“This Is My Island”: Fear and Confusion in Toronto

When I travel there are certain disasters or near-disasters that I hope never befall me, but when they do, I’m glad I experienced them: three little kids on a crowded street in Buenos Aires trying to slice open my backpack to steal whatever tumbled out; three grown men, one drunk, cornering me and trying to rob me on a Buenos Aires subway during rush hour; getting lost in a strange neighborhood in Seattle that may or may not have been dangerous.  I’m glad of these moments because they are the ones that stick with me over the years.  They are the ones that get me questioning and wondering about the nature of the place I’m exploring and the people who inhabit it.

One such episode occurred in Toronto, when I took a ferry from downtown to the islands that mark the eastern end of Toronto Harbor.  There, on the largest island, I strolled among happy families picnicking on the green September grass, kids splashing in fountains and screaming from rollercoasters, and adults biking along the paths that meander through the island’s forests and green spaces.  Centre Island is a place of unbearable lightness and gaiety that, while you’re there, comprises your whole world.  But as in all public spaces, at any time of day, there are also secluded spots where danger may lurk and where strange things may happen.

Around mid-afternoon I approached the western shore of the island to gain a view of downtown Toronto.  I got to within one-hundred feet of the shore and smelled cigarette smoke wafting in the wind.  Though I couldn’t see the source of the smoke, I could hear the laughter and cursing of the young men from whom it emanated.  I thought nothing of it, high-stepped over the tall grass that lines the shore and hopped along a series of half-submerged stones out to a boulder that afforded a view of the city to the east.  The CN tower soared above the pristine condos and new high rises that speak to the vitality of a prospering and burgeoning metropolis.

I crouched on the boulder, not quite large enough to sit on, and pulled out my camera to take pictures of the ducks paddling by against the backdrop of the city.  I thought I was alone, but soon I heard from behind me the sound of twigs snapping and grass crunching, followed by a series of splats, as if someone were slapping the water with the palm of his hand.

I turned around and saw a man in his twenties standing on a stone between me and the shore.  He was staring at me.  Neither one of us said a word.  The man looked at me, then at the rock on which I was crouched, then at the trail of stones leading to it from the shore, as if he was pointing out to me that to go anywhere I would have to leap into the lake.  He rested his eyes on me again, and with a blank face he said, “Hey man, how you like this island?  It’s nice, yeah?”

“Yeah, this view is awesome,” I said.

As if he hadn’t heard me, he said, “This is my island.  I love it.”

He hopped toward me and crouched on a boulder beside me.  He looked at me again and said in a whisper, “This is my island.”  He paused, then, with a sweep of his hand and a nod toward the shore, said once again, drawing out his words, “This is my island.”

We sat there in silence for what felt like half an hour, just the two of us, the water lapping against the shore, the trees swaying in the breeze, the cigarette smoke still wafting in the wind and mixing with the smell of algae that saturated the air, and the disembodied laughter of the young men coming from beyond the shore.

I was scared, but there was little I could do about it, knowing that this man’s friends were nearby.  I guessed that he wanted to exercise power over me, to threaten me with confusion rather than with overt gestures of menace or force.  I felt like that poor toad little boys poke at with a stick yet which they can’t quite bring themselves to crush.

I had calmed down and accepted my circumstances when the stranger asked where I was from.  “Texas,” I said.  “How about you?  Are you from Toronto?”

He laughed.  “No, I been here a year.  Came from Nigeria.  But this is my island.”

“You have a cool island,” I said, and on hearing this he stood up and hopped along the stones back to the shore.  He turned back to me and said, “You’re cool, man.  I like you.  You’re cool.”  And he disappeared among the tall grass and the trees swaying in the wind.

For some reason I felt elation over having formed some kind of meaningful bond with a man who at first frightened me.  I wished I’d had more time to talk with him, to ask how he came to Toronto, what it was like to start a new life in a foreign continent, to leave home, maybe for good.  More than anything, I wanted to know what exactly our whole encounter was about, and why I liked this man who had toyed with me and gone out of his way to scare me.  Why did it gladden me to think that I had somehow earned his respect and approval?  Approval for what?  For existing?  Or did I misinterpret the whole encounter?  Maybe he was just lonely and wanted company.  I don’t know.

*Buenos Aires and Argentina: It occurred to me that I gave two examples of sort of bad things that happened in Argentina and Buenos Aires.  I want to clarify that Argentina is one of the safest countries I’ve ever traveled in and that these two incidents are as likely to happen in a big American city as in Buenos Aires or anywhere else in Argentina.  I just had bad luck, or I did something to mark myself as vulnerable.  Good friends of mine (who are argentinos) live in Argentina.  They’re kind in the way most of the people who live there are.