We encountered each other about three years ago in an LRT station, just before the pandemic. Then we saw each other at the next station, and the next. After years of misfires, the first leg of Ottawa’s light-rail transit system had finally opened, and I assembled a group of friends to travel the whole line. I had devised a hop-on, hop-off tour to look at the public art in each of the thirteen stations.
We started at the west end and rode east, disembarking at each station to find the artworks—most stations have at least two pieces: murals, sculptures, installations. I would pull out my phone and read out loud about each piece, about the artist, how much it cost. We talked about what we saw and weighed in with opinions and impressions. Then we’d catch the next train to the next station.
A stranger seemed to be on a similar adventure, following us—or we him. At the fourth station, I saw him sitting as we wandered around looking at huge murals on either side of the tracks. He watched us, curiously. I suppose we made an interesting gathering, eleven of us, a variety of acquaintances, neighbours, and friends, one couple with an energetic child, a range of ages. I was curious, too, and think I surprised him when I went over to talk.
“What are you up to?” I asked, pointing at my group, “We’re visiting every station to look at the art.”
“My goal is to ride each one of the trains today,” he said. I couldn’t tell if this moment of connection was an interruption to him, but I persisted.
“How do you know which trains you’ve already been on?” I asked. All the trains looked identical to me.
“They all have different names,” he pointed to the subdued script on the side of the train that was just leaving—it said, Majestic Moose.
“Huh!” I exclaimed, “I didn’t know the trains had names.”
“Yup,” he said, “there’s fifteen in all.” As Bertha Wilson pulled into the station, he rose to catch it.
Returning to my group, I told them about this man’s parallel but separate LRT quest. As we approached the coming train, I noticed its name: Gord Downie. At the fifth station, we encountered the stranger again and I shouted, “You should join us!” He smiled but made no move to approach us, comfortable in his solitude.
We spent four-and-a-half hours on the LRT, thinking about art, experiencing the new public transport, developing opinions about our favourite stations and least-favourite works. I think of that day every time I ride the trains and remember those conversations when I walk through a station. I notice what would probably be only a blur if we hadn’t taken that time to be curious, if each piece was not now invested with the memory of the voices of friends. I also check for the name of the trains as I get on them, now, although I haven’t kept track of which ones I have yet to ride.
I think of him, too—the stranger who had an idea just like mine. Would I recognize him? I’d love to have the chance to ask if he succeeded in his goal. I want to ask why he did it alone. Was it an act of meditation, or loneliness? Was he moving toward something that day, or trying to escape?