I have been commuting to work (in Midtown Toronto) for exactly two weeks now, and each and every time I find myself on the TTC subway, the same Ezra Pound poem, titled In a Station of the Metro, comes to mind:
“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.”
I had an English teacher in Grade 12 who pulled up this poem during our poetry unit and she talked about how Pound meant to capture how fleeting the glimpses of the faces in the subway were, as each train rushed by him on the platform. I didn’t understand what the poem meant at the time, but now it is all coming back to me. I now think about it each time I commute. As each train comes roaring into the station, I would watch the faces in each car blur and blend together, to the point where you cannot make out the distinguishable features on each face. The eyes, mouth, nose disappear, with only a quick blur of their skin colour left, like a small splotch of paint on a canvas. Pound uses the word apparition to make the faces almost seem ghostly. As a cherry on top, the imagery of the petals against a wet black branch is referencing the dotting of each individual face against the darker background.
Commuting on public transit is something entirely new to me. Growing up, I was either driven to school, or started driving myself once I got my license. Getting caught in rush hour in public transit was also foreign to me; I wasn’t used to the masses and the lineups. Last summer was the closest thing I had to commuting — I worked 9-5 and so, was subsequently caught in the rush hour period. But even then, it was only about a 20-minute drive from me.
It’s been an interesting experience these past two weeks (if you can call waking up at 6 am to beat the traffic on the 404 and fighting to snag a seat on the TTC interesting). Every day, in the morning and then again after work, I am surrounded by individuals — young and old — on the TTC, and we are often squashed like sardines into one car. Being caught in the despairs of commuting during peak hours has shown me one thing: Everybody is always in a rush. Everybody is just rushing to get somewhere. Rushing to get to school, rushing to get to work, rushing to get to wherever Point B is for them. Rushing to rush.
I remember in my first few days of commuting, I would watch as people would run down the stairs at full speed or start speed walking, or literally running, as soon as the doors of the train opened and they stepped out onto the platform. I remember asking myself, “Why is everybody running?” But then, sooner or later, I got wrapped up in it (not the running, but the rushing). I found myself rushing to get off the car as soon as the doors opened, and I found myself taking steps two at a time. But I was never even in a rush during those times. I just did it because the commute, and the hustle and bustle of everything, made me feel like I had to rush.
Commuting has given me a peek into the “9-5” that people so commonly talk (complain) about. I see glimpses of how work seems to bog people down. Everybody is so caught up in the humdrum of work life. Everybody is tired, burnt out, and also just wishing for the commute (and the day) to come to an end already. It hasn’t been an environment with the most positive energy from my experiences.
Another word also comes to mind during my commute. Sonder. I came across the word in a blog post on Buzzfeed years ago, but it has never left me. On Wikipedia, it is defined as:
“The profound feeling of realizing that everyone, including strangers passed in the street, has a life as complex as one’s own, which they are constantly living despite one’s personal lack of awareness of it”
Sometimes, when I’m not reading or just closing my eyes, I’ll look around and briefly catch glimpses of the people in my immediate surroundings. I feel sonder when I look at them, as I realize that everybody — no matter how old they are, no matter what stage of their life they are in, and no matter where they are going — have a life just as complicated as mine. Complicated relationships, busy work lives, even busier personal lives. But you don’t see any of it. You might just see a tired face or a yawn.
The toughest part of my commute so far has been the time I feel that I’m “wasting” simply trying to get to where I want to go, which is either work or home. It’s about an hour and a bit each way, with about 30 minutes of that time each way being on the TTC. I’ve been trying to make use of the time, as it does add up each day and each week. During my drive to the station (About 30 minutes), I’ll put on a podcast. Then, on the TTC, if I manage to get a seat, I’ll read a few pages of my book. If I’m left with no seat and I’m standing, I listen to another podcast. I’ve been able to power through a lot of podcasts and 1 book in these past 2 weeks, so it hasn’t been too bad, but it still feels like time sucked out of my day.
At the end of every workday, as I’m mentally drained and physically ready to collapse into bed, I look at the faces around me — the faces sitting near me and the faces on the train that is pulling into the station — and I really do think of them being apparitions, or petals on a wet, black bough. Pound’s words almost dehumanize the individuals, and I hate to say it but I feel like that really captures the sentiment of the commute well.