the red bag

7 January 2010

A couple of days ago I’m riding the short, three-stop subway ride to Victoria Park station and there is a lady in a red coat, with a red wool hat – the kind with the dangly braided “tails” that come down from the ears.  I like the look on her because it’s not the kind of hat that one might usually associate with a woman in her sixties.  And with all her red outer gear she’s also got a red shopping bag on the seat beside her.  And she’s asleep, hunching further and further forward as the movement of the train invites deeper slumber.  One of these hunches forward will eventually jar her awake.  I don’t pay much mind because lots of morning subway commuters doze the ride away.

We pull into Woodbine station and the doors open and just as they are about to close the woman jars awake and bolts out onto the platform. I see her standing there looking at the station name on the wall, probably coming to her senses about where in the world she is when I notice she left the red bag on the seat.  She realises it at precisely the same time because as the train pulls away she’s running after it, even hitting the side of it to get the driver’s attention.

I see by the pitying look on another rider’s face he witnessed the episode too.  And like me he’s probably wondering what to do.  I wonder if I should take the bag and get off at the next stop and wait for her to see if she got on the next train hoping some kind soul would do just that.  I wonder too if I should take the bag to a TTC employee at my stop for turning in to the lost and found.  Ultimately I leave it where it is – still in the spot where she last knew it to be.  I’ve seen bus drivers help passengers to track left belongings based on stop times, so I hope she’ll be able to get the thing back in a similar way. 

Thinking maybe I can help, I write down the number of the car and note the time on a piece of paper with a mind to notify the TTC lost and found with the information when I get to work.  But I find myself plunked into an early meeting when I get there and subsequently forget all about it. 

Next morning, getting on the train I recall the episode and feel guilty about my lack of action on the poor woman’s mishap.  I can’t get the frantic look on her face as she ran after that train out of my mind.  That bag might have contained her purse and wallet and who knows what else.  Maybe something precious to her.

A few years ago I left my purse on a streetcar.  It was a Saturday night and I didn’t notice I’d left it until an hour or two after I had reached my destination, as I was carrying a number of bags and parcels.  On the way home the driver tried to help, radioing in to see if anyone had turned it in, but unfortunately I’d have to wait until Monday to visit the lost and found.  As anyone who’s lost a wallet knows, it’s a horrible feeling. 

I decided to assume I would get the purse back.  Based on the idea that the vast majority of people are fundamentally good and honest, I chose to assume that the purse would be turned in and otherwise untouched and that helped me get through the next day and a half.  Turns out I was right.  The purse was turned in and everything in it was just as I had left it. 

I’ve been really hoping the lady in the red coat was able to hold onto some of that confidence in humanity and positivity, because it helped me so.  I was hoping that look of panic on her face had quickly turned to resolve and calm.

This morning I get on the train and there is the lady in the red coat and red hat, with her hand clutching the red shopping bag.  She’s hunched over sleeping. 

I wonder if I should poke her awake, and while I imagine having to explain that I watched the whole episode two mornings ago, she sleeps through Woodbine station and into Main St. station. Just as we’re pulling away, she wakes up.  And with all the calmness in the world, and her red bag, she walks over to the door and waits for the next stop.  She exits with me and the two of us walk down the stairs and into our respective Thursdays.


a goldmine of… spirit

23 December 2009

Today I’m back on the shuttle for one more time to the mall near my office for my Christmas “wine run.” I figure the LCBO will be MUCH more tolerable at lunchtime today than it will be tonight or on Christmas Eve when the line-ups at the cash registers trail to the back of the store.

When I get on the bus, the same “Christmas spirit” people who I eavesdropped on yesterday are talking again, and the woman is saying that she’s back to the mall to buy her own Christmas present because it makes her husband “too stressed out” to buy her one himself.

Maybe, as she said yesterday, she should just wait and buy herself a sweater she doesn’t want after Christmas at the end of the Boxing Day sales because it would be simpler for her and she’d get a better deal on it.

Okay, I’m being a little snarky.  But read on.

Then one of her shopping pals says she wants to buy the DVD version of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ and that it was on sale somewhere.

“Is that a Christmas movie?” asks the fella.

“Oh you must mean “Wonderful World” says our gal.


“No, I think it’s called ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’” says her friend.

“There is no such movie called ‘It’s a Wonderful Life!’” says our champion of Christmas spirit. “Is there?” to me when I turn around in my seat, unable to contain my annoyance at her saying one of my very favourite movies doesn’t exist. (Snarkiness justified – right? Right?)

“It’s a Disney movie, isn’t it?” (Oh man, don’t get me started.  See?  SEE?)

“No. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is its name. It’s not a Disney movie. It is a great old holiday favourite from the 1940s starring Jimmy Stewart, and…” (to the friend) “…I hope you buy it. You’ll love it. It’s a story that reminds us about the meaning of Christmas spirit.”

Overheard on the complimentary shuttle from my office building to a mall at lunch today – two people discussing their desire to sustain the joy of the Christmas spirit and keep things simple:

Him:  “Yeah, like that Boxing Day shopping craziness – I don’t do that.”

Her:  “Really.  What people don’t realise is you get the sales all week – it’s Boxing Week!  You can avoid the crowds and shop a few days later.  You might not get the sweater you want, but you’ll get a good deal.”

Er… is that called good Capitalist Christmas spirit?

I usually find that having to hear someone’s private cell phone conversation in public is a minor annoyance. Sometimes a major one. But yesterday morning, not long before I reach my final stop, I hear the most wonderful storytellingest, sing-songiest poetic voice with a Caribbean or West Indian inflection, talking slowly and deliberately, with rising and falling pitch and pauses added for impact – I really want to stay on the bus and listen to the rest of the story.

“So I tried and tried to find it for her,” said the rich womanly voice, “but I searched and searched and searched and searched and it seemed to be nowhere at all – nowhere at all in this big, big city.

“So I tried and tried to ring her to tell her the unfortunate news, and the line was ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and ringing and there was never, never an answer.

“And I thought that she had given me another number so I searched and I searched and searched and I found it in the bottom of my bag, so I rang that number and it rang and rang and rang and rang and then, she answered!

“Oh and we had the loveliest chat and we discussed another idea.  A great idea.  And so today I am off again in the city, and I’ll search…”

And as I get off the bus I think how nice it must be to turn every conversation into something that sounds like a folktale, to reflect one’s world as though painting a picture every minute.

Overheard on the bus today:

Kid One:  “What’s with you and Shauna yo?”

Kid Two: “Yo Nothin.  What you mean?”

Kid One: “Yo she changed her relationship status to single on facebook.”

Kid Two: “Uh… yeah… Whatev, yo man I ain’t talked to her much.”

As Kid Two carries on some awkward conversation trying to cover his I Was So Just Dumped shock, I wonder just how many social conventions this whole social media thing has changed amongst barely-teens and the rest of us.

But then again, I think as the kids disembark, maybe this situation wasn’t that much different 30 or 40 years ago.  Back then you’d just get another kid to tell yesterday’s “boyfriend” that you were through.  Today it’s pretty much the same thing only you get 462 other kids to tell him instead.

something to say

10 November 2009

I remember sitting in the ground floor office where I worked in Detroit years ago and watching a man outside who was walking around with a large book; it looked like a holy book of some kind.  The man was desperately trying to get peoples’ attention about something that had to do with the book which lay open in his hands.  If he approached a car, windows were rolled up.  If he approached people, they crossed over to the other side of the street and hurried away.  And I don’t blame any of them, I’m sure I would have done the same thing.  Mentally ill street people are strange to us, often scary, and most of us aren’t equipped to know how to deal with them. 

But what struck me then, and continues to strike me now, is the tragedy that this fella had something to say, of seemingly great importance to him, and no one to say it to.  I just couldn’t imagine how that would feel.  I’ve said it before in this spot, but I think one of the most tragic things about street people and the homeless is that we make them invisible.  

Now I walk by as many homeless people begging as everyone else.  But sometimes I’ve found that just looking at them and acknowledging them is enough.  Well, it’s not enough – I’m sure money would be much more useful for whatever it is that sustains them one more day, but you do find gratitude when you look them in the eye and say “sorry buddy, no change in my pocket today” or “god bless you too” or laugh wryly at a jokester. 

Street people are hard to look at.  They’re usually dirty and sometimes roughed up and often mentally ill.  But at one point they belonged to someone, at some point in their lives someone cared for them.  At some point, they weren’t invisible.

I used to follow a blog semi-regularly, one of those humorous life blogs.  One day the writer posted a picture of a mentally ill street person that had ensconced himself outside her hair salon as she was getting her hair done one day.  And the fella was pretending that he was admiring his hairstyle and appearance in an imaginary mirror on a tree.  Maybe our guy was taking the mickey out of all of the salon ladies inside, but the hilarity that ensued among the readers of the blog was not with him – it was at him.  His strangeness and ragged appearance were put up for great enjoyment and merriment on the light-hearted blog.  I politely called them on it – I said: “I’m all about humour.  But I don’t see what is funny about ridiculing a mentally ill person.  What if that were you, and you were vulnerable – say you fell down in front of a large window and everyone inside thought it was marvellously funny and joked at your expense even if you were permanently injured?”  And I got a very kind reply from the writer who said she understood my point, but the merriment at the crazy guy’s expense continued on for a few days and my comment was clearly forgotten.

Those that have read me for awhile know that those people who live their lives on the outer edges of a society have always moved me.  Sometimes they’re trying with all their might to break through, like the man with the holy book in Detroit or the lady who used to sit in my English classes in university; sometimes they don’t seem to need to at all, like the man on the blue bicycle.  But more often than not, they have something to say. 

I thought of that again when I found this project: Signs, a collection of homeless peoples’ cardboard signs – a way of communicating used by that community for a long time.  These signs are a way to get a thing said in a one foot square piece of cardboard.  The project includes photographs of people which are striking, honest and yes, sometimes hard to look at.  For a few moments as you look at the pictures, these people are not invisible.

Thanks to John Foster and his marvellous blog, Accidental Mysteries for posting the Signs project.  I visit his blog daily, and it’s always worthwhile.

oh the games we play

27 October 2009

Last night I’m having a quiet dinner in the corner of The Lion and I’m trying to read my book but I keep getting distracted by a couple having an intense conversation at the next table. I’ve seen this fella in here before, having dinner and an academic sounding discussion with another younger woman in the past. This makes me think that maybe he’s a professor or a writer, I’d say somewhere in his late fifties or early sixties. I can’t see her face, but judging by the rises and falls of her voice and the perky lilt of her laugh, I guess her to be in her twenties still – probably a grad student.

I start to become mildly annoyed by the distraction – the lights in the place are dim and I have to stay really focused on the pages in order to read and I’m really enjoying the book. When I first sat down I thought, hey good for them, I’m all about academic conversations, there’s nothing I like better than having a lingering talk myself with someone who challenges me.  But the quality of the intenseness in the man’s voice soon gets interesting.  Because even though I’m not making out more than a word here or a phrase there, it is clear that the conversation at the next table has nothing whatsoever to do with academic anything. Our guy is hitting on her, and she’s loving every second of it.

It’s really amazing how you can understand exactly what’s going on between a couple without actually hearing what they’re saying. The vocal inflections and the body language tell the tale.

Every time I glance over he’s leaning toward her looking at her intently, as if the things coming out of her mouth are the most inspired thoughts imaginable. She starts expounding on some theoretical sounding notion and then giggles delightedly as he gazes with wonder upon her cleverness. He then takes whatever it was she was just talking about and turns it back around to her and asks her some question related to what she was talking about, but designed to get her to talk about her personal self. Every now and then he snaps “stop it!” in a teasing way, as if he just can’t stand the marvellous way she affects him so.

I have absolutely nothing against May-December romances – I love the idea of matchups that are a product of chemistry and magic rather than convenience and societal or cultural slotting. But what I suppose I found so annoying in all this was the implication that it was something else – a talk about psychology or sociology or whatever it was that he kept twisting around to bring the conversation to a personal level. I suppose it’s just that I like men who are direct. If they’re not direct with me, then I never seem to know where to go with it. But that’s just me – smart certainly, and dense. And I can flirt with the best of ‘em, but flirting is playful. This conversation just seemed rooted in deception.

So the whole thing got me thinking about one or two conversations-laced-with-am-I-ever-attracted-to-you over dinner with a particular man in that very corner of that very pub. The flirting was open and welcome while the conversation deep and challenging. He never had to lean into the table and look at me intently and steer discussions and pretend that the topics just happened to bring out fascinating responses in me. He liked me; I liked him; and the occasional brush of leg or squeeze of hand was a promise for later. In the meantime we talked and there was no pretence; there was nothing false about it.

Maybe it’s time I gave him a call.