Tourists are deeply endearing: Map folding struggles, asking strangers for help with pictures, sullen teenagers walking half a mile behind their parents. My memories of being a tourist were becoming gauzy. I missed it.
I changed into some ugly shorts and a baseball cap, grabbed a map for effect and took a narrated tour of the city I live in.
Beginning at Dundas Square, the antique red, open-top, double-decker bus of City Sightseeing Toronto treks through the downtown core, from Harbourfront Centre to Casa Loma, from the AGO to the Distillery District. Seventeen tourists — and me, the biggest poser – piled on top.
Our guide was a sprightly U of T student named Calum. “So from now on, the answer to ‘what happened to that place?’ is going to be one of two answers,” he started. “One – it burned down. Or two – it’s a condo.” The group seemed unfazed by his veracity. He reminded us to remain seated with limbs in or “horrific injuries will ensue.”
As we lumbered up Yonge street, he drew our attention to an old clock tower jutting out of a sushi restaurant. It used to be a fire hall. Firemen would dangle their hoses from the side of the tower to dry them off. The hall, Calum informed us, burned down. He didn’t know what the firemen were doing during this embarrassing occurrence.
The group was in awe at the described length of Yonge Street — 1900 kilometers – jutting from the Toronto Star building and ending in Rainy River, Ontario. Our guide spotted a head shop and launched into a lengthy spiel about the admirable laxity of our marijuana laws, where we can “possess up to a half ounce and not be charged.” A woman sitting with her young son did not looked unimpressed, and ‘hopped off’ at the next stop.
As we passed the fancy shops and exquisitely re-surfaced sidewalks on Bloor west of Yonge, he mentioned the cost to rent: $310 per square foot. This bodes well for my 2-square foot luxury apartment aspirations. He pointed out the Bata Shoe Museum, built to resemble a slightly ajar shoe box.
I learned that in olden times, the high-class way to say Spadina was “Spa-deen-ah” and that Sonar (or ASDIC — used for the detection of U-boats) was researched and developed in the basement of Casa Loma. Wikipedia notes; “most of the work went on behind an area simply segregated with an “Under Repairs” sign, behind a simple sheet. This allowed endless people to come and go dressed as workmen, right under the public’s nose.”
I learned that insulin was first administered from Toronto General Hospital in 1922, and that Mount Sinai oversees 130 un-royal babies a day. I learn that sin-factory Much Music is housed in the former headquarters of the Methodist Book and Publishing House, and that the Scotiabank Theatre escalator is the largest in Canada, if you’re looking for a quick way to do something big with your life.
I learn the CBC building sits on 3,000 rubber pads and the red crosses snaking up the sides of the building are also rubber — an ingenious noise-cancelling invention. As we lurch toward the towards the south, a woman in town for the Beyoncé concert wonders aloud “Can we jump from the CN tower?” A man from Pittsburgh behind me snorts. “I wouldn’t recommend it!”
As we remain snarled in traffic under the Gardiner, I pray that a falling chunk of it won’t kill us all. Our host merrily continued with his Toronto trivia, telling us Lake Ontario is about as big as Israel, and is deep enough to fit the Eiffel tower. If we ever need to quickly remember the names of the five lakes (at gunpoint, presumably), we need only to recall the acronym ‘HOMES.’
He points out the public bathroom at the corner of Queens Quay West and Rees. It looks like a high-end portable classroom. It houses a fully automated, self-cleaning bathroom that reportedly cost $400,000. For 25 cents, you can do your business. The unfortunate addendum is that the doors blast open after twenty minutes, regardless of whether you’re done or not.
Fifty people move to Toronto every day. That’s over 18,000 a year, or a little more than the population of Niagara-on-the-Lake. 90% of Canadians live within an hour of the US border. By the 1870’s, Toronto was 40% Irish, a stark contrast to today’s demographics. Finally, I learned to resist the urge to grab the streetcar live-wires over my head — mostly because I would be fried, but also the city could fine me $1 per volt of power that I ‘stole’ through my action.
While many passersby waved, others took it upon themselves to stop in their tracks, look up, and visibly scowl in disapproval at the eager tourists. As a tourist you don’t notice the crumbling Gardiner or the transit woes. You don’t proclaim that Berlin is better and the people in Toronto are cold. It was a baby bird’s eye view of a fascinating city – with a past we forget too fast.