A World Without People

Yesterday, when I left school, I wanted to live in a world without people in it for just a little while.

My classes that morning had gone well – my Child Studies students just finished reading the first Harry Potter book, and we talked about why most of them loved it, and I asked them to make lists of books they’ve read and loved, and why they loved them.  I sometimes make sweeping statements about how “young people don’t read,” and this exercise always reminds me that I’m wrong, and it cheers me.

Nevertheless, there were, as usual, irritations.  One young man laughed uproariously when he got his last assignment back; he explained to his friends, well within my earshot, that he hadn’t read the book and his 90% was “ridiculous.”  Other students talked at inappropriate times and looked amused when I waited with thin tolerance for them to stop.

So, regardless of the fact that everyone else clearly enjoyed the lesson and participated enthusiastically in making lists, discussing with partners and sharing with the class, I headed for the metro feeling that people, especially young people, suck.

I was heading downtown to buy a birthday present for The Fiancé.  Downtown, and the trains downtown, are filled with people, and people were the last thing I wanted to deal with, but there was nothing to be done.  I managed to score an isolated corner seat, and this made me feel better.

A young man in a red Adidas track suit, white headphones dangling from his zirconia-studded ears, hair rigid with gel on top of his rhythmically bobbing head, slid into the seat opposite me.  He was CEGEP-student age – in fact, it was more than likely that he was coming from my school, and he was the last thing I wanted to see right now.

The solution?  One of the “TED talk” videos on my iPod.  I keep them for emergencies, for days when I have to be out in the world but want to be inside a cocoon.

I allowed myself to sink into Michael Shermer’s talk about how people are idiots.  I soon began to smile, and probably even laughed out loud.  When it came time to push my way out of the train, I barely registered the fact that people were cramming their way in without waiting for others to exit, something that usually makes me furious.

Ten minutes later, standing at the counter of the clinic where I planned to buy The Fiancé a coupon for a therapeutic massage (because he also has days when the world is too much), I realized that I no longer had my purse.  Hiding inside my “TED talk” cocoon, far away from the real world, I had left my purse on the train.

*

I ran back to the metro.  Standing by the turnstiles were three burly Montreal police officers: white, bald-headed, further thickened by their armoured vests and various deadly accoutrements.  They were consulting, and, as I approached, one said a businesslike “Ok, let’s go,” in the inflected way that the Québecois make “Ok, let’s go” a French expression.  They clearly had  somewhere to be, but when they saw me, they stopped and gave me their full attention.

“Yes?” the biggest one said.

Now, this is unusual.  The metro is outside an Anglophone college (not mine), so perhaps they were right to assume that I was an English speaker, but I would have been fully prepared to discuss the matter in French, and police officers I’ve dealt with in Montreal have been fairly adamant about doing so.  These men didn’t seem to be adamant about anything except making sure I was all right.

I explained the situation, and they outlined without delay what I needed to do: find someone who can let you into your house (my keys were gone), call to cancel your credit and bank cards, go to the nearest police station and file a report, then go to the lost and found at the central metro station tomorrow morning, because you never know.  Then they escorted me through the turnstiles so I could get back on the train (my metro pass was gone) and the biggest officer put a hand on my shoulder and said, “It could be worse.  It’s not the end of the world.  Good luck.”

*

Thus followed three very unpleasant hours.  My neighbour, who has copies of our keys, wasn’t home.  I walked a few blocks to the home of a friend who usually has our keys, but he couldn’t find them and then had a vague memory of returning them to The Fiancé the last time he came to visit us.  I called a third friend, and she had our keys, but when I arrived at her door, I realized that I had forgotten to ask for her new door code, and so I couldn’t get into her building; finally, a nearby boutique let me use their phone to call her.  All in all, it was an hour before I could get into my house.

Then I called the credit card company and the bank, had a long discussion about whether I should put a stop on all cheques (my chequebook was in my bag – but no, the landlord has postdated cheques that would be blocked), and went around the corner to the police station, where I filed the requisite report but was told that there was little I could do about identity fraud if someone tried to use my passport or social insurance number for nefarious purposes.  And then I went home to wait for The Fiancé.

Between the tasks that needed doing and the numbness that was probably due to shock, I managed to hold it together until he walked through the door.

He made me change out of my work clothes and lie down on the couch.  He covered me with a blanket and ordered us a pizza for dinner.  He headed out to the bank to get me some cash to carry with me the following day.  He made me watch some stupid show he hates on the Food Network instead of allowing me to persuade him to watch the hockey game.

And then the phone rang.  It was someone we had contacted about officiating at our wedding; she was calling to ask some questions and arrange for us to meet her.  We had quite a long conversation.  She was a British woman with a calm voice, and I found myself growing quieter and quieter as we spoke.  I’m getting married, I thought, and this nice lady is going to marry us.  As the police officer said, things could be much worse.

And when I hung up, I checked the dial tone, and it was beeping to indicate a message.

“Hello?  I am wondering if you know Miss Siobhan Curious.” The voice was young, and male, and hesitant, with an accent that sounded vaguely Middle Eastern.  “I am looking for this lady, because I found her bag on the metro.”

*

When I called back, the young man’s mother answered the phone.  “Yes, yes!” she cried in French.  “It is my boy who called you, he found your bag!”  And she passed the phone to him.

“Hello?”  He was clearly a teenager; even his “hello” sounded like it didn’t know itself yet.

My thanks were effusive, maybe slightly hysterical.  When I was able to draw breath, I said, “I’m sorry.  What is your name, please?”

“Reza,” he said.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you so much.”

He asked if I could come to a metro station the next afternoon, so he could meet me on his way to school and give me my bag.  “Of course,” I said.  “How will I know you?”

“Well, I know how you look,” he said.

“Oh, of course you do, you have my ID cards!  I didn’t think of that.”

“Yes,” he said, “but I saw you on the train.  I sat across from you.  I saw you get up and leave your bag.”

And then I could see him clearly.  Red Adidas track suit.  Zirconias in his ears.  Dangling headphones.  Stiff, gelled hair.  Exactly the kind of young person I hadn’t wanted to be looking at while I made my way downtown.

“Reza,” I said.  “Thank you.  You have made me very happy.”

Image by Brano Hudak

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12 responses

  1. Aaaaugh! I know exactly what you were going through. Yesterday I showed my students a TED talk by Sam Harris called, “Science Can Answer Moral Questions,” and got nothing back. Nothing. (Ever fantasized about just stopping the class right in the middle and telling everyone to go home?) But the kids are alright. They’ll care when they’re a little older, I guess, and maybe then something you said will hit them like a thunderbolt from Hera. I shudder to think what I was like as an undergrad… And it sounds like losing your purse was a positive experience, at least regarding the roles of the wonderful fiance, police officers, British friend, and boy on the train. People are really something.

  2. Thanks to all of you. Sometimes the stories write themselves – this one was both harrowing and wonderful to live through. I am off to get my purse from Reza in a few minutes, so if all goes well, there will be a further happy ending…

  3. This was a great post to read today. I’m so happy your got your purse back; I’m glad Reza was such a nice person, tickled that you have such a wonderful fiance. Your happiness makes me happy today!

  4. Thank you so much for this post. Maybe I’m just feeling emotional today, but it reduced me to tears. Hope you are feeling better and am glad Reza came up trumps.
    PS Glad the woman marrying you is British!

  5. As always, Siobhan your writing is fabulous. I love the insights you share, and can completely relate. Even here, on Vancouver Island, working by myself in my lil’ cocoon, I still have days where I wish there was no one around. I then flip the coin and want to be surrounded by strangers on the underground in a huge city… that grass…it’s always greener.

    Thank goodness for the Reza’s of the world, and the Siobhan’s to share the story.

  6. Thanks, OKP, Sarah and Victoria! Sarah, I’m sorry I made you cry, but I’m glad you were as touched by reading it as I was by living it. Victoria, I suffer from the curse of being a misanthrope who suffers from terrible loneliness…there’s no way to win. And OKP, I’m glad to share my happiness with you!

  7. Thank you, siobhan. Lovely story. A misanthrope myself so often, I wonder what attracts so many of us to teach. Perhaps we are looking for stories like these.

    • That might be a good assessment, Dale.

      I recently heard a medical researcher discussing how she never interacts with patients, and rarely with doctors or other researchers – often it’s just her and a bunch of Petri dishes and Bunsen burners…I was consumed with jealousy. But Petri dishes and Bunsen burners don’t make for good blog material, I don’t think…

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