I just had this story published here in Japan, in a newsletter going out to a huge mailing list of students of the English language. While I’d written the bones of this story before, I had a really interesting experience re-reading and then editing it from the eye of the prospective new reader: smart, enthusiastic and determined students of a foreign language. On top of reading a story full of alien phrasing and storytelling devices, there’s also the issue of the vast cultural gap between urban life in Japan and in Canada, or namely, Toronto, where the incidents in the story occurred. I’m not sure if I succeeded in telling a successful tale in light of my audience, but I wanted to share it here, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Happenings: Scenes of a City
Who knows why things happen? There are so many things that happen in a day it’s almost overwhelming. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of movies, and somehow life is always more exciting, even the little things, like the ones I’m about to relate.
It’s daytime in downtown Toronto. A young, balding lopes onto the bus. He pauses at the front, heavy on one foot, then another, and says to the driver, a woman:
“Ma’am … have you ever thought about donating blood?”
“Please take your seat, sir.”
He has a ritual. First he rubs his hand along his scalp, front to back, three times. He then stretches the same hand in front of him, elbow straight, twitching his fingers involuntarily. He doesn’t speak, but his eyes are fixated on the people he sees in front of him. He turns directly around.
“Ma’am, would you mind sparing me some of your coffee?”
She smiles sympathetically, but doesn’t say anything.
He puts his hands on his head, and lumbers back to the front of the bus mid-stop. The driver tells him to take his seat, and this time, he does.
I’ve been out all day, and it’s dark now. The lights are more colourful. A student with straggly blond hair come on the bus and sits next to his friends and a very thin woman. He’s old enough not to have to mock others around his friends, but young enough to feel the mockery bubbling inside him. The woman seems to be a nurse. With white nurse shoes and a Bible she reads with fingers arched down and skimming the page. It’s a “Love Jesus” pamphlet.
A moment later, without taking her eyes off the page, she reaches into a pocket and turns to the long-haired student and offers the “Love Jesus” pamphlet to him without a word. He takes it, smiles slightly ahead to his friends – she can’t see this – and puts the pamphlet into his backpack, which he folds his hands over. The nurse seems to hesitate and then reaches for another pamphlet and points it to his friends, and then to me. No one else takes it. She nods and puts the pamphlet away.
I’ve been on the bus a long time. Distances are great in cities as large as this one. But I like being on the bus. There’s something comforting about the lull of the motor, and all the people sharing a space and connecting for a brief moment in time.
It now feels darker than it is, maybe because I’m sleepy. Across from me, I see a little girl reading a newspaper, her little bobby-socked legs not nearly reaching the ground. They’re spread wide apart, toes pointed inward. Her little fingers chubbily grasp the edges of the newspaper on both sides, and the paper covers her body from tummy to the sprouting braids with the pink and green elastics. Picture-perfection. Her daddy reads from a file next to her. Suddenly, her newspaper slowly falls to her lap, and I notice that she has Down’s Syndrome.
Her head lolls in sleep. When her daddy notices, he cradles her under his arm and reads the file over her head. I think about parenthood and protected we feel by our parents when we’re young.
All of these things I saw today were visual images, rather than ones I could hear. They are pictures I can recreate now, for you, with language. The sound has been lost, in memory also, because I am much more attuned to seeing than I am to hearing. Who remembers the drone of a bus that hides all other, smaller sounds, except in movies, when loud songs and noises have been added onto the soundtrack? I love seeing, though, and using my thoughts as the soundtrack to this activity on the bus.
When I finally get off the bus, I head to my favourite coffee shop just a few blocks away, so I can clear my head and enjoy a coffee before going home for the night. I sit under at a table on the patio, reading a book.
A thin, older man sits in the corner smoking and drinking a small coffee with cream – he looks like Henry Fonda from Easy Rider days, wearing a blue tank top and loose-fitting grey dress pants that look second-hand. Or he’s a painter and hasn’t changed his clothes after a day of work. He catches me looking at him and approaches my table, and asks if he could sit down.
He’s very talkative, and tells me he’s been in jail on and off for twelve years, since the age of sixteen. He had drug problem for eighteen years. His parents may not have been perfect, he says, but they at least tried to teach him the difference between right and wrong. He still faces temptation when it comes to drugs, and it’s hard for him to resist, so he goes home and to the Word, which means the Bible, he adds. The minute your eyes leave the page, he tells me, they are away from God and that’s when bad things can happen. And he knows he’s not with God all the time yet, but because he’s a Christian he wants at least to tell others about God’s love …
This man and I have not shared similar life experiences, but I’m grateful to him for sharing his story with me, and I thank him as I get up to leave.
He smiles as I get up, and says he’ll say a prayer for me tonight.
I walk home, shivering in the night air, wondering about all the tomorrows.