Monday, April 29, 2019

What Taxes Buy

Buying anything in Toronto comes with a moment of surprise. I think I’m paying $2 to scan my artwork, but the clerk turns to me and says, “$2.26.” I ready $3 to pay for my $2.99 beverage, and the clerk says, “$3.42,” and then I have to fuss around in my wallet again.

It’s called tax, something tax-less Alaskans are not used to.

Now I’m going to describe a sample day – yesterday – in Toronto. First, I walk out to catch the 506 streetcar on the corner. Within a minute, it shows up. There are seats available – red plush upholstered seats – and I can tell when my stop comes up because the recorded announcement is clear and the sign showing “next stop” works at the front.

[This was so shocking at first: in New York City, the public recorded announcements sound like this: “ssshhhhXXXchchchhsssdsttt.” Here they say, “The next stop is Yonge Street, College Station subway.”]

So I get out at College Station and switch to the 1 subway at no extra charge. It comes within a minute, too, but that’s because it runs every 2-3 minutes. Every 2-3 minutes! I am in transit heaven – with more plush seats!

I’m going to the Deer Park Branch of the public library. I’ve never been there before, but Joanna Goodman, author of The Home for Unwanted Girls is speaking. There are 100 branches of the public library, and I have three within blocks of my apartment. I am always stumbling over yet another branch library in my wanderings.

Every few feet, I pass a litter/recycling box. All the litter boxes include recycling. At first, I thought people were just throwing litter in the recycling hole, not separating their recyclables, and it annoyed the daylights out of me. But then I discovered that here they recycle EVERYthing: any rigid plastic like plates and cups and containers (as long as they’re not black), juice boxes, milk cartons, pizza boxes, foam coffee cups and takeout boxes. So it’s not messing up the recycling; it’s DOING the recycling.

The compost bin even takes my dirty, food-covered napkins!

After the author talk – where every seat is taken and we’re all impressed and enthralled – I dawdle around downtown. I pass a homeless person asleep on the sidewalk, and two community service women are talking with him, asking him to stand. Yes, I’ve seen homeless people in this city of three million, but not to the numbers I’ve seen in Anchorage (one-tenth the size). I have also passed many clinics, social service buildings, detox centers. One storefront had a sign that it was a Sewing Repair Hub offering classes in sewing repair and then helping the women set up mending businesses (while keeping textiles out of the waste stream). They are addressing their social ills.

I stop at Soufi’s restaurant because I see that it’s a Syrian restaurant and I can have manakeesh, which I’d loved in London. Then I head to the main Toronto Reference Library where about 500 of us have been lucky enough to reserve a space to hear Sally Rooney, author of Normal People. (Did I mention that all this is free?) I pass the Newcomer Services Desk, where a woman is helping a new immigrant. Many of the libraries have those desks.

I’m sitting next to Joan, who turns out to be a major theater-goer, seeing two plays every weekend! Two plays every weekend! She turns me on to a play I hadn’t heard about, and when I get home, I immediately buy a ticket for it.

I could have waited till Saturday morning, when I go to my branch library and get a free MAP, Museum + Arts Pass. That’s how I’ve been to the Art Gallery of Ontario, for example. I can get one pass a week, but I didn’t want to take a chance the performance would sell out.
Heading home is no problem because even at night, the buses and streetcars and subways still come frequently and there are nice shelters that say when the next one is due.

A friend of mine lives here and says the taxes are very high, but his husband is very sick, and they can receive many, many services and quality care.

That’s what taxes pay for. This is what a community looks like when its citizens and businesses contribute financially to its operation. This is what a government can provide when it has financial resources. Only Alaskans believe it has to come free.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Reality Intrudes

Every now and then, reality delivers a crushing blow to fantasy. Take Niagara Falls.

This is the Niagara Falls of my imagination: Honeymooners go there because it’s so romantic, the power of the waterfall underlines nature’s majesty, the shared border gives it international significance. All that and the extra my fantasies add to it.

When our family was in Argentina in 2012, we visited Iguazú Falls on the border with Brazil. It was beyond spectacular. The force of the waterfall filled every fiber of your person. It thundered through you, pounded your atoms. You had to hike trails to get to the overlooks, and it was all Nature-with-a-capital-N.

So imagine my distress to discover Clifton Hill right across the street from Niagara Falls.

No one warned me! The shock of a giant Frankenstein eating a Burger King hamburger, King Kong on the side of a tilted over Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Dracula’s Haunted Castle – it’s monster land! Then there’s Big Top aMAZEing Fun and Lazer Tag and Mini Putt. And Rainforest Café and IHOP and DQ.

“Clifton Hill: the Street of Fun at Niagara Falls.” Everything all jammed together with outside loudspeakers proclaiming the horrors within. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrifying.

This is what travel does: it opens your eyes. To wonder and beauty and novelty and awe. And sometimes, disappointment and shock that what you see is not what you imagined and just not pretty.

Tim turned to me and said, “At least we’re not here on our honeymoon.”

No, our honeymoon was spent in horrendous winds and rain on Twin Lakes. Wind so bad our tent poles bent and snapped. Wind so bad there were white caps on the lake and our pilot couldn’t get in to pick us up. Wind so bad we hunkered down under the tarp and never even dreamed of unpacking the kayak.

But at least we weren’t at Niagara Falls!

P.S. What was pretty, even very pretty: the ice to the side of the falls, the swooping cloud of birds in front, the spinning swirls of water, the mist, the Niagara Parkway, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Beauty lurks.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Welcome to Toronto!

I’m pretty sure it’s something in the water. Something that seeps into the bodies of people in Toronto and … activates them.

I’m doing my annual “urban infusion” month in Toronto. Before this month, all I knew about Toronto was that it was in Canada and wasn’t Montreal, but I’m not even sure what “not-Montreal” meant.

So I did my research and discovered that Toronto was loaded with theater, with art, with neighborhoods, with public transit – all my prerequisites. I bought tickets, signed up for email newsletters, squelched several pre-trip anxieties. But the British-thing still haunted me, the part where people don’t talk to strangers in public. I can still flinch over the trauma of my first week in London, my week of zero human interaction. Weren’t Torontonians kind of British?

There I was in Union Station, facing a steep staircase with Robin’s massive suitcase and the need to find a Shoppers Mart to buy a transit pass. What’s a Shoppers Mart? Or rather, What’s a Shoppers Mart?!? how am I going to find one? how will I get downstairs? and WHY can’t Lyft find me where I am because three drivers have abandoned me after supposedly reaching me where I’m NOT?!?
Then one very nice man carried my suitcase down, another walked me to the front of a hotel so Lyft would have a destination, and another gave me a specific address to tell Lyft. I am beyond grateful.

Two hours later, Presto transit pass and library card in hand, I was an hour early for a library program. Everyone else was there with a friend or knew the staff or was a “regular.” I could always read a book, but David, the man next to me, engaged me in conversation and, before I knew it, we had exchanged contact information so David could send me some additional information. We’re now Linked In.

Two nights later, I happened to sit next to the theater reviewer at a performance. She knew all the local companies, the casts, the playwrights, the artistic directors; she was in her element. She and I discussed theater, watched Iphigenia get sacrificed, and afterwards, Lynn offered me a ride home.

Yesterday, I stopped in at a Japanese restaurant to ask about their miso soup. I left, but several minutes later, the owner found me at my bus stop to tell me something else about miso soup. He offered to give me the paste so I could make some by myself at home.

Do you see it? This spirit of welcome, of assistance, of openness, of friendliness?

[Alert! You cannot read these next few paragraphs without noting my delirium of excitement about the miracles of right-time right-place. I can’t put exclamation points after every sentence.]

In the library calendar, I discovered that the Toronto Public Library has a special Arthur Conan Doyle Collection – Sherlock Holmes and fairies and séances and spiritualism – and that the annual lecture with the Friends was to be held Friday!

So, again, I walked into a room where I knew no one, but this organization has been together for 18 years and they all knew each other very, very well. A man and woman approached me, introduced themselves, asked what brought me here. Turns out Barbara has written a play about Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe, and Harry Houdini meeting in the afterlife with unresolved issues about Arthur Conan Doyle; and she introduced me to Mike, the man next to me, who is head of the Bootmakers of Toronto. I am just in time for their bi-monthly meeting about Mycroft Holmes and more and more Sherlock! (Now I must use exclamation points!)

It’s not just that one Sherlock Holmes fan by luck found herself in the midst of many, many Sherlock Holmes fans. It’s that they welcomed me, they invited me in. How many times have I been at a meeting or gathering back home where lots of people called hellos out to others and moved seats to sit next to friends and there were some New People or Strangers who were on the periphery? How we might say hello … but then get right back to our conversations? Did I ever offer a Stranger a ride home? Did I embrace the Stranger?

I’ve been in Toronto only five days, and yet I’m flush with the warmth and friendliness shown me. Maybe it is in their water – it seems pretty widespread and contagious – but I’m not going to forget how welcomed I feel. I’ll bring that back home with me.

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