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Blues with a Feeling…

September 8, 2014

Today, while I was coming back downtown on the subway, after visiting with a friend 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.

For those of you who don’t know Toronto, the Yonge subway line ends at Finch station – the end of the line – and so for the 30 or so it would take to get to my next stop I had settled into my book – the way one does when they have 30 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, into 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. 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 day she made her discovery. 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 print 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 in the OISE library, and 2) visiting the CAMH building at College and Spadina.)

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’s circa 1970’s jazz movies about 1950’s jazz hipsters. A Harlem Jazz Club comes to mind. The Cotton Club. The Apollo. I see too that the man is wearing a knee-length tweed over-coat. Also circa 1970’s. And a beautiful tan colored 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 and winks mischievously. I smile back.

It was the acknowledgement he was looking for, and so he begins to play some blues.

He knows 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 and sit down 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.

But then 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. Just like that. It is over.

…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 potential tornado weather. It could feel like 40C. Ominous.

Today I met the Bluesman. Tomorrow thunderstorms melting heat and possible tornadoes.

As I walk along the platform and down the stairs to catch the eastbound Danforth Line to Broadview, I can’t help feel that I’m a character in someone else’s narrative.


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