People Who Look Like People

January 12, 2011

I am sitting in the food hall of a large shopping mall in Toronto.


It is highly unlikely that I will know a single person elbowing their way through the sales.


And yet.  And yet, as I sip my coffee my eyes snap onto one borrowed face after another.  A spark of recognition ignites in me and is extinguished just as quickly, when the curve of the eyebrow is wrong, the purposeful stride doesn’t fit, the blank returning look is foreign.


The old man with the Greek fisherman’s cap is surely related to Avril, the 80-something artist whose door I once photographed.


And the man just sitting at the next table, he has the hairline of a Serbian mercenary I once met.  But that can’t be so, because he sits with a diminutive Vietnamese woman, I think his wife, who once sold banana fritters to me as a child in Harare.


The gaggle of retired Portuguese men are close relatives of the hunters sipping their coffee and red wine after a misty, autumn boar hunt, in the woods behind the village.


And the woman who was ahead of me in the queue, her hair lacquered just so atop her rotund form –  she is kin of a kind-hearted chocolate addict who watched helplessly as her daughter was whittled away by anorexia a world away from here.


And at the next table, the energetic elderly woman has the hands of the woman who made a crib for my firstborn.


I move aside to make way for a newcomer to the Portuguese gang.  This one sports a French beret that used to hand on the hook in Monsieur Fauth’s hallway.


The cocky walk of that young man over there is Matthieu to a “T” – before he cut his hair off and lost his swagger, sobered by years of unemployment.

The woman who is scanning the food court to pounce on any tidying up to be done is a copy of the mother of a girl I once worked with.  A lovely girl, an only child.  Her mother used to make her outfits of canary yellow and hand knitted cardigans until she surely had one for each day of our short winter.  And then she married a wealthy man who whisked her off to Europe.  I hope she has provided her mother with a long line of knitwear models.  I hope her mother has found a way to take up her own space.


An Indian woman adjusts the blanket around her sleeping baby and the fall of her glossy locks makes her into Yasmine, my beautiful friend from university.  I see her neat writing, her smitten boyfriend, their stolen meetings behind the curtains of her religion.  They ended up eloping and have been happily married now for almost 20 years.


A slender woman with long blonde hair pauses, in a balletic stance before a huge tv.  Just for a second.  Then takes off again with grace, trailing the memory of Nathalie behind her like a gymnasts ribbon.  My delicate, long-lost friend and mother of my god-child.


And there is Jeremy, my son’s friend; but wait, shouldn’t he be at university in Nice?  Or in his old 2CV or asleep, because it is late where he is now.


And here comes the toothless woman who used to sit outside Chez-Annie and drink until she couldn’t stand.  When she was drunk enough she would prevail upon people to buy her a drink “because she was pregnant”.  To my knowledge this never induced anyone to buy her an alcoholic beverage.  I told her once to change her strategy but she looked at me with pure venom for my pains.  She was sixty if she was a day.


And there is Vincent!  The pharmacist who made the mistake of having an affair with the wife of a ballistics expert.  After (only just) escaping that predicament, he hooked up with a touring Russian ballerina and “kidnapped” her.  They are still living in Zimbabwe, happily married.  The search on both sides, long since over.


And there is a man wearing a dark blue jacket with a reflective stripe on it.  It looks like a pompier uniform and reminds me of my husband’s beep going off and the race to the station, pulling on his jacket as he goes.


So even here in this throng of strangers, I am among friends.



So back in August, when we first moved to Toronto, I posted a blog about how I was going to write about all the interesting people I had brushed past or who had lightly touched me.  That is what I said.  What I meant was that I wanted to get to know said people, dip my hand in their pools and cup something to show you under my microscope.  What an unpleasant thing to want to do.  I realize now that this is not a good idea.


To really write something worthy of your time and theirs I have to strip my own bark off and be exposed enough to receive what they mean, not what they say.  I need to be a conduit from them to you, not a waiter serving up hors d’oeuvres.


And I know I have been silent and it may seem as if I did not mean what I said.  The main reason, or so I tell myself, is that I have been kind of busy settling into a new city, taking courses and writing a screenplay: that is what I say.


What I mean is that I am flooding myself with the busyness so as not to peel that bark off.  And here is why: I seem to be drawn towards people with sadness behind their smile.  Extraordinary people masquerading as ordinary and you just know that their stories will break your heart.


Here are some people I am not going to write about in the interests of cardiac health:


The old man who goes to Tim Horton’s every day and makes his coffee last for hours.  He folds his hat neatly and stretches out the minutes with every small task.  He hangs his threadbare coat on the back of the chair, he sprinkles sugar a little at a time into his coffee and then carefully folds the rest of the packet and puts it away.  He counts out exact change into neat piles before going to order.  He is painfully shy.  He has a small tuft of white hair that sometimes escapes his attention and refuses to join its brethren in submission.  He has holes in his shoes.


The woman who has run the coin laundry for 35 years.  She tells you what to do and what not to do with every visit.  She opens machines mid-cycle to have a squizz at what you are washing – small pink items usually, and alas no, they are not mine but belong to my 3 and 5 year-old daughters.


She is snappy and directive.  She assails you with rapid-fire questions the minute you sit down with a book while your clothes are drying:


“Taking a quiet moment for yourself, I see?”


I nod as nonchalantly as possible.


She peers critically at whatever I am reading.

“Don’t think much of reading myself. Waste of time.”




“What are you having for supper?”


So I give in.  I tell her what we are having for supper, who is doing what when, answer questions about not only my family but the neighbors downstairs.  I have very little to offer on them as they are 3 Chinese students who are addicted to computer games and only emerge blinking into the light on rare occasions.


She knows a lot about me and my family because I have given in to her interrogations.  I was shocked though when someone told her to mind her own business the other day.  Actually told her to shut up and go away.  You see I know two things about her: she was open on Christmas day and she cried when the girls made her some cookies.


And then the young woman I met the other day.  I was sitting having a coffee at the mall during the just-before-Christmas frenzy.  I was with my 3-year-old and she came and sat at the table next to us.  Everywhere was packed and we were very close, I could have reached across and touched her.


In France she would be described as “Baba Cool”.  She had a happy hippy feel to her and smiled a lot.  I would say she was about 25.  We exchanged small talk for a bit but then paused mid-sentence when a woman of a certain age walked past us.  She teetered on impossibly high stilettos and seemed to be wearing a small tube of leather that could either be unzipped in the front or the back.  We couldn’t help but smile.


“Don’t you just love people!” she said “They all have their story.”


I said that indeed I did love people but in the back of my mind was not sure I could show as much enthusiasm for all people.


“That is what I am doing” she said decisively, and picked up a notebook full of writing.

“I am writing everything I see”.


I didn’t want to disturb her so occupied myself with my daughter, my shopping list, my mundane thoughts.  I glanced over at her and sure enough, she was writing as fast as she could, and smiling.


Just before I left she started to unravel a headscarf and readjust it.  My heart sank.  She was completely bald, the very specific kind of bald that comes with chemo.  She retied her scarf, caught my eye and smiled.  She picked up her pen and continued to write and in doing so exposed the vulnerable underside of her wrist.  On it was a tattoo: it said “LIVE”.


But there are happy stories out there too.  In fact, most of them are happy somewhere.  Maybe the old man has overcome huge odds to be sitting in that chair at Tim Horton’s.  I think he is Eastern European and how he came to be in Toronto is surely a story of triumph.


The woman in the laundry came out of extreme poverty and now owns two properties.


And my young friend reached across and touched me even though I had never met her before and probably never will again.


I wonder if you want to hear these tales patchworked together? I do believe that somehow the telling of them collects us together for a quiet moment to celebrate.  To embrace what is means to be human.


A New Year bright with promise lies before us – lets fill it with wondrous things.