In May of 2019 Sage and I didn’t know that the library visit we did, would be the last one for a while. After that, a project came up for work that took me to Vermont where I visited a small town library in Tunbridge, Vermont – just one town over from where I grew up. And then my memory feels like a montage. I got back, I started work full time on a vaccine manufacturing facility, and then just a few months after that I got on a plane, took my bike and went to India.
Then, on March 13th, 2020, it was announced that due to the pandemic, the library would be closed starting the next day for at least three weeks. While others were busy hoarding toilet paper and Clorox wipes, I went to the North York Central library and filled my backpack with books. The following Monday I rode my bike to work instead of taking transit. It would be the last time I would go to work for several months and the last time I would ride in a motor vehicle for over 400 days.
During that time, interaction with the library didn’t stop, but it did go through several different modes. Ebooks remained available and I continue to use them most. But soon after this closure, the library started curbside pickup of books. You would reserve your books online and when they arrived at your local branch you could make an appointment for a socially distanced pickup. When returned, books were quarantined for several days before reshelving.
As cases went down in the summer, things opened with people being able to go inside first to pick up their curbside holds, then to go inside to get them from the shelves and then briefly to browse, use the washroom or a computer before closing again for the third wave.
But the library facilities didn’t sit idle. Many branches were turned into food banks to help with food insecurity with over 130 employees volunteering to help within one hour of the announcement.
But now, as our fourth wave is beginning to wane, as vaccination rates continue to climb (83% of eligible people in Ontario have had two doses, 4% have had only one dose) and infection rates drop, libraries are returning to some level of normal.
In July I went back to the North York Central branch which had reopened and it felt a bit sad. There were few staff and hardly any patrons. I browsed a little, grabbed some books and left. But over the past few weeks, things have eased even further. Libraries are not quite fully back to normal yet but they’re very close. And the neighbourhoods around them are also returning to normal with stores open and restaurants allowing indoor dining with proof of vaccination. It was time to do another library visit.
I opened my heat map which shows where I’ve been in the city over the past decade or so and saw that there was a large gap in the northeast of the city. So, on Saturday, right after Hindi class I boarded a northbound bus and took it to the end of the line. Once I got there I got on a second bus and took that for another 20-25 minutes, getting off in the middle of the suburbs in an area that felt like it had never left the 1980s.
Though I’ve been taking transit again for a few months now, one aspect of using only human-powered transportation during the pandemic is I’ve forgotten just how huge Toronto is. I literally rode on a bus for 90 minutes and still hadn’t left the city – and not only that, it felt like a completely different one.
Onward I went through nearly empty residential streets. There was a little bit of rain but what was most noticeable was the cold wind. My phone vibrated and an email came from Sage who had just gone out to go shopping with Daegan:
I look toward the southeast where our home is and where the weather often comes from and got a bit nervous.
It is looking likely that I’ll be caught in a downpour here if I’m not careful and I still have a few minutes to go before arriving at the library. As this is a very residential area, there aren’t a lot of options available for shelter in a downpour. No stores or cafes to shelter in if anything comes. The only option is the library. And fortunately though it rains enough that I need my umbrella, the promised downpour doesn’t arrive.
Last week Sage and I talked about our preferences about libraries and I learned that we have some very different ideas about the kinds of libraries we love. I love modern libraries – open, mixed use with places where eating is allowed, people can talk, and there are all sorts of resources for everything from 3D printing to green screens to sewing machines. Of course books are important as well and I want to see lots of them. Sage loves libraries that are mostly devoted to books. The type of place where librarians still shush patrons who speak above a whisper and that are filled with almost entirely books with a little space set aside for silent reading. There are few decoration on the wall but a bulletin board has the library name in construction paper letters and a few of the offerings of the library listed. Computers are available but minimally used – and might not even be were there still paper card catalogues. Yes, she loves the modern spaces we are blessed with in this city (she considers them more “community centres” than libraries) but those spaces that warm her heart the most are those that are closest to the libraries of her childhood in the 70’s and 80s.
I’m sorry that Sage stayed home today because this library was designed for her. There’s a simple desk at the front for the librarian with some office space behind and then several rows of mostly books with a few DVDs and CDs in the mix for those who want music, a movie, or an audiobook. The children’s section is relatively bland. There are good books here for kids but the space is small with barely any decoration, few toys or twee childish artwork. On the opposite side of the room I see four computers in a line. Two of them are marked “Out of service” for social distancing. If this library could talk it would say “You like books? We have books. Please read them quietly in deference to the year this branch was built, 1992.” The patrons don’t seem to be listening, though. Every table is occupied with one or two people (only two are allowed if they are from the same household) and many of those have brought their own laptops. There is WiFi available here, of course, but that doesn’t detract from the 1990’s aesthetic as it’s invisible. Unlike the leaf-patterned carpet.
I grab a table and take some notesnotes as the library policy prohibits photos taken without permission and prior arrangement. Others have been in before me, however, and have taken a few photos of their own.
It’s strange to see so many people in that photo as there were maybe ten in the entire library when I visited. (Though apparently the pandemic capacity is listed at 56 people.)
I took a look around at the offerings – Aside from the normal fiction and non-fiction sections for adults and children, there were many Chinese language offerings for both adults and children. There didn’t seem to be a “Best Bets” section (which has recommended and popular offerings on a shortened loan duration for maximum availability) and only a small “New Arrival” section. One thing I did like seeing was a new development that came around during the pandemic. In response to the times when we were not allowed to browse inside, librarians created themed “Grab Bags” of 4-5 books on a given subject. On offer today were “Terrific Daddy”, “Eric Carle’s World of Nature”, “Learn About Values”, “How do I Handle Bad Feelings”, “Wardrobe Stories”, and “Lost and Found Items”. All were in brown paper bags stapled shut so that they could be a surprise when you checked them out. Had any of those titles been intriguing I would surely have brought one home. I hope they continue to do this.
After finishing my notes, I left in search of some food. Google Maps said that a short walk further southeast would take me to a strip mall and so off I went in search of food.
The neighbourhood is pretty in a suburban way. Houses seem to date mostly from the 90’s and newer and have large lawns though there are a few new highrises in the area. If I were to live there I’m not sure I could manage without a car. However when I get to the strip mall I get a different idea as right next to the supermarket is a large bicycle parking area with many bikes for such a cool and rainy day.
While nominally, the grocery store was a Chinese grocery, it really had something for everyone including Chinese, Thai, North American and even Indian groceries. I grabbed a few snacks and treats and tried them at home with Daegan.
Canned taro & milk flavoured bubble tea did not sound like a good idea at first but why not? Daegan and I both like Taro tea which is usually a beautiful purple with black tapioca bubbles in it. In the end this was a little disappointing. It was the colour of normal milk tea but instead of tasting like taro, it tasted a bit like the milk from the bottom of a bowl of cereal. Not exactly bad, but not tasty.
This was one of the more unusual chips we’ve tasted. Roasted garlic oyster sounded good at the store and the garlic was definitely delicious. The oyster flavour was there also but not enough or maybe it shouldn’t have been there at all? I’m not sure. In the end, I kept thinking to myself “Do I like this?” because I couldn’t decide.
I had hoped that Spicy Crayfish Flavour chips would taste like what I get at a crawfish boil in Louisiana as you can see below:
And do you know what? It actually did! I liked it so much that Sage also wanted to try it and pronounced it her favourite flavour of chips. I’d definitely eat this again.
Roasted Cumin Lamb Skewer Flavour chips promised a whole lot. They promised standing outside a small storefront on Dundas street just east of Spadina waiting for someone to grill delicious lamb skewers and the deliciousness that followed. The smell was encouraging and took me to that shop and the taste, too, was spot on. Daegan and I both loved this and fought over who got more.
Magic Chili is a snack we’ve had a few times before and it’s a favourite here. Mostly it contains crispy fried red chilli peppers – not the tiny spicy Thai or Chinese ones but bigger, slightly milder ones. Along with them are peanuts and all are lightly dusted in seasoning and chilli oil. They’re so delicious that Sage and Daegan loved them so much that I’d have to buy each of them their own package that they put their name on to make sure there was fair distribution.
Finally we tried some mango-flavoured “Hokkaido Style Absorbable Jelly”. This came in small packets that you could squeeze into your mouth. The flavour was really tasty but the texture was strange – like jam with slightly firmer bits of fruit in it. Good but not one to go back for.
With a backpack full of snacks it was really time to find an actual meal as I was getting hungry. None of the nearby restaurants seemed to have anything that sounded good at that time. There were a number of perfectly delicious Chinese restaurants with dumplings, noodles, or BBQ but it wasn’t really my thing but Google told me of a place about 15 minutes walk away called “Confused Kitchen” that had a bunch of fusion food that had Tamil, Cajun, Canadian, Caribbean, and other cultures and it all looked great as you can see below.
And so off I went in search of interesting food. Along the way I tried using Google’s new augmented reality navigation interface for walking. It was really useful but also bizarre. Wait until these are projected on our glasses or our car windshields!
When I arrived at the restaurant, though, there was some bad news. They only did takeout and catering – even outside the pandemic. On a nicer day I might order food and sit outside but it was 12 degrees and threatening rain so onward I went.
The trouble with the outskirts of town is that things aren’t that close together. I did see a Hunan style restaurant listed and walked to that – but found that it had permanently closed. So I walked further to another cluster of Chinese restaurants in the a shopping area. To get here, though, meant crossing an ocean – an ocean of parked cars.
Several minutes later I learned that one of my destinations here, a Korean restaurant, had also closed. In the end I ended up at the choice I was originally offered, a dumpling restaurant. When I arrived I showed the server my vaccination record and ID and then scanned the bar code at the table which brought up the standard screening questions about symptoms and travel. Once I answered all the questions and put in my name/number for contact tracing, and I was good to go:
The table is set a little differently at this stage in the pandemic than pre-pandemic:
As you can see there’s the QR code for your self-assessment, the black vinegar for your dumplings, soy sauce, chili paste and now hand sanitizer.
Otherwise things here were normal. Unlike many who have put their menus online, they have not – to minimize language barriers, there’s a paper menu and a pen to check off what you want. I was hungry so I decided against dumplings and in favour of an entree. “Spicy lamb with hot peppers” had three chillis next to the menu item so it promised to be good and spicy. It arrived fairly quickly.
The dish was delicious with loads of garlic. The green peppers were a mixture of regular bell peppers and a large green chilli that seems like it might’ve been the same kind of chilli that, when ripe, is used to make “Magic Chilli” but overall, even though I ate some of the dried chillies, it didn’t really rate three chilli peppers in my scale – barely one. Still, I was happy with the choice and found myself even picking up tiny bits of garlic with my chopsticks at the end to get every last bit that I could.
One of the challenges of travelling to the edge of the city for a library visit is that getting home takes so much time. With traffic and some of the construction I expected it to take up to two hours to get home. It was time to head back to be home in time to make dinner for everyone else.
In the end, though we’re still dealing with the pandemic, the library visit turned out to be delightful and worthwhile. In many ways it hasn’t changed. The libraries are almost completely open, restaurants and shops are open and people are back out in the world. Watch for new write-ups regularly from here on out. Toronto by Library is back on.