Wednesday, December 03, 2008

A misreading

I felt sorry for the man beside us on the subway. He looked miserable, with one of those craggy Mordecai Richler faces molded out of clay. His bottom lip was stuck out low, and his eyes were cast out, seeing nothing. Though I wasn't close enough to tell, I imagined he smelled, and his clothes were tatty, his shoes were cheap.

It was Thanksgiving, and were headed out to dinner at our friends', balancing casserole dishes on our knees-- we were bearing beans, sweet potato stuffing, freshly baked corn muffins. We would arrive to tall wine glasses, glorious roast turkey, heaven-sent potatoes, and a set table around which would be seated lovely friends.

Whereas the man beside us appeared to be moving, laden with every single of of his possessions stuffed into black garbage bags. Three or four bags, and he was holding them close, defensive. Like any of us would be interested in what he was carrying, but we supposed this was all he had. He turned his head to glance out the window, but his eyes still seemed unfocused. We wouldn't have been surprised if he'd started muttering something about nothing at any time.

And so we kept our distance, as much as it's possible to do side-by-side on public transportation. But it is possible, you know that. It's in the way you hold yourself, the subtlety with which you turn your body away. The deliberateness of not seeming deliberate, because deliberateness is acknowledgment, which was much closer than we wanted to get.

It wasn't comfortable, of course. The disparity between us and him was just too jarring, because here it was a holiday Monday and we were the luckiest two in the world. Easier, really, to pretend not to notice this sad pathetic man moving on Thanksgiving, moving on the subway with his belongings in plastic bags. For how do you notice it, and then sit around a gorgeous table with friends? Does it mean anything to be thankful after that? And how do you draw the line between thankful and smug anyway? A toast to us, because we're not him, and thank god for that. Cheers.

He got off one stop before we did. Gathering his bags, keeping them close, and then we noticed something peculiar as he stepped off the train. So much so that we had to turn and watch, as the train began to leave the station, and the man started walking towards the stairs. How all four of his bags began to rise up into the air without effort, and we realized they were stuffed with balloons. Helium. And now off the train, he didn't need them so close, so he was letting them float where they'd bob along, high up above his head.