Amongst the jumble of people getting off the train at Sheppard Station this morning some of us practically trip over a young lady who pulls a full stop in front of the stairs when she finds they’re not an escalator. She’s turning around to gauge where the escalator is. I’m already up the stairs when I wonder if she’s counting the approximate steps to the escalator and measuring that number against the 25 or so steps to the upper platform.
Later, at my office I go downstairs to get a coffee at a coffee shop on the second floor. There are two windowed doors leading to the atrium/cafe area, and there is a woman standing on the other side of the door on the right, so I go through the door on the left. She’s standing with another woman, each with a coffee in hand and the other hand free. The other woman is waving her arm in a “what the hell?” gesture because she’s hitting the disabled person’s door opener which doesn’t seem to be opening the door.
I always wonder if these people really have such an aversion to moving their bodies, or if maybe they feel entitled to use all available technology. Even when that technology is not intended for them.
As I walk away I imagine in my head a droll voice coming out of the disabled person's door opener (like Carleton the Doorman on the old Rhoda show) saying “Hey – ABLE person! If you don’t use those muscles they will stop working.”
Some U of T students behind me on the subway:
“Where did you say he is?”
“Gone to get a tattoo!”
“A tattoo of what?”
“Huh? A what?”
“Ravenclaw. From Harry Potter. He’s a fan.”
“I hope he’s going to be a fan forever.”
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.
Yesterday on the subway I see two young women, both in their twenties, sitting near each other but not right beside one another, and since one speaks to the other now and then, I assume they’re together. Funny thing is, each is listening to an i-pod. And I get to thinking, is this a new version of “comfortable silence?”
Of course not; listening to an i-pod isn’t silent at all. It’s not like I hadn’t seen this before. Teenagers do it all the time. But for teenagers, the i-pod is a fashion accessory, and it’s often cranked so loud it’s clear that the type of music being played further personalizes the fashion. Annoyingly, one can usually only hear bits of base line or repetitive riff, or worse – you do recognise the music and it’s NEVER music you like. But I digress.
Sometimes teenagers will share the i-pod – each wearing one earphone from the same set, and I get that – that’s a shared experience. But these gals weren’t teenagers and they weren’t sharing anything beyond an occasional comment. It seemed they were both actively listening, because when they occasionally spoke to one another, each would take out one earphone and then put it back. And then they got laughing at some private joke, every minute or so breaking into suppressed chortling but each still listening to her own personal music.
Sure I get why people wear i-pods while commuting. Sometimes the sounds on the transit system are something I’d very much love to escape from. Like Warbly Talky-Louderson, several times featured in annoyed 140 character rants on my Twitter page. But then again, to try and drown HER out with an i-pod would surely cause damage to one’s eardrums. I find transit experiences noisy in general and never really get any enjoyment from my i-pod because there are too many other noises that spoil the music. It’s like too much information coming from too many places.
Last year I wrote about a former colleague of mine who couldn’t believe that I would actually go for a walk without my i-pod – what pleasure could I possibly get in a walk without some kind of portable entertainment? Sometimes I wear it – it's fun to walk to a beat. But more often I don't, and the pleasure isn't diminished by my having to just think.
Another time I was on a GO bus coming home from Hamilton and we were stuck in traffic for what was probably less than an hour because of some highway incident and one guy at the back of the bus was simply going squirrelly with boredom. At one point he hollers out, “DOES ANYONE HAVE A BLACKBERRY I CAN PLAY WITH?” I almost handed him my notebook and a pencil like my mother used to do to when I was a little girl getting restless in church.
I know I’m a daydreaming sort, but I can sit on a bus (or my sofa, or my bed, or a park bench or a bicycle…) and get pleasure from just looking around me and thinking. And sure, I’m a writer and I purposefully try to notice things going on around me. Like lots of subway riders I often read books and let my imagination do the entertaining.
And therein lies the rub. This growing need to be entertained and distracted in every waking moment can’t be good for the imagination. Because I think that if the human imagination begins to diminish as the generations turn over – that would be a real tragedy.
"Our world is not the same as Othello's world. You can't make flivvers without steel-and you can't make tragedies without social instability. The world's stable now. People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can't get."
~ Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Today I’m on the streetcar surrounded by teenage boys talking about sports. The prospects for the hockey playoffs are given a rundown. Philly, Vancouver and Detroit are all proposed as having the most potential, and there’s lots of verbal scorn at the various opinions.
Then one kid brings up the Masters tournament and of course that most celebrated and notorious swinger, and tells his buddies that Tiger golfed really well yesterday and was sitting in fourth or something like that.
When his friends scoff at that result, the kid says,
“He’ll be back on top EASY – all the leaders are old guys, like in their 80s. They won’t hold out.”
As I’m thinking “wow, way to go you golfers in your 80s” the kid continues,
“One guy is like 55, another one is like 60.”
I guess it’s kind of like that universal discrimination wherein we look at people of another group or race and think they all look alike. To that kid, anyone who looks over 55 or so looks "in their 80s.”
It occurrs to me sitting there that after seven more birthdays, I’ll have got to my “80s” in that kid's mind and I think, “Damn, I look good.”
I get on the bus yesterday and sit beside a woman reading a book. A guy walks by and stands a little over from us and opens his book. She sees him and says “Pete! Hi Pete. Pssst – Pete! Hi!” When he finally turns around and sees her he barely reacts. He looks at her, then his book, then he looks at her again and his lips move into some sort of weak smile. A smile not extended to his eyes or any other part of his face.
Both return to their books and I’m trying to decide if he’s snubbed her or if he doesn’t recognize her. At any rate, the rejection is plunked in the space between the three of us like a lead weight. She holds her book as if reading, but doesn’t turn a page over the rest of the trip. My first inclination is to pity her, but then I think, maybe she broke his heart. Or she ripped him off. Or dissed his brother.
As I disembark, they both do too; he walking on the sidewalk ahead of me, she behind me. He looks into the bus as it pulls away and turns and sees her walking behind, and waits for her. I feel relieved as I walk around him and turn off another way, thinking it was merely some lack of recognition or something and they’re sorting it out.
Then I hear a loud and rather affronted sounding “WHAT?” and turn to see them standing there on the sidewalk looking at one another. I spend the last leg of my trip home making up a whole new set of scenarios.
Yesterday morning the man with the briefcase sits beside me on the bus. He’s still preoccupied, and still carrying the old briefcase and stuffed-full shopping bag. He gets to business quickly this time. He fishes an old book and some blank paper from the bag, opens the book and balances it on one knee and begins to copy some of the diagrams from the book onto the paper using the briefcase as a table on his other knee, over what's left of the eight or so minute ride. He smells of stale sweat and salami.
I’d be more interested in his endeavour if I wasn’t trapped in the window seat, and barely on time to make my connection, and gauging how long it will take him to put all his stuff away and get up so I can get out the door.
Sometimes I’m less an eavesdropping blogger than your average impatient commuter in a big city.