Are you ok? This week has been tough for me. I’ve turned away from the news and social media. I’ve turned towards my sweet infant child and simple pleasures – baths, smoothies, chocolate, Feist’s albums. All the same, I am feeling the heavy and the hard. It pokes through. So I’ve done my best to offer something nice for you. A little escape.
Please recognize the love in your own heart. Please show it and share it. We need it.
When I was 20 I moved to Calgary to start my working life. My boyfriend and I rented the main floor suite of an Eaton’s catalogue home. The owner had converted it into three separate living spaces. At that time, the house was filled with five scrappy artists. Our landlord was an actor who lived upstairs with a roommate. He also had a traumatized cat he’d adopted who was named Snuffy. In the basement lived an actor/writer who elevated the persona of a charming curmudgeon to the level of archetype. My boyfriend was a theatre and audio technician. I worked as a poorly paid receptionist/salesperson/voice-over artist at a recording studio.
I chose to commute to work on foot. I could have taken public transit. My boyfriend could have driven me. But I chose to walk. In rain or snow, in slush or scorching sun.
My walks were an opportunity to glimpse lives being lived: The private school kids who bounced out of their parents’ luxury cars and towards two grand entrances with the words GIRLS and BOYS cut into the stone above the archways. The layers of bicycles that were chained to the fence of the The Castle Pub on 1st St SW every day by 5:30 when the wild bike couriers descended and threw back cheap pints to sooth the injuries they’d acquired from weaving through Calgary’s aggressive traffic. A rare sighting of a staff member outside of The Ranchman’s Club, where I assumed countless employees over the ages had witnessed innumerable indiscretions and scandals.
When left to my own devices I dreamt of other lives I’d lead if I lived in buildings along the avenue: That one day I might join the ranks of the young professionals who exited modern white town houses where narrow windows framed delicate orchids. Or how I’d definitely work at Sloth Records if I moved into a suite within one of the twin yellow brick apartment buildings that bore the names Congress and Moxam. There was one old house in particular that inspired a vivid fantasy where I was a single woman who survived on cheese, tomatoes and tinned fish. In this life I was paid for my opinions, I smoked freely, slept late, had a minimal wardrobe that was effortlessly stylish and often drank in the nearby wine bar until closing, but never left visibly drunk. I was Western Canada’s Simone de Beauvoir.
These walks were a great pleasure.
However, at some point I realized that my habit of walking on the same side of the street combined with my scheduled departure from home was aligning with the lives of others. I began to recognize four or five people who crossed my path every day. I started to feel odd about seeing them so often. Should I make eye contact? Smile? What was proper etiquette? My upbringing in a small community had bred into me the pressure to be friendly. I started to give this conundrum a lot of thought during my walk. It began to eclipse my daydreaming. I became very aware of each familiar face. I anticipated their daily approach until I was suddenly overcome all at once and I blurted out an artless “hello!!” to one of them.
I said it as though I’d just learned the word. It seemed like the person flinched.
It was one of those greetings where the person passes you, puts together what you’ve done while taking a few more steps, and then is too far away to properly respond. They would have to calculate whether it was worth the effort to turn around and shout their reply to your back.
I had humiliated myself.
But the next day, I was ready.
I saw each familiar face coming. I steadied my gaze. I prepared my smile. I glanced at them to rehearse eye contact and when in range I did everything I could do to roll off an easygoing “hi” that was combined with an upward nod to imply, “Oh, me? I say hello to people all the time. No big deal.”
And a couple people even responded! They were caught off guard and didn’t answer until we were shoulder to shoulder, but they responded! I was getting through to people! I was bucking big city conventions.
On the third day, one woman saw me coming. We reflected each other’s enthusiasm and shared our simple greeting with ease. I was thrilled. Another man also anticipated that this was becoming a thing. He took a more resigned approach though. His reply was stiff, but I didn’t care. It was working. A third man definitely recognized me in advance, but he kept his eyes fixed firmly on the sidewalk as we met, said nothing in response and sidestepped slightly away from me. Hmmm. A dissatisfying development.
By the fourth day I was confident. My previous bravado now seemed unnecessary. I was comfortable. I had a rapport with these people. We were all known to each other in this way, small as it was. I could predict with some accuracy which regulars I would see on which block. There weren’t many. People make habits. We walk out our doors in a model of efficiency, traveling the same path down the same side of the street, daydreaming the same Simone de Beauvoir daydream, and once in awhile, a 20 year old woman expands your private life by an inch when she includes you in her practice of greeting strangers. This was success.
And then, I clocked the man who kept his eyes on the ground. He was on the next block. I was ready to reel in this last fish, but I was also prepared to keep it cool. And even though we were a block apart, I felt the unmistakable sensation of being noticed by him. We made eye contact from afar. I celebrated inwardly. I’d cracked another city slicker.
As I watched him walk towards me, I noticed that he stole a moment to look around. Wait. Is he? Is he crossing the street?
Indeed. The man crossed the street to avoid my gesture of kindness. To avoid me. What the actual hell? How could he??
I’ve always been unclear about what to take away from this experience. You can’t please all the people all the time? Kill ‘em with kindness? Four out of five pedestrians agree that hellos aren’t a threat? I don’t know. I’ve thought on it it every now and then. Maybe he was the person I awkwardly said hello to that first day. It really doesn’t matter. I was set in a new groove. I was now a person who said hello. I still dreamed my daydreams. I watched the kids in their uniforms get out of their parents’ Audis and Jaguars and walk towards the doors marked GIRLS and BOYS. And that one guy… that one guy was set in his new groove. He chose the other sidewalk. He chose to be distanced from the woman who thinks she’s so casual with her hellos. And that’s fine. I didn’t need his participation.
But I’ve often wonder what would have happened if I was brave enough to wave at him from across the street every day.
Where would he have gone then?