Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The 501

The wind is brisk, but tolerable. My Russian compatriot, my dog and I wait alongside Lakeshore Boulevard for the next streetcar. I arrived at the stop first and was later joined by Mr. X. Obviously this is not his real name, but likely one he would like being referred to in his line of business.

The 501 is the longest spanning streetcar route in the city of Toronto. For under $3.00 you can ride from the far western reaches of the Long Branch Loop to the Neville Park Loop at the opposite end of the city, a distance of over 20 kilometres. As with most times I jump on The 501, I am usually only on it to get from point A to point B. Tonight I was heading home after a night of drinking with friends.

The snow is blowing in that wind tunnel sort of way that feels like a slap in the face. I don’t see a streetcar in site, so I bunker down in the trusty TTC shelter with my eager canine companion. Then, as I lift my head up I am greeted by Mr. X, who begins to start a conversation with me. I am in the far reaches of Etobicoke, late in the evening, and feeling somewhat uneasy hanging around this dark and desolate street corner. Everything is closed, either for the night or permanently, except for the packed Tim Horton’s across the street.
“Do you know when the next streetcar is coming?” he asks. “Likely about five minutes”, I quickly answer, not having any idea. “I have to be to Dufferin and St. Clair within an hour”, he tells me. More questions ensue - “Do you think I can make it? What is the best way to get there?” I think a bit longer on these ones, and give him my personal opinion.

“I can’t be late, not even one minute, you know what I mean?” he continues on. I remain silent this time. He has this very Siberian look about him, dressed in a long winter coat, oversized winter boots, and a fur hat. I imagine he is quite warm beneath these layers as he proceeds to provide me with a glimpse into his life, as so often happens on The 501.

To ride from one end of the city to the other would take approximately an hour and a half to two hours, depending on traffic and weather. The route traverses through the suburban blue collar neighbourhood of Etobicoke, passing by the recently developed condo projects along the Western Beaches, via the trendy West Queen West strip, to the core of downtown, onto Leslieville, and finally reaches the Eastern Beaches (or The Beach as the locals like to refer to it as).

This line also runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It is the main artery for many commuters to get to and from work and play. Mr. X tells me he’d rather be 30 minutes early than even just one minute late. He knows “the others” can jump in on his deal if he doesn’t come through in time. “I’ve been in this country four years now and it’s difficult to live here. Everything is so expensive. You have to find ways to make money to survive”, he lauds.
His darting eyes and jittery movements don’t help to make me feel at ease, as I step back a bit when he turns to look for the streetcar. The one-sided conversation continues. I learn he lives in the High Park area, and was just doing “business” in this area, before heading off to his next “client”. He keeps referring to his line of work, without actually mentioning what he does, and without me ever asking. We’ve sealed the deal of trust between us, and I become more relaxed. He then branches off into how Canadian politics differ from Russian views, and how he pays $2,500 in insurance premiums for his $500 car, Again, I didn’t ask why he wasn’t driving his $500 car now instead of waiting in the cold winds for a streetcar. The political aspects did prompt some feedback and input from my end.

It was now as if we were good friends sharing a pint in a local pub, debating the pros and cons of democratic and communist regimes. I had the feeling if we waited much longer, there would be a discussion on hockey that soon ensued. Soon after, our ride arrives and we both board in silence. I grab the first available seat and Mr. X slides in a few seats behind me. I look around and see that the streetcar is fairly full, as it suddenly occurs to me that it is 11pm on a Saturday night heading toward downtown.

As always, there’s an assortment of “characters” travelling about on their way to somewhere. At this time of night it typically is more of the club crowd, however I notice some looking like they are on their way to or from work, others with luggage, a few shoppers packed down with bags, and others staring blankly out the windows. There are several different languages being spoken, random cell phone chatter, distorted beats from various MP3 players, and at least one conversation about getting laid.

A group of teens get on at a one of the stops, obviously partying, and one of them is so comatose that she neglects to pay her fare when blankly walking by the driver. The driver quietly mentions it to one of her friends, who pays on her behalf. The smartly dressed couple politely whisper to each other in a language I don’t recognize, while the more rowdy partiers at the back speak loud enough for all to ear whatever they have to say. An elderly lady with a cane joins us, and is offered up a seat reserved for the elderly and disabled.

My stop approaches and I stand to pull the stop cord. As always, I leave with a curious inquisition as to how the rest of the evening will pan out for these various individuals I briefly had an opportunity to travel with. I nod in silence to Mr. X, sitting on his own, counting the minutes until his arrival. I step down and hope he made a good connection at Dufferin, and beat the clock for his “appointment”.

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