Stray impressions


Spending the week gave me a new view of Toronto. I lived there for most of the 1990’s, and it always stuck me as a particularly unhappy place. Not so much anti-entropic as inanimate.

Toronto is the economic engine of Canada. It is also, vibrantly, home to 8% of the population of Canada. But the city sleeps like a damsel who will never be kissed. Abandoned, ever more unlovely, a candidate possibly for cryogenesis…but, really, why bother?

The city has always had a stubborn, Scottish Presbyterian “everything is what it is and not another thing” literalism. As if creativity, imagination, and any innovation not ferociously practical were properly the reserve of musical headed Frenchmen and other mad cap foreigners. Toronto was a good, gray town because, well, it achieved some of its practicality by forsaking the poetic, dramatic, and evocative. Many Scottish Presbyterians believe this to be an excellent bargain.

So imagine the pleasure of finding, this trip, a city filled with stray impressions. Stray impressions come to us “over the transom.” We don’t ask for them. We don’t know what to do with them. They just drift through our heads like a weather system. Very actual, one second, utterly not, the next.

My favorite stray impression (and I do realize that this is probably a symptom of some kind, so this is just between us) are the ones that “come off” a building or a street scene. We are “just looking round” in that great tradition documented by Jerry Seinfeld, and all of sudden, we can see another time and place. Just for a second, the world looks and especially feels exactly like, say, Berlin in the 1860s.

Something about the light. Something about the architecture. Something about the layout of the street, we can’t really say. But there it is, the city has produced a new version of itself. Never mind that we have never been to Berlin. Never mind that we know next to nothing about the 1860s. We have something as emotionally certain as it is sensorily dubious. We are there. Berlin 1865. Then we’re not. Now it’s gone.

How many cities “entertain” stray impressions? Cambridge, MA, didn’t have them. Cambridge, UK, did. There was so many of them in Montreal you could almost hear the city muttering to itself, tossing and turning in its sleep. New York has them like crazy but this is partly because the city has been niched by several urban and some historical cultures. We need only dial in the local signals. So, unless we are sequestered by a cruise ship, a resort hotel, or deep provincialism, travel is the poor man’s opportunity for the stray impression, supplying a new place and its claimant definitions.

Where do stray impressions come from? Sometimes they are like Polanski’s Los Angeles, so apparently we soak them up from art. Sometimes they are a street corner from childhood, so apparently we collect them as we go. Sometimes, they have no clear provenance, so they are the work of the internal bricoleur.

Stray impressions are not one of the places from which ideas come. But they do have a role to play. They are about the “departure” on which creativity depends. They persuade us that things can be other than they seem. They persuade us that we can occupy these alternatives, because for a second that’s what we’re doing. Stray impressions act like that revolving stage at the MET. They deliver. Now we have proof that the conventional scheme of things is not necessary, inevitable, or lasting.

Stray impressions only flourish in cities that have escaped, or are escaping, the dead hand of competence, the rule of elites, the suffocations of a monolithic culture, the center’s self importance, all the things that Toronto once did so well. Hegemony is pretty much over, and the word is out. Stray impressions are assembling like the ghosts in a Wim Wenders movie. Toronto will greet them as it does all “new Canadians,” with the fervent wish that they leave their “difference” behind. But these citizens are only difference and already they are remaking things.

6 thoughts on “Stray impressions

  1. Dilys C.

    the internal bricoleur
    As coinage, this is gold.

    I’m not sure it’s true that stray impressions are not one of the places from which ideas come unless you’re invoking a Platonic or Kabbalistic-Four-Worlds universe. They are mice escaped from the creative silo, breadcrumbs marking a path out of the forest of lock-step neurology.

    I can still remember having personal business in Toronto in the 80’s, and the narrowed eyes at this American’s style–a slant view of the familiar, and to seal the outrage, colorful language.

  2. gary

    The nexus of New York temporal leakage for me is the Flatiron building. I feel as if I could walk in the front door, tip the uniformed doorman, nod to the cloche-hatted bobbed-hair girl selling Cremo’s and watch the 1920s unfurl.

  3. Grant

    I didnt think anyone would respond to this one, and two beauties:

    Dilys C., well said, lock-step neurology is Canada’s national condition and I would have liked to have been there when you offended local sensibilites with colourful language. No call for that, as Tom Stoppard would say. Thanks, Grant

    Gary, thanks, great evocation, have you seen that novel called Time and Again that describes a portal that allows contemporary New Yorkers to find their way back to 1880s New York? Can get you the full ref. Incidentally, Pam and I are were recently remarking that your post this summer about potatoes is the funniest one so far, and I believe fully justifies this blog (when so little else does). Thanks, Grant

  4. Aleah

    Wow, what a fantastic post. I am still fairly new to Toronto, so I have no idea what sort of impressions it gave in the 90s. But I have felt something unique happening, a gradual unfolding of small spots that have retained some flavor and pockets of cultural diversity, juxtaposed against aging architecture.

    I have several impressions of the American Southwest – powerful and ethereal – definitely Wim Wenders-esque.


  5. gary

    Thanks, Grant. I have plot pieces from Time and Again floating in mind’s eye, so somewhere I must have been exposed to it. Or else this is a stray impression of stray impressions.

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