Transit Chronicles, Part I

To Kill A Brain Cell

As a veteran transit commuter, I’ve become used to a certain level of background craziness from my fellow passengers.  The disheveled guy muttering and rocking in his seat, the wide-eyed woman shouting hellfire and brimstone, the adolescent giggling and sharing embarassing details of her personal life in a 120-decibel stage whisper, the pervert molesting women amidst the crush of the crowd.  One quickly learns to distinguish between antics Requiring Action (assault, molestation, medical emergency) and those that don’t.  Some things aren’t always that clear-cut.

Wednesday morning I board an eastbound subway train.  After a few minutes I’m immersed in reading this quarter’s edition of The National Interest, only to have my attention drawn by the angry outburst of a greasy, disheveled Caucasian man sitting fifteen feet away.  He’s thin and wiry, in his late forties, dressed in ratty jeans and a windbreaker, with a black gym bag resting between his feet.  His right hand is clenched into a fist and cocked for action.  Since his immediate neighbours are an elderly lady and a mother and child, I’m not too anxious to see him make contact.  Both ladies are intimidated and quickly vacate their seats.

Angry Outburst Guy then proceeds to extract a week’s worth of Toronto Sun newspapers from his black gym bag, placing them on the now-empty neighboring seat.  My personal philosophy is that the only reason to possess a Toronto Sun is to retain an advertisement you’ve circled for a home electronics sale occurring within the next 60 minutes.  Otherwise save your money and read ESPN online.  The next thing to come out of the black bag is a 500ml container of something flammable, as identified by the warning labels.  The liquid’s smell identifies it as some kind of solvent.  Wonderful.  We’re still between stations, but the less seasoned passengers (a.k.a. cowards) change seats or line up for the exits — at a stop where, typically, nobody disembarks.  Word of advice: if you think you’re in imminent danger, then do something useful; don’t just sit there in front of the doors pissing your pants counting the seconds until the doors open.  Despite the rush hour passenger density, a ten-foot circle opens up around the potential arsonist.  I figure I’ll let him go on in peace unless the solvent gets poured on the newspapers, then the fun’s over whether he likes it or not.  So far he’s shown spectacularly poor judgment, but nothing that concretely renders him a threat to the peace.

Out come two thin strips of cloth, which Potential Arsonist Guy dips into the solvent.  One solvent-soaked cloth strip is carefully wrapped around an index finger, then jammed into his nostril.  The second cloth strip goes into the other nostril as he does his level best to snort them up into his brain.  The cloth strips partially unravel, leaving comically long, solvent-dripping ribbons hanging out his nostrils.  The subway car lets out a collective sigh of relief as his Threat Condition gets downgraded from Potential Arsonist to garden-variety Solvent-Huffing Addict.

His craving satisfied, Solvent Huffing Guy now thinks this is a good opportunity to light up a Lucky.  Well, why not?  Solvent-soaked rags in nose, burning cigarette mere milimetres away, what could possibly go wrong?  This is the kind of decisionmaking genius that gets these folks to their lofty places in the world today.  Out of sheer clumsiness he drops the first cigarette on the floor and it rolls under his seat.  I wonder whether we’ll have to tackle him with our coats to beat out the flames that will engulf his body.  He pulls another one from the pack and, against all odds, manages to light it up without also causing his nose-rags to burst into flame.  Well done.  Moments later an alarm (either smoke or passenger assistance, I don’t know which) sounds, as the solvent-huffer puffs away contentedly.  “Hey,” says one passenger in a half-hearted attempt at reprimand.  Yeah, that’ll show him.  As if the “No Smoking” signs that have been aboard TTC vehicles for 20-odd years weren’t enough of a clue.

The subway pulls into Ossington station, alarm wailing away, and the Solvent Huffer decides it’s time to get on with the rest of his day.   Snort harder, chief, I think one or two synapses may have survived.  He leaves just as two TTC employees also board the train — not to investigate the source of the fire alarm, of course — they’re just commuting to work like the rest of us.  The TTC guys stand (blocking one of the entrances, natch) while Transit Control alerts us that our train is delayed:  “Attention TTC patrons, we are experiencing a delay eastbound at our Ossington station…”  There’s a further two minutes of sitting around doing nothing, then the doors close and the train rolls on.

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One Response
  1. Nathan B. says:

    I don’t know if you remember my previous comment as an IE6 user, but I’ve downloaded Firefox and am using it. Anyway, as someone who used to keep a sort of record of my adventures in the Seoul subway while I was in that city, I wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this post!