Sunday, November 12, 2006


[photo credit: green toronto, 17 june 2005, by Sam Javanrouh]




This Was My Yesterday: One Quarter and the Torontos

I didn't intend for any of it to happen. There was nothing planned. I was standing by my window, trying to call Dutton, when I saw a little yellow ticket peeking out from the window of my car. It hit me: the first of June. My permit expired eleven hours ago. Shit. I hung up the phone, grabbed the car keys (on a separate ring, buried in pants in ‘the obscure’ corner of the room) and the updated pass that I had forgotten to apply. Ran downstairs.

I passed the outside door, and let my fingers drag against it, thinking abstractly of our cats. I hit the stairs and heard the terrible click behind me and knew that I was locked out. I got to the car (no ticket, thank god), and put on the new permit. Came back to start thinking. I was in shorts and a t-shirt and indoor sandals. I tried the door, but it was indeed locked and I without keys. Shit. I checked my pockets to see what I had: one quarter, one pen. By chance, there was a discarded shopping list pad in our front room solarium thing so I grabbed that, then looked over at my bike.

For some reason, ahem, it was unlocked. Just sitting there. Waiting. It was a sign. Well, Lisa was gone, off to work for the day. I couldn't exactly ask her to make the 50 minute trek each way just to let me in. I had one quarter, writing tools, and a bike. I had until 6pm, with no chance of doing any work. Perfect, I thought. Then it started to rain.

Undaunted, I peddled over to Dutton's place and passed on my message. He invited me in for the day (laughing mercilessly at my self-inflicted misfortune), but I declined. It was the bike I was serving. My Trek 520, 1999 special, with every component replaced by a cheaper variant as bits and pieces had fallen off over the years. The pedals had bent in the middle, curled into jutting jays, and had been replaced by a $5 used set. Same with the seat, the chain, the brakes, the tires, the crank set, and pretty much everything else but the fading frame: a frankenbike salvaged by the refuse of other corpses. And like Shelley’s monster, it has no name. The rusting handlebar curved in at least three different directions and the handgrips behaved like a motorcycle and twisted when you accelerated.

I like biking. And I especially like biking through a city. Walking has more intimacy with the street culture, but you are so limited in terms of scope (besides, I have terrible feet and can only stand for an hour or so without severe discomfort). Driving, at the other extreme, lets you cover more geography but with such an abstracted distance that the world becomes a jumbled, disorganized blur. On a bike, you can smell the scents of the streets, hear conversations, have conversations easily, and yet cover massive terrain. Biking is a noun-turned-verb that seems to do the same to the city; keeps its vitality and organic movement (its verbdom) while passing through its factuality, its being as noun.

I set off in the drizzle, down Dovercourt, through Liberty Village, to the Music Park, the musical garden by the lake. For some reason, I had thought this was designed by Janet Cardiff, but it seems that it was a Yo Yo Ma project. You need to rent headphones to get the effect, and I still only had a quarter. I biked over to the Leslie Spit but it was too cool to dare and I redirected over towards the waterworks. I passed Keating Channel, the Docks, the abandoned ramp to the lakeshore Gardiner standing like ancient relics of a forgotten civilization. I saw loons to the south of Coxwell, passed endless fields of green and brown spaces. Ashbridges Bay, and I paused to explore the RC Harris Water Filtration plant, made famous by Ondaatje.

The building reminds me of the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge. Psychologically, from this direction, it signifies the end of the desolate waterfront. So many thoughtless spaces, characterised by function and inattention. There is one squat red brick building with a smokestack that towers and dwarfs it. How does one get a smokestack in this city? What does one use a smokestack for, with just a small red building to feed it? In any event, it didn’t look active.

Despite the temperature and the rain, women in bikinis were playing volleyball on the Beach, in front of the chirpy sanfran townhouses. I turned off Lakshore, up to Queen, through another one of the city’s downtowns. Every time I’ve come down this way, I’ve loved and admired the Beaches neighbourhood – a funky village, really – but yet, I rarely come down this far, and always feel like I’m visiting a different city. Though it is the same Queen Street, I sort of feel like I’m closer to Kingston than to Euclid. It isn’t a question of kilometres.

Jig and jagging up to Kingston Road, strips and straps of stores and shops. Homes and fields, parks and schools. The Hunt Club where my mom just got re-married a year ago Sunday. As I pass the white stucco buildings of St. Theresa’s Parish and the rolling campus of St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, it feels like I’ve entered a religious district. The next building to see is the Scarboro Mission (why not Scarborough? I don’t know), which seems to confirm the sentiment. I’ve lost direction, lost focus for the trip. I’m just biking now, in new territory. As I enter into the “Cliffside Village,” I realize I’m probably pretty close to the Scarborough Bluffs and start looking out for them.

I pass the Americana Inn, the Hav-a-nap Hotel, and the Royal Inn all clustered together uncomfortably. They all advertise cheap sleep and “color tv” -- reminding me of an old poem I wrote in defence of Canadian spelling:

they take you

out of colour

leave you

black and white

It seems I missed the dedication ceremony for the Veteran’s Wall of Remembrance by a day. I stop somebody in front of a building that says “BAR” and ask about the Bluffs. He looks confused and I smell alcohol. It is still raining and he doesn’t like standing around talking, although before I stopped, he was just standing around. He thought it was up that way. I go up that way and hit St. Clair East. A worker in overalls says its back that way. I ask him if they are worth checking out, and he says, “Fuck yeah. They’re gorgeous.” I go back that way. The guy at “BAR” is still standing there, sees me coming and ducks back into the open door. I catch him peeping out as I pass. This time, coming from this direction, I notice a green sign reading “Bluffers Park” directly in front of “BAR”. I turn down Brimly Road and start a rapid descent.

This is no descent into hell. For a biker, it’s more often that the ascent is the hellish bit. Despite the rain, this is great. My cheap replacement brakes are straining, but I can feel the wind flushing out my stupid grin. It’s a long way down through a “gorgeous” valley. I have the thought that if there were bugs, I would need sunglasses, but there are no bugs yet at this point in the season. The park itself is stunning, and the wrinkled mud faces of the Bluffs look like desert hoodoos. It’s at that point I realize that the “Cliffside Village” had the feel of many of the small towns in Alberta I’ve seen: wide streets and romantic murals of horses and trains and open spaces. I’m still in Toronto though. I use the washroom and pass a wall inscribed with “muSLIM SLIM SLIM SLIM” written at least a thousand times. The hidden word game here reminded me of a scary moment I had the other day walking down College and misreading the word “Therapist” on a poster as “The rapist.” I had recently read an essay against the sexual politics of Freud and for that moment it all seemed so painfully obvious. I tried to think if my muslim friends were notably skinny, but quickly gave up. It had stopped raining and I had a massive hill to climb.

It wasn’t that bad – but I started sweating worse than the rain. I let myself go ridiculously slow – the same speed as the students from Cardinal Newman who seemed to pop up at random in the overgrown grass hills. I don’t think I’ve ever biked in 1-1 gear before, the (s)lowest I could possible go.

Back up on top, I time checked in a 1:45. I still had 4 hours. Without direction, I headed north, loosely intending to visit my brother and family, though fully expecting them to be out. I took Danforth Road up to Lawrence, over to Markham, to Orton Park, past Botany Park with its dire “WARNING SKIING TOBOGGANING HAZARDOUS” signs. Down into the Rouge Valley and up the endless slope on the other side. I kept thinking, looking down into the lush valley, that I would like a poem or a story for every such nook in the city. Ellesmere to Nielson, Nielson to Keeler, Keeler to Edenmills. Knock on door.

Strangely, the whole family was home in the afternoon, and embraced my weary wet corpse. It just so happened that I arrived at “M&m Cookie Time” which was the highlight of the trip. I sat down to play cards, a mean game of crazy 8s, with my niece, and munched on an Almond butter and banana sandwich (the kids squealed when they saw that I had put my cookie in the sandwich. What can I say – it was good!). They don’t have peanut butter in the house because of allergies, which they say is triggered by pesticides: welcome to the new suburban reality. Three glasses of water later, I set out to set out, noticing that it was raining once again. I called Lisa’s cell – turns out she was at home the whole time. Had gone down to the subway, but there was an explosion one stop up, so had come home right away. We had missed each other by minutes.

Biking home was straight and quicker – about an hour and forty-five minutes. I passed countless malls, strip malls, ravines, and one barren field with over one thousand pigeons. At the centre of the bird cluster stood a dignified duck, as if mallard was a synonym for majesty. One intersection, which I think was at O’Connor and Pharmacy, had a little strip mall with 8 or 9 stores. As I was in the heart of Scarberia, the diversity of the stores caught me off guard: I remember a Japanese fish market, a Chinese restaurant, a Halal meat shop, a “Manilleonese” grocery store, and a Jamaican rotis snack shop. America was represented across the street in a block-long Business Depot, overshadowing the line of foods from the world. There is some metaphor in that I won’t bother working out here.

I realized at this point though, that while I was still in Toronto, that word doesn’t make sense of the divergent spaces that exist across the region. People live their entire lives out here without needing or wanting the downtown core, which defines my Toronto, my quarter. Lisa and I had visited a crazy new mall up in North York last week, and witnessed it as a kind of fulfillment of a suburban spatial ideal: it was packed, electric, and flashy. Kids revelled in the superficial glow, smoking joints in Mel Lastman Square, allowing Hollywood a total kind of sense. Biking through the different Toronto of O’Connor and St. Clair East, not to mention all that I had already seen that day, I made the leap to reject the idea of a Toronto in favour of the Torontos. A wave of soft resentment came to my lips as I thought of all the sentences I had heard, many from my various Vancouver friends, that began “Toronto is just…” Toronto isn’t just anything. It is a giant collection of paradoxes; frustrating if you hope to reconcile them, fascinating to explore.

Down to the Danforth (which, it seems has nothing to do with the other Danforth Road I was on earlier) and across the viaduct – completing the Ondaatje tour, I suppose. As I crossed the bridge, a raging sun came out from behind a cloud and hit me like a smack. Suddenly I became conscious that my butt was numb, my wrists were sore, my neck was cramped, and I was starving again. I got home at 5:30, showered, and Lisa and I dashed up to St. Clair (West) for some dinner gorging and beer. She couldn’t believe me, but when we got back home and saw that I had forgotten to lock my bike again, it all seemed to make sense. In my pocket, I still had my one quarter.

Total Travel Time: just under 6 hours

Total Distance (based on a rough re-mapping through Google maps): 67 kilometres, the second longest bike-ride of my life.

1 Comments:

Blogger Jon said...

Great narrative here... love the detail of the cookie in the sandwich... small things like that always make a story come to life for me...

And it sounds like a hell of a day!

11:42 PM  

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