Be My Neighbour: Kathleen Byers

Everytime I walk my children to school and get to the corner of Gordon and Dufferin I feel sad.  Kathleen “the Dancing Crossing Guard” no longer belongs to this post and I miss her smile, her positive energy, her stories about her day to day life and her reflections on the neighbourhood.   I caught up with Kathleen at Bivy to find out what she’s been up to since her crossing guard days are over (for now).

■ – Do you mind if I ask you how old you are?

Kathleen Byers – Not at all, I’ll be 66 at Christmas.

■ – How long have you been living in this neighbourhood?

KB – This December the 5th will be 27 years.  When we moved in, the neighbourhood it was all Portuguese. My daughters, I had 3 when we moved in and then had 3 more later. They all wanted to be Portuguese and march in the parades.  Isn’t that adorable?

■ – What year was that?

KB -That happened in 1987, our first spring and summer here.

■ – And at that time it was all Portuguese?

KB – Oh yes! My next door neighbours at the time, Lucy and John raised chickens and rabbits.  Our kids grew up together and my girls got first hand experience in the preparation and cooking of their foods.  We learned about Portuguese culture in many ways, it was different and refreshing.  We still see Lucy and John on occasion, they are grandparents now too!

■ – Well I guess that’s the definition of Toronto. All sorts of cultures learning from each other. You said you have 6 girls?  How was that, raising 6 girls?

■ – Well I loved it.  I think I’m still a kid because I’ve always been about the arts and crafts.    I still have 2 daughters at home.  One of my daughters is a brilliant artist and my other daughter is a recent graduate; she’s an ECE teacher – she’s fabulous!  Anytime she has to do something for the daycare I take part in it.  I say “Let me make this or do that!” It’s kind of fun.  It’s therapy!

■ – It is fun.  For me raising my kids, I try to get in there as much as possible to play with them but I find it hard sometimes to focus on playing because we’re so busy doing other things.

KB – Oh yes, there is always so much to get done!  I homeschooled my three youngest for 2 years and I used to load up the double stroller with the 3 of them; we would have tents and dress up clothes; we would have bonfires in the backyard and play pretend all day.  It was crazy. There are memories of different ways of parenting but I always thought, how am I going to have fun today?

■ – That’s great. I should try to have more fun; I find it hard to let go of the little things sometimes.

KB – Well the tantrums are never fun. I don’t miss that. But I empathize because I know that now if a kid is having a tantrum on the street, and I stop and say hi, the tantrum stops right away.  It takes someone else other than a parent to stop it.  I try to help wherever I can.

■ – Thanks for that, Kathleen. You’re like our neighbourhood superhero or guardian angel. Can I ask you how long were you a crossing guard?

KB – Ten and a half years.  I walked into 14 division to sign up to be a crossing guard and I met Nick Scarangella.  Nick was like an old friend, singing, dancing, a beautiful spirit! That certainly wasn’t like any interview I ever had.  I think we just clicked… I’ll never forget him. I started guarding at Parkdale school from October to December 2003.  I just signed up to be a crossing guard and I got a permanent crossing in 9 days! This happened because the crossing guard at Parkdale had an operation and died. That was so sad.

How I ended up crossing at Dufferin Street was that I knew the crossing guard at Bank and Dufferin because she crossed my older girls.  She said “I’m retiring at Christmas, do you want this corner” and I said “Yeah!, It’s a lot closer than Parkdale.”

■ – What made you decide to start listening to music and dancing while you were helping people cross the road?

KB – Music fills me up like nothing else.  If there is music, I’m going to dance.  I’ve always danced my way through life.  But the dancing at the crosswalk didn’t start until 2010. Prior to that  I did all the lazy things, I brought a chair but I started having problems with my knees because you can’t sit and then jump up without getting up wrong.

People enjoyed the music and would wave… it was fun (and funny)!

■ – I remember crossing with my girls and you would get all sorts of honks from truck drivers.

KB – I had a transport driver from the chocolate factory who would honk and throw me a chocolate bar.

■ – There were many times that you stopped my kids from crossing Dufferin Street when I was behind them.  I always thought that the dancing kept you more alert!

KB – I believe I was more agile and more alert because I watched the road constantly.  I would notice that drivers would slow down so they could have a look; so in essence it was a good safety feature.

■ – Can you tell me the first time you were reprimanded for dancing?

KB – Yes it was onDecember 4th, 2013, the day before my 26th wedding anniversary. I had danced at the crossing 3 ½ years prior to that.  It was a shock and also confusing since the police had made a safety video with me as the dancing crossing guard.  After that I toned back my music and my dancing to a minimum, but still wanted an element of fun.  The beat police loved my energy and cheered me on.  I thought it had all blown over and was no longer an issue.

■ – I remember the day you told me when you were asked to be in the video for The Born Ruffians.  How was that experience?

KB – That was such a surprise to be asked to be part of that!  I got an email from their manager late one Saturday night…the shoot was the next day. It was close by near Ossington and Dundas, then, I asked if I should bring my vest and sign and was told, bring them just for fun.  The music video would be a bunch of dancers, one was the head dancer at Lula Lounge, we’d all dance individually and then they’d put it all together.  I loved the song immediately, so no need for a rehearsal or any choreography, I just winged it!

■ – I was surprised because I thought that you would be a small part of it, but when I watched it, it was just you.

KB – Yes, I didn’t expect that at all, and I was somewhat surprised.  It made me laugh…imagine…a grandmother as the focus in an Indie Music Video.  When I told Damian Abraham (of the band F’d Up) he loved it…he’s one of the parents at The Grove Community School…I crossed his family too.

■ – Well we all miss your energy on the corner.

KB – I miss being there too. I miss the kids…

■ – I’m sure you saw a lot of them grow up.

KB –  I miss the daily interaction and seeing everyone in my community, every day!  I’ll miss the babies who would bring a different toy to show me every day, and the spontaneity of people who would dance it up.  You know, it never really was about me, or the music, or the dancing, it was about connecting with community through fun!

■ – I feel like you saved me last winter because it was so cold and you were a bright spot on the corner.  It must have been really cold for you.

KB – It was the worst winter guarding I’d ever experienced!  I never stopped dancing even in the cold – my boots weighed 7 pounds…each boot was 3 1/2 pounds!  It’s funny, but I would use those boots as part of my workout, LIFT, KICK BACK, LIFT, KICK BACK.  The boots were wonderful and kept my feet toasty warm, like little condos for my feet.

■ – How have you been spending your days since you stopped your gig as a crossing guard?  Are you still dancing?

KB – Well…I have been doing a lot of power walking all over the neighbourhood.  I want to stay healthy and active.  I also have grown to love the fact that I don’t have any schedule, although I am still an early riser!  You know, I never had a break my whole life…about 46 years!  Now I am on my own timetable.

■ – I guess that’s a change from such a strict schedule being at the corner for the morning, then back at lunch, then back in the afternoon for when the kids get out of school.

KB – I made it into a routine.  Even though there was a 2 hour break, I would never really have more than an hour; I would eat and rest, make a playlist…it never felt like work!

■ – For the magazine, I was hoping that you would make a playlist so we could get to hear some of the music you like.

KB – I hope I’m good at that…

■ – Of course you would be. I’ve heard all of your music on the corner.  You seem to really like music.

KB – I love listening to music.  My husband wanted pie one day, so I said I’ll make three apple pies, why make just one?  During the baking, I listened to one of my  brother’s albums.  He was a very successful blues musician, Johnny V. Mills.  I thought…wow, this album is great, but that’s because I really listened.  Sometimes I feel like we often don’t have the time or take time to really listen.

My brother loved making music, he passed away one year ago.  He made a little vignette about the love of the blues and what it meant to him.  At the end of the video he said what he loved was, how he could connect with people through playing music, without physically touching them.  I get that, it makes me cry because it’s so true!  Some performers get so emotional singing you can see what the song means to them. John said it was never about the success of money, but about the honour and the thrill of playing with other musicians!  Isn’t that just great?  I loved this because I learned something new about my brother.  Love what you do!

■ – How is your mother doing?

KB – She’s doing pretty good.  She just turned 91!  Mom often forgets…she’s living in Newmarket now.  My sister-in-law, Mary, made me laugh when we talked about how Mom forgets and how it frustrates my Mom.  Mary said, “Come on Kathleen, we were only ever meant to live to 50 and she’s 91!”

There is an interesting old Portuguese lady who we find to be the funniest person on our street.  She’s tiny, and cute, and full of piss and vinegar!  She will say to my husband, “Are you going to come over for lunch”, and then point to me and say, “Not you!”  She always says “If I don’t come out and laugh, I would die!”

■ – So what’s the future look like for you?

KB – Well it’s nice having this break.  Yes, and I mean break, because I don’t know where the next stage of my life will take me.  My sweetheart is retiring in the New Year and we plan to do some travelling and also spend time with our grandkids.

Anything I do decide to get involved in would have to to be an absolute passion… that’s just the way I am!


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