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Find Beauty in a Packed Street Car

07/23/2014 12:29 EDT | Updated 09/22/2014 05:59 EDT
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There was a beautiful experience on a street car. Once. In literature, written by -- of all people -- Franz Kafka, more likely to produce dialogue with a child ghost or other such odd, mystical and dark experience than an easy smile.

But there it was, in a vignette within a collection, Meditation, called On the Tram. Not a week before I picked up Kafka, I was laugh-crying to Peter Kuitenbrouwer's story on "Streetcarnage" in the National Post, a rant about abysmal streetcar conditions. All those experiences were mine too, as Torontonians across the city felt, judging by the cacophony of distress the Post reported since the article appeared, as if Kuitenbrouwer dropped a pebble into an echo chamber. So many could relate, and if they happened to be reading on the commute, likely had a strange sensation of real-time reporting.

I was not on the 501 Queen, but the story made me smell that smell again, hear the static base of someone else's unintelligible music, feel strangers pressed in at sorry angles, sense too late the dampness of roof juice dripping on my shoulder, witness another novice standing on the bottom step (driver: "Please get off the steps. The doors will not close. Repeat, please get off ..."). And all this only after boarding, sometimes after watching two overfull cars already pass and reading the miserable faces onboard. Oh, internal conflict! I want to get on, I so badly don't want to get on. If only everyone consulted the oracle that is commuter Deborah Belgrove, who told the Post: "Everyone needs to follow the rules. Have a shower. Open a window. Don't traumatize me before I go to work." Or better -- don't talk to me, don't even look at me.

It's so easy to shut down like that. A defensive mindset can't be helped some days, can it? If it can, who can blame the commuter? It's the fault of the TTC and City management. Human beings can't behave perfectly in a hostile environment.

Yes, these things make sense to one on the Queen car. Lurching into a detour, the sun beating in through closed windows.

But breathe deeply with me. Read Kafka:

"The tram approaches a stopping place and a girl takes up her position near the step, ready to alight." He sees her distinctly. He describes her hair, its shape and colour, and then, "her small ear is close-set, but since I am near her I can see the whole ridge of the whorl of her right ear and the shadow at the root of it."

That's all, that scene. And then he ends, "At that point I asked myself: How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?"

There's a lesson to this, picking up classics once in awhile. The enduring things humans think and feel over centuries and far more, are astounding. Sure, people were likely rapturous about the sleek trams circa 1910 in Prague, where Kafka lived as a young man and maybe felt wonder stepping on the first electric line built there in 1891. That's a different experience from 2014 Toronto. The point is, there always has been, and always will be, the option to find beauty among people. An ugly cage of an airtight streetcar doesn't take that away.

Can we observe without leering? I think so. And I think of George Orwell's hope that the urge to marvel at the natural world survives in adults. In an essay on the topic, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, he says "by retaining one's childhood love of such things ... one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable." (The consequences of not doing so, likewise have enduring relevance: "one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship.")

So the next time something happens on the streetcar -- because it will -- find something beautiful to see. No, it won't solve the communication and planning problems that create unannounced short turns and painful detours, or the management and electoral problems that make Queen Street at rush hour possible. But it might ease a few things onboard, while we wait.

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