The best way to understand a city is to eavesdrop on its small talk. Torontonians don’t chit-chat about the clouds, heat, rain or snow. No—they rant about the streetcar or the GO Train or the Bloor Line or, worst of all, the dreaded, but rarely seen, fare inspector. You’ll sooner meet the Second Coming than a Torontonian without a public transit horror story.
But for all its sins, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is reliable, quick, sprawling and cheap—you’re never more than a slapshot away from a stop, and once onboard, you can journey far and wide.
The three-headed beast of bus, streetcar, and subway will drop you anywhere in the city. Each option has its own feel. The bus lines are extensive but susceptible to gridlock. The streetcars are sleek but only service the city’s bottom half. The subway is by far the most magical: a fuming, frenzied Etch-a-Sketch of track that runs north to south, east to west, and day to night. More than a million people travel its rails every day.
Truthfully, most of those million-daily commutes land somewhere between boring and annoying—there’s really no other place where you can spend more time and have less fun. But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll land next to a real gem: someone who’s way spent too much time (or not nearly enough) navigating through the cramped and colorful Toronto Underground.
From sweetermans to lost tourists, here are a few of the outsized personalities you’re bound to share a seat with on your ride home.
On his way to Boxcar Social with an F. Scott Fitzgerald paperback nestled under his arm. He’s got a Black Market flannel on and spotless black Blundstones that are working in close cooperation with a pant-cuff so high, tight, and crude it looks like a tourniquet from the War of 1812. Listening to This American Life through earbuds and loving every second of it. He hasn’t quite reached the Dad Bod threshold but has a fighting weight of about 190lbs.
The New Parents
Goes off-road and barges into the subway car so brazenly it renders some breathless. To the mother, the stroller—housing, mind you, a 12.4lb baby—is a battering ram and the wall of people Helm’s Deep. The co-conspirator father stands by idly with a venti non-fat, no-whip, half-sweet white mocha in hand. It seems the Sunday field trip to High Park was too much for everyone involved. Lots of raised eyebrows as the mother—decked out in a multi-colored Patagonia windbreaker, seashell pink Uggs and earmuffs—yaps at her husband in a seething, liquid whisper: “Hey, sweetie. Yes, hello! Hi, Hunter, we’re on the subway, sweet pea! Want to—oh no, Paul, no, no. Paul: I need to sit. […] Can I have my—thank you […] Hunter’s crying again. Did he—[voice lowered] Tell him to move. Him. I need to sit, too. Kay, I’m gonna get off at Dundas and just Lyft—yes. Yes. This is frigged!.”
The College Commuter
She’s a Type A upper-year student with the equivalent of a goddamn U-Haul strapped to her back. Always from Ajax, Kleinburg, or Whitby and always wearing Saucony runners (“I walk everywhere!”). This girl has enough Nature Valley Crunchy Roasted Almond bars to last through a decadelong nuclear winter and more podcast recommendations than anyone you know. If she’s not in Nap Mode or quietly sobbing, she’s furiously highlighting a dogeared copy of The Republic.
The Drunken Gang of High Schoolers
A litter of 17-year-old boys on their way to an open house “banger” near Eglinton. All of them are inconspicuously ripping Silky Strawberry Juul hits down the fronts of their NELK hoodies and wearing different shades of the same olive green H&M joggers. One of them is doing chin-ups with the hand-grabs as stabilizers. Their slang is so obscure, quick and Canadian it makes you feel you’re in a Mordecai Richler novel. A deep understanding of GTHL lingo and spotless white Converse are prerequisites to be admitted entry into this crew. Main guy is palming a torn-label, plastic water bottle that’s equal parts Beefeater, Peach Cîroc and Lemonade Mio (“ Trust me: this is a bar-down concoction, fellas.”) Discussing university prospects: “Ivey’s kinda dust ‘cause you gotta reapply—yeah. Yeah, I know, bro. Bro— I know. Laurier’s straight jokes, I swear. Said my brother, anyways. But lowkey: may have to rip, may have to rip. It’s a top-cheddar institution—and bro, easy on the uptake—yo, yo, you tryna DETONATE the team out here, Sam? Those clouds are getting’ thicky, my dude. The Fare Lad’s around here, I can sense him. I can sense him. I’m not tryna get slapped is all, eh? Is this our stop? Mike is this our—”
The Bay St. Zombie
After a long day at work, or in the mornings before, this suit can be found on an end-seat staring vacantly into a Home Outfitters ad. He’s got a three-pronged odour offensive of Freshii and cigarettes and Old Spice. The poor bastard is just zoned out and looks like your friend the first time he did (too much) edibles. May be passively listening to Fifty-Mission Cap. Honestly, wouldn’t hurt to check his pulse every ten or so minutes. Very into face massaging and sighing.
Mouth-breather who’s got an at-capacity GoodLife bag between his legs and a steaming Apple Watch on his meaty right wrist. He’s listening to a Kinobody podcast on 2.5x speed to offset the post-pump dysphoria. One hand is racing through Bumble and the other has disappeared into his snack cache—a supply house of bananas, Chocolate Clif Builder bars, creatine-infused oatcakes, and 80-milliliter vials of Optimum Nutrition Gold protein powder. He spends the majority of the ride making sure his raised forearm veins are alive and well. Surprisingly easy to strike up a conversation with (“Are those shoulders or boulders, my dude!”) and pretty sociable—but has a smile like a clenched fist. Way too fired up to sit still for 15 minutes.
This guy is blaring “SICKO MODE” at such an incredibly high volume that you have to physically wring the swag out of your clothes the minute you get home. It’s really anyone’s guess if his head bopping is due to an in-progress aneurysm or the fire beats (you can literally hear the brain trauma unfolding from a few seats away). This Hypebeast is fitted in some toothbrush-and-bleach-treated VaporMax FK 10’s that are so sparkly if you look directly at them you’ll only be able to see in blurry outlines for up to a full minute after.
The ‘Please Just Go Refill Your Goddamn Presto Card There is an Angry Mob Forming Behind You’ Girl
DECLINED. DECLINED. Wait. DECLINED. DECLINED.
Finessing some kinda Kirby-styled gene mutation, this woman has altered her Circadian rhythm to the point where she can sleep anytime, anywhere. It truly does not matter—I repeat: it is completely irrelevant—if it’s cold or warm, busy or dead, Kipling or Kennedy. She’s lights-out, dead to the world. Sporting a toque. Her pillow-of-choice is the cardigan from the bottom of her tote bag, and if that’s missing, well, she’s coming straight for your shoulder.
The ‘Usually I Uber’ Girl
Nervous young professional who just wants to get the hell off the subway as fast as possible. She looks like a jittery Mitch Marner during the pregame anthems—head down, swaying, possibly praying. She’s watching Game of Thrones on her iPad to distract herself, and hovers next to the doors a full three stations before her stop. When the subway slows, she makes eye contact with the weakest-looking mortal on the platform—and when those doors open: look out. She treats it as a starter pistol, running away like a wounded gazelle fleeing imminent death.
The European Tourist
Just hopelessly, hopelessly lost—but still grinning and in awe of it all. He’s liable to wave at the conductor when the subway pulls into the station and is unironically wearing a bucket hat and sporting some Skechers. Also carrying a 22L Deuter “rucksack” with the chest straps pulled so tight it’s a wonder any blood is flowing into his upper body. He has three half-full plastic water bottles holstered on the the sides of his pack. He’s always looking for Front Street but is usually chugging contentedly towards Pape.
The One-Man Mosh Pit
Jury’s out on whether this guy just lacks basic motor skills or is genuinely trying to start a brawl. He storms in during rush hour and refuses to hold onto anything. Any bump, break, or turn will send him thrashing through the subway car like a greased-up bowling ball. He has a sedated Brad Marchand vibe going for him—elbowing, bumping or straight hip-checking anyone who comes within two-to-four feet. If you do end up absorbing one of his elbows, he’ll just sheepishly look away and get swallowed back into the crowd.
The Seasoned Veteran
This woman’s put in her 10,000 hours. She’s a 25-year vet—calm as can be and dignified. Her Presto card is an extension of her body, and she slips through the turnstiles with such grace and poise it’s hard not to gasp. She’ll give up her seat without hesitation, she doesn’t drop f-bombs when there’s a delay, and she knows exactly where to stand on the platform. All-around fantastic person.
The Desperate Lad
Guy is on some Lebron-level clutch—this hero taps into fight-or-flight just by hearing a pair of subway doors begin to close. And as the clock winds down, after hauling ass down the stairs, he heaves himself into the subway car like it’s the last lifeboat off the Titanic and just makes it, every damn time.
The Old-Age Couple
They’ve been married for five decades, but they enter into a strict pact of silence the second they get on board. They’re carrying 10,000 Whole Foods bags each, stuffed with bulk amounts of sea-salt cashews, PC Almond Raisin Granola and Country Harvest whole wheat bagels. Leaning on each other or the glass shields separating seat from aisle. The woman is bundled in a fur coat no matter what the temperature, a self-knitted hat, unmarked white boots, and long black gloves (sort-of a Cruella de Vil meets Kathleen Wynn vibe). The husband is dishevelled but chic—he hacked cigarettes and wore fanny packs before it became an ironic millennial thing to do. His crazy mop of white hair sprouts up from the center of his scalp, and is moving wildly with the stops and starts, making the segment above his eyes look like a busted fire hydrant. He’s stern-looking, but you know that if you offered your seat to his wife, his heart would melt.
This manchild’s like a stone through a stained-glass window. Infiltrates the subway car during those rare moments of calm and quiet—then upends it all by turning his lap into an ad hoc office space. He’s only on board for four stops—Ossington to St. George—because he’s off to the “MaRS Discovery District” for a noon meeting. He’s got Google Glass, and the tiny, wireless Apple earbuds, plus a work iPhone, a bigger, personal iPhone, a mini iPad, two Huawei tablets, a 4” x 4” Acer laptop, and a MacBook Air spread across his lap. Somehow has cell service underground. Wearing a tailored suit that looks too tight to be comfortable, a gold watch, and brown lace-ups. His hair’s gelled so densely a bullet would have a tough time cutting through it. Springs up abruptly, slings a Samsonite Colombia satchel over his back, and taps his foot at the door before dashing out.
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