Who Will Floss the Dog?

You gotta love the bus! It’s like going to a movie, only cheaper. There are as many programs as there are seats, and with the old people, you sometimes don’t even have to be sitting near to them.

Buses provided some of the first equal opportunity stages, I think. I had a look in Wikipedia, hoping for a theatrical link, but alas, it seemed drawn to the more pragmatic aspects. It told me that ‘Bus is a clipped form of the Latin word omnibus. The first horse-drawn omnibus service was started by a businessman named Stanislas Baudry in the French city of Nantes in 1823’, and that ‘Regular intercity bus services by steam-powered buses were pioneered in England in the 1830s by Walter Hancock and by associates of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, among others, running reliable services over road conditions which were too hazardous for horse-drawn transportation.’ It doesn’t say anything about when buses became travelling entertainment salons, however. Or maybe I’m just easily amused…

For example, last week I decided to respond to a politely-worded summons from my dentist. Apparently he figured I hadn’t been around in a long time and thought his dental tech might need to do a little scraping and filing, or something. He didn’t use those words, exactly, but I’ve known him for a while and could sense his concern that my flossing might not meet current standards, nor the toothbrush they gave me last year still doing something more than merely shoving the food around. I chose to ignore his subtle but sublingual hint that my visit might also help with his vacation plans. I hoped the bus might afford me some distraction.

The bus was sparsely populated and eerily quiet when I boarded it at its terminus, so I had an unexpected mélange of seats. Much like a hockey arena, the seats on a bus can be graded. There are the rafter seats –right at the back and usually over something that vibrates and rattles worryingly. Then, of course, the midrange variety where entertainment is rife, but often cacophonous and conversation lacks the normal cohesion and sourceability that permits useful comprehension. I usually try for what would pass for the seats-behind-the-bench at a game –a few seats back from the senior’s area, but with a row of seats interposed between for the women with children… or suitcases, rickety boxes tied with strings, overstuffed shopping bags –clunky stuff that reeks of the unusual and a need to tell somebody about it.

As luck would have it, there were only two people –a middle aged man in a fedora, brown overcoat and scuffed shoes, sitting with an older woman wearing a long pink coat and a speckled grey pig tail that didn’t go at all with her age. But there were no bizarre boxes anywhere in sight in the coveted area, so I settled in for a long and disappointing ride, condemned to travel inwards, undistracted, and filled with all the anticipatory dread that only dentists and Proctologists can inspire. But it can’t always be ribbons and Disneyland, I guess.

I closed my eyes and tried to position my head in the balance position –something on which seasoned bussers pride themselves so their heads don’t end up on their laps drooling when they drift off.

“So glad I got that dental plan for Mara,” I heard the woman say as the bus started up.

My ears perked up. Maybe dental angst was more widespread than I’d thought.

“You got a dental plan for her, Lizzie?” It was the man’s voice, and he sounded surprised. “How much did that set you back?”

I imagined a shrug. “Well, she’s had bad teeth for a few years, so I figured it was worth it…”

He chuckled. “Why do you always encourage her to eat what you eat?”

“And what’s wrong with that, Jim? I’m still healthy, you know.” A defensive tone had crept into her voice.

There was a momentary hesitation before he answered, sotto voce, “You told me you have false teeth, Liz…”

“Well, that’s not why, Jimmy. And besides, she’s eaten my kind of food ever since the adoption… Never heard a complaint, either!”

Silence followed –well, the usual bus-rumble anyway- and I was just drifting off into the all-forgiving arms of Lethe, when Lizzie spoke up again. “Do you have one for Keg?”

It occurred to me that either she was a sales representative for dental plans and was trying to sell a policy to Jim for his grandson, or maybe just a well-meaning grandmother that was used to giving advice.

“Keg’s doing okay, Martha. Probably his diet though, eh?” he added with a chuckle.

“He’s, what, five now…?”

Jim didn’t answer right away. “Uhmm, yes, I guess somewhere around that…”

“Somewhere?” She sounded indignant that he wasn’t sure. “When’s his birthday?” she said, each word a needle.

It was getting interesting so I opened my eyes. She was frowning at him like a mother at her son when he comes in late on a Friday night, her mouth a serpent’s grin.

“You mean the actual date?” He looked puzzled at her distress. She nodded her head sternly and glared at him as he tried to deflect her chagrin with a boyish smile. Then he shrugged and tried to bluff it. “June… I’m sure it was in June…”

She sat back in her seat, obviously only partially mollified. “I’ll find out from Sally,” she said after shaking her head as if to say that men shouldn’t be trusted with anything important anyway. “She’ll know.”

“Yes, maybe she will… But remember, we’re just taking care of him on those days our daughter is away at school. Janice didn’t want to leave him alone in her apartment.”

Her eyes snapped towards him suddenly as if he just admitted to child abuse. “Well… he’s still going to have dental problems -if he doesn’t already. You have to start flossing him. Just being male doesn’t protect him, you know. You wait and see…” She reached back and pulled the cord for the bus to stop, and hurried out the door after telling Jim she’d be sure to phone Sally.

I could see him roll his eyes, and he noticed me watching so he shrugged again. “I’ve never heard of a cat needing a dental plan, have you,” he said, laughing at the thought.

I shook my head, but what did I know? “And Keg is…”

“My daughter’s dog… And no,” he added when he noticed the relief on my face. “I’ve never tried flossing him…”

Suddenly, my dental needs seemed to slip into a different gear.



A Sympathy in Choice

I sometimes wonder how people do it –make decisions, I mean. I’m not talking about what they’re going to have for lunch, or whether or not to wear a blue shirt with a red tie to work -most of those could be settled with a coin toss. No, I’m more concerned with the deeper questions we are asked to solve. The ones for which we have no preliminary data, no idea of outcome, no hint of consequence. Decisions which, poorly made, could have far reaching and unintended repercussions.

I’m not complaining, mind you –just pointing out that unprepared decisions can be fraught. But it leads me to wonder about choice. Do the decisions we make reveal anything about who we are? Do they define us or merely describe us? And if we were stripped of the ability to choose –if someone else took the responsibility- would we be happier? More content? Or bereft of identity -just another voice in the choir? Is choice, in other words, an emergent property of Life, or merely a by-product of chaos? A necessary side-effect of complexity?

Now that I am retired, I’m beginning to think that my life has become too chaotic. Too random. When I was at work, it was structured; there were duties to perform, obligations to honour, social rites to enact –expectations of continuity with commitments that left less room for choice.  And like a forest, the overall characteristics of life-changes are really only discernible when viewed from afar.

So now I am overwhelmed with choice, buried under the weight of options I never knew existed. And, since time stretches before me like a prairie, I find that I am confused by the selection. Or perhaps, bored might describe it better. When you are confined to a candy-store, perspective shifts. Tastes change, and candy is not the object of desire, no matter how many varieties are on offer. It is no longer choice, but monotony. Indifference. Detachment. A surfeit of anything no longer satisfies –it chokes.

I decided to catch a city bus the other day and as luck would have it, there was already a queue. Ahead of me in the line was a man even older than myself leaning on a cane. Bundled up against a bitter December wind, he wore an ill-fitting ankle-length winter coat, and a heavy scarf wrapped around his head like a hijab. His face seemed wrapped as well, because he had a long bushy, untrimmed white beard he tried several times to tuck into the coat like his scarf. No matter his preparations, he still looked cold. I gathered from his clothes that he wasn’t entirely used to the weather here in Canada, either. And to make matters worse, he was carrying a bulky shopping bag so his hands –both of them bare- looked almost blue with the cold.

I was about to offer to lend him my gloves for the wait, but just as I was going to introduce myself, a crowded bus arrived and we all shoved on. The elderly seats were all occupied, of course, but a stout lady in one of them offered her place to the old man. He seemed embarrassed, and looked around at those of us standing nearby almost as if he were asking for our permission. The lady insisted he take her seat, however, so he accepted with a smile and a grateful bow of his head. The scene was so unremarkable, that I think most people standing nearby didn’t notice anything unusual.

But one man did. He was a short, balding man dressed in a suit and tie covered with an expensive looking overcoat that did little to disguise his corpulence. He was carrying a briefcase that he kept shifting from hand to hand because of its weight. And since he happened to be standing right beside me, I noticed he was glaring at the old man who was now sitting quietly with his eyes closed.

Suddenly the man with the suit started to mumble and knocked his leg into the old man. “In this country,” he whispered loudly, “men give up their seats to women.” I could see he was beginning to become angry. “Not the other way around!” he added, loudly.

The old man, clearly intimidated, opened his eyes wide.

“Why is it you think you can come over here and act like you’re still over there?” The man was yelling now. “We do things differently here, old man!”

The old man squirmed uncomfortably, uncertain how to react. People around him stared nervously at their laps, or out of the window, hoping the man would stop. Nobody had yet decided what they should do, although they were obviously uneasy.

“And what’s in that bag…?” he said, reaching out to grab it.

The old man gathered it closer to his waist and I could see he was terrified. The only thing I could think of in the situation was to offer him my gloves, so I stepped between the two of them. “I noticed you looked cold,” I said, and handed him my old leather gloves although the crowded bus was really quite warm.

His eyes met mine and I could see he understood. “Thank you,” he said, accepting them with a smile so wide that it once again untucked his beard from inside his coat. “My daughter told me to dress warmly, but I forgot about gloves…” He peeked under my extended arm at the furious face of the man with the suit.

“I said what’s in the bag, old man!” The man was just not giving up. But by now, a couple of younger men in the aisle were staring threateningly at him.

“What’s in your briefcase, mister?” one of them said with a sneer.

But the little man merely attacked him with his eyes. “Well, it’s not a bomb!” He almost spat the last word out for maximal effect. He nodded his head at the old man, who was busy examining my gloves. “Don’t you read the news reports?” He yelled, as if that was evidence enough to validate his suspicions.

The young man moved closer to the briefcase and leered at him. “Yeah,” he said, his nose almost touching the abuser. “And I read what life was like for them over there…” He turned to his friend who was equally angry. “I think all of us in this bus would feel safer if you got off at the next stop, mister!” And he bumped aggressively into the man.

Fortunately, it was a popular stop, so a lot of people got off as well as the man in the suit. And as they left, most smiled at the old man or touched his leg in an embarrassed apology. A seat became available beside him, so I sat down.

He immediately clasped his hands over mine and bowed. “Thank you sir,” he said in a soft, heavily accented voice. “I didn’t know what to do…” He took a deep breath and looked at me. “I’ve never been in a crowded bus like this before. My daughter warned me… She wanted to pick me up from the hospital, but she got called in to work this morning.” He took my gloves off and gently laid them in my lap. “She told me she’d pay for a taxi, but I decided to take the bus.

“You know, I’m glad I did,” he said, smiling warmly and clasping my hands again. “It made me realize just how kind people are in this country I chose…”

He said it so sincerely, I almost blushed.

Freedom comes in many flavours

Freedom comes in many flavours, but in order to taste any one of them, you have to know whether it is freedom from, or freedom to. There is a difference. Take Retirement, for example -‘Freedom 65’ as it’s sometimes called is something we hear about all the time. The implication is that you’ve survived 65 years, say, of what –Hell? Punishment? Imprisonment…? – and have finally been released from it. But for those who have lived their lives in a cage, sudden expulsion, might well be a form of exile –expatriation in one’s own country.

So I’m not really sure, despite the choices –the flavours– what the freedom of Retirement entails, exactly. Shakespeare put it a clever way: ‘Though age from folly could not give me freedom, It does from childishness.’ Well, perhaps, but I have to say, I am more inclined to the view of A.D. Foster, the American writer: ‘Freedom is just chaos, with better lighting.’

I have always wanted to ride buses –not to exotic places, you understand, but just through the city. Unfortunately, the constraints of my work and its unusual hours did not allow it. So freedom, for me at least, has been the bus. I don’t travel to arrive, usually; I travel to see. To hear. To submerge myself in a world I have never known, with people I have never met, nor likely ever will again.

It is a world I have come to enjoy but which like any culture, has its rules and customs that are derogated at the risk of civil but nonetheless obvious censure: loud whispers, and faces wrinkled with ill-disguised irritation; raptor eyes, only barely leashed. It can be a dark country, the bus –the best of times, the worst of times. And yet, for me, the often silent witness, it has been an interactive movie.

I was on a journey to nowhere in particular the other day and happened to be sitting behind a studious looking middle-aged woman with a folder of papers open on her lap. She was flipping pages noisily and writing on them as the mood struck. I have to admit that I was only mildly curious, although I admired her ability to work on a crowded bus that swerved and braked its way through rush hour traffic. As I watched people accumulate in the aisles during the innumerable stops, I quickly lost interest in her –until, that is, she erupted in a truly theatrical shrug, reached into her briefcase and extracted some earbuds. To her credit, I suppose, she kept the volume down so what leaked out contained only the rhythm section. But what I hadn’t noticed before was her metallic heels. Who wears metal heels nowadays? Anyway, one of them managed to find one of the large bolts that held her seat to the floor and proceeded to tap on it like a woodpecker on a tree. That was annoying, but her obviously off-tune humming coupled with the incessant, silly bobbing of her head began to dissipate the background cloud of conversation enveloping our immediate neighbourhood.

The worst was the humming. It was a noise that shifted both randomly and indiscriminately between almost-words and almost-melody, capturing neither sufficiently well to satisfy the unwilling audience. Soon, heads began to turn and eyes narrow –but cannily. Carefully –not willing to give offence.

Then, the first eyes rolled –they belonged to a backpack-wearing man standing beside her in the aisle. They glanced around at other fellow eyes, flitting from face to face seeking solace and acknowledgment at first and then, quickly, permission. Little  retributive justice is meted out on a bus without some sort of consensus. Slowly, after an almost imperceptible nod, he swung the backpack accidentally into her shoulder –a camouflaged request, disguised as an accident, disguising a warning.

She looked up at the man, made a rude face, and retreated into her private inharmonious, inner concert. He, in turn, feigned an apology and smiled. But he might as well have been a ship passing in her night. The clicking of her heels became louder and the humming more insistent. She had, however, replaced the papers in her briefcase, the better to concentrate on her music. It was, and was seen as, a rejection of his attempts to broker a ceasefire.

The man looked around for further sustenance, feeding off those around him like a bear on berries. It was a snub that called for retaliation, but he realized that a backpack nudging a shoulder once is an accident, twice is a provocation. He would have to be cautious. He would have to pick his next opportunity carefully.

He waited until the next rapid deceleration and pretended to lose his balance and fall into one of the tiny earbud wires with an outstretched hand, tearing them both gently but firmly from her ears. This, of course, dislodged the iPhone from her lap to which the common wire had been connected. The phone went skittering under the seats as the bus came to a stop, but before the woman could register her outrage, he immediately offered his surprised and rather maudlin apologies.

The other nearby passengers, trying not to show too much relief, tut-tutted their commiserations and solicited help to find the phone from the seats ahead of her. Lazy eyes inspected the floors, and slow hands reached under their seats.

Eventually the phone was found and passed back to her with compassionate smiles while knowing eyes foraged among the complicit strangers. The woman, for her part, struck up a conversation with her assailant and when the phone arrived, mercifully stored both it and the buds in her briefcase. And laughter reigned and smiles opened like flowers on all the faces near her. And everybody probably lived happily ever after.

I don’t know if this was one small step for Man on the journey to universal peace, or whether buses around the world will ever hear of it; I doubt that the incident will be commemorated in song, and I would be surprised if my grandchildren will be encouraged to draw pictures of it for their fridge doors at home, but I will remember it as yet another doorway for a world to which I am now privy with my new-found freedom. My freedom to.