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I spent a windy afternoon in early March being the world’s 9th tallest freestanding structure (alternatively, the first tallest freestanding structure if you add ‘on land’ and in the Western Hemisphere,’ because every caveat adds a few inches to the top).

I took an 80-second elevator ride to the observation level and joined the teams of other visitors occupying the building’s glass skull, commandeering its tapered body as the structure played out its daily activities, which are: (1.) to remain in place, (1. b.) uprightly, and (2.) continue fulfilling its role as the most visible part of the Toronto skyline, generating the city’s sense of scale. (3.) Meanwhile, allowing a skirt of subordinate city bits to flow across its roots, (3.b.) and offering a way for people on the ground to vaguely orient themselves around the idea of a centre.

The wheel-shaped tank of the main observation level is enclosed by a floor-to-ceiling shell of tinted glass. The sun was hitting from the southwest, heating up the lake-side windows like overworked phone screens. Visitors bunched up in the northeast quadrants, hiding in the shade of the CN subconscious, away from backlighting. They took selfies against the grain of the city, and rested on benches with their high heels off, as if worn out from the climb.

I think they were tourists. I think this because the CN Tower is one of the places that people from other places go in Toronto to say that they have been to Toronto. And as tourists – as outsiders – we are guided by the understanding that being in a place isn’t a border crossing (even if you believe in borders); that there’s a code of exposure dictating how to effectively be in proximity to a thing as imaginary as a city. There are venues to briefly seize as an experience, a net of episodes knotted together by the loose theme of here.

Until this visit, I had not been to the CN Tower, hadn’t ascended the half-kilometre, vertical synecdoche that occupies the biggest booth in the trono trade show. So, by my own warped, tortured metric, I had not – despite living here for over a decade – been to Toronto.

In another place, far from here and from shore, I jumped off a fishing boat with some friends in a particularly great-white infested drop of ocean because we wanted to float with some seals. When we climbed back in the boat, uneaten, a septuagenarian, career sea fisherman admitted that he’d never been in that water, because, “I’ve seen what’s in there.”

That’s why I’d never been to the CN Tower: sharks. But also, hostile familiarity: a sense that I already know what I’ll experience in a place because I’ve seen it before, from the lobby on the ground level; have built up a mild disgust ((or impatience) or fear) at the tourist version of my home city and the affected personality that Toronto puts on when it’s out with strangers and starts acting all different.

Regardless of how I feel about the biggest thing in the skyline – and how I feel, by the way, is medium – it’s embedded in my daily routines. I default to locating myself in relation to it, to knowing where I am by knowing where it is. If the biggest thing in the city (or on land in the Western Hemisphere) was a 553.3 metre screen looping close-ups of my worst memories, (eventually) I’d look for its taunting glow in the sky to feel out which way is east.

I went up another elevator to be even taller. I followed arrows on the ground, counter-clockwise, as the wind rocked the Skypod’s little cage. A bulge of highrises followed Yonge straight north, like the ruptured ground in the wake of a sandworm. A lace of glass condos knit their pattern from Fort York to Liberty Village to Etobicoke to whatever is after Etobicoke. Marbles rolled west on the Gardiner, too cute to cause climate change. A plane floated below me to Billy Bishop. A half-raw, Toronto Island dumpling bobbed in green broth. The tower’s late-afternoon shadow reached across the Royal York, gesturing east. Plus, all the other things I probably already knew about Toronto, but from high up.

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Posted 
Jul 13, 2022
 in 
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