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.
This morning on the subway I sit by myself in a forward facing seat. A few stops later a man somewhere in his sixties, gets on and sits directly in front of me in an aisle facing seat. He is wearing a rainbow: orange windbreaker pants over jeans, yellow jacket, red gloves, black toque over grey hair – more colours poking out amongst his layers of shirts. He’s wearing tan runners with no laces.
He leans back and stretches his legs out in front of him as if to relish “taking a load off,” but he’s not relaxed; he fidgets. I wait for the unwashed smell of “homeless” but it doesn’t come – and I see that his clothes are clean – as are his hair and beard. Now and then he makes a gesture, jabbing at the air with his flat hand horizontal in steps down, as if pointing out the levels of something; his mouth moving subtly, carrying out some inner conversation.
Now and then he looks at my black tights-covered knee sticking out the top of my boot on the leg crossed over the other. As many men would – the knee/boot combination is a popular one, I think. Given his potential mental illness, however, I feel vulnerable about it and resist moving my leg out of his line of sight.
Some riders get on at the next stop and he moves his own legs back in and sits a little straighter to let them pass, still fidgeting, still looking around at people with a furtiveness – sort of looking without looking. I study his face when he looks ahead, his line of sight perpendicular to mine. He’s fit, vital and handsome, with eyes that crinkle a little at the corners. I’ve liked those crinkles that some men get ever since I was a child, probably because they indicate good-naturedness – when I was small I could read kindness into those kinds of eyes. Like now – those eyes compel me to like him.
His beard comes down off his chin in a gentle triangle, puffy and shimmery grey with white streaks; growing unruly from his neck beneath his shirt, but otherwise cared for. Perhaps it was admired in the mirror that morning. No doubt, if I met this man at a party I’d find him attractive.
Nevertheless I’m still a little uncomfortable by his jerky movements, haphazard dress and close proximity as he glances at my leg. Like most people, I’m conditioned to try and ignore people who seem to exist on the fringes in the hopes they won’t acknowledge me and threaten my personal safety – even if it’s just my dignity I’m trying to keep safe. But I don’t want this wall, and close the book and set it in my lap. The train has stopped at Bloor Station, and just before the doors close again the man stands and walks out onto the platform.
Feeling a little disappointed, I watch him walk away, waving to the odd stranger with a point and wave that suggests they are old friends. Like me, the strangers work hard to not acknowledge him. But I'm thinking that those strangers might be to him, like he is to me – something like friends, who find their way into your life for the purpose of adding colour to it.
As the train starts to pull away, I admire the colours of his clothing, getting the sense that a good bit of beauty had been sucked out with him, like a fine mist of light particles, when he exited the car.
It’s cold again this morning, but not as cold as the past couple of days. When it’s above 0° C, it’s tolerable. Nevertheless, when I get to Don Mills station this morning, I wait inside for the shuttle to my office. As I’m standing there looking out, a young couple walks up to the door on the other side. The mom is pushing a child, under two, in a stroller. I know it’s a part of growing and aging and every year the phenomenon gets more remarkable, but I’m stunned at how young this mommy and daddy look. They're teenagers.
The mom is small and round – little more than five feet tall. She’s fair, childlike and pretty. And smoking a butt. She stands for a minute outside with the child to smoke it while the dad walks inside to play with his phone. Eventually she pushes the stroller inside, instructing the dad to take him while she finishes her smoke.
The dad is a little taller and slight, of mixed race, with cafe au lait skin and long, relaxed curls pulled into a sloppy pony tail. He continues playing with his phone, occasionally talking to the child: “it’s cold out there huh?”
The child is a darling combination of the parents: cherubic face of his mother, crowned by his father’s chocolaty curls. He’s a picture of patience. He acknowledges his dad’s occasional dragging himself away from his cell phone to speak to him, but doesn’t seem to require it.
He spots me and gives me a grin. It’s the grin of a self-assured old soul. He’s not playing coy with me, or making shy aversions with his eyes like so many little kids do. He seems to just like my face, and gives me another closed mouth grin – not looking away but just grinning a little more when I smile back and give him a little wave.
That grin has me thinking that this tiny boy seems much older than his teenage parents. As I’m considering that, the mom comes in and they whisk him off toward the elevator which will take them down to the subway.
At the other end of the work day, I’m sitting in a subway car, heading down to meet up with my sister who is working near Union Station. I see a woman come on. She’s cute, artsy looking with that marvellous look of having thrown a random collection of clothing on her body and it just working. She’s smiling to herself. The smile doesn’t wear off – in fact it undergoes a number of variations as her thoughts carry out. Her eyes meet mine and the smile is erased for a moment, but after a few seconds it’s back. I bandy about a number of reasons for the smile. I hope it’s because she’s in love.
I turn from the woman and down the way I see a man. In a suit. Not her age. Not with her or like her in any way.
But he’s smiling to himself.
On my way home last night I see this dad walking back and forth on the streetcar platform at Broadview Station having a debate with his three-ish year old daughter about whether he needs to hold her hand while they wait. I think he wins, but I forget about them while I look over messages on my phone. I notice them again as the car comes in and they say goodbye to an acquaintance.
“Bonsoir” says the man’s friend.
“Bonsoir” says the dad.
“Bonsoiiirrr” mocks the little girl. “Bonnnsooiiirrrr” she continues mocking to the amusement of her dad as they board the car.
I sit behind them, exchanging charmed smiles with the doting dad.
Over the course of the ride, dad tries to get the little girl to settle and rest. She concedes for a minute or two at a time, but the pops up back in her seat to watch out the window and ask all manner of questions about the goings on. She’s wearing a bright pink winter coat and wool hat – not really necessary for this unseasonably warm evening I think. Neither does the little girl because she keeps whipping off the hat. Dad keeps trying to get her to put it back on but she won’t have any of it.
At one point, when she relaxes, her cute little multi-braided head quiet against his arm, he starts to sing to her in rich, gentle tones – a bluesy sounding folk song of some sort. He’s a beautiful singer – no doubt this dad’s sung a song or two in his day. I stop paying attention to my phone just to enjoy it too.
Then we stop in front of the lit up Royal Alex Theatre and the little girl pops up wanting to know what all those lights are. Dad tries to explain what a theatre is, then in his “islandy-with-a-thick-dose-of-British” accent says, “it’s a picture house.” Little girl thinks the idea of a picture house is hilarious.
Dad hears me chuckle and turns to chat. He jokes about her age and the incessant questions, and that sometimes they are hard to manage, with minds of their own.
I say, “never mind, before you know it she’ll be in her twenties,” feeling, as I often do when I see little girls, a twinge of melancholy at the time passed so quickly from when my own girls were small.
He says he loves being a father and “Princess” is one of four, two boys and two girls. He hopes there will be four more to follow – “a large family is a blessing” he says.
He asks me if I have a family, and as I get up to get off at my stop, I tell him I have two grown up daughters. He tells Princess, who is resting against his arm again, to say goodbye to me, and she offers a sleepy wave and a cheeky grin.
When I got on the 510 headed south a few moments later I imagine Princess all grown up like my girls, and remembering how her father sung to her like that. And that she’ll be filled with gratitude and love when she does so.
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.
I’m walking home tonight, after doing a bit of shopping and grabbing dinner, still in my office clothes. I’m walking south on Spadina, somewhere between Queen and King Streets. Ahead I see a car pulled over and the people in it seem to be bantering with a guy on the sidewalk. Guy walks away and past me. The car looks as if it will roll on past me, then one of the four teenagerish looking fellas calls out to me:
“Hey, we’re looking for coke! Know where we can find some hookers and some blow?”
(big eye roll)
Just up ahead a half block is a guy sitting against a building and he’s hollering at a passerby walking a bicycle:
He’s quiet for a few seconds until I approach then he starts hollering at me:
“Fuck off! FUCK OFF! FUCCKKKEE OOOFFFFEE!
He quiets down after I pass, but 30 seconds or so later I hear him greeting some new person back in the sidewalk world behind me.
I get to King Street and I'm waiting for the light and I see a pretty girl riding a shiny new, scooter. She’s wearing a pretty dress, great boots and has some shopping bags slung over her shoulder. As she navigates a left turn in busy traffic, I admire the fabulous picture she makes. Two young women come up behind me, also waiting for the light to change and note the pretty girl on the scooter too:
“Of course she’s driving a white one.
“She should learn how to DRIVE it first.”
I walk on and I see a little rat run across the sidewalk in front of me and then a streetcar drowns out all the voices.
What is it that invisible thread of connection that binds you to a stranger? What is it about that person that stands out in the sea of intentionally bland, internalized faces in a busy transit commute in a busy city? What makes your attention rest on a particular person; makes you wonder about a stranger’s life?
Say you see something in a pair of bright blue eyes. Brighter and clearer than you might expect to see in a body even decades younger than the seventy odd year old one that houses these ones. Something in the way they stop on you only for a split second and move away just as you notice them. You know in that instant those eyes are present; they are living in their surroundings, not glazing over them. And you somehow know those eyes didn’t glaze over you.
Then you notice the way he lingers back casually away from the rest of the people at the bus stop, not needing to stake a place just where the driver will stop to ensure a seat. The peaceful way he sits in the crowded bus, holding various bags and an awkward plastic box without fumbling or struggling or intruding on anyone else. You notice something that is somehow lucid and purposeful in way he pulls on his gloves while still holding on to those bags and the box.
That mouth drawn up in a way that elongates his chin makes him look something like Ray Bolger – an expression that could make him look simple or comical like The Scarecrow, but doesn’t. It’s a mouth housed in a face that is alive to its surroundings. A face and a body alive to a moment.
Today I encounter a stranger. After he exits the bus I imagine what his kitchen is like, and him making breakfast and coffee, planning a day that will include an early bus ride.
Copyright © Jennifer Morrison 2008
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.”
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.