Stop 17

Matthew Kirshenblatt

A Desire Named Streetcar?

I’m waiting at the bus stop again, though I know I’m not going anywhere.

It’s past midnight, and I am standing outside in Thornhill. The pale morning sky is just a memory as the dark blue night and its streetlamps turn the crinkled autumn leaves and road into a light incandescent purple. I feel the dark brown bulk of Thornhill Public School looming over my head like ancient history, even as I stand beside the glass walls of the bus shelter. It reminds me of where I came from … and where, if I wasn’t careful, I could easily find myself coming back to.

And I hadn’t been careful.

So I’m standing here, at the York Region Transit stop, playing a very long-standing game with myself. It is the game of how I recognize my old elementary school from Grades 1-3 behind me. It is the game of looking at the white and green painted Farmer’s Market in the plaza across the street from me, and the purple Octagon restaurant off to the side. It is knowing the rolling hills of Gallanough Park behind my old school, and the location of Thornhill Secondary School -- of my high school -- just a few blocks past the plaza across the street as you walk past the old Masonic Temple on the left-hand side.

The object of this game is simple. I walk past the craft stores, and apartments, and streets, and my old schools and hidden parks until I get to the secluded St. Volodymyr’s Ukrainian Catholic Church; the space dividing the cemeteries of St. Luke’s Catholic Church from the old Thornhill Community’s; the nearby houses with their windows of candlelight; to Markham and the purportedly haunted white-planked Thornhill Village Library all the way back to this bus stop where I realize -- again -- that I’d barely even miss this place if I went on a bus right now, at this moment, and never returned.

That is the game I’m playing right now.

And then I remember that it is past midnight and there is no bus running this late, and that even if there were, it would be coming from Richmond Hill and moving past this stop to the glittering lights of the real city of Toronto -- where it'd just stop at the Finch Station terminal and I’d have to pay yet another fare to use the separate subway system. In other words, it leads to no uncharted places, nor any horizons to disappear to.

There’s no great mystery to vanish into.

So I walk away from the place where I wait for the bus that will never come … from the place that I now know all too well. I stride forward and cross the street to the sidewalk past the empty gas station, and I walk across again to the other side of the darkened street.

I keep walking. Every time I walk here, in this region, I feel as though I am enacting an age-old rote of walking - of mapping, and tracing, and connecting the rural suburban streets and roads together with the movement of my legs. I try to convince myself that it is all one great rite of correspondence, place, space and time - that somewhere, somehow, this all has meaning for me … that it will accomplish something … something whose understanding is just inches away from my subconscious mind.

I try, unsuccessfully, to figure out what this is and only the old familiar hollowness remains. Instead, I spend most of my time trying not to think about the shimmering lights of the city that I almost made it to; the place I turned my back on, and all the things I learned there. It too had been a lonely place - though its ghosts … its mistakes, are far more fresh than the old memories here that live in every piece of cement and blade of grass.

No. The closest I’d ever gotten to the city, to the place I’d never thought to escape to, to physically leaving this place was moving to York University, and a piece of paper.

For all the two years that lasted.

Now, as I walk down the sloping sidewalk and cross another street, I know that there was never an escape. Toronto’s vicarious promises were merely a brief respite from Thornhill’s empty certainties.

No matter what happened, after everything I did, and where I came from I always knew that I was going to be back here.

They glitter like trails of twilight, or streaks of pale coloured chalk
I walk past the Starbucks plaza now; past more craft stores, and the Village Library with its ethereal night-dweller and her nocturnal reading habits. That is one of the few thoughts that makes me smile now - to imagine that this ghost is quietly reading all the oldest and latest books in the safety and warmth of the place she’s known for almost her entire existence. It is a thought that makes me smile even as, for some reason, it makes me sad.

I continue walking as the pavement becomes a railing opening up to a grove of trees below on my right side. For a few brief moments, as short as those two years were, I shone more brightly than I did my entire short life. Just to have to return here. Just to return to slumber … and restless sleepwalking.

I come to a stop in front of a white picket fence and a wide sloping park. Thornhill is not a place of the present. It is a place of ghosts, dogs, young families, old men, used books, and merely the memories of present life.

And if you don’t leave it, it becomes the place you haunt while you are still alive.

Goosebumps flicker across my back. For the first time, I actually realize that the moon is out. I look around me. Then I look behind me. I’m standing in front of what looks like an old cottage. This is Cricklewood Park - a long-established Women’s Golf course I’ve passed many times with my Dad as we’ve driven to the movie theatre in Richmond Hill. During the day, the little cottage or hut is a faded turquoise with a painted thatched roof and a brown sign in yellow-lettering that reads:

Stop 17.

I’ve never exactly known what it was. I always assumed that it was the site of another golf course, or a storage shed. In fact, I’ve never really thought much of it. But for some reason, tonight, I feel compelled to stand right in front of it.

I’m standing off on the side of the road in front of Cricklewood Park. I feel like I’m waiting for something - waiting in the same way I wait in front of Thornhill Public School for a non-existent bus to take me nowhere. I feel cold.

Perhaps it’s just the autumn condensation in the air, but I swear I can see something on the road in front of me. They glitter like trails of twilight, or streaks of pale coloured chalk under a layer of Black Magic. I squint my eyes. If I didn’t know any better, I would say they are ... streetcar tracks. It’s an odd thought. The only streetcars I know about are the ones I would always take in the city, in Toronto - sleek, barely clanking things that ran sporadically at all hours of the night.

Back in Thornhill Secondary School, my Drama teacher always said I was “otherworldly”
Thornhill doesn’t have a streetcar line. It hasn’t had one in a long time. Because … I remember now. Almost every time we drive to Silver City, in Richmond Hill, my Dad always tells me my grandparents told him that a streetcar once rode here. It was a railway track that extended from Toronto and Yonge Street all the way into Richmond Hill and beyond to Lake Simcoe. Occasionally, I wondered where the line used to stop in Thornhill. If it did.

But that had been ages ago. The rails had long since disappeared. First the car became limited to travel only from Toronto to Richmond Hill until -- after two distant World Wars -- in 1948, it was either covered over with concrete, or dismantled altogether. It is strange to think about, as I look at the lines of dew on the neon pastel of the road, that underneath your feet are the broken ley-lines of previous connections … of psycho-geography now going nowhere.

I hear the sound of clanking.

Slowly, to the far right of me, I see a shape coming down the slope of the road. I don’t move. I don’t even make a sound. At first, as I see its headlights in the distance I think it’s a car or a truck. Then it comes closer.

It is almost coming towards me now. My sense of waiting becomes a strange feeling of anticipation. As the shape comes closer, I see that it’s a round and clunky vehicle. In the light of the full moon and the few lampposts illuminating the street, it seems to look like a car of a very worn down Go-Train. But then, as the shadows play over it I can swear that it looks just like a TTC streetcar.

This isn’t possible, of course. For one thing, the TTC doesn’t run into York Region. And for another, in that brief glimpse, this streetcar looks older -- again, bulkier with its red and white paint as faded as the balls on my grandmother’s pool table. It is like an antique toy of an old fire-engine.

Then finally, the car or train, or streetcar begins to hiss out decompressed steam, and comes to a halt right in front of me. It now definitely looks like a TTC car. I can even make out its serial number: 416. The side door opens and I see a man sitting in the driver’s seat. I can’t make out his face, but in the dim light of the car’s interior I know he’s not wearing the maroon jacket of today’s TTC drivers. Instead, it looks like he’s wearing a grey uniform … or perhaps a brown shirt with slacks of the same colour.

My Dad once told me he remembered that my grandparents always said the people of the city looked forward to riding the old radial car with great joy. And suddenly, it all makes sense. All those years of walking, and nostalgia, and remembering, and waiting finally make sense.

The driver’s waiting for me. I spare the road around me one last glance. Aside from my immediate family, no one else will really miss me now. In fact, I suspect that once I step into this car, I will become part of a different pattern altogether; a path that very few travel … a road that has opened itself up to me.

All my glories, and disappointments, all my unfulfilled dreams and “what-nows,” all my heaviness and exhaustion will melt away into mystery. And I will get to fade away with a legend. I think of Edgar Allan Poe and Randolph Carter’s “Silver Key” as a powerful chill ripples through my flesh … and I genuinely smile. I now know what I have been waiting for. Back in Thornhill Secondary School, my Drama teacher always said I was “otherworldly”. I wonder if he’ll say the same thing now whenever someone looks at the Writer’s Plaque left behind in the front hall’s display case after I am long gone.

Then, with this last delicious, satisfying thought in mind I get on the streetcar and travel … back to the city, to other places, other spaces … to nowhere, and to everything.

Copyright © Matthew Kirshenblatt 2011 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:46 Thu 30 Jun 2011
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