I could look out any window of our offices on the 23rd floor of the Toronto Star building and get a bird’s eye view of the city. From the panoramic sweep along the eastern lakeshore, with its string of warehouses and piers edging the green-black waters of Lake Ontario, to the west shore’s mosaic of condos, hotels and shops, laced with tentacles of greenery. Looking northward you could see the rich density of downtown skyscrapers, steel and glass towers, theatres, hotels and shops. Radiating from there was the gently rolling kaleidoscope of neighbourhoods, each with its myriad homes, stores, schools and parks, cover the vast metropolis I call home.
The building address, 1 Yonge Street, puts it at the base of the street which bisects the city of Toronto into east and west. It abuts Queen’s Quay, which runs east-west and separates the city from the shores of Lake Ontario. It was glorious in the summertime. I loved to stroll along the lakeside boardwalk at lunchtime, mesmerized by the sparkling pewter waters, watching sailboats drift and ferries chug along. Then sit and eat my lunch on a bench in the ribbon of parkland that skimmed the water’s edge. Once in awhile, I would browse the shops at Queen’s Quay Terminal, pretty but pricey. All I could afford was an occasional ice cream treat, savouring creamy vanilla as I watched the yachts and cruise-boats gliding in and out of the marina. The hardest part was going back inside, to the dreary demands of my desk job.
Nine years earlier, before I was the assistant to the president of an insurance brokerage in that lakeside skyscraper, I had a very different job, just a few feet away on the Yonge Street pier. I was 22, done with university and desperate for one last fling of summer fun and freedom before the reality of full-time work and adult life took hold.
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Scouring the job board at the Student Centre at the U of T one afternoon, I spied a small white index card advertising a seasonal job as a tour guide on Amsterdam-style glass-sided boats that cruised the Toronto harbour and islands. Perfect! A few days later, with a tummy full of butterflies, I sat down for an interview with the formidable matriarch of the family-owned business. We conversed pleasantly in typical job interview Q and A style. Then, she handed me a script and asked me to read aloud. Impressed with my delivery, she asked where I had honed my vocal skills. I told her that I had been a performer since I was five years old. My parents would coach me to memorize poems, which I would recite, dressed in our national costume, to homesick audiences at Slovak cultural events.
As the interview ended, Mrs. S stood, shook my hand, and said “welcome aboard,” smiling at her quasi-nautical quip. We worked out the details and, by mid May, I began a summer job that would last through the end of September. At orientation, I met the other tour guides and captains. Each of us had to pass the test for our Small Craft Operator boating licence – even the tour guides, just in case. Then, we got our uniforms, a script to memorize and our work schedules.
The only downside for me was the hour-long trek to get to work. One bus, two subways and a 10 minute walk from Union Station to the pier. The asphalt ribbon of Front Street, which separates city and lake, was the border I crossed in my daily transition from mundane reality to working lakeside holiday!
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Tour guides alternated as ticket agents, while the captains merely drove the boats. One guide would go out on a 45 minute tour, the other would sit in the booth and sell tickets, then switch. Whenever I sat in that tiny ticket booth, looking across the roadways at the urban clutter beyond, I felt like the lone inhabitant of a faraway exotic place. My reverie was broken only when customers came to buy tickets for the boat tours; then, my terror of not balancing the receipts crashed me back to reality.
I loved being on the boats! The summer breezes, lapping waters, seagulls circling overhead… The shoreline receding as we cruised around the harbour and through the Toronto Islands. Bliss! The tour guide stood at the front of the boat, facing passengers, and pointed out areas of interest. On my first tour, I was excited to point out the new landmark of the skyline. I pointed to the right and said “To your right, the CN Tower at 1,815 feet is the tallest freestanding structure…” Every head swiveled to the left to see choppy lake water and a few boats, the captain nearly choked on silent laughter. Once, as we were wending our way through the maze of islands, we passed gardens, restaurants, play areas and three yacht clubs – at which point Captain Kevin said, sotto voce ‘Ketch yawl schooner or later’. I laughed a bit, caught myself, and carried on with the tour as we headed back into the harbour. The view of the city skyline – especially at twilight, when the lights came on – was breathtaking.
Tour boats would go out, rain or shine, with one passenger or fifty. One day, Captain Mark and I went out with two passengers, on a cool and cloudy day. By the time we reached Hanlan’s Point, the entry to the Islands, fog settled in and visibility became poor. Both of us were nervous but we tried to conduct the tour as usual. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I pointed out the Island Yacht Club, when all we could see was the tips of a few masts and the hazy dock. There was one spot, coming under a bridge, where the boat had to make a sharp right turn. Visibility was almost nil, Mark was nervous, and we hit land with the tip of the boat as we turned. Crossing the harbour back to dock was the longest half hour of our lives. I thought I saw Mark cross himself when we finally pulled into the slip, I looped the last line to secure the boat, and we disembarked on wobbly legs.
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There was a second Boat Tours location at Ontario Place, a large park with an IMAX theatre, marina, rides, walkways and an outdoor amphitheatre for concerts. It was a popular spot with tourists and natives alike. We had a tiny kiosk at a finger dock in the food court area. One captain and two tour guides would come out mid-morning and run the tour from there into the late afternoon, returning to dock at the Yonge Street slip at the end of the night. It was a coveted assignment – to be away from the bosses and free to mingle with other students who worked the food concessions. Once in awhile, they would give us freebies – ice cream, donuts, pizza or pop.
I befriended a young waiter who worked at a pub and, one Sunday afternoon, we arranged to meet for a drink after his shift. He ended up working later than expected and by the time we headed home, transit had slowed to a crawl and, what with one thing and another, I did not get home until 4 AM. My parents were furious. That was the catalyst to my ‘moving away from home’. Pockets bulging with my summer job earnings, which included a bonus of more than $700 (one dollar for every hour worked), I rented a tiny room near the city centre I rented, and began the next chapter of my life.
But that is another story…