For the past several months I've been getting up at 4 am. For all its positive aspects - no traffic (except on Caribana Monday), absolute silence in my neighbourhood and the chance to see the sun rise every morning - this is still an hour when most people should be in bed. It was nice to know I had company, though.
Doing a roaring business at 4 am, and just about every other unpleasant hour of the day, are the 24-hour Internet cafés lining Bloor West between Christie and Bathurst. Many people would be surprised to see the Internet cafés open at all. Even more would be shocked to see the number of people inside dark rooms like Digital Fusion and Gig @ Bites .
When the Web launched, Internet cafés exploded around the world, in part because the Web was so expensive to log on to. Casual users paid dearly for creepy-crawly access, so it made sense to head out and pay for remote access on computers that were faster than yours at home.
Some Net cafés also let you drink beer and smoke, a plus when you're burning your eyeballs out staring at a computer screen for a couple of hours.
These places became useless when the cost of Web access dropped. These days, even the highest-speed digital connections are reasonably priced. Now that most people log on at home or at work, Internet cafés have become something you see mostly on holiday, where homesick tourists tap into Hotmail accounts and send digital postcards.
Toronto's current crop of Internet cafés (or plazas, as they're now known) aren't driven by cheap Web access, but by cheap gaming. If you're looking for an all-night online session of Diablo II, this is where you want to be.
They're also shockingly social places - a paradox when you think the main activity is staring at a computer, one of the most unsocial pastimes ever. In most, music blasts at all hours. The Bloor West shops, populated mostly by bleary-eyed, Coke-swilling Korean gamers, are also among the few places you can buy shrimp chips in the middle of the night. During the 2002 World Cup, some even served up bowls of kimchee.
For students short in the pocket, it doesn't get much better. The shops offer cheap Web access (six hours for $10!) and all the Jolt you can manage.
Best of all, they keep student-friendly hours. You might feel like someone's thrown you down a flight of stairs when the alarm goes off at 4 am, but when you're sitting on that unfinished term paper and need cheap Web access for more research, those geeky all-night shooting galleries will seem like a slice of digital heaven.
These are the main venues:
· Digital Fusion, 693 Bloor West
· Gig @ Bites, 618 Bloor West
· Insomnia, 563 Bloor West
· Click Internet Café, 194 Bloor West
· Iklick Internet Café, 333 Bloor West
· Internet Café, 370 Yonge