The first time I visited Toronto

I was 25 when I took my first vacation by myself. I lived in Chicago at the time and thought it would be nice to see Toronto and Montreal. The cities sounded exotic and weren’t too far away, so I planned three days in Toronto before moving on to Montreal. Getting there wasn’t easy; first came a train ride to Detroit, then a bus under the river to Windsor, Ontario, and then another train to Toronto. Complicating matters was some weird scheduling that would require me to spend seven or eight hours overnight in Windsor. This was long before Expedia.

The bus from Detroit deposited me at the Windsor Greyhound station shortly before midnight. Not wanting to lug my luggage around, I stuffed everything into a storage locker, the kind that used to be in bus stations in the days before buses began to be hijacked or blown up or whatever it was that made the bus lines remove them. My plan was to kill time downtown overnight, pick up my bags early in the morning, and walk the mile to the train station.

I roamed the quiet streets, found a diner, ate a wee-hours breakfast, read every column of the newspaper and did the crossword, and it was still barely two o’clock. Afraid of falling asleep in my diner booth, I headed back to the bus station to wait there.

I learned something important about Windsor, Ontario, that June evening. I learned that its Greyhound station was not one of those bus stations, such as you might encounter in many large cities, that bustles all night, teeming with travelers. It was locked tight. Observing neither teeming nor bustling as I peered through the glass doors, my hands cupped around my eyes, I hoped for a glimpse of a security guard or janitor who might allow me in to retrieve my belongings. Apparently, Canadian bus stations are cleaned only in the daytime, or perhaps Canadians do such a thorough job of cleaning up after themselves that custodial staffs in bus stations aren’t necessary. Whatever the reason, I saw no one inside doing anything.

Aside from wishing not to spend the night outdoors — it was chilly — I needed to relieve myself, so I temporarily abandoned my baggage quest and returned to the diner for another study of the newspaper. It developed, however, that the Greyhound station was hardly the only establishment in Windsor not to keep all-night hours. In the hour since I last departed the diner, it, too, had closed. Dark and locked, it was. With no other options and bladder straining, I trudged the ten or twelve blocks back to the bus station, which was still deserted. Back at the station, I am embarrassed to say — embarrassed because I came to love Canada and abhorred the idea of desecrating any part of it — I walked around to the bus-parking area behind the station, chose the least-illuminated column, and peed on it.

Eliminatory relief achieved, I had few alternatives but to sleep, or try to. Sleep would be a challenge at any hour of the day on a four-foot-long concrete bench, but at three o’clock on an Ontario morning, with temperatures in the 50s, it was simply not meant to be. The least-uncomfortable arrangement was for me to lie on my back with my knees over the end of the bench. Thus contorted, there was no tossing or turning to take place; all I could do was lie there. It might have helped if I had a view of the starry sky, but as I was underneath the bus-bay awning, my only view was of the fluorescent light over my head. Fluorescent lights in Canada, I learned, attract moths and gnats as readily as American fluorescent lights do. I worried that one might fly into my mouth, were I to fall asleep and snore.

By five o’clock or so, my concern over my hostage-luggage had grown. My train would depart at seven. At last, though, around six, a man appeared inside the station and unlocked the doors. Not having seen him enter the station, I suspected that he had been in there all along, and had heard but ignored my pounding on the glass earlier in the evening, or, depending on one’s view of such things, the morning. He was probably behind the ticket counter, looking at Canadian pornographic magazines. I learned years later that Windsor was home to at least one gay bar featuring all-nude go-go dancers. If that had been the case in 1986, and if I had known it, the story of my night there might have taken a considerably different turn.

I made my train but never made it to Montreal. It was love at first sight with Toronto, and before even my first dinner there I decided to stay the week, so I called and cancelled my hotel in Montreal. My Toronto romance endured for six or seven years, until another one blossomed — this time with a human — but for those years, with annual visits, it was tourist bliss. I found it clean (by Chicago standards), safe (by any big-city standard), and full of good restaurants. I never encountered an ill-mannered Torontonian in all my visits there. People experience chemistry — good and bad — with cities, just as they do with people, and mine with Toronto was magical. I accept, though, that someone else’s visits might have involved chewing gum on their shoes, muggers’ pistols in their backs, or waiters who picked their noses, in which case I was just lucky.

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