Anyone who dropped by the Coxwell Coin Laundry on Mike Burca’s last day got an extra welcome scent at the door – warm laundry and vanilla cake.
Inside, old friends and regulars were chatting with Mike by the front window, not minding at all the whirring dryers nor the people who crossed the blue and white-checker floor to drop off a load.
It was the start of a big week for Mike, who retired from the laundry last Friday, six years after he decided, at age 80, to pick up a part-time job.
The job came with an unbeatable commute – since 1967, Mike and his wife Cathy have lived in the apartment upstairs.
“His great line earlier this week was, ‘I hate moving,’” said Ken Dodd, owner of the laundromat and the man responsible for the chipper ‘Cleanliness is Next to Godliness’ sign hanging nearby.
“I said, ‘Mike, you haven’t done this in 45 years!”
If Mike Burca is a creature of habit – his daughter Michelle says he and Cathy have done their own laundry at 7 a.m. Wednesdays for as long as she can remember – it might be because his early years had so many tumbles.
Born in Chicago, Mike is a Romanian who grew up in Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Scotland before he started a new life in Canada at 33.
He speaks English, French, Romanian and enough Arabic to greet people in Toronto with an as-salamu alaykum that he first heard on the streets of Cairo.
“It’s a long story,” he says.
Mike’s father was a Romanian diplomat, a vice-consul. Mike was nine when his dad was posted to Alexandria – a “wonderful” city where Mike went to a French school, played soccer and remembers placing first or second in sprint races.
But in 1940, after they had moved to Cairo, Mike’s father defected from Romania, which was occupied that summer by the Soviet Union and then by Nazi Germany.
He joined the Allies as a French-German translator, and for the next six years, they moved with the Allied Forces from Palestine to Israel, Syria to Lebanon.
“He returned back to Romania in 1946, when things started to turn bad,” Mike said.
“We didn’t know what was going on – everything was kept so secret.”
What was going on was a shift to a Soviet state with one of the largest secret police forces in the Eastern bloc.
“In 1948, that’s it,” Mike said. “Nobody could get out. My mother was lucky – my father told her to leave three months before.”
Mike spent the next two and a half years in a labour camp. His father died at 64, of pneumonia. It was 1962 before he saw his mother again, in London, Ontario, after five years of filing papers with a Romanian government that refused to let him go.
“I didn’t like that city,” he said, chuckling. “People talk too much. Everybody knows everything about you.”
Mike also didn’t last long at his first job in Canada – for just two days, he reset pins in a bowling alley.
“You had to jump up and down, up and down,” he said. “My hips – oh!”
In Toronto, Mike found a maintenance job at the YMCA, where he helped set up catered parties.
Later, a friend of his brother, from Madeira, got him a job waiting tables at the Imperial Room – then under the sway of Louis Janetta, “matre d’ to the stars.”
It was a different era, riding a streetcar to the hotel, back when Toronto was “the city that works.”
“When you went in the morning around six o’clock, the streetcar would go – whoosh! From here to Broadview, you were lucky if you stopped twice.”
His first stop was always a bakery by the Eaton Centre fountain.
“They used to make beautiful croissants,” he said. “Between ten after six and a quarter after six, I was always there for a coffee and a croissant.”
After the Imperial Room, Mike settled into 31 years of service at the Holiday Inn on Chestnut Street behind city hall. The ownership changed towards the end, he said, but the staff were tightly knit.
There and at the Imperial, Mike met actors like Mickey Rooney, Tony Randall and Joseph Cotton, best known for roles in Orson Welles’ classics like Citizen Kane and The Third Man.
He met Ontario Premier John Robarts, and saw Pierre Trudeau flanked by RCMP. He saw singers like Rita MacNeil, Sonny and Cher and Rosemary Clooney, the aunt of George Clooney and co-star of White Christmas who had “a beautiful voice,” Mike said.
But the real star in Mike’s life was Cathy, a Scottish girl he met through mutual friends at the Saturday Nighters dance club at Yonge and Dundas. Long after they were married, the pair were regulars at the 30-Up Club, a dance club on Richmond Street that was meant for thirtysomething singles until 1988, when they decided to invite couples because so many members had got married.
“They can just tear up the dance floor,” says Michelle.
“At every celebration, they were always first on the dance floor. It was like, ‘Get out of my way!’”
Besides giving her dance lessons, and letting her roller skate on the tiled floor of the laundromat downstairs, Michelle said that growing up, her dad got the Holiday Inn chefs to make her gigantic birthday cakes for school.
“It was always the biggest cake you could imagine,” she said. “Half the school could have a piece.”
As he and Cathy settle into their new apartment at a nearby residence for independent seniors, Mike will have a housewarming gift to satisfy the well-known sweet tooth he may well have developed eating croissants as a boy in Lebanon.
Tom Nolan, who got to know Mike while washing his construction clothes (“I get so dusty I can barely wear something twice,” he says), came to his retirement party last Friday with a jar of honey made by the bees he keeps on a small farm south of Lake Simcoe.
“For a sweet rest,” he said.