This morning I’m watching a young guy sketch people on the subway. I’m an observer of an observer. I’m captivated by his surreptitious search for detail and the subsequent concentration in getting what he sees onto the page of his sketchbook.
I get to imagining what the young man’s eyes are seeing in the short amount of time he has to create the images. Line? Space? Plane? Perspective? Or is he, like I so often am, imagining what lies beneath the surface – what is it about that changing furrow in a brow, that curl of a lip, what thoughts are washing over that face looking at itself in a window’s reflection?
The artist is young enough that I can guess he is still at the point of the former, working to strengthen his skill before attempting to convey the layers of his subjects’ humanity into his drawings. But then I also expect that the more an artist becomes accustomed to seeing, the more evident those layers become. So what is going on under those lines and planes must be evident at some level of his consciousness.
As I watch him, aspects of tunnel walls and station platforms move in shifting formations in the window behind him, and people move in and out of his space with that air of muted resignation that morning commuters always have. What I see is a young man in a bubble; a bubble in the middle of a busy transit system, in the middle of rush hour, in the middle of a big city, amongst thousands of people, most of whom are working very hard with various means to ignore and avoid the unpleasantness of experiencing each other. And I feel grateful to have encountered this one person who is striving to do the opposite – to see them.
And for that, the young man seeing is beautiful thing number 27 of 101.
You know, certain parts of most of my days are focused on me getting above ground again. This video made me think about the coming above ground part. I should always view it as rising to the new, and to not expect. Like a goldfish?
(This video encouraging me to see like a goldfish: beautiful thing seventeen.)
Walking to Union Station in mornings is infinitely more pleasant than stuffing myself into a streetcar up close and personal with a hundred or so smart dressed Harbourfront condo dwellers, even if it is a short ride and it deposits you right underground adjacent to the subway stairs. When walking, I come in through Union Station proper, which is as pleasant and romantic as walking through any major train station, with its great vaulted ceilings and clerestory windows and travellers scattered about sitting in seats looking at tickets and schedules.
I love to be where travellers are; I love to see people out of their element and imagine where their journeys are taking them. Similarly, I watch planes jetting off from the island airport across from my place and wish I was going on some adventure. Train stations are more romantic – there is something so inherently peaceful about a train journey. Oh sure, the average traveller on a jaunt from Toronto to Montreal isn’t going to gaze upon serene landscapes and sip fine coffee in a dining car; but the history that lives in a train station has a way of romanticizing the journey.
If I’ve not timed my walk, I may arrive at the same time as one of the GO (commuter) Trains and I’m instantly enveloped by thousands of people. To this naturally fast walker, it’s torture. Sometimes I wonder if there are natural fast walkers amongst herds of cattle who are similarly tortured.
Today, amidst the cattle throngs there is a woman about my age who, unlike the rest of us shrouded in thick dark layers against yet another -20C morning, seems to be dressed for another season. She’s wearing light athletic pants, white runners and light looking pink jacket. And a sun hat. A gardening hat with flaps of cotton that come down the sides to protect one from the sun. It’s a bright, sunny day and I expect she’s wanting (or needing) to protect herself from the rays no matter what the temperatures are. Against the backdrop of the rest of us cattle commuters, she looks as if she was plucked out of her garden in May and plopped onto a Toronto subway train in February.
She’s sitting with another woman; they’re both at the edges of their seats. The look on her face can best be described as enthusiastic; she comments on the advertising signs in the car, and finds something interesting at every station. Her friend gets off at one of the stops, she sits – either looking around with a pleased looking half grin, or hopping up to look more closely at the route map above the door. When I get off at Sheppard, she’s got her eyes closed as if having a quick little happy meditation.
The woman, plucked out of springtime, cheerful and bright amidst the cattle, is beautiful thing number ten.
I saw this little girl, about seven, on the subway. Her mom was sleeping beside her. She was surveying the people in the car with a calm and wit that belied her age. Some people might identify her as an “old soul.” Each time the car pulled into a station she would turn and look at what was going on out on the platform, then return her attentions to her neighbours in the seats around her.
It was one of those mornings when the car was quiet – all of the passengers into themselves, nodding off, sipping coffee, rolling through BlackBerry messages, reading the newspaper; a collection of sleepy-eyed commuters easing themselves into a day in silence. The absence of chatter makes a ride like this seem as if we’re suspended in time for a few moments before city life whirls itself back into your consciousness.
Behind her cute little wire rimmed glasses the girl watched people; still, hands in her lap, and a slight curl to her lip that indicated a confidence in her perspective.
I wondered where her mind was taking her; I wondered if she would always observe her world in this thoughtful way. I wondered if she might grow up to be a writer or an artist, taking inspiration from her world around her always.
The other day I encounter a woman on a subway train who is harbouring a secret smile and dreamy look – so dreamy that I figure she must be in the throes of a new romance. She's looking upward, and if there were clouds above us her head would be in them. I see new thoughts washing over her because every now and then her smile changes a little and she tilts her head the other way as she gazes off smiling into her imagination.
She's wearing a satin, East Indian style tunic with paisley prints on it in greens and golds and browns, and purple satin pants.** At first it is that outfit, together with her short haircut that makes me think of Toni Collette’s portrayal of Fiona, Marcus’s sad, vegan, hippy-styled, new-age mother in the film version of About a Boy. This woman seems to embody Collette’s Fiona and I think I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a little boy trailing behind her in a ratty sweater and sensible shoes.
But it is when she begins to mouth a silent conversation with herself and a thread of uncertainty escapes those eyes gazing off into wherever it is she is gazing that it seems to me the resemblance to the character of Fiona is less about the outfit and haircut than it is the underlying personal tragedy that Collette conveys so remarkably in her onscreen performances.
The woman catches me glancing at her and I feel like an intruder. Even though it doesn't seem as though I have penetrated her thoughts in the slightest, it is one of those moments when I question the morality of writing these stories, the ethicality of illuminating private moments of others on my public webspace.
Then she sneezes into her hand and with the same hand grabs hold of a bar near me, and she is suddenly plunked right back down to my planet with a large thud.
**Suddenly I’m thinking of my UK readers and feel the need to mention I’m talking “trousers.” Because I won’t forget the looks on the faces of three British men in a house in Wales once, after I (wearing a skirt at the time) announced to them that I was going to go upstairs to put on some pants. After some rather astonished confusion and not a little amusement, I discovered that the word “pants” means something different in the UK than it does in North America.
So the other day – the day after I was all in love with humanity and blathered on about the vast majority of us being good and well intentioned – I get on the subway and am immediately distracted by a “loud talker.” It’s a man standing across the aisle, up near an inside door, having a conversation with a woman, and it’s immediately apparent that this dude is chatting her up and showing off; seeking to win her adoration by playing the slick, confident and savvy businessman. I mean, he rattles off fact after cliché after study after percentage after quote after postulation at ninety miles an hour. The energy and volume with which he talks at her gives everyone in the car the scoop on the vastness of his business knowledge.
The savvy business role is played from head to toe. Handsome and tall; the blue in his deep ebony skin is offset attractively by a trim navy suit. He carries a computer case over his shoulder and refers to his blackberry often. He leans into her with confidence and cool. His hair has been straightened and is slicked down around his ears, not unlike Michael Jackson’s Jheri Curl do back in the 80s. Hairdo aside, he drips Bay Street with an earnestness that would make you root for him if he wasn’t spewing fake from every pore.
I’m not the only one onto his acting job – two young guys sitting near me are enjoying the entertainment, smirking openly at the man’s expense and mumbling to each other in derisive tones. I am a little annoyed by their meanness, but more annoyed by the fakery in the savvy businessman’s performance.
Over the course of five minutes he tells the woman why General Motors will fail, why China will succeed, why Sony is unethical, what the markets will do next, why Canada didn’t really come out on the good side of the recession and how he wishes he could live in the US because it’s a better place for a businessman like him, and the exact number of minutes between York Mills Station and Eglinton Station. He asks her an occasional question, but not out of any apparent desire to know more about her, but to steer the conversation back to him and his savvy business slickery.
Like when he asks her what kind of car she drives and she says, with as much defiance as she can muster in the rare pause of the pontificating, “I drive a General Motors.” And then the General Motors lecture starts again in greater detail, and if I wasn’t watching with my own eyes I would swear he is reading straight out of the Wall Street Journal, so thick are the layers of business lingo. The two guys beside me are having a ball, and I think one is trying to get a picture with his cell phone on which he is pretending to text. The woman interjects now and then with a weak “I guess I’m just not that interested in that stuff.”
We come to St. Clair station and it’s her stop and she practically bolts out the door, and the two young guys get off too, and a new girl sits down in the seat they vacated.
Just as the car pulls away I notice a ten dollar bill on the seat beside her. She notices it at the same time. So does the savvy businessman who moves quickly across the car and sits down next to her making it known that he saw her pick up the money in the way he looks at her. In my head I yell, “put it in your pocket now!” but she asks the savvy businessman if he had seen who dropped it. “Stupid girl!” I yell in my head.
“It’s my friend’s” he says to her, tone sheepish, as if he recognizes the lameness of his lie. Even the new girl would have seen that he wasn’t sitting anywhere near that seat when she got on.
“Do you want to keep it?” he asks her, making it much too awkward for her to accept his offer of his “friend’s” money.
“Well no, not if it’s your friend’s money” she says as she hands over the ten. Neither of them speaks again; the awkwardness between them rattles all over the car. She gets off at the next stop. He just sits there with the bill in his hand, as if he is afraid to put it in his pocket in front of the people who had seen what he’s just done.
He exits at King St. where he is free to pocket his prize as he saunters off, head high, looking every bit the slick and savvy businessman, ready to take on the world.
Today I catch the streetcar and I’m standing in the back of the car looking over the seated peoples’ heads out the window. As we go underground into the dark tunnel toward Union Station I see my reflection in the window. Then I see the arms of the woman next to me. Then her neck. And her anorexic shoulders. As always I’m shocked when I see an emaciated body like hers. And my heart aches for her and other women who are somehow compelled to do this to themselves. She looks like she belongs in a hospital bed under a doctor's care, not standing in a crowded streetcar. Looking at our reflections in the mirror, I think about my everlasting extra 10 pounds. And I think about my friends and family for whom those ten pounds mean nothing. They would love me if I carried a placard on my forehead that read: Extra Pounds and She Forgets to Call and She Should Vacuum More.
I’m filled with gratitude as I look at my cleavage and my curves in my reflection. And I'm grateful for the kinds of men whose heads I still manage to turn now and then, and the ones I know who appreciate me and desire me, lumps and all. I think about my relationship with food in that it sustains me, it provides nourishment to my body and well being, and it accompanies pretty much every joyful gathering in my life. The woman walks away from me and up into the station and I wondered how those limbs can support her, I can practically hear her bones clattering. As she wobbles off I wish her luck. I wish all of us luck. Someday I hope us gals will cut ourselves a break.
A fella trips onto the subway with a bike and a bag stuffed with what looks like garbage. He messes around with the bike and keeps trying to lay it down, which is awkward in the midst of all the commuters. One lady finds herself on the wrong end of the back tire so she steps away from the man and his bike, and he loses hold of it and drops it to the floor. “DON’T MOVE STUPID ASS!” he hollers at her as she moves away. Over the next two stops they steal glances at one another, she wondering if she heard what she did and he wondering what stupid ass wouldn’t stand there and let his bike tire rest against her clean work clothes. He manages to get his bike and torn bag of garbage off at St. Clair station and most of us breathe easier. The lady gets off at the same stop, still stealing glances at the person who called her a stupid ass. I hoped the incident didn’t spoil her morning, but I’m thinking it probably did.
Someone, relatively new to Canada, showed me his arm that had a welt from some sort of insect bite he got when he took his kids to the park. I ventured that it might be a spider bite, and suggested antihistamine would relieve the itching and inflammation. His eyes got a little wider and he spoke of the deadly black widow spider he heard of once, and how they can kill with their venom. I thought, “hoo boy, girl you should have kept your mouth shut.” I wondered how long the poor guy imagined he would keel over and die from a deadly Canadian Black Widow spider bite.
Song encounter #1: Out of the blue I hear one of my favourite songs, “Up on Cripple Creek.” Instantly, the morning of the food starved body, the insulting words hurled at a stranger and the irrational freakout about black widow spiders evaporate.
Tonight, out for a walk, I witness some of the barricade building in the downtown core in preparation for the G-20 Summit. I’m annoyed with the summit being held here, right in the core of the downtown. I’m annoyed with the media, which tends to ignore the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters in favour of the more juicy window breakers. And I’m annoyed with the feds who encouraged Toronto to “show off” our city, then dropped the ball in terms of support for the losers in this event, like the business owners who have to close up shop and the homeowners who are S.O.L. if something happens to their property. And I get really annoyed by the “us and them” thinking that got us to this standoff in the first place. I remember the creepy policing during a similar event in Windsor some years ago, and I think, either I’m going to take me and my camera down into the brouhaha, or avoid it altogether. Which will be hard because guess where I live now?
Song encounter #2: I hear Coldplay’s Viva la Vida and I’m brought back to a moment a few days ago, when I’m on the shuttle bus going to work. That song comes on in the vehicle carrying the heavy, tired, morning resignation of the riders, and then someone starts to hum. Then another person does. Then I do. When I hear that song today everything about it is changed. Now, because of that moment, I love that song. I can’t hear it enough.
I catch a few minutes of this race on TV. I’d not normally stay tuned to such a race because stunt flying creeps me out. But before long I realise – hey – I know that river! Seeing the shots of this river, the riverside park I once walked every night, and those two cities fills me with pleasure and makes me a little homesick. In a good way.