Welcome to August’s edition of One Word. For anyone new here, I write, shoot, and edit short documentaries based on a single word.
My next word this season, Woodbine, is more ambitious than anything I’ve done before. So, I’m giving myself another month to work on it. Expect the doc and essay to release at the beginning of September.
In the meantime, I have a special treat: a video version of Path.
Path was the last word I wrote before making the switch to video, and I always felt like it deserved to be explored visually.
I strive to make all my documentaries watchable as solo experiences, but that is especially true of Path. You don’t need to have read the original essay or watched any of my previous docs to jump into this episode.
I had a lot of fun making Path, and I think you’ll enjoy it, too. As always, you can read the essay below, but I highly recommend you watch the documentary.
Doors, ceilings, and escalators illuminated at all hours by miles of soft white phosphorescence.
Faint, eerie reflections — I catch glimpses of myself, watery and brief.
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 just a few seconds, overtaken by coffee, that nectar of productive life, black and steaming and $6.99 a cup.
Welcome to the PATH.
Everyone down here 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 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 fast-food 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 spread across 30 kilometres of Toronto’s downtown core.
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 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.
If you’re travelling the PATH, here’s a tip: 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 tarnished 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 this Indigo Spirit, below the food court.
After my last year at University of Toronto, 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.
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 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 PATH 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.
Inertia is one of the heaviest burdens I’ve ever carried. Staying in one place for too long crippled my creativity, and I forgot that, to move forward, all someone needs is a nudge.
One day, 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 in an upcoming One Word, but it’s worth mentioning that I’d often return to the PATH. I’d park my work van in the loading dock off York Street, 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 final leg of my trip, I take the PATH, walking past the Indigo Spirit, past the service doors and secret rooms, until I reach an elevator that lifts me to the 9th floor.
Although I sit at a desk, I work inside digital spaces, generating blocks of information, as weightless as clouds, and track the invisible eyes that feast on them.
I stay perched way up here until it’s time to go home, then I’m back in the PATH, in the pedestrian flow, with its endless smells, corridors, and reflections.
I admitted to my wife recently that I love walking the PATH. I think it’s because this place reminds me of my journey through life, which isn’t a straight line, with a beginning and an end.
Instead, my path resembles a circle.
Down in the illuminated hallways, I experience the circular nature of my life. I’m reminded that I was once stuck in a small corner of the ocean floor. Later, on my next trip around, I was never in one place for more than a few hours. And today, I’m soaring in the clouds and diving under the surface.
I love the PATH, and not only because it’s Toronto’s most underrated landmark, but because I can throw on my headphones, join the flow of foot traffic, and wonder: who will I be on my next trip ‘round the circle?
There’s something heartening in the idea. If I can summon the energy to believe in my path, I’ll know that this life is a culmination of not one linear experience with a beginning and an end, but lengths of a circle, well worn, and memorable and, yes, hard to predict, perhaps even inscrutable, yet also so damn beautiful and complete.