In 373 AD, St. Jerome went on a pilgrimage to Antioch, where he experienced a profound epiphany. Already a monastic student, Jerome felt the call of God to live a life of strict austerity, renouncing all worldly pleasure and devoting himself exclusively to studying the Holy Bible. After his spiritual awakening, Jerome moved to the Chalcis desert, stripping himself of all desire and surrendering himself wholeheartedly to the Lord. Jerome’s greatest achievement would be his translation of the Bible into Latin, and he lived out his last days in Antioch, the holy site that brought about his great transformation.
More than 1,600 years later, on one of the coldest days in January, I’m making a pilgrimage of my own to Stratford, Ontario to visit Justin Bieber’s childhood hangout spots, as listed in the “Justin’s Stratford” guide at WelcomeToStratford.com.
In January, Stratford hibernates. The theatres are closed. The streets are empty. The Avon River is frozen, and North Shore Park is buried. It snowed a few days ago, and now the snow banks are caked with brownish dirt and smoke. There are clumps of dark slush that splash and dry on the bottom of my pant legs.
Lunch at the Pour House (92 Downie), the sports bar where Justin played pool. The Pour House has changed its name since he was a regular (it was formerly Sid’s Pub), and I wonder if these are the same pool tables as before, or if they were brought in after the redesign. I am confident, however, that the bathroom is the same, and I feel proud when relieving myself that I have shared a urinal with Justin Bieber.
Hours later, doubts arise. The Pour House had two urinals – what if Justin only ever used one? Is it possible that he only ever patronized the one on the left? It is, after all, the closest to the door, and if Justin was eager to return to his game of pool, he may have opted for the one the shortest distance from upstairs.
Or would I have had a more authentic Justin Bieber experience had I stopped outside the Avon Theatre (99 Downie), where he used to busk, before going across the street to the Pour House, where he presumably spent some of his busking money? Or would I have been wise to go to the Pizza Pizza next door instead? It’s not in the guide, but surely Justin must have frequented it, and given its small size, I would have had a greater chance of sitting at a table he favoured. Wouldn’t it be my luck if the Pizza Pizza actually turned out to be where the great heartbreak that inspired so many of his songs took place? And he was like “baby, baby, baby, noooo…”
I try to console myself by heading to the bathroom at William Allman Memorial Arena (25 Morenz Dr.), but am dismayed to find at least eight different urinals, side by side. I opt for the one third from the right, and pray.
It’s a long walk to Stratford Northwest Public and Secondary Schools (428 Foreman), where Justin had his education and where many of his classmates can still be found. The cold is intense – the kind of cold that seeps through your pants and numbs your lower half. I walk a few kilometres on snow that has hardened into chunky little clumps from so much trampling. The tips of my ears begin to hurt, and I stop to cover them with my gloves. I wish the Stratford Tourism Committee would be courteous enough to move Justin’s boyhood schools a little closer to the downtown.
These red-bricked, windowless buildings look so similar to Martingrove Collegiate, my own high school in Etobicoke. I used to know each and every house, field, apartment building, fast food restaurant, and grocery store within maybe a five-mile radius of that place. The Stratford guide cites Madelyn’s Diner (377 Huron) as the Biebers’ favourite family restaurant, but how often did they go to the Tim Horton’s down the block, or the Mac’s across the street, or even the funeral home next door? He must have seen them every day. It seems unreal that the most famous teenager in the world knew these crummy places so intimately.
I try to jump a snow bank to cross the street, but don’t make it. The snow melts down my shoes.
Sometimes during Catholic mass, the Priest goes down the aisle and sprinkles holy water on the audience. One time during my childhood I didn’t feel any of the water hit me, and I started to hyperventilate. When, if ever, would I ever have another chance to make such a connection with God?
First Communion provoked similar feelings. The reason we weren’t allowed the communion wafers until we were eight years old, said Father Reeves, is because only then would we be responsible enough to be entrusted with the Body of Christ. This bread was no metaphor – it was Jesus himself, brought to us through the miracle of transubstantiation. Given the extraordinary privilege of receiving Christ, we were to treat Communion with respect, placing the wafer on our tongues, not biting it, and letting it melt before swallowing. I was terrified of accidentally chewing a bit of the Body of Christ and, if I ever did, I would say a prayer for forgiveness.
Also during my childhood, I was awed when one of my parents’ friends told me that John Candy had filmed a movie at his office – and, moreover, pooed in the office toilet. I asked why he had not considered preserving the poo, perhaps to be bronzed or, at the very least, vacuum-sealed. I don’t recall his answer.
After visiting the schools, I head to City Hall (1 Wellington), on whose steps “Justin performed his first-ever recorded song at a CD release concert for a locally-made CD […] to support the House of Blessing Food Bank.” I spend about twenty minutes on the steps, and ask someone to take my picture. I pose like I’m singing.
Dinner at King’s Buffet (1010 Ontario), the site of Justin’s first date. “All was not blissful as he spilled spaghetti and meatballs all over himself and the pair did not date again,” says the guide. I am unable to find the alleged spaghetti and meatballs, so I settle on egg noodles with sweet and sour sauce. He used to eat here, I guess, but I don’t quite believe it. How could that famous boy with the high-pitched voice and all those YouTube viewers who’s always hanging around with Usher have had his first date at King’s Buffet?
I’ve been to Stratford many times. Maybe I saw him once. He could have been any little boy. Somehow that doesn’t seem possible. He’s Justin Bieber™.