Posted: March 14, 2010 in Life
Tags: , , ,

It was late.  I had seen two movies and had decided to drop in to Future Shop to see what was up.

Big mistake.

I started looking at printers, as mine was an inkjet that was continually out of ink.  (Well, specifically, it kept drying up on me before I had a chance to use it).   Didn’t see anything I liked so I wandered around the store a bit.

Finally talked myself into buying a big-ass 27″ monitor and a software package as well.  Actually I had some help from the buzzing salesman whose greedy little eyes kept burning a hole in my ass, right where my wallet was.

Still, it wasn’t his fault.  I own that shit.  It was totally on me.

After they fashioned a handle for me (made of a plastic bag and about three yards of scotch tape), which they attached to the honking big box, I strained myself out of the store and down the escalator to the subway system, there to face about a forty-five minute ride home.

About three stops later, a tall very much overweight man waddled in, and plunked his track-panted ass down on a seat.  I watched him out of the corner of my eye.  You couldn’t help it – he was talking to himself, as so many  Torontonian subway riders tend to do.  I figure they’re just lonely in the big city, and since they don’t have anyone to go home to, they entertain themselves with what must pass for witty banter.  Every so often I pray to God that I never get to that point.  I mean, who knows?  You don’t know what tiny screw has been loosening in your head all of these years, and when it might just come out completely.

The disturbing thing about this man was the look in his eyes.  Like he was up to something mischievous, that only he and one other secret friend (himself) knew about.  As the train screeched along the tracks, I watched him wringing his hands, and grinning as he stared with blue eyes straight ahead through his long bangs and laughingly talked to himself quietly.

A couple of stops later, he got off, and I felt the muscles in my back and shoulders begin to relax.

It was a long ride, and I had an expensive piece of equipment in that large box, so I was disinclined to plug in my iPhone.   Some crackhead may have looked over and realized I had way too much technology in hand for one man to consume alone.   And let’s not even talk about the ebook reader I had stuffed in my upper inside leather coat pocket either.

So I sat there.  We sat there, really – all thirty of us or so, bored and alone, every one of us.   It’s a weird anomaly watching so many people looking at the subway advertisement, or at their feet – anywhere except at each other.  Scientists of the future will view this as the weirdest of social behaviours.   I’m certain of it.

My wandering eyes landed on another very large gentleman, who had his head up against the wall of the train, with his eyes closed.  He seemed to be a twin of the disturbing guy who just left, yet …. he was less disturbing.   Probably because he was asleep.   And he was wearing tan pants, not track pants.   I don’t know why that should make a difference.  Maybe it doesn’t.

Someone at the far end of the training noticed another guy wearing a hockey jersey.   “MATS SUNDIN!!   YO!!!   WOOOO!!!”   The jersey guy pumped his fist in the air and wooo’d back.   The large man opened his eyes and began looking around.

Right away I could tell that he wasn’t what the rest of us would call normal either.   He wasn’t disturbing though.  His face had a childlike innocence about it.   His gaze wandered over to the monitor box at my feet and then he looked at me and gave me the biggest smile.

I looked at him, and nodded in acknowledgement.   Mr. Cool.

Then I looked away, a little disconcerted and uncomfortable.    I paid close attention to some of the subway advertisements and pretended interest in them.   And as the guilt of my ignoring him settled softly on my shoulders, I wondered at my reaction.  Was I too cool, too macho to engage him?  Clearly he was too far away to talk, yet he seemed to be looking for attention.

I snuck a glance at him, and noticed he was looking down.  He seemed forlorn and sad.  The guilt on my shoulders pressed deeper and I realized how stupid I was being.

Still, my attention wandered around the subway car, the guy with the jersey, the hooter chorus, and finally back to him.  He was staring right at me and grinning again.  I held his gaze.  He pointed at the box, lifted his hands in the air, and mimicked someone typing.   I smiled back and nodded.

He continued smiling, and moved his right hand over and mimicked a mouse click.   I grinned and mouthed  “yup.  Computer”.

He kept typing away and clicking on the imaginary mouse, and I couldn’t help smiling.   Other people began looking over at him and then at me, entertained perhaps.  I don’t know.  I didn’t care.   I’ll be honest:  I still felt uncomfortable.  But who cares?

In a city of coldness, it seemed that one childlike man, unaware of the established and accepted social filters, was blithely carrying on, living life as best he knew how.   Made me wonder who really are the ones confined in their heads.

Not him.  That’s for sure.

  1. I love subways almost as much as I love other trains. The people I meet are the interesting parts. I used to avoid the kind of contacts you mentioned, but now I respond readily. Sometimes I get in a bit of a spot, but most of the time I end up with another interesting experience.

    My experiences have been on the El in Chicago and the Bart trains in California.

    I once asked a tattooed guy about his tattoo covered face. First, I said they were beautifully done. He told me all about each one and why he had it. It was fascinating.

    I do the same thing in elevators. It drives my wife nuts.

    Maybe I am one of those weird guys you are talking about.


    • I doubt you’re one of those weird guys, Roger.

      I wonder what it would be like to ride one of the trains in Chicago or the ones in California you mentioned (where in California? Does L.A. have a subway system?)

      I’ve been on the Metro in Paris, and it is nothing like the experience in Toronto. For one thing, believe it or not, people are a little friendlier. Maybe because they have buskers who wander from car to car with their guitars or violins, singing for spare change. I actually like it.

      It’s pretty cool that you don’t mind striking up conversations with strangers about what has to be something they value highly. Why else would you tattoo your face, if not to make a statement?

      I once saw a goth girl who was covered in tattoos and piercings too, and told her they looked cool. It was neat to see her demeanor change instantly from generally contemptuous to bright.


      • A lot of people who dress or act differently expect to be treated badly by the “more normal” person. When they are approached with respect, they are pleasantly surprised…and show it.


  2. wordofabe says:

    Excellent observations, my friend. I often find myself in similar situations, and this is a great write about how our brains work when confronted with the questionable person we encounter at the rest stop, in the video store, or sitting outside of the grocery store. We all have our ideas of “normal”, which do not include conversation with unknown peoples in mundane situations. In fact, if a person attempts to break through this barrier and converse with those around him on the subway, elevator, bank lobby, those around him will study their newspapers even harder and turn up their iPods and text even more intensely…it just isn’t right. Which leads one to an interesting solitary experiment, doesn’t it?


    • It sure does. It requires consciously fighting one’s own social safety impulse to do it though.

      I think unusual people are fascinating, and often wish I could take pictures of some of them (if they would let me). The problem with that of course is that some are truly crazy and might want to cheerfully kill anyone who asked. Or else, they would want to pose, and that would take the magic away.


  3. Rick Tyrrell says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this, Doug, as I do all of your writing. Being a fellow T-dot homeboy, I’ve lived the entire public transit theatre, good bad and ugly. Eye contact seems forbidden, because it may lead to actual communication and (horrors!) the peeling away of this thin protective affected veneer that we all seem to wear. I’ve found this city alternately glacial and warm-hearted. It is merely one gesture away from revealing itself at any point on that sliding scale of “fuck you” to “thank you”.


    • Hey Rick! Glad you came by to read and comment!

      The subway system seems to be a whole different subculture in our society at times, doesn’t it? We saw that with the recent action-reaction deal with people taking pictures of TTC drivers and operators, and the backlash that created such that you didn’t even want to pull your camera out to take a picture of something on the outside of the bus.

      Or the night of the big Olympics Hockey win, when suddenly everyone was everyone else’s good bosom buddy, and we all smiled at each other as we sang the national anthem. (Yes, that happened on my subway car that evening). I wonder if you were riding the rails that night too.

      I’ve taken a number of walks from Yonge and Sheppard down to Union, and each time I think I’ve managed to talk with at least one or two people – kind of strange given the distance involved and the number of people you encounter on such a trek. I’d like to change that and maybe challenge myself to get at least two stories per outing, whenever I go out.


  4. deb says:

    Ah yes. The joys of the train. I’m a subway rider too, here in NYC. And I love all the people watching. and engagement. I tend to interact more than I probably should…for my own safety maybe? But I mostly find people to be very nice and quite open. The weirdos can be astonishingly smart, which proves out your hypothesis that it only takes one last turn before the screw flips reality into something other. I’m sure you and I are both well on our way…we just gotta give it a chance, ha.


    • That’s interesting. I doubt I would or could do as you do. I’m so keenly aware of a multitude of possibilities in any given situation, especially when encountering strangers. Most of those possibilities are negative, which is why I’m fairly quiet, particularly when meeting someone new. Have to suss them out first. :)

      But yes, I’m guessing the path to strangeness is a gradual one. I’m convinced it starts when you talk to your pets, and progresses to you talking at home to yourself when no one else is around, not even the pets. From there it just feels good to talk, period, and so wheee! There we go. :D


  5. Dee says:

    I’m primarily a fan of people watching while trying to remain obscure. I was in an antique store with some friends a week back and noticed one elderly man following an attractive female with her small child. I assumed him to be a relative as he was talking to the child in a perfect Donald Duck voice. The child was amused, the woman uncomfortable. Okay, now I’m going to watch…… (Easy to do when you appear to being eyeing a red-wing crock.) The woman was trying to escape the following man who followed relentlessly. His voices changed, always in fairly adept version of whom he was portraying. As I passed I said something to the effect of, ‘how many personalities do you have in there?’ Well that’ll learn me ‘sumptin. Do not address the distrubed. Ever been bitched out by a duck?

    I had a friend that was an actress in NYC and chose to jog in Central Park, which honestly left me a bit fearing for her safety, as she never did it before dark. She said the trick was in appearing more insane than those around her. Aack. Sometimes that’s not all that hard and I live in perfect safety.

    Loved this, Doug. You and that damn Rick have such insight into the human condition.


    • Hey Dee! You know – if you ever get caught cheating in your taxes and they throw you in the slammer, it seems to me the best thing to do is just as your jogging friend said: act like a psycho crazy person, and they’ll leave you alone.

      Have you blogged about the Donald Duck man? If not, you definitely should. That’s a fascinating story. (And a theme as well: what do you do when you see someone who might be menacing someone?)


  6. Pypre says:

    I’ve never lived in a large city. And have only visited two. But this disconnection you’ve written about is here in my smallish town too. I have and at times do behave that way. Mostly because of the spots I’ve gotten into due to my smiling and greeting people. This isn’t what I was wanting to share however.

    I was in a restaurant, *grin* a Subway as it happens. I had noticed a couple on my way in, didn’t pay them much attention, but I noticed them because he was a white man and she, a black woman and they were middle aged. Don’t see that very often here, it’s usually the other way around. I went about ordering my sub and they get into line behind me. She is talkin’, and talkin’ and then she’s talkin’ to me. I was wearing my new trench coat my husband got me for my birthday. She was telling me that she liked it. I thanked her and told her it was a gift. “Turn around, let me see it.” she says. I smile and I turn around. She says how beautiful it is and something about how the man doesn’t like that she has that power to get me to turn around for her. I smile. She tells me how pretty I am. She says I have pretty hair I have and strokes my hair. By this time the Subway employees are smiling and looking back and forth between the two of us. Again I smile and I thank her. Really I haven’t stopped smiling both from amusement and a bit of embarrassment. In between compliments she turns to the man and asks him if he agrees. He does. As I’m getting ready to pay for my order, standing sideway to this woman, she grabs me and hugs me. Somewhat shocked but without hesitation I hug her back as best I can standing sideways. It was really just raising my left hand up to touch her head. But she turns to the man and says, “See how she just hugged me back.” To which he says, “She’s just nice I guess.”
    What I’ve left out up to now is that I think she was a prostitute. I have no way of knowing for sure. It’s just a guess based on their appearances and demeanors.


  7. Wow. That last part really threw me, so I had to go through and read it again with that important information.

    Sounds to me like she may have been trying to groom you. Make you feel really good and then offer up a suggestion on how to make some money. “You got the looks, girl. Why not play them?”

    Or maybe she was sincere. I like to think she was sincere, but all of that other stuff just …..feels kind of creepy, when you think about it. (Or when *I* think about it, anyway).



    • contoveros says:

      I guess I’m not with the norm. I don’t ride the subways and used to meditate on 30-minute train rides in and out of Philadelphia.

      But, i do enjoy engaging people in such places as a doctor’s office, a clinic, long-elevator waits as well as clerks in supermarket check-outs, particularly after they had just rung up groceries for a person chatting on a cell phone. “Don’t you hate it when they don’t put down the phone.?” I ask loud enough for the caller to figure out they’ve been targeted. “Oh, you can’t say anything to ’em,” i add to the clerk. “You work here. But I can say something . . .” Get several different reactions. None crazy. So far.

      I just hope that my little show of rudeness may make them think the next time they’re in line and want to snub the person waiting on them. Someone like me could be standing behind them. With irritation and a big mouth.

      michael j
      PTSD has its uses


      • Ok now see – that’s just perfect. People who talk on cell phones when someone is trying to wait on them are just a little bit too narcissistic for my taste. Irritation – along with a big mouth – can go miles to correcting such anomalies. Ditto the rude customer to the clerk: it’s nice to step in on behalf of the clerk/waiter when you know the only reason they’re taking it is because their hands are tied.

        I like your sign off: PTSD has its uses. *laughing* Yeah, I guess it does.


    • Pypre says:

      LOL It felt sincere but still a bit creepy too. Creepy because I think they maybe wanted to take me home with them, or where ever it was they were going. There wasn’t anymore interaction after that though, and I was there for a few more minutes because I had to fill my soda cup.


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