Those of you who do not drive – and why the hell would you in a city ravaged by public works on the scale of FDR’s New Deal (his program was intended to combat the Great Depression, however, while ours serves to bring it on) – must have a bus line or a metro stop that is woven into the fabric of your daily life. This is how you journey through the city toward your daily bread, and it is on these buses and on these trains that you encounter your anonymous fellow travelers, some of them sullen and tired, some of them stoic, some dozing, and some with stars in their eyes.
I have always felt a great sense of fraternity with all the people boarding the subway trains at my metro Mont-Royal knowing that whatever my condition on that particular day, there was surely one journeyman among them who was in my shoes, whether these happened to be happy or sad. And when it was the latter, then, from the presence of my fellow travelers I took heart, for their riding out to work every morning made me think of Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise.
Every weekday, when I exit at metro Bonaventure, the sensation of the common journey dissipates, however, and is replaced by an awareness of how disparate are the destinies of those whose lives intersect at this particular station. There are the suits making their way to the glass offices of 1000 de la Gauchetière and Place Ville Marie, some wearing Swims over their fine shoes in lousy weather. There are travelers rushing to the Gare Centrale (Central Station) with their luggage in tow. There are the Bible people standing quietly in a corner waiting for someone to reach out for their leaflets although they themselves do not reach out to the addicts and the homeless sleeping on the ground only a few steps away from their spiritual station. I do not judge them, I merely observe, for to reach out to a stranger in distress is one of the most courageous things that any man can do.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, the eponymous hero – a traveler himself – arrives on a planet where he encounters a fox wishing to be tamed. When he inquires about the meaning of “taming”, the fox explains that through this process, he and the little prince would come to mean something to each other - and to need one another. They would become unique to each other in the world. But taming comes with strings attached for, as the fox says, we are forever responsible for what we tame.
What ties can you bear to create? What can you bear to be responsible for?
There is a woman at Metro Bonaventure who arrives there every morning before I do, and leaves after I have departed, for I always see her there no matter how early my arrival or how late my departure. She is a woman with bright blue eyes and greying black hair, sitting in a wheelchair with a charity box, unable to speak or to help herself in any way. Who brings her? Who takes her away? No one knows. But I do know that she hardly sees the light of day for this is her permanent underground station.
Some of the people who pass by are brave and they stop to inquire with her, to offer her food, to peel an orange or a banana and to feed it to her. Some help her adjust herself in her chair. A woman once kneeled at her feet adjusting her heavy-looking shoes. These people are rare. They are not afraid to touch a wound and to create a bond with the pain and to relieve it, even when it is not the pain of someone they know and love but the pain of an anonymous fellow traveler. I never did dare to make ties with the lady although she teaches me the lesson of endurance every day.
There was, for a time, however, in that sea of souls passing through the station, someone whom my heart commanded that I touch. He was an old man in a plaid green shirt distributing the daily paper: Metro or 24h, I don’t remember which. The job seemed to give him a great sense of purpose because he was always impeccably groomed and greeted those who walked by with a genuine smile and an enthusiastic "Ça va bien?" For all I know, he was a dirty old man, but I imagined him to be a lonesome pensioner who, by distributing the paper, had stepped back out into the world - and the world had to respond, damn it.
I took his paper every day although I did not read it, and I returned his Ça va bien with a Très bien et vous? and we ceased to be strangers. There was no question, then, of my ever passing by and not taking the paper - because ties had been created and responsibilities assumed.
One day, I dared to bring him a coffee on my way to work. The gesture was received with surprise and appreciation, and I continued with the ritual, always fretting that the coffee might get lukewarm by the time of the handover. I then considered inviting him for coffee to learn the story of his life, but stopped short of doing so in case he really was a dirty old man and got the wrong idea.
One morning, I turned up coffee in hand but he was no longer there. He did not return the next day, nor the day after. I don't know where he went, maybe home, maybe to another station. But I missed him, and so I knew: that in standing there each morning with his smile and stack of papers, that in receiving my small gesture, he had given me something that I needed, too.