West to Downtown: the Islington 37

By Andray Domise

Normally at this time of the morning, I’d be cruising down the Gardiner, heat cranked up and blasting all the moisture out of my face. Instead, on the coldest day of the year, I’ve left the car at home, and am pacing the salt-powdered sidewalk to keep my blood running. I’m in Etobicoke, waiting for my least-favourite bus. I don’t exactly remember the last time I rode the number 37 Islington, but I do know it was in my teens.

This was the bus I was waiting on when I, as a knucklehead teenager, got jacked at Islington station. Despite four heavy layers of fabric, an ugly scar still parts the flesh high on my forearm. I was sixteen at the time, much less keenly aware of my mortality, and saying “no” somehow seemed a sensible option when older boys with knives thought my new winter coat would look better in one of their closets than on my back. They didn’t get my jacket, but it was useless to me with one arm slashed all the way through. I’ve made some bad decisions in my life, but that one belongs in the top five.

The wind picks up, pushing away the memory as it pushes icy fingers through every gap in my clothing. Everyone else at the bus stop shifts and turns their backs to the gust. They adjust hats, pull lapels tighter, fold their arms. We shift from one foot to another; the cold has clawed through the soles of our shoes and stolen the warmth from our feet. When we make eye contact, we shake our heads, and smile.

This absolutely sucks.

The bus arrives and we file in, pay our fares, and jostle our way into seats. Any other time of year, a crowd of commuters this densely-packed will avoid touching others as much as possible, pronating shoulders and pinching knees together. Not today. Frost is condensing on the inside of the windows, and the floor heater doesn’t do much beside blow out noisy air. We’re leaning into each other and huddling for warmth. I remember why I hated this route so much.

It is a long way to downtown from here: forty minutes to Islington Station, and once the eastbound train arrives, another forty-five or so to any stop downtown. Of course, that’s assuming the bus isn’t slowed down by road construction or the routine morning fender-benders. Or that the train isn’t slowed down to some unspecified problem at track level. This trip, twice a day, five days a week, wears the nerves raw. I asked the man next to me about his commute. During the winter months, he replies, there are days he doesn’t even manage to see daylight. He’s usually up before the sun rises, arrives to work through the PATH, busting ass the moment he clocks in, eating lunch indoors, and arriving home under the same pitch-black sky.

We arrive at the station, and the bus vomits us into the subway stairwell.

Impatience stretches itself over everyone’s faces. They look at their feet, their phones, their watches—anything besides the scene outdoors, which is barely changes. The train is moving at a crawl.  A couple of empty booze bottles rattle around a couple of corner seats. The seat in front of them are occupied by a man stumped by a crossword puzzle. The bottles clink together,; he looks up and winks. “Some guy just left ‘em there. Guess it’s never too early, huh?”

I can’t disagree. I’m not a drinker myself, but on a day like this, I wouldn’t judge. The man taps his the ball of his pen back and forth over the three empty spaces that have nagged him for the last few minutes. “Pic - is that three or four letters?”  


“Yeah,” he says, “Like a mafia guy would stab you in the neck with.” I can’t imagine the crossword clue had anything about people being stabbed to the neck by mob enforcers. I ask him for a look--—the clue says “A hole-punching tool.” He means "icepick". That should’ve been the end of today’s helpful streak, but by the time the man has left the train, I’ve added “inductee” and “dispense” to his repertoire. Hole-punching tool, three letters long? That’s going to bother me.

I seem to be a magnet for banter this morning. I’m not sure whether it’s the cold encouraging idle chatter, or if people have seen me talking to other riders, but another man asks me how to find Don Mills station. I point out the circuitous route on the overhead transit map, and tell him I hope he’s made extra time. He’s a new resident, and arrived here from Dubai six months ago. Today he’s toting . He totes a ClearBag under one arm, stretched by the paperwork and folders inside. He’s a systems engineer on the way to an interview, and has commuted all the way from central Mississauga. I wish him luck getting the job, and tell him that if he succeeds, he’ll want to buy a car right away.

By the time I reach Spadina station, my feet are numb and leaden. It’s not even eight, and those of us debarking the train are running low on patience. We climb the stairs and file into a neat line for a streetcar that passes right by us, exiting through the tunnel. We growl, curse under our breaths, and crowd into a disorganized knot for the streetcar. A TTC employee on the platform asks us to please line up, and is promptly ignored when the doors open. It’s too damn cold to be polite.

Spadina rushes forward, the sky overhead as gray and heavy as the tunnel ceiling. This is why we drive in the west end. It’s been an hour and twenty minutes since I stood in line for the number 37. I’ll never wait for that bus again. The cold has gnawed its way under my skin, and the length of this trip tugs at the frayed edges of my patience.

Days later, crawling down the Gardiner in my Ford with the heat cranked up, the word “awl” flits into my mind.

I’ll never wait for that bus again.