Destination is Not a Consideration
My oldest son was over for dinner. He asked me what I had done that day.
“I rode a streetcar from one end of the line, across town to the other. It was terrific.”
Daniel took that in, looked at me and then said; “You’re becoming an old man who rides street cars.”
He wasn’t being mean. In fact he was right. I have taken to riding public transit across the expanse of the big city sometimes just for the heck of it.
I often use the trips as a chance to read quietly without being disturbed, especially where the subway runs below ground.
Mostly I watch; people watch, weather watch, building watch.
There is something calming about riding on a bus or in a streetcar or subway. Unlike driving a car or riding a bicycle, it is motion without responsibility.
Destination is not a consideration. I don’t have to get anywhere at a particular time. It is the travelling that compels, not the end point.
As I look out the bus window, I have to constantly guard against outbreaks of Schadenfreude as I stare at the hundreds of cars frozen in gridlock.
It also happens that by any sensible measure, Toronto drivers are the most incompetent and thus the most dangerous in Canada.
When not mowing down pedestrians in record numbers, they are racing through school zones, ignoring traffic lights, cutting each other off with all the grace of a Mafia hitman.
Transit riders are a particular breed. Where the lone driver nervously maneuvering his machine through canyons of traffic is a rugged individualist, the transit rider is a member of a community, a willing participant in a shared experience. Like going to a movie.
For the most part, they observe the rules and protocols of the Transit Liturgy. They don’t block doors, they offer a seat to an elderly person, they don’t disturb readers or sleepers and ordinary folk lost comfortably in their private thoughts.
Many, sometimes most, are reading. They’re heads are bowed, prayerfully to their smartphones or even a book. It is my experience that most of the bowed heads over phones are engaged in playing games.
Yet more and more recently I see people reading old fashioned book-books.
I’m careful in my choice of reading material. Sometimes a mystery will hold my attention for most of a long trip. Other times, a non-fiction book about politics. I have one restriction; I won’t read for work. Subway reading time is for me.
And I’m never going to read the Confessions of St. Augustine or War and Peace.
For some reason, I find that poetry is a perfect companion for transit reading. There may be some kind of acoustic connection between the bumping and thudding of the train wheels and the rhythms and cadences of the poetry.
What I look for in a transit book, is something that engages me but at the same time allows me to look up from time to time and check my changing environment. And the more lyrical the better.
I am totally at the mercy of C.J.Sansom and his Shardlake series of mysteries.
His protagonist, Matthew Shardlake, is a Lincoln’s Inn barrister in the Tudor chaos of Henry VIII. What makes these novels a delight is the ongoing history of the destruction of the power of the Church of Rome in England. It provides insights into Henry, the dissolution of the monasteries and the political infighting at court with villains such as Thomas Cromwell.
My current transit choice is Booking Passage, the memoir of the Irish American author and poet Thomas Lynch. He also happens to be an undertaker in the small town of Milford Michigan.
I’ve interviewed Tom a number of times and he has that amazing Irish trait of using the language as human music., He speaks as he writes in paragraphs and tumbling sentences that leap from the page.
As he writes about the famine years which brought his ancestors to the United States, I am grabbed by the similarities with my own people who made the same passage at around the same time. He talks about the three elements that almost destroyed Irish Catholic society; starvation, eviction and immigration. A million Irish people died as a result of the potato failure in 1848. Another million crossed the Atlantic.
When he talks about growing up in an Irish Catholic household, serving as an altar boy, waiting for the “call” which will lead to a vocation to the priesthood, I am right there with him, soaking up every word, identifying with every emotional nuance. It could be my life he is talking about.
You can pick up some sociological cues if you spend enough time riding buses and streets and being alert to your environment. For example, the number of riders who sleep their way through most of their trip seems to me is increasing. This tells me that people are sleep deprived.
Anxiety, the rush of ordinary life, the feeling of detachment from the world and its currents, cause many of us to wake in the middle of the night and try to thrash our way back to sleep.
Another sociological marker you can discover on transit is how the country has changed. People of every hue, every ethnicity every nationality crowd together is a kind of multicultural stew. Thankfully it is certainly not the country or the city I was raised in.
In my callow youth, the city was all-white, largely Protestant and in the main, governed by the political arm of the Orange Lodge. I must have been six or seven before I saw a black person on the street.
In the heart of downtown, we were all pretty much the same, working class, not poor but certainly not well off and white as the snow clogged streets.
It is exhilarating to sit in a subway car and marvel as the diversity of the passengers. One can’t help but think about their stories, their journeys, the disparate and sometimes desperate elements which have brought them to Canada.
It has been argued that Canadians are more open to the idea of immigration and to a large extent that is true. But successive governments have always been meticulous in opening our doors to the most qualified immigrants and those most likely to successfully integrate into the majority society.
Recent polling suggests that we are less welcoming than before. Some 35 percent of us think we are letting in too many people. We are not France or the UK or Trumpistan but we might be trending in that awful direction.
These are thoughts that swirl around inside a twitchy imagination as I look around the bus or the subway car. But not for long. If I dwell on such matters for more than a minute or two I run dangerously close to the verges of politics which I desperately do not want to think about.
Which is why I go back to the book, relaxing, looking up occasionally, turning the pages slowly. And gratefully.