I've walked many miles through cities, up mountains, across bridges, fields and highways. By far, one of my favorite places to walk is Queen Street West in Toronto, the long stretch from Yonge Street all the way to Roncesvalles Avenue. Why? Because you never quite know what to expect. It's usually packed with people and it's a street, for lack of a better term, you can feel. It's alive in ways that are difficult to really quantify.
It's no coincidence that when I moved back downtown a couple of years ago, I ended up a block south from Queen Street, smack in the middle of the two ends I mentioned above. Whenever I go to work or to meet a friend, I try to walk and always make my way up to Queen and then across where I have to go. When I'm out for a meandering walk, meaning, I have no where to be, I'll often head to Queen and stand at the corner for a moment to see if I am pulled in one direction or another. I'm not pulled east or west by something I can see, it's just a feeling, like a whisper on the wind that says, "Go west!" Every time, something happens, something that is not forced - I run into someone, see something happen in front of me or see a new building or alleyway that I hadn't before.
A few weeks ago, I was walking home from the most recent Stories We Don't Tell event. It was late, my favorite time to walk and it had just rained for most of the day, which for some reason, I have determined brings out an odd vibe to the streets. I hit Queen Street and headed west to Bathurst Street.
A man walked briskly past me. He wore dark blue overalls, the kind you'd see in a mechanic's shop. I felt him slow down and he said, "Excuse me?" I stopped, turned around. When he saw that he had my attention, he approached. When this has happened before, there is a certain amount of intuition that comes into play, that sense that something is not quite right. This usually means there is some kind of danger evident. However, in this situation, there was no sense of this.
He came in close, closer then would probably be a good idea and said, "Look, I just want someone to listen to me - would you listen to me?" When I replied in the affirmative, he asked, "I'm trying to get to Cherry Street, how far of a walk is that?"
When I told him that it would take a long time, his whole body seemed to collapse slightly. He went on to explain that he's a truck driver and he ran out of gas and there is a woman that he is trying to meet that lives near Cherry Street. His truck was parked not far from where we were, he doesn't know the city and decided to just start walking. He offered his hand and told me his name was Nicholas, that he was sixty years old and then he showed me his hands and said, "Look at these hands, these are the hands of an honest and hardworking man."
Of course, he wanted money for gas. I gave him all I had - a five dollar bill. But he wanted more and so did I. He offered me a cigarette, which I took and he lit mine and then his. "I knew I could talk to you," he said. "You have an aura around you. I knew that I could ask you for help." We stood and smoked and talked, he told me about this very special woman that he was supposed to meet. He told me about how he was sad and lonely, that he was a sixty year old man who didn't have much to his name. We butt out our cigarettes and he went to try and find more gas money. I don't know if any of this was true and I really didn't care.
I didn't care because when we were ready to part ways, he hugged me. There was nothing awkward about it and it lasted far longer then I was usually comfortable with when it comes to hugs. We just stood there on Queen Street, the two of us in an embrace. An intimacy existed in the small amount of space between us, an intimacy that was not romantic in nature or held any meaning except two strangers who needed a hug, who didn't question the hug, just hugged with the intention of reaching across this divide we sometimes find between people and things.
We parted ways and when I reached the corner of Bathurst and Queen, stopped at the light, I looked back. Nicholas had turned, put his arms up with his palms facing me. He wanted to show me his hands, his honest and hardworking hands.
As I made my way home, I realized the lack in my life of any type of intimacy with another human being. I often joke about my long timeline of bachelorhood I have found myself in the past few years, but it is starting to hit me that it would be nice to share a little bit more of my life with someone else. It's not so much when I wake up in the morning, but the moment when I crawl into bed, when there are no more distractions from the book I'm reading, when I put it away and turn out the light, the room fills with darkness and a strange sense of loneliness.
For the past few months, I've been doing something that is not advised - getting into bed with my iPad and watching something - a movie or television show. My neuroscientist and others have recommended not being in front of any screens an hour or so before going to bed. The iPad usually rests beside me on the bed where someone else's head would be if there was another person. I end up falling asleep to some uncomplicated sitcom like Brooklyn 99.
It's not lost on me that I needed something to crawl into bed with that let me be distracted and forget that I was alone. When I finally cut out the iPad and just lay there, night after night, usually falling asleep in a few minutes, thoughts drift by that make me wonder what I am missing, what is so deficient in me that I find myself here with no on to hold on to.
All this from a simple hug from an honest and hardworking stranger I bumped into walking home along Queen Street West.