The old woman with the walking stick had a weathered look. She and I had been the only two passengers on the 354, all the way from St. Anne. At 4:30am an empty bus is not unusual. That’s when I leave for work. I am a regular but I hadn’t seen her before.
I wondered what compelled her to make the trip so early in the morning. “Must be a nanny, catching an early shift,” I surmised. She’s a Phillipino. QED – stereotyped with the flick of an eyelid. For all I knew she might have been a McGill Professor, early because she was going to chair a seminar on space medicine that afternoon.
At the Atwater Terminus, she waited for the bus to come to a complete stop, before she clutched the stick with both hands for leverage and rose unsteadily. At the doorway, the gap between the edge of the running board and the sidewalk was wide, filled with a dirty grunge of slush and melting snow. She hesitated. I glanced at the driver who recognized the problem and activated the hydraulic platform that extended and slid onto the sidewalk. The hydraulic platform is used for folks on wheel chairs.
The woman turned to the driver and smiled a wan smile, forming the word “Mèrci” on her lips, before she stepped off.
This early in the morning, downtown Montreal bears the haunted look of a weary drunk. The ground zero of bustle – Atwater – is totally deserted, the bars having closed at 3:30, the homeless having found their bus stops and their shopping mall awnings to find some space where the chill -6C wind can’t get at them.
When I stepped off the bus, I peered into the darkness. She had disappeared. There’s a neighbourhood for rich folks nearby – Westmount. Her nanny job probably takes her there, I thought.
I made my way to the massive Alexis Nihon Mall, which stays open because it has a McDonalds inside and McDonalds are 24-hour joints. I usually park my ass on a bench there because the mall has a direct access to the Atwater Metro Station and I can sit there with a cappuccino and wait for the Metro Station doors to open.
The 5:42 to Berri Uqam was on time. I got on. Usually I don’t sit down. I always prefer to stand because I have my back pack on – it has my lunch, my Bose headphone case, my Nikon, my pills, kleenex and paperback. I usually get on the train, hook my arm round one of those vertical shiny stainless steel rods, stand facing the door inches away and tune into morning NYT “The Daily” podcast.
Metro doors have a fail safe system that ensures a passenger doesn’t get stuck between closing doors. It allows someone inside to step up and bar the doors from closing. The doors say “Oops” and spring back open. And as long as the doors are open, the failsafe system prevents the train from moving. This ensures that you don’t get accidentally stuck half in and half out and the train starts rolling.
The clinging chimes signal sounds 10 seconds before the doors start closing and it had already gone off when there she was – the nanny with the stick. She had stepped off the escalator and was desperately trying to bridge that gap before the doors closed, infirmity preventing her from running the few yards in.
She didn’t make it. The doors closed with a hydraulic sigh and the high-torque Siemens electric motors propelled the carriage forward with a swoosh.
My last glimpse of her as she flashed by remains till this day – the same wan resigned smile, accepting what life has dealt her, unquestioningly. I could have stepped up and prevented the doors from closing so she could get on. The next train was 45 minutes away and a Metro station so early isn’t the safest place for an old woman.
But I didn’t. I stood there rooted, inches away from that door, oblivious to everything as I listened to BBC Analysis blaring through my headphones, on the Syrian refugee crisis, only a fraction of my consciousness noting that the woman couldn’t get in.
I believe in comeuppance. I hope that I get mine while I am still alive.