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The Man in the Train

I decided this morning to finally commit this story unto the ages. I have told myself sporadically and constantly that I would tell this story. I told myself I would do it a month, no six months, no a year after the event. But I prolonged it far too long. I apologize only to myself for being such a damn fool. The details in this story are one hundred percent true; the fact that I can still recall it and that it has left such a powerful impression on my mind should attest to that.

In March of 2003 I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Montréal, Canada for a week during my spring break. I decided before booking the plane tickets to Montreal that I would try and take a train to Ottawa to see my friend . On March 19th my uncle drove me to the Via Rail train station at Dorval, a small city off-shoot of Montréal. I remember this day because the evening I returned home, America had begun it's shock and awe campaign on Iraq, and I thought to myself that that was a horrible way to end my perfect day.

So I am at Dorval and it is 8 in the morning and my uncle has left because he had to go to work. And I am waiting at the station and unaccustomed but appreciating the cold when the train finally comes. I sit in the aisle, across from the window. In case you haven’t ridden a train (which is a terribly shame since they’re the best way to get anywhere), there are two seats, and directly opposite them are two seats facing the first two; meaning four reasonably sized people could all be facing each other and having a conversation.

I sat down at the train in Dorval and hoped no one would sit next to me. I was terribly nervous and wondering if vagabonds would attack me the moment I stepped into Ottawa. Unfortunately an Asian business man sat on the double-seats directly opposite of me. Fortunately he was very quiet and fell asleep. For the record, the area between Montréal and Ottawa is very boring: nothing but snow and electric poles and snow over and over.

Now, for the story. The train stopped off at Alexandria, I think – I can’t find my old train tickets – but it’s not really important where it stopped off. The important thing is that this balding middle-aged man with awkward, bulging eyes was coming down the aisle. As he was coming down he kept twisting his head left and right; I thought he looked exactly like a pigeon, what with the plump face and all. The whole time I was wondering what would happen if he sat next to me. He was one of those, you know the type, you can just feel that they’re going to start a conversation about the most ridiculous things. The last thing I wanted at nine in the morning in a tundra was to have some guy start asking me about all my personal affairs.

Of course, he sat next to me.

Needless to say he started off very much as I dreaded, asked me where I was going, and oh California was terribly far, but yes the cold is interesting, and what I was doing, and why and when and et cetera. I will say this, I loved his accent. He was one of those true cannucks, with an “eh?” following every other sentence: “Oh visiting in Montréal eh? I’ve a friend from there who’s oot and aboot most of the time. Maybe your folks know him eh?” So I asked him what he was doing, going from point Nowhere to Ottawa, and he said he was going to his job:

“Oh, where do you work?” “At a mental hoospital as a volunteer orderly.” “Oh, that must be difficult. Volunteer orderly, why that?”

Apparently it came to pass like this. Years ago this gentleman used to be in a delivery service. One day he and his two buddies were driving home from work when their truck slid off the icy road and tumbled down a hill. One man died, another received serious brain damage, and he himself blacked out. When he came to, a piece of his brain was removed (he pushed the mushy spot to prove it), and his eye sight was distorted. His vision was permanently damaged; he could only see at what I understand to be ninety degree angles. Around this time the Asian business man woke up and he explained his problem: he could look straight ahead and see me, but not the businessman; and he could turn left and look straight at me and see the businessman but not me. The businessman gruffled and fell back asleep; I was amazed.

“Well what happened next?”

Once he was released from the hospital, he told me he got into a couple of jobs before arriving at the mental hospital. The first was a government job involving minor labor. He was bored stiff; he realized several months later that he was one of three members labeled as “handicapped,” and his presence was only necessary to have the higher-ups tell their higher-ups “Look! We’ve hired three disabled workers and we need more money to help facilitate their needs!” Of course, since his problem wasn’t dreadfully serious (and neither were the other two), none of those handicapped workers saw any needs “facilitated.” He quit, and tried to convince the others to leave too; but they were lazy and content with sitting on crates all day long (this is my editorial opinion, not his).

He decided to sign up for disability shortly after that. The money coming in wasn’t enough, though (he wasn’t greedy, he had massive medical bills), so he picked up work at a shipping job. That was tough. Long hours and much manual labor, even though he was one of, again, “the disabled workers.” This story was a bit more tragic. He was doing his work fantastically well, and the other workers, the non-handicapped ones, grew bitter and jealous. They complained to their managers that, look, this handicapped man is upstaging us! This cripple is doing our job better than we are, and we don’t like it. Somehow, the managers convinced him to leave, but promised that they’d provide him a pension that on paper made it look like he was still working there, even though he didn’t have to show up. He chose to accept inactivity rather than upsetting a whole slew of hard-working shippers.

“Then, the mental hospital? What do you do there?” “Every day I take this train from Alexandria to Ohttahwa and buy dohnuts.” “Donuts?” “Yes, dohnuts. Dohnuts for the patients.”

And that was that, just as he said. He gets up, takes a ninety minute train to Ottawa, and buys donuts for the mental health patients, “because hoospital food is horrible, eh? And they think the mentally ill can’t tell the difference. Let me tell you: they cahn, eh?” I recall he also told me he also goes home in the evening and takes care of his widow neighbor’s children while she’s off to work: “Those kids are great and well-behaved, and, well, I love her, I think.” I hope they’re very happy now.

I can’t really express how mind-blowingly amazing this man is, to do something so simple when he could have very easily just rested at home or taken up a hobby or some such. He had gone through such shit, you know, and he wasn’t upset or angry or vengeful in the least. Maybe those times came, but now, he was past that. And even though he was doing this completely ridiculously simple task of bringing donuts to patients, he had this immense feeling of self-worth and satisfaction. He told me he wasn’t exactly thrilled he lost his functioning vision, but he wasn’t going to sit around and fucking mope about it all day, He liked the look in the patients’ eyes, they were pleased, and you could probably tell it was a great thing for the patients to have happen to them everyday; the expected him, the nurses told the man so, that they had to calm down the patients because they were wondering where the donuts were. I’ve been with mentally ill people (another story for another day, perhaps), not on a long-term basis as perhaps this man, but you can tell that the simplest action brings about this enormous joy, and it’s just a shame that the hospitals can’t attend to each person individually or perform services that would be really beneficial but look! here is a man who has taken it upon himself to be that simple philanthropist, and he’s not out donating millions of dollars or saving children from burning buses, but he’s bringing fucking donuts to mental hospital patients.

Sometimes I wish I knew his name, but it’s better that he just represents the collective and anonymous good that remains of this world.</lj>