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.
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.