A Moment in Time on a Toronto Subway

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I look up after 20 minutes of sitting on the subway with my nose buried in my iTouch. And I’m surprised at what I see. To me, it’s a slice of the Toronto I remember, and it simultaneously warms my heart and makes me giggle.

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

After just a few weeks back in Toronto, I’ve noticed a few trends, one of which is the opulence of iPhones and similar devices on the subway. Most – if not all – passengers are glued to some sort of device – a phone, a tablet, a smartphone, MP3 player, etc. The lady on my left is sending a text message. The guy to my right is scrolling through his music collection. Across from me is a couple watching a video, and somebody else checking their emails.

Everybody has one. The peer pressure is palpable.

Lucky for me, I have one too. And although I was initially skeptical about how I’d incorporate an iTouch into my routine, I’ve done so and continue to push my boundaries by attempting to go “paperless”.

Back to my ride on the Toronto subway. Today, like so many other passengers, I’m mesmerized by my own device, watching some inspirational TED talks that I’ve downloaded.

When I look up, I’m surprised to see two people talking across from me. I can tell they’re strangers; you wouldn’t expect to see these two keeping company.

The woman is plump and dark-skinned, wearing an orange wig that couldn’t possibly be assumed to be natural. I figure she’s in her early 20’s, and I wonder why she’s wearing such huge fake eyelashes at two o’clock in the afternoon.

Her unlikely conversation partner is a lanky elderly oriental man, wearing clothes that he’s likely worn for the last 20 years but maintained as lovingly as possible. He has a broad cheeky smile and a thick accent.

There is one thing they both have in common: bags. Lots and lots of bags. His are filled with groceries and knick-knacks, and hers appear to be from clothing and accessory stores.

“You got iPhone?” he says to her in what I assume is the middle of an involved conversation about such technology.

“No,” she replies as she produces an iPhone-looking device. “But I have this, which is almost the same. It even looks like an iPhone.”

They go on to discuss price and features at some length. I watch as he asks her a series of simple questions, followed by a pause and thoughtful batting of eyelashes while she considers the question and gives him a patient answer. I keep looking for a sign of impatience or lack of interest on her part for being pestered with such questions, but all signs point to her generally tolerating – if not downright enjoying – the conversation.

“You have music on that?” he asks.

She nods.

“You like Bob Marley? I think you like Bob Marley.”

A flickr of a bemused smile floats across her face as she bats her eyelashes with a polite “No, I don’t usually listen to Bob Marley.”

“Oh. I do. I like Bobby,” he says in a vain attempt to appear hip and find more common ground with his subway seatmate.

I meet eyes with the woman, who can see that I’ve been eavesdropping on their conversation. With a mutual smile and understanding wink, I leave the train and wonder how much longer these two will carry on their chat, how it will end, and what will come of it.

The last time I rode the Toronto subway two years ago, I had a great conversation with an Indian lady who invited me to stay with her family in India.

This time around, I’ve noticed sadly that the increased abundance of iPhones and similar devices has shut people up and drawn them into their own worlds. Which is why it’s so refreshing to see a couple of strangers with such diverse backgrounds conversing and relating and having fun.

That’s the Toronto I missed.

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6 thoughts on “A Moment in Time on a Toronto Subway”

  1. That’s exactly how I felt when I road the subway for the first time in 11 months about 1 month ago. It was crazy how everyone is just so into their own world of technology. It makes me sad. However, there are some really interesting people on the Toronto subways that I’ve either just watched or spoke to. I love just talking to random people, ESPECIALLY if they are on their phone. They need to be brought back to reality.

  2. @Kate – Indeed, it’s an interesting technique for avoiding unwanted contacts…I hadn’t really thought of it that way!

    @Kristen – Sometimes just watching people who are all in their own little worlds can be illuminating enough. They’re usually too distracted to mind being stared at! 🙂

  3. I dunno. I’m not that saddened by the lack of interaction on buses and subways. How often is anyone really bold enough to get a phone number or email address to keep in touch with someone they meet there?

    That’s what the internet is for. Yes people on the internet tend to congregate with people who already have very similar interests, but one or two shared interests doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot to learn from each other. The upside to internet communication is that we almost always have an easy way to stay in touch with that person we find interesting.

    People are always so fast to make the internet and technology the end of personal communication, but I find that if you keep an open mind about what a quality interaction is then you’ll find that you just might have better relationships with people online sometimes.

    Oh, and of course this isn’t directed at you personally, Nora. I’ve just seen a lot of lamenting lately over the lack of “real” personal interaction. I know you are a more open and intelligent person than most of those ranters.

    Great thought provoking post. Thank you.

  4. I was on call for my job for 20 years, using bleeps and mobile phones that robbed me of freedom, sometimes for good reason, often on someone’s whim. Since retiring I have relished being unavailable. I turn on my mobile phone when I want to make a phone call or when I’ve agreed to be available for a specific occasion. I’m too old to have that peer pressure you mention. I see people sitting, walking, running, cycling, driving (!) all plugged into their devices. It looks like an addiction, a semi-life of distraction, but then I suppose that’s just the sort of thing old people say about the young. I prefer the stimulous of my own thoughts. My device of choice is a camera, the use of which requires me to pay attention to my surroundings. Present mindfulness makes me feel more alive, more awake. Perhaps one has to be 50-something to appreciate that.

  5. @Robert – I agree; the face of communication is changing, and needn’t be the terrible thing that some people claim it to be. Like you say – it’s the people for whom the internet is the beginning and end of their communication that are losing out. But as a way to augment communication; I’m all for social media, internet, etc. Heck – I make my living with it, I meet all sorts of likeminded people with it, and I keep in touch with family and friends with it: I can’t complain!

    @Shelley – The very thought of being completely disconnected is terrifying for some people, I think! But for the most part, I’d like to think people have some sort of balance to their device-driven worlds. To listen to some favourite tunes on the subway isn’t a faux-pas….but to exclude the outside world in entirety for it; that’s a shame.


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