By Anu Radha Verma
When my girlfriend and I ran away from home at 17, we rode the Bloor line back and forth all night, pretending to be lost when TTC staff asked us where we were going — it was January 2000 and we didn’t know where else we could go. We’d left the suburbs far behind, riding Mississauga Transit route 3 to Islington for what we thought was the last time. It wasn’t even three months later that I would be sent away to India, a journey that felt only marginally longer than every bus, train, and streetcar ride we had had during our difficult relationship. Years later, we’d cross paths at Mississauga’s City Centre bus terminal, both riding the 19 north, a dozen people between us, my ungrounded drive to appear fine and over it keeping my tears at bay.
I trace my own stories along transit lines: a smooth line going north from Mississauga to Brampton on the 19 or from Kipling to Kennedy on the Bloor Line; a zigzag from Square One to Downsview via Yorkdale GO Bus Station or from my local bus stop to Parkdale; or the illogical turns from Mississauga to North York General Hospital to Mount Sinai and back to Mississauga. Whether getting an express route or waiting for a bus that never comes, these journeys have marked me in profound ways.
I moved back to Mississauga recently, and have been confronting all sorts of complexities as a queer woman of colour, underemployed, with mental health issues, living with my parents five minutes away from that quintessential suburban attribute, the mall. It’s not a cool thing to admit, but I am a suburbanite who doesn’t hate the suburbs. There, I said it. Exhale. For years, I would duck verbal jabs about the ’burbs being “20 years behind Toronto.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this made me simultaneously grumpy and energized about the possibilities of living, loving, organizing and agitating in the suburbs.
While the movies and Toronto hipster rhetoric tell us that suburbanites are fundamentally shaped by consumption and the mall, I think the building just north of Square One might be more important. The City Centre Transit Terminal has thousands of people rush or loiter through it daily. The bus routes that start, end, or transfer through the terminal are liminal spaces, marking the delicate balance between triumph and falling-apart — like my own precarity that summer day when my ex stood nearby, and I tried to steady my hand with the usual morning routine of makeup. Femme before I knew the word.
Even at its peak hours, the City Centre terminal couldn’t compete with the haze of the Chandigarh-Shimla road that cured my fear of heights. Nor the crush of south Delhi, where I travelled by auto-rickshaw, local or radio taxis, and excitedly by the new metro (Ladies Compartment only). Navigating the circles of north India feels both easier and harder than the linear Toronto where narrowness feels carved, deep. I truly got to know Toronto by its grid of a subway system. The busy summer I worked for an environmental NGO conducting energy audits allowed me to get to know all the stretches of subway as our teams traversed the city giving out free light bulbs and advice to small businesses on how they could do their part and save money. I fell hard that summer, into a kind of frenzied flapping I now describe as trying not to suffocate — it was the summer of the garbage strike — and also, into the bed of someone else. He grew up in the city and had a soft kind of familiarity with it, something I daydreamed I could have one day if I moved to New York City. Maybe suburban hopes do die hard.
When I finally moved to Toronto, the construction on Roncesvalles combined with the brutal winter meant that my commute to Scarborough (part time, $14 an hour, no benefits) wasn’t significantly shorter than from Mississauga. I did live for some parts of that journey, though: eavesdropping on conversations and people-watching — common pastimes in Delhi, but undesired or shameful in Toronto. This city is a messy and marvellous one — the people on the TTC told me that, through their conversations peppered with English, the full grocery bags, the enviable lipstick, and of course through their comments on the banality of commuting.
Fast forward six years, I was reverse commuting (Downsview to Dixie/Dundas) without the space or capacity to absorb or appreciate the magic of transit-goers. Instead I take Line 1, then Line 2, then the Dundas bus with a pit growing in my stomach at every announced stop on the way to work. I was being targeted by management for raising issues of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Fellow travellers, especially the young racialized UTM students or the Punjabi uncles and Caribbean grandmas, were a sort of buffer and staccatoed encouragement, a reminder that the world outside the health centre was different and real. In a fit of vulnerability, I told the director about my anxiety on the bus and about my fear of reprisal. One week later I lost my job. I haven’t taken the Dundas bus since February 2015, charting my routes with a marked absence, a fuzzy spot to work (and move) around.
I’m back to taking the 3 to Islington. It’s a little different now. Presto tapping and my earphones staying in with cheesy Bollywood on repeat. Yet some things remain. When we pass my old elementary school, old housing complex, old high school, the hill I used to love rolling down, the Catholic school parking lot where I had my first real kiss, the places I left, there is a sense of wonder, an intimate but slightly detached view of these experiences framed by a bus window. I’m almost arriving aren’t I? But in truth, I’d rather not get off yet....