December 30, 2017
I am always happy to leave the suburbs for the city. On this particular frigid, bright winter day, I was even more so. Though I enjoy the peace and sterility of the empty streets when the temperature dips well below zero, I much prefer Toronto’s bustling downtown. Also, I was just excited for a chance to ride the brand-new subway that now links the core to Vaughan just to its north.
I have always hated the long commute into town. My entire social and professional life is located in the city, and it used to be a four-hour round trip. The subway has shortened it just slightly—it’s now more like three hours—but still, making this trip for the last five years has left me worn, tired, frayed.
There is still a comforting rhythm to the journey, though—the familiar sequence of the stops, the changing landscape out of the window for that brief period the subway is aboveground. But there is also a stark divide over who rides transit in the suburbs and the city; in the former, it’s those who can’t afford a car, in the latter, it’s those who don’t care to. So on this as any other day, there was that same slow, discomfiting transition: the thinning out of faces of color, the steady accumulation of urban uniforms, and in this city anyway, the odd movement from wealth to poverty back to wealth.
But then, who am I to comment on such things? I was heading down to meet an old friend at a new bar, the sort of place with a retro design and a long list of novel cocktails. The spot would have been revelatory 10 or 15 years ago in this still-sleepy big city but now is just one of dozens of hip, trendy places that dot the West End.
Mulberry Bar is lit low and painted a deep green, with a strange, domed glass ceiling. Parisian, they call it. It seemed like the right place for what might have been a slightly awkward encounter after a too-long absence. But as it turned out, the evening would reflect that well-worn, enjoyable feeling of entering a bar in winter: the cozy embrace of warm air, the smell of mulled wine as I walked in.
It was empty save for my friend sitting on a stool at a small table. I guess the bitter, record-breaking temperatures had kept saner people away. It was a relief to see her smile, and it settled my nerves even before I’d had a drink. I started with a Blood and Sand, the sort of cocktail I never have the ingredients to make at home, and which quickly took the chill off. But when that was done, all I wanted was something familiar, so I had a manhattan, which was excellent if perhaps a touch too strong for the occasion. But sometimes you just want what you want.
I woke up the next morning in a bed that wasn’t mine. It was minus 18, the sky cloudless, the sun piercingly bright. It was, in other words, perfect weather. I walked through the cold, dragging my conflicted feelings along Bloor Street. It was just after Christmas, and I felt the tug to go back home, to be with family. But I spontaneously dipped into a coffee shop called Ella’s Uncle, feeling like a brief pause before having to be on again. It too was empty, and it was my first visit. But it all felt of a piece with the area: the handwritten list of drinks, the minimalist decor, the little container for used cutlery with a label that read “dirty little spoons.” I may live in the suburbs, but it is places like these that feel like home, even if they make me cringe a bit.
On my second trip up to the counter, the barista said, “It’s a two-coffee kind of morning, huh?” I agreed, mumbling something about the weather, then quickly felt like a Canadian cliché. She was right, though. It was a morning to process feelings, to face up to the day. I downed the extraneous americano and suited up again for the cold, the ritual of putting on fleece, then a down jacket, then finally Gore-Tex on top—and a brief pause to steel oneself.
The return journey produced its own pleasing, inverted rhythm. The crowd thinned the farther north we went, the bustle of the city fading steadily until the entire subway carried but three or four people when it pulled into the still-new, gleaming station that, in truth, probably shouldn’t haven’t even been built.
My brother was waiting in a warm car. We returned to our parents’ home, the roads snow white with salt, glistening unnaturally in the sun. Opening the door to home, I felt that same burst of warm air, but now with a different sort of welcoming smell—the lingering aroma of South Asian spices and cooking that never quite leaves. It enveloped me, and I was able to forget about my sojourn downtown, if only for a moment. The sun dropped below the horizon, and as we made plans for a lavish dinner on New Year’s Eve, the mercury continued to fall.