It had been another frustrating day in the lab, and I just wanted to get home. To grab a beer, drop onto the couch and watch another few episodes of Vikings of Valhalla on Netflix. A perfect segue to the weekend.
“How many times can an experiment fail, anyway,” I thought to myself as I threw on my coat and loaded my laptop into my backpack. In the world of crystallography, you could run out of liquid nitrogen in the middle of an experiment, or a machine could fail, or your measurements could be off. This week it had been a simple failure of crystallization, one in a series of frustrations in my PhD progress.
I walked down Peel Street to the metro, and took the green line west, getting off at De L’Église. Instead of the stairs, I took the escalator up towards daylight, and wandered over to the 58 on Wellington. Settling into my seat on the bus, I noticed a guy walking joltingly toward the back, half falling as he held onto the shiny yellow posts of the bus. He was clearly drunk or stoned. I groaned inwardly as he sat down beside me and turned mumblingly in my direction.
I pulled out my cell phone, and did so out of more than just mindless habit. I wanted to put up a wall. Ignore him, concentrate on your phone, and he’ll go away.
He mumbled: “How’r you?” and I stared more intensely at my texts through the crystal screen protector of my phone.
Again: “How’r you? Ya goin’ home?”
Now there was a choice to be made: Double-down on my false preoccupation or turn toward him.
I did the right thing by putting my phone down, though it’s a rare enough occurrence. Through slurred speech and conversation a real life began to emerge. He was a guy in Montreal from Fredericton, living now from shelter to shelter. Family still back east, but a brother who made some time for him here in the city.
The guy (how is it that I didn’t think to ask his name?) was trying to make his way to a shelter near LaSalle Metro, which meant of course that he was on the right bus but going in the wrong direction.
Another choice for me: Let him go and eventually figure it out on his own? Or help him off this bus and back onto another? At this point my momentum was in the direction of helpfulness, so I let it carry me along.
We got off at Bannantyne, with me helping keep him upright, and crossed to wait for the 58 going back East. Fifteen more minutes of broken conversation. When he asked what I did, I said I was a kind of scientist and he said his dad had been a high school science teacher; he himself hadn’t liked science much. Too much memorizing. Practical stuff like shop class had been more his thing.
The stuff that matters
When the bus arrived, I helped him to a seat near the front and let the driver know: “He needs to get back to LaSalle station, if you can make sure he gets off there.” The driver offered nodding, half-hearted agreement. For my part there was mostly guilt that I wasn’t going the extra mile; that I wasn’t seeing him all the way to the shelter. At least you told the driver.
Back on the 58 going west, I realized the day had been one of fits and starts; of turning around more times than I could count. Some of those fits and starts and turnings had been more consequential than others. Many of them left me annoyed and frustrated, but maybe some had left me a bit more human.
It wasn’t quite dark when I finally walked up the outside stairs of my apartment in LaSalle. I flicked on the lights, grabbed a Griffon pale ale from the fridge and dropped onto the couch.
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