The honking, grinding, cursing chaos of city life gets left behind every time Gower Bursey climbs the 250 metres to work in the morning.
Up there, the noise of urban life is reduced to stillness, with the distant thrum of middling traffic on the Gardiner Expressway mingling with the whoosh of the high-up wind.
“OK guys, let’s get at ’er,” Bursey calls to his two-man crew. “Play no more. It’s time to work.”
Bursey is responsible for keeping a mainstay of the downtown Toronto skyline lit up and looking sharp.
For 20 years now, he’s changed the neon lights on the bright green TD logo that tops the bank’s tower at Bay and Front Sts., as well as the red Canada Trust symbol before it.
At 60, Bursey is a seasoned sign man. And proud of it.
“This looks beautiful at night once it’s working,” he says with a smirk as he dons his blue coveralls before hitting the job. “Just fantastic.”
Bursey, a man with a rascally kindness and grey stubble that thickens to a white goatee on his chin, started his own company in the mid-’80s, called Burtek Signs, a mélange of his family name with the word “tek”. (“Everything in the ’80s was ‘tek’ this and ‘tek’ that, so I just ran the words together.”)
He maintains signs on several buildings around town, but the TD Canada Trust Tower contract is his biggest job.
The TD sign he works on looks like a cube from the ground, but it’s really four panels on the sides of the white steel tower atop the office building. Each side is made up of 325 green and white neon tubes, arranged vertically and ranging in length to conform with the bank’s logo.
Bursey boasts a five-year lifespan on his lights, which has improved steadily over the years based on the lining used inside, he says.
Harnessed to a long rope, Bursey climbs onto a metal platform that hangs over the edge of the sign’s southern face.
With Burtek employee Paul Goss at his side, they carefully belay down and get to work. Hundreds of metres below is the skeleton of the Union Station renovation, gently swinging cranes and the big blue lake dazzling in the distance.
A third employee, apprentice Ben Needham, ties individual tubes to a rope and lowers them down. Goss and Bursey work the tubes into slots on the sign, sealing them in with a dab of silicone.
“There you go. We’re getting the flow going,” Bursey quips. “Three guys who know what they’re doing can do an awful lot of work.”
Despite the harrowing height, suspended in the wind above the city, Bursey doesn’t talk about danger. He has, however, lost certain belongings to the wind, though nothing heavy or large has ever blown over the edge.
He and his wife — “my childhood sweetheart” — bought matching Mike Weir golf hats a few years ago. Days later, he was working and the wind blew it right off his head.
“I guess someone got a brand new Mike Weir hat,” he laughs.
Bursey and his team have been working on changing the lights since last fall. It usually doesn’t take that long, but the bad winter weather mucked up their schedule.
But now that it’s spring, Bursey looks out with pleasure over the edge of his workplace at the miniature city below and the sunny horizon.
“If you’re on a roll keep ’er going,” he says. “Tomorrow could be rain. So it’s that old saying. What’s it? Make hay while the sun shines.”