Playing the Blues on the TTC
Today, while I was coming home from working up in North York – Yonge and Finch is a desolate and evil place if ever there was one – while I was coming home on the subway, a wonderful thing occurred.
I had to come back down from all the way up at Finch – the end of the line – and so I had settled into my book – the way one does when they have thirty minutes of uninterrupted time in front of them. I had fallen into a well of words. I had moved through time and space and into another story, another narrative, another universe.
It was the spring of 1941, and I was in New York City. America had not yet declared war on Japan or Germany, but everyone knew it was coming any day now. A German U-boat had just sunk the Ark of Miriam, an unarmed mid-sized ocean liner headed for New York and carrying in its cargo more than three hundred orphaned Jewish children. The ship was to have left days earlier but the US State Department had initially refused the children visas – being filthy Jews and all – but Eleanor Roosevelt had become outraged when she found this out – and had visas produced the very next day. And Sam Clay and Josef Kavalier – around whom these events are happening (and for whom the book is titled) – are the hottest comic book writers in the hottest new medium in America.
Like I said, I was in a deep well, a trance – I felt no subway – no time – no space – only moving – movement – when I heard the faint – single-note bleat – a chirp really – of a harmonica.
“A harmonica!?”, I say to myself as I come out of my fog and look around. “Who would dare pull out such a thing on the subway?” – refocusing my attention on the blank-stared drooling world around me. (P.S. The Toronto Subway System – both as a thing, and as an activity – is truly one of the dullest places I have ever seen in all my travels in all the world. Only two things come to mind that can compare with this sheer level of pathos: 1) studying at OISE, and 2) visiting the CAMH building at College and Spadina. I think its worth noting that of these two dullest buildings in Toronto, one is a teacher’s college and the other the foremost institute in Canada concerned with our deteriorating mental health.)
And then I heard it again. I quickly hone in on a caramel fedora. With a liquid-brown silk band. A perfect crease. Expensive looking. Well kept. It looks like its from a 1970’s jazz movie about 1950’s hipsters. A Harlem Jazz Club comes to mind. The Cotton Club. The Apollo. I see too that he is wearing a knee-length tweed over-coat. Also circa 1970’s. And a suit from the 1950’s. Starched collar. Perfect knot. Creases in the pant legs. Argyle socks. The man looks like he is about 65 or 70 years old. He smiles at me. I smile back.
It was all the acknowledgement he was looking for, and so he begins to play some blues.
He know’s his blues. He blows a good harmonica. I once saw a man play like this on a street corner in Memphis.
“Little Walter”, I say to him. “Blues with a feeling.”
He stops playing and smiles. “A man who knows the blues” he says to me.
“Just happened to know it”, I say. I have a sudden urge to show off: “He’s been compared to Charlie Parker and Jimi Hendrix.”
“Don’t I know it”, the man says. And with that he starts another song, more animated this time. “Hoochie Coochie man”, I say smiling. “Muddy Waters.”
“The King of the Blues” he says to me through a big grin, in between bars.
A couple of young guys come over to listen and somehow the conversation turns to Led Zepplin and Deep Purple. A little four-year-old boy watches from his mother’s arms – all wide-eyed and amazed.
I notice that the bluesman is wearing the softest looking pair of leather shoes I have ever seen. And then he just starts riffing on his harmonica. Apparently he was doing some Zepplin. The young men recognize the song. I don’t.
But the Bloor Street Stop comes up, and we all have to stand up and disembark into that great subway intersection at Yonge and Bloor and everyone melts into the crowd…and is gone.
…I guess these days we’d call that a flashmob moment. A “Flashmob of Happiness”. (I wonder if Douglas Coupland has already coined the phrase.)
I smirk to myself at the thought and look up above the subway platform and see on the television screen that it is to get unusually hot and sticky tomorrow. With thunderstorms and warnings of some early-spring tornado weather. It could feel as hot as 28C. A visit from July in the middle of May. Ominous.
I interviewed for a new job yesterday.
Today I meet the Bluesman.
Tomorrow thunderstorms and possible tornadoes.
It’s Stranger Than Fiction, and as I walk along the platform and down the stairs to catch the eastbound Danforth Line to Broadview, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m a character in someone else’s narrative.