It seemed apt that we should watch High Rise on our second day in Toronto because were already apartment hunting. Scrolling through the endless adverts on kijiji and craiglist over a Tim Horton’s coffee and a bagel, Toronto’s apartments seemed to fit into three categories.
1) Dingy and desolate basements with a ceiling height of less than five feet and no windows.
2) Beehive shared houses inhabited by bong-ripping students and poorly groomed cats offering a ‘mattress on the floor’ of one of their dusty dens.
3) Molecularly-identical bare rooms promising the best of ‘young professional urban living’ on the 88th floor of a high rise.
In High Rise, adapted from J.G. Ballard’s novel of the same name, Tom Hiddleston takes up tenancy in one of these high rise flats in 1970s London.
“Living in a high-rise requires a special type of behaviour,” says one of the building’s inhabitants. “Quiescent. Restrained. It helps if you’re slightly mad.”
Tom Hiddleston’s character, Laing, is satisfied with life in the high rise, despite its inconveniences. Inconveniences that include an apocalyptic class war that sees the high rise’s inhabitants turn into ravenous monsters, raping, murdering and pillaging in a dystopic vision of humanity’s last days.
I’ve never wanted to live in a high rise and now that I’m in Toronto (and have just watched High Rise) I’m even more against it. Where I’m from high rise buildings are mostly sad, social housing flats, places where people who can’t find a home anywhere else seem to end up. And they’re just too much like boxes. The ultimate ready-made, each ‘unit’ comes equipped with the exact same things because we all need the exact same things to live, as though anyone ever wants to be reminded that there’s no such thing as an individual.
If I was a character in High Rise I could hope, at a push, to be housed on the lowest levels of the building. Plagued by ‘all kinds of shadows’ like Elisabeth Moss’s character, the ultimate chain-smoking and heavily pregnant desperate housewife. Or maybe I would be one of the drones working in the windowless cavern of the supermarket, destined to toil behind a till until I developed a vitamin D deficiency and had to wear dark glasses outdoors.
It’s all a bludgeon of a metaphor for the city itself and where do I fit in with that? Where do I belong in Toronto?
On my first night in Toronto I slept in a shared student house we found through Air BnB. I already know that shared living is not for me, not with strangers anyway. There’s a meagreness to shared living and, at thirty, living with strangers makes me feel like I’m regressing back to a studentdom I never really embraced the first time around. I wish I knew why I do everything backwards.
Every room that could be turned into a bedroom in this house had been, bathroom time was limited to ten minutes and there was no table lamp. No table on which to put a table lamp, in fact. These are small things I know but right then, fresh from a month backpacking in Cuba, I just wanted to unpack my clothes, drink tea out of a cup that’s not chipped and sleep in a bed that hadn’t already been slept in by hundreds of people.
And so on with the apartment hunt. But where to start? To new eyes Toronto looks like a giant grid of streets. The streets that run east to west can best be described as a city-long row of vintage clothes stores, cold-pressed juice cafes, smokehouses, coffee shops with puns for names and Chinese restaurants. The shorter streets, the ones that run north to south are leafy suburbs with rows of three storey houses, all different. There’s always an ice cream van and kids playing hockey and huge trees that shade the parked cars and make it all feel like a childhood summer but definitely not one of mine.
Apartment Number One – The Subterranean Squat
The first apartment we viewed was a dingy basement on Lansdowne Avenue. The area was perfect, close to the subway with great places to eat and a thrift store full of cowboy boots nearby but the apartment itself was bad. It was all angles and corners where there shouldn’t be any, impossible to get any kind of furniture to fit and the natural light situation was not good. The words ‘subterranean squat’ entered my mind and wouldn’t leave. ‘The last tenants were smoking a lot of pot down here’, the landlord explained and, yeah, I thought, you’d have to.
Apartment Number Two – The Scruffy Sublet in Trendy Town
The second apartment was a little better. It was just off Bloor in The Annex, close to Korea town, Christie Pits Park, any number of super trendy bars and restaurants and even closer to downtown. It was a bit scruffy, yeah, but it was okay and we would have taken it and transformed it with dollar store cleaning products had it not been for the fact that it was unfurnished. We arrived with the same backpacks we took around Cuba for a month. I didn’t even have a towel of my own at this point so unfurnished was not an option.
Apartment Number Three – The East Side Oasis
The third apartment we viewed was just right. In Greek town, it’s close to the subway, has two bedrooms, a yard with a cherry tree and a friendly biker living in the basement. The apartment has all the markings of a bachelor pad (Playstation, empty fridge, neglected yard) but I like it. I’m in someone else’s bed under someone else’s sheets but we bought our own pillows and a new comforter to make it feel more like our own. We settle which side of the bed belongs to who and from that moment on this is my home.
Our bedroom has a wide window and a door that opens out into the back yard. I can lie down on the bed with the door ajar and watch the squirrels eating what’s left of the unripe cherries in the tree. I can also see our neighbour’s dog digging holes in the grass next door and hear frequent, exasperated cries of, ‘Bowie, NO’, coming from the house.
I know that part of me must want to put down roots because I’ve planted seeds in the planters in the yard that may or may not flower before we have to move on and given my address to friends and family so they can write to me. At the same time I’m reluctant to buy new tea towels or to cook dinner or spend much time in the apartment at all because I still don’t feel like I live here. My time here is limited so my roots have to stay about ground. I wonder if I’ll ever want to stay in one place long enough to buy new tea towels ever again. In three months’ time when this sublet is up I’ll be apartment hunting again and, as much as I love it here, I’m kind of looking forward to it.