Approaching Toronto, pre-winter

(having just read Erik Rutherford’s very interesting piece about Toronto in uTOpia, I recalled my own account of encountering Toronto, written some years ago for Geist 51. It was called Other City, Big City)

On the last day of October in Toronto a man in an art gallery said: “Showers should be coming in around 4 p.m. They don’t always get it down to the hour like that.” He was talking about the weather report on the radio. “The last real winter we had here was 1993,” he said. “Most people in this city don’t know what winter is. Ninety-two was big, but it was nothing. No one has any idea.” I was not from Toronto and I had never been there in the winter, so I couldn’t be faulted for not knowing what real winter is in Toronto. Nevertheless I could see that knowing what real winter is would be a sign of belonging, of having a deeper claim on a city that lies open but veiled before the visitor or even the less well-informed resident. There could be no argument with the man in the art gallery, who was profoundly a denizen of the city, an indweller of a place; his easy confidence allowed me to glimpse my own status as an outsider. In a new city, everyone you meet partakes of this quality of the denizen, of the holder of a secret: they deport themselves “naturally” without apparent self-consciousness, crossing streets and walking along sidewalks, rather as children in Quebec are able (miraculously) to speak French without having to think about it. The man in the art gallery was also making a kind of promise: the city has a heart, he seemed to be saying, an underlying truth that can be imputed, inferred, derived, deduced, if not embraced.

For is it not true that we wish to be loved by cities, to be claimed and to be wooed by them, as soon as we enter their precincts? (Is this not the danger of cities?) I had been in Toronto for a single day and could still detect the aura that clings to the merest details of cities when they are new (or is newfangled a better word?): street signs are cast in a peculiar typeface and placed in odd positions at intersections; corner grocery stores have a more crumpled look than in the city we know as home; even cartons of milk are of an unusual colour and everywhere there are election signs (it was Halloween and the civic election campaign was underway) propped in shop windows and stuck on lawns: yellow, blue, red, green, a spectrum of meanings withheld from the outsider, hidden away in banal slogans: A Strong Voice, Experience that Works, The City Needs It, A Proven Record: messages encoded in the local, indecipherable to the outsider. Indeed, in new cities everything partakes of the exotic. The seats on the streetcars are inches lower than the seats on the buses at home: upon first sitting down, one falls into the seat, a clear sign to other riders that an outsider is among them (in Ottawa the escalators, which move at terrific speeds, force newcomers to fight for balance). In the new city, buses, police cars, taxicabs are all the wrong colour (you laugh at the solipsism but remain uneasy: what obscure sophistication might these newfangled colours imply?). We are confused by the protocols of the subway, the ungenerous transfer system that refuses to let you go back or get on where you like (with the result that your pockets are always full of loonies and toonies and quarters: you will not be caught out without exact change). At crosswalks you are required to thrust out a hand and point if you wish to cross the street: this is too much for newcomers, who refuse to humiliate themselves and so cross only in the middle of the block (for how many hours or days will they retain their dignity in this way?). Other cities are an opportunity to put one’s being into question.

Walter Benjamin reminds us that the first glimpse of a town in a landscape is incomparable and irretrievable, made so by the rigorous connection between foreground and distance: habit has not yet done its work. As soon as we begin to find our bearings, the landscape vanishes; here we might say that the cityscape vanishes into the city as soon as it becomes familiar (and therefore invisible); once we can find our way, the first glimpse will never be restored. On the first day the foreground is filled with particulars: the grime in the street, the gravel in the ravine through which a rail line has been cut, appear to belong only here, to Toronto: even the cracks in the sidewalk are highly specific. The air is filled with light, but it is a thin light that reminds one of milk diluted with water.

These are particulars of the new city: the man in the art gallery has long ceased to be aware of them. I do not think of telling him this. I walk for miles along downtown streets and the downtown seems never to end: now I feel the great pleasure of strolling in great cities, of observing and being observed, of having no destination, of submitting to the monotonous, fascinating, constantly unrolling band of asphalt. Now the new city has become a big city, and the promise of the big city carries its own exhilaration: look in any direction and there is no end to it, no visible edge. In Vancouver you can see out of the city from almost anywhere; you are never surrounded, ensconced; but here in Toronto there is no outside (in Saskatoon it is always a surprise to look down a street and see the prairie right there, a few blocks away). Here is something more of the big city, then: the big city is everywhere.

Other cities, big cities: soon everything fades; the familiar approaches too rapidly. Street names devolve into hollow signifiers where for a moment lay mystery: Queen, King, Spadina, Bathurst, Roncesvalles, Carlaw, Logan, Avenue Road, Mount Pleasant, the long vowels of Bloor and the strange spelling of Yonge. An enormous overhead sign on the freeway demands the full attention of all who pass by: DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE DISTRACTED WHILE DRIVING SAFELY. Here too, for a moment, meaning is proposed: a vestigial trace of paternalism, of the Presbyterian Church perhaps; soon you will not think of it again.

On my last night in Toronto, a friend who has lived there for thirty years drove me across the city to where I was staying on the west side, and we drove and drove and talked and looked out at the street, and eventually we were driving up and down steep curving streets that wound around and into each other, and my friend confessed happily that he was completely lost: this had never happened to him before. He continued driving and looking at street names, none of which were familiar to him and nor were they to me; we carried on blindly in the strange, labyrinthine neighbourhood, and for a time we were absorbed into the city, which lay all around us, unknown and unapproachable, a secret that we had both forgotten to be there, awaiting us.


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