athens; a guarantee that you would ‘make it’ as an artist. His father disapproved and out of ‘stupid respect’, he didn’t go. But it was one of his life’s regrets. Out of frustration, he knew he couldn’t stay in Volos, or even Athens. Before the army he had gotten his diploma in plumbing (while attending school) and in 1971 headed to Canada. “All we needed then was a diploma – in anything – and we were accepted.”
Through the Greek and Canadian Embassies, John was set up with work at Brothers Plumbing on his arrival. He met his wife, Maria, shortly after arriving in Canada through a client. “It was love at first sight” he smiles, and several years later a daughter, Georgia, was born and then a son, Alexander, followed. With new mouths to feed, John left plumbing to learn pressing/dry cleaning and was hired by Roth & Stern on Spadina to do piece work, which garnered him a much much better wage. “I worked hard. And fast. The harder and faster you worked, the more money you made!” After five years with them, in 1976, he wanted a change and saw a ‘Help Wanted’ ad in a nearby shop. It was for a job with the not-so-well-known-then designer Alfred Sung. “Spadina was booming as the fashion district in the 70s and he was just starting out”. I worked with him for two years. He wanted me to come to New York with him but I had a home, family and couldn’t go.” No regrets there, but he did smile when some years later he recalled Alfred having ‘made it’. Dubbed ‘The King of Fashion’ in the early 80s, Alfred Sung was a household name in Canada and moreso after he launched his line in the US at Saks Fifth Ave. “I was happy for him,” John smiles. Instead, John bought his first dry cleaning business at Oakwood & Eglinton, called Hilda’s Cleaners. Within three years, he and Maria were running 10 stores around Toronto.
With 2 kids and 10 stores to run, you’d think that would be enough to keep anyone crazy busy. Not John. He also taught Bushidokan, a variation of Karate, Judo and Jujitsu. He had learned it in the army and today has 7 degrees of black belt. Both his kids are proficient, his daughter having preferred to study under John at home vs a classroom and his son, a proud blue belt. And now, the grandchildren – all 6 of them – are learning Karate. “Georgia my daughter has the equivalent of a brown belt but never did the official training outside of me at home. She’s good though! You don’t want to meet her in a dark alley”, he laughs.
After those whirlwind years, John sold the dry cleaning businesses and took some time off. “I was doing a lot of singing at the time, mostly in my church, St. Demetrius on Pape, with the choir, but also performed in a few clubs on the Danforth. It was a bit more ‘Greek’ then”, he smiles. I still sing and not too long ago made a CD”. I laughed. “What can’t you do?” His kind face lights up. “After a while though, I began twiddling my thumbs! The kids were grown and I’d been working since I was 9 years old so while I enjoyed some down time, I ended up back in the business again, opening this location in 2013.”
John split from his wife in early 2001 and it was no surprise to hear this charming fella had no problem finding a new partner. “It was kind of funny. She was a client of mine. I hadn’t been out with anyone for several years after my wife and I split, so I was a bit shy. Then one day she said, “When are you going to ask me out for coffee?” The rest is history.
Today John is busier than ever. His business premises are over 4500 square feet and with a 15 year lease, has contracts with many of the big hotels in Toronto including the Delta chain, Hazelton, Cambridge and The King Edward Hotel. “No rest for the wicked eh?” Again, the charming smile.
With Spring coming the roller door will be back open and the chatting and gathering will no doubt begin again at the back of Park Avenue Cleaners. If you happen to pass by, especially if you have a dog, wave or say ‘hi’. John won’t let you go until he’s petted your dog and given him/her a milkbone or 10.
*John was so busy he didn’t have time to organize and send me photos, sadly. And yes, I broke my ‘no retail’ rule – again – but he’s the other exception!