Sunday, June 28, 2009

Tales of the Better Way pt II

I take the infamous "vomit comet", the 97 Yonge bus, south when most of the dregs are taking it north to end their night of debauchery. The ride from Sheppard to Bloor is surprisingly quick at 6:30 in the morning. This one lady was taking up two seats on the crowded bus. She had a dumb countenance to her and sat slovenly, with one leg draped over the adjacent seat. The other patrons avoided looking at her and she had a self-satisfied expression on her face most of the ride, as if she was daring them to say something. And I thought to myself: how proud ought she be that other people find her so repugnant that they would rather stand on a crowded bus at 6 am than sit next to her? Go on, give yourself a pat on the back. People find you so objectionable that you get two seats all to yourself.


The cumulative effects of the civic workers strike was becoming more apparent. The streets were becoming ever more filled with filth and though Toronto can seldom ever be considered clean, seeing it in this state opens one's mind to the possibility of how much worse it can still get. I walked quickly to get off Yonge Street when I saw a vagrant sitting in front of the Reference Library. I did a double take -- the man looked exactly like Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. He could have been his doppelganger, it was uncanny.


Which reminded me of some thoughts that I had yesterday morning on my way to work. Here I am at a bus stop on the literal edge of Toronto. It's 5:15 am. I'm alone and it is quiet. The only evidence of life is the slightly discernable movements of the gas station attendent in the store across the street. There are no cars. The sun hasn't risen yet. The day is new and I'm going to watch the front desk and security of an old folks home some 30 kilometres away in Downtown Toronto. And I couldn't help but wonder where I'd be right now if things had gone a little differently.

If I'd had been absolutely committed and obsessed with being a doctor...Would I be awake, sitting in the very same spot, on my way to the hospital where I was starting my rounds at 7:00 am? About to check the overnights to see if there were any developments among the patients on my ward then go to the morning staff meeting? Would I have a really fast and expensive car? Would I still be living at home? Maybe I'd be living downtown, to be closer to the hospital. Would I even be in Toronto?

What else would my doppelganger have in his life? Would he have a girlfriend? A wife? Would graduating from a medical college have given him stones to go up to any woman he pleased? I'm 28, would he already have a kid? Between his newborn and residency would he be living on 5 hours of sleep a night?

Obviously though, while the details would be different the most important questions are those of quality of life. I'd be richer and more professionally secure, but would I be happier than I am now? More self-assured and confident? Would I be in better or worse physical shape? Would I spend more or less time with friends? Would I be as reflective and curious as I am now? Would I have as much (or any) time to write? Would I be lamenting the crushing burden of my professional and personal responsibilities? Would it have all been worth it?

It's early and it's quiet. Other people are still sleeping. They would be loathe to be awake at this hour but I find that mornings are growing on me. In all fairness, 'when' has never really mattered to me. I'm more of a 'how' kinda guy. I find that the journey is what makes the destination worth visiting.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tales of the Better Way pt I

Gotta write more of these down. I do after all spend a massive amount of time on the Toronto Transit System.

I have to say, off the bat, that if there is one quality that people often attribute to me it is that I'm seldom surprised. Things that happen, good and bad, always seem pretty sensible to me because I try to see things in their natural context. A transit cop in Oakland shoots a restrained, non-violent dude in his butt and kills him, I think to myself he's either had a really bad day or he lost his mind for a moment. But the important thing to my mind is that in a world of 6 billion people, something like that is bound to happen somewhere at least once. Law of averages.

So when I am surprised I tend to spend a fair amount of time examining the assumption that left me looking like an ass.

I was on my way home from something or the other and had gotten on the 129 McCowan North bus from the Town Centre. The 85 bus that would take me home was already at the corner of McCowan and Sheppard when the 129 stopped at the light and the light wasn't going to wait. A few passengers ahead of me noticed it too and scampered across the intersection in the hopes that the driver wouldn't dash off as we rushed towards it. The driver went halfway into the intersection and opened the door saving us the frenzy and making the light. I'm sure stopping in the middle of an intersection is illegal, but we transit-riders couldn't care less. We all hopped aboard and made our way to the mostly empty seats.

It was in that moment that something that hadn't happened in the 18-some years that I've been taking the TTC happened. Somewhat winded from their brief exertion, the four people who got on the bus before me moved past the driver with ne'er a look or a word. And I did the same. Why wouldn't I? He was obviously concerned with making the light. My apathy was couched in the comforting convenience of consideration. In ignoring him, I was actually thinking of him. I walked by without a second's thought.

"You're welcome," came the deep voice from behind me, loud and distinct. It wasn't an angry voice, or a cynical voice or an insulted voice. It was a tired voice. A hurt and exhausted voice, as if this last oversight in decency was the last straw. The sound of that voice was so jarring to my ears that I stopped short and nearly did a double take. I paused in my step and stood where I was trying to process what just happened.

A million things went through my mind. A thousand bus rides with a thousand bus drivers along dozens of routes on hundreds of days in nearly twenty years. I thought of all the good drivers and bad, all the good rides and bad, all the good days and bad...and instantaneously a question formed in my mind. A question that I thought that I had answered utterly and completely long ago. A question that I assumed needed no further examination.

You care?

You care if we thank you? You care if you do something nice? You care if someone notices that you did something kind? Or if you did something cruel i.e. pulling away from the curb in the dead of winter when some old Filipino lady, bags in hand, is running as fast as she can to get on board your empty bus? What in my 20 years of riding buses could have convinced me that you care about being bus drivers?

It appeared that I had somehow stumbled upon the one bus driver in Toronto that actually cared about being a bus driver. Law of averages.

I turned and retraced the few steps to the front of the bus. I craned my neck around to get a look at him. He was a white guy, big and stocky, stubble-faced, possibly of Greek or Mediterranean ancestry. I got a good look at him, as if I were observing a unicorn or a passenger pigeon for the first and last time.

"Thank you," I said. He nodded in his gruff way.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Corporeal mortality

I have moments like I did just now, more frequently than I probably realize and since I don't always have a chance to write them down when they come, I wanted to seize the opportunity. I was sitting here at this old folks home that I'm working at and it was quiet. An elderly lady, Mrs. Wilson, was walking by my desk. She was supported by her walker and she was idling quietly by. I thought to myself whether I should say hello. I felt that anxiety that I feel whenever I'm about to open my mouth, whenever I'm about to intrude on someone else's thoughts. I thought to myself how old she must be, whether she could even hear me, how loud I should speak, whether I should stand as she passed. The moment came and I sat where I was and held my breath and I said, as loud as was polite: Hello, Mrs. Wilson.

The old lady looked up. She had severe drooping of her right face, likely from a stroke some time ago. She looked in my direction and the movement seemed momentous, earth-shattering, as if it was the greatest undertaking she'd ever embarked upon. And she smiled. She smiled deeply, genuinely, as if she'd been waiting for an excuse. She smiled broadly, happily as if she was glad that she'd been noticed. She smiled so brightly that the partially paralyzed half of her face lifted. Her hand lifted briefly from her walker to wave at me.

What am I trying to say? What am I trying to express from that moment? I was afraid for a moment, and thought of all the reasons why I shouldn't say or do anything and then I accidentally made an old lady's day by just being polite. I accidentally added a smile to the world. In that moment I felt like there was a massive amount of goodness and beauty in the world. Goodness and beauty hidden from sight...just below the surface waiting to come out, like an old lady's smile waiting to burst onto her face, leashed, waiting for the smallest excuse. How many smiles -- on buses, in offices, on sidewalks -- are waiting for the smallest of reasons to be set free? So much fear and doubt -- fear of doing the wrong thing, doubt of doing the right -- fills our days and our nights and we forget how much good there is within each of us, and not only how much good there is but how badly we'd all like to show it. We want to be good and kind, and show goodness and kindness and be thought of as good and kind, we just don't always know how to let it out.

What would our world look like if all that hidden goodness was brought to bear?