Posts Tagged: subway

there was this family on the subway…

Today on the subway I meet a family visiting on holiday.  I hear them talking in German about subway stations and the teenage girl keeps mentioning College station, which we had passed through two stops ago.  So I interrupt and tell them that if they want College they’ll have to turn around.  The lady says no, they were just discussing that they want to remember the correct station for the return back, and are actually going north to Sheppard, the same stop I change over at.  So I tell them they’re welcome to follow me and they get on with their conversation and I return to my reading. 

As we near the destination and I’m packing my things, the lady says they need to change over too, and would I point them in the right direction, and as it happens again they’re going to my stop.  She explains the area at street level where a friend is to pick them up and I know it and am happy to take them there.  From then we have a chat – they tell me they’re from Vienna, and that they once lived here in Toronto in 1969, but went back home after two years because the lady’s father was ill there and they missed home and family.  They had not been back here since and remark how much the city has changed. 

I taught English as a Second Language right after I moved from one area of the province to another.  The effect of moving cities on me was more substantial than I’d imagined it would be.  I would tell the ESL learners that I admired them for their courage and adventurousness.  Not only did they move cities, they moved countries and time zones and cultures and languages – I simply can’t imagine how overwhelming the transition would be.  I still fancy living abroad for a year or so at some point, but that would always be a temporary thing – like a working holiday.  The courage it must take to pick up one’s life and family and move it to a new and strange place must be enormous. 

But for this lady, it wasn't about courage and adventurousness.  Joy and fulfilment wasn’t to be found in the “new world” with all its opportunity and monetary potential.  It was back home with her people and her places and her culture.  And besides, I say to myself, it’s Vienna!  I love my city, and I’ve never actually been to Vienna, but why wouldn’t you live in Vienna? 

They tell me the places they have visited here – the top of the CN Tower (which was not built yet when they lived here), and the daughter demonstrates the tentativeness with which she stepped onto the glass floor in the lookout.  Yesterday they went to Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Today they’re off north for a quiet day at a friend’s cottage on Lake Simcoe.  Next week they move on to Vancouver and Whistler – the latter of which the father and daughter, both avid skiers, saw on TV during the Olympics and decided they want to visit. 

When we arrive at their allotted pick up point, they can’t be more grateful.  We all shake hands warmly and I wish them a happy remainder of their holiday and go off to work.  They could have easily made it on their own – our subway system is small and simple compared to many spider web underground systems around the world.  But having travelled alone, I know what it means to be assured by the kindness of locals.  And travelling on the subway during the morning work commute is not always, er, pleasant.  People are rushed, rude and vacant.  I’m feeling as grateful for the friendly conversation as they were for the escort.

Sitting on the bus approaching my office, I wish we’d exchanged names.  And I get thinking about this book I bought a couple of years ago.  My small effort was nothing compared to the kindnesses experienced by the writers of the stories here.  If you enjoy travelling, or if you want to read some uplifting personal stories, do get yourself a copy.  (Click the image to go to the publisher's website.)

Kindness of strangers 

It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the stories we get in the media these days:  environmental destruction, war, prejudice, angry people, insignificant fluff; and when we move about our cities with our city facades on, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of people in this world are good and kind.  This is what connects us.

The little half-hour encounter today was one of those pleasant little reminders of the true source of happiness.  It's not the assets we have, it’s each other.  Maybe if we remembered this more often, we’d be better equipped to honour our world and cherish its gifts.

love you girlfriend but you’re not that entertaining

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

the transit eaters

This morning, sitting on the subway on my way to work, there is a lady eating pretzels from a bag.  She looks as if she’s sitting in front of the most boring movie ever, absently bringing pretzels to her mouth, chewing listlessly, barely able to keep her eyes open.  She looks like she might be a fun person, with a great, youthful body and clothes, a mishmash of braids pulled up in a wonderfully haphazard way, and she’s got a large set of earphones on.  But nothing about her body is reacting in any way to music or anything else, other than the slow, trance-like movement of pretzel to mouth.  Every now and then her eyes droop, and I wonder if she’s about to fall asleep or if she’s blinking in slow motion along with the bored chewing of pretzel after pretzel.  She gets off at my stop and I’m actually surprised she has the energy to get upright.

I see lots of curious breakfast eating scenarios on the morning commute.  Last week there was a lady who stumbled onto the car loaded down with a number of bags.  She seemed like one of those people who always makes an entrance –always running late, always in a bit of a fluster.  We’re on a short subway line over which there are only five stations.  She gets her shopping bags situated and starts fussing around in one of them and pulls out a bag with a couple of oversized bagels.  She retrieves one of them and drops the other back into the shopping bag, and proceeds to wolf down the untoasted, unembellished bagel in three or four giant bites.  As we’re nearing the end of the line she busts out the other bagel and begins to devour that one in the same fashion.  Of course everyone has her/his own likes and dislikes, but it seems to me this meal was not intended to fulfil the pleasure aspect of eating food – only some kind of hunger.  I just don't see what kind of pleasure could be had in stuffing giant hunks of heavy, dry bread down my gullet.

There was a semi-regular rider on a morning bus I used to take, another middle-aged woman, who would gobble pita sandwiches at a speed that would shock the bagel eater.  She wore office clothing that wasn’t cheap, with coordinating jewellery and pulled together handbag and shoes – prissy looking in a June Cleaver kind of way.  Like many of her peers, she would always sit up front by the driver.  Seeing her eat her sandwiches was painful – there was something surreptitious about it as if she was disposing of evidence.   She would stuff great portions of the pita halves into her mouth in progressive bites (three bites to one mouthful), starting her next progression at the same time she was swallowing the previous.  She was an assembly line of biting, chewing and swallowing, as if she was desperate to get her consumption quota achieved before she reached her destination.

I understand what it’s like to experience a “sugar drop” in the morning and be ravenously hungry.  But it strikes me that not one of these morning eaters exhibit any sort of enjoyment of their food; and of course each one of these ladies has a different circumstance, but also each one of them was not partaking in a meal – each was just depositing food in her body and who knows what the reasons were. 

Another time a grandma came on a bus with a little girl, about one, in a stroller.  The little girl was a cute, girly little thing, with Down Syndrome.  The grandma, as one might expect, fussed over the baby continually.  But soon I became creeped out by the fact that she wouldn’t stop touching the little girl’s face and mouth, alternatively poking at it with a juice bottle and sticking cheesies in her mouth, or sometimes just rubbing her finger across the tiny lips as if to stimulate them.  The little one wasn’t that interested in any of this breakfast, and really seemed content to just look around at the other people.  And granny would take a neon orange cheesie chip and rub it along her lips until the kid finally consented to take an uninterested nibble.  It was like the grandma had some insatiable need to provide nourishment for the kid and she couldn’t keep her fingers away from the little girl's face and mouth.  Certainly it’s an understandable need and common among grandmas, but the fact that she was pushing junk food into a kid who didn’t even appear to want it, at breakfast time, is a bit twisted if you ask me.

I’m not being holier than thou.  I’m not above eating junk occasionally, or eating on the go.  In fact tonight I’m seeing an outdoor concert after work and I expect there is a “street meat” hot dog in my near future.  And my weekday breakfasts are always healthy, but most of them are consumed at my desk while I'm working.  And you can bet there's been more mindless munching in front of my television than I'd care to discuss.

But it all gets me thinking about the many and complex relationships people have with food, and the idea that often, eating is not even about food or sustenance.  I’m lucky – I appreciate good food, and do try to eat healthy, “clean” meals most of the time.  And I enjoy them.   But thinking about the transit eaters gives me a resolve to be more attentive about my meals and the way I approach them.  Like the transit eaters, I have many of my meals alone.  I have often celebrated the spiritual aspect of shared meals – maybe I’ve been dealt a reminder to make eating a mindful, celebratory practice when I’m alone too.

beautiful moment on day six

On the subway today is a dad holding his baby in his arms.  She's sleepy and lying relaxed, arms and head floppy.  Now and then he rubs her belly or smoothes her forehead.  She'll reach up and lazily take hold of his hat or touch his nose.  I feel like a voyeaur, intruding in on the father-baby moment, but they don't notice me.  They've only got eyes for each other.