Strange Encounters on the 506

It was cold, the platform was empty and the streetcar was running late. The November wind fromLake Ontario pushed the fluorescent 506 sign back and forth above my head, casting shadows on the greasy pavement.

Somehow the neon made the night seem even darker. The darkness made the night seem even colder. And the streetcar was running late.

I enumerated the things that could happen to me on this desolate platform on the edge of town, outside Main Street station, where stuff, bad stuff, happens too often.

Rosedale this ain’t.

I’ve been told I think like a pessimist, the glass half empty kind of guy. Why wouldn’t I? It was past 2 A.M, freezing, in a place even the cops avoided after dark. At this point, I was more likely to catch pneumonia than catch the streetcar. Unless you were Clark Kent, you’d feel threatened here. And I was far from being Clark Kent.

I like to think of myself as an extraordinarily average guy; someone who is tremendously tolerable, outrageously ordinary. My skin was a bit too pale, my clothes a bit too plain for me to impress girls, which is rather unfortunate because I was falling in love with them all the time.

I’ve always wanted to be everything to everyone: that was my philosophy of life.

My contemplation was interrupted by the sound of steps on cold concrete. I was shocked to see someone of modest stature, with an uncanny resemblance to the rodents playing hide-and-seek at my feet.

The man who looks like a mouse–Mickey, let’s call him– had a head of hair that blended into the wall behind him: urban camouflage. His elbows were out, locked in an L shape, from all those years of bustling onto the morning express at Union Station. Suddenly, Mickey opened a battered briefcase and took out a bag of potato chips. He struggled with the plastic. He ate with mechanical concentration, chewing with his front teeth, oblivious to the constellation of crumbs scattering like snowflakes on his jacket. You know what they say: Eat or be eaten.

It wasn’t hard to feel sorry for a man who looked like a mouse. Out of pity, I smiled and asked where he was going. No answer.

“Looks like Jack Frost is gonna give us a hard winter, doesn’t it?” I inquired, figuring he was the type who’d laugh at anachronistic sayings like that. He stared blankly ahead.

“The streetcar service sure isn’t what it used to be, right old chap?” He silently licked his greasy fingers clean.

After a few more attempts to spark conversation, I concluded Mickey was either dumb or deaf, and wouldn’t respond either way. So we sat at opposite ends of the lone bench on the platform. His chewing harmonized with the wind, the only sounds heard in the night. I’d steal glances at him from time to time, hoping to get caught in the act.

Let me be everything to everyone: that was the motto I lived by.

Mickey’s disregard grew on me. What was this man like? How could he live a decent life looking like a badly drawn caricature, a walking cartoon?

I could sense he had come to town with dreams of making it big in an even bigger city. He was tossed aside like yesterday’s paper. The man soon grew grey like the walls of the place he had tried to call home. He blended with the crowds, a mere shadow in a city full of them. Mickey, like a mouse, found ways to get around unnoticed, clamming up, playing deaf, hiding under his collar, head bowed down.

Toronto isn’t for everyone.

I stared at Mickey in abandoned hope, trying to pierce the armour of silence.

Our muted conversation was suddenly broken by the shape of a rushing man. We were three now: it was a party.

He was tall and dark-skinned. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles and an Oxford tie, framed by a tweed jacket that stifled him with every move. What was this Queen West type doing out here? He seemed like a man who made his living on thoughts, or at least on telling others how to think. For no reason other than the cerebral aura he emitted, I dubbed him Kellogg, the academia nut.

“That’s a nice tie you got there.” People like to talk about themselves, so I reckoned the man would answer.

He spoke without saying a word. Drawing out a pen and spiral notebook, and in seemingly deep reflection, he began to write. His brow formed a V above his bright eyes. His face grimaced with every sentence. He scratched out entire passages with violent frowns. After a few minutes, he smiled, satisfied.

“I’m an aspiring writer myself. Could I read a bit of your work?” I figured it was worth a shot.

Please, let me be everything to everyone: this view of life was getting harder to believe in.

Though the academia nut didn’t seem to hear me, or chose not to answer, I shifted around the platform to get a glimpse at his work. It must have been deep, considering the fervour with which he wrote. To my dismay, the pages were not full of prose and allegory. Instead, there were scribbles and zigzags. The man hadn’t written anything at all.

In the meanwhile, he sat oblivious to my presence behind him. He ignored my breathing down his neck. It was as though I wasn’t even there.

The man looked around, back and forth, through me. Suddenly, he took off his glasses; I saw they had no lenses. With a clip, his tie came off. He stuffed his jacket in a briefcase already full of more scribbled papers.

Instead, Kellogg donned a wrinkled Maple Leafs jersey. He took out a copy of the Sun, squinting to read the sports section. Maybe he really needed those glasses after all…

“Did we finally beat the Habs?”

Silence: who was I kidding?

This city is the kind of place where it takes a few tries to reinvent yourself. Kellogg must have spent years cultivating persona after persona; his closet full of the costumes of his previous roles, like skins shed one after the other. Like a chameleon. All in that elusive quest to find himself.

He sat still, oblivious to the questions in my eyes.

It was the second time tonight. Two silent encounters. Maybe it’s not that they couldn’t hear me. Maybe it was that they weren’t really there in the first place. Maybe there were things I couldn’t understand, couldn’t feel. I was losing my mind, I was going insane…

“Don’t worry, they won’t talk to you” A hushed voice floated out of the darkness. “They’re too scared.”

I jumped at the sound of a voice other than the one driving me crazy inside my head. My mind must be playing tricks on me. I spend all night talking to people who can’t hear me and now I have to listen to someone I can’t see?

Suddenly, a girl stepped out of the corner of the platform. She carried herself with the self-assurance that comes with good looks, all while having the wavering nervousness of any teenager. She had long blonde hair, and a body perpetually defying her bulky wool sweater. Her blue eyes were inquisitive, defiant.

She was easy to fall in love with.

“You don’t give up easily; you’re naive, but persistent. I like that”.

I stared at the girl, unaware of my mouth gaping. “I’m Emma, by the way.”

My perception of reality torn, I was unsure whether or not to speak. Luckily for me, Emma had more courage and carried the conversation.

“You know how people are in this city,” she continued, “They never let their guard down.”

I was surprised by the thoughtfulness of her comment. Most girls who look like Emma have their brains elsewhere. “I knew that much aboutToronto,” I replied, “You’re not like everyone else though. What made you talk to me?”

“I like your hair. You look like Superman,” she smiled.

It might’ve been the winking of the stars or the darkness of the night. It might’ve been Emma. I felt alive. Through a twist of heart and a twist of fate, I blurted: “Do you want to go out tomorrow?”

At least let me be something to someone… I could live with that.

Emma’s answer was silenced by the wheeze of machinery. The streetcar glided lazily into the station. Mickey, Kellogg, Emma and I, boarded the tram like a happy family on a Sunday outing to theIslands.

In unison, Mickey and Kellogg inquired about the delay. It was disconcerting hearing them speak.

“Two kids – a boy and a girl – got hit down in Chinatown, outside the Pearl Court. The streetcar was going full speed. Poor kids never saw it coming. Rough way to end a date eh?”

And with that, the streetcar closed its doors and rocketed into the night.

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