An Encounter with the Unextraordinary: The Man at the Subway

Every day, I take the subway to work. My uncle and I park in an underground garage at Yorkdale shopping mall and walk through a short series of tunnels to get to the train which takes us the rest of the way. The temperature isn’t regulated in most sections of these tunnels, making it chilly there in the morning but stifling hot on the walk back to the car after work.

Everyday, especially in the afternoon, there are panhandlers and street musicians in those tunnels. They’re always men and they’re always playing a tune or holding a sign or doing something – anything – to get the attention of passersby. They’re all usually the same guys and, more often than not, they’re in high spirits.

Suits, briefcases and freshly shined shoes rush past these street musicians and panhandlers. Even though I’ve seen the scattered small change in their open guitar and saxophone cases – in their torn up Tim Horton’s coffee cups and hats – I’ve never myself seen anyone drop a bit of their change. Everyone just hurries forward as the change in their pocket jingles sharply against their car keys. Still, the tunnels are filled with the sound of undeterred street music while underneath it all, there’s a soft clicking of heels against the tile.

One afternoon, I noticed there was man there; not one of the usual players or panhandlers but someone I hadn’t seen there before. He was a younger man sitting at the top of the stairs at the street entrance to the subway. He was wearing a hoodie and jeans sitting on the floor with an empty paper cup in front of him. On the ground beside him was a cardboard sign with a few words written in thick black marker. “Please help. I’m sorry about this.” I didn’t get a good look at his face since he was staring at the ground. He didn’t make eye contact with anyone or move his head. He didn’t bother holding the sign.

This might have been an act, no different than the ones put on by the street musicians and the desperate pleas of most other panhandlers. Maybe it was a more subtle way of grabbing the attention of everyone who walked by. But maybe it wasn’t. There was something sad about the whole situation that I picked up without even knowing what the situation was. The man was ashamed and apologetic rather than abrasive and grateful. There was an authenticity in the sense of pity he evoked. I think like most panhandlers, this was not somewhere he wanted to find himself but unlike most others, he did not feel the urge to fight his way out of his situation. He didn’t want to confront anyone else in some desperate hope of correcting whatever had led him to that spot he was now sitting in. He wasn’t like the musicians that played there everyday – he needed to be there.

He had resigned himself to the goodwill of others, hoping they would notice his condition without him having to showcase it. But it didn’t seem he was doing this out of some noble worry that he might be bothering someone; it wasn’t that he thought he would be okay even if most people didn’t notice him. If that were the case, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been there. He really needed help but he was too embarrassed to ask for it. From the outside, it had seemed like he’d given up.

The first time I saw him, I almost walked past him along with the rest of the crowd in the tunnel. After I took four or five steps I stopped and suddenly felt the urge to give him something after noticing all that I’ve just described to you. After all, I usually have change in my pocket and that day wasn’t any different. I stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, thinking it would seem weird for me to turn around and drop some change in his cup. I didn’t, I just kept going. I was hoping I would see him there the next day. My uncle was waiting for me when I got to the entrance of the garage.

The next afternoon he was there again. I forgot about him during the day and spent my change on some breakfast in the morning. He was sitting the same way he was the day before except this time he had a few dollars in his cup and a bright red apple and a granola bar set down beside him. I never talked to him. I also have no idea where he went the next day.

I didn’t see him again after that. But after a week, I wonder what happened to him. I don’t know if he’s any different than anyone else I’ve ever seen in those tunnels and I won’t ever know. The more I think about it, the more it seems ridiculous to think he’s somehow special. Why should he be any more important or worthy of attention than anyone else? After all, it’s this kind of attention he seemed to be avoiding. This might just be an over-ambitious attempt to find the awesome in the average but no matter how uninteresting, I know there’s a story there.

Even though I wish I could talk to him, he won’t be there this afternoon. Once I get off the train, I’ll hurry by the street musicians and panhandlers the same way I do everyday just like all the other business-people with change jingling in their pockets.

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An Encounter with the Unextraordinary: The Man at the Subway