Greed, grit and the triumph of civilization at the corner of Yonge and Bloor 

If you were watching the news on Nov. 13, you may have caught the weirdness: a near riot outside the Yonge and Bloor sales centre of the condo tower to be built at 1 Bloor E., as a mob of roughly 300 people jockeyed for position. Scruffy-­looking young people stood on chairs chanting “Go by The List! Go by The List!” Police milled around looking to maintain order. Kathy Kalina and Nadine Robbins, two la-di-da real estate agents from central casting (Robbins even had a tiny dog in her purse) were defiant for the cameras about their right to jump the queue — which had formed eight days earlier in anticipation of the agents-only launch. And then the pièce de résistance: a worker for the 1 Bloor developers climbed a ladder amid the fray to unfurl a banner changing a sign that had read “From the $300,000s to over $2 million” so it now read “From $500,000 to over $8 million.”

All this in the shadow of a looming US recession spurned by a real-estate crisis — this fuss to pay $1,000 or more per square foot for teensy apartments in a tower that won’t be built until at least 2011, a tower that’s currently proposed to be 20 storeys taller than current city zoning will allow. The message was obvious: the Toronto real-estate market has gone batshit crazy.

Which may be true. But if you talk to those who’d been camping out for a week in the cold and rain to be at the front of the line, a different story emerges, a story about strangers bonding and getting along in odd circumstances. According to the soggy, groggy condo campers, the moral of that story is — ready for this? — the triumph of order over chaos and principle over greed. Now we’re talking crazy.

Exhibit A for the human angle is Monica Geiman, the young woman you may have seen on the news standing on a chair, pumping her fist and chanting. A between-jobs retail clerk who lives with her parents in Thornhill and is planning, at 23 years old, to go back to university in the fall, Geiman was one of the original crew of 15 who arrived more than a week earlier to occupy the first 11 spots in line on behalf of real estate agents Hersch Litvack and Anna Cass.

Geiman’s friends wouldn’t have guessed that she’d last out there — she isn’t the kind of girl who’s keen on going without showers or wearing the same clothes for days on end. By her own admission, bad as it sounds, she’s kind of spoiled.

But she’s pals with David James, whose mother works with Litvack, and James was the ringleader of the original crew, mostly old friends from high school and elementary school rounded up for extra cash and a bit of adventure. Geiman earned enough to go shopping in Buffalo, take her boyfriend on a cruise and make some car payments, and she had a once-in-a-lifetime experience to boot.
For her and the rest of Litvack’s crew, every comfort, under the circumstances, was extended: they had a hotel room across the street at the Marriott, where they took turns sleeping in shifts (there were 15 of them holding 11 spots — don’t ask about the state of the room after eight days), they had sleeping bags, propane heat lamps, a daily allowance for food and coffee, ponchos and tarps. All in addition to payment, which varied, but the going rate was $250 per day. You gotta figure Litvack and his people spent more than $40,000.

Which is not to say it was easy. In fact, on day three, Geiman broke down and cried and thought about quitting, but a bit of rest set her straight and, five days later, she was standing on a chair chanting “Go by The List!”

Geiman’s was to be the keeper of The List. On the first night, the people behind Litvack’s group in line — young agents Yoon Hyun Choi and Winston Mak from Homelife, out on their own behalf — started offering tips from their experience in the condo wars. Those at the front of the line, they said, had to create a system to maintain order for the group. By then there were 90 people there.
The List was born to allow for some order (and some rest): people had to show up for a roll call (every two hours between 8am and 6pm, every three hours till midnight, and then again at 4am) to maintain their spot on The List, and otherwise they could roam for coffee or naps or washroom breaks. And since David James was busy managing his crew — making schedules, handling complaints with a roll of his eyes, managing money and brokering supplies — Geiman kept The List.

Adam Szalai, a 26-year-old film production worker, meanwhile, did what he does, which is help manage the production. He talked to the media and helped people negotiate their spots on The List and generally worked to maintain order. And, according to Szalai, a whole system developed by collective consent. There were five rules that emerged from the line’s spontaneous democracy:
1. You cannot be late for roll call or you lose your spot.
2. One person in line represents one agent. No holding multiple spots.
3. You cannot sell your spot in line. (Szalai was offered $8,000 for his spot at one point.)
4. Agents can switch representatives, but a representative cannot give their spot in line to a new agent.
5. No agent, no holding a spot.

The last three rules are just different ways of saying the same thing, but they were making these up as they went along and crossing bridges as they came to them. Everyone knew there were millions of dollars at stake for the agents, and everyone was together in being out on the street putting up with crap, getting hassled by crack addicts and passing drunks at night and looked down upon by businesspeople during the day (“who thought we were skeevy, homeless glue sniffers,” Szalai says). So everyone respected the rules. Mostly.

There was the time when a homeless guy, reportedly getting paid only $80 a day (which Geiman says is sad and as Szalai points out, in protecting-your-investment terms, is just stupid) missed a roll call and got sent to the end of the line. The agent paying him rolled up and double-parked his Audi, and, a walking stereotype of sleaze — with an exposed hairy chest and gold chains and sharkskin shoes — started threatening the girl at the front of the line maintaining The List. The pay-duty cop stepped in and told the guy to step off. And there: the law was respecting the line’s authority to self-regulate.

There was at least one exception. Johnny was a paraplegic man representing an agent. No one’s saying for sure that Johnny was homeless, but he hadn’t caught a lot of breaks in his life, and you could see in his eyes that this money he was making was everything to him. He stood out there night and day and never missed a roll call. Until one 4am when Szalai was heading for Timmy’s for a coffee and saw — this was like 4:03 — Johnny running as fast as he could on his canes, trying to make the line, trembling with tears in his eyes at the thought that everything he had worked for was going to be lost because he’d drifted off trying to get warm over a coffee. Szalai turned and ran as fast as he could to get back to the line, to tell Monica and everyone else that Johnny was there and should be marked present. “I would have argued to the death with anyone in that line who challenged me that that guy didn’t have the right to be there,” Szalai says.  

And, of course, there were other sad stories. David Chesney was hired by some guy on craigslist and sat out there in the street for seven days. The agent he was supposedly representing turned out never to have heard of him. He got nothing — he’d been promised $2,000 — and is planning to file a lawsuit.

But see, for the overwhelming part, The List was respected and enforced by group consensus.

Until, that is, the morning of the day the sales office was to open. That’s when the builders said they didn’t know anything about any list and were planning to serve people first come, first served. And those two defiant women on the news, Kalina and Robbins, marched to the front of the line at 6am, hours before the scheduled roll call.

But here’s what happened while the TV news cameras and the police prepared for a riot: Litvack and Szalai and the police and building security had a meeting and, it was decided, The List would be respected. The builders agreed.

The crowd outside burst into applause at the news, and Geiman — in her car on her way home, under the impression The List had been tossed and her hard work calling names 10 times a day and helping enforce rules was to be for nothing — got a call on her cellphone to return to help put people in order. Even Kalina and Robbins, who’d had representatives in line for them the entire time got to keep their places in line. Democracy ruled the day.

“I loved it,” Szalai says, “I loved every minute of it. What’s so great about this story is that the good guys won. And the bad guys lost. All the way through.”

And, while the people of the line went home and rested and formed a Facebook group to keep in touch after this strange, momentous event — like kids after summer camp — the batshit craziness took over again. On Nov. 17, it was reported that the penthouse apartment had sold for $25 million to a foreign businessman, who, of course, never had to wait in line. It was the most expensive condo sale in Canadian history. 

Originally published November 21, 2007 in Eye Weekly.