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The greatest Priolo that ever lived

Carmin Priolo is a star prize for a horoscope writer.

He was born the day Nazi Germany signed its surrender: May 7, 1945. When his father drove to the hospital, people jumped on his car and yelled, “Peace! The war is over!”

“Everyone said, ‘You’re destined to be great,’” Priolo says, shaking ice in his lemonade inside a Beach coffee shop.

“’You’re going to be the greatest Priolo that ever lived.’”

Cartoonist, song writer, and keen-eyed Toronto observer Carmin Priolo relaxes outside a coffee shop on Queen Street East. PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Cartoonist, song writer, and keen-eyed Toronto observer Carmin Priolo relaxes outside a coffee shop on Queen Street East.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Priolo is not great at money, or power.

As a young man, he dropped philosophy at the University of Toronto (“That and a loonie will get you a coffee,” his uncle joked) and started driving a cab.

He drove half a million miles over the next 15 years, but never had much in the bank. He lived in some tough places.

“I met everybody – cabinet ministers and movie stars to people who robbed me, held a gun to my head,” he said.

Instead the self-taught pianist hammered out Berkley Street Blues, a song about crack cocaine in one of his former haunts.

Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito called the tune “a minor modern masterpiece.”

As for power, Priolo did once get a seat at a G7 summit – a spectator seat.  It was 1988, when he was living above the Rex Hotel jazz bar and writing a humour column, unpaid, for the Toronto Voice.

He convinced the Voice editor to get him a media pass. They got a desk between the London Times and the Washington Post, and Priolo saw the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl.

“I was sitting from me to you from Kissinger,” he said, grinning, then sitting up serious to impersonate the former US diplomat.

“He wore a robin-egg blue suit, very distinguished.”

Priolo tried to get Rex owner Bob Ross to throw a G7 party, to welcome such luminaries into the real Toronto, and hear some of its jazz.

Sadly, no Kissinger-Thatcher-Mulroney trio was in the cards.

“Carmin, you’re so damned eccentric,” Ross used to tell him. On the Priolo family tree, Ross would say, Carmin’s branch was growing in the window.

But maybe that’s where Priolo’s greatness lies. Living just outside the norm, he pokes fun at what he sees inside.

A few years ago, Priolo ran for city council as a fringe candidate with a single issue – making pianos as public as city parks or baseball diamonds.

Torontonians can find a piano in the Parliament Street library, and another in a St. Clair Avenue Loblaw. The Reference Library has two keyboards, though Priolo says they were broken last he looked.

Priolo said other places, like Hart House at the U of T, have pianos that only people with formal music training can play.

“What’s the big deal?” he said. “Can you imagine this – Queen Elizabeth comes, and she wants to play the piano. They’ll say, ‘Listen your Majesty, do you have Grade 10 Conservatory?”

“’Well, I just want to play Penny Lane.’”

“’Well, no, it’s not possible. The Queen can’t be breaking the rules.’”

Priolo never got a council seat, but his plea for free pianos and a Toronto songwriter’s district didn’t fall on deaf ears. Inspired in part by Priolo’s suggestion, councillor Joe Pantalone organized a Toronto song contest that drew some 500 entries and ended with the winner’s performance at the CNE.

But Priolo is less than enthused by the result.

“So there’s 500 songs about Toronto,” he said. “Can you name one?”

The trouble is, he said, all those songs, even the good ones, were booster pieces. But Priolo says the city songs people remember are ones like I Left My Heart in San Francisco.

To pick another star-crossed date in Priolo’s life, both his first and second moves in the Beach fell on April Fool’s.

First he rented a suite in one of the million-dollar homes on Nursewood Avenue. It was a world away from Berkley Street, or his old digs above Jilly’s Tavern.

“You wake up and you can see all the shoreline out to Scarborough, as if you were the first French explorer here,” he said.

And on the street, Priolo saw more people eating ice cream than he’d ever seen in his life, all thanks to Ed’s Real Scoop.

“I was addicted to it,” he said. “I had to go in just about every night.”

Besides songwriting and an occasional comedy sketch, Priolo likes to draw New Yorker-style cartoons to capture the Toronto he sees.

Image courtesy Carmin Priolo

A page from Carmin Priolo's sketchbook shows the poise of Beach yoga enthusiasts.

Ed’s has figured big in Priolo’s cartoons ever since he moved to Nursewood then up to his current home in a Woodbine seniors’ residence. Besides the ice cream, Priolo enjoys Ed’s motto: “Make ice cream, not war.”

“I don’t consider myself an artist,” he said, flipping through more cartoons that show yoga on the beach and a short history of the bikini.

“They’re just things so I can get through the day.”

Priolo brought up a quote from Don Quixote. It was on the tip of his tongue, he said. Something about battling melancholy.

Here’s how Cervantes put it:

“The greatest madness a man can be guilty of in this life, is to let himself die outright, without being slain by any person whatever, or destroyed by any other weapon, than the hands of melancholy.”

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