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One hot afternoon last summer I went for a long walk with my friend Annie who is from Shanghai. Being native to the city, it came natural to me to be a tour guide for her. We met around noon at Bathurst Station and I led her up thru the Annex, pausing to stare at this or that comfortable-looking home along the way. When we reached the Canadian Pacific tracks that run on a raised right-of-way north of Dupont Street, I showed Annie a way up to the tracks thru a rip in the chain-link fence. Don’t be afraid, I said.
But she wasn’t afraid. Annie said that when she was a youngster back home she used to trek for hours beside the railway tracks with her mom when they went to visit relatives in the next city.
We headed east alongside the tracks on an uneven dirt and gravel road used, I suppose, by maintenance vehicles and railroad cops. We were the only people in sight. The CP right-of-way is a ribbon of “railway prairie” running right thru the middle of the city. The tracks are flanked by trees and scrub brush, long grasses and wildflowers. Bees and monarchs nip around the wild mustard plants. Under the sun the air bears a tincture of scorched rusting metal, rotting wood, and lingering diesel fume. One reason I like railway lines is because it seems to me that where rust and weediness are tolerated, you can relax.
On a forested ridge to the north, above the red brick mass of George Brown College and a cluster of townhouses, stood the stone towers and battlements of Casa Loma, the coup de folie that paradoxically fits right into staid Toronto — as a sort of standing homily against romantic, profligate ways.
The first I ever heard of Casa Loma was that a certain Sir Henry Pellatt built the place, in 1911, out of affection for his wife. He may very well have told the world something like that, but it’s hard not to suppose that braggadocio was a factor too. Pellatt was one of the richest men in the country. Among other investments, he owned a chunk of the exalted railroad that laid down the very tracks Annie and I were following now. But by 1923 Pellatt had got himself into enormous debt. The city seized his castle for unpaid taxes. His wife died. Pellatt ended up living with his chauffeur in a bungalow in Mimico.