Even on a packed car, you can hear a pin drop. There are of course occasional bouts of Toronto’s signature passive aggression as, for the third time, someone lurches forward when the train starts and some middle-aged white woman says, exasperated, “Could you just hold on to something, please?” But for the most part, in this city, every car is the quiet car.
I saw a busker dare to play a guitar on the subway recently. What an aberration. A pristine Canadian silence, interrupted! I was immediately reminded of an incident a few years ago in which a young, bookish white woman was sitting near me on the train, reading. A family got on, Jamaican Canadian by the sound of the things, and their two kids were loud and rambunctious. The young woman made a show of huffily getting up and moving away. “Louder!” said the now-offended mom to her children. The two parties glared at each other for the remainder of the trip.
If you wanted to sum up the city, you could do much worse than a family of colour finding themselves under the glare of a book-wielding white person, annoyed that the subway was not in fact a library. The city still clings to its WASPish past, despite the fact that just over half of Toronto’s residents are born elsewhere, while the same proportion are not white.
Lest one get too caught up in overly neat racial stereotypes, however, what unites Torontonians from the city’s immigrant suburbs to its affluent, diverse core is a deeply conservative streak. The same silence on the subway pervades the city. It’s why you can’t drink in a park despite the fact that Toronto summers are now a months-long outdoor sauna. It’s why the city’s trendiest neighbourhoods are almost empty at 11 on a Wednesday night. It’s why the city’s Central Business District is a forest of 60-storey skyscrapers but most of Toronto is dominated by single-family homeowners who can veto new buildings because they might cast a shadow. It’s why every marginally interesting idea, from a park covering the city-centre’s rail tracks, to an increase in the number of bike lanes, to the mere existence of a car-sharing service like Car2Go, runs into enormous, often lethal opposition from both left and right.
But finally, that same inclination to avoid any and all change, and the tendency to regard as ruinous what in other cities would be utterly normal, is also why Toronto helped elect the brother of the late, famous Rob Ford to be Premier of Ontario. That man, Doug Ford, is a politician who evinces a charming combination of meanness, ignorance, and arrogance, all under the guise of merely doing what people want. By coincidence, he happens to be a fan of subways—not for any sensible reason, but instead because of the politics of grievance. Downtown has subways? Well then everyone should, whether or not an area needs them or even has the ridership to justify one. Still, let’s hope he builds some. Then we can ride them, heads down, oblivious to the world above, never daring to raise our voices to speak a word against what is inoffensive, ordinary, or just plain wrong. God knows we deserve it.