more people watching people, and me

I arrive at my usual spot on the subway platform at Union Station this morning at the same time as a woman and man who are having a good natured argument about where along the platform they should board.  She wins. 

We get on the car and she sits in the one available seat near me and he stands in front of her.  I don’t really notice them again until a few stops later when I see her stroking the top of his hand which is holding on to the rail beside him, and she’s looking up at him, issuing a private communiqué by way of a smile that is content and adoring.  It must have also said “bye honey, have a good day” because without a word he then moves across the car to the door and waits there, looking out, until we arrive at Dundas Station. 

She has gone back to her Metro Times, but as the train screeches into the station, she looks up to watch him walk off the train.  As he moves amongst the people on the platform, she leans around other passengers to keep him in her sight, as if wanting to capture him in his aloneness; that bit of time – not hers – when he has separated from their coupledom and morphed into an autonomous worker walking about the city with thousands of others on a Monday morning.  It’s like she’s keen to see him outside of her, from a different perspective, perhaps imagining him a stranger. 


It’s an interminable ride.  A rainy day slows down commuting everywhere.  Don’t ask me why the subway slows down too; it’s as if the underground is in symphony with the city's surface.  Like they're locked in a dance, the subway keeping time with its partner in the world above it.


A few stops from the end of my ride, I look up from my book, feeling mildly annoyed, sensing I’d been on that train far too long.  I notice a lady a little way down from me writing in a notebook.  She looks to be in her early forties, with a long, groovy(ish) green skirt, taupe hose, navy walking shoes and a small square of lace pinned to the top of her head. 

I always notice fellow writers with interest, wondering what sort of writing is going on.  Is she journaling?  Has she come to a fabulous kernel of an idea sitting there?  What kind of story is unfolding in her mind?  Is it fiction?  Poetry?  Memoir?   Is she taking a writing class, perhaps like the ones I teach?  Or maybe she's a reporter for a small community paper… 

But then I notice she’s writing about me.  Or seems to be anyway, as she keeps looking up at me then back down at her notebook to add further scribbles.  Maybe I’m just her visual touch point, where her eyes wander to as she pauses to think.  But I’m not in her obvious line of sight, and when she catches me watching her watching me, she diverts her eyes to the panel of ads above my head for a moment, then glazing over me again before getting on with her writing. 

I’m mildly amused at the possibility that the tables have been turned on me, and I wonder what it is this writer finds in me to write about.  It has never occurred to me that my public demeanour might be the least bit interesting, but then I imagine the people I find profoundly interesting wouldn’t see themselves as interesting either, like that husband and wife I’d seen earlier going about, what was to them, a routine morning commute.

If she was reading something in my face, I hope it wasn’t tragedy.  I’d hate that.


  1. Reply
    PENolan May 2, 2011

    I love your writing. You capture a moment and find its eternity.

  2. Reply
    FutureUrban May 2, 2011

    That’s intriguing! Disconcerting and intriguing at the same time. We are all of interest to others, but we rarely see the moment of it.
    There’s a man at my Tube station most days who sketches passengers and trains quickly in his notebook before climbing aboard to make his journey. I’d love to know what his motivation for it is.

  3. Reply

    That was a wonderful ride on your New York subway. I haven’t been on them for many years, since I lived there and went to college there. The notion that there is a sort of double of you in the car is intriguing. You know she is watching you only out of the corner of your eye, because if you look at her directly, she’ll know you are writing about her. She never thought she was that interesting and wonders what you see in her face.

  4. Reply
    Jennifer May 2, 2011

    Tricia that is a most beautiful thing to say. Thank you. xo

  5. Reply
    Jennifer May 2, 2011

    Yeah, it was a little disconcerting – but I suppose, in writing what I often write, I don’t have the ‘right’ to be disconcerted.
    I have seen similar sketchers as your Tube station guy – I’m thinking they are motivated by the same things us writers are motivated by. Us artists, of all kinds, seek to convey our worlds.

  6. Reply
    Jennifer May 2, 2011

    QS – I LOVE your (double me) take on the story! That opens up all kinds of story potential, does’t it!

  7. Reply
    kelly May 2, 2011

    yes, but I love this. and i bet she didn’t see tragedy at all, but a fellow observer, a story.

  8. Reply
    Susan Tiner May 3, 2011

    Dear Jennifer, you write beautifully, and your writing makes me miss NYC, especially riding the subway and watching the people. Thank you for reminding me of these precious passing moments. xoxo -Susan

  9. Reply
    Jennifer May 3, 2011

    Thank you Kelly. And yes – a story.

  10. Reply
    Jennifer May 3, 2011

    Thank you Susan. I’ve only visited NYC twice, but both times I partook in the richness of the people-watching. Toronto has its own richness. While the ‘rat race’ can get me down once in awhile, the humanity always brings me back up.

  11. Reply
    Steve capelin May 3, 2011

    For a moment there I was confused where you were. Toronto or New York. So I googled Dundas station. Turns out we have one in Sydney, but much less auspicious than yours. Here’s the description:
    The station has a single platform on a single track branch. The platform is only 4 cars long.The train service at its most frequent intervals is only about one train every 38 minutes.This station is largely unused.
    That first piece on the train was sweet. I felt both love and pain in that – particularly on this day of the demise of Bin Laden which brought back so many fresh memories of London Train bombs and 9/11. The idea that you might never see someone again when there is no rational explanation, no warning is terrifying. I guess it happens all the time with car accidents etc but the randomness of terrorist attacks defies the natural order of things. all the more reson to be there in the moment i guess, even if it is us who are the observed at times (all the time?).
    For some reason I went and reread your profile today. Have you addd to it? It’s rather good and very open and honest. I should review mine. It’s two years since I wrote it. I like thast yours is clearly consistent with your philosophy about story and meaning.

  12. Reply
    Susannah May 3, 2011

    “It’s an interminable ride. A rainy day slows down commuting everywhere. Don’t ask me why the subway slows down too; it’s as if the underground is in symphony with the city’s surface. Like they’re locked in a dance, the subway keeping time with its partner in the world above it.”
    – Oh Jennifer, that is a beautiful piece of writing! I love it. 🙂
    I really enjoyed the interaction between the couple too, I wonder what people would notice about me if I was riding a subway? What that lady noticed about you?
    These fleeting moments and stories that without your observation would have flowed off into forever but now have been captured, have been ‘seen’.
    I enjoy your posts very much. 🙂

  13. Reply
    Jennifer May 3, 2011

    Hi Steve,
    I’m not sure if a couple of my readers above thought I was in NY or were just comparing my underground experiences to theirs. I never thought of our Dundas station as auspicious – although if you exit it at one end you can emerge into the cacophony that is Dundas Square. Some might call that square or the several storeys high mall (Eaton Centre) at the other end of the station auspicious. I call them cacophony.
    It’s hard to imagine a largely unused station!
    I like your connection of the couple to memories of terrorism, and the idea that one might never see a loved one again. It adds another dimension to the image of her watching him walk away. Boy – this little post has generated a plethora of fiction ideas from my ever-so-creative friends!
    Ha, thanks for reading my profile – some might call it a prime example of bloggerly navel gazing. But yes, it has evolved a bit over time. When this blog grew out of my old journaling website, I spent a lot of time in creating a defined focus for it. I spent a few weeks honing the “About the Writer” and “About the Blog” before I published anything else on it. I’ve seen blogs and other writing projects fizzle away because they weren’t really about anything – inevitably the writer runs out of content. As someone who battles writer’s block already, I was attempting to head that off at the pass, I suppose. And trying to make this blog different from others. Anyway, nice to have some feedback on something I worked on so seriously!

  14. Reply
    Jennifer May 3, 2011

    Thanks so much Susannah. That rainy day dance between the underground and the surface don’t always feel so beautiful – but then cities are living things, aren’t they?
    I wonder what would happen if we all noticed each other a little more…
    I’m most grateful for your kind comments.

  15. Reply
    Downith May 4, 2011

    Jennifer, I love this little vignette, especially the bit about the couple -beautiful.
    (and yes,why does the rain slow down the subway?)

  16. Reply
    Jennifer May 4, 2011

    Thanks Downith. And who knows why? Today was a nice sunny morning and my trip into work was at lightning speed. Or, you know…

  17. Reply
    LindyLouMac in Italy May 4, 2011

    I always enjoy your people watching, now like you I am curious, maybe you will see her again and notice if she is watching others!

  18. Reply
    Jennifer May 4, 2011

    Aw thanks Lindy Lou. That would be great if I saw her – she was distinctive enough for me to remember her. Here’s hoping!

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