Sunday, February 5, 2012

Montreal to Toronto

Miles from previous: 330
Total miles travelled: 646

From: Villa Maria Metro Station, Montreal, QC
To: Bayview Metro Station, Toronto, ON

Montreal is a city that I want to like more than I actually do. I like their tidy downtown, their efficient metro, and the usually good musicians I can find there, but the city itself has never made any great impression on me. It's always been a cold and grey city filled with people in dark clothing moving at fast speeds. Those same qualities work in New York and Chicago, but those cities have more of a right to be gloomy Gotham. Maybe its the abundance of art-deco, or just greater size. Montreal has all the cheer of a Soviet bloc prison. Lego-land architecture, stained snow. To be fair, I've never been there in the summer. But I doubt the seasons would much change the inhabitants. The women are alright, but I've found the men to be endlessly boring with their assertions of anglo-oppression.

I caught a ride up from Boston thru Craigslist with a Russian immigrant and a Czech-Canadian national. I got some of that special treatment border guards seem to favor me with - prying questions, searching personal items, though no body scan this time - but as I answered the question "Have you ever been denied entry into Canada?" truthfully (Yes) they let me in.

I didn't have any real reason to get to Montreal other than the general rules of the travel sketch. Someone offered a ride and I took it. But I admit there was a bit more incentive than that. For some years, I'd been referring to a French friend of mine who had relocated to Quebec as 'the love of my life.' The term was a bit facetious, a bit serious. Certainly questioning. I was never sure. There was no great idea behind my visit this time, as though it would be the trip when I would make sure of myself and of her. I just wanted to visit. I like her. I like her very much. She's just one of those people whose life I want to be a part of for what's left of it. You call that love, I think.

It came as a surprise when she used the same words to describe someone else. The 'love of her life' she told me, with some pause, is a man she has known since they were both 6 years old. He had called her the week before to tell her he was moving to Montreal. Not myself. What a relief.

I didn't really expect that I was the love of her life, and now I'm not sure what I would have done if she had told me that I was. But that's not what I got. We had no obligation to each other. It was freeing. I don't think she needed me anymore. And I'm not sure I needed her either. That's supposed to sound tragic, but it didn't feel that way. It felt natural, like one season giving itself into another. We were just moving on. We could walk out of each other's lives whenever we wanted. I went first.

I checked out rideshare. A Belarusian immigrant and his Ukrainian passenger were going to Toronto, another ride with the Eastern Europeans and the same foibles: aggressive driving, impeccably clean interiors, thermoses of hot tea, racist comments the others found innocuous and I found tasteless.

It was comforting to have wheels spinning under me, and the great ribbons of asphalt flowing beneath. Then Toronto came into view, and I got out at the Eastbay station.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Craigslist, Montreal, What a Marvelous Modern Age

Miles: 316

From: MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
To: Hurley's Irish Pub, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Sometimes I really do look around, wide-eyed as Louie Armstrong, wondering at the world. Instant global communication, recombinant DNA, National Geographic, Wikipedia, YouTube. I feel like I'm living in a science fiction plot, one of the more sinister ones where the moral doesn't come delivered on a platter in the arms of the giant robot but you have to dig for it. All the old demons of morality, plus a few new ones added to boot.

We didn't get the vision of the future the atomic age foretold. Where are the jet packs? The flying cars? Human-controlled weather? Instead we got smartphones, satellite communication, and technology more sophisticated than anything NASA could produce when they put a man on the moon. And all in products small - and seductive - enough to be carried in a pocket. I write this now on a tablet, a device whose properties I can only liken to the magic mirror of a fairy tale, though curiously, whose contours best resemble the monolith from 2001, a Space Odyssey. What a brave new world.

In a different futuristic vision from the same 20th century decades, you might look at Star Trek. I have never seen an episode of Star Trek. Not for reasons of pride, it's just never happened. But, from my understanding, in that interpretation of the future, there were other promises that remain as illusory to us as the flying cars: A planet without poverty, hunger, war, disease, and mankind so unoccupied as to spend the remainder of his time in exploration. Not the exploration of the conquistadors or the cold war - for profit or pride - but an unendending inquiry into the cosmos. A non-goaled goal. Tellingly, we haven't made much progress in that direction either.

I'm not really a fan of science fiction, but I can't escape certain troubling truths. I write on a tablet in a comfortable coffee bar while the human cogs who made it, on the other side of the world in conditions unknown in North America or Europe since the 19th century, can never hope to purchase one. Like Eloi and Morlocks, we have outsourced suffering. One of us enjoys health and comfort and freedom while the other toils in Hadean conditions to make that rosy world the rest of us love. But I'd rather end the simile there, before getting to the uncomfortable end.

In Welles' Time Machine, the Morlocks eat the Eloi. So the comparison isn't even that accurate since I'd have to change the plot of the novel to better match the modern world. And then it would be a book not only of discomfort, but absolute depression since in this version, the Eloi would not only expect their underlings to produce electricity and gadgetry, but would, at the last, consume them as well. Is not an 80 hour work week the same as eating a man's life?

It's troubling, to say the least. So I read craigslist to sooth myself, looking at the various items for sale or barter. Bicycles, urns, cars, cremains, umbrellas, houses, cell phones, board games, coffeepots, tires. Whatever you are looking for, you can find it there, if you look hard enough. Even love, if you give it enough tries. Or if you feel like something less emotionally sticky, there's always "Casual encounters" for the immediate lay. You don't have to go to Babylon anymore to dip your fingers in the fleshpots. It's all there, online. A global forum of hawkers. If you can imagine it, then it is already there and someone has made five dollars from it. It's disgusting. It's fascinating. It's beautiful. It restores my hope in the capabilities of human design.

I enjoy reading the individual Craigslist sites for cities I've never been to. 'Rants and raves' can be good to get you stirred up over something: the local school board, the conditions in a neighborhood, the prospects of a sports team. The topics vary by city. Minneapolis has been having some problems with hooliganism it seems, while racial prejudice dominates the Los Angeles forum. Miami is full of self-promoters, as usual, and New Orleans mystifies me with it's collection of fiery posts of occultism, transvestites, and strange things seen on the Mississippi.

"Missed Connections" could best be summed up as the collective exhalation of breath of thousands of people, young and old, pining for passersby in coffee shops, metro stations, and checkout lines. Posting words like messages in bottles to the set of eyes, lips, or angled collarbone that tripped them up. I love reading these, particularly when they are in someplace wholly foreign so I won't have to wonder if one is about myself or someone I know.

It's astonishing how much I both enjoy this vicarious experience and how readily available the information is. I think of tele-screens from 1984. But it's not entirely similar. In any of Orwell's books, some crisis arose and the population would rally around a political cause or leader that would unify them and promise security. This politician would have to convince the people that surveillance was for the best. But we didn't have to be convinced. We bought into the idea of hourly having our faces, location, and data recorded, so long as we could all see thru the far side of the looking glass. Individually, we will never have the comprehensive dirt that the library of Congress, or Google, or the Vatican possesses, but so long as there is just enough of the information at hand to make us feel control, we can forgive these intrusions. I do, and I don't even want to.

I want to think of everything I ever put out there as like the ark of the covenant at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie. The ark is placed in a wooden crate in a warehouse the size of an airplane hangar among many other similar boxes, and so presumably becomes just as lost in museum-quality, bureaucratic hodge-lodge as it had been when it was buried in Egypt. If you look, you might be able to find it, but there are a lot of other boxes in that warehouse. But the analogy doesn't work, since the people who might look for me - potential employers, ex-lovers, the department of homeland security - are much better at it than I am. So what if I'm careful? I give information about myself away daily

I should be troubled, and yet I keep reading Craigslist for that repeated joy of looking across the street into the neighbor's open window.