The other night I’m walking down Adelaide Street toward home and can hear bits of song in a woman’s voice hurling through the air in pieces. On advancing a half a block it’s clear to me it’s the wild-eyed but otherwise attractive, middle-aged woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk ahead. She’s looking back in the direction I’m coming from, waving her hand toward the bank towers and the new Trump hotel in that kind of drunken-like joy you’d see in schmaltzy old musicals.
“I love this towwwwnnnn!” she bellows in her best Ethel Merman. Her voice sounds pretty good actually, and I love where she has placed herself in her mind. I love schmaltzy old musicals. More – I envy her ability to convey this Ethel Merman aspect of her self-defined truth out there for the world to enjoy with her. Granted, many people are crossing the street to avoid her not seeming to want to share in her truth, but there it is. Despite my own wariness, I like it. Anyway, it reminds me of my sister who has been known to do a very funny Ethel Merman; but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t share it with the Bay Street suits on a Tuesday afternoon.
“I love this town too” I think as I skirt by her, and listening to her bellowing behind me I wonder if maybe her gestures at the bank towers and the hotel with the famous rich guy’s name aren’t of irony rather than joy. But joy sings more often than irony does and I’ve never heard Ethel Merman being ironic have you?
It gets me thinking about a discussion I’d been having with my current batch of writing students on ideas around authenticity and expressing one’s truth. I put it out the idea of the human capacity for people to re-invent themselves, and how this is usually a person’s way of redefining a personal truth, or bringing forward one or more layers of a personal definition and pushing other layers to the back, for whatever reason. Personal writers do that with words.
So many times I have seen mentally ill people in the city streets that seemed desperate to share elements of themselves, some truth that strangers are not interested (or comfortable) in knowing. I wonder about the other layers of that lady – the layers underneath Ethel Merman.
It’s kind of like earlier in the week when I’m having an afternoon tea break in a large food court area near my office. I'm watching a guy, who is sitting by himself, practicing for a job interview. He reviews something on sheets of paper on the table in front of him and then verbally practices a response to the imaginary person sitting in front of him. I know that layer he is pushing to the front; knowledgeable, competent, confident, intelligent. A Bay Street Suit. Beneath the table his hands practice their corresponding gestures: purposeful, passionate, trustworthy.
I silently wish him luck as I walk by, imagining a celebration with a significant someone on his great new gig later that night. I get more engaged with my imaginary version of his reality than with the one he is assuming. But then I don’t find Bay Street Suits and the truths they convey all that interesting. I'd rather know what's going on at his kitchen table.
All week I've been thinking about they layers of me I push forward, and those I push to the back – both in my physical aspect and my writing, wondering how I can use them to enhance or grow the latter. I hope my students are thinking about that too.
Early in the week I stop on my way home for something to eat after working late. About halfway through my meal a couple sits at a table nearby. They seem mismatched, both in size and style. I check myself for making this judgement; after all I’d like to think I’m deep enough to remember that human connections have nothing to do with size or style; that they’re made up of much more interesting and mysterious things than that.
Still, humour me. He looks younger than her, at least by way of style. He looks to be the kind of guy who shops at the mall for clothing and assorted electronica and other boy bling with his buddies. That kind of guy didn’t exist when I was his age, in my little world anyway. Boy bling was only popular among the white polyester pants and open shirt set of my parents’ generation; and electronic toys came in really large boxes with really large woofers and tweeters that took up whole corners of living rooms or was installed in the doors and rear windows of the shaggy-haired owners’ beat up Monte Carlos.
This guy has perfectly trimmed hair and a nice shirt and expensive looking jacket and has just set his expensive phone on the table after checking for messages. The gal is not the kind you’d imagine our guy and his buddies cruising at the mall. She doesn’t look like she goes to malls much. Her hair isn’t modern; neither are her clothes. She doesn’t set a phone on the table upon sitting down.
But it’s not the appearance of the two that gets my attention, it’s the expression on his face: a bland smile, which is not a smile; the kind of face you wear on a first date when you’re trying to hide your disappointment, trying to pretend you’re up for a good time when really you’re counting the minutes to the moment when you can call an end to the evening and chalk it up to experience. His eyes match the insipidness of that not-a-smile, trying to look at her as if she were somehow interesting but seeing through her instead.
I can’t see her face but I expect it is either (1) wearing the same bland mask of resignation, or (2) wearing a face of an eager, insecure not-a-smile, not quite covering a furious search for something clever to say.
She takes a long time to order a drink and the guy and his bland not-a-smile are patient as the gal discusses options with the server. I'm taken back to a time when I was about 15, sitting in the corner of a car with a bunch of kids having skipped school on a gorgeous June afternoon. We stopped at a drive-through window and I ordered a large pop because I was thirsty but was mortified to discover just how large the large pop was, and I spent the rest of the glorious June afternoon feeling miserable and embarrassed about having ordered a bucket of pop (no doubt puny by today’s standards) and thinking I must look so ridiculous. Of course the only thing that made me look ridiculous was the embarrassment over a stupid cup of pop which nobody noticed. That moment of insecurity ruined the experience of the afternoon which should have been fun, with boys and skipping school and early summer and all.
My mortification over that pop is probably the only thing that keeps that memory alive in me. And what gives me compassion for that girl who seems to be trying hard to order the right drink. After she finally makes her decision, he orders a craft beer in a fancy bottle without hesitation.
I can’t bear to watch as she considers the food menu and turn back to my book, ironically, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life, a memoir by Kristen McGuiness who embarked on 51 dates in 50 weeks. Looking up now and then I see the couple’s conversation slipping in and out of the air between them. When it’s not sliding off to the floor in a heap, the talking is quiet, serious, polite. He nods kindly at something she says and then it slithers away again. Between bites she watches the filler content running on the hockey channel right above their table. He looks around for something to be interested in.
No doubt I’m in tune with the couple because of this book I’m reading which is all about a whole bunch of first dates. I’d heard the author interviewed on the radio a year or two ago, and quite possibly it was she who inspired me to embark on my own Year of Dating Fearlessly. Certainly I’ve had my share of bad first dates, more of them than good ones and like McGuinness I was searching for some kind of flaw in me that was hindering the success rate.
In the end, my year of dating was more successful than hers – on one level. What we both got was a little more self-understanding. For me, it was a reaffirming of my awareness in knowing what I want and what I don’t want and being secure with that. I’d venture to say that wouldn’t be far off from what I knew back when I was 15. At least when I wasn’t agonizing about what boys were thinking about my drink choices.
As I ask for my bill, things seem to be warming up, the conversation more animated and relaxed. Maybe it’s the drinks loosening them up a little. I’m hopeful for them.
But then as I walk past them to leave, she’s watching the hockey channel with a bland not-a-smile and he’s talking on his cell phone; and my hope for them slides to the floor along with their failed conversation.
Gone is the life of leisure. I’m back to work after three restful weeks of living at my whims – meandering walks, cooking big pots of things, watching old movies, visiting with my people and enjoying my own company. Looking back now, I realise more than ever how much I needed that time.
For the past few days I’d been pouting about having to rejoin the world of the working stiffs again, and pouted some more when I woke up two hours in advance of my alarm clock this morning. But while I was getting ready I started to really look forward to my walk up to the office.
I think that’s something to do with the new photo journaling project and the walks I’ve been taking in support of it. There is a pleasurable and fresh purpose in walking outside, even if that is to simply open my eyes and pay attention to my little world within a big city. I’m falling in love with my city again – looking into its cracks and crevices and finding a canvass that’s painted with new pictures every time I look at it. It’s still early in the project but I’m finding it’s less about finding a photo to get up there than it is finding rewards (again) in learning how to paying attention.
All these years after developing the idea for this blog, I’m substantiating what I knew in the first place. Not just for writing and art – but for living. Living in the moment is what it's called. And it's beautiful thing number 81.