The hastening crowd was made up almost exclusively of tall women; that is, by women taller than me.
I came out of the Howard Johnson on Avenue Road and walked up to Bloor and turned the corner into a blaze of sunlight that seemed to radiate from within the throng of pedestrians spilling along the sidewalk, men and women in silhouette casting long shadows on their way to work. The sudden light made me sneeze, once, twice, three times. I had to take off my glasses and wipe my eyes as the pedestrian stream parted around me, and when I put them on again I saw that the hastening crowd was made up almost exclusively of tall women; that is, by women taller than me. Although there were people in the crowd of average height, which is how I think of my height, the overall effect was of tallness, in particular a tallness of women. An absurd phrase formed unspoken on my lips—At last: the tall women of Toronto—as if I had been waiting years for them to arrive.
I continued walking into the sunlight as if I were looking for a cup of coffee. More tall women approached and moved on; I slowed down and tall women overtook me and strode on by into the sunlight, dragging their long shadows behind them. When I arrived at my meeting, I was still pondering the phenomenon of the tall women. The others at the meeting, most of them women, were already sitting behind long tables, so no one in the room appeared to be taller than anyone else. Soon we were deep into our deliberations and the apparition of the tall women in the crowd began to fade away, like a dream fragment after waking.
At noon I went for a walk around the block and the tall women were still there, moving up and down the sidewalk and in and out of doorways, as I was, seeking soup, salad, sandwiches, something for lunch. Until now I had associated Toronto with tall men; on previous visits I had taken a kind of refuge in the presence of tall Toronto men, but now that refuge had been withdrawn and I could see no evidence of tall men being dominant any longer in Toronto, at least along that stretch of Bloor Street near Avenue Road.
The meeting ended late in the afternoon and I set out to walk the other way along Bloor, toward the sun dropping in the west, and when I began sneezing again, the memory of the tall women of Toronto returned to my sphere of perception; I wondered if I had been hallucinating and was now trying to prove something, to exorcise demons, or find new ones. The presence of tall women appeared not to be so strong to the west but as there seemed to be fewer pedestrians of any height going in that direction, no doubt there was a statistical effect in play.
Such was the extent of my thinking as I continued to stride into the sun. By the time I reached Honest Ed’s, the well-known bargain emporium, I was hardly thinking at all, and certainly not thinking about what I was doing when I pushed open the door to Honest Ed’s and stumbled into its ghastly embrace; in a moment the air seemed to have been sucked from my lungs. I tried to turn back but the door that let me in would not let me out. I had to press on into a sea of tables aglow in muted underground hues, only to learn that there were no exit doors in any of the whitewashed walls. I recall hesitating on a ramp between two floors or perhaps two city blocks; I was sweating; eventually I found a narrow passage through turnstiles with many arms that thrust me out onto the sidewalk mere metres away from where I had entered.
I began walking east and my long shadow advanced before me, clearing passage along more sidewalks as the shadows grew longer. I made several turnings and crossed several intersections, without pausing to read the instructions for doing so provided by the city, and perhaps an hour or half an hour later drew up in front of Grossman’s Tavern on Spadina, which rose out of the pavement into the low light of the sun. There was no one inside save for the woman behind the bar, who was perhaps my age and who brought me a soda water with ice and lemon and, when she put it down before me, said cheerfully, Good idea, you not drink alcohol, good idea, my grandmother, she drink all the time, she an alcoholic.
She was very cheerful. Sunlight shone in along the bar between us, but we were both in cool shade. I asked her if she drank alcohol and she said, No, no, never, my grandmother drink plenty for the whole family. I used the washroom at the back, the walls of which were covered in crude graffiti that might have been put there in the seventies, before setting out once again into the street. In a small black-and-white establishment somewhere on Queen Street I ordered a martini and a portobello salad. The martini was perfect and so was the salad. I looked around and realized that the woman serving was taller than me, a tall woman. I scribbled on a napkin: She seems to cast an aura instead of a shadow, and now as I read those words I wonder what I was responding to.
There was a bookstore nearby; I went in and asked the man at the counter if he had a copy of Parallel Lives, and he began to search in the database. He was enormously tall and radiated confidence and calm, and I felt certain that he would find the book simply by the way that he loomed over me in the manner of tall men in Toronto, determined to protect me from bad news. But he was unable to locate a copy of Parallel Lives, and when I returned to the sidewalk I realized that he must have been standing on a platform behind the counter; surely no man could be that tall in Toronto.
The streets were now fully in shadow; the sun had set but the sky overhead was still blue. I imagined triangulating my position with the Howard Johnson up near Bloor but lacked a third point from which to complete the measurement. Such a third point might have been provided by Mrs Dalloway’s Hot Dog Stand, which I encountered on the edge of a plaza on a street unknown to me. I considered asking the woman operating the stand where we were but forgot to do so in the excitement of ordering a literary hot dog. A customer in front of me turned from the stand holding one of Mrs Dalloway’s hot dogs, which she was lowering carefully into a shoulder bag. She was elegantly dressed; her hair was grey like mine and she looked down into my eyes. I’m dining alone tonight, she said. In my room, up there. She pointed over her shoulder to an expensive hotel and said, I don’t want to upset anyone, you see. She was taller than me; it was too late for this fact to mean anything. She adjusted the shoulder bag and strode off toward the hotel, and then it was my turn to order one of Mrs Dalloway’s hot dogs. It was dark when I crossed Charles Street at Yonge and heard a woman’s voice, say, Sir, Sir, and thought nothing of it, but as I mounted the curb I understood that the speaker was addressing me. I turned to face a young woman holding out her hand as if it were a tiny bowl. Later I realized that she was not one of the tall women of Toronto; or did I perceive her to be short as an effect of her deferential aspect? In any event I transferred all of the coins in my pocket into the bowl made by her tiny cramped fingers. That was when I noticed the name of the street, which some seconds later, when I got up to Bloor and prepared myself to begin walking west again, proved to be significant, for at that moment a young woman in a red shawl turned to me and said, Sir, Charles Street is that way, is it not? and she pointed in the wrong direction. No, I was able to tell her. It’s down that other way, only a few blocks. I felt that I was answering her in the guise of a man of Toronto, not a tall man of Toronto, but nevertheless of this place, unlike the woman in the shawl, now that I think of it, who was evidently of some other place—as had been, I realized now, the elegant tall woman with a Mrs Dalloway’s hot dog in her shoulder bag.
As I approached the Howard Johnson, a cry of anger or astonishment echoed along the street and a man stepped off the curb in the distance and then stepped back up again. I could see that he was tall. Another loud cry, unmistakably male, erupted from somewhere nearby, but no one else appeared. Perhaps these were coded cries shared in the night by tall men in Toronto, somewhat like the whistling code shared by shorter men among the hills of Ireland or Wales or was it the south of Italy?
When I entered the lobby the desk clerk, a young man about my height, was giving directions to a couple of guests who were also my height. He thrust a finger at the map spread out between them. Here we are, he said, and then with some emphasis: Currently we are right here.
The next day as I waited for a taxi to the airport I read the instructions for crossing the street attached to a light pole outside the hotel. The sign was low on the pole; I was aware that tall people, specifically the tall women of Toronto, would have to stoop in order to read what was printed there, a message filled with strangeness if not outright malevolence: PEDESTRIANS OBEY YOUR INSTRUCTIONS—DO NOT CROSS—START CROSSING—DO NOT START.
The taxi was air-conditioned; the windows were tinted; I leaned back in cool comfort. At the airport a crackling voice on the public address system repeated instructions again and again that sounded exactly like Poppy cake popcorn poppy cake. On the plane at 35,000 feet, one of the flight attendants came slowly down the aisle on her hands and knees, poking a tiny flashlight under the seats. No one that I could see asked her what she was looking for.