I am on the C-train. I have a 5:30 interview with a woman for an article I’m writing. I know that I am getting off at a different platform than my normal stop on the way home so walk to the front of the train. It’s closer to the exit I need for where I’m going.
Three women have babies in strollers in the area at the doorway. I get on. Manoeuvre between them and tuck myself into a space by the far doors.
I hear a voice raised in anger further down the train.
I hear another voice. I can’t make out their words but they sound slurred. Disoriented. I think they’re seated but I’m not sure. I can’t see.
The first voice says loudly. “f***in’ scumbag.”
I think it is the voice of the tall man. Late 20s. Early 30s. Sandy coloured hair. Short, neatly trimmed beard. He’s dressed in labourer’s clothes. Hard hat in his hands.
There is a collective stiffening of the people around him. A noted silence. There are children with the mothers with the strollers. No one could avoid hearing him.
The other voice moans something again. There is a look of disgust on the face of the sandy-haired man. People try to back away but there’s nowhere to go. It’s rush hour. The train is full.
We come to the next stop. One person stands to get off. It is the person who was muttering. People make room.
I am not sure if they are drunk or simply disoriented. From where I stand on the far side of the train, hemmed in by strollers, there is not much I can do, I tell myself. I think about getting off at the same station if only to check if they are okay, but the thought comes slowly and the train doors close before I can make up my mind.
They leave the train. I watch them on the platform struggle to get their feet steadied beneath them. It isn’t that they are visibly homeless. It’s more a sense that homelessness has played a role in their life. Dark hair pulled back into a ponytail. Backpack slung across one shoulder. Khaki jackie hanging from their frame.
No one on the train says anything. The train moves on.
I get off at the next station. I say nothing to the sandy-haired man. I wonder, was there anything I could have done or said?
And I think about the man who got off.
How many times has he been called a scumbag? How many times have people created room for him to get through, as if he is diseased? How many times have they let him pass by without stopping to ask, “Are you okay?”
There was a woman at the shelter where I used to work. Addictions. Living rough. Street life had all taken their toll on her physical body, and her mind. She was sober. Had been for several years when I met her. But her speech, her gait, her unsteadiness often left people believing she was under the influence. She shared the stories of the names she’d been called. The treatment she’d received.
For her, those names had become her truth. No matter how hard she fought the names, they lived within her.
Born on a reserve, she was adopted out to a white family as a child. She never felt accepted in the ‘white man’s world’ as she called it. And never knew where she belonged in her aboriginal world either.
I think about the man on the train. He too was aboriginal. I know that just a few blocks from the C-train station where he exited, there is an apartment building owned by the Foundation where I work. It provides permanent, supportive housing for formerly homeless individuals. The agency that operates it works primarily with first nations peoples. I wonder if he lives there. I hope he does.
At a meeting earlier that morning, a program manager from one of the agencies the Foundation contracts with to provide housing in our buildings told the principal of a school with whom we were meeting that, ‘this work requires great patience’.
It can be slow. Arduous. If we’re not careful, our judgements can slip in and undermine someone’s progress — progress we deem to be too slow or invisible. “Sometimes,” she said. “We can’t see the progress, it is so slow, so tiny. But it’s there. We simply need to be patient, and kind.”
I think about that man’s words on the train. I think about how it serves to call another human being a scurrilous name, regardless of their state of being.
And I wonder how many times the other gentleman has heard those names.
And I wonder how deep his belief runs that those names are who he is.
I don’t know what happened to cause the one man to call another such a name. I do know that there is nothing in this world that gives us the right to name another with words we would never want to be named ourselves
And I wonder, what could I have done differently. I don’t know that there was. But I wish there was. I wish there was some way to show the world, how we treat another, how we do one thing, is a reflection of how we treat ourselves, how we do all things.
And I decide, next time, I will get off the train.