By Adrian Bueno

A low key section within a 50-year-old shopping centre has become a favourite hangout spot for some of the community.

The bell at Marc Garneau Collegiate rings at 3:15 p.m., and it’s time for Ameer Salem to hunker down. He’s not the most popular at his high school, so he escapes to shoot the shit with his real friends from neighbouring “Flemmo” – Flemingdon Park.

As the 100 bus rumbles towards the curb, Ameer slips past the “fakes” and the “fuck boys” at the front, rattling a handful of nickels and dimes, struts in like he actually paid and hunts down a seat before the space engulfs in a sea of backpacks.

East York Town Centre is the stop, and he’s smirking all the way down knowing something is brewing inside. Ameer’s group hangs out around the massage chairs by the cell phone booth, camping out til shops shutter down their gates.

Most of the time, the section is prime real estate for snoozing seniors, and miserable husbands waiting eternities, but for whatever reason, on Fridays around 3:20 p.m., the seats are always available, as if they were designated for Ameer and his group.

Glossy black leather, polished mahogany arm handles, cushions indented from the countless butts and heads pressed up against them. Dollar coin inserts situated in between, and a large sign entitled “SHIATSU MASSAGE” listing rules of “how to use” hides in the corner. It’s the perfect setting for a band of malls rats playing another round of “truth or dare,” or in Ameer’s case, a hybrid version, where it’s really only dare or dare, and money is on the line for more extreme actions.

The security guards all know the group by name, shop owners have banned some of them from stores and the mall regulars they recognize stay far away. The mall is like a playground of pawns, and they operate it all from the massage chairs.

Today, Ameer doesn’t play around anymore. We’re seven years later, and the former goon has a full beard, sports Polo Ralph Lauren and is graduating from George Brown’s marketing program this spring. He promotes a collective of rappers that he grew up with, connecting them to club promoters, and collecting a small cut for managing them. His phone blares out trendy trap beats with his friend’s voice dubbed over.  “That’s my boy,” he says. “Go check his soundcloud.” Ameer still finds time to stop by the mall once in a while for a crispy chicken tender combo from Chester’s with a samosa and Sprite on the side. He returns to the same seats where he and his “Flemmo fam” would “shoot the shit” over the “sweeties” in school, the money they were raking in from small-time drug deals and the overly greasy chicken he always ordered. One of his friends prepares a joint while Ameer reflects on their go-to spot.

“It’s pretty crazy looking back at what we used to do here. I don’t think any of us ever put a dollar in these things…”

(RSJ/Adrian Bueno)

As Ameer and his group have grown out of their former routine, others continue to build time around the chair. On a chilly Saturday morning, two middle aged men clasp their warm coffee cups with both hands, rushing away from pelting flurries and the whirly sharp winds. They jog to the doors of East York Town Centre, and breathe a sigh of relief. One of their dark brown hands, ashed and cracked, plays a tug of war with the wind, pulling hard to pry the doors open. The two are definitely not from here, and look worried about being outside for too long. But once they’re inside, the stress is brushed off like the snow on their shoulders.

Sunny and Hamed* prefer to meet at the massage chairs on Saturday mornings to discuss their families, the news and what’s going on back home in Bangladesh. What actually happens is a symphony of bengali curse words and lots of groaning. They both work telemarketing jobs, and don’t know when to put it down. Sunny is more casual, frequently flailing his hands to hammer his points, and makes full use of the comfort of the chair. Hamed is straight business – little emotion, stiff as a board, only occasionally crossing his legs, and is surgical with his comebacks.

“We talk over coffee like this [ever] since my brother introduced me to Sunny last year,” says Hamed. “He [was] my guide around Toronto and Canada when I got here. Now he’s my best friend.”

Hamed loosens up, and is especially taken aback by what he just heard, smacking his shaking head. “Oh my god, this guy… this guy…” He lies back to concoct a rebuttal, still visibly in disbelief at what Sunny just said.

“It’s perfect here to talk,” adds Sunny. “Very comfortable!”

On a Monday afternoon, an elderly filipino man tries to catch a nap on one of the chairs. He frequently wanders to the massage chairs to spend time waiting for his wife and daughter to finish grocery shopping. Inserting two dollars for an extended, more “premium” rubdown, he plugs in his earbuds and is usually found by his family to be passed out when they finish.

“[I’m] always waiting, too long” he jokes.

The next afternoon, Tito is there napping once again, while Ameer and company plan for the night.

Back in the day, Ameer cracks that “anybody sleeping on a chair when we fucked around was finished,”

The group recalls the moment when Ameer emptied a mayonnaise packet and leftover grease from a chicken combo onto an elderly man’s crotch. The concoction they called the “moisturizer” was slipped onto each of the man’s finger tips. While reaching for an itch, he unknowingly smeared the oily substance was smeared on his face. The man moaned in confusion behind a chorus of snickers as Ameer pocketed a ten dollar bill.

The group claim they don’t play around like this anymore. For the time being, Tito’s beauty nap is safe.

Check out this video on another popular hangout spot in Thorncliffe Park:

*Names have been changed

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