Portrait of a Strike

“You folks taking the TTC?” asked the server at the pub my friends and I had just finished eating at. We’d been sitting around waiting for him to return my friend Morgan’s credit card.

“Yeah,” said my friend Christine. “Why?”

“TTC’s going on strike as of midnight.”

“What?” I said in a semi fatigue-and-cider-induced haze. “Are you kidding?’ (I’m sure there was a cuss word in there somewhere.)

“I just heard it on the news. They’re shutting down the subway at midnight.”

I looked at my oh-so-stylish plastic Casio. The time read 11:22.

Aw, HELL no.

I’d just begun a really decent Friday night after surviving a stressful work week. I’d gone to the Eaton Centre for some retail therapy. Met my friends for dinner.

And now this.

We quickly made our way to Queen subway station. While waiting for the next train northbound to Bloor, I truly couldn’t believe what the server at the pub had been so kind to tell us. So I went up to the burly guy in the ticket booth and asked: “Is it true the TTC’s going on strike?”

“Yeah, it’s true,” he said. “I just found out myself.”

Essentially he went on to tell me the deal (which union boss Bob Kinnear had proudly announced earlier in the week – prematurely, as it turns out) wasn’t as good as everyone had been led to believe. And he apologized, albeit half-heartedly.

My friends and I made it to Bloor, went down a floor to the Yonge station platform and parted ways as the subway to Kipling arrived. An eastbound train arrived for me just a couple minutes later.

I was a bit concerned about how far I’d get, because the train stopped longer than usual at a couple of stops along the way. But as luck would have it, the train pulled into Kennedy Station in the opening minutes of the strike.

I made a hurried dash up the stairs, down the hall, through the turnstile and up the escalator to the taxi stand running parallel to the Eglinton Ave. bridge.

Wishful thinking. Not a cab in sight. Obviously. And at least 30 or 40 people standing around on either side of the street waiting for cabs as empty buses – with “Sorry … OUT OF SERVICE” blazing in harsh, flourescent orange lettering on their electronic signage – drove past.

Chaos looked ready to ensue.

I looked around, realized what I was up against and called my father.

While I waited, I could do nothing but listen to my iPod and take in the scene around me.

A young woman in braids was in the lone phone booth behind me, talking on the phone while an older black man said in a loud voice, “Hey, hurry up! People need to use the phone! There’s a strike on!”

A small huddle of high school kids loitered on the small patch of grass, joking around – and probably trying to figure out how the hell they were getting home.

A white woman carrying plastic grocery bags – one of the last people to surface before they locked the glass doors – came up the escalator, walked towards the empty taxi stand. Within minutes, a cab arrived. She walked over, and slowly got in, amid the protests of a couple of black women who, it seems, had called for a cab. They also got in and drove off.

A woman in a dark jacket came up to me, asking if I was waiting for a ride. I said yes, because of the cab situation. I guess she’d been hoping to share one with me. I said no and wished her good luck. Didn’t care. She’d already turned away.

I heard a loud bang behind me. A young guy in a hoodie standing with his back to the glass door entrance to the subway, had kicked one of the panes. He skulked away, revealing the web-like fracture in the glass.

A group of kids had given up on finding transportation, crossed the road, walked up the hill and were climbing over the low guardrail lining the Eglinton Ave. bridge, to start taking their long walk home.

The whole scene was an eerie cross between the blackout from several years ago, and the equivalent of being at the airport after going through customs and collecting your luggage, and making your way into reception, searching for your loved ones or friends to come greet you and take you home.

Some minutes and one narrowly-missed cell phone call later, my dad arrived to my rescue and we were on our way home. And I was one of the luckier ones.

My dad couldn’t believe it. He didn’t even know there was a strike on until I’d called him.

He wasn’t enraged, but he was disappointed. Unlike a lot of people’s dads, mine used to work for TTC. Not as a driver, who most passengers blame for this situation, but as a mechanic and engine builder at one of the commission’s garages.

He didn’t think some of the union’s demands at the negotiation table were completely unreasonable. And when the union announced days ago that they wouldn’t strike, he was probably as relieved in his mind as the rest of us.

However, he voiced his displeasure at the way the TTC stranded thousands of people out on a Friday night, without providing a way for them to get home safely. The very least they could have done, he said, was finish their shifts and then officially start the strike Saturday morning.

His sentiment was echoed by TTC workers who’d called in to late-night talk shows to extend their sympathies to stranded passengers.

He also doesn’t think that the entire union – made up of some 9,000 people, NOT ALL bus, streetcar and subway operators, by the way – just decided to wilfully screw 1.5 million people over, as many reliant on TTC, in their ire, would like to believe.

Between what my father said last night, and what I’ve hearing this morning, the main group within the union with the biggest beef over the deal that was to be ratified were the maintenance workers – particularly with the issue of contracting out their work.

Apparently they weren’t particularly happy with what the union reps at the negotiation table were accepting. So it sounds like they decided to use their trump card and call on their fellow union brothers and sisters to send the union negotation team a message. After all, the maintenance workers supported the other TTC workers in strikes gone by. It was time to return the favour, no? Or so the scenario goes. Of course, this could be complete hearsay.

Personally, I’m torn on the issue. My dad’s a retired TTC worker. I myself am part of a union, in a different industry. People should, in theory, be able to fight for the right to fair working conditions and compensation if they are injured, or worse.

But I find this current situation deplorable. Passengers like me who rely on TTC as the primary mode of transport, have now been taken hostage and are being made to suffer. Make no mistake – if there were any passengers who respected TTC workers, that respect evaporated just after 11 p.m. last night when we were all given absolutely no notice.

And the saddest part?

As hard as this might be for some people to believe, not all of those workers are scum. There are TTC employees who are not only sympathetic to the passengers being left in the lurch, but who are also angry at the fashion in which this thing has been handled.

But when this thing is settled and the ink dries, they’ll be the ones on the first day back who’ll take abuse by people who think every single worker is scum, who truly believes these guys deserve to be spat on, kicked, and generally disrespected.

Take note. ‘Cause this could get nasty.

Annoying Transit Habit #6 : Seat Crushing

I had finally reached the end of my cross-city travels for the day, having run around for the last several hours picking up much needed items for my trip.

Having just missed the Middlefield bus, I raced toward the McCowan bus, which luckily had no driver as yet. It was barely even full, which was a bigger bonus.

I lugged myself and all my bags (including a new carry-on backpack for my trip) to the very back of the bus – in the corner – and sat down.

Of course, I noticed a couple of the passengers staring at me. I hate people who stare. It makes me feel like I’ve got two heads or something. Plus I think it’s just plain rude. So I stared right back at them until they’d look away. Then I’d catch them staring at me again (or maybe in my general direction), so I’d look right back at them.

Then one of them, a middle-aged East Indian guy with one of those briefcases with all the compartments (who had been standing mid-way down the bus from me), decides to sit down. Not in a seat where he could take advantage of all the space. Not in the middle of the empty back row, which only had one other passenger, sitting at the back on the other end of the row. Right next to me.

And the ride only got worse from there. Until the man got off at Finch, it was like he was trying to crush me and my multiple bags out of my seat. He was practically pressing up against me. At one point, I’m pretty sure I was leaning to the right to avoid his elbow, which was practically digging into my ribs. For serious – he was sitting with his elbows sticking straight out. I kept trying to straighten up to regain some of my buffer zone and to let him know without saying anything that he was crowding me out. Apparently he either didn’t get it or was used to sitting among people smaller than me.

At one point, I straightened up and nudged him. Of course, stupid me, I said “sorry”. (I’ve GOT to stop doing that.) I was so relieved when he got up.

I know that the seats themselves don’t allow for a lot of room. But what happened to respect for personal space?

This isn’t the first time this has happened. I remember getting crushed against the wall of a subway car months ago by this really thick black woman. Not fat. Thick. And the winter jacket only added to it. She pinned me in the bucket seat for, like, 14 stops. It was unbearable. I couldn’t even take a nap, it was so uncomfortable.

Seriously, seat-crushers – ease UP! Maybe I look slender or something to you. Believe me, I’m not. Give me a couple of inches’ worth of buffer space! It’s folks like you that make me hate public transit. Grrr!

Subway Pet Peeves (or, how to keep from getting stabbed)

I have been wanting, nay, waiting to write this post. I almost didn’t ’cause it’s not exactly original. But in light of the stabbings in New York (two were subway-related) and the long trek home today (damn police investigation at St. George), it seemed almost fitting.

As an increasingly-seasoned commuter, I’m used to the subway and most of its quirks. But as someone who’s admittedly neurotic, there are just some things that, on top of delays and suddenly out-of-service trains, can turn the TTC into the Crankypants Express.

So if you don’t fancy getting attacked by a crazy commuter at her wit’s end, wielding a nail file or Swiss Army knife she stole from a fellow passenger, then I suggest maybe NOT doing any of the following:

1 Mouth noises. The sub-categories:

a) Loudly smacking, cracking and/or popping gum.
My biggest pet peeve. Ever. It’s the ultimate aural assault. I’m not sure who exactly thought it was a cool idea to use chewing gum to demonstrate their impression of a Christmas cracker, but it needs to stop. Okay, okay. Hearing you chew your gum when I’m four metres away or less? Almost understood. Hearing you half a subway car away? Oh, hell no. Why do I have to listen to the oral percussion? Do you know how many 15-minute naps I’ve missed out on ’cause of you guys? Oh, if there was a way to put all the gum-poppers in designated cars so the rest of us could have some relative peace, man, I would. But since I don’t have that power … I. Don’t. Want. To. HEAR. You.

b) Open-mouthed gum chewing.
Sometimes accompanies a), but just as annoying as hell on its own. Maybe you think you’re just chewing gum. But in actuality, you look like a COW. It’s. NOT. Attractive. I saw a young woman early the other morning on the subway doing this. She’s probably quite pretty, but you wouldn’t have known, since she looked like she was preparing her cud for her second stomach. I don’t care if you think smacking your lips together and rolling the wad around inside your mouth gives you more attitude or whatever. It doesn’t. And I’m sure it gives you premature age lines ’round your mouth.

c) Open-mouthed food chewing.
Like b), only worse. Also saw – or rather, heard – this on the subway the other morning, and was glad I only had to endure it for a few stops. But MAN was it painful. I didn’t know this man two seats away had just unwrapped his morning meat sandwich until he started eating it. Smack-mack-smackety-smack … gaaaaah! Makes me want to smackety-smack you! Listen, I understand the life of a commuter. If the trip is long, we all need to eat, whether on the way down to work, or to tide us over until we get home. But you don’t need to let me know! Quit it with the slack-jawed mastication.

d) Phlegm-fighting (a.k.a. guttural noises, horking, etc.).
It’s disgusting. If it’s in your nasal passages, use a tissue and blow it out.

2 – Nosepicking.

How old are you, six? What’s next, eating school paste? How is it possible that grown adults are digging for gold while sitting or standing in what’s essentially a public venue, and they don’t for a minute think they’re being watched? And then the same folks will hold on to the subway poles as they’re standing to leave the train. It’s like SARS never happened. Psst … hey. People are watching. No, I’m for serious. They’re watching, and then going to work or home and talking about you and how disgusting you are. If you do it ’cause you fidget, then find a hobby for those idle digits! Learn to knit! Do a puzzle! Finger yoga? I’m sure they have some special exercises for that. Scratch your nose if you must. But please don’t pick.

3 – Loud talking/cellphone conversations. It’s a given – everyone’s gotta talk. Sometimes, you need to communicate on your phone. But hello?! Why the hell do I need to hear you on the other side of the subway car? Or bus? Or streetcar? What you have to say to your friend(s) or girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse is none of my business. And I’m sure if I was turned your way, attentively listening to your conversation, you’d either give me cut-eye or ask me what the hell my problem is. Bottom line: if you can’t have a conversation without shouting, you shouldn’t be having it. Either wait for a period of peace and quiet when you can hear – and talk – properly or take it elsewhere.

4 – Rushing subway doors as they’re closing. I admit, I’ve done this. But I’m reformed. I’ve learned that rushing the doors slows the train down. Worse: if you get a Crankypants Conductor, you get The Lecture. Translation: 30 extra seconds of your life is wasted, because you have to listen to someone who dislikes his job, telling you that you’re wasting his time. It’s so counterproductive. Sometimes, it’s kinda dangerous. I once saw this dude rush the doors at Kennedy Station. He almost made it. He was stuck in the straps of his teal knapsack, which was wedged between the doors, and had to wait until the train reached Warden for him to free himself. He looked like an ass. (Man, I wish I had a camera.) Just wait for the next train.

Honourable mentions:

Singing/Whistling/Loud music listening. These are my personal neuroses. But somedays I don’t want to hear any of it. In the case of loud music listening: I shouldn’t be able to know exactly what you’re listening to. Either get earphones that don’t leak or get your hearing checked. There’s nothing that’s going to be sadder than a generation of 30-somethings who can’t hear ’cause they punished their eardrums.

Farting. I know. Disgusting. But if you don’t want someone pulling the emergency alarm, either fart in your seat when you’re sitting down, or lean up against something. Don’t be holding a pole near bucket seats and think no one’s going to notice if you let one rip.

All that aside: I’m not actually saying that any of this will get you stabbed like the two poor dudes did in New York. But they literally were stabbed for no reason at all. They were minding their own business. I can’t think of what would be a good reason to stab someone. Can you?

So here’s my public service announcement: If someone asks you for your money, cellphone, whatever. Don’t fight them. Just give them what they want.

Unless you’re bigger than your attacker and think you can take him no problem. In that case … I don’t advise dudes high on machismo. You’re on your own, sucka.