Toronto: It’s Just Kind of There

Toronto sure is something. You ever see people looking at movie posters for other movies before their theater opens? Or standing semi-uncomfortably in a random lobby, not really paying attention to anything, just kind of existing, checking their phones repeatedly even though we all know no one has texted? That’s how Toronto struck me at first; a bunch of folks waiting for the real city to open, as if you’d filled the streets of Des Moines with people from Des Moines. 

There’s always a sneaking suspicion in my mind that most people of a certain age group and socioeconomic level are trying to be cool. And cool apparently means displaying NO indication of personality. In which case, Toronto is one of the coolest cities on the planet. That’s what I thought to myself on the first day as I made my way to accommodation. 

I was on a budget, mind you, so I was looking for deals via all the usual online suspects. I found a ridiculously cheap place on the U of Toronto, St. George campus, close to Kensington Market. Again, the goal was to stretch this trip out as long as I could and getting cheap on the front end would help a great deal. It was a good practice ground for unpacking and repacking what really mattered. Plus, they had a laundry room, something for which I was long overdue. 

Every morning at the University, I’d have a coffee in the student union with Judy, the delightful barista – and board the same street car headed downtown with a group of Nigerian delegates headed to a Rotary convention. After the first day, I began greeting them by yelling, “Hey! It’s the boys from Africa!” in honor of Coming to America, one of the finer films from the late 80s. All five of them dressed head-to-toe in vibrant colors, talking at the same time, from the moment they got on the street car until they – well, probably until they went to sleep. They were awfully nice, smiling and laughing a lot. 

You can purchase a day ticket for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) with a small TTC coin, which is about half the size of a dime or the nail on your small finger. Let me tell you how much fun it is to keep track of those little sonsabitches. When stores sell holders to prevent losing these microscopic necessities, i.e. the transit coin, it’s time to build an app. Once you’ve made it aboard, whether it’s one of the modern streetcars or the cool old rickety cars, you get to see true citizens. I think public transportation is a great way to gauge a society. Are they considerate? Friendly? Clean? Polite? Insular? Torontonians are wonderful, truly kind people for the most part. Like I said and will continue to say, there are assholes everywhere just make sure you’re not one of them. 

Public transportation’s also a great way to see the sights, if it’s above ground.

One afternoon, I found out that transport police randomly hop on the streetcars to make sure everyone has their pass, as it’s pretty much the honor system, aside from the police asking you if you have them. On this particular day, a gentleman behind me had decided to take a nap across a couple opposing rows of seats. The cops were way more interested in dealing with the napper than any ticket perps. This was a good thing for me and any other rebel on the car as I didn’t have my pass because I got on at a stop that didn’t have a machine.

Moments like that make me overly nervous. I react like I’m the one who robbed the bank, when in fact I’ve unintentionally stolen two fictional dollars from the good people of Toronto. Fictional, because – prove I did it. I try never to be on the wrong side of the law unless I’m tired of something not scanning properly at Walmart’s self-checkout. The streetcar cops hustled what turned out to be a very loud, very angry, very drunk and obviously very sleepy man off the car and the reaction of the people aboard was more one of concern for his well-being than any sign of disgust or disapproval. I really like this about Toronto. 

On to the First Day destination, a dive bar in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighborhood named “Thirsty & Miserable.” It delivered what it promised. Room for maybe ten people in the front room, maybe the same in the back, crammed tight, cash only.  Outstanding craft beer selection, mostly if not all Canadian, I mean why wouldn’t it be? One of my favorite names was “Over My Dad Body” by Great Lakes Brewery. And today our long-white-haired, nautically themed old man at the corner of the bar was named Keith. 

The kid next to me at the bar this afternoon was the first person I’d shared more than casual conversation with in Toronto. He was Tory and he’d been laid off from his IT job a few months earlier. Despite this, he bought me a beer and we, very politely and in general, spoke about how politics affect business. He was astoundingly well-read on the matter, on both sides of the border. I learned a lot about Canada’s overall perception of American politics, their feelings about our current president (the whole bar got in on this), and basically how their politics are just as bad. They tend not to take things too seriously; Rob Ford was their mayor for f-ck’s sake. 

Though this was a dive bar, they’d already broken the cardinal rule and it was okay. No one got hot under the collar and after a few minutes, the subject changed to the upcoming hockey season. Tory gave me some excellent restaurant and bar recommendations, we even went to another place together, Ronnie’s Local, around the corner. That was a lovely dive bar, packed on the patio as it was “terrace season” and no one inside. I repaid Tory with a beer and a sipping whiskey and we continued our discussions. He’s a well-educated young man. A bit morose but having no job often does that to a person. I’ve been there, Tory. You’ll be just fine.

With that, I said ‘adios’ and ventured back to the surprisingly comfortable converted dormitory. 

Day Two. Tory mentioned an entire Brewery District in the Leslieville neighborhood, or near it at least. I was going to get lost anyway, it wasn’t going to matter. I hopped off the streetcar and ducked into a sad English pub, very authentic in every way, including the dour vibe. The World Cup matches were about to start and there was no time to dilly dally but the Uncle & Treasure Chest or the Monkey & the Pitchfork, or whatever this place was called had both dilly and dally in spades.

McQueen’s bar, cattycorner, looked nice, so off I went. Sure enough, it was just me, a delightful bartender, a couple of gentlemen of no discernible description in reference to appearance or sexuality, and three TVs showing a pretty damned exciting Iran v. Portugal match. Ronaldo played, I think that’s why these two dudes were in there. It was non-judgmentally entertaining to listen to. I liked McQueen’s quite a bit, especially their poster of the Queen in a lumberjack shirt. After the match, it was time to move toward downtown. 

Every brewery-type-place I’d been was nice, well put together and had a pretty cookie cutter “caring hipster” clientele. Someone along the way had told me, “DO NOT go to Alfie’s, whatever you do,” possibly Tory. I went to Alfie’s.  

The crème de la crème… Alfie’s. 

When you’re a dive bar aficionado, you get a shiver of excitement when someone says, “It’s not a hipster dive bar. You could actually get stabbed.” Because it’s never true, they just mean: someone will mean-mug you when you walk in, there’s an overly sassy bartender and they have a lot of Marshall Tucker on the jukebox. Alfie’s in Toronto is a good place to get stabbed. With a knife. By a person. I was in heaven. 

Two very aggressive Chinese women were bickering behind the bar, one took the time to welcome me most pleasantly and inquired about what I might want to ingest. She did not. She halfway looked at me and shouted “What!?!” “One Labatt’s and a Jameson,” it’s a go-to in Canada and never a bad one. She brought them posthaste and, in turn, asked for $4.50. Total. I knew I was in the right place. 

Among the local celebrities in Alfie’s that afternoon were: a belligerent man in a Hoveround, a gentleman who’d simply stopped in for a nap, a dude playing air pool three-feet from an actual pool table, two women shouting over one another about whatever was on the TV and several people coming in and out of the restroom with what seemed to be severe allergies. A sign near the well-appointed (no) lavatories read, “No Men in the Women’s Bathroom,” proving there was a need for such a sign.

Everyone in the place drank some horrific glow-in-the-dark malt beverage that looked like brightly colored liquids used in bad chemistry sets on TV.  In and out people came and I’m talking the best and brightest Moss Park had to offer. Unknown to me at the time, I was twenty paces from Meth Central. Toronto, maybe even Canada, is interesting in the way they deal with the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes, those some might consider the dregs. They’re respectful of the individuals, compassionate and neighborly. Folks just kind of mill about, maybe smoke some rock, stumble in, buy a bottle of electric blue malt liquor and go about their day. 

Alfie’s reportedly had one of the best burgers in town. You’d have to be out of your f-cking mind to order and/or consume food made in this room. The vibe was Terry Gilliam film with a dash of David Lynch.

I met Wayne there. Wayne had clearly spent a vast majority of the past twenty years being disassociated from his mind. He told me the most extraordinarily racist story about the history of Newfoundland, the kind you chuckle at nervously whilst scanning for exits. Between the length of the one-sided conversation with Wayne and the crew streaming in the door and the setting sun, it was time to leave this amazingly shitty bar.

I walked out of Alfie’s and headed back toward the nearest streetcar stop. On the way, I had the great honor of passing Moss Park. There was a tall stack of snow outside a building in the middle of the park and, not spending a hell of a lot of time around ice rinks, I wondered how that was possible. You could feel the coolness of the shaved ice in the air and it was good. The zombie people in their pajamas stumbling, staggering and falling, were not good. All-in-all, the meth heads seemed to keep their antics contained to this vicinity. I was a bit surprised to see a number of go-getter, upwardly mobile young professionals walking this close to the plight. 

After taking the streetcar back near the Kensington Market area, I got off at an earlier stop and decided to walk around Chinatown which shares borders with said area. I love Thai food and, as always, most of the best places are in or around Chinatown. Which continues to fascinate me, I’m not sure those countries actually like one another. Glad they get along without the pressures of real borders and armies. 

Then it occurred to me, Tory made me promise I’d have the beef pho at Pho Pasteur, a 24-hour, blink-and-pass-it spot with maybe seven small tables. In a word, it’s beautiful. The friendly owner-looking lady took care of me and, being the only patron at 4pm, I got the big bowl of beef pho (the #1) and a Thai iced coffee about five minutes later, if that. It was euphoric, every bite, every bad-manners slurp, euphoric. 

Kensington Market 

If you haven’t been, Kensington Market is the “laid back” section of Toronto. A Canadian flag atop a shop at the far end of the main drag depicts a red cannabis leaf rather than the traditional maple. The shop it rides, in fact, is a head shop with a hand-painted tagline telling you, “Serving potheads since ah… I forget.” The brightly colored buildings lining the streets lift the spirits. Some have nice, organic murals and many have overflowing gardens. It’s a hippie neighborhood, though not everyone is a hippie. Kids are present, tourists take photos, there was even a spaced out person dressed head-to-toe as Deadpool, shooting passersby with a disc gun. No one punched him.

Some of these characters are locals at Lola and they welcomed me into their weird little world. Greg, a retired Canadian National Railway (CN) mechanic bought me a beer and told me all about the strange city he loves. It was movie night at Lola and that meant a gentleman named Steve brought in a couple DVDs. The bartender made popcorn and anyone who wandered in sat and enjoyed Meatballs. The follow-up film turned into an MST3K event, it was just God-awful. It was a horrmedy starring Jim Caveizvezvel (The Passion of Jesus guy) called Long Weekend.

Greg and I would take the occasional break to enjoy the night air. After telling him I had booked a seat on the train from Toronto to Edmonton in a couple of days, he nearly fell off his chair laughing. “You’re never going to get there,” he told me, “good luck!” He then explained that while he and his ilk keep the trains running in tip-top form, once you get into rural areas – there’s only one track. One track shared by trains coming from the west coast and those coming from the east. Greg explained how it works and I must admit, I couldn’t and didn’t believe him. Figured we weren’t talking about the same thing. He sure was tickled by it, though. 

Saying goodnight to the good folks at Lola for the evening, I set off to Thirsty & Miserable because it’s on the way to the streetcar stop and because they have cold, delicious beer. Tory was there and we had a pint and continued a scientific discussion of how depression has affected Canada as we walked to Seor Ak San, the best damn dim sum I’ve ever had. Without getting too far into it, Toronto and – Tory believes Canada in general – suffers from major depression. It’s cold 11.5 months of the year, most of the television channels are about making sweaters and, well, they’re in Canada. All understandable. 

I was instructed by many friends to eat at Yummy Yummy Dumplings and/or Nana or another of the hundreds of hidden gems in the area but there just wasn’t time. Seor Ak San checked all the boxes, as Paul Hollywood would say, and I was completely happy with what Toronto had to offer. I had one hell of a conversation with Tory, enjoyed some of the finest dim sum this side of Pacific and had that unreal Pho earlier.

If self-loathing gets the better of you and you’ve exhausted your extraordinarily long Netflix list, check out The Great British Baking Show. That’s seriously what it’s called. And it features an anomaly of a man named Paul Hollywood who plays a tough guy and is somehow laughable all at the same time. It’s a ridiculous baking contest and it will suck you in until, no matter who you are, you grow a beard.

It was time to bid adieu to Toronto, which I probably should have said leaving Montreal, but there’s a little French in Toronto as well. And I didn’t say it out loud anyway. It was also time to stock up on supplies. I’d taken long train rides before and it’s always best to stash away your own snacks and beverages, especially spirits. The dining/coffee shop car isn’t always open and most of the time the prices are a bit silly. This trip from Toronto was supposed to take 2-days and 14-hours but my boy Greg from Lola told me to count on an additional day so I was headed to the liquor store. 

Toronto gets a straight up 20 out of 27 in a made-up rating system I just thought of. I didn’t get to see nearly enough of it but, at the same time, it was enough for a first visit. 

Points off for the fancy part of Bloor Street, I’d avoid that at all costs. 

Anyway, the people of Toronto were exceptionally nice, humorous and quick with a good-natured comeback. You’ve got a wonderful town with lots to do, I’d definitely go back.