Out of the corner of my eye I see two elderly ladies come onto the streetcar.
I keep an eye out for these ladies. I’m like an old lady vigilante. If there’s young able- bodied people sitting in the only three seats reserved for elderly and disabled, I give them the stink eye. Maybe it’s because my ma’s an old lady who takes the bus too.
There’s some kind of dispute over transfers going on, so I look more closely. I see one of the ladies is my neighbour, Olga. Olga’s got Parkinson’s. I can see her hands shake as she laboriously unfolds the transfer and peers at it. I get up from my seat to ask what’s going on. Olga’s powdered cheeks are flushed with humiliation.
The driver’s berating them, these two old disabled ladies coming from church. Is. There. Anything. I. Can. Do. I ask the ladies. I don’t want to offer to pay their fare. That would make it look like Olga and her friend were scamming the system.
Whatever. Just go siddown. Says the driver loudly so everyone can hear, his voice dripping with bitter scorn.
I find Olga and her friend a seat. It’s Wednesday. They’ve just been to church and Bingo at the community centre. They take three buses to get there. It’s Olga’s one day out. She looks forward to it all week.
We get off at Rusholme Drive and I walk Olga home. Her hand is warm and light on my arm.
When I get home I phone the Transit complaint line. I talk to Serge, the gruff cowboy they chose to handle human relations. Would. You. Treat. Your. Mother. Like. That. I ask Serge. If they gave me the wrong transfer, yes, yes I would. Says Serge. He’s a little over-enthusiastic about the hell he’d gladly put his blood relations through.
He says he’ll make sure my complaint is fully investigated.
A few days later, Serge leaves a message on my voicemail. Unh, this situation has been, unh, fully investigated, He says. The decision is, unh, the driver acted correctly.
The following week, I go to visit Olga. I pop in once or twice a month. We have tea, and Polish honey cake. She shows me old photos, relates another chapter from her transnational life story.
I tell her I’ve complained to the TTC. I don’t tell her about their response. She gets that flush again and goes to find her purse. She’s gone about four minutes. Comes back, spends another five minutes unclasping the bag. Pulls out a wad of transfers. I. Gave. Him. Wrong. One. I. Was. So. Flustered. She says. Here. Is. Right. One.
For her, it’s not even about the rudeness of the driver or the inadequacies of a crappy transit system. It’s that someone thought she was cheating. As an immigrant, her life is built on being a decent citizen even if the rules of citizenship make no sense. I’m sure she has lain awake fretting about this incident.
I let her show me more pictures, pour me more tea. By the time I leave, newly budding branches and the smokestack of the chocolate factory down the street are black against a smoky sky. I’m behind in the marking I was going to do that day but that’s alright. Visiting Olga is like entering a portal, going back in time. Reminding me of old-fashioned values, their stark contrast against the fluid, unmindful buzz of city life.
Beautifully written and good for you for sticking up for your neighbor. Now I feel like writing a letter to the Toronto transit myself!