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(DV) Charles: Public Transit is a Moveable Feast







Public Transit is a Moveable Feast
Commuters are turning rush hour buses and subways into Meals On Wheels. Excuse me, but your coffee is dripping on my shoe and your Egg McMuffin just landed on my lap.

by James Charles
March 29, 2005

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Sure, I’ve read the articles about how we live in an on-demand, just-in-time world. Some grouse about the pitfalls of the trend, others talk in glowing terms about how technology allows us to do more, and more quickly. So, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw a news report citing a study showing that something like 20% of adults eat at least one meal a day while riding somewhere, and fully one-third of us eat some of our meals standing up.

Apparently, we’re all in a hurry to do more, more quickly, including eating.

Yet we didn’t need some exhaustive study to know this: Just hop on public transit: Buses, subways, commuter train passengers have turned them into a moveable feast: A clattering, jolting, squealing series of rancid coffee shops, greasy snack bars and foul-smelling sandwich wagons. The bus has become Meals On Wheels.

This is most frequently seen during morning rush hour. For some reason, an extraordinary number of people find it impossible to get up 10 minutes earlier to make coffee or breakfast, or to wait another 10 or 15 minutes until they arrive at work to down a cinnamon square and their first cup. 

But they find plenty of time to stop at the KwikKoffeeKorner. Then, waving madly at the driver, hold up an entire busload or streetcar full of commuters as they dash frantically through on-coming traffic to board at the last minute because the coffee store line-up was longer than usual.

They squeeze through the closing door and elbow their way along the crowded aisle, apparently convinced that there is an empty seat back there. They usually give up about halfway and, wedged cheek by jowl against hapless, half-sleeping commuters, decide it is the ideal time to drink their coffee and eat an egg sandwich. Never mind that all around them are people dressed for work, possibly in clothes fresh from the dry cleaner, and who are trying desperately to hang on with one hand while trying to avoid inadvertently performing a lewd act on the person next to them because there is no place else for their free hand to go. As the bus rumbles along to the next stop, each time it hits a pothole anyone near the slurper -- who, typically, is oblivious to anything beyond their coffee cup -- risks being doused with hot liquid or ending up with food all over them.

I’ve had coffee dripped on my shoes. Crumbs from someone’s Danish have fluttered onto my newspaper, a glop of jelly from a doughnut has ended up on my brief case, and half of the egg in a McMuffin wiggled free of the bread to liberate itself on my pants. Once, as a streetcar lurched around the corner, a small child flipped a nearly-full milk carton my way but, like a slapstick comedian, I dodged and the person behind me took it smack in the kisser.

The absolute low point, though, came when someone standing directly above me one morning ate an entire fish -- head, skin, tail and all -- leaving only the carcass. I didn’t know which was worse: The sight and smell of that cold carp at 7:30 AM, or the realization that someone thought chomping on a whole fish was the perfect breakfast. I tried looking out the window but kept glancing back. Watching him eat held the same kind of morbid fascination as slowing down to look at the remains of a horrid car crash: The sight was understandably revolting yet alluringly hypnotic at the same time.

Along with “Don’t talk with your mouth full” and “Chew with your mouth closed,” I was taught early on that it’s impolite to eat in front of others unless they’re also eating. By itself, eating on buses, streetcars and trains isn’t rude. But eating where one’s food or beverage is likely to end up adorning someone who has no interest in finding your coffee on their clothes is rude and thoughtless.

But, then, so too is wearing a backpack large enough to conceal a good-sized child, and there are plenty of people who do that in public without giving it a second thought. They forget that their backpack makes them two people deep -- three, in the case of the many overweight folk’s trodding city streets these days. When they bump into someone, many take the attitude that it’s the other person’s fault. You cannot imagine the number of dirty looks and rude comments I’ve received when I say “Excuse me” to someone who’s just body slammed me with their backpack. Like large trucks, urban backpackers should be required to wear signs warning “Caution: Wide Turns.”

In Toronto, St. Lawrence Market was called one of the world’s 10 best food markets by some travel magazine. There’s a fellow who shops there every Saturday with the mother of all backpacks: A blue, plastic barrel, about the size of a 55-gallon drum, strapped to his body. When he buys something, it gets tossed into the contraption. The problem is that the man is totally oblivious to his big blue appendage. He’ll swing around suddenly to look at something, knocking shoppers out of the way like bowling pins. If he did that in a car, he’d be charged; on foot, he moves with impunity.

Whether it is eating and drinking in inappropriate places, creating a moving hazard with backpacks, talking loudly on cell phones in restaurants, or chatting during movies at the theatre, a disturbing number of people seem to be totally oblivious to anything around them other than themselves. In a sad way, it is another sign of civilization losing its civility. Yes, we all live demanding lives, and the less time we have increases the demands. But, please, if you’re going to eat a whole fish for breakfast, do it at home before you get on the bus.

James Charles is a Toronto writer. His next book is Life In The Dominion: An Ex-Pat American’s Affectionate Look At Living In Canada. He can be reached at:

Other Articles by James Charles

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* Is Anything an “Experience” When Everything Is?
* Everyone Take Another Step To The Right
* It Was Fun Being a Baby Boomer -- Until We Realized How Old We’re Getting
* Encountering Hunter Thompson