Monday, December 1, 2014

Shuffling on a Monday Morning with the Semi-Conscious Zombie Hordes of Toronto

Kensington Market, October 18, 2008, before the great plague of the undead which struck Toronto that year

I’ve commuted to work downtown for the past three months. Nothing usually tickles my imagination, apart from the occasional encounters with people who block entry to the empty bus seat beside them, or that time a man spent the entire subway ride relating to me the gruesome details of his buddy’s motorcycle accident.

Last week it became apparent how zombified my fellow commuters look on a Monday morning. My sense of this might have been heightened by my own level of fatigue, due to a rough night (unlike motorcycle accident man, you’ll be spared the details), or perhaps something in the air turned upstanding Torontonians like myself into semi-conscious zombies.

The shuffle of fellow passengers boarding the bus. The glossy, dead eyes of teenagers headed to school. The higher-than-average number of heads which gravity forced toward their chests. The occasional snore heard on the southbound train. The commuters attempting to exit the subway station via the “enter” turnstiles. The remnants of a Tim Horton’s spill on the stairs leading into the office complex.

All that was missing was the low drone of “braaainnns”

***

This morning, I noticed the same patterns, sans turnstile clumsiness and Tim Horton spills. It’s tempting to argue the TTC itself suffered a case of zombieitis on the Yonge line, except that extended subway rides due to signal issues are a fact of life.

Questions racing through my head as I surveyed the sleepy hordes: 
  • Are they tired from Black Friday weekend shopping and/or the first major blast of holiday festivities?
  • Are they struggling to rouse themselves to mentally prepare themselves for work they dislike? Have they told Santa all they want for Christmas is not two front teeth, but a new job?
  • Are they slowly losing their brain capacity, as the cells in their head slowly mutate into goo?
  • Are they catatonic from the news that Denzil Minnan-Wong is Toronto’s new deputy mayor?
  • Should I worry that the snoring guy beside me will collapse on my shoulder, briefly wake up, and eat my brain? (Follow-up question: should TTC officials Andy Byford and Brad Ross make a video next Hallowe’en explaining how to handle such a situation?)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Sick Washing Machine



As some close friends know, recently I’ve experienced difficulty focusing on my usual writing/research. I’m enduring a horrible bout of malaise, where anything will distract me from tasks I should be doing. Sometimes this involves staring at the screen blankly when I could be doing something else productively away from my desk. Sometimes this results in running excess errands. And so on. I hope writing the following silly story pushes me out of my compositional funk.

The inspiration: Sunday morning, the washing machine at my apartment building broke down . It’s an aging beast, and it has had recurring drainage problems during the final rinse cycle. When I opened the lid to move my dark clothes into the dryer, a third of the washer was still filled with water. Cue several minutes of wringing out t-shirts, underwear, and socks, followed by two full drying cycles. Irritated, and realizing this could provide another trigger to dodge writing, I posted the following note to friends on Facebook: 
I will not let a malfunctioning washing machine distract me from trying to break my writing/research malaise. I will not let a malfunctioning washing machine distract me from trying to break my writing/research malaise. I will not...
A friend offered the following suggestion:

Write a story about a washing machine that gets sick?
Bingo!

This won’t go down in history as literary genius, but it accomplished its goal of lifting me out of my writing funk. The following, with light editing, tumbled out of my head. It may or may not make any sense. End disclaimers.

***

“Christ, constipation again?”

The repairman sighed. It was the fifth time he’d visited the patient in the past month. For years, the glistening white washing machine had faithfully served several generations of tenants. Its owners had dutifully maintained the shine it had when it left the showroom floor. While all looked well on the outside, inside age was creeping up on it. A slower gear here, a touch of rust there.

Lately, the washer had drainage issues. Users discovered their clothes doing backstrokes in a pool of water. Despite increasing evidence the machine was ready for retirement, building management was determined to extend its lifespan. But by this point, both the super and the repairman were pleading to euthanize it.

One tenant was so annoyed by the parade of “out of service” signs that he bought a washboard he saw in an antique store. As he washed his underwear the old fashioned way, visions of marketing washboards to hipsters and back-to-the-Earth types floated through his brain. Perhaps the washer’s technical difficulties offered a golden opportunity! “Washboard Sam’s 1893 Original Washeroo!” He made a few phone calls.

Another tenant resigned herself to trips to the laundromat. As the apartment building was one of the few in its neighbourhood, the nearest laundry involved at least two bus transfers. The front was easy to spot, thanks to a sign which screamed “FREE SOAP FOR AUGUST!” After loading a washer, she sat down and pulled out of her purse the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle she brought to kill time. 112 across stumped her: “Album with the 1978 hit ‘Deacon Blues.’” Nearby, a man waiting for his clothes to dry noticed her furrowed brow. He came over and asked which clue was frustrating her. She pointed to the across list. “Aja,” he replied. “Steely Dan. Heard that song way too many times on the classic rock station my parents liked.” He asked if he could offer any more help, with the disclaimer he hadn’t had time to do the puzzle this week. Gradually, the grid filled in. His clothes remained in the dryer long after it stopped whirring.

Back at the apartment building, the repairman sighed again. He dissembled the washer’s drum, trying to figure out alternative ways of fixing its drainage issues. He sensed he’d be back again before long. After restoring it to a functional state, he called the super. They outlined points that could sway management over to the possibility of bringing in a new washer, ranging from pricing units to making a case that a fresh washer would seal the deal with potential tenants. They would make their case tomorrow.

Left alone with an “OUT OF ORDER” sign taped to its lid, the washer contemplated its future. It hoped it would either be taken to a used appliance store to be overhauled, then bought by a family who really needed a washer. Or it hoped to be stripped of its best parts like humans who donate organs when they die. Anything but being taken to the dump. The dryer offered reassurance that the washer would avoid a horrible fate. “You’ve put in good time. You deserve a proper retirement or burial.”

Two days later, the super wheeled a dolly into the laundry room. The washer’s faithful service to the building was over.


On its way out, the washer noticed a new model being wheeled in. It decided to give the rookie some advice. “There are good people inside. Don’t be temperamental. Take care of them, and they will take care of you.” 

Crossword clue drawn from the August 17, 2014 edition of the New York Times. Thanks to Jennifer Radford for the story suggestion.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The National Magazine Award Winning Historicist


We did it...

Being nominated for a National Magazine Award for a second year in a row was a great honour, providing recognition for all the hard work Kevin Plummer, David Wencer, and I put into Historicist each week. But looking at a field in the Blogs category which included major publications (Maclean's) and excellent, long-established writers (The Grid's Edward Keenan), I figured I was simply going to enjoy a nice night out with colleagues.

First, Torontoist's city hall coverage (featuring the talents of Hamutal Dotan, David Hains, Steve Munro, Christopher Bird, and Desmond Cole) tied for a Silver award in Blogs. A whoop went up from our table. This felt good - recognition for the site's mighty fine analysis and reporting on the circus at Nathan Philips Square. 

And then Gold was announced...

"Stunned" is an understatement. It's hard to define what my body experienced at that moment. If it were a mixed drink, you'd shake together shock, amazement, and euphoria. Especially since this news occurred at the end of a trying week. I wished the others were on hand, so that all three of us could go onstage to collect the award.

Photo by Dale Duncan.
But it was just me, so up I went. As one of my editors told me, I accepted the award, started to walk off, then realized I could give a speech. Mind blanking, I briefly thanked everyone, said something about telling Toronto's past stories -- can't remember if it was thanking the audience for reading them or promising to bring more in the future -- then wandered off.

One of our editors promised to keep reminding me about what just happened every few minutes. 

Emailed Kevin and David with the good news. Texted close friends. Called Mom and my sister. Amy said I "sounded giddy." I remained so for the rest of the night, my body being in a state I've heard others describe while high.

***

There were two influential people in my writing career I was happy to see carry award envelopes Friday night. Representing Western Living magazine was Anicka Quin, who was the first editor-in-chief I worked under at The Ontarion. The atmosphere and opportunities she provided that year (1997/98) lit the idea in my head that someday, if circumstances were right, I could be a writer. In terms of Historicist, David Topping (who won for work at The Grid) has to be credited for his help as Torontoist EIC in launching the column six years ago, and for encouraging plenty of work on various sites since then. Thanks to both of you for your guidance then and now -- really appreciated.

Thanks to Hamutal Dotan, for her ongoing support and suggesting many ideas over the past few years that have turned into some of my favourite pieces. And for encouraging gratuitous use of archival photos of diving horses

Thanks to you, our readers, for showing there's plenty of interest in Toronto history.

And, most of all, thanks to Kevin and David. It's an honour to co-write the column with you guys. We've shared a lot of stories over the years, and look forward to future tales. 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

You're Listening to CFRU, 93.3 FM in Guelph...


PREFACE: Scrolling through Facebook recently, a friend posted a link to a two-decade old video promoting CFRU, the University of Guelph's campus radio station. Based on the date, it was shot around the time of my first spell in a space I knew very well by the time I left the Royal City. Memories good and bad flooded back.

A great topic to write about, right?

Except that I already had. A Google search showed I wrote a lengthy piece about my days at CFRU five years ago, marking the 10th anniversary of the final edition of my weekly music show. Which is now almost 15 years ago. Which is alternately amazing (wow, those 15 years flew by fast!) or frightening (15 years ago? HOLY SH*T!)

So, here's a compromise. Most of what follows is the post from five years ago, with additional images and stories.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Reason #3,421 Why The Internet Comment Is One Of Humanity's Worst Inventions

Image of Maya Angelou and Herry Monster via Sesame Street's Twitter feed.
In the annals of human ingenuity, the internet comment may rank among one of our worst inventions. When used correctly, it can provide a forum to share useful information, fond reminiscences, or enlightened discussion on any topic.

Sadly, that rarely occurs.

The usual result is a gathering space for trolls, especially on media sites. People express outrageous opinions that you know they’d never express in the flesh. Nitpickers latch onto tiny, pedantic mistakes instead of engaging in the topic at home (tip to those of you who love doing this: send a private email. It’s less a-holish than publicly humiliating a writer for a typo). Political partisanship runs amok, even if the story has nothing to do with politics. Regardless of topic, it’s almost inevitable somebody will use the comment section to attack _____ (choose one of: liberals, public broadcasting, teachers, unions, Hillary Clinton, David Suzuki).

(Note that I don't always agree with the tackling dummies I just listed, but the abuse they endure is ridiculous.)

I avoid reading comments as much as possible, which does wonders for my blood pressure. Nobody needs to be exposed to that much manufactured, soul-destroying outrage. But sometimes my eye will slip, catching the first comment before moving on to the next webpage.

Case in point: this morning, I checked out CBC News’s bulletin on the death of Maya Angelou. The first comment listed below the story was posted by a lovely human being named "Juliska Magyar." It reads:

Zero impact on my life. Much ado about nothing.
C
B
Copy American news hype.

Tell you what Juliska. When you die, I'll send a bus of people over to your funeral, who will all demand to speak during the eulogies. All of them will say that you had zero impact on their lives, and that your funeral is, frankly, much ado about nothing.

Also, f**k those graceless souls who use someone's death as a platform to provide their two cents about why they hate the messenger. Criticizing a dead person is one thing—I think there are grounds for that to provide a fully-rounded assessment of their life within a day or two of their death, even if some may find that tasteless. Take the recent example of former Ontario/federal finance minister Jim Flaherty - beloved by friends and associates as a genial guy, responsible for actions that hurt some people. But ignoring the person who died through most of your comment just to rail at the messenger (CBC here) or your personal, barely related pet peeve? Classy. Oh so classy.

The comments section often reflects the divisive attitudes we’ve allowed to get in the way of constructive debate and generally being respectful to our fellow humans. Physically and symbolically, we could use a little more of the action Maya and Herry Monster demonstrate in the photo atop this post.


Friday, March 14, 2014

On The Grid, ROM Edition

Grid Contributor Profile March 13-19, 2014
Source: The Grid, March 13-19, 2014.
If you pick up a copy of The Grid this week, not only will you find this profile, you'll also read the infographic I wrote to mark the Royal Ontario Museum's centennial. I do not take responsibility for any write-in campaigns supporting the inanimate carbon rod for mayor of Toronto.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Presentation Time: Writing About History

Last Friday (March 7), I gave a lunchtime presentation on writing about Toronto history at the Arts & Letters Club. The following is the text of my talk:

Canadian Authors Dinner at the Arts & Letters Club, 1930s. Photo by George W. Latta. Toronto Public Library - see their website for a larger version.
Looking up “history” in my desk dictionary, the first meaning listed was “tale, story.” It’s a meaning sometimes lost when people discuss history. To some, our past is little more than facts and statistics. That’s fine under certain circumstances—compiling appendices for a larger work, refuting the claims of politicians, cramming for trivia night. But having piles of factoids and numbers lodged in your head isn’t helpful without the contextual stories behind that data.

There was a point in my writing career where I fretted about being called out by online commenters who harped on minor facts I overlooked in an article, or nitpicked about obscure details. My girlfriend at the time, who often proofread my work, asked who I was really writing for: the nitpickers, who will complain regardless of what I write, or the wider audience, who is more compelled by colourful stories and engaging storytelling? The answer was the latter. She knew that while historical accuracy is important, so is finding resonances with readers.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

This Week's Social Media Experiment

Employment seekers, Canadian National Exhibition, 1920s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1360.
The experiment: use social media to seek out work opportunities, to uncover possibilities I'm unaware of, to put it out there that I'm really - REALLY - looking for work to keep myself solvent these days. Utilizing Twitter and Facebook, I would focus the day's postings on attracting attention to my work quest, and the skills I bring to potential employers. 

7:00 A.M. Ready and willing to work for living wage.

8:00 A.M. If you're hiring today, follow ABBA's advice and take a chance on me.

9:00 A.M. Looking for a writer/researcher/communications person? Check out my LinkedIn profile. Then, let's talk!

10:00 A.M. Some old dogs can't be taught new tricks. This one can. Let's talk work opportunities where I can use old and learn new skills.

11:00 A.M. Research and writing aren't easy. They require skill to clarify any subject. I can create accessible content for your audience.

12:00 P.M. Lunch break. Because job hunters need to catch their breath.

At this point, I figured my Facebook followers required an explanation.

In case you're confused by my sudden tidal wave of posts, I'm running an experiment today involving hourly updates on social media to see if they result in any job/freelance work leads. If they are annoying the heck out of you, I apologize - sometimes experiments do that. It looks like I may have driven off some Twitter followers, though those may have been spambot accounts.

Sometimes you just have to try every trick you can think of.

This has been spurred by one of the worst bouts of existential angst I have ever experienced - last night my brain explored really dark places. Call this an attempt at a positive countermeasure that, fingers crossed, results in something. After all, as pointed out at this weekend's Toronto Park Summit, a positive approach works better than pure complaining/whining.

Maybe. Possibly. Who knows?

1:00 P.M. (Twitter version) Looking for freelance or contract help for your next project? Here's an award-winning example of my work.

On Facebook, instead of posting the 1:00 P.M. noted,  I wrote a thank you note for the feedback on the explanation note. All the comments were really appreciated and did wonders for my psyche. I know a lot of wonderful people, and hope to repay them by helping out if they find themselves in the same boat someday.

2:00 P.M. You require a short, snappy column for your site. Let's say words and images from your archives to dazzle readers? I can help.

3:00 P.M. The news cycle never sleeps. Neither does the need for historical context for headline stories. I can help.

4:00 P.M. Pinched for time for that personal/work research trip to the archives or library? I can help.

5:00 P.M. End of business day. Thanks for reading (or putting up with, depending on perspective) today's work-hunting tweets.

The results? Several job postings were passed my way, which I'll work on the rest of this week. It doesn't look like I drove people away - my Twitter feed lost three followers, but those may have been commercial/spam accounts. If any work opportunities present themselves in the next week or so because of this experiment, I'll mark it down in the lab report as success.


It's a tough market out there, but I'll muddle my way through if only through grizzled persistence and getting over my occasional bouts of pitchophobia. Fingers crossed.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Retiring One Toronto Municipal Election Gauge, Launching Another

After weeks of murmurs regarding his candidacy and debates over his decisiveness (especially when it comes to buying milk), John Tory officially entered the 2014 Toronto mayoral race this morning. Still counting on a last-minute flip-flop, I set the unofficial “Tory-o-Meter” (introduced during the 2010 municipal election) to just short of running. I didn't believe an honest-to-God Tory campaign was alive until the filing was made. I may not be convinced until Tory turns up at a candidates debate as participant instead of moderator.

Now that Tory’s in, we’re still waiting for Olivia Chow to abandon her unofficial candidate status and jump into the fray. Which inspires a replacement for the Tory-o-Meter…
 

Any bets on how long the needle rests in this position?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Confessions

Whenever Vinyl Café drifts onto CBC Radio, I secretly wish Stuart McLean would tell the story of the day Dave had a heart-to-heart talk with the man who came into the record shop wielding a machete, and how they laughed after Dave was sliced in three.

***

I have never been inside Massey Hall, the McMichael Collection, or the Spadina Museum. I intend to cross at least two of those off my “places you’d think I’ve visited in the GTA but haven’t” list this year.

***

As a youngster, an occasional habit of accidentally scratching other cars while opening the back seat door usually coincided with hearing old Freddy Fender songs on Detroit country radio stations. To this day, an impending sense of doom descends upon me whenever I hear Freddy Fender in a car.

***

When I woke up around 9 this morning, I felt like the only person in the country who didn’t give a s**t about the Olympic hockey final. Several reasons: 
  • I haven’t followed any Olympics with deep interest since 1984, or whenever Anne Murray told viewers they could “count on the [Canadian Imperial Bank of]Commerce.”
  • I’ve never been a particularly jingoistic person. Patriotic rah-rahing has never been my style. 
  • The winning team was filled with NHLers. Players who make more in a season than I, or most of my peers, will see over our lifetimes. I’m not ashamed to admit the sport has lost me over time—I enjoy watching the odd game, and I cherish my youthful passion for pro sports, but now? Meh.

It’s nice we won the gold. But that’s as far as it goes here. Call me a traitor for not caring. I can take it. If this declaration comes back to haunt me during my run for mayor of Toronto against an antique Rob Ford bobblehead doll in 2042, so be it.

***

As a youngster, while shopping at K-Mart in Metro Detroit, I often noticed some kid before me had opened up packs of sports cards and left behind a mess of singles that were beneath their notice (or maybe it was an adult looking for "hot" rookie cards). Sometimes, if nobody else was around, I’d slip those stray singles into my pant pocket. Later in the day, I would mix them in with packs of cards I purchased legitimately.

***


Speaking of petty theft, I stole the cookie from the cookie jar.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ten Minute Tales from NYC

Time for another Take Ten For Writers exercise. This one's #57, chosen to honour Heinz's sauce. The challenge: creating the setting for a story. I picked option #10, "a major city." The tale has to start with "the weather.".

Given the time challenge, my brain zeroed in on one particular metropolis, one I always yearn to visit.

Starting...now!
The weather was the kind he liked for exploring the city by foot. Not too hot, not too cold, a touch of sun in the sky. The kind of weather ideal for a light jacket loaded with pockets to fill with notepads and wax-paper bags of freshly roasted almonds. 
The almonds. Every time he hit the sidewalks of Manhattan, he couldn't resist buying them from street vendors. It had become one of the many small rituals he took pleasure in whenever visiting the Big Apple. Grabbing an egg cream at a "spa" in the East Village. Browsing the Strand Bookstore in the morning, never learning he should leave it for last instead of hauling heavy tomes around all day. Builds muscles, he'd tell himself when soothing his aching body in the evening. 
Yet those aches were part of the experience. The feeling of having covered so much ground in a single day. OK, there was some cheating via the subway. But for the most part, he was satisfied if he could meander from Midtown to Harlem by foot. All the while, the music streaming in his brain created a soundtrack of songs about cities, generic or specific.
When we walked through Little Italy, I saw my reflection come right off your face...

AND MY TEN MINUTES ARE UP.

***



True, PJ Harvey's "Good Fortune" could apply to any city with a Little Italy or Chinatown. Or any city where you're strolling at night through downtown neighbourhoods, preferably with somebody else. It frequently runs through my head during evening walks along Spadina Avenue or College Street late at night.

The rituals mentioned in my ten-minute tale are true:

  • Hot almonds from street vendors. There's something about the mix of the warmth of the little wax bag when they're handed to you and the soothingly sweet coating that greets your mouth. 
  • Egg creams in the East Village. Go to the southwest corner of 2nd Avenue and St. Mark's Place. Walk into the Gem Spa, which is a convenience store and not a place to pamper your body (though after a long walk, an egg cream will act as a restorative). Order at the cash. In a few minutes, you'll receive a paper cup filled with the goodness of milk, seltzer, and syrup. Walk back outside and enjoy. 
  • Strand Books. I should know by now, especially if I'm staying outside of Manhattan, that a trek to Strand should be saved before heading back to my hotel room to rest. It shouldn't be one of my first stops. Yet I can't resist heading there right off the bat. Good hauls mean achy muscles later on, but I could usually care less.

As for walking distances, I've never gone from Midtown to Harlem in one go, but I have strolled without the aid of buses or subways from Columbus Circle to Bowling Green.

Dammit, now I want to go to Manhattan. Hop in the car and decide which side of the Hudson I'll drive along on the way down. Book a room at the decent Super 8 I stayed at in Brooklyn on my last stopover. Spend enough time to finally stroll through Central Park, which I have only ventured into via bus to speed the trip over to the Museum of Natural History. Flip a coin over going to MOMA or the Met. Hope the waffle truck is still at Columbus Circle. Be the only person in the audience of a Fringe play who doesn't know anyone on stage. Try not to choke on my cheesecake while overhearing a Goodfella/Sopranos wannabe in the adjoining booth.

That's the problem when you write about settings. You want to go back to experience them before finishing the story, or uncover new tales.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

On The Grid

Source: The Grid, Feb 13-19, 2014. Click on image for larger version.
This week's print edition of The Grid has a nice shout-out to the photo essay I compiled last week on the dying days of Sears at the Eaton Centre, along with samples of reader feedback. Discovering this while flipping through the new issue on the bus over to Eglinton station provided a good start to the day.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Self-Promotional Department, Early February Edition

Click on image for larger version.
Relax everyone - this site isn't going to turn into the "Help Jamie Find Work" telethon (or would you call it a "webathon" if you trot out your best imitation of Jerry Lewis on Labour Day?). But it can't hurt to post a friendly reminder.

For more details on my resume, check it out on LinkedIn, or ask me to send you a PDF.

Art taken from "Pizza Pie," illustrated by Dave Berg, which appeared in Mad #40 (July 1958).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Self-Promotional Department, the Tuesday Edition

Click on image for larger version.
First, a thanks to everyone who passed around my pitch for work yesterday. It's really appreciated, and hopefully something comes out of it. I'll do the same if you find yourself in the same situation.

Inspired by one friend's suggestion to keep plugging it, and because I found another shot in the same archival photo series, here's the Tuesday version of the pitch. Again, you can check my LinkedIn profile to review my resume.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Self-Promotional Department

Click on image for larger version.
After producing a general pitch for work on Facebook and LinkedIn, I decided a postcard-style version would work on this website. If you came here from Twitter, I figured I'd spare your feed from a 56-tweet long chain of personal ads.

To anyone who has work to offer based on this pitch, thanks in advance.

PS: If you want to browse my resume, my LinkedIn profile is a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ringing In The New Year on the TTC



Source: the Toronto Sun, December 21, 1975.

It was intended to be a quiet New Year’s Eve.

The plan was to spend the evening in, catching up on reading or doing some research. New Year’s Day was going to be filled with brunches and walks, so I could get away with ending 2013 on the sedate side. Continuing to retweet stories I wrote over the past year was the height of ambition. I even figured a few afternoon errands and a stroll downtown before the sun went down would take care of any symptoms of cabin fever.

Not on your life.

By early evening, I figured I should take advantage of the free TTC service. I posted a request on Facebook for destinations. As I was about to head out, I wandered into the bathroom, where some recent plumbing issues took a new turn. December had seen several things break, so this was an appropriate conclusion to the month.

I set out at midnight, armed with a pocket notepad for scribbling observations. Figured this trek would make a good writing exercise. The first signs of the New Year’s arrival included plenty of cowbell coming from a nearby apartment balcony, and revellers on the staircase at the Bayview & Eg McDonald’s. Hopping on an eastbound bus, I startled the driver with a “Happy New Year” greeting.

The bus wasn’t party central. The few passengers were quiet—if they were engaged in anything, it was playing games on their phones, or staring forward into the new year. I started jotting time-stamped notes.


12:08 a.m.: Mount Pleasant Road. A man hauls aboard a medium-sized wheeled recycling bin. He’s a Dickensian character: worn clothing, flat hat, facial hair worthy of a 19th century portrait. I wonder if he’s a bottle scavenger preparing for a good night of pickings, bringing a heavy load to a party, or toting his worldly possessions. The bin takes up less space than some baby carriages.


12:12 a.m.: Eglinton Station. Like me, the recycling bin man heads to the subway. He takes the elevator, while I run down the stairs to the platform. The calm along the station platform confirms suspicions that I’m in the eye of the New Year’s hurricane. Notice somebody wasn’t happy to see a poster for a religious event taped to the platform tiles. Hop onto southbound train, walk by first passed-out victim of the night. Can’t determine if small puddle on floor is a spilled neon yellow drink or clear bile.

12:18 a.m.: First sighting of passengers doing chin-ups on the train. I have seen this test of athletic ability end badly. It turns out to be the lone example I see all night.

12:21 a.m.: Pulling out of St. Clair station, notice ad in front of me for St. Clair College. Ah, a touch of home!

12:25 a.m.: Arrive at Bloor station. Recycling bin man continues in my direction, heading to eastbound Yonge platform. He reads the info screen, then checks out the garbage bins. He pulls out a discarded fast food container. After examining its contents, he neatly rewraps it and places it inside the recycling bin. 


12:28 a.m.: On train heading east. Recycling bin man sits in next row of seats, mumbling indecipherably. He will depart the train at Sherbourne. Seated across the car is a man in a dark toque and jacket holding his garbage bin pickings: Tim Horton’s bags and a crushed box of Minute Maid fruit punch. His face is deeply lined. The etchings radiating up from his eyes to his forehead resemble thick lines of black ink, as do fault lines running down each cheek. Can’t decide if these dark crevices are bruises, the extreme results of hard living, or an experiment with a marker. It’s a fascinating face, where I suspect stories are buried within each wrinkle. He tries to drink from the juice box, but it’s empty.

12:34 a.m.: Broadview station. Train is quiet—you’d never know it was New Year’s. Everyday conversations and intense game playing rule the car.

12:38 a.m.: After a brief rest at Broadview, the train pulls into Chester station. The etched-face man stands up, thrusts his arm forward, then walks through the car. He leaves the train at Pape.

12:40 a.m.: Greenwood station. As a kid, I wondered why the tile colour scheme wasn’t green but black and peach. If the station ever gets a Pape- or Dufferin-style makeover, perhaps this would be remedied (and drive anal-retentive tile colour pattern sticklers berserk).

12:42 a.m.: Coxwell station. Several TTC employees get off the train. One yells back to a colleague “we survived another one!” We did indeed. We did indeed.

 

12:47 a.m.: Victoria Park station. Notice a poster beside me for the annual Ross Petty panto. This year’s was The Little Mermaid, billed as “Ontario’s O-FISH-AL Family Musical.” A question arose: if the province funded an official musical, what would it look like? Would it be based around the 1960s toe-tapper “A Place to Stand,” the Foodland Ontario jingle “Good Things Grow in Ontario,” or would it be a horrible concoction devised by a Queen’s Park committee?


12:55 a.m.: Kennedy station. I am about to do something I have not done since I was a teenager. I am going to ride the Scarborough RT. The last trek was one of the kamikaze subway rides I loved to do during rare teenage trips to Toronto. One of those broke Dad’s heart—on a nice summer day, he wanted to show off the first high school he taught at, Eastern Commerce. In a rare instance of being a snotty teenager, I said I wasn’t interested. He asked how I could be so mean. Years later, I regret being such a turd.

As I depart the train, a TTC cleaning crew flows on. At the far end of the platform, a bench is covered in gloves. Missing pieces of somebody’s wild night? Speaking of which, I still haven’t encountered any rowdies. After an evening partly spent groaning about a worsening leak above my apartment’s toilet, the calm is the relief I need. During a venting session on Facebook, I noted I was heading out to McCowan to let off a primal scream to get all the ugly energy of December out of me. The screaming part felt less necessary.

12:59 a.m.: Board the RT. People aren’t kidding when they call it a toy train. The cars are the fullest I’ve seen all night, mostly young women texting away. Advertising is sparse. The faux wood paneling reminds me of many late 1970s/early 1980s rec rooms I’ve spent time in.

1:10 a.m.: Scarborough Centre station. The exodus from the train leaves only myself in two others in the car. No rowdiness in between stops, only a comment from a twentysomething passenger that her friend looked like a 10-year-old.


1:12 a.m.: McCowan station. End of the line. A giant hand-made “Free” sign is taped to collector booth at street level. Outside, McCowan Road is quiet. Decide to walk west, as I’ve never seen the old Scarborough municipal buildings up close. Despite the bitter cold, the short stroll is soothing.

1:20 a.m.: Outside the Scarborough Civic Centre, two guys pass the puck to each other on the small skating rink. Feels like they’ve chosen a good start to the year. Other than the crack of hockey sticks, it’s quiet. Would be a good gathering spot for anyone seeking outdoor meditation space on this night. Inside the building, cleaners vacuum away. Notice a plaque boasting about the Massey Award given to Albert Campbell Square in the mid-1970s. An area worth future daytime exploration.


1:30 a.m.: Just miss westbound train at Scarborough Centre. Still not lively.

1:37 a.m.: Midland station. Staring north along Midland Avenue. No cars, just a line of traffic lights changing colours for their own pleasure. Also marvel at all of the industrial parks along the RT route.

1:44 a.m.: Kennedy station. I decide that the most direct route home is to hop on the Eglinton East bus. As I get off the train, a horde of revellers get on. The New Year’s party has finally reached me, nearly two hours into my trek. Don’t think my short experience on the RT has deepened insights on the Scarborough transit situation—would need to ride at other times of the day.

At bus level, notice the black text chipping off the silver plaque commemorating the opening of the subway station in 1980. Hard to say if this disappoints fans of Paul Godfrey and Jeffrey Lyons.


1:50 a.m.: Hop on the 34 Eglinton East. Despite there being few passengers boarding, a party girl wearing a tiara pushes her way onto the vehicle. A Dollarama party favour does not grant one royal privileges. Once aboard, the bus smells like a mix of stale booze and pot particles. The stop pixelboard has also been indulging, as it is convinced today is July 27, 2013. The cold tells you otherwise.

1:57 a.m.: Birchmount Road. It dawns on the drunk kids in the back that the TTC is free all night and they can go ANYWHERE! With so many options, they decide they want to go to McDonald’s.

2:01 a.m.: Eglinton Town Centre. The drunk kids decide they want Chinese food instead of Mickey D’s.

2:03 a.m.: Victoria Park Avenue. The drunk kids are having issues opening the back door. They are on the verge of destroying it before it finally sets them free to sleep…to explore…to go to McDonald’s. Meanwhile, seated ahead of me is a child who is clearly wearing an adult winter coat, as the arms stretch to the floor. It appears his father has loaned him the jacket. Another child cries loudly in my ear.

2:11 a.m.: Leslie Street. Two guys across from me trade jackets they had switched earlier in the evening. Is jacket-swapping a New Year’s tradition I’ve never embraced?

2:14 a.m.: Bayview Avenue. Realize I’m the first person to get on or off since Victoria Park. Almost run over by a couple laughing as they dodge traffic while running across Bayview to catch the bus. Once they vanish, quiet descends. The Metro supermarket stands still, taking a day off its round-the-clock operations.

Hello 2014. How are ya?