Yonge and restless
Saturday, August 4, 2001
As I climbed onto the bus at 5:30 that morning and left her sitting in the restaurant, it occurred to me that I'd learned more about Janice Breton in three hours than I have ever managed to extract from my own sisters.
As I curled into my seat, the bus moved off toward the rising sun and the train station in Cochrane.
I was still half asleep when I had to break into a short sprint to reach the train before it left the Ontario Northland platform. I staggered into the carriage, wrestling with my luggage, and startled a young couple by demanding, "Which way does this train go?"
"North Bay and Toronto," the young woman replied with a puzzled frown. No, in which direction is the train moving, I insisted. She pointed to show me, and I sat facing the other way, and fell asleep as soon as the wheels began to roll.
I had elected to take the train partly because railway development determined so much of Canada's human geography, the distribution of its towns and cities, and partly because it would be my only opportunity to see Yonge Street retrospectively.
Travelling by rail imposes a different perspective on the world around you, a compromise between the expansiveness of flying and the intimacy of the road. In a car or bus, you really see only the road ahead, but on a train you have an opportunity, as Ben Okri once wrote, "of seeing not the landscape that you're approaching but another landscape that is receding from you."
What he meant is that the truest way to travel is to stand at the back of a train and observe the future revealed as it simultaneously disappears into the past. Because that is how we actually live, with the past, present and future coexisting in the same time zone - in real time, as it were.
The downside of trains is that there are no road signs, so you travel blind, especially if your map is wedged at the bottom of your suitcase. Travelling without maps is like moving to a new country. While everyone around you moves with assurance, you wander around, trying to get a feel for the place, surveying the landscape, laying down your cognitive schema, as novelist Dionne Brand once told me.
And so, when I awoke to find us pulling out of a place called Swastika, I did a double take. Surely not, I thought. Was this some kind of joke? But there it was again - Swastika - in bold letters on a sign on the platform. I looked around the carriage, the lovebirds were fast asleep, curled up in each other's arms, and a kid with bleach-blond hair and bushy eyebrows that met in the middle of his forehead was sitting opposite me, nodding to the music on his Discman, lost in his own world.