Despite a robust and sizeable population, for a number of near blissful decades Toronto enjoyed one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Over time, this would change thanks largely to an influx of gang related activity and the availability of cheap handguns from south of the border. While there is nothing more unfortunate than the loss of human life, our research team at Digitized Graffiti have recently unearthed a startling revelation if not on par, then uncomfortably close to it. That is, there exists a separate set of homicides that no one seems to be paying attention to. Witting or unwitting; a widely held conspiracy exists to cover up real estate crimes. Among them: building abductions, assassinations, kidnappings, murder, dismemberment – or worse.
While many Torontonians might surreptitiously lament the changing landscape of disappearing bricks and mortar, it remains largely taboo to speak of it. Many fear reprisals from the powerful forces that control the city’s financial infrastructure or, more commonly; simple jeers from money hungry bitches. Luckily for some of us, a dogged number of detectives in a small, windowless basement room on the edge of Chinatown work tirelessly, cataloguing and investigating these atrocities. One of these brave men reached out to me one Tuesday afternoon via encrypted communication to tell his story.
His name is Lieutenant Poniatowski and he was head of the Art Homicide Squad. For almost three decades, he was in charge of the city’s grisly building murder division. He has never spoken publicly, until now. The following is our exclusive, unedited interview.
We met at an undisclosed diner housed in an old, decrepit building in the downtown core wedged in between large corporate towers. I arrived early, securing a quiet booth at the back of the busy floor, filled with office workers and students from a neighbouring art college. Poniatowski arrived half an hour north of our appointed time. His three-day old stubble rivalled a thick moustache in the bull’s-eye below his fat nose that descended down on either side of his mouth, as if trying to escape off of his pockmarked grizzled face. And it was a sad visage, the way old people sometimes appear when they’ve seen too much. His thick glasses framed dark half moons under each eye. He looked slightly haggard and dazed.
The lieutenant was wearing a long sleeved shirt from the 70s with an enormous butterfly collar and a thick polyester tie with faded pink diagonal lines streaking garishly across it. He also had an enormous amount of body hair. And I mean enormous. Giant tufts of it peaked out from under his collar. When he stuck his hand out, I noticed his arms and fingers had wads of the dark brown stuff; slightly greying follicles that seemed to sway lazily in the wind with each movement. I rose to meet him. His handshake was firm and confident, just like you’d expect from a seasoned cop. We sit back down and I turn on my tape recorder.
DG: Okay, so we are now recording. Can we maybe start with your name and rank?
Lt. Poniatowski: Sure. (He begins to clear his raspy throat for a remarkably long, rather uncomfortable time, given the public setting). My name is Lieutenant Eugene Poniatowski, retired. For thirty years, I worked the Art Homicide squad at Toronto’s 52 division. This is my story. Duh Duhhhhhh.
DG: You don’t have to do that. Please don’t do that. Are you doing the Law and Order thing?
Lt. Poniatowski: Yeah, what’s wrong with that?
DG: Nothing. Just…let’s continue.
Lt. Poniatowski: Sure. But before we begin, I just want to say, I’m a big fan of yours. (He smiles, revealing a set of uneven, yellow teeth most likely stained by years of nicotine and caffeine use) I really like Digitized Graffiti. It’s an incredible achievement.
DG: I had absolutely no way of anticipating that compliment, but I thank you for it.
Lt. Poniatowski: Seriously. You’ve worked so hard on it for what is it now, nine years? And never got a penny for it, have you?
Lt. Poniatowski: Amazing. No advertising, nothing?
Lt. Poniatowski: That is truly, truly, remarkable.
DG: Thank you. Now. Let’s begin. Can you give us a sense of how you ended up in Art Crimes?
Lt. Poniatowski: Sure. I started out in the Modern Art division but I won’t dance around it; I puked my guts out the first day. And probably the second one, too. I never could stomach it. I wasn’t alone, either. There were lots of guys out there that couldn’t. So I requested a transfer as soon as I could. I still get nightmares about my rookie year.
DG: What kind of dreams?
Lt. Poniatowski: Oh, you know, weird shit, related to what I saw. Lots of toilets. I think that guy Damien Hirst had something out that same year, so everyone was trying to mimic that shock and awe type stuff. Lots of urine. Too much urine. Can we change the subject? It’s too goddamn early in the morning.
DG: Sure, no problem. So you transferred out?
Lt. Poniatowski: Yeah, yeah. Transferred out. Same department, just a different squad. I wanted something less…disgusting. I’m going to order some pancakes? You want something?
DG: No thanks. I’m good with my coffee.
The waitress comes by. Poniatowski orders pancakes and coffee.
Lt. Poniatowski: Suit yourself. I switched over to Street Art for awhile, but that sucked, for different reasons.
DG: How do you mean?
Lt. Poniatowski: Well, no one could ever really agree on what was street art, what was graffiti? It was one giant cluster fuck with too many politics. So I switched again, this time to the architecture crime beat. (He begins to smile) Well, I thought I was on easy street then. Of course, the architecture department sounds easy right? I mean, how bad could a bunch of buildings be? Little did I know. (He begins to laugh) Shit just got (unintelligible).
DG: Did you just say that shit got weirder?
Lt. Poniatowski: Yes. Do I have to start repeating myself?
DG: No.. you were just mumbling a bit.
Lt. Poniatowski: I was what?
DG: You were mumbling a bit.
Lt. Poniatowski: Oh, oh. Sorry.
DG: And to be frank, you smell a little….strange. Are you drunk?
Lt. Poniatowski: No. (Pauses, as if to reconsider, then frowns) Ah forget it. I’m retired. Yes. I’m drunk.
DG: It’s 930 in the morning.
Lt. Poniatowski: Yeah, I know it’s 930 in the morning, thanks Captain obvious. You know what?
Lt. Poniatowski: (His form becomes to change from cordial to something much harsher) I’ve paid my dues, you punk. I’ve put in 30 years. I just retired. I can say whatever I want.
Lt. Poniatowski: Black Lives Matter!
DG: Um, I don’t think you realize what that refers to.
Lt. Poniatowski: Hashtag me too!
DG: I think maybe, you know, you should try to lower your voice Lieutenant. Please? You can’t really say that stuff. Even if you’re retired.
Lt. Poniatowski: Sure I can, why not? Occupy Bay street! Time’s up!
DG: Okay, are you done?
Lt. Poniatowski: (He raises his right hand, now balled into a fist, up in the air.) Attica! Attica! (Pauses) Are you going to bug me about my drinking?
DG: No. (I whisper the following, pleading him) But you can’t just parrot that stuff. They’re not just meaningless catchphrases. They stem from real systematic issues that need to change.
Lt. Poniatowski: Okay then. Fine. Whatever dude. You young folks are so easily offended today. Take a chill pill, home fry.
The waitress arrives with his pancakes, which she sets down on the table in front of him.
Lt. Poniatowski: Pancakes!!! Man, I love pancakes. Do you like pancakes?
DG: Yes, I like them occasionally.
Lt. Poniatowski: Occasionally? Well, I love pancakes all the time. I don’t understand anyone that doesn’t love them. I believe that pancakes are the ultimate litmus test for knowing if someone is worth knowing.
He paused there, his fork and knife gripped tightly in each hand, holding them up. He looked at me directly, breathing heavily, wild eyed through those thick glasses of his, as if deciding whether to take a stab at me, or the pancakes in front of him.
DG: Okay, please Lieutenant, can we go over the case?
Lt. Poniatowski: Sure! Okay. (He sounded cheerful now, as if nothing unusual occurred. He lowered his cutlery temporarily to pour a vat of maple syrup over his plate and begins to dissect his breakfast stack) Let’s go over the case. Well, there were several cases, if I’m being honest actually. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but I would soon find a connection between them. But at that time, they all appeared separate. You dig?
DG: I do. I do dig.
Lt. Poniatowski: These pancakes are delicious! Okay, right, so I guess one of the major ones that stands out is the pub murders. There was a popular chain of pubs, all over the city. Called the Dorkins. Charming. British. Standard fare. Fish and chips, bangers and mash; you know the drill. Then one day…poof.
DG: Gone? As in…erased?
Lt. Poniatowski: It was worse than that. Way worse. I mean it would be one thing if someone decided to rub one out. But it takes a special kind of evil to rip up the insides and replace them…with someone completely different. Desecration of the body is what you’d be charged with, if the deceased were human.
DG: So, they kept the bars and renovated them?
Lt. Poniatowski: Well, yeah, but renovating isn’t the right word. They systematically butchered the insides of them. It was as if a bunch of Brexiteers dropped acid and tried to build an overpriced non-alcoholic airport café for adult toddlers.
DG: How bad was it?
Lt. Poniatowski: (Whispering) They had…drawings on the walls of John Cleese doing a silly walk.
DG: (I gasp) From Monty Python?
Lt. Poniatowski: (He nodded) Yeah, I mean, you know you’re in a British pub. But somehow they wanted to beat people over the head with a frying pan. Just awful. (Shakes his head) Senseless. I won’t even go into detail about the lighting. Except that it was exceptionally bright. Totally inappropriate. Like you were at a Blockbuster.
DG: What’s that?
Lt. Poniatowski: Never mind.
DG: Go on.
Lt. Poniatowski: Well, speaking of pubs. There’s a lovely one called The Black Balls on Queen Street West.
DG: I know it. Great patio.
Lt. Poniatowski: Wrong. Used to be a great patio. They built a massive fucking outlet mall tumour right in front of it. Douchebag Equipment Coop. The irony of building an outdoors store in front of one of the only patios to catch a glimpse of the sunset in Toronto never fails to escape me.
DG: Yes. That is a shame. Although they do have some cool gear.
Lt. Poniatowski: Yeah, like 300 dollar turtle necks? Give me a goddamn break. Those fuckers deserve to rot in jail.
DG: But that’s not the only crime in that district, right?
Lt. Poniatowski: Yeah, I mean we could talk about the Fox Diddler. I mean, that used to be a pub too. Just like the Dorkin massacres, they tore out the insides, re-installed it at the goddamn bottom of a condo, decorated it like a frickin’ sushi restaurant, but still they insist, it’s a pub. Disgraceful. You can’t have floor to ceiling windows and be a bar or gastropub or whatever the hell the kids call it these days. Serving food on cutting boards. Fruity beers. Gluten free this, boneless chicken wings. Complicated haircuts, weird beards. Uncomfortable pants several sizes too short. No socks. My God.
He pauses to retrieve a metallic flask from his inside left breast pocket with a hand I notice is shaking slightly. He pours an unidentified liquid into his coffee. Takes a gulp. He seems to relax a little, but I notice his forehead now has beads of sweat running down, like sad tears.
DG: Yeah, I drive by that spot all the time. It’s a very confusing place. Look I think we might be straying off topic a bit here. Can we…
Lt. Poniatowski: Right. There was an even worse abomination. This one was further west, before Bathurst. A whole block went up in flames. That old bike store.
DG: I remember that fire.
Lt. Poniatowski: Yeah. That was another tumour that went up. It looks like a goddamn suburban mall over there. I get shivers every time I have to buy my underwear at Jack Fresh or my fruit pies from Bloblaws. That whole block is like it got transplanted direct from Mississauga. Like someone beamed that entire building structure over. It is a total mystery how it all happened. Queen West is not what it once was. I mean, how would you describe Queen West to someone that’s never been there before?
DG: Hmm. Good question. A place for over-privileged tweens to shop at American multi national chain stores while stepping over underprivileged homeless teens?
Lt. Poniatowski: Bingo. You know, Queen West used to be a centre for innovation. Where all the artists hung out. Just like Dorkville used to be a hub for counter culture beatniks and weirdos. Now it’s hair salons and luxury boutiques.
DG: Yes. It is a shame that all too often, bastions of free thought and creativity commodify into black holes of mindless consumerism, isn’t it?
Lt. Poniatowski: Agreed. There were other fires too. Countless. Historical houses on Jarvis Street north of hooker Harvey’s. Peter Street next to the old deli. Spadina Avenue in the heart of Chinatown. That hair cut joint near Bathurst and Queen. Last week, the old hotel in the Junction. You think that’s just a coincidence, that these buildings have all been burned to the ground in the last year or two? During one of the biggest real estate booms in this city’s history? Did you know that for the 3rd time in a row, Toronto has the highest amount of cranes in the air in North America? Just yesterday, the Ontario government revealed plans to throw away rules guarding how tall structures can build in the city. You think that’s a coincidence?
DG: (I was beginning to feel dizzy at this point) What are you saying?
Lt. Poniatowski: (He shrugs) I’m saying that in life, especially in the real estate world – there are no coincidences, young man.
DG: Who do you think is behind it all?
Lt. Poniatowski: Well, I’m now retired. So I don’t give a damn, hah. Fuck it. Ok. Well I’ll give you a list of suspects. Okay? But just to be clear, I’m giving you suspects as to how the real estate market is so fucked up, and not a list of arson suspects. I’m not saying these people burned down buildings, I’m just saying that they’re part of the reason why no regular folks will ever be able to buy a house again in this city. Ever.
DG: Right, of course. Okay.
Lt. Poniatowski: Number one; developers are an easy target, they’re the ones making the most bank. Number two; real estate jabronis, same deelio. Number three; foreign investors. And it’s not just Chinese millionaires. There’s dark money in there too from a bunch of places, it’s just that we’re way too naïve or polite to talk about it. I’m not sure which. Number three; city hall and now of course, the presiding provincial goons. There’s all kinds of back door meal tickets that are being signed, sealed and delivered, more than any Uber Eats bike courier on a Raptors game night.
DG: Nice analogy.
Lt. Poniatowski: You like it?
DG: Very contemporary.
Lt. Poniatowski: Thanks. It should be said that in city hall and at the provincial level, there are a couple of straight shooters in there trying to do right. But the last suspect, is the one that’s going to blow your frickin’ mind.
Lt. Poniatowski: The general public.
DG: I don’t get it.
Lt. Poniatowski: Exactly. No one really gives a shit, do they? It’s just another old building disappeared. Whatever. Big deal.
DG: Why should people care about them?
Lt. Poniatowski: People should care because…look. This city is growing at an unprecedented pace. But it’s also disappearing just as quickly. Buildings matter because they represent character. They represent a link to the past that built what it is today. History is what builds a community, through interaction, by passing knowledge. Through observing, learning and sharing. You look out on the street now, and what do you see? Everyone is like a zombie, looking at their phones. Walking used to mean observing and interacting with your surroundings. Meeting people. Talking with them. Or maybe just looking at something and thinking about it. Now, everything is just background noise, until you get to the next screen.
DG: Technology was supposed to make our lives easier.
Lt. Poniatowski: Right. But instead it’s turned us into unwitting slaves.
At that point, my phone rings.
DG: Sorry, sorry, sorry. Let me just….(I pick my phone up off the table and place it on silent)
Lt. Poniatowski: That’s okay.
DG: I was just about to say, that everyone’s too busy trading memes.
Lt. Poniatowski: Exactly! Yeah! Wait, what?
Lt. Poniatowski: What are those?
DG: They’re clever jokes in a visual format. Except that they are neither clever, nor funny. At least, I don’t think so.
Lt. Poniatowski: Right. Well, that’s it. Isn’t it? Everything is so watered down now. It’s not just the new buildings that all look the same with no personality. No one has an opinion about anything anymore. No one speaks up. The architecture and art that surrounds us is all a reflection of what we’ve become. Everyone assumes someone is reading their emails or filming them at all times, so they never think, write, say or do anything to rock the boat. The only things that most people care about are their jobs, making money, and getting home to their crummy 12 by 12 shoebox cells that they call a “luxury condo” so they can watch TV shows about superheroes and billionaires. Dream of something larger than themselves.
We paid our tab and left soon after. As I exited the restaurant and crossed the street, I turned to look back at it for some reason. I noticed how dwarfed by anonymous translucent towers the little old building was. I thought of the lieutenant’s weather beaten face and smiled. I certainly did not agree with everything he had said that afternoon, but the more time I spent with him, the more I realized his unpredictable, sometimes bombastic temperament was strangely magnetic. And like so many of those imperfect, broken and crumbling structures we touched on that day – the world was a much more interesting place with him in it.
If you have a unique story but worry about whistle blower blowback, DG has an encrypted carrier pigeon program. It works like a regular carrier pigeon, except there is heavy padlock attached to the pigeon with a secret compartment. Insert your secret message inside the secret compartment and return the pigeon to us. Sometimes, the pigeon does not survive the flight because of the weight of the padlock, so just drive the pigeon over and leave it on our doorstep, or if you think you can squeeze it into the mail slot, then you can try to do it that way. But don’t squeeze it too hard. You don’t want to get it stuck. Our mailing address is here: 2630 Hegal Place, Apt. 42, Alexandria, Virginia, 23242
Top featured photo shot by Burst.
Drawings by C.Hogan