Hometown touchstones

RACE = MORALITY. This was the line that began my eight-year relationship with a Toronto phone booth. I was 18 and had ducked into a booth in the downtown core to make a call and escape the summer clatter of road repair and the press of sweaty people crowding the sidewalks. The cool tint of the Bell Canada swinging doors reduced the humid stew of midsummer Toronto to a cool, muted grey. I punched in the number and listened impatiently to the dial tone, wishing I'd bought cigarettes.

My fingers neurotically traversed the edges of the phone. They tiptoed their way to the torn front cover of a du Maurier pack tucked into the back. I pulled out the paper and flipped it over to find a grand pronouncement: GRACE = MORALITY followed by a litany of things I was to avoid in life. Each line began with NO: NO LIE, NO MATES — a whole jumble of nouns and verbs to be avoided, punctuated by a single biblical verse: Luke 17,1-2. Chalking it up to religious nuttery, likely connected to the always entertaining people on Yonge and Dundas handing out pamphlets about the lack of fire escapes in hell, I completed my phone call and took the note to glue in my scrapbook.

I returned home where my things were half-boxed, waiting for my move to Montreal. The message stayed in my back pocket to be occasionally pulled out and re-examined. A mini manifesto on self-harm reduction scrawled on the back of a cigarette pack was just too wonderfully ironic to be ignored. I made a second trip to the booth, and there it was again: the exact same message. From that moment, I became a collector.

I left for Montreal, but each time I visited Toronto, I went to the phone booth, and for three years, was always rewarded with the same message. The only thing that ever changed was the format: cigarette packs eventually gave way to photocopied paper. The fact that the message never changed was both a relief and a disappointment. I loved the constancy yet wanted to know more. Checking the phone booth became more than a slightly eccentric activity — it was a ritual that reconnected me to the city. The message was like an entry and departure ticket I collected. This random phone booth and its anonymous writer became one of my Toronto touchstones.

There is a notion that our greatest association with a city must relate to its most grandiose or original places. We're offered domineering and awkward structures, such as the CN Tower, whose size and visual constancy gives us no choice but to associate it with Toronto. But for many who actually live here, the CN Tower serves as little more than the occasional reference point when too drunk to remember which way is south. How many really ever go there to reconnect to the city? Its real function is as a motif for tourists and a way to distinguish us from other cities. What distinguishes a landmark from a touchstone often involves something more personal. A Bell Canada phone booth, replicated across the country thousands of times over is my touchstone and is even more special for being a dull space made unique by the way that two citizens interact within it. I giant apple or goose or tower cannot compete.

After Montreal, I went even further away, to Japan, this time for three years straight. The first place I lived was a small coastal city on the edge of the Pacific. Of all things, it had a single Bell Canada phone booth as part of a sister city initiative. For any other Canadian it would have been a quaint but ultimately clichéd sign of home. For me it was the perfect refuge from the crowds and culture shock, a tiny space of familiarity in an expanse of difference. Once again a banal splinter of Canadian society developed unexpected meaning.

Three years later, in the summer of 2005, I made it back to Toronto. Things had changed in my absence; they weren’t quite as I remembered them. Yet, standing in my phone booth, eight years from the first time, I found the message waiting for me, even still. My religious friend was still out there and through our quiet, indirect connection we continued giving meaning to an unremarkable space, meaning that rivaled any tower.