Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Transit Lit: public transportation as a source of literary inspiration

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Get Onboard by Richard Lee

By Dalton Higgins

I live a one minute walk away from a TTC subway station. In theory, this should mean that getting around town should be more fun, efficient and easy. And it generally is. But before I commit any more words to screen, you might know where this blog is going (hint: I referenced the TTC). Between the routine subway closures for what is called “signal work” and “scheduled upgrades.” All the way to trains holding due Toronto Police investigations, fire investigations, medical emergencies, emergency alarms being activated and security incidents on trains, subway and bus service delays have become ubiquitous, kinda like The Kardashians. The recurring message “due to delays, customers will experience longer than normal travel times” has been permanently etched into the brains of too many TTC riders.

Authors of my ilk are always striving to have our prose act as a mirror to reality, so naturally in my forthcoming book Rap N’ Roll, I provide readers with my own stream of consciousness, play-by-play ruminations concerning some of the more, ahem, odd things that can happen while riding on the TTC. I’ve witnessed everything from fights to fornication, and have sadly inhaled misguided flatulence outbursts.

The TTC acronym can mean entirely different things to different people. I’ve remixed it to mean Totally Terrible Crap. And let’s face it, poorly run organizations and corporations provide great raw materials to write essays and books about.

Which brings me to the new Get On Board: Walk in the Shoes of a Transit Operator book by TTC supervisor Richard Lee. The book is timely given that the city of Toronto has the largest streetcar system in the Americas, and many of us have urban-planning-on-the-brain due to the questionable funding formulas and infrastructure that supports our public transport system. There lies some literary nuggets in between the cacophony of bus, streetcar and subway sounds.

For those into transit lit, there are all kinds of titles out there, like Jarrett Walker’s influential Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives which discusses how a huge range of urban problems, including traffic congestion and economic development can be addressed by effective public transit. Get On Board is in no way relevant to urban planners, city builders and bureaucrats, and that’s actually not a bad thing in this case. The book essentially spells out some of the behind-the-scenes realities of being a frontline transit employee. And believe you me kids – it ain’t pretty. When most Torontonians hear stats about how on average one TTC employee is assaulted every day, a combination of both verbal and physical assaults, they might collectively yawn about this data because they are self-absorbed. I’ll admit it. My knee jerk reaction to these facts was once “has anyone at the TTC collected stats on what percentage of Torontonians are late for work, meetings and appointments due to bus and subway delays?” I’ve seen the Better Way, but sadly it hasn’t been in Toronto. In New York, where I must’ve racked up over 10,000 hours in work and play by now, more than one-half (54.2%) of all residents don’t own a car, so public transit is the primary form of transit. This means that the city is extremely energy efficient. Plus, their subways run 24 hours.

Likewise, in Copenhagen where I’ve gone a few times for work, the society takes the opposite approach to Toronto. The public transportation system is such a well-oiled machine it hurts. Between that and the society’s extreme focus on walking and cycling, many local residents seem dead set on doing what’s good for the environment.

In an odd kind of way Getting On Board reveals the job of a TTC operator to be both traumatizing and liberating if that’s at all possible. The decent pay and benefits appears to come at a cost for some. The author’s journey of overcoming a stutter problem as a child, having an absentee dad, to surviving dead end McDonald’s jobs and failed basketball scholarship opportunities, seems quite tough in the beginning. But Lee operates much like Horatio Alger—but from the GTA and with a TTC uniform on—and he lands a job at the TTC, eventually becoming a supervisor.

The sacrifices he had to make to get there are curious. Between suffering mild bouts of depression, coping with long work hours and public abuse, some of which contributed to his eventual and predictable divorce (divorce rates are high for TTC employees, as one operator states), getting to the supervisor promised land was no walk in the park.

The book might have well been titled In Defense of the TTC, as it reads more like a pro-TTC advocacy piece than anything, something that is a bit too partial, biased and subjective to be taken serious in any court of TTC public opinion. But some of the more magical moments have little to do with Lee’s narrative and writing proficiency, and more to do with the anonymous testimonials put forth by TTC operators.

While reading in the news about the glacially slow delivery of those shiny new streetcars from Bombardier that are intended to replace the fleet of old rickety ones, to witnessing the virtual shut down of Eglinton Avenue, where traffic is an absolute nightmare and where businesses are shuttering their doors by the bundle due to the Eglinton Crosstown LRT project, it’s easy to fall into crude stereotypes of what the TTC of today represents. The omnipresent caricature of staffers sitting on their duff all day and doing little but being rude while watching people drop tokens in these little metal boxes just doesn’t hold up after reading the book. Empathy is the word I would use to describe how I now interpret the plight of the TTC operator. One anonymous TTC operator explains how “being employed by TTC is like having a target on your back for the public to throw verbal axes at,” while another refers to being an operator as being “human punching bags for the public to use at will.” Tales of being spit on and assaulted by members of the public are quite routine.

Lee writes that given the amplified public scrutiny over the TTC frontline workers itself, he’s heard of operators feeling the need to eat in the washroom to avoid getting posted on YouTube for stuffing their faces during work time. There is also a vast customer service piece to the job that is mentally taxing – imagine fielding customer queries by the dozens daily, over long shifts. The frontline work we see TTC operators doing daily is based on seniority and shift work, so if a new staffer hasn’t quite yet put in the time, they will have to do the time. This means working non-traditional shifts, which can ultimately mean missing family events, weddings and special occasions (Lee writes that staffers get warned of this before they take the job).

While there is no doubt that the 19-kilometre Eglinton Crosstown LRT line being constructed along Eglinton Avenue right nearby where I live, will destroy the fabric of some neighborhoods and gentrify others like mine, after reading this tome I will have a more sympathetic view towards TTC drivers who have to deal with people falling asleep on buses and waking up dazed, and for those working the blue (all) night shift where one operator estimates that “90% of the passengers I picked up on the overnight route were drunk.”

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His five other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T, Rap N' Roll: Pop Culture, Darkly Stated) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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