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There are some things you plan, and some things you don’t plan. Since late spring, I’d been planning this cross-country train trip, in some aspects down to the very hour and minute. For the most part, I held to the framework of my plans without deviating too much, at least at the beginning. But as the trip wore on and factors were introduced into the equation that I hadn’t anticipated (like, for instance, the icy blast of the trains’ hyper-enthusiastic air conditioners and my all-too-brief love affair with Vancouver’s Jericho Beach), the framework began to morph into something much more alive and unpredictable. Especially towards the end of the trip, when I flew off to Phoenix on a whim and a CAD $51 plane ticket, a whole new way of viewing the framework emerged: I was going to take things not only day by day, but hour by hour and even minute by minute.

This new approach best characterizes my final few days of my WOOHOOCHOOCHOO adventure. After arriving in Toronto, and while still onboard the Canadian, I seriously considered high-tailing it to the VIA Rail ticket counter and booking a seat back to Winnipeg. You can do that with a system unlimited rail pass, as long as the pass is still valid and a seat’s available. I was really that smitten by my eastbound trek across Northern Ontario to want to do it all over again, and right now. But when reality struck in the form of getting lost for nearly two hours in Union Station trying to find a way to the TTC subway platform that didn’t involve stairs or an escalator, my exuberance deflated and all I wanted to do was get my intolerably heavy bag-lady luggage out of the labyrinth and into a hostel locker somewhere, anywhere, and right now.

Toronto’s Union Station has been undergoing major renovations for at least a year, and whoever’s in charge of signage either has a poor sense of direction or intensely dislikes people in need of an elevator and so sends them in ever-widening circles that eventually trail back to their starting point. I have never been so misdirected by so many conflicting signs in all my life. In fact, it was so bad at one point, I considered calling 911. But I didn’t, and I eventually found my way to a ramp that took me to an elevator that took me to another elevator and another elevator until at finally I found myself standing on the subway platform that would get me onto a train heading more or less in the direction of my hostel. It was then, as I stood waiting for the telltale breeze that signaled the approach of a train, that I knew I wouldn’t be going back to Winnipeg, at least not that night. The spell was broken; I was hungry and tired; I needed a shower; and I wanted to go to Whole Foods.

So much for my latest train crush.

After dropping off my luggage at the hostel and enjoying an indulgently long and hot shower, I set out for the Whole Foods at Yonge and Sheppard. I LOVE WHOLE FOODS! It doesn’t matter how tired or cranky I am, as soon as I step foot in that grocery store, I’m instantly all about peace and good will towards men (and women [and anyone else in between, this being Toronto and all]).  I blissfully hung out there all afternoon into the early evening, and then reluctantly made my way back to the hostel.

I’ve made it a policy not to say anything disparaging about hostels on here, since that’s not what this blog is about. But I will say that Toronto hostels have a way of being… well… Torontonian. I lived in downtown Toronto for nearly 16 years (as well as spending three years out in the ‘burbs and Oakville), so I know what I’m talking about. The Torontonianess of Toronto is also in large part why I left Toronto. When I moved there in the late 80s, Toronto wasn’t so much Torontonian as just a big Canadian city that anyone could find a niche in and flourish. But somewhere along the line, Toronto started adopting a decidedly PC agenda that unofficially but just as effectively prevented some people from feeling as if they belonged there. I’m one of those people. When I do every now and then spend a few days in Toronto, I feel less and less like I’m in Canada and more and more like I’m in some alternate universe where  as long as you’re multiply-pierced and tattooed and identify as anything other than straight, White and Christian, you’re welcome, but otherwise….

As an “otherwise”, I’m now finding that the less time I spend in the city formerly known as ‘Toronto The Good’, the better, and the hostel felt to me like a microcosm of the city. I did not feel at all welcome. After a restless night in a cramped (6 X 7) room crammed, unbelievably, with six bunkbeds, I got up at daybreak, still exhausted, and went for a long walk. Then I came back for breakfast.

While eating, it suddenly dawned on me that I not only didn’t belong in this hostel but that I really didn’t belong in this city or even this province. I’d had enough not only of the hostel and the city, but of the whole trip. I was tired of hostels and tired of trying to find places to do my work and tired of worrying about whether or not someone was going to swipe my food out of the communal fridge and tired of paying 50 bucks a night to sleep in a stuffy broom closet with what felt like dozens of other people, and I sure as hell was tired of dragging my bag-lady luggage around with me every time I changed locations. As I sat there with penny after penny dropping in my mind’s eye, it became all too clear to me what I had to do next: Even though I still had a week left on my VIA Rail pass, it was time to go home.

I glanced up at the clock above the breakfast room table. The hands pointed to 9:40 a.m. I knew that a train was leaving at 11:00 a.m. from Union Station, bound for Montreal, and that that train was the last one out of Toronto that would get me to Montreal in time to catch the Ocean that evening heading to Halifax. The next Ocean would be leaving in three days. There was no way that I wanted to stay in Toronto for three more days, so off I ran.

First I had to cancel the remaining three nights of my stay at the hostel, which I did in person at the front desk and with enough persuasion that I got all my money back, even though it was against their company policy to do so. Then I ran up to my dorm room, threw everything pell-mell into my bags, and hauled them all down to the front door. It was now 10:20 a.m. I could chance trying to catch a cab to Union Station, but if I got caught in traffic, that would be the end of my escape plan. I decided instead to take the subway, even though I dreaded the thought of getting lost again in the renovations maze.

This was my new plan: If I made it to the train on time, I would willingly and cheerfully go back to Halifax a few days early. If I didn’t make the train, I would backtrack and spend the next three nights in a hotel outside of Toronto. I was happy with either potential outcome.

While I was on the subway train heading for Union Station, flushed and giddy with my last-minute ESCAPE FROM T.O. mission, I struck up a conversation with a woman sitting next to me. She was from England, and after exchanging a few pleasantries, we both ended up sharing a laugh over how people in Toronto don’t talk to strangers. “They think you’re crazy if you talk to them,” I said. “They pull their children closer and act as if you’re not there.”  “I know”, said the lady, with a pleasing lilt that always brought out the starry-eyed colonist in me. “They look right past you and around you, anything to avoid making eye contact.” We both laughed outright and motioned discretely at the averted, stony-faced gazes of our fellow passengers who were, as if on cue, pointedly making our point. Union Station came all too quickly, but my phone clock said it was 11:20.

I’d missed my train to Montreal.

Oh, well. Guess it wasn’t meant to be.

As I waved good-bye to the laughing lilting stranger and hauled my two rollies off the train, a young man suddenly appeared next to me. He was about in his mid 20s, tall, good-looking, and conservatively dressed. He said: “I overheard you saying you were late for your train. Can I offer you some assistance?” He, too, had a pleasing English lilt and his tone was polite but warm.

“Thank you, but I’ve already missed my train, so I guess I’ll be heading somewhere else.”

“But maybe there’s still a chance? Perhaps your train got delayed?” His tone was insistent. “I really don’t mind helping you.” As if by way of explanation, he added: “I’ve spent the last month here in Canada and I’m going home tomorrow. If I could help you, it would be my way of thanking Canada for the wonderful time I’ve had.”

I normally turn down offers of assistance unless I’m the one to initiate them, but there was something about this young man’s warmly insistent manner that made me say “yes”. He took hold of the heavier of the two rollies and led the way.

Hurrying after him, I said: “I got lost here yesterday trying to find my way from the VIA station to the subway platform. It took me two hours to find my way out.”

“Is this the way?” He pointed to a ramp that led directly into the VIA departures hall. I stared in disbelief. Then he said: “Is that your train?”, pointing to a sign that said “Montreal”. I couldn’t believe it. We’d made it from the subway to the departure gate in under two minutes. How on Earth was that possible?

Two VIA attendants were standing at the foot of the escalator leading up to the train platform. We rushed up to them and I panted: “Is it too late?” They smiled at me, and one of them said: “You’re in luck today.  The train’s being held back for a late connection. There’s still time for you to board.”

I turned around to thank the young man, but he was gone.

Shaking my head and smiling to myself, I made my way up the escalator (with the help of an attendant) and onboard the last train leaving Toronto that day that would get me to Montreal in time to catch the Ocean back home.

I guess it was meant to be after all. Some things you can plan, and some things you just can’t plan because they’re way beyond your control.

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