Yes, I live in the suburbs. No, I don't drive.

By Jef Catapang

It’s a long story why I never got my driver’s license. Well, actually it’s a short story. No wait — it’s no story. It’s just something that kind of happened, or didn’t happen, but either way, here I am, and honestly, it’s not the worst thing in the world. It’s not even the worst thing in Mississauga.

My friends with cars think I am uniquely crazy but in truth I’ve encountered many other people over the years — successful, hard-working people, I should note — who also use their passport as ID when getting carded. Mostly, these people are downtowners. Elated as I am whenever I meet such kindred spirits I am eventually always reminded of a key difference: these people don’t live in the suburbs and they, like my suburban friends, also think I’m crazy.

It’s not that I don’t disagree. I’m aided by the fact I live a 10 second walk away from a bus route that goes straight to Islington station in one direction and Square One City Centre (the main bus hub for Mississauga transit that includes a GO Station), which also happens to be walking distance, in the other. I also happen to immensely enjoy long walks (hello, ladies! Old ladies). But I know, a car would be easier. If not for the fact that even with a driver’s license, I wouldn’t be able to afford a car. But yeah, you’re right, sort of.

Not caring about cars is one of the many ways I often feel like a downtown spirit living in the suburbs. I like concerts, film festivals and used bookstores and I always thought I would end up living nearer to the core to accommodate my interests. Money issues kept that from happening, but a funny thing happened in the meantime — I started to not hate it here. Nowadays, I enjoy mowing the lawn and waving to the neighbours. I like backyard BBQs with friends I’ve known for more than a decade and parks everywhere where kids play and couples lounge and random people do pull-ups on monkey bars or boot camp calisthenics in soccer fields.

As for my pretentious interests, I like not being a part of a scene. I like having the distance that reminds me why I like stuff in the first place (i.e. the stuff itself). I like the nerds who play Magic the Gathering at the local Central Parkway Mall who aren’t busy on Twitter tweeting about how nerdy they are. It keeps me honest.

When running down the differences between downtowners and suburbanites it’s true that it quickly becomes a dangerous game of generalizations. Worse, it turns into a debate between who’s better, who’s more ethical, who’s smarter or cooler. There’s truth in some of that, but I like having a foot in both worlds because it quickly becomes evident that a lot the discussion is misdirection and bullshit.

Some downtowners boast of their farmer’s markets and bemoan the suburban obsession with lawns and backyards. Mississauga has a farmer’s market that runs from summer to fall, and many of my neighbours use their plot of land to grow their own produce. We swap fruits and veggies, the house on the right turns our grapes into homemade wine, the house on the corner turns tomatoes into big batches of sauce for everyone, and my girlfriend’s mom is always sending me out to the backyard to fetch lettuce or carrots for whatever giant meal she’s cooking from scratch.

With the way we help shovel each other’s driveways, play with each other’s kids and hang out in each other’s garages, it can feel downright commune-ish at times.

On the multiculturalism front, we have the multi-venue Carrassauga festival every year for when we want to try new foods and watch each other dance weird dances, but even on regular days it’s easy to hit Indian restaurants that are actually full of Indian patrons, or, on a more meaningful level, we have all the immigrant neighbours hailing from everywhere, from Poland to Portugal to Malaysia to Goa, all intermingling, nobody retreating to a section of the city deemed theirs. I never feel as immersed in the smorgasbord as I do in Mississauga. Downtown Toronto is racially diverse, dont’ get me wrong, but you can also with some degree of accuracy predict how people are going to dress depending on what neighbourhood they live in, and that’s kind of weird.

I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m puffing up the suburbs and degrading downtowners — I just mean that our boxes aren’t as tidy as we like to pretend they are and we’re not as different as we like to act. A good number of downtown flag-wavers hail from the suburbs, and many strident suburbanites frequently hit downtown for work or entertainment purposes. A lot of the times during these debates we’re all just getting defensive because we feel like our life choices are being judged, but in truth, I don’t think as many of us chose our lifestyles in the hard-line way we assume.

Downtown Toronto is probably a great place to live but the reality is that, baring some new condo development plans in the West Don Lands and other such neighbourhoods, there hasn’t been any significant new rental stock built in the city for decades. In Mississauga’s city centre core, new towers spring up almost daily. Culture, finance, politics, transportation and more play a part in where we decide to live. But sometimes not. My friends moved to Milton because it’s easy to find places to live.

The sooner we stop assuming that because someone comes from a certain area of the GTA they must fall into certain categorical boxes, the sooner we can stop perpetually playing defense in the Great Identity Games. When that happens, maybe we can stop believing that because you live in the suburbs you MUST want a car, or that taking the bus or riding a bike in Mississauga is lame but taking the bus or riding a bike in Toronto is the height of responsible citizenry, then we can, I don’t know, have a serious discussion about how to actually improve public transit over here. (With gridlock imminent near Square One, we better do that shit real soon.)

If we all agree to stop self-fulfilling these personality prophesies, I promise to “grow up” and finally get my driver’s license. Deal?

This post is part of the Ethnic Aisle, a blog about issues of race, ethnicity and culture in the GTA.