…to this story.
As I walk out of my office for a walk at lunchtime yesterday, I very nearly crash into the very man walking by the front of my office building. He looks out of place on Bay Street at lunchtime amidst the suits and and cell phones and smart pumps. I have to stop myself from staring. The strangers in danger of bumping into me suddenly rooted there wouldn't know or care why I'm compelled to watch that man cross the street.
I turn back to find him and he's gone. I think to myself that I do so love a coincidence. This one: beautiful thing number 48.
Now and then something binds you to a stranger. Sometimes it’s one-sided, sometimes reciprocal. Often that thing drawing you in is indefinable; you may never know what it is that connects you. It’s a nice little mystery inherent in our existence, in my mind.
Last weekend I’m having a late lunch on a sunny pub patio. Into my line of sight walk two men. One looks to be in his thirties, dressed unremarkably in shorts and a shirt. The other man is substantially older – in his eighties, maybe even nineties. He is tall and lean and limber. They choose Adirondack chairs in the shade of an umbrella and the old man folds his lanky frame into one of them. In my mind I determine they are grandfather and grandson who had just seen a show in the theatre I saw emptying across the street a few moments earlier.
I’m instantly charmed by the grandfather. He’s got a wide, mildly kooky and sparkling smile that turns his small, round eyes to crescents highlighted by gorgeous laugh lines. At the risk of objectifying or making the man a characature, I think his face has the look I was trying to achieve in some puppets I made a few years ago.
They want to order beer, and his soft voice doesn’t carry over the satellite radio music. He says he wants anything but a Heineken. The server doesn’t have the gumption to just offer a Keith’s or other popular beer, and presses the grandson into making the choice. He looks a little uncomfortable; I’m sure it’s because she doesn’t talk to the grandfather directly, only through the grandson. I know I’m annoyed by it.
I try to busy myself by looking at some photos on my phone, but I am taken with the old man. He’s dressed cleverly – in jeans, running shoes and a white t-shirt with something on the front of it which I can’t see. He’s wearing a black blazer over the t-shirt and a small toque-like hat folded up around the edges. I sense he’s an artist of some kind, and I’m imagining his life as I look at him over my phone. He catches my eye a number of times. We are in each other’s line of sight, and it’s certainly not unusual that people catch their neighbour’s eyes in restaurants, but it occurs to me that he might think I’m taking stealth shots of him with my phone’s camera. It’s an irrational fear I suppose, maybe related to the guilt felt by the observer caught observing.
He’s engaged his grandson in conversation, and the younger man looks like he’s having a good time. He finishes his pint of Guinness before his grandfather gets much down of his half pint, and the elder insists on sharing what’s left.
They get up to leave and the old man acknowledges me openly, saying “bye” and waving. I’m glad to know that he has taken my attention for what it was: a woman charmed by an interesting looking man with a great smile. I finish my lunch, feeling somewhat bereft.
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.
This morning I get on the subway car and it’s really crowded. I grab the left side seat in a group of three and pull out some student stories to read over the trip. Soon after a man sits in the middle seat, and he immediately starts getting in my space as he twists around to find a place for a used commuter paper, then looking through another one, apparently scanning the headlines. I take a deep breath and try not to let annoyance wash over – it’s going to be a crowded journey, deal with it Jennifer. One would think that after living in this city for four years I would be more tolerant of these inevitable invasions on my personal space, especially as I choose to take public transit, but I’m just not.
He’s a clean cut bloke, dressed a little oddly in grey pin-stripe suit pants and a casual fleece jacket. There is that steely, unwashed clothing smell coming from him, mixed with a fainter, sweet scent of what could have been last night’s whiskey. I cram into the corner with a story and hope the smell doesn’t transfer from his jacket to mine.
As the car rolls on, I’m feeling more and more aware of him, and with each station stop I find myself silently begging, “get off…get off… get off….” I’m not exactly sure why, he’s facing forward now, still, no longer fidgeting or elbowing, stoic like the rest of us in the crowded car.
Then I realise – he’s muttering. It’s like a faint whispering of some character in my ear. It’s like one of those moments when you think you hear someone say something, only to turn around and find no one there and you wonder if you’re schizophrenic or if you’ve heard a ghost. The muttering is steady – I turn and look at him and his lips are barely moving; I smile inwardly wondering if he’s practicing ventriloquism. Or maybe he’s practicing a speech. Or maybe he’s simply a person who talks to himself as a matter of habit – going over the matters of his day aloud, instead of, say, writing a list. Given the steady drawl of the muttering, I guess it’s prayer.
It is – or maybe meditation, for his hands are cupped together like a vessel on his lap. The soft muttering continues to waft over into my ear and I can’t concentrate on the story I’m holding. I turn and look at him and he’s facing straight ahead, barely moving his lips as the sounds waft from his mouth to my ear. By now I’m feeling invaded and I wrestle with why the seemingly harmless, tiny sound amidst the busy car is bothering me so much. Lots of people pray on public transit, there’s nothing annoying about a person praying. But there’s something about this man – it’s as if his most private moment is trying to enter my consciousness, and my consciousness is fighting it off.
I’m reminded, suddenly, of that person we used to have to call “step-father.” He was the king of personal space invasion and making people uncomfortable. One of his favourite ploys was to give us these fierce, long and most unwelcome hugs, and the more you tried to push him away the tighter he grabbed, seizing with a vengeance something he would label love and reverence, neither of which he deserved or would ever get.
I feel guilty for being so annoyed at something like a guy praying under his breath; certainly I encounter MUCH more annoying actions and events every single day. I look down at the cupped hands and see that the fingers of the upper hand are stumps – red and chaffed, as it it’s a relatively new injury. My guilt is escalated as I sink further into the wall trying to escape the muttering.
He begins to count off something on the whole fingers of his left hand – unfolding one at a time in sequence, “one, two, three, four, five…” and again. Then he brings his hands up in a hugging himself gesture. After about the third time he leaves them there and the stubs are resting on my jacket sleeve.
My stop is next and I’m grateful for the excuse to jump up and stand by the door – to tear myself away from the wafting mutters and thoughts of those awful hugs by that manipulative jerk who should be residing out of mind, far in my past where he belongs. And I’m wondering why I’m applying the qualities of that former step-father to this praying stranger.
Maybe, similar to that step-father's unsuccessful attempts to force love and respect, there is a similar futility or false intent in that particular prayer. The pollyanna in me is shouting "shame on you!" But I can't shake the sense of that unintelligible muttering as thick and substantive – not going off to where it was supposed to be going; but hanging about in my brain like an dead weight. Or a malevolent hug.