When’s the last time you got out and explored your city? Forget about your favourite haunts and the latest hot spots for a minute and think about the last time you really got out and pounded the pavement. I’ll wager that for a lot of us it’s been a long time, because for all the variety urban centres offer, we’re ultimately creatures of habit. We fall into routine as a matter of course. New discoveries become current favourites, which become old standards. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having places we identify as “ours”. So much of our identity is shaped by our surroundings, why wouldn’t we strive to find our place in it? Our groove… Our rut? Like us, cities live and breathe. And like us, they grow and change.
Five years ago I lived in Toronto. Five years ago I was bored of Toronto. The fourth most populous city in North America, and I was bored. Circumstance and opportunity put Vancouver in my sights, and after a few weeks of couch surfing with friends (and a month renting the Red Power Ranger’s condo, but that’s another story), I was here for good. These first weeks afforded an unusual opportunity: I was flush with a little cash, and work wouldn’t start for a month. I bought an iPhone (maps!) and a new pair of sneaks, and set out.
Every day I walked for hours. I bought a lot of coffee. Made mental notes to keep my bearings and recall neighbourhoods. I spent a lot of time poking around in shops and restaurants. Late afternoons would be spent on the beach. At night my friends and I would grab food or pints, rarely from the same place twice. I was getting a feel for the soul of the city, meeting some great people and getting way, way too drunk. By the end of the month, I had discovered five excellent concert venues, at least a dozen joints to get a great beer or cocktail or delicacy…
…And pinball. Lots of pinball. Not long after I started my walks, I got a surprise: Bally’s Twilight Zone (1993) in perfect working condition. I played a few games, thanked the owner (surely some fringe enthusiast—surely), and was on my way. But I started to find pinball everywhere. Pubs with cheap swill and live tunes and pinball rooms. An honest-to-goodness rat-hole of an arcade; peep shows in the back. Someone hide my wallet, Vancouver was a coin-op holdout!
It only struck me recently that the vast majority of my favourite discoveries were made on foot. Moreover, the places I return to generally specialize on one thing—to the detriment of everything else. Most of the best pinball joints are, first and foremost, dive bars. It got me thinking about the pitfalls of lending too much credence to consensus and opinion. There’s no denying that looking to the internet can be a quick and easy springboard toward “The Best” in your area, and can even be a source of hidden gems. But it also induces a kind of tunnel vision. A peg on a map offers no real context for the business’s place in the community. That four-star noodle joint that just opened up might be next to a farm-grade sty with a kick-ass open-mic night on Thursdays. The Readers’ Choice #1 Record Shop for six years running didn’t point out that you could get the best Americano in the city from that weird kiosk/booth/thing across the street.
I found myself thinking about Toronto. “Boring” old Toronto. How long had I taken it for granted? Going to the same places again and again or not at all. Never venturing beyond my choice avenues. Trudging a path nearly as deep as the streetcar tracks beside me, blinders on, destination the only thing in mind. A stomping ground, a circuit, a rut. I had been boring myself. Vancouver wasn’t more interesting; I had just been showing more interest. While I can’t say I regret the move, I lament the squandered opportunities.
So next time you hit the town, consider your kicks. Walk a neighbourhood and soak it up. Fog up a few windows and rattle some doors. Chew the fat with a shopkeep or two. Stick around when the local “nobodies” set up to gig after dinner. Ride the bus once in a while. Read traffic posts. Avoid the $2 burrito. Live where you live. Dig up the rare earth. Own it. Tell people about it. Wherever you are, it’s pretty cool.
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