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.