Cars as well as houses are what we shut ourselves in to avoid the terror of the crowd.
By Mark Fenton
Published July 05, 2006
They shut themselves in houses which no one may enter, and only there feel some measure of security. The fear of burglars is not only the fear of being robbed, but also the fear of a sudden and unexpected clutch out of the darkness.
The repugnance to being touched remains with us when we go about among people; the way we move in a busy street, in restaurants, trains or buses, is governed by it. Even when we are standing next to them and are able to watch and examine them closely, we avoid actual contact if we can.
(From Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti)
Canetti is writing about European cities half a century ago. Were he observing North American urban sprawl, he might have noted that cars as well as houses are what we shut ourselves in to avoid the terror of the crowd.
More specifically, we shut ourselves away in communities whose only realistic means of egress and ingress is the automobile, to the point where there exist urban developments which are unthinkable without every resident having access to a car.
Andrew Stevenson and I visited the intersection of Appleby Line and Dundas Street (Highway 5), early one morning in June. Everything is new here: the houses, the retail outlets, even the wetlands.
Severely altered Google Maps image of Appleby Line and Highway 5 [click on the image for a more legible version]
I really have to apologize for the quality of the above, which looked beautiful on Google Maps but unfortunately that hand that sits on top of the map and which lets you zoom in and pan wouldn't allow me to copy it into a file.
It's sort of like when you see a cool electrical gadget under perfectly polished glass that you want to play with without having to call on a sales person who knows you're not really going to buy it. So I couldn't get it in living colour, and my scan looks more like an aerial shot from a out of a WWII movie complete with pasted on directions and targets that intelligence handed to the pilots.
I had to paste my own little markers from our journey on it, and I'm fully aware of what a disappoint it is: Nothing like this map from the front page of The House at Pooh Corner:
Map from The House at Pooh Corner
(It's a great book to read at any age. Even as an adult, I find that everything I need to know about personality disorders is covered in the Pooh Books. I still own the copy of The House at Pooh Corner that I was given when I turned five, and even though the cloth is unraveling it is, simply as an object, possibly the favourite book in my collection. I realize, of course, I'm investing it with a perceived magic of lost childhood, for, as Proust says, "Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu'on a perdus." Lots of wetland in it. That's always nice.)
Oh, and here's another compelling map, this time from Faulkner's Absolom, Absolom:
Map from Faulkner's Absolom, Absolom
This map is so confusing and pointless towards understanding the narrative that it seems none of the Faulkner websites I checked had bothered to post a scan. Once again I had to resort to scanning it myself from my old Vintage edition.
I'm alarmed how quickly the paper turned brown (I bought the book new, probably 20 years ago), but water damage may be the culprit. I have too many books to store upstairs, and have never learned how to keep books dry in Southern Ontario basements. Maybe if I bought a new house near Appleby Line and Dundas Street, the basement would be dry as dust. I don't know.
Anyway, there's actually more information in this map on other Faulkner novels, like reference to the courthouse where Temple Drake testified in Sanctuary, or the collapsed bridge which prevented Anse Bundren and his boys from getting across to bury their mother in As I Lay Dying.
So Maps like this, as with the map for The House at Pooh Corner, have a sort of you'll want to collect them all function. Really though, whether they're useful or not, I like the idea of having a map whenever you read a story, although this may be a pathology that comes from my having worked in transportation for the better part of a decade an a half. Working, I might add, always in the capacity of a planner, never in the capacity of an operator!
In the future, when all books are digital and capable of linking anywhere, I'll be the guy who clicks the link to the map of the place the book is set, and then clicks the link to the map of how the place looks now. I just like to know that stuff.
Andrew and I decided to explore the wetlands first. There is a fence -
Fence separating the wetlands from the Wal-Mart
- separating it from the Wal Mart.
Wal-Mart at Appleby Ln and Hwy 5
The gate isn't locked and there are no angry signs forbidding me from being near or on it, or even from swimming in it. This is where I expected to be approached by security people, but it didn't happen.
Nice for the water fowl, who must get tired of seeing their flight path increasingly filled with buildings, roads, and hydro lines.
Waterfowl in the wetlands
These geese where there for quite a while, taking as much time off work as I was. Andrew and I had the idea of gathering together a few dozen families to come down with canoes and have an early morning game of canoe tag, paddling up white froth on the lake, and filling the stillness with shouts of summer fun -
Wetlands at Appleby Ln. and Hwy. 5: an ideal spot for canoeing families
- then maybe a late breakfast and we'd be ready for the Wal-Mart returns line. If anyone wants to organize an event like this, let us know.
The wetlands tapers into a stony inflow -
Stony inflow (or perhaps outflow)
- or outflow, I'm not enough of a geologist to say which. Perhaps it's just a way of make sure the water stays as stagnant and lifeless as it appears to be.
Andrew and I left the wetland and proceeded along a winding path.
I am struck by how a bend in a path leading anywhere takes the traveler from an external journey to an internal journey. Whenever I encounter a bend in a road it prevents the immediate future from being known and so my thoughts turn inward.
I was reminded of Marcel Proust's repeated journeys down the Méséglise way. When I got home and looked it up, I confirmed that like our journey, Marcel's has the understated thrill of trespassing:
One day my grandfather said to my father: ‘Don't you remember Swann's telling us yesterday that his wife and daughter had gone off to Rheims and that he was taking the opportunity of spending a day or two in Paris? We might go along by the park, since the ladies are not at home; that will make it a little shorter.
Also like our journey, Marcel's is a journey past wetlands:
And so it was that, at the foot of the path which led down to the artificial lake, there might be seen, in its two tiers woven of forget-me-nots and periwinkle flowers, a natural, delicate, blue garland encircling the water's luminous and shadowy brow, while the iris, flourishing it's sward blades in regal profusion, stretched out over agrimony and water-growing crowfoot the tattered fleurs-de-lis, violet and yellow, of its lacustrine scepter.
(Swann's Way: Translated by CK. Scott Moncrieff and Terrence Kilmartin, Modern Library, New York, 1998)
I'm not enough of a botanist to tell you if any of this plant life is growing here outside the Burlington Wal Mart. To be honest I generally start cruising when Proust hits a groove of half page sentences describing plant life.
For me it's in capturing the culture of French haute bourgeois, mapping the psychology of jealousy, and exploring the sad and beautiful pull of involuntary memory that Proust really kicks ass.
Anything that might be living here must have survived several degrees of toxic intervention, and didn't warrant close attention. I didn't lay good odds on the trees that had been planted around this lake.
I was pulled from this reverie when Andrew and I stumbled across what I can best describe as a mixed media art installation.
A mixed media art installation
To give you a sense of scale, I'd suggest that maybe that thing is the size of an early third trimester human fetus. I did nothing to alter the pieces of wood around it. The two short pieces on either side of it are conspicuously parallel and frame the body without touching it, and the top piece has been broken in an even zigzag.
I have no idea how to interpret it, and wonder if I've stumbled onto a genre of sculptural graffiti (still in its infancy and whose codes are unknown to me) akin to the early 60s mixed media pieces by Ed Kienholz:
Ed Keinholtz, The State Hospital, Moderna Museet, Stockholm
I tried to imagine Marcel's gaze -
Marcel Proust: Lithograph by Jan Peter Tripp. Unrecounted: Penguin, 2004
- falling on something like this as he meandered down the Méséglise way, and how many madeleines dipped in tea he would need to ingurgitate on returning home to recover from the trauma and regain his rarified detachment, and how many pages of involuntary memories it would trigger over the remainder of his seven volume novel.
Andrew and I couldn't stay at the wetlands forever. We had places to be, and we both wanted a coffee, which at this point we still believed we could get easily enough by crossing Dundurn Street at Appleby Line.
We came to a view of the new housing development, still in early stages of construction. The people who inhabit them will soon, I hope, be bringing their picnic baskets and canoes down to the already constructed wetlands.
I wonder if each mound of earth represents the site of a house, already purchased, and if the new owners stand where Andrew and I are standing to view their own particular mound, as though a few heavy rainfalls are all it needs to sprout and grow into their future home.
Mounds of earth, perhaps to mark the location of a future home
I once saw similar mounds in a photo of a burial ground near the Great Wall of China:
Photo Credit: India Burial and Sacred Grounds Watch
It also reminded me of any number of Earthworks by the likes of Robert Smithson.
Spiral Hill, Emmen, Holland Summer 1971 earth, black, topsoil, white sand approximately 75' at base
I'm not a huge enthusiast of earthworks, but then I've never actually seen on in real life, since they tend to be built in regions that it's next to impossible to get to, and websites which direct you to one usually say things like: an all-terrain vehicle with high clearance is recommended! As I said before, I'm a route planner, not a vehicle operator.
Earthworks enjoyed a vogue in the early '70s, and Robert Smithson has come to be remembered as an iconic Earthworker, doing things like pouring asphalt down mountainsides or making a spiral jetty into a remote lake in Utah.
I'm guessing that the liberal audience for Earthworks has declined somewhat in recent decades with increased concern for leaving a light footprint on the natural environment. Art that involves blasting canyons through mountains, and then requiring its audience to drive a Hummer to view it, isn't very 21st Century.
Andrew continued our walk behind the strip mall that would take us towards to Appleby Line, and this, for me, what the highlight of the whole trip. The front view of these stores are unremarkable, but the backs are a different story.
Backs of strip mall stores
There are just enough rectangular elements of varying scale to keep it interesting. And those arches are the definition of elegance!
I like the intricacy of the metres against the minimalism of the wall. In terms of colour, the yellow poles make it for me. I like that the yellow poles are wider than the vertical pipes (which would otherwise threaten to make the wall look a bit uptight).
Two-tone, no-nonsense simplicity
Possibly my favourite, for its two-tone, no-nonsense simplicity. There was a fourth section that didn't quite come off for me, so I haven't included it.
You really have to get the sense of scale with these, but they have some of the stark power of the museum scale canvases of Barnett Newman -
Photo Credit: Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis
Photo Credit: Stedelijk Museum Collection
OK, so enough of that. When Andrew managed finally to pry me away from these graphics we were feeling pretty good about the journey so far as we'd still had no run-ins with security guards. In fact passing behind the trucking gates we were completely ignored, even by the men unloading trucks. It was like we could have gone in and taken things and no one would have cared.
But when we actually got on to Appleby Line things got very bad. In my case the unpleasantness of the rest of our walk was accentuated by following immediately the joy I'd just experienced on seeing those big back walls. A sidewalk seemed to invite pedestrians like ourselves, but it turned out to be a trap, and quickly ended at a point where underground waterlines were being put in.
A bulldozer was spinning all directions forcing us into the angry three lanes of traffic (mostly big trucks) and there was no prepared detour or safety provision for pedestrians. I was in such fear for my life that I only managed a single photo, of this fire-hydrant, arms outspread, like a warning signal.
There was a man in the bulldozer, but he seemed unconnected with the random motions of the machine which spun in every direction, and I found myself unable to make eye-contact with the driver. Like all threatening entities, the bulldozer was faceless and its motions were without discernable motive. However, Andrew and I did manage to make the corner of Dundas and Appleby.
As we were momentarily out of danger and steeling ourselves up for the crossing, a man from the work team we had just passed ran up to us and asked us "who we were with". A strange question both Andrew and I are used to hearing but one we never have an immediate answer for. I resisted the urge to answer that we were with the al-Qaeda.
It turns out that the one place where our activities were perceived as trespassing was the point when we actually moved on to a public road. Rather than make a detour for pedestrians (who, let's face it, have no business approaching the intersection of Appleby Line and Dundas Street in the first place), it is preferable that there be an unwritten law that any pedestrian encountering construction should turn around and go back home and sulk about whatever disability prevents them from operating a motor vehicle.
The gentleman who approached us was really quite pleasant, I felt, although his expression was hard to read through mirrored sunglasses. He indicated the hard-hat and safety vest he was wearing and said that all people on the site were supposed to wear one of these, so if we do this walk again and wear a hard hat and safety vest we're probably OK.
I didn't think to correct him by telling him that we had at no time been on the construction site, but had, rather, chosen to veer into the 100km/h traffic of mostly large trucks to avoid the construction site. We would all (but mostly himself I suspect) be in big trouble, he said, if the safety officer came by, a man in plain clothes, like ourselves, he added.
I think he may have wondered if Andrew and I were safety officers, and had come by to check on him, and he was doing retro-active damage control to indicate that he was trying to stay on top of warning civilians like ourselves away from the hazards of construction, but that he was just so busy with the work that - well - he was just doing his best to hold everything together.
We were not out of the woods yet. The pedestrian-crossing button at the corner of Dundas Street and Appleby Line is really just a gesture to pedestrians, or perhaps a legal requirement, rather than anything which aids them in crossing the street.
We waited a few cycles and no walking man appeared, the signal simply altering between a flashing red hand (dangerous) and a solid red hand (really dangerous) Andrew and I chose to wait for the flashing hand, watch carefully for a hiatus in left turns, and run for it.
I have it from Andrew who, after I'd already dived into the terror zone, was told by the gentleman seen here wrangling black tubing: "I'm a construction worker, and I can't even get across."
Even this construction worker can't get across
This struck me as a non-sequitor, but may actually refer to something in the skill set or natural attributes of construction workers I'm unaware of.
It was while I was running across the street that I pondered Elias Canetti's first principle in Crowds and Power, and wondered if the freedom from fear of being touched can really compensate for the anxieties of instant death from large and high density automotive traffic.
The Starbucks we'd hoped to go to on this side of Dundas Street wasn't open yet, so Andrew and I felt glad we weren't just going for the coffee, but had photos to take as well. It turns out to be much safer to cross in the middle of the road: look one way, run to the median, look the other way, run to the other side. No left turns in the middle of the road, so you only have to focus on two directions of traffic.
I chose to do just that, after taking this shot of the patio area at the Kelsey's. I'm sure it's pleasant to sit out here on a summer evening.
I'd recommend ear protection for the roar of traffic, and some sort of breathing device for the vehicle emissions, particularly as you have stop and start traffic with the intersection being only a hundred feet up.
Driving home I was listening to the Grime compilation, Run the Road. Grime is music which sprung up in the last half decade among Caribbean immigrants to Hackney, East London.
Cover of Run the Road
This is music of poverty and fear, of entrapment in the inner city, not the suburban outlands. Grime is hip-hop cooked down to drum and bass, and the rhymes are accelerated and frantic: tales of violence, abuse, prejudice, living with STDs, and the struggle of the dispossessed to carve out space (although in Grime the unexpected clutch out of the darkness is rarely the clutch of a stranger).
Perhaps a person who lived in this world might want nothing better to escape to a home near Appleby Line and Dundas Street and own an SUV.
The CD came to a strangely meditative song called "Happy Dayz" by a duo named Ears.
Grime duo Ears
do you remember that
back in the day
when mon was just bare happy
nothing to worry about
those days were live
I miss them dayz mon
they don't come often
but when they come
and as quick as they come
it might seem dumb
but I wonder if
I miss them dearly
and lately I see them rarely
everyone walks out
with a long face
I was reminded again of Proust's statement,"the only true paradise is always the paradise we have lost". I tried to imagine a person looking back on the golden days of childhood at Dundas Street and Appleby Line under the burden of adult experience. Before my trip out here I couldn't have imagined it, but the psychology of nostalgia is universal, whether in Proust's Combray, Grime's Hackney, or the outer reaches of Burlington.
Perhaps emulating the freshness of childhood observation is my motive for walking around neighbourhoods foreign to my experience, ones I have no business being in. Although this may not be the best answer when a security officer asks me "who I'm with."
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