I've been thinking about the path.
Doors, ceilings, and escalators illuminated at all hours by miles of soft white phosphorescence. Tan, slippery steps — bona fide death traps during the icy winter months. The smells down here, I can’t keep up with them. Just a second ago, I caught the whiff of grease traps bloated and yearning to be emptied; sweet flour hits my nostrils next, but it lasts less than a few seconds, overtaken by industrial floor cleaner and oniony body odour, followed by coffee, that nectar of productive life, black and steaming and $6.99 a cup.
Everyone on the PATH has somewhere to be. Well, most of us. The few that don’t seem out of place and easy to spot near a stairwell or digital Romspen ad. At least once a trip, I’ll find a pair of security guards lingering suspiciously near a sallow-faced man or woman with a few too many bags and not enough motivation to move them.
The PATH system is a maze of well-polished travertine tile and Starbucks locations. By the latest official tally, there are 3.7 million square feet of retail space divided into over 1,200 shops, restaurants, and beauty bars.
The system didn’t begin so impressively. The original tunnel opened in 1900 and was located under the old Eaton’s department store. It reached a sister building across James Street. Shoppers would venture underground, avoiding the soot and the heat, to buy discount furs, last year’s radios, and pantyhose. What convenience!
Sprawling, inscrutable, labyrinthine — if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s not hard to get lost in the modern PATH system. There are no windows to the outside world. The sun never sets, and the maps speak only in terms the PATH understands.
Want to go north? Follow the arrows toward Toronto Dominion Centre. West? Look for the signs that point to Metro Hall.
There’s an etiquette down here. No one looks my way too long or walks too closely. The pedestrians in a hurry gravitate towards the middle, so if I’m feeling leisurely, I hug the side. Either way, never forget to move with the flow, not too fast or too slow. Even the most rebellious seeming folks are helpless to conform.
An observation: The buildings above influence the tunnels underneath, like trees pushing their roots through dark soil. I know when I’m under TD Waterhouse, for example, because black siding hems in my vision, and muddy brown marble covers the walls.
The tunnels under First Canadian Place feel like stepping into a ritzy snow globe. The window displays pop with light so clean my teeth hurt. Although that might just be me. Because nine years ago I worked in the concourse under First Can, as it was known to us tunnel-dwellers.
For 18 months, I was a bookseller at the Indigo Spirit, below the food court. After my last year at U of T, I had no money and no plan. I applied to dozens of jobs and Indigo was the only one to call me back. This was early in the takeover days. Chapters and Coles bookstores began to disappear, and the phoenix that rose from the drywall dust seemed bookish, sure, but also obsessed with Better Homes and Gardens.
My manager’s name was Randall. He wore a pinky ring and I could never make out his accent. New England, perhaps. The guy was an old-school bookseller, a vestige of the days when a bookstore didn’t have to sell polyester throws and charcuterie boards to survive. He lived and breathed the business, and it had not been very good to him. At least he had his hair, impressively thick and white, like a perfect Christmas morning. Unfortunately, he also had the absolute worst breath I had ever experienced, then or since. It surprised me every time, a weighty rot that shot through the air and stuck in the back of my sinuses.
He was also the first adult I ever saw drink his Coca-Cola cans with a straw.
Because I had no money, I moved into my grandmother’s house in Rexdale. Three or four days a week, I commuted downtown and worked in the PATH. I rode the 37 bus from her little house behind the Walmart to Islington station and across the entire west end of Toronto to reach the PATH. Round trip, about three hours. The job paid $13.50.
I remember feeling very depressed at this point in my life. Two to five tall boys greeted me when I got home, and in my evening stupors I conjured plenty of ideas, but by the time I woke up, nothing manifested into a sense of purpose.
One morning on the bus I stared out the window and thought, “Is it possible to feel this awful forever?” And a voice inside me responded, “Yes.”
Working retail in the PATH reminds me most of a sea anemone. There was low tide in the morning when the boredom was so thick I could feel it press against me like water. I’d will myself to not stare at the clock. Then at high tide, the store swelled with people on their lunch breaks, eager to purchase Babar books for their children and romance novels for the commute and pop psychology manifestos for their marriages.
It’s not easy being a sea anemone. Randall had sales quotas to fill, and he’d nudge me every shift, multiple times, to hand out promotion cards, trapping an unsuspecting customer into a one-sided conversation about the incredible, limited-time deals in the Teen Fiction aisle. On Fridays, he’d reveal who snatched the most sales. It was never me.
Then one day the inertia vanished. A friend offered me a job that paid $19 an hour, a specialized construction trade, and I handed in my two weeks.
I’ll write about the construction days another time, but for this One Word, it’s worth mentioning that I’d often return to the PATH. If I was a sea anemone before, now I was a roaming barracuda. I’d park my work van in the loading dock off York Street, or a few times right on the sidewalk outside Royal Bank Plaza, and carry in my equipment and conjure a whole lot of noise and concrete dust and sometimes a tendril or two of blood.
In this new role, I learned that PATH sprawls beyond the pedestrian hallways. There are hidden doorways and server rooms and trash compactors the size of three elephants side by side.
Underneath the retail concourses are less illuminated levels where the heating and cooling systems whine like toddlers craving attention. My favourite, by far, was the empty rooms, dotted throughout the PATH, forgotten or ignored, I could never figure out which, that offered me a few minutes of silence in a day filled with man-made thunder.
The construction years are also in my past. Now, I wake up at 6 am, and in just two hours, I’m 25 Kilometres away, on a GO train bound for Union Station. In the last 20-minute leg of my trip, I take the PATH, walking past the Indigo Spirit, past the service doors and back rooms, until I reach an elevator that lifts me to the 9th floor. I stay perched up there until it’s time to go home, then I’m back in the pedestrian flow, reminded all over again.
Working on the 9th floor, I spend a lot of time in the sky, looking down and following introspective thoughts, gathering ideas. Sometimes I like to imagine my journey through life, and the first image that usually comes to mind is a line, with a beginning and an end.
But what if my path resembled a circle?
It’s not such a crazy idea. When I zoom out even further and observe planet Earth, it rotates around the sun. The sun has a journey too — a long, long trip around what astronomers call the Galactic Center.
I admitted to my wife recently that I love walking the PATH. I think it’s because, down in the illuminated hallways, I experience the circular nature of my life. I’m reminded that I was once a depressed sea anemone, stuck in a small corner of the ocean floor. Later, on my next trip around, I was a roving barracuda, never in one place for more than a few hours. And today, I’m one of those colourful fish I used to watch swim by or weave in between.
There’s something heartening in the idea. If I can summon the energy to believe in it, I’ll know that no matter where my path stops, it’ll be a culmination of not one linear experience with a beginning and an end, but trips around a circle, well worn and round and, yes, hard to predict, and in the moment inscrutable, but also so damn beautiful and complete.
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this month’s word, hit the like button. Subscribe now to get a new one word every month.