Typing at Tim’s and other things you just don’t do in Carbonear
When I was trying to decide whether or not I should leave Toronto to come to Carbonear, I made a procon list. At the top of my cons list, I wrote: “Have to leave friends, family, all the important people I care about.” On top of pros, I wrote: “Get to leave people, in general.”
The decision was obvious. Here I am.
In Carbonear, it’s pretty easy to avoid all contact with “people in general.” When I’m walking or biking around town, there’s a good chance I won’t see another soul on the road. If I do, they are usually in their cars or working on their property, and there’s a safe and deliberate distance between us.
I don’t consider myself a terrible recluse, and I don’t dislike friendly conversation with the occasional unfamiliar person. I just don’t like being in constant close quarters with them. I don’t like to smell their smells. I don’t like to inhale what they exhale.
In downtown Toronto, we are constantly brushing up against strangers as we live our private lives. It’s like having too many socks in the dryer. Torontonians rumble together in a small, busy world, making and breaking static attachments as quickly as we can fall into each other. These attachments can be wonderful, full of possibilities — the stuff of romantic comedies.More often, however, they are uncomfortable, embarrassing, frustrating, or a little bit gross.
Perhaps I’m being petty, but I really hate standing on the subway and feeling some guy breath on my neck. Can’t he aim his mouth up at the ceiling? I also hate it when I’m standing up and there are upwards of seven people holding the same subway pole. A crowded subway is hot, and my hand inevitably gets sweaty, but there are no cold, dry spots on the pole where I can move it. It’s in these moments that the driver usually chooses to break suddenly. Then my sweaty hand slips off the pole and inertia sends me flying into some strange man’s lap. If I’m really unlucky, the strange man then proceeds to breathe on me.
Then there are all the conversations around you — you can’t help but overhear them. Most strangers’ conversations are banal, some are interesting, but some are really painful to witness. Once, in a bar, I overheard two men discussing the logistics of cheating on their wives. At the park, I once overheard a buxom 13-year-old tutor her young friend on “ how boys want girls to act.” My most memorable overheard conversation lasted only seconds. Getting off the subway, the man I had been silently sitting next to for over 20 minutes took out his cell phone and said: “Hey, sweetie, I’m just on my way to the doctor’s office. Yes … the stool sample is in my pocket.”
This would never happen in Carbonear. Not because people don’t do these things, but because they don’t have to do it in public.
Here, almost nothing is done in public. Carbonearians go from a confined destination, to a car, to another confined destination. Their private lives are visible only to friends, family and co-workers. Interactions with strangers, when they do occur, happen within a dignified amount of space. Packs of teenagers don’t loiter on the street; people don’t slurp up their lunches on a park bench, and no one accidentally flips their hair in your mouth at a busy crosswalk. I haven’t so much as seen a person read a book in public here.
Of course, this was liberating, for a while, until I realized how unprepared I was to live in secluded dignity.
When I first moved into my apartment back in May, my landlord forgot to tell me where residents should dispose of their garbage and recyclables. So, I did what was natural, for me. I knocked on my next-door neighbour’s door to get his advice. He looked at me like I was insane. Not for asking about recycling, although apparently that is a novel concept here, but for knocking on his door when I didn’t even know him. Almost every day I catch him on the stairs or listen to his television blaring through the thin walls, but in talking to him, I had clearly crossed some sort of line.
Then I realized there are certain things I really like to do outside, in public — like running and having a stretch in the park without cars slowing down to gawk at me. In Toronto, people trip over themselves to be as un-judgmental as possible, and parks can be full of anything from dance lessons to drum circles to 80-year old shirtless men twisting themselves into advanced yoga moves.
In Carbonear, parks are for two things: kids and historical plaques. As soon as an adult person goes into one, people just think it’s strange.
Then there is the public spectacle I miss the most about the city, coffee shop culture. Tim Hortons is great and all, but no one does anything there except drink coffee.
As an aspiring writer, I need the culture. I need to sit in a seat, take out my computer, and focus on whatever project I’m working on. I can’t focus at my apartment. It’s too easy to be distracted by dirty dishes, or the fridge, or the freedom to have a nap. There’s more to do than just write, as well. Coffee shops are the ideal place for first dates, or study groups, or just relaxing with the paper. Do people in Carbonear do all of these things in their homes? Do they never take advantage of their neutral territory?
The privacy issue is obviously a two-sided one, but since I’ll soon be back in the Toronto hustle, I’ve decided to embrace the space while I can. Here, every morning, I can get my bike out onto Saddle Hill and look proudly on the empty road that is my commute. Then I feel the salty sea air tickle my nostrils and I think, “that is fresh.”
If someone out there has B. O., I can’t smell it.