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TORONTO BY NIGHT: Y2K, TTC, ETC

A hesitant world prepares for jubilant celebrations--and maybe armageddon. If this is to be humanity's LAST NIGHT, I'm going to spend it on a TTC streetcar...

By ROGER T. DuPUIS II

(the low-resolution scans are only temporary)


December 31, 1999: Just in case there is the slimmest chance that the world might really erupt in cataclysm as a result of the feared Y2K bug, I decided that I wanted to spend what might be the last night of the world riding the TTC. More specifically, I wanted to be aboard a streetcar at the stroke at midnight--admittedly to see how Y2K would affect TTC's electric vehicles, but also just to be able to say, in years to come, that I was aboard a streetcar at that magical moment.

Not that I really believed the hype, mind you. But honestly--where else would a diehard streetcar buff want to be on such a remarkable night? Vicariously watching the worldwide parties on television from my living room in Rochester, N.Y.? I think not! If nothing else, Toronto could be counted on to mount a better show than anything I might see in my hometown. Official festivities aside, I knew that the atmosphere aboard the TTC would provide plenty of amusement in itself.

I pulled into the sparsely-occupied Kipling Station parking lot at midafternoon, Friday December 31, under overcast skies. It was neither snowing not especially cold, but I could see then that the prospect of taking decent daytime photos was--er--dim. "No matter," I said to myself, "I'm here now." I had no intention of letting the steely grey clouds ruin my fun. My preparations for the day and its aftermath seemed appropriate at the time: a full tank of gas, for when I returned to the station; enough U.S. and Canadian cash to survive for "a little while"; and my faithful camera and several rolls of slide film. The last two essentials I would purchase inside the station: a TTC day pass and an international calling card. The calling card might well prove useless, as I knew, but it was my only concession to my mother's insistent worries.

It was roughly three p.m. when I boarded an eastbound train at Kipling. I had had no exposure to television since very early that morning. I listened to CBC Radio on the drive into Toronto. No news of disaster, apparently. How was the rest of the world faring? New Zealand, Australia, Asia--had Y2k struck or not? I had no idea. My presumption was that if some catastrophe had indeed struck on the other side of the world, I would have heard some report of it on the radio. People on the subway would surely be talking about it, I reasoned. Instead, I was greeted by silence. The atmosphere was, of course, atypical of a Friday afternoon, but it didn't feel like a holiday, either. The trains, like the station parking lot, were thinly populated. TTC commuters tend to be a taciturn lot to begin with. On this day, they were not merely quiet but morose. Was this how Torontonians awaited a potential catastrophe, with orderly, sullen composure? If so, it would be a noble credit to the place, I thought to myself, to die en masse as "Toronto the Good." More likely, I think the stony-faced commuters I saw were probably among those unlucky saps who had to go into work that day, or they didn't have a party to attend in the evening!

I changed to the KING car at Dundas West Station for a ride down to Roncesvalles and Queen, my favourite streetcar intersection in Toronto, where I decided to try my hand at a little daytime photography despite the weather. Streetcar passengers on the KING and QUEEN cars seemed only marginally more cheerful than the subway riders I observed earlier. I rode the QUEEN car to Spadina, and set out on foot to photograph some QUEEN and DOWNTOWNER cars. Some of my favourite restaurants and bookshops along Queen St. West were closed, which was disappointing. The usual bustling foot traffic along that stretch of Queen was lighter than usual, and rather subdued. The muffled roar of moderate street traffic was punctuated at one point by a car stereo blasting Lou Bega's "Mambo Number 5." Few people seemed to notice. In a half-hour walk through the neighbourhood, this was the accoustical high point, if it can be called that.

I rode an empty DOWNTOWNER car from McCaul Street toYonge, where I decided to strike off on foot again. The feeble daylight was now receding into night without benefit of a sunset. For technical reasons, then, I decided to wait until darkness had fully descended before taking any more pictures. I planned on having dinner at a small bistro on Yonge near Bloor where I had eaten once before. The walk up Yonge was interesting. As night fell, the passersby seemed to grow increasingly more animated, although even this normally eclectic thoroughfare was still subdued, with many shops already closed. Had Y2K paranoia honestly convinced this many people to stay at home? Amazing. The highlight of my stroll up Yonge was the sight of a man with an apparent identity crisis. I passed him south of College, and marvelled at his garb: a non- descript dark-coloured parka topped a Scottish kilt, complimented by plaid socks and shiny white leather boots. On his head, this ersatz highland warrior wore a powder blue Cossack-style fur hat, ornamented with what appeared to be an authentic Red Army badge. Now here was the living embodiment of theYonge street I was accustomed to!

The atmosphere was definitely changing. At the place where I had dinner, preparations for the evening's festivities were well underway, and numerous tables were clearly reserved for the upcoming parties. Dining alone, now I felt like the oddball outsider, as groups of celebrants at surrounding tables talked and laughed merrily as they feasted. The waiters seemed almost sorry for me--imagine, eating out alone on New Year's Eve! God only knows what they were thinking. For half a minute I wanted to explain that I was a streetcar buff on a mission. Better just to leave it alone, I thought, or I might as well be wearing a kilt...

After dinner, I shot off a few photos at College and Yonge before going inside to take in a screening of Jane Austen's MANSFIELD PARK at the nearby cinema. The auditoriums at this particular theatre are small to begin with--and I didn't exactly expect a Regency-era costume drama to be packed with patrons on this night, which it wasn't. For a few hours, I relaxed inside the cozy confines of the movie house in the company of a few dozen strangers, temporarily enthralled by the flickering images of a long dead world recreated.When I stepped out onto Carlton Street around nine p.m., the culture shock was refreshing. Early nineteenth century England receded behind me, and before my eyes was late twentieth century Toronto, in all its splendid, urbane modernity. There were more people out on the streets now, and they seemed to be having fun. The dull pallour of the afternoon had finally given way to a restrained but lively sense of anticipation.

I walked down Yonge from College to Queen. The interesection was alive with people and vehicles, and this was the first place where I observed groups of police officers partolling the streets on foot. The officers' presence, to my mind, was a comforting thing, a welcome reminder that "Toronto the Good" intended to survive the night, come what may, with its civility reasonably intact. The police presence aside, I travelled on foot all evening--alone with an expensive camera and a wallet full of cash--and never once worried about my personal security or felt as if I should have been more concerned than I was. My nocturnal walk continued along Queen to Spadina, to King, to Bay, and back up Bay to Queen, and along Queen to University, and then back to Queen and Yonge, before stopping brfeifly at Nathan Phillips Square to take in the scene, with the lights, gathering crowds, and excitement.

Time for another streetcar ride. I boarded an eastbound QUEEN car and stayed on all the way to the end of the line at Neville Park Loop, where I got out to take a few slides. (A tip to railfans: the night-time lighting at Neville Park isn't all that good, but you probably knew that.) Aboard this trip was a young couple from New Zealand. I heard them talking with some other passengers about their homeland, which apparently had come through the breach without major incident. A positive sign, I thought. Hurrah for humanity!

I waited at Neville park for the next city-bound car, and was the sole passenger aboard the westbound ALRV when it departed the loop between 10:45 or 10:50 p.m. Within 10-12 minutes all seats were taken. Before much longer a solid mass of standees lined the aisle from front to back of the long, articulated tram. I was firmly planted in a window seat near the front on the curb side, giving me a good view of the driver's position and boarding passengers

As noted previously, crush load conditions existed by the time the car reached Broadview, and we could take on no more passengers. At one or more stops, I recall, the driver stopped and politely asked approaching passengers if they would take the next car, which was following close behind and apparently less crowded. Indeed, we did pass by waiting passengers at a few subsequent stops, although the driver clearly motioned to them to take the next car. I did observe a TTC inspector at Broadview, directing intending passengers away from us and towards following cars.

Taking on more passengers would have been potentially dangerous. Many were intoxicated to some degree already, and quite a few carried bottles of hooch--the operator gently but firmly reminding them to keep these containers closed, which most in the front section did. One twenty-something guy standing near me discreetly held a long-necked bottle of Goldschlager tightly in his grip, its tiny flecks of gold swirling festively to the rhythm of the swaying streetcar. Noisemakers rattled and paper horns tooted throughout the tram, now a rolling party. Passengers in the rear section were more boisterous by far, cheering and prematurely shouting "happy new year" to people on the street. I can only speculate, but my guess is that the alcohol flowed--at least a little--back there, and the distinctive smell of cigarette smoke periodically wafted forward. Then, too, there was the occasional whiff of a more potent kind of smoke.

After crossing the Don River bridge, it was a fairly quick run into downtown, as few passengers seemed to be waiting for the cars in that area. Naturally, most of the crowd was headed for the waterfront fireworks display at the foot of Yonge St. The car disgorged much of this horde at Yonge St., although some small groups stayed on until reaching the University and Spadina stops. Another cluster had left the car a few stops before Yonge, including five or six burly young men who were all wearing glittering party hats. One of these--and perhaps the most imposing of the group--wore a silvery 2000 tiara. As the doors folded shut and we pulled away, a shrill voice from the back shouted after him, "goodbye, Cinderella!" A general cheer arose inside, although I think we were all relieved that the anonymous merrymaker had cried out only after our muscular 'Cinderella' was safely off the car. Political correctness indeed!

After Spadina, it was a quiet, almost leisurely ride along Queen to Roncesvalles, with few passengers inside, and fewer still coming on board. Speaking of Spadina, does anyone think the old Route 77 Buses could have handled those crowds as well as the CLRVs did? Not easily, anyways, and it would have taken more buses than it did streetcars.

I must give credit to the operator of that QUEEN ALRV, a youngish man with a quiet, steady demeanour and much patience. Almost all boarding passengers thought that the service was free, as apparently it had been in previous years. When told they had to pay, most riders were understanding and compliant, but a few protested loudly. Wisely, the driver seemed to know when to press the issue and when to relent. He also answered the passengers' many questions about how to reach the festivities. I got the impression that many of the evening's riders were not regular TTC passengers. Our operator--and most of his colleagues, I would believe--rendered the city of Toronto a sterling service that evening in their professional handling of the crowds of revelers. Thinking about the events of that night, and Rick Ducharme's imminent "Good News" budget, I like to think that "The Better Way" is on the way back.

The remaining riders were turned out of the car at Roncesvalles. Whether the car was short-turning or going out of service I never found out. I caught the tram immediately behind, dead-set on being aboard a streetcar at midnight, now less than 15 minutes away. Where would we be when we had to make the mandatory Y2K pause? I wouldn't have minded stopping at Humber, another of my favourite sites. We sailed past Humber and about two km farther west on Lakeshore Blvd. West when outbound ALRV 4205 was compelled to stop. The car was nearly empty, but for myself and one very quiet lady who seemed all but oblivious to the world around her. What a contrast this was with the eariler rollicking trip along Queen Street. The operator waited outside to smoke while we were stopped for Y2K. Midnight passed without remark, all the hype which had led up to this moment faded in an instant, the most insipid anticlimax imaginable. "Is that all there is" I muttered to myself, as I stepped outside to blow off the last of my film on my first streetcar pictures of the year 2000. While we waited, a gang of youths passing by loudly proclaimed the coming of the new year and offered the driver a sip of their champagne--which of course he politely refused. We resumed our westward journey to Long Branch after the mandatory delay. I will always be able to say that I rang in 2000 on the TTC, counting down the minutes according to TTC time as displayed on 4205's dashboard console clock.

I rode 4205 out to Long Branch and back, disembarking at Roncesvalles on the return trip. Well after one a.m. I boarded a KING CLRV headed back to the subway at Dundas West. The tram was still full of revelers coming from downtown by the time it reached Roncy. A gaggle of obnoxious teenagers were videotaping a staggering drinker who was teetering in the front stairwell. They kept egging him on to "puke! puke! puke!" He didn't, but the whole car oohed and aahed and roared with laughter each time he hunched over, dry-heaving. He finally waved them all a one-finger salute when getting off. The operator seemed mildly amused by it all. It was a bit suspicious how the kids all decided to get off when the drinker did, just south of Bloor St. I turned to the operator, and said "they're probably going to beat the hell out of him." He nodded, gave the bell a few hits, and accelerated away.

Having spent nearly 24 hours without sleep, I arrived back in Rochester at 5:45 a.m., quite beat, but none the worse for it. My tangible souvenirs of that memorable evening, in addition to the slides (which I hope to post here someday) include some 12/31/99 transfers. The surface cars were still using Dec. 31 transfers when I headed out of town (I don't think they change until the morning cars come out), but the automatic transfer machines in the subway were successfully issuing Jan. 1, 2000 transfers. I took only one. If anyone out there has any extra 1/1/2000 or 12/31/99 streetcar transfers, I would be interested in a trade...e-mail me.

It wasn't exactly the end of the world, nor did Toronto offer a gaudy spectacle that evening on the order of what was served up in London, Paris, or New York. But no regrets here. The comical tableaux of that evening on the TTC will forever be etched in my mind.


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