University of Saskatchewan
It was a quiet afternoon. A man entered our pop up shop in the tunnel of the Place Riel Student Centre. He looked to be about 45, with shaggy dark hair and drab clothing. He wanted a wide-brimmed fedora, but we didn’t have one that suited his taste. He had a thick accent and I asked where he was from. “Bosnia,” he answered. “I have been here four years.” He was a teacher in Bosnia. In Canada, he is a janitor.
Several of my favourite writers come from Eastern Europe - Ivo Andrić, Slavenka Drakulić, Wisława Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz - so the Bosnian man and I had a short discussion about writers and literature. He talked also about his country, and what was previously Yugoslavia, under the leadership of Marshal Josip Broz Tito. “Things were better then,” he said.
Further, he talked about the “genius of the Ottoman Empire”, and how it took the brightest children and educated them. “They could become anything then,” he said. Inevitably, we talked about the horror of ethnic cleansing. “The hatreds are still there. That has not changed,” he said. “One day, a couple of years ago, I simply stopped reading the news, or watching television. I could not stop crying.”
University of Regina
Every year, for the past several autumns, we have opened our pop-up shop for a week in the Riddell Centre. I have struck a friendship with one of the commissionaires. He is 78 and has a slight nervous twitch - a periodic lift of his left shoulder, followed by a slight shake of his head. I have never asked about the twitch. Peter Ustinov wrote that the only honest thing left about a salesman is his twitch - this does not seem to apply to my commissionaire friend, but it seems an appropriate sentence in which to trot out the reference.
My commissionaire friend is of average height with trim grey hair. He seems comfortable in his uniform. Our conversations are short and usually occur when I pay for daily parking. He sits in his kiosk and I stand outside and lean my head close to the sliding window. “I was a structural engineer for 35 years. Built bridges,” he said. “After retirement, I simply couldn’t stay in the house all day. So I took this part time job.”
He was raised in a small town in Northern Saskatchewan. “The house was smaller than my present living room. And we used to take in boarders. Farm kids from threshing crews stranded by the weather.” He recalls the frigid winters and hot summers. “There was a sandy patch in the main street in town. The only street, really. On sweltering hot summer days, a dog used to dig a hole there to cool his balls. That sack hung lower than anything I’ve ever seen.”
He talks much about the past. He once listed the bridges he worked on. I have passed over several of them. He also talks about his family. “I took my five year old grandson back home to visit a friend’s farm. My friend primed a cow’s teat so it would spurt at the first squeeze. The kid hollered: The milk is warm. As if milk is supposed to be cold.” We talked about the value of fresh, thick, warm cream. How, in winter, home-delivered glass milk bottles used to pop open on the front steps.
I tell him stories about my travels in Asia, the odd things that I have seen, odd at least to a Westerner. He has never traveled outside North America, but he does browse the Internet. “Sometimes I come across smut. It’s all spam, I know. But I’m a curious sort. I’m amazed sometimes by foreign women. They make different sounds, like ooi ooi. And they lick their lips a lot.”
University of Alberta
One afternoon I took a break from working our pop up shop, to read a book in an open study area of the Student’s Union Building. To the left and a bit ahead of me a middle-aged East Indian man sprawled in an easy chair. He wore a waist-length sports jacket and old running shoes. Every so often, he looked toward me. I was reading Octavio Paz’s book The Monkey Grammarian. I wondered: Did the man know that I was reading about Hanuman?
To the right, a pretty young Asian girl in black tights stretched her long legs out as far as she could on a sofa. It was too short for a proper stretch, and her high black boots reached over the soft arm. She read something on her iPhone and giggled.
A wide-screen digital display hung from the ceiling above the end of her sofa. The man looked at her, at the screen, and then at me. She moved her near leg and rested the flat of her boot on the seat, leg bent, and gently rubbed her thigh. I tried to read Paz’s words about beginnings and endings, but instead reached for my notebook. She texted, and giggled again. He looked up at the screen, then angled his head away and picked his nose. She yawned.
We were aware of one another, but sat universes apart. Different ages, cultures, dreams, realities. The only thing we shared was our physical proximity to one another. I thought: Maybe a disaster could bring us together in some way? A blackout or an explosion? The digital display blinked and loaded information about a lecture on contact zones: participation, materiality and the messiness of interaction.
The East Indian man looked at the screen. The girl looked at the screen. I wrote these words in my notebook: outside, beyond the high glass windows, a cold November wind swirls dry leaves through a grey afternoon. And so pass 60 seconds of our lives.