Law and Disorder in Cabbagetown

Law and order was practiced a bit differently in the Cabbagetown that I grew up in. Locals usually handled their own disputes in ways that varied from a knock down, drag out brawl, to just ignoring each other until time healed the wounds. This method of self-policing seemed to work quite well for both residents and police, who had better things to do than break up a minor scrap on the street.

One of the unwritten rules of Cabbagetown was to never, ever call the police to settle any dispute. To do so would relegate the offender to the level of snitch or rat. It would also cause the snitch to be snubbed by his or her peers. People on the street would suddenly go quiet as this person walked by and dirty looks would follow them until they were well out of hearing range. After all, how could even the most innocent of conversations be carried on in front of a rat? This rule applied to adults as well as kids.

This doesn't mean that Cabbagetown was some kind of lawless frontier. Nobody would bat an eye if a woman called the police after her old man came home all drunked up and started laying a beating on her, I knew one family where this was a regular occurance. And of course, any major crime would be reported to the police.

Also, the laws were a bit different back then, giving police a bit more control over policing the area than they have now. If the cops wanted some undesirables off the street, there were many laws that could be used to accomplish this. Vagrancy was always one of their favorites. Of course the vagrancy laws have gone by the wayside now and that's why there's so many beggars and street people in Toronto now. Back then they would have been hauled off to the Don.

Being picked up drunk in a public place always meant spending the night in a holding tank until court the next morning. There was actually a Drunk Court in 51 division police station on Regent Street. It was known locally as Kangaroo Court. First time drunks would pay a fine and be on their way. Repeat offenders could, and usually did, get a few days in the Don Jail to sober up.

Drinking under age was not treated quite as lightly in most cases. Those between 16 and 20 years of age got a trip to City Hall in the back of a paddy wagon where they would appear before a real magistrate in a real court instead of the Drunk Court in the basement of the cop shop. As with those of legal age, first offenders would get a fine. Beyond that, you could expect probation or even a month or more in jail. Anyone uner the age of 16 could land in Reform School for a few months, even first timers.

Jimmy Francey and I had the exact same birthday and, wouldn't you know it, we got caught two years in a row with booze on us. But I guess the cops must've understood birthdays, because they just took the goods off us and told us to go home.

Problem drunks not only spent a great deal of time in the Don Jail, but also got their name added to a sort of anti-honor roll known as "The Indian List." This list was distributed to all liquor and beer stores in the city and anyone on it would not be served. This was quite easy to uphold since everyone had to fill out a form with their name on it to purchase liquor, wine, and beer, and the sales person had the right to demand proper identification.

As it stands now, beer stores and liquor outlets are open seven days a week, not to mention bars and taverns being open until two oclock in the morning. Back then, bar hours were a lot shorter and there was nowhere to legally buy a drink on Sundays. So some of the residents would stock up on beer and liquor for the weekends to sell to their hard drinking neighbors when they ran out of their own. This isn't quite as cold hearted or sinister as it sounds. It was just another way to supplement their meagre income.

There were two types of establishments where booze could be bought illegally, bootleggers and boozecans. Bootleggers were for those that wanted to take it with them, although most had a free delivery service. All that was required to obtain the booze from these folks was a phone call and about double the retail price. Bootleggers didn't get busted easily because they usually kept the goods off premises in a neighboring house or car trunk.

Boozecans, on the other hand, were more like friendly little bars. People dropped in and sat around the kitchen table or living room, usually listening to music. There wasn't much on TV back then since professional sports was not allowed on Sundays in Toronto either. Once again, the price was at least double the retail. Boozecan operators took more of a chance though. If they got busted, the house was classified as a "Public House" and no booze at all was not allowed in the house from that point on. Also, the cops could just walk in any time they felt like it. One of my friends home had been so labelled, and I remember sitting there after school watching cartoons on TV when two big bulls walked in and started snooping around. Everything went very friendly though, with both the cops and parents on a first name basis.

Cops were treated with a lot more respect in those days too, especially by the kids. If a kid gave a cop too much lip, he'd get a smack in the face, this applied to adults too. I think many a young punk's life was turned around after a good shit-kicking in the back seat of a patrol car. I can see all the Bleeding Heart Liberals cringing out there. But that's the way it worked in a very tough neighborhood. The sight of a black cop car pulling up was enough to disperse any gang that was thinking of causing shit. If the cops wanted the gang to move, they moved. This didn't always work with the really bad guys in the area, but that's why most of them are still constantly in and out of jail.

I realize all this makes it sound like Cabbagetown was a real hellhole, but all the above represented a very small minority of the population. The majority of the people were hard working and very respectable and didn't participate in illegal activities. But due to the closeness of the community, everybody knew these things were going on, sometimes right next door, but they also knew how to mind their own business.