New City, No Signal: Part One

Eric Magnuson and his buddies travel to Toronto for a little vacation. Except their smartphones don’t work, and they don’t know anything about Toronto. What’s the modern traveler to do? Part one of two.

Kensington Market

Some of our break-ups with technology are more extreme than others. Last year, a Canadian man used his GPS to guide himself through Nevada roads that don’t appear on current-day maps. He hasn’t been seen since. A Las Vegas nurse and her 6-year-old son drove into Death Valley in 2009, relying on nothing but GPS, which sent them down a road that’s no longer truly a road. They got stranded for five days. The boy died. It happens so often that a park ranger has coined a phrase for it: Death by GPS. But the lesser consequences of our failing technology—high schoolers going absolutely bat-shit when Wikipedia shut down for a single day in January—would merely be laughable if they didn’t show how dependent we are on that technology, and what we can become when we lose our complete grasp of it.

I certainly don’t know the horrors of drinking my own piss and watching a child die beside me after getting lost in 115-degree heat for a week. The six friends that I traveled with on a man-cation around the Great Lakes last summer certainly don’t know them either. But when we left Detroit and crossed the border into Canada last July, none of us 29-year-old men had really planned ahead for the fact that our phones would not work in a foreign country, even if that country was only Canada. Our smartphones became paperweights. And for whatever reason, we never looked into what we might want to do in Toronto before actually arriving there. Like many contemporary travelers, we failed to bring a hard copy “map” to chart out what to do. In our first night in Toronto, everything was fine. We had a guide. We were together. We were naked. There was a water slide. But by noon the next day, we were already guide-less and splintered, unsure of each other, oftentimes completely unable to communicate: First, simply because our phones didn’t get service. But as we became more and more lost without technology, the agitation steadily grew, making it hard to communicate even one-on-one by day’s end.

No, we did not come remotely close to death. But in a matter of hours, we devolved from the upstanding men we were—teachers, cancer researchers, kind husbands and boyfriends, etc.—to a pack of homeless degenerates who loafed around shady Toronto parks, drinking the worst swill that Canada offers in a bottle.

That Saturday morning started out fine enough. We had been friends for a decade or more: Bunge, Coe, Compton, Mitchell, Seth, Vince, and myself—seven men all on the cusp of turning 30, and without any ideas about what to do in Toronto. In all of our previous stops around the Great Lakes, we either had reliable friends guiding us or we planned ahead with Internet research. Everybody forgot about Toronto, though.

The first innocent rumblings of “What should we do today?” began circling our table at a greasy-spoon diner in Toronto’s Greektown that took more pride in its Detroit Red Wings paraphernalia than in its Greek omelet. Coming up with nothing ourselves, we turned to the end of the table at our bespectacled hostess, Jess—a stranger, really, who we barely met the night before through friends, and was surprisingly nice enough to put up seven of us for the weekend in her tiny apartment. Jess, however, had only lived in Canada for a year, and apparently did nothing in that year but work and frequent bars. No matter. She’d have to do in place of our iPhones, even if she didn’t actually use one herself. She’d be our Yelp reviews and Google Maps. We prodded her until she remembered the one touristy thing that she could actually recommend: the Kensington Market. People go there, she said. Tourists and locals. They do? Great. We didn’t need technology. We had Jess.

The Kensington Market looked something like a medieval street fair for drug addicts. Most of the shops were basically open-air shacks overflowing with random tchotchkes—Canadian Army fatigues, water bongs, racks of knock-off sunglasses. The scent of falafel poured off of deep fryers. Patchouli. Pedestrians packed the streets and sidewalks, often shoulder to shoulder. Cars sauntered past like stubborn mules. Bunge, a strong man with stronger opinions, recommended that we split up and meet after an hour; we’d be hopeless pushing through this crowd as a single entity. So he disappeared, and the rest of us split off into pairs. Mitchell and I immediately grew bored of shopping and accidentally squeezed out of the market, finding the only remarkable thing within a five-block radius: two life-sized ceramic moose perched over a home’s porch, each wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. Satisfied with the painfully Canadian find, we checked the time and realized we still had 45 minutes to kill, but no way of telling everybody else that we were ready to move on.

After everybody finally found each other 45 minutes later, Bunge and Coe recommended renting bicycles from the public racks scattered throughout the city: It’d be a faster way to see Toronto, and it’d at least be something to do. But it was impossible to find seven rentals locked together in one place. If our smartphones worked, we could have used an official app to find seven together within walking distance. But we had already realized that we wouldn’t have things as ridiculously easy as we usually had them. Our white-people problems began rearing their stupid, white faces.

Already feeling aimless by noon, we decided to stop at the Java House on Queens Street to mull over what to do over a couple of pitchers of beer. Beer was easy. Beer didn’t need an app. But while sitting at an outdoor patio on the sidewalk, a pair of irate finches kept dive-bombing our table. We probably should have heeded their warnings then—just given up and stayed inside a bar all day. Because the more we asked, “What should we do today?” the less we figured out. Without some simple technological resources, it was like we already forgot how to answer on our own. When the waitress returned with nachos, we asked her for suggestions: “How aboot the Kensington Market?” she said. Well, thanks. But no thanks. There was a park, though, on an island, Jess said. She’d never been but it sounded like… something. Mysterious even. But then Jess, our guide, our Internet, our oracle, said she needed to leave us for work for the rest of the day. Standing outside on the sidewalk, Jess wispily said, “A ferry will take you to the island.” And she disappeared completely.

Okay, we said. Okay, but where is the ferry?

We walked in the opposite direction of water. Nobody wanted to put their foot down and say, “Let’s just go to this island.” Maybe if we had some random voices out of the ether to tell us ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ Instead, we ended up at another bar, but it was far worse than the patio with its angry birds. The cavernous room was dark, dank, and full of televisions playing rugby games from around the world. It lent a gloomier mood to the vulnerable feeling already percolating amongst us. Aside from the bartender, only three other people sat in the room: two women and a man in their early 40s. They were getting happily drunk at 2 p.m. Annoyed with our inability to do anything on our own, Coe leaned over and asked these people if they had any recommendations.

“You could go to a bar,” they said.

OK, but what would you do if you only had one day in Toronto?

“You could go to Kensington Market.”

Jesus Christ, we’ve already been to the market. Anything else?

Nothing. Just a trio of drunks. Finally, Mitchell took the reins and said, “Let’s just go to this island.” It’d be good for us. Nature. We’d only seen cities at that point of our trip around the Great Lakes. So with some simple directions from the bartender, we learned that we just needed to get on Bathurst Street two blocks west and it’d take us straight to the ferry. But it was nearly three miles away. So we climbed onto a city bus and, this nearly felt miraculous at this point, it began pulling away. We started feeling like we were actually doing something. We were going to explore something. We only had to wait until 3 p.m. to get our technology-addled minds in order.

Stopping a few blocks away from Lake Ontario, we began following signs for the ferry: Something was finally happening. We didn’t need the Internet to figure out what to do. We felt triumphant. The ferry terminal was sparkling, new, busy with ferry-goers, day-trippers. We were one of them. I noticed that a lot of people carried luggage with them. Whatever. That’s not so strange. There must have been a hotel on the island. We crowded onto the escalator to the second floor, smiling, looking forward to the mysteries of this island that nobody seemed to know anything about. Cresting the second floor, a pair of flight attendants in maroon uniforms sat on a bench, curiously watching us walk past. Looking again, we were the only people in the terminal without luggage. Flight attendants? Sensing something was amiss, Coe walked up to the information desk and when he sauntered back to us, he didn’t need to say anything. His sluggish pace already said it: This ferry only went to an airport across the water—no enchanted island by any stretch. The ferry that we wanted was nearly two miles up the waterfront.

What the fuck are we going to do now? It was too late in the day to figure this all out before dark. So we walked outside, crestfallen, in the sun. We needed that island so badly. But we didn’t even know if it would have been worthwhile. Jess had never been. The drunks at the bar were baffled when we asked them about it. We didn’t know anything anymore. Maybe even each other: Some of us started eyeing each other, like, Why’d you make us come all the way to this airport? Or, Whose fucking idea was it to come to Toronto? We walked along the waterfront until we crossed the Toronto Music Garden—a manicured swatch of green space between the city and Lake Ontario.

Somewhat bewildered with each other and how wasteful our day had been, we decided it was time to split up again. We just inherently knew that things were going to get tense if we stuck together, complaining to each other about the day. Bunge disappeared to God knows where. Vince, Seth, and Compton sprawled out on a patch of freshly-cut grass and fell asleep like the hapless bums we were slowly becoming. Mitchell and Coe stared at the harbor boats. The sun slowly began setting and it felt as if we really weren’t going to do anything in Toronto. When Coe asked another Canadian if he had any recommendations for tourists, he could only suggest going to the park that we happened to be standing in.

Hoping to ward off some of the atrophy, Mitchell and I ran across the street to grab coffees at a Tim Horton’s, and drank them at a man-made beach on the lake.

It was an odd slab of a sandbox: probably 15-yards wide by 30-yards long. Tall, metal umbrellas sporadically dotted the ground. A young couple felt each other up on a metal chaise lounge in front of us. Mitchell and I discussed how the hell we were going to salvage the day. But nothing came to mind. We discussed how people were starting to feel on edge. We looked across the water at a stretch of land far across the harbor.

“Do you think that’s the island we were going to?”

“I have no idea.”

We didn’t know a goddamn thing in Toronto.

Read part two

Photo by philsquires

Eric Magnuson's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in such national literary journals as The Los Angeles Review and Explosion-Proof magazine. His journalism has appeared in numerous magazines, including Rolling Stone, The Nation, and Spin. If you'd like to know more, he has a weird website at