Ninety-six Hours in Toronto, June 2003

Toronto underground 3I keep travel notebooks, always have—writing more in three or four days than I write in six months at home. Being in motion lights me up. I have notebooks for Hong Kong, New Orleans, Vancouver BC, Mexico City, San Francisco, Taipei, Seattle, Chicago, Salzburg, New York City, Paris, Boston, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Barcelona, Washington DC, Geneva, Baltimore, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Orlando, Rome, Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Portland, and others. It’s not only the big cities that grip me, I also take compulsive notes in places like Jerome, Idaho, or Alamogordo, New Mexico—it’s like a disease, I know. This may sound like a lot of travel, but the truth is, most of it is business travel—short trips spent mostly in trade show exhibits or conference rooms, staying in homogeneous hotels, waiting in airports, riding in taxis. I’m no seasoned global (or even domestic) traveler, not by a stretch. This is ordinary travel, outstripped ten-fold by a young sales executive or event planner.

Still, the notes pile up. 

In June 2003 I traveled to Toronto, Ontario, Canada. My oldest son, Colin was six months old. This was my first time anywhere without him since his birth. It was also the summer the SARS epidemic raged in southern China, spreading via air travelers to 37 countries within a few weeks. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, a nasty form of pneumonia, causes extreme breathing difficulty and sometimes death. The outbreaks in China caused over 8,000 cases, eventually killing 775 people there. In 2003 SARS was new and unpredictable. No one could say how far it would go. Warnings from the World Health Organization about a global pandemic had people on edge. My company, 3M, shut down almost all company travel in and out of China and restricted access to Asia and most destinations outside the U.S., including Canada. Several hospitals in Toronto had been especially hard hit by SARS. My trip was on and off again a dozen times. Yet somehow on the planned Saturday evening I found myself in downtown Toronto, not far from the quarantined hospitals, to attend an international conference. It was only four days, not even a hundred hours. The notebook gives the days back to me.

Saturday, June 7

The risk of being infected with SARS, though likely exaggerated by the media, is still risk and hangs over everything. Should the father of a new baby be off to Toronto just now? Airport personnel in Minneapolis, once they learn I’m continuing on to Canada, give me sideways looks, watching for flu symptoms. For all they know, I’m ripe with virus.


During the long layover in the Minneapolis, I eat lunch at an airport terminal restaurant and watch the river of people flowing by. A familiar euphoric lightness comes over me that I experience only when traveling alone. There are few people at the gate and I wrongfully assume I have time to read and drift. I don’t hear them announce the flight and nearly miss it. Soon they start to close the doors to the plane. I’m the last on board and fellow passengers eye me with palpable annoyance as I finally take my seat.

The quirky Northwest Airlines pilot welcomes us to the flight by playing harmonica and singing a bluesy song. He quotes some poet or philosopher saying, “We will now break from the surly bonds of earth.” The flight attendants laugh as if the pilot says the same thing before every flight. All this makes me skittish. The engine of the DC-9 churns like a ship engine. We hit turbulence soon after take-off. And I wonder whether I have made a mistake to come. Today is Maura’s 38th birthday and yet I’m on my way out of town again, as I have done every year since we were married to attend this same international conference. Maura takes it all in stride, though it’s different this year being left alone with a new baby. I’m a late bloomer: married at forty, a father at forty-three. All those years living alone I longed for a chance to practice what I hoped I had learned about love and patience. Now the chance has come and I’m so immersed in it that any kind of separation wrenches me with a long forgotten homesickness. It starts the moment I leave the house like the pull of gravity. At the same time, I’m ecstatic to be in motion.

As the plane lands, I watch Toronto appear: skyscrapers and rows of suburban homes surrounded by a patchwork of green and tan, many patches thick with trees, the landscape flat as paper. A group of swallows dodge the landing plane, racing past in the opposite direction. This makes the first careening moment of landing—when the engine races and you feel the friction of earth again—seem more reckless than usual. “Back to the surly bonds of earth,” the oddball pilot quips again.


My cab driver brags about Michael Ondaaje and Margaret Atwood, two of the world’s most famous writers living right here in Toronto. A born tour guide, he touts the downtown bookstores, the waterfront, and the Canadian National building—tallest skyscraper in the world. Lake Ontario is the deepest of the Great Lakes. “It has only frozen over twice,” he claims. One of the world’s wonders, Niagara Falls, is a short boat ride away.


My hotel in Toronto is half empty. Many travelers cancelled their trips into Canada, including many conference attendees and speakers. Even the keynote speaker chooses to keep SARS at more than a few city blocks distance. The replacement keynote speaker turns out to be Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian himself, so we’re all the better on that score. Conference planners, however, are despondent about attendance. It’s a financial catastrophe for the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). I arrive late to a small reception for IABC chapter leaders. It’s sparsely attended, but a few of those who did make it are already drunk. One woman’s harsh voice, though not directed at me, drives me from the room in minutes. Walking down the hotel corridors I hear a man and woman arguing in their room. The man shouts as he steps out into the hall. Almost in flight, I take the elevator down to the lobby and walk outside, hoping to find crowded streets like New York City. Instead I find a financial district, near Bond Street, deserted except for a cluster of homeless men in the park. Their heads turn in unison to watch me pass. A fog gathers with the night and the skyscrapers disappear into it.


Two hours later I’m sleepless in my hotel room, homesick on the first night away from Maura and Colin. It’s too quiet in the room: the cooling fans turn on and off; the building breathes and moves, somehow alive. Even if empty, the hotel would issue rushes of air, metallic groans, and a presence. I’m on the 22nd floor and can hear Saturday night revelers in the park. Men shouting, protests, chants in unison, the city dark, out of control. I turn on the bedside light and read an essay by Sebastian Junger. It’s a portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a commander of the North Alliance in Afghanistan. Massoud was assassinated just days before the September 11 attacks. He had actually warned the U.S. about the rising jihad in Afghanistan and the imminent possibility of a strike on U.S. soil, a warning largely ignored. It was something Massoud said that eased my anxiety and I fell asleep turning his words over in my mind: “Life goes by whether you’re happy or not,” he said. “Any man who looks back on his past and feels he has been of some use need have no regrets.”

Sunday, June 8

A better day: I register for the conference, walk the city streets, and lunch at a tiny café run by a mother and son from Pakistan. I sit at one of two sidewalk tables. “Is the food good, my friend?” the son asks me each time he passes my table. “Yes, it is good,” I tell him. And it is: saffron rice, lentils, broiled lamb, onions and yogurt, pita bread so soft and fresh they must have made it right here, today. The Sunday streets are alive with diverse voices—people speak German, Chinese, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese, French, and English in various accents, and other languages I can’t identify. Toronto appears to have no minorities; it is a gathering of majorities.


A lone window washer on the skyscraper next to my hotel, so small out there, a gecko on the wall of an enormous room.


I see an older woman begging for money and walk by at first, then go back to give her five dollars. She reminds me of my mother-in-law somehow. I can’t shake it, the resemblance. Not neediness or pleading in her eyes, but insistence, strength not to be ignored.


The keynote speaker, Malcolm Gladwell, appears on stage with this enormous afro that actually moves with the air flow in the large ballroom. I expect him to pull off a wig or make a joke about it, but he never refers to it at all. This is simply how he looks. And soon I get mesmerized, along with the rest of the audience, as he talks about the mysterious power of certain individuals—mavens, he calls them. Not always the most charismatic or obvious leaders, but the people who connect to the widest networks, people who gather and share information, people without guile, always trusted. He uses the example of Paul Revere at the opening of the American Revolution. There were many messengers who rode through the night, from house to house, town to town, warning “the British were coming,” but when Paul Revere said to wake up, bring your weapons and your sons, people listened and came.


After the keynote, I can’t bring myself to stay long at the evening reception. I check in with a few people about meetings tomorrow, drink down two or three Cokes while making small talk near the open bar. As soon as I can get away, I walk out into the night toward the lake shore. It starts to rain hard, then thunder and lightning, and I have to turn back. As I enter the hotel, the current President of IABC steps out. In tonight’s meeting, as she gave her speech, she was stilted, almost harsh—her dark suit, her hair pulled back tight, playing well the part of the no-nonsense business woman. Something she must believe is expected of her. Now she, too, escapes the reception, the event she organized herself. She waits for a taxi, on her way to meet someone. She’s dressed in light, casual clothes, no glasses—her hair down. She’s smiling, of all things.


From the 22nd floor I watch the fog roll in and cover the city, the lights from the neighboring skyscrapers faint and far off.



Monday, June 9

This morning I discover I left the power cord to my laptop at home. Soon yy computer battery is dead. So I go in search of a power cord. I start at the hotel business center. They send me to Grand & Toy, who sends me to Radio Shack, who sends me to a tiny shop that specializes in laptops. None of them can help me. Every laptop makes it own power cord for each model, rarely interchangeable. Soon I’m lost in the underground that honeycombs through the downtown district, networking subway stations and hotel complexes. It’s a labyrinth of clothing shops and restaurants and beauty salons and recurring chain stores. You see a Timothy’s Coffee (think Starbucks) and you imagine you’ve found something familiar, but it’s just another Timothy’s two blocks away from that last one. This labyrinth is layered on two levels, even three levels in some areas: Stairways going up to hotel lobbies and office complexes or to the street; more stairs and escalators going down to subway stations, glass doors opening to more corridors of small businesses and food courts.

Years ago I had a dream of such a place. Now I’m seeing it for real. When I finally return to street level to get my bearings, I find myself on unfamiliar streets—Wellington, Mercer? I walk four blocks to Front Street, then find York and head north, past King Street, Adelaide, Temperance, Lombard, and Richmond Streets. I later learn I’m only a block from Queen Street (where my hotel is) but I don’t see it. I look up and see a red “S” on a skyscraper and think, Hey, there’s the Sheraton Hotel and I head off on another wild goose chase (a Canadian goose chase at that) until I’m a mile away standing under Scotia Bank. Then I retrace my steps for the third time back to the hotel. I can get lost in a new city in the same way I once got lost in El Malpais lava flow in New Mexico, where I wandered in circles all day and into the night, following the wrong trail markers or losing them altogether until I was 12 miles from my car as the crow flies and more than a hundred miles away by road. Sunburned and filthy from several tumbles in the rocks, I finally made it to a remote two-lane highway where I was picked up by a construction worker on his way back to Grants. He passed me by at first, and then slowly backed up and pushed his passenger door open. “Anyone who is walking way out here looking like you do must be in deep trouble or crazy or both. Get in.”


I return to the labyrinth for lunch but don’t venture too far. I find a small deli which serves the best BLT sandwich on earth. Even in the labyrinth, I start to relax again, drunk on the freedom of motion, the illusion everything is new. While I’m eating, armies of business people from the financial district take their lunch break. It reminds me of the area near the former World Trade Center in New York City, where I visited my cousin who worked on Wall Street. We would travel into the city from New Jersey where he lived and exit the subway near the two towers. I would wander the city while my cousin worked and we would meet up again for the commute home. I took in the view from observation area at the top of one of the towers. I bought tickets to Broadway shows. Several times I sat out in the courtyard under the towers to eat a slice of pizza or a pastrami sandwich. Almost two years ago when the towers fell on September 11th, I watched the TV news with frozen dread seeing people jump to their deaths from the burning heights of the towers into this same courtyard. The Toronto scene carries only a hint of this tragedy. I’m in a manic state of finding every person I see interesting: A tiny Asian woman, little more than three feet tall, a perfect miniature adult the height of an eight year-old. She walks among all the tall suits with assurance and long practice, a compact, independent soul, singular, and courageous—as we all could be. She walks into the same deli where I sit, buys a sandwich and soda, and walks back up the stairway to the street. She may do this every day. The deli proprietor smiles at her, they both laugh, and she waves goodbye when she leaves.


I write little about the actual conference sessions in these notes, even though that is why I have traveled to Toronto. The information improves my work now, true enough, but it will mean little in the years ahead. Still, I can’t leave out one extraordinary session this afternoon: a panel of Media Relations professionals from hospitals where the SARS patients are being quarantined. No PowerPoint slides or planned speeches here. Rather an open, and somewhat chaotic, discussion about responding to the SARS emergency: their late nights and confrontations with the press and with patients’ families. “The key,” they tell us “is to be as transparent as you can, to keep information moving to the public, not allowing rumors to go unchecked.” Both weary and exhilarated, these professionals speak in hushed voices of what is happening right now, repeatedly reminding us that they can’t stay much longer. They speak as if this experience is the best and worst thing that has ever happened to them. This unplanned session, like Malcolm Gladwell’s stop-gap keynote speech, came about because so many cancelled their trip due to the SARS epidemic. And yet these turn out to be the best moments of the conference.


I work until 8 p.m. and then walk to the Harbour Front. On this trip I find myself more adrift than usual, though I can be a loner. No colleagues from 3M made the trip with me this year as they normally would and few of my associates from the local IABC chapters in the West. I find myself on my own for many meals. Tonight I walk along the pier and watch the layers of gulls circling—the far-off gulls appear to move slowly, an optical illusion—and an airliner far overhead looks the same size as the gulls and moves slower still. Gulls dive down in the water for their prey; ducks float in the sheltered marinas. A pontoon plane looms in the docks. Ferries go back and forth to nearby islands and Niagara Falls. Radio towers topped with red lights. A half moon in a grey-blue sky. The distant shores are thick with trees that seem to grow out of the water itself. I have a dinner of sea bass, garlic potatoes, spinach greens, red peppers, cucumbers.

Walking back to the hotel, I stare up at the lighted windows in the skyscrapers—a hundred thousand TV screens, each telling its own story, more windows dark than lit. I walk under the Gardiner Expressway, through an empty Go Train line station and up York Street. Homeless people sleep in the enclosed bus stops, next to corner newsstands, on sidewalk grates where the warm air rises from under the city. One man makes a shelter out of cardboard boxes, one large box for his legs and torso, a box for each arm, another to shelter his head when it rains. On another corner, an abandoned blanket, a piece of burlap, a baby diaper—the frail evidence of a temporary home.

I pass a cluster of homeless men who turn as a group toward me. They stop talking. I’m close enough to smell the drink on them. I have just eaten a healthy meal. I have a corporate credit card in my pocket and $200 in cash. I’m alone. They have none of these things and are not alone. And at once I’m back in 1978 near downtown Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a drunken young man once followed me, raving on about getting out of jail the day before. He held a fistful of burning dollar bills, waving them at me, not flinching when the flames reached his fingers. The alcohol scent so saturated him, I expected his whole body to ignite. This time I do the same thing I did then: I stare straight ahead and walk. In the 10 seconds it takes me to pass by these Toronto homeless, the real past and imagined present moment play in my mind and I see myself bloodied and robbed, limping back to the hotel with the coppery taste of violence in my mouth, my hands and elbows raw from falling on the sidewalk. Though nothing happens, I go on imagining it has and this intensifies everything: the pipe tobacco scent from a man at a bus stop, the saxophone spilling out of a pub doorway, a woman’s slender arms, a child’s meandering chatter. I walk toward the hotel, imagining people on the street can see I’ve been robbed. They see the back pocket torn out of my suit pants and the blood on my face and shirt. They think they should ask me if I’m alright, but they don’t. The strangers leave me to my breathing and to the steady fall and recovery of walking. It’s a waking dream, a trance. Before I want to be, I’m off the street, riding an empty hotel elevator with its mirrors and the seeing my unharmed face looking back at me.


In my room, I’m shaken, feeling old. That’s really what comes to mind. I’m too old even for this imagined danger, too old for anything. But it’s nonsense. My sister Sandra, who definitely isn’t too old for anything, just had her birthday earlier this week on June fifth. For the next few months we’ll be twins. On my fortieth birthday she wrote me a rhyme that goes something like this:

I have a brother named Steve

Who thought of his age and did grieve

But he looked at his nephews and nieces all round

And his foolish distress it did leave.

 Can my sister and I really be forty-four? I try saying it out loud with an Irish accent and it sounds better that way. I’m forty-four. I’m forty-four. Yes. I’m forty-four. So be it then.


“Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” —Satchel Paige


Tuesday, June 10

Today starts with a fire alarm at 6:30 a.m. They start to evacuate, then call it off. Strangers in the corridors, half dressed or in pajamas, hair askew, rubbing at their eyes. There’s no getting back to sleep after this. I had woken out of a dream of an imaginary city too vast to be real—like Boston, Toronto, and Hong Kong combined. I stand at the top of the highest skyscraper on a wide stretch of concrete where I can walk to the very edge and look out at the night skyline. The myriad buildings lit up with multicolored lights, darkened rivers between the buildings, cars innumerable, red and white blood cells circulating in a vast living creature. In the dream I see the city from many perspectives at once—one moment from a height, the next moment from street level in an abandoned district menacing in its silence. Then, it’s daylight in the dream with crowds of people, outdoor cafes, produce markets, booksellers, street musicians, and behind them the towering skyscrapers.


My brother Brian calls me to tell me his daughter was born the afternoon I flew to Toronto. She’s born on June seventh, my wife’s birthday. Jocelyn Mari Cantwell is just over eight pounds. Brian’s wife, Misha, has a fierce struggle at the pushing stage of labor and they come close to doing a caesarian. Brian and I face the same changes, our lives mirroring each other. I wish him all the strength and patience he’ll surely need. Brian tells me on the phone it’s like he’s waking up in the world for the first time and how nothing will ever be the same again.


Tonight five of us walk to Tortilla Flat, a Mexican restaurant near the hotel. We’re five strangers brought together at random, none of us knew any of the others until this very night and yet we talked and laughed for three hours, shared a meal, walked the city streets, then made sure everyone returned safely to the hotel. Why am I surprised at the decency of most people I meet?

I’m not ready to be closed into the hotel room yet, so I wander down Front Street, walking under the looming Canadian National Tower. I see a long queue of white trucks connected by cable bundles wrapped in plastic covers. A half dozen men stand in a group eating pizza. It’s a film crew on a break. One trailer door reads “Mongo,” another “Duck.” I fight the temptation to stay for the next shoot.


I wake up in the night again. More shouting down in the park. Another dream. What is it about traveling and dreams? In this one, my son Colin and I sit next to each other on a field of grass. At the far end of the field is an outlandishly large pine tree decorated with ribbons and balloons and strings of colored popcorn. Not a Christmas tree, but a tree decked out for a summer wedding or a child’s birthday party. Colin is the same age as he is now, six months old, and yet in the dream he speaks to me in perfect English: “Daddy, Daddy,” he says, “They told me that tree over there is filled with treasures and some of them have my name on them!” I’m astounded Colin is talking and I call out, “Maura Leigh, Can you believe it? Are you hearing this?” Colin pulls on my sleeve. “Daddy, Let’s go get those treasures!”


Wednesday, June 11

This afternoon I get my last glimpse of Toronto. I walk down Queen Street toward Chinatown. I buy colored pens and letter stencils for Maura at an art supply shop. On Queen Street I find an upstairs rare bookstore called David Mason Books, most books printed before 1930. I look but don’t buy. I love to read books, but I’m just as happy with a used paperback as a First Edition. I like to mark them, use them, fall asleep on them, eat them up. I’m uncomfortable with an expensive artifact I’m afraid to touch. I take a last look at the Old City Hall with its copper roof and Nathan Phillips Square, then wander around John Street, Spadina Avenue, back to York, and off to the airport.


My Ethiopian cab driver tells me about the World Cup in Washington, D.C., when the Ethiopian team came to play. “One hundred thousand people gather for a whole week . . . and no violence, no crime, no sir. I tell you, the Ethiopians, they are very very very good people!” I’m convinced.


In the Washington Post: Frisbeetarianism (n.) The belief that, when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and get stuck there.


Another fire alarm sounds at the airport terminal. What is it now? I’m not worried about what it is, whether there’s a fire burning nearby. I just don’t want it to delay the flight. I’m ready to be home.


Airport officials are on edge—especially U.S. Customs with their blue rubber gloves and face masks. They don’t touch peoples’ passports. They look quickly at our documents as we hold them in our own filthy, SARS-tainted hands. They wave us by like mangy dogs. As U2’s Bono says: Back into the arms—of America!

June 2003

About slcantwell25

A writer focused on the transforming power of memory, autism, parenting, and the ways we know what we know.
This entry was posted in Essays, From the Notebooks and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ninety-six Hours in Toronto, June 2003

  1. leegee33 says:

    Hi Steve, I like your “Ninety-six Hours in Toronto” post very much. You should send it to Miles. The imagery is very graphic. It reminds me of an experience I had in Hong Kong many years ago when I found myself alone in that great city for two or three days. My Door Company partners had left early and I was left to my own devices. I remember the experience very clearly and am tempted to write it up, perhaps I will. Love, Dad

    Date: Thu, 3 Jul 2014 01:25:06 +0000 To:

  2. I appreciate the advice that you gave. It was very helpful.

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