Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Valentine’s Day, the Royal York Hotel

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Valentine’s Day, the Royal York Hotel

By rob mclennan

This article is a part of rob's personal essay series, "Sleeping in Toronto."

One well-to-do passenger who stayed at the North American Hotel was Charles Dickens (1812-70). He arrived in Toronto on Wednesday evening, May 4, 1842, on the steamboat Transit from Niagara, and departed two days later at noon on Friday, May 6 via the steamer City of Toronto, bound for Kingston, Ontario. The North American Hotel, sometimes referred to as “The American Hotel” or “The American House,” had accommodation for 150 guests and a large dining hall capable of seating up to 200. The hotel’s room tariff was two dollars per day, including meals—among the more expensive rates in Toronto, a town with high hopes for growth and a population at the time of approximately 13,000.
          Greg Gatenby, Toronto: A Literary Guide (1999)

In 2008, the literary journal Descant did an issue on hotels, featuring poetry, fiction and non-fiction written on the theme of one of those most romantic of ideas, staying in a hotel. But still, why are so many of the pieces in this collection about trysts? I understand the idea of hotels, but is that all there is? The issue even includes a photo series of the artist rooms in the Drake Hotel, restored as part of refurbishing in 2004; wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could do that in Ottawa, in the abandoned-looking heritage building at Bank and Somerset that once housed the old Duke of Somerset Pub? Contributing Editor Mark Kingwell’s non-fiction piece, “Are You Arabic? Drinking in Hotel Bars and the Female Cruise,” works through numerous old films and hotel bars, including To Catch a Thief (1955), Funny Face (1957), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Love Me Tender (1962) and The Graduate (1967), writing:

The particular hotel bar scene is seared on the memories of more than one generation of young men, who can only sympathize silently with Ben’s ineffectual attempts to hail a waiter, appear suave and in command, or even retain his lunch as leopard skin-clad Mrs. Robinson, a self-assured alcoholic, snaps her fingers for a drink and the cheque together, and twits him for not more smoothly arranging a room. But that discomfort is nothing compared to his bumbling dialogue as she undresses in the room later, where he offers her a choice of wire or wood hanger, because, “they have both.” She finally manoeuvres him past his own misgivings by wondering if this is his first time, and then referring repeatedly to his “inadequacy” — a gambit, let it be said, that will work with most men under twenty-five. (Hoffman, playing twenty-one, was actually twenty-nine; Bancroft, supposedly in her forties, was thirty-five and stunning.)

What is it about hotels? The opportunities for improprieties, the sensual, sexual allure of trysts, or even weekends away, writing poems to mini-bars and other activities, such as the piece “Temporary Keys” by Nathaniel G. Moore, a fragment of his book Wrong Bar (Tightrope Books, 2009). Do you ever get the feeling more journals and book publishers don’t publish his magnificent work because they just don’t know what the hell to do with him?

The hotel mattress sighed uneasily as our bodies piled on top of one another. “Bring out your dead,” she said, filling up our plastic cups of dwindling ice. The rest is a blur of pink, red and teeth: lover’s spit and treacherous sweat.

Arriving at the Greyhound terminal on Bay Street after a long journey, the night before Valentine’s Day, Lainna and I locked out of her condo. Her sister out for the evening, the front desk allowing us into their condo building, but no further. The man with extra keys gone home for the night. An hour later, settling instead into the Royal York, former site of the luxurious Queen’s Hotel. Designed in the late 1920s, the Royal York once one of the largest hotels in the Commonwealth. Despite the expense, an opportunity for us to take in another former CP Hotel, after martinis at Ottawa’s Chateau Laurier, or pints of Guinness at Edmonton’s MacDonald Hotel. Despite the expense, a fortunate local-rate, for those who lock themselves out, being blocks from her building (they claimed it happened more often than you’d think). And what luck, turning Valentine’s Day into two nights not one.

We shared space with the filming of Red (2010), but not a peek at any of the stars — Helen Mirren, Bruce Willis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Morgan Freeman or Ernest Borgnine — but quick glances at crew, passing back and forth carrying walkie-talkies. You mean Borgnine is still working, still alive, we asked each other? Toronto the Good, Toronto the Frequently-Filmed. Drinks at the bar before turning loose, the Irish Embassy, just down the street. How old is this building, we asked the waitress. An old bank, by the looks of it. Photos I took of Lainna down those long Royal York halls reminiscent of The Shining (1980), filmed at another former CP hotel, the Banff Springs; expecting her to double, perhaps. Expecting her to shimmer, and disappear, even as imaginary shutter clicked, finger on digital button.

Our first hotel night, far more optimistic than most, far more optimistic than some. Not counting that B+B Edmonton week, of course. The morning bath that she reveled in, without such in her condo. Through the still-open door, wishing out loud for a glass of red wine, wishing for more than a single night. What was it Michael Holmes wrote about hotels? What’s left on napkins, apart from lipstick and poems. Or Lainna herself, in her poem “true love |||          : a serial poem,” writing:

say: writing is change      ,flavor of temporarily my noisy vein
learning to enter

Leonard Cohen: I am a hotel. And enter, we shall.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), kate street (Moira), wild horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at He will be spending much of the next year in Toronto.

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