Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Lost souls on the Subway trains

Subway trains in Toronto are a unique experience, especially for someone who has never seen one in their life before (me). They dip in and out of the ground, they screech when travelling past dark bends, and you can never feel how fast they are moving (until they abruptly stop and you get the inertia jerk). Subway trains are also a very interesting place to observe society. As any sociologist will tell you, each cabin on the train carries people from all walks of life (well, not All...almost all), and in a diverse city like Toronto, it also means people from all around the world. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in such a small place, bumping into each other at the slightest brake at rush hour, holding the same steel bars as a person from a totally different continent, and hearing all types of languages, it is indeed a rich treasure of sociological knowledge.

Although I could keep writing an essay about how amazing it is to travel in one of these, and discuss all the cultures, sub-cultures and fashion cliches I've encountered and so on, so forth...I want to share the story of two very interesting characters I met on the subway.

First I must explain this: As part of being acclimatized to the normal urban Canadian life, I have learned to adhere to the following acceptable codes of behaviour when traveling by public transport:

1- Limit interaction with any fellow passengers, no friendly smiles, no greetings, no friendly everyday talk (what's the time? it's getting late...bad weather, etc.).
WARNING: At all costs, avoid acknowledging the existence of anybody who looks even slightly unusual (homeless people, too-much-tattoo people, yo-man type of people, gangsta people, loud people, and people of different races/ethnicities, and add-your-favourite-weirdos etc.).

2- Best to keep your eyes safely focused on the floor/stupid Pantene shampoo ad/ceiling/book, or pretend to sleep. Better still - wear dark glasses (bonus: you can stare at that old lady trying to fix her lipstick on a bumpy ride, without any trouble).

3- Putting in earphones with a blast of music is a great idea to accompany point No.2 (be careful though, you might miss your station).

4- Avoid getting up and offering your seat to another, more deserving passenger (look here and there to assure yourself that others are equally guilty - best way to learn how to put your conscience to sleep).

5- Do nothing to help anyone on your own initiative, even if they look like they really need it. Unless they look at you directly and ask. (kind of hard for them to do as you pretend to sleep while nodding your head to deafening drums).

Hmm, so I'm glad I cleared the above points... they are critical for understanding how I met the characters I want to talk about.

One day, while going home after a particularly tiring day at school, I was aboard a subway train that was repeatedly getting delayed. Finally, at one station notorious for providing the most shady-looking passengers (haha!) an old man boarded our cabin. He was short and stout, with white hair and gray eyes, wore a shabby jacket with a cap, and probably hadn't washed in days. What set him apart from most other shady homeless men, was his genuine friendly smile and a huge armload of LCBO plastic bags. He had maybe around a dozen or so bags on each arm, and they looked almost empty, but they were full of thin sheets of paper. His friendly smile and the way he walked to the seat on my side, immediately gave me the red alert. As I had learned, I quickly moved myself to the other edge of the seat (as far as I could go without bumping into the person beside me), and ignored him. In fact, I tried to pretend to sleep.
I was busy pretending to sleep when I heard a rustle of paper, and I looked up to see the old man holding up a folded piece of paper and snipping away at it with a small paper scissor in various angles and directions. I knew what he was doing, I loved to do it often too... making cut-out paper mats! I was amazed by his skill and talent, so much so that I forgot to avert my eyes and pretend to sleep again.

The man acknowledged my curiosity, and opened the folded paper flat for me to admire the design on the mat. None of us spoke, but I was completely in awe. He quickly pulled out another sheet of paper, folded it in various ways, and began snipping way...another design. Very carefully, he would put the folded and cut paper back into his LCBO plastic bag, without even bothering to open it and check how it turned out to be. I guessed he already knew what his designs looked like. My station was now fast approaching, when another lady leaned over and told him, "they are beautiful!". She was the only other human, in that cabin-full of people, who had seen and admired this. The rest were busy following the socially "acceptable" behaviour as outlined above.

The man smiled and thanked the lady, who asked why he was making so many of them. He replied he made them all to give to the sick children at the hospital. Finally, his station arrived. He held out his last snipped paper mat towards me, and I took it with a thank you smile. He also gave one to the lady, and walked out. I still have that paper-mat somewhere in my desk drawers. It made me very sad that day, that I had initially behaved like the ordinary "robots" I like to call the other passengers, I felt I had lost 'myself' trying to adhere to the acceptable laws. But I did not, and it makes a world of a difference.

Another morning, I was going to school, in the usual busy rush hours, when I met a second character. This person looked ill, (and a bit mentally deranged - so I tried to put the most distance between him and me) and he carried a big journal in his hands. He would occasionally flip it open with a smile, but then quickly close it. Finally, he took out a pen and started writing on a fresh page in the journal. Unable to overcome my curiosity (and nosiness) I side glanced to see what he was upto. He was writing a letter?

I remember it went something like "Dear XYZ, It has been long since I wrote to you, tomorrow I am going to the doctor .....". He kept on writing, until he turned the page over and I saw he had switched from writing prose to poetry: he wrote down a couple of verses, reaching around half the page, before he wrote something like " I really miss you, I wrote this poem for you, and I wish you could read it." and he ended his letter. When he was finished, a girl sitting on the other side asked him something (I couldn't hear), and he started to read aloud that poem. I don't recall the words, but it was mostly about spring, and I was deeply touched by the beauty of his words, they were very simple, but had deep meaning. I admired his poetry, and he was very visibly happy to have us both as his audience.

He told us further that he wrote these letters to his sister who had died some years ago, and she had been the only caretaker for him. He flipped his journal open to the first page, and pointing to the date he said his sister was severely ill then but she had encouraged him to start writing to her when she was still alive. He said something about I'm a bit sick in the head you know, it gets hard sometimes. He spoke so simply, so matter-of-factly, and most probably he didn't notice the effect this interaction had had on both of us. My station came so I rose to leave, and I remember saying something like Keep it up, I loved your poem. And I walked out, ofcourse...onto a busy platform where emotion-less people rush to conquer another day in this materialistic world, and where people like the poet I'd met are lost in this mad crowd.

I don't know why I remembered these two incidents so vividly among others. Maybe because they are proof that humanity isn't lost - not yet. And when I complain about how this place is a sad robotic utopia of sorts, I remember such lost souls, and I have hope that it isn't so. Perhaps, one day I'll meet another 'human' among the crowd of robots, and this time I'll be more welcoming.

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