New City, No Signal: Part Two

The conclusion to Eric Magnuson’s smartphone-less trip to Toronto.


Read part one

When we regrouped after splitting up an hour earlier in the Toronto Music Garden, Coe had an important announcement to make. Our helplessness might finally end: He found a full rack of rental bikes. So maybe, just maybe, something could pan out for us. We were three miles south from wherever we were supposedly meeting Jess that night. Nobody wanted to walk that far anymore. So we put our credit cards through the kiosk to rent bikes and then pedaled 16 blocks north on Spadina Avenue.

After turning down a street of dingy warehouses, we found Bellevue Square, a scrappy, little park that looked like Kensington Market’s drug-addled little brother. Bastardized hippies. Mangy dirt patches. Sleeping homeless men. Possibly dead homeless men. A rental rack for our bikes sat in the park’s southwest corner. But, of course, it didn’t have enough available spaces for all seven of us to lock up and abandon our rentals. If we had access to that app, we could have checked in advance. But no. Three of us had to pedal halfway back the way we came, just hoping that the nearest bike rack on the hardcopy map at Bellevue had enough spaces for us. Surprisingly, it did. But that was the last thing that went remotely well all day.

Meeting back at Bellevue near Kensington Market, the seven of us decided to split up to search for dinner. The place appeared to be full of bars and restaurants when we walked through hours earlier, so we assumed that it was going to be crowded shoulder-to- shoulder.But when we returned, most of the shops had pulled down their metal gates. The Canadians’ sole recommendation was now virtually empty aside from a few people who looked like they hadn’t had anywhere to be since 1992. The only restaurant open was a mediocre burrito shop that Bunge — the only one of us living near the Mexican border — declared disgusting. Coe, who had been a cancer researcher since college, said, Fuck it, and walked outside to bum a cigarette from somebody. He started a conversation with a girl in a green hoodie, hoping that she might give some coherent suggestions for our night. She was pale and extremely frail. She looked like she’d been hiding in her hoodie for months. Her speech stopped and stuttered. Coe couldn’t figure out if it was because she didn’t speak English or if it was just because she’d taken way too many drugs. When Coe asked her what we should do, she pointed behind him and said, “You could hang out at the burrito shop.” Jesus Christ.

At that point, the four of us were so incredibly fed up with the fact that absolutely nothing was going well that we decided to buy some beers and drink them in Bellevue Square. But we couldn’t even do that right. We spent 25 minutes looking for a liquor store, asking locals where the nearest one was, but most of them acted like they’d never been to a liquor store in their lives. When we finally found a liquor store — or more accurately, a beer store, because they didn’t sell liquor — the place was unlike anything we’d seen in the States. The store’s full selection was listed on a giant white wall, like arrival times at a train station. Beer labels were pasted to a board with individual prices beneath each. All of it was incredibly expensive. And we no longer had the old-fashioned sense to just vocally ask for directions on how it all worked, or even for recommendations on what was worth the price.

We stepped up to the counter and ordered the cheapest beer they stocked: Sleeman’s, which we knew nothing about beforehand. The sign next to the Sleeman’s label curiously said that the beer came in 12, 18, 24, and 30 packs. Thirty. Why not? And it’d obviously come in lightweight cans because we’d never seen 30-packs of bottles. The beer rolled out to us on a long conveyor belt and we suddenly saw that we’d just bought 30 heavy bottles. Awkwardly hauling these things six blocks back to the park, we expected the rest of our party to greet us with wreaths and bouquets of flowers. Maybe some ecstatic cheers. But they glared at us with angry disbelief. Mitchell had that perfect scowl where he wasn’t exactly angry, but he was sure as hell disappointed in all of us.
“What took you guys so long?” they asked. “And why do you have 30 bottles of beer?”

“We thought you guys were getting food at the same time as us.”

No, we were going to go in short shifts.”

A massive miscommunication that phones couldn’t have even saved us from at that point. We couldn’t even communicate one-on-one anymore. We didn’t even apologize because we were certain that we’d agreed to all get food and come back to this park at the same time. And they were absolutely certain in their own recollections. The two factions looked incredibly irate with one another — except for Seth, who’d managed an absurd coup while we wasted daylight in the market.

Now, none of us are exactly the types of men who walk up to random strangers, asking them in broad daylight if they know where to buy marijuana. But after an hour or so of being abandoned in that park, having no idea if we were ever going to return from dinner, Seth let himself be that kind of guy.

Walking up to a pair of young men working under a car’s hood, Seth nervously asked, “Hey, um, so, uh, do you guys know where to get… marijuana?”

“Are you a cop?” the guy quickly asked, sizing Seth up from head to toe. Then the man smiled. “I’m just jokin’ ya. I know ya aren’t a cop.” And he laughed this mad little teehee of a laugh. “You see that white Rastafarian over there?” He pointed across the park at a white Rastafarian.

“Uh, yeah,” Seth said.

“He’s got you.”

So Seth walked across the park until he penetrated the inner sanctum of this white Rastafarian. The man wore all-white clothes and ratty, blond dreadlocks. A drum circle played nearby. Then one of the Rastafarian’s minions rose his arm over Seth, snapped his fingers, and pointed down at him as if announcing one of the king’s subjects.

“Here’s how it’s going to go down,” the Rastafarian said. “You’re going to go into that public bathroom over there. Wait five minutes. Then this guy here will come in and make the exchange. Don’t worry. He’s not going to jump you.”

Judging by the drum circle, Seth decided to take his chances. Though when he walked into the bathroom, he didn’t know what to do for five minutes. The place was disgusting. Somebody had unflushable diarrhea earlier — unflushable because it was on the floor and spread across the walls. Seth didn’t need to use the urinal, so he nonchalantly washed his hands for five minutes. When the dealer finally showed up, he didn’t have correct change for Seth. So the guy told Seth to wait at a park bench nearby, and he’d bring back change. And with this being a particularly upstanding Canadian drug dealer, he actually returned with Seth’s change.

Finally regrouping with Seth and a very hungry Vince and Mitchell, the three of them made some sarcastic comments about taking their time with dinner and didn’t give us a real hour that they’d return. So Bunge, Coe, Compton, and I sat on two park benches with 30 beers hiding beneath us, not knowing when they’d return, and not knowing what we’d do with 30 bottles of beer between the four of us. Bunge didn’t care anymore. Coe didn’t care anymore. Compton and I didn’t care anymore. Bunge pulled some newspaper off of the ground and wrapped it around a bottle like a cheap floral bouquet. It’d have to do in place of a brown bag. All of us made our own newspaper arrangements and drank as children played at the playground beside us. A police car circled the park every ten minutes. But what actually put us ill-at-ease was that when we uncapped these beers, we quickly learned that Sleeman’s is disturbingly bad, as if we couldn’t have gathered that from the name alone. It was sour and metallic. If mercury has a taste, it’s likely Sleeman’s. But we had 30 bottles to get rid of, and we paid a lot of money for it, so we began slamming it as fast as possible. Bottle after bottle. Which was incredibly hard to do, because it was like drinking muskrat piss out of a cow’s udder.

While we were choking down these beers, the other three were getting wrapped up in their own precarious situations with Seth’s weed: Just to spite the four of us, as they admitted long after the trip ended, they decided to abandon us for as long as possible by hunkering down in a marijuana bar near the park. It wasn’t one of those cheery, New Age bud bars you hear about in Denver or L.A. The place was virtually empty aside from a couple flimsy tables and red-eyed 18-year-olds. A semi-comatose DJ spun dub step under low lights. The guy behind the counter looked like he didn’t know whether any of this was legal. Mitchell said he thought he was going to get mugged the entire time. “But it was a risk I was more than willing to take at that point of the day.” In fact, the incredibly lax oversight of marijuana laws in Toronto allowed our guys to smoke their street-bought weed on a back patio.

When they finally returned after dark — they were true to their word in taking their time — they looked none-too-happy about having to finish these beers off before we went anywhere else.

“We didn’t tell you to buy this shit.”

But we did. More than $45 for 30 of the worst beers in Canada. For the rest of the night, I thought I was going to vomit. Not because I was drunk, but because this stuff twisted my stomach into sailor knots.

After polishing off 360 ounces of beer, we anxiously turned to the public bathroom only to find that it was now locked for the night. So every single one of us was waddling through this neighborhood, looking for a place to piss. Between cars. Against houses. Crouching behind bushes. Nearly unzipping in front of people taking out their trash. That block glistened in our Sleeman’s piss.

When we finally did meet up with Jess again at a restaurant on College Street, there was a palpable hostility between us. The exciting energies of a friendly road trip had turned into angry, spiteful energies.

We got a table in back while Jess finished up dinner with her boss — a woman who upon seeing us seven men seemed to second-guess why she employed Jess. We did not look good: unwashed, shifty-eyed, reeking of cheap booze. We were not the usual, good-humored group of men, kicking back with beers after a successful day of exploring. Most of us were quiet, tired, looking at each other with suspicion. We didn’t quite trust each other anymore. We all knew the day was a tremendous failure. And we all seemed to blame one another for it. How could we be so stupid to have not planned ahead for this? It was everybody else’s fault. And I felt more ill as time passed, making me grimace and sneer at the people around me. I sat at the head of the table, not wanting to say a word. The stereo system played mind-numbingly loud music above us — strange, Canadian alt-rock that sounded trapped in 1997. It was nearly impossible to hear each other without yelling. Then Bunge, being too fed up with all of us idiots throughout the day, leered at me and said, “You should move down to the end of the table so that Jess can sit there.”

“What? Why?”

“So it’s easier for everybody to talk to her over the music.”

But I stared back, dumbfounded, feeling like the Sleeman’s was tearing apart my stomach.

“No,” I said. “I’m not moving right now.”

He began getting agitated with me, or even more so with the day. He’d traveled in a conversion van with us for a very long time at that point. He wanted to hear new voices. But I could not give a shit. My stomach squeezed together and ate itself. The only thing that could get me to move was if I puked on myself.

When Jess and her boss did join us, they sat at the far end of the table, far, far from Bunge’s ears: He looked like he was about to flip out at me. Feeling malicious by that time of the day, I just laughed at him as he squeezed out of the booth and moved down toward them. He eyed me like just I shit on his lawn. Things were not going well. But as Vince quickly found out by sitting next to her, Jess’s boss was completely incapable of saying anything remotely interesting. So half of the table was consumed in silence as terrible music blared through the stereo while the other half of the table was consumed in terrible conversation. It didn’t matter. Each half eyed the other half with annoyed envy.

“Hey,” Seth said to me, looking for any sort of reprieve. “Do you want to smoke this joint?”

I still felt like I might vomit. But to hell with it. I was going to smoke that goddamn joint out on the street. Maybe it’d at least make me puke up that awful Sleeman’s jumbling around in my stomach. And by the time we got outside, I had a monstrous headache. The beer had already given me a hangover. Seth and I smoked in a park of hardened mud. And I tried. I tried to vomit the Sleeman’s. But the smoke didn’t coax anything out.

When we got back into the restaurant, everybody decided to go to another bar; but without many options, we ended up at a strange billiards room called Andy Poolhall. Everything inside was bathed in a sickly, blood-red light. Gaudy, red pleather couches dotted the floor. It looked like the set of a vampire porno. The place was gigantic but only one other group of people stood in the room while ear-deafening 90s R&B played on the stereo. If this place didn’t make me vomit, nothing would.

Seth, Vince, and Jess tried starting a dance party but it was half-assed and everyone looked like they were only pretending to have fun. Unable to feign even a half-assed dance step, I staggered toward the bathroom.

Opening the door, I suddenly walked into the kung-fu climax of Enter the Dragon. Mirrors covered every inch of the room. I became reflected back and forth a million times over. But stranger still was that the bathroom was technically unisex. Each stall was its own bathroom. You just knew that people had sex while locked behind those stalls. I concealed myself behind one of the mirrored doors and held my head over the toilet.

Nothing came up. And in trying to vomit, my headache only grew worse. I spit into the toilet, hoping for anything more. But that Sleeman’s was going to coagulate inside of me till morning.

Sauntering back into the main room, I heard Jess suddenly say that we had to leave right away because the subway was about to shut down for the night. We quickly rushed out, looking first for a bus that would take us to the nearest subway. We saw a bus pull away and head toward the station but we had no idea if it was the last one of the night — no phones to check, and no reliable schedules to be seen at the stop. Thinking another would come, Vince decided to buy some street meat. Everybody was hungry, but we had to catch that subway. It was closing in minutes. But then Bunge got in line for food as well. After ten minutes in line, and after these guys meticulously covered their sausages with condiments, we realized that no other bus was coming. We had to start running as fast as possible to get to the train station. People cheered as we raced past.

But the gate was closed when we arrived out of breath. It shut down just a minute earlier. And I was absolutely irate with these guys for wasting ten minutes getting food. As I was about to flip out after running with this headache and Sleeman’s-stomach, Jess finally said that we could still catch a bus back to her neighborhood. Why the fuck didn’t she say that before? Christ, if we’d had smartphones, we could have bypassed all of this nonsense by looking up the transit system.

When we got on the bus, I scowled at Bunge, so annoyed with him for making us run all over the place: Too discombobulated to think straight, I decided to blame everything on him. And he was still annoyed with me from our exchange at the bar. The bus was tense. Some of us couldn’t stand being with each other anymore. The ride felt menacingly long until we finally got dumped off back in Greektown. Everybody was agitated. Or just happy to finally be ending the day. We could barely talk to each other anymore.

Walking down the street, Bunge sidled up beside me, trying to be the better man, and asked, “Hey, are we going to be okay?” as if we were in a marital spat.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you going to stop being as rigid as a witch’s cunt?”

“All right,” he said, and quickly walked ahead of everybody else.

“Come on,” I said. “That was funny.” But I was far too serious for it to be even juvenilely funny.

Walking back into Jess’s apartment, everybody was about to collapse. Very few words were exchanged. Everything was far too touchy. And we were about to sleep crammed together in a narrow room. Nobody said a word, fearing that the entire trip would end right there.

We brushed our teeth. We changed into sleepwear. We rolled out our sleeping bags. Then Bunge, all six feet of him, appeared in the shadow of the bathroom door. He wore a hot-magenta dress. Its hemline barely covered his genitals. Barely.

For the first time all day, everybody smiled in unison, and then laughed so hard we probably woke up the neighbors. Bunge hadn’t told anybody about this dress all week, as if he was saving the joke for the perfect moment. And here he was, grinning so happily with the gag, and making us remember how to communicate with one another. When we first became friends more than ten years before, perhaps none of us had even heard of the term “smartphone.” Hell, I got my first email address at freshman orientation in 2000. But after being saturated in technology for over a decade, it took Bunge, in a hot-pink dress, to remind us of what we still had in common, without iPhones, without the internet or God-knows-what-else. We still had humor. We’d talk again after all.

The next morning, we got the hell out of Toronto.

Photo courtesy of Small

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