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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Steeles and Yonge, 2020

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The following short story by Jim Munroe takes place in the year 2020 near the intersection of Yonge Street and Steeles Avenue.

"What's that smell?" Christina said, her nose wrinkling.

"It's mostly farms up here," Jason said, trying to sound casual. "Fertilizer, probably."

"Shit, you mean," a voice from behind them in line said. "Why don't you call it what it is, Fernandez?"

Jason tried not to let his irritation show as he looked at Brad. Some time between getting off the school bus and getting in line for the demonstration, Brad had managed to elbow his way up to where he and Christina were waiting.

"Gross," Christina said.

The demonstration car pulled up, a green one — Toyota Something, he forgot. As the next four students in line got in, the smell of exhaust overpowered the smell of the farms. Christina inched away from the car, and closer to Brad. Jason gritted his teeth but stoically looked away from Brad's grin. He counted the people in line and realized with a sinking feeling that they'd all be in the same car. Damn!

"So…" Brad started. There was a muffled ring and he put his hand to his ear and answered his phone. "Yeah?"

As Brad wandered and barked impatiently on his call, Jason looked at Christina. She gave him a wry grin back that he wasn't sure how to interpret. He tried to think of something to say before Brad got off the phone, but he was never good at thinking under pressure.

"So you were born here?" she said.

"Yeah," said Jason, grateful for something to talk about. "Couple blocks from here. When my mom read the field trip form she was all like, whoa, you lived there when you were one."

"Always thought you were a country boy, Fernandez," Brad said, his call finished. He pulled out his ears. "With those jug handles you got."

"Was the suburbs back then," Jason shot back. Brad started doing a hoe-down dance.

"Yeah, my parents used to live there too," Christina said, not looking at Brad. "On the other side of the city. My mom said it used to take an hour and a half to get to work. Three hours a day."

Brad snorted. "What a waste of time. Why didn't they just work out there?"

Both of them remained silent. Jason felt a moment of pity for Brad and his ignorance. Hadn't he ever seen pictures of the suburbs? They were just row upon row of houses, with hardly any businesses.

Their car pulled up and the other students got out. Jason stuck by Christina as they got into the back seat, but at the last minute Brad swerved so that they both ended up in the back seat with Christina in the middle between them. Jason's pity evaporated in a flash of anger. What the jackass lacked in intelligence he made up for in animal cunning.

He tried to forget about Brad for a minute and appreciate the experience. They were going to be tested on it. This was the first time he'd ever been in a car, that he could remember — he'd been on buses plenty of times but he'd never been in a vehicle this small. His head kept bumping against the roof and when he moved the handle poking into his leg he discovered it was used to lower the windows. But when he noticed Brad playing footsies with Christina — and worse, her giggling — he suddenly didn't care about the workings of the window. The driver got in and slammed his door.

"Buckle up, kids," he said.

Max Lowell, who'd taken the front seat after inexplicably yelling "shotgun," turned around. "He means put your seatbelts on," he said as he pulled his across his chest. "Although yours are probably underneath — you're probably sitting on them," he modestly clarified.

Brad snorted at Max's trademark geekiness and even the driver gave him a bit of a look. Max was oblivious, flicking through different pages on his Pad.

"Thought it was a little uncomfortable," Christina said as they pulled their belts out from under them. Brad predictably took the chance to feel for his belt under Christina, but she leaned up and away from his pawing onto Jason. He felt lightheaded as her curls brushed his cheek and thought that this car thing wasn't so bad.

The driver coughed, shifted, put on some sunglasses. He was a bleary-eyed middle-aged man with some stubble showing. "OK, let's roll," he said, turning the stereo on and punching a few buttons. He turned the key and they started to drive. The stereo started playing a little music — '50s rock, Jason thought — and then a voice began speaking.

"Welcome to Steeles Avenue. This street is the northernmost border of the City of Toronto, and has been preserved in its original state for historical and educational purposes. This car you are in is a restored personal automobile, typical of its kind except that it has been modified to run on ethanol. Imagine if you will the entire empty street before you filled with cars…."

Jason had seen plenty of movies with busy streets: they made him nervous the same way that watching people juggle made him nervous. It always amazed him how they were able to weave in and out of traffic without smashing into each other, and it was hard to imagine his parents daring to join that throng of hurtling metal.

Brad gave Max a poke through the seat and interrupted his furious note-taking. "You're going to beam that to us afterwards, right," he said, no question in his voice. Max nodded mutely. Christina shrugged and stopped looking for her Pad. Brad smiled again.

Jason looked out the window and tried to ignore them. He watched the trees and occasional building going by, half listening as the narration described the wastefulness of the suburbs: cars were just one symptom. The more the city sprawled, the more the infrastructure had to as well: building roads and pipes and wires to stretch thin resources even thinner.

They were going uphill. Jason appreciated how smoothly and effortlessly the car did it in comparison to what it would be like on a bike. The narration droned on. "Refusing to participate in the Oil Wars started a chain of events that led to the Kyoto Riots, urban shrinkage and a radical restructuring of the city. But Torontopia wasn't built in a day…."

"I fucking hate that nickname," Brad said. "It makes us sound sooo lame and Greenpeacey."

Max turned around. "It's not entirely true, either. My uncle was an urban densiteer," Max said, licking his lips nervously. "But even he said that it was mostly because people were cheap. After the US embargo, owning a car was too expensive for most people."

"My old man said that anything was better than sucking up to the Americans," Brad said, "even chucking his car."

Max latched on to this and responded enthusiastically, leaning into the back. "Exactly, it wasn't so much idealism