Dispatches

Gangly Man

Jane Silcott

Did someone here go down on the tracks?

I don’t take public transit very often, which is a failing—not just environmentally, but also personally, because sometimes that forced contact with the rest of the populated world can be profound. In Japan, many years ago, I was trapped in the small space between train cars by a crowd of schoolboys; my claustrophobia reached such a level that one leg began to judder up and down like the needle on a sewing machine, and the only thing that prevented me from climbing out over the tops of my fellow passengers’ heads was the gaze of a man about a foot away who conveyed calm to me by keeping his eyes trained on mine.

When something like this happens I’m struck by how effectively people communicate without language, and then I get to wondering what it is that allows us to do that. I don’t get very far, but the question niggles, so when I see articles about the brain or genetics, I always stop and read them. Today, for instance, I read that our genes are not necessarily fixed, as we’ve so far believed: that we aren’t just shells to transport genetic code from one generation to the next. What we have is more like a caretaker role. Not only do we need to keep ourselves alive long enough to reproduce, but we must also think good thoughts, eat well, behave in a sensible manner and in all ways be as good to our bits of genetic coding as, say, we should be to the land and water that support us.

Here we are. The Broadway Sky­Train station. East Vancouver, a little shabby, a little noisy and crowded, but a place that’s alive, not tamed into stultifying sameness— good for my DNA? I get on the train and find a seat near the door. As I settle in, a large, gangly man rushes in and clumsily sits on the pull-down chair on the other side of the doorway. He must have bumped the people in the seat next to him because a pleasant but sardonic voice loudly proclaims, “It’s okay. We’re just Native people.” Did I hear anger in his tone? As well as reading the article on DNA, I heard something on the radio about it being Aboriginal Day. At the time I’d barely noted it, but now I wonder if this encounter will be emblematic somehow. Will the Native man expound on what it is to be Native in Canada, and are the rest of us on the train going to be asked to bear witness to an act of reconciliation or retribution?

“I’m okay,” the gangly man says in response. The non sequitur doesn’t seem to concern the Native man, who continues to talk in a loud voice about nothing and everything—people who are always late for things, the weather, friends. We have long passed the time when the announcement should sound and the doors close. When a train official walks onto our car, I assume he’s coming to speak to the loud talker, perhaps to point out the importance of voice modulation? The official is dressed in the white uniform they wear, a little like parking attendants, bellhops or White Spot employees. He’s slight and curved, a middle-aged man with a rounding belly, his neat hair and moustache going grey, his eyes confident, almost smiling, a man who knows what his job is and how he’s going to do it. As he walks toward the talkers, I wonder whether he has practised this look in front of the mirror, or does it come naturally to him? Has he been blessed by a solid sense of himself, has his DNA been well fed with self-esteem, good food and a loving mother?

“Did someone here go down onto the tracks just now?” the man says in a voice loud enough to fill the car. Even though the trajectory of his voice is clear, there’s a long enough silence after he stops speaking that I am reminded of similar moments in school when the teacher (not nearly so calm or quietly polished) threatened detention for all of us unless someone fessed up now. It may be my imagination, but I think the entire car of adults is being rocketed back to grade 6 with me.

Just when I’m wondering what sort of threat a SkyTrain man could offer (I didn’t see any weapons), the gangly man calls out in a calm voice, “I did. I dropped my phone.” The official nods, he’s calm, too, and pleasant; the quiet Canadian air of the train will not be interrupted, not by him. “Would you step outside for a minute, please,” he says, and the man gets up clumsily. He’s too big for himself, too long in the limb, his clothes flap and waver as though the engine that drives him can only start with jerks and stutters, but eventually he moves off the train with the official. They stop a few feet away on the platform, and the train doors remain open. I lean toward them, straining to hear. What will the gangly man say? What went through his mind before he jumped down onto the tracks? His apparent lack of fear might be ignorance, but what if it was calculation? What if he studied the situation, then made his leap? What would it be like to live inside a mind like that? Would life be a continual adventure? Would every moment bristle with possibility? And then, if I were suddenly to give up a lifetime of modulation, would it affect my DNA?

The two men continue to talk, face to face, their voices indistinguishable in a low rumble—it seems the whole car is leaning toward them when the official’s voice sounds clearly: “I just want to know who you are.”

Just then, the train doors close with no warning bell and the train glides out of the station. The Native man says to the woman beside him, “I wouldn’t want to tell him who I am,” and then he says more things that I cannot hear over the gathering speed of the train. I am thinking of prejudices (why had I immediately assumed it was the loud-talking Native man who was causing the delay?). As we round the curve past Science World, the Native man stands up. “Happy Aboriginal Day, everyone!” he calls out. There’s a moment of embarrassed silence— “What do we do now?” seems to reverberate through the train. Then a man standing near me says, in an equally loud and clear voice, “Thank you!”

As he gets off the train, the Native man offers one last comment: “The creator will be proud of all of you!”

The train, moving on, seems to float momentarily, and we who have been so generously (and undeservedly?) blessed, smile at one other, eyes holding as though we’re old friends—DNA stretching a little?

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