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.