Author photo by Jowita Bydlowska
Here is a brief jeu d’esprit from the Toronto writer and fashionista Russell Smith whom I met at the now legendary Wild Writers We Have Known conference put on by The New Quarterly in Stratford, Ontario, in September, 2000. I remember it as a gilded occasion: Mark Anthony Jarman was there, as well as Steven Heighton, Elise Levine, Caroline Adderson, Mike Barnes, Leon Rooke and Diane Schoemperlen, all of whom have appeared in Numéro Cinq. John Haney took photographs. And Russell Smith is wild: Among his several works of fiction is the pornographic novel Diana, A Diary in the Second Person which was first published under the pseudonym Diane Savage by Gutter Press and subsequently reprinted by Biblioasis under the author’s own name. He’s also written a book on men’s fashion, Men’s Style: The Thinking Man’s Guide to Dress (2005).
“The Ossington Bus” is an all too brief introduction to Russell Smith’s precise, elegant prose style. Please do stop over the sentences and appraise their condensed, fluid motions. E.g. “We have looked at our watches, looked at our watches and prayed, wept and prayed and looked at our watches.” The story itself is a small gem of an ever so slightly parodic magic realism planted in Toronto’s Little Portugal wherein the oft missing Toronto Transit Commission’s Ossington Avenue bus takes on legendary qualities. I also thought of E. M. Forster and his story “The Celestial Omnibus” when I first read this — Forster’s nostalgia for the magical, especially in his stories, is often overlooked. Russell Smith is careful and charming: his irony never becomes arch and the language, alternating between irony and belief, builds a momentum that magically gives that bus wings at the story’s close.
Why do we wait for the Ossington bus? It never comes. We jam our hands in our pockets, turn up our collars, lean out over the tracks of slush and peer down the hill, and all the way down to the mental hospital is nothing but a wide expanse of empty street. We think that we will see a bus lumbering around the corner from Queen. The wind whips along Dundas and the cars stop and start, grunting. Brass music from the fish shop, twisted by wind.
Inside the cafe on the corner, men sit on metal chairs with their ski-jackets on, drinking beer and looking at the soccer game hanging overhead, the only square of brightness in this window. We imagine that they look out at us stamping our feet and stepping into the traffic to gaze down the empty hill, and they say to one another, “I remember the last time the Ossington bus was seen. My father, just after he arrived from the Azores in 1974, saw it twice. At least he claims he did. It used to come more often then. There was an old man on Shaw, Armando Gomez’s father, who says he saw it three times, as a child, but no-one believes him.”
“I saw it myself,” says an old-timer with a fedora from 1955, a hat he has worn like a sign of conscience every day of his life, a sign of resistance. He is sitting alone. No-one has noticed him. But now everyone turns to look at him. Some of the younger men, at the bar, roll their eyes at each other. He speaks very slowly, in the quiet. He says, “Nineteen eighty-five. I saw it with my own eyes. Clear as day. It came chugging up Ossington, stopped at Dundas. Then it went through the lights. And it stopped at that stop, right outside. People got on. And it took them away.”
There is a silence as the eyes inside the cafe turn to the grimy window, to our dark coats outside, waiting.
We know they are watching us. We look up at the icy sky and close our eyes and try not to think about the time, passing. We have looked at our watches, looked at our watches and prayed, wept and prayed and looked at our watches. We will try not to look at our watches, try not to think about the day elapsing, the day darkening, the businesses closing their doors, the subway we must reach thickening with its red-eyed masses, the women meeting for drinks and coffees in the restaurants below, passing us by while we wait here and watch the old people waddling in and out of the CIBC, walking with canes and walkers. The subway is a mere five stops up, and yet we are as far from it as orbiting moons.
What do we hope for? We know that if the bus comes we will board it and it will smell of heated wet coats, of bags of fried food and the spittle of children, the seats will be stained, runnels of mud will streak the rubber mats, the windows will be sticky. There will be no place to sit. The bus will lurch and sway and rattle, throwing us against the coughing bulk of parkas, slipping on scraps of news. We will be with the lost and hopeless, the lowest. The bus will stop every hundred yards to groan and shift again; it will take too long to get anywhere, it will waste our time.
And yet it will at least take us away from here, lift us up with a hydraulic hiss, higher than the level of the street, flying away. It will advance us to the next place, a completely different place, the next thing we will engage with. It will move us up and on.
We do not know if it will come or not. We wait, flexing up on our toes sometimes to arch our view down the hill, closing our eyes occasionally at the orange sunset over the community centre. Feeling the temperature drop, we wrap our arms, trying to be calm, listening, waiting for its thumping approach, a sound like the beating of wings.
Russell Smith was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and grew up in Halifax, Canada. He writes weekly on the arts in the Globe and Mail. His most recent novel, Girl Crazy (HarperCollins Canada), is set in Toronto, where he lives.
- The proceedings — fiction, criticism, photographs and panel transcripts — were published in The New Quarterly, Volume XXI, Numbers 2 & 3. On page 350 there is a great John Haney photo of Russell Smith and dg.↵
I lived in the alleyway off that stop. I almost lived at that stop. Beside the shelter is a green street sign for my old apartment, an arrow pointing the direction. My window looked down the alleyway to the people waiting; often, the men came down the alley to pee. Thanks for the great piece, Russell! You wrote about something I couldn’t bear to go back to…
For seven years, I meant to add…