Jonathan Goldsbie's Enchanted 501 Streetcar Ride
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Jonathan Goldsbie’s Enchanted 501 Streetcar Ride

What happens when a well-known local Twitter personality commandeers a streetcar and turns it into a smartphone paradise?

Photo by {a href=""}syncros{/a}, from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

At the Neville Park Loop, which is the eastern end of the 501 Queen streetcar line, a group of people huddled in a transit shelter on Tuesday evening, away from the wind. Several streetcars stopped momentarily, their drivers expecting everyone to charge the doors, but no one did. The group was waiting for a particular streetcar—one that Jonathan Goldsbie had chartered to take them on a TTC trip unlike any other.

Goldsbie (who, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say is a former Torontoist contributor and a friend) has built a citywide reputation for himself as a City Hall observer. He writes for the Post and The Grid, and appears often as a commenter on TV and radio, but he’s unique among local freelance reporters in that the real heart of his operation is Twitter. He tweets dozens of times a day, mostly about municipal politics, to a group of followers that currently numbers 5,161—among them, many politicians, reporters, and editors. Goldsbie is sometimes criticized for being sarcastic, and for propagating gossip. Even so, he’s influential.

But anyone who meets Goldsbie finds out pretty quickly that he’s chattier online than off-. He’ll happily talk, but between conversations he has a way of losing himself in the screen of his smartphone, absorbed in the never-ending online conversation where his voice—in person, a bright, soft one—is among the loudest.

Tuesday’s TTC trip, part of a performance-art festival called Free Fall ’12, played to Goldsbie’s strengths.

Using $1,600 of Free Fall’s money, Goldsbie had chartered a 501 Queen streetcar (yes, you can charter a streetcar) that would take him and about 30 other riders, most of whom had paid $20 for the privilege, from the Neville Park Loop to the 501 line’s western terminus, at Long Branch in Etobicoke. There would be just one stop along the way. Riders had been told to keep talking to a minimum throughout. Goldsbie would narrate the trip on Twitter, using the hashtag #route501.

At 7 p.m., the group boarded streetcar 4018, its route signs flipped to “Chartered.” Goldsbie, in a blue-and-grey winter coat, took a seat near the front and, as the car began to move, pulled out his smartphone. He remained intent on tweeting for the entire 90-minute ride. He didn’t speak much. All the other passengers saw of him was the back of his mop of curly, dark hair.

There was a certain decadent pleasure in blowing past all the streetcar stops on Queen Street, while crowds of bemused commuters stood by, helpless.

The streetcar went by a Riverdale bar called Prohibition, with a sign in front that advertised “hooch nights.” Goldsbie tweeted:

@goldsbie: Prohibition (R) was going to be called the “Booze Emporium,” but the AGCO worried the name would promote “immoderate consumption.” #route501

Then, as Corktown abruptly gave way to the seediness of Moss Park:

@goldsbie: Coming up on the right: Moss Park. Paul Croutch beaten to death by 2 army reservists on a bench between baseball diamond and tennis courts.

The downtown core:

@goldsbie: Coming up on right. Old City Hall, where Rob Ford’s lawyers will be in court tomorrow morning, in a further effort to delay. #route501


@goldsbie: It’s getting dark. Riding into the sunset. It gets weird after Roncy. #route501

And, erm, Etobicoke:

@goldsbie: This is like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I will now de-age before your eyes. #route501

As all this was going on, other passengers on the streetcar also tweeted their observations, using Goldsbie’s hashtag. The minimize-talking rule was only loosely observed, and several people seemed to make friends. Aislinn Rose, a theatre worker who tweets under the handle @aislinnto, helped Coman Poon, a program director at an art organization for at-risk youth, use Twitter for the first time. Luke Fraser, a 23-year-old urban design student at Ryerson—who had never met Goldsbie, but who has been following him on Twitter for years—tweeted contentedly from a seat near the back of the car. Annie Massey, a 61-year-old human resources consultant who had also never met Goldsbie and who had only started tweeting seriously a few months ago (she’s @catfish8888), had come along, she said, “Because I have lately become a big fan of aboveground transit.”

“I’m one of those people who have become engaged in local politics because of the current situation,” she added, referring to recent city council debates over whether or not Toronto will expand its underground transit network.

By the time it arrived at Long Branch, the streetcar had coalesced into a community of people, energized not by talk and other extrovert stuff, but by a shared enthusiasm for the city, and also by their ability to connect with one another online. It was hard to imagine a more Goldsbie-friendly environment. One had to wonder if creating a little bubble of peace for himself had always been his plan.

When asked, he discouraged that interpretation. But he conceded this much: “I guess, almost necessarily, it speaks to my preference for written communication in general.”

Goldsbie will be boarding a non-chartered streetcar this Saturday, for an encore performance. Admission will be free, aside from TTC fare. The tour will depart from the Neville Park Loop at 1 p.m. See here for details.