Taking directions from an app is a different experience than wandering on my own. There is a pleasing mindlessness to it. Exploring is a part of the job, an externality. Because the time is not mine I am freed from the burden of choice. At any moment I am simply where I am with no thought of being anywhere else. It’s a bit like a digitally guided roller coaster through the city, I just strap in and ride along.
This forced movement is a poignant way to experience the city’s disparate geographies. To get a sense, not just for Toronto’s many neighborhoods but for how they link together, by noticing the things that change and stay the same between the length of each few blocks.
When early astronomers looked for comets and asteroids they’d flip between two images of the sky captured at different times. All the stars would stay in place, but asteroids and comets would move. Slight changes amidst a thousand similarities. Flicking quickly back and forth the slight changes stand out.
This is what it’s like to ride the city at the whims of algorithms. Passing quickly in and out of disparate neighborhoods adds contrast to difference while emphasizing proximity. Fort York is a moment away from King and Bathurst, but feels like an entirely different place. Go a little east from Yonge and Bloor and the city sort of fades away. Cross a bridge and it returns. Venture north of Bloor and I enter another world entirely, where the hardest part of the job isn’t the distances I pedal, it’s the aesthetic vacuum. Riding two km along Queen and riding two km along Lawrence are two entirely different experiences.
Eventually, micro-climates reveal themselves. The coolness of parks and valleys, the wind near the lake and the warmth of the core. And by moving in such a rush, the city’s colours squish together, become less like brush strokes and more like a painting. I exist in one place but get a feel for the the city as though viewed from above.
Sometimes a shift will become locked for hours in a Kensington to Fort York shuttle run up and down Spadina again and again.
But then an order will take me across the DVP and a whole new pattern will emerge. I'll enjoy an east end odyssey through streets and neighborhoods I haven’t yet seen where old homes and new condos appear for the first time in my mental map.
I’ve lived in Toronto all my life, but this place is so big, it’s hard to put it all together - to know the whole city.
Growing up here, exploring the city before I could understand the city, my memory of geography was compartmentalized: Broken into departures and destinations. Different worlds existed at the ends of subway tunnels and thoroughfares.
I grew up in North Toronto, ran cross-country in High Park, bought illegal fireworks in Forest Hill, and knew nothing of the in betweens. Started High School in Midtown and finished in Corktown. I developed far flung pockets of awareness in the pursuit of parties and their accoutrements, went looking for bars on College and Queen West that were rumoured to serve underage. I learned the beginnings and endings of subway rides and streetcar routes.
Cars and transit divide the world into As and Bs, departures and destinations. The space between is deleted, converted into time.
Atop a bicycle, those spaces gain depth. The line between A and B fills with laneways and storefronts and century homes. Time is converted back into space, and the world fills with light shining from living room windows.
I have trouble finding a good word to describe the feeling I am about to explain, but it is a pleasing experience to absorb disparate pieces of the city into a contiguous geography. For example, to realize the after hours bar a friend would drag me to through a nondescript door to an empty room and down a flight of stairs into a limestone basement was just around the corner from an ex’s apartment; hidden beneath an empty storefront we walked past innumerable times. To find out that the cafe I enjoyed a first date at is just a few blocks from where I played high school rugby. To find places that existed discretely in my mind actually sit beside each other in reality - is that feeling.
These moments begin with a gentle sense of familiarity as I pedal, there's an instinct to lift my head and look more closely at where I am. Landmarks can help recall disparate memories.
In all this, riding patterns develop in the life of the city. A consistency within which a pulse becomes detectable. A sense of time derived from traffic and parking. A composition of crowds on the sidewalk that suggest the Leafs or Raptors are in town or there's a big concert at the ACC or the Amphitheater.
And in all this exploring there is an access to the city’s interiors I wouldn’t otherwise have. All the different condo lobbies, some no more than a bench, others filled with leather couches lined up around fireplaces, and walls adorned with massive pieces of nameless art. I’ve been in small, rickety elevators in old hotels, detailed in black and white tiles and bronze fixtures. And modern high rise elevators with mirrors and cheap carpet that climb fifty floors in a couple of seconds.
Some people approach their homes through dimly lit arched plaster hallways that scream of the 70s, others through echoing hallways of light blue tile that feel more like pool change rooms than a place to live. Other hunker down in cozy tenement-style apartments carved into mansions that housed rich families in the 20s. There is a huge diversity in the places Torontonians live, and it is an exciting privilege to peak briefly inside so many walls.
And through it all I am earning a living atop a bicycle. Breathing mostly fresh air beneath sometimes sunny skies. Every day colouring in a little more of the place that’s been my home for over thirty years.
Doug Howat explores the city as part of his job. He delivers food by bicycle.
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