too private, too close

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.


  1. Reply
    lisahgolden October 8, 2010

    I would have been on the same pins and needles. Annoyance tempered by guilt. And wishing he’d just get off already!
    I really enjoy your storytelling style.

  2. Reply
    Jennifer October 8, 2010

    Thanks Lisa. Didn’t feel too “stylin” writing this, but had to write it, I guess.

  3. Reply
    Selma October 9, 2010

    That’s why I can’t get the train anymore in Sydney. The loons are just lurking. The bus is much more pleasant. That guy was freaky. He did not sound well balanced. Yikes!

  4. Reply
    FutureUrban October 9, 2010

    Brilliant writing. There are people like this on the Tube in London, so I can really identify with it.

  5. Reply
    Little hat October 9, 2010

    Jennifer, far be it for me to play amateur psychologist but your father in law may very well have been close beside you that day (much to your dismay). In other posts you’ve been very tolerant of these different people with their strange mutterings and alien lives. You said it all in your post. The smell, the uncomfortable closeness, the apparent assumptions – leading you to muse on those other embraces.
    It’s strange how those experiences can be summoned up again when we least expect them. Lucky for me i don’t have too many bad experiences in my history so I’m faced only with my own personal psychology to reflect on when my buttons get pushed. That happens mostly in work contexts for me when I resent the way certain people exert their power. Perhaps that’s my experience of power from my traditional “children should be seen and not heard” upbringing.
    I do agree with Lisa however in her comment on style. It’s always there in your writing. It’s such easy and compelling storytelling.
    On another topic i am learning about Canadian geography and culture in small bursts through your blog. Spadina avenue for example.
    I now know that it has its origin in the Ojibwa language (“sudden rise in the land”) and that Ojibwa is the second most spoken “First Language’ language in Canada after Cree. Thanks to you and Wikipedia.
    I have just checked Wickipedia and found that my suburb and its main local thoroughafare actually rate a mention. West End Queensland – Boundary Street. Boundary street hasits own story being at one time the edge of the city and at another the line which defined the limit Aboriginal people could approach the city. There is still a significant population of “Murris”, as they refer to themselves, in this suburb. Perhaps because of that the black american troops were stationed on this side of the river separated from their white brothers in the US Army during the second world war

  6. Reply
    Jennifer October 9, 2010

    Well, for the most part Selma, it’s the opposite here – since moving I have switched from a bus ride to work every morning to the subway. While I much prefer to be above ground, that particular bus was full of “Toronto’s finest,” especially in the evenings. Now I ride with many more average professional sorts – but as I said to a friend recently – they’re much less interesting! hahaha But there’s always exceptions, like this guy.

  7. Reply
    Jennifer October 9, 2010

    Thank you Alex. Some things are the same everywhere! 🙂

  8. Reply
    Jennifer October 9, 2010

    Thanks Steve – I often play amateur psychologist. I think it’s a writer/artist’s quality – we strive to look beneath the surface. And your explanation seems quite logical. The connection to former s.f. was all about the invading, physical and otherwise. At any rate – it is strange, as you say, (and amazing to me) how these memories are summoned out of seemingly nowhwere.
    You taught me a couple of things about Spadina Ave that I didn’t know. 🙂 My experience of it is, as you probably read in Wiki, the larger of the two Chinatowns in Toronto, and access to one of the two large markets, Kensington Market. Interesting to read of the parallel between it and Boundary Street.

  9. Reply
    LindyLouMac October 9, 2010

    So well written I could almost feel I was there and it gave me the shivers.

  10. Reply
    Jennifer October 9, 2010

    Thank you LL – and sorry you got the shivers in the process! :0)

  11. Reply
    LL October 10, 2010

    I love riding public transport for this reason. My problem is I tend to stare, but it’s only because I’m writing character sketches in my mind. I hope for the ‘weirdest’ ‘freaks’ to sit across from me 🙂 The best is when they try to talk to me. You hear some fascinating things!

  12. Reply
    Jennifer October 10, 2010

    Oh yes, public transit is a never-ending source for me (and this blog) too. I have always had a great interest in the people in this world who live on the outer edges of society, for whatever reason. The seemingly “normal” people don’t escape my observances either – us people are a goldmine! For some reason though, this dude got to me; something about that stepfather factor…

  13. Reply
    Ghost in the Machine October 11, 2010

    Do you not see that impinging upon and interpreting others’ reality as you do, is an intimacy, the likes of which you perceive as so personally intrusive?
    Is it a matter of scale, or does intrusion matter, whatever the scale?

  14. Reply
    Jennifer October 12, 2010

    I have wrestled with this often, and publicly on this blog, so I welcome your question. I have always seen my observations of aspects (i.e. public actions) of people as reflections of certain aspects of myself, and all of us. I have also hoped that my observations have been offered from a viewpoint of compassion and an effort to understand. I do not feel that I am able to interpret anyone’s “reality” – only mine.
    This incident, unlike most encounters I describe, was painted as personally intrusive because it WAS.
    If, say, I simply said “a person beside me was praying in my ear and it made me cringe because it was ‘too much information'” would that have impinged on his privacy too? At what point does my description of my experience of public actions invade a person?

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