In a truly unexpected turn of events, it was harder returning to Toronto than I thought. Emotionally, that is. It’s not like I got held up at customs for excessive contraband suppositories or anything. It was strange, because I genuinely love this city. Toronto has a capacity to surprise me. It often takes a lot to deal with living in a busy city, but Toronto often gives more than it takes. So after all that fellation, what’s my deal? I’ve had one large gripe, with no idea how to structure it. I’ve been searching for a way to lay it out that doesn’t make me sound whiny, entitled, or privileged to the brim. It’s been hard to succinctly state it and still come off as a reasonable person. So instead I’m gonna own that fact that I often live in a cartoon world of whimsy and barrel through it. Here goes.
People in Toronto don’t smile.
It sucks, and makes a wonderful city feel oppressive and unfriendly. You can see how this reads, right? Straight white cis dude upset that his path isn’t paved with yellow bricks? I expect people to smile because it makes me feel better? I’m expecting strangers, irrespective of the machinations of their life, to cast off their frowns and bring my Toontown fantasy land into reality? To serve my interests because I don’t want to admit that there’s darkness, inequality and suffering in these streets? Or am I just one more dick in a landfill of bros telling women they should smile more?
I’m not an idiot, I get how this sounds.
It’s such a contrast from Portland, where almost everyone I smiled at on the street would smile back. If I saw someone heading out of a cafe, I’d smile and they’d nod or wave. Drivers that stopped so I could cross the road would smile at me. People walking past would wish me a good day. Kids would beam at everyone who crossed their paths. It was unreal. The more smiles I’d see, the more I’d give, until we were all swapping sunshine and joy like Oddbodz cards. There was this alluring small town charm that was impossible to resist. Would you stand in the way of strangers spreading happiness?
In Toronto if you smile people automatically assume ill intent. It’s a time poor city and everyone’s in a hurry. If you’re smiling and making eye contact, it probably means you want something from them. They’re late for a very important date and you could be an unwelcome distraction that digs them in deeper. Or you could be a legitimate threat in a physical or emotional manner. I’m by no means mitigating this. Just because I rarely have to put up with harassment, that doesn’t change that fact that it’s rampant. If I smile at a child, parents often assume I’m bad news. Like I want to molest their kid instead of just thinking kids are funny and cute sometimes. If I smile at a woman, I’m sure it triggers a response built up over years of encountering unwelcome encounters. If I smile at a guy, I dunno, he thinks I’m into him, which makes me unwanted detritus. If I smile at most anyone they think I’m unstable in some fashion.
Please understand, my disappointment isn’t with the people who don’t reciprocate. It’s a systemic issue. The structure of our society tells us that we need to be cautious of those around us. That people have the capacity to harm or threaten us. That if we’re not vigilant we’ll be punished for our carelessness. We’ve been enculturated into a mentality of fear that tells us not to let our guard down. It sucks. I don’t know how to let people know that I’m harmless, that I come bearing no ill will. I wish there were a way to salve those rampant worries and culture of defensive behaviour. I wish that Toronto’s denizens had good reason to assume the best rather than the worst. Most of all I wish that people wouldn’t have to feel the way they do, because mostly it’s likely a learned response to past shitty experiences. I want to let go of all of this and smile, but Toronto isn’t giving me much reason to.
Can’t everyone just chill out and buy a coke?