While the rest of us sleep, the TTC's Blue Night transit system shuttles passengers from one end of the megacity to the other, bringing shift workers, drunk teenagers, homeless people and other members of the nocturnal classes together on a twilight transit system that is a world of its own.
They call it the Vomit Comet, but there's more than drink-sick disasters happening on the Blue Night.
It's the cheapest, fastest way to see the sleeping city. Three dollars and a fistful of transfers will get you from Pearson Airport to the Rouge Valley, or from Union Station to Richmond Hill, to any corner of the city in little more than an hour.
Ride it for a few nights and you'll cover a lot of ground, and see another side of Toronto.
It's 4 am and you're on the Bloor St bus with five other passengers, speeding towards the Mississauga border. One man plays with his smartphone, while another looks at his reflection in the window. Every few minutes he pulls a bottle of mascara from the pocket of his leather jacket and blackens his moustache.
With no traffic on the streets, the bus moves fast, and you zoom past stop after stop, the voice of the automatic information system calling out the name of the streets, the slumbering bungalows of Etobicoke shooting past the window.
Just after Kipling Ave., three teenage boys get on and each spread out on a pair of seats at the back of the bus. It's 4:30 am, they don't look drunk or high, and you wonder what they're doing out so late until you notice the metallic silver coating on their finger tips, and a tell-tale rattle of spray-paint cans coming from their backpacks.
Or it's just past 2 am and you board the Blue Night streetcar headed east on Queen St. towards Neville Park. Along the way it scoops up all the bar-goers and partiers headed home after last call, a parade of leather pants and leopard prints.
At this time of night the Blue Night feels like a collection of evenings, some that didn't quite work out the way they were planned.
A guy gets on alone near the entertainment district and hits on the female passengers, looking for a reason not to make the long trip home - at least not alone. But instead he strikes out for a final time.
In the seat behind him a drunk woman nuzzles her boyfriend one moment, and then cries and accuses him of not being nice enough to her friends at the bar. They fight for a while and then they're quiet.
Or it's 5 am at Danforth and Warden, the end of the line in the east.
Across the street at Chan's Taxi lot, cabbies are parking their cars for the night. The only other buildings around are rows of small pre-fab houses, the familiar Toronto skyline is nowhere in sight and it feels like you're at the crossroads of a small Ontario town instead of inside the biggest urban centre in the country. It's late and you're far from downtown, but even at this hour, there's a way back.
The Blue Night starts when the subway trains stop running. Along 24 routes, it shoots from downtown out to the farthest reaches of the suburbs and back again, an overland substitute until the trains start up again in the morning.
A different set of rules governs the Blue Night than the day service. For one thing, rowdy behaviour is expected, and tolerated to some extent. But it's also easier to talk your way onto the Blue Night without any money.
Headed back east around 5 am, a young woman is waiting alone at Jane St. for the Bloor bus. She's wearing a short knit dress underneath a leather jacket, and when she gets on she has a quick conversation with the driver, breathes a relieved "thank you," and takes a seat without paying.
Even when you do put in money, the drivers probably won't check how much.
"We're taught not to look in here," one driver tells me, rapping her knuckle on the fare box. "My life is worth more than two dollars."
Stopped beneath the parking lot lights of a 24-hour grocery store near the East Mall, she tells me stories about being accosted by passengers. She doesn't like to close the door to her booth because she likes to talk to people, but on the Blue Night it's just too dangerous.
Once a man tried to attack her as she was doing her route, but other customers came to her rescue. "I stopped the bus but there were passengers up here quicker than I could imagine," she says.
Drivers work the night route on rotating six-week shifts, and most say that it has its advantages. "On a weeknight it's quieter, but on a weekend it's crazy," another driver tells me.
Aside from having to deal with weekend binge drinkers, there are also driving hazards, and Blue Night workers are in constant fear of hitting a biker (almost invisible in the dark), or rear-ending one of the hundreds of slow moving taxis prowling for a fare.
Then there are the sleepers, passengers who spend the night rendering themselves unconscious with alcohol and drugs and then won't wake up at the end of the line. TTC policy says drivers can't touch them, so instead they resort to their own techniques. Some rattle keys in the sleeper's face, some shout over the intercom. If that fails, they call their supervisor, who calls the police.
And of course, there's the vomit. TTC policy states that as soon as someone throws up on a bus, the driver has to pull over and let everybody out. But it's not unheard of for everyone, driver and passengers, to collectively pretend they didn't notice, and let the bus drive on.
During a recent round of prospective blood-letting at city hall, the Blue Night service was temporarily on the chopping block. The service should be eliminated, consultants suggested, or passengers should at least be made to pay premium fare. That idea was quickly shouted down by those who said that the Blue Night is vital for the economic life of the city, which it is.
It's not hard to spot the people who are riding the Blue Night for work. In their uniforms or freshly-applied make-up they stand out from the disheveled partiers headed home.
Construction workers suck down coffee as they rumble towards the job site, or a night worker at the ROM is given away by his dark blue vest with the museum insignia sewed on. Shift workers head north on Yonge towards factories above the city, or cleaning women sit bolt upright near the front of the bus with meals in plastic bags on their laps.
In the early morning, there are so many flight attendants and pilots headed towards the west end that you'd think the bus was about to sprout wings.
These are the people who do their jobs in the middle of the night so that the rest of us have normal starts to our days.
The Blue Night is equally as important to the unemployable as it is to the employed.
At 5:30 am on a cold fall Sunday morning, three homeless people get on the bus at Victoria Park. It's possible that they've spent the night outside, and the Blue Night is their first step indoors of the day. One woman carries a huge garbage bag on a trolley and sinks down into a chair, another begins to chat away at the driver. The third, a older man wearing a filthy sweatshirt that barely covers his pale belly, walks in and mutters, "Warm... warm."
His relief at catching the Blue Night is familiar to anyone who's ever stayed out too late and missed the last train home, or who has no other means of traveling kilometers every evening to work a grueling overnight job.
It's a service that is nobody's first choice, but that many are grateful is still here.