By Helen Lee
My formative years were spent living in my parents’ house in the area of Brimley Road and Steeles Avenue East. Although my address was in a Markham subdivision, it was really only a place to sleep: all my waking hours were spent south of Steeles. I earned my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and then all of my subsequent jobs were downtown. Unlike my parents and most of my friends, I was never keen on driving. The end result was countless hours riding TTC buses through Scarborough.
But for me, the bus was not only my way of getting around, it was also a tool of exploration. My idea of having fun was seeking out food that was different from the Cantonese Chinese meals served at home. I was a foodie without the cash to jet-set to foreign countries and sample exotic cuisines. But I had the persistence to memorize Scarborough bus routes, and use these as portals to new smells, flavours, and textures.
In Wexford, the 54 took me to the plump maamoul and delicate baklava found in tucked-away bakeries on Lawrence Avenue between Warden and Pharmacy avenues. In Agincourt, the 85 took me to all the variations on noodle soup dotted along Sheppard Avenue between Brimley and Midland Avenue. In Malvern, the 102 took me to dosas along Markham Road, while the 116 took me up Morningside Avenue to the find the elusive curry goat roti.
For those who don’t already know, Scarborough is basically the world’s smorgasbord. Neighbourhoods east of Victoria Park Avenue have very ethnically diverse populations, and the food offerings have evolved to cater to this diversity. Nestled in 1960s era strip plazas, which were mostly built by the white people who suburbanized Scarborough, are abundant takeout joints and cheap and cheerful family-run restaurants. Often, these plazas have shops selling products from “back home” where customers haggle with the owners in their respective mother tongues.
My foodie adventures almost always included a five- to ten-minute walk across parking lots to access these strip plaza delights. While trudging over asphalt and cement, I often felt like a solitary traveller navigating a strange environment that was clearly not made for me. It was as if the designers of these environments never imagined that people would access the area the way that I was: by stepping off a bus. The feeling of being a stranger in the wilds of strip plaza Scarborough was reinforced by my assumption that I was the only customer accessing those restaurants and shops by anything else besides a car.
At some point, I realized that although my trips felt solitary, I was surrounded by people on the bus. Lots of people in fact, since the buses were often crammed. So, if I was the only one taking the bus to my destinations, then where was everyone else going?
It’s only when I came face-to-face with that contradiction that I actually noticed one crucial detail: the other riders carried plastic bags emblazoned with the logos of the same restaurants and takeout joints that I frequented. Somehow, at the very same time that I was one of many, I had been confident that I was the only one. It turns out I was wrong. There were others taking the bus to the same strip plazas in Scarborough that I frequented.
Who were my fellow riders? They spanned all ages, ethnicities, and occupations. There were families with strollers and young children in tow. Gaggles of teenage girls gossiped while using their smartphones. Elderly couples went to medical appointments, usually with a buggy so they could also do some shopping afterwards. Uniforms identified riders as nurses, fast food workers, or security guards. Office professionals ran the gamut of 20-somethings starting their careers to 50-something branch managers.
Given that Scarborough was designed for cars, I wondered why so many people took the bus instead of driving. Amongst my family and friends, there was the common presumption that those who took the bus fell into one of three categories: recently arrived immigrants who couldn’t afford cars, OSAP students, or seniors living off social assistance.
But that presumption pandered to the outdated and discriminatory stereotype of the poor, non-white suburban bus rider, indicative of a place in decline, which was certainly not my reality of taking buses in Scarborough. The restaurants in the various strip plazas I visited were always bustling with customers, and the buses I took were filled with a vibrant mixture of different kinds of riders.
The reality in Scarborough is that there is no defined bus rider identity. Everyone is an individual traveller, each with their own destination and purpose within Scarborough. Their journeys take them through neighbourhoods that were once predominantly white, but which now serve as intersections for a variety of ethnic identities. Every day, they travel through spaces that were built for cars, and they do so by taking the bus.