I'm staying at Mia's most of this week. I get a ride downtown with her lovely pal Carol, and am riding the subway back from work. All I can say is, I'm glad my city has a subway, but I don't miss riding on it everyday. Not one bit.
I look at that TTC Subway sign tonight after leaving the office late and I'm thankful I don't have to go down there for two hours a day anymore. Seven months later I'm still thanking the universe for that.
I take this photo, as I do a lot of them, without my glasses on. As soon as I see the result in my phone I think "FAIL." Then I get home and looked at the finished product with glasses on and I think, "Wow! There is something miraculous going on in that hot dog stand! Alien hot dog invasion? Somebody seeing the light? The second coming? And to think I missed it because my glasses were in my bag.
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.)
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.
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.
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.