Features | The politics of laughter

A story from the 80 bus

So I was walking by a laundromat at 3 a.m. and there were these girls chirpin’ at each other. And then I get around to breaking it up and some chick spills bleach all over my nice new shirt. I guess they’d been fighting so long they didn’t notice it was 3 a.m. and the laundromat was closed. I guess what they’d been fighting about was them all washing the same dress and feeling very embarrassed and feeling like only one of them should have the outfit, because Montreal is so small for a city, and they figured they’d all eventually be at the same thing and inevitably be wearing the same dress. I told them I thought it was ridiculous to assume anyone would throw out a perfectly good dress. I told them that now, in fact, I would have to throw out my good shirt. The prettiest of the bunch said her father owned the laundromat and if I came back tomorrow she would wash it for me. She couldn’t then, you see, because it was 3 a.m. and the sign said closed.”

This was Shawn, and he was prone to great and grandiose monologues. At the bus stop, waiting for the 80, he would take long drags off a Macdonald and spit the smoke behind him.

He was a sort of half-groomed pet I’d acquired three years earlier at Bar Fly – one of those decrepit late night havens for the downtrodden and/or ironic. He was sitting on a stool. He was talking to a goo-faced bartender about his time growing up in rural anglo-Quebec, some sad conservative pit he felt above but not beyond, he was saying “why is it, whenever you’re in the country anywhere in Canada all of the accents devolve into some variation of a deep southern drawl?” The bartender was distracted by a pile of filthy dishes and gave a half-pint response of “I dunno man, I dunno.” Shawn started to use his hands to accentuate his words, “it’s like, it’s like, it’s like you take a bunch of people and you throw them into some stupid farming community and they become a bad imitation of what they think they ought to be, ya know? They act as if they’re in the fucking UNITED STATES OF FUCKING A-MER-IC-A,” he let each syllable have its own moment. “And I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you this whole province is going to shit – call it globalization. We got these young punks thinking ‘ooh la la, I’m just gonna change the world,’ but if we can’t stop goddamn poverty in goddamn…”. It went on.

Somewhere between his tirade about nukes in Iran and the quality of life of the North Koreans, he caught on to my hearing him. I told him about my summer trip to Israel. He projected his own ideas onto my story until it was his story but I liked him and we became instant buds.

At the bus stop he stomped out his butt and added, “and I wouldn’t go back to that laundromat, not because of what that girl did, not because I’m an awful human being, but mainly for the fact of my rent costing several hundred big ones a month and, like I always tell my landlord, I expect to get what I pay for. So, long story short, that’s why I have both a washer and a dryer and don’t concern myself with the public laundry or its people.”

Unassuming middle age women were lined up behind us. Beneath tightly wound babushkas they spat filthy looks in Shawn’s direction but said nothing. Shawn probably wouldn’t have cared much anyhow. The 80 pulled up next to the faded STM sign, bent from various seasons, each with their own bad weather. Winter was coming, it was something I could always smell before it arrived. We were going to pick up our friend, Aurora Bronson, and then hit up a party at a new bar called The Laundromat, hence his diatribe.

Inside the bus the light felt pickled and eerie. We took two stiff blue spots beside the back stairs. An angry-looking teenage boy sat adjacent, horking into the seat beside him repeatedly. There was a seriously underage anger in his eyes and each phlegm sac was projected with deliberate purpose. “Goddamn animal,” said Shawn, audibly. We exited the bus around Van Horne, Shawn grunted something about wanting “to teach the kid a lesson about decency,” but his voice trailed off and into the sprawling, inaccessible rhythms of his mind. Aurora answered the door and let us in.

Aurora has many secrets. They are her enemies.

Sometime, a while ago, she had an original secret. She decided to put it in an empty cereal box. This first box was a bright Fruity Pebbles number featuring a jovial Fred Flintstone. Then I guess she acquired another secret, and another, and she needed somewhere to put them all, obviously. Though the way she’d explain it was not in any lucid sense. She lived alone, she could have just held it on her person but she’d always had a hard time keeping secrets, even her own, so she needed to put it somewhere.

She didn’t even trust her possessions anymore – the ancient rumble of kitchen radiator and estranged light fixtures – they were all lurking and spying from the high Victorian ceilings and beneath the cracked kitchen tiles. “It was too much to handle,” she’d explained. She felt a certain creeping sensation at play there. It creeped from the bold brights of swiveling rips in decadent old wallpapers, now tinted with dust, too much. Perhaps it was unjustified, the idea that inanimate things could tell stuff to someone else, but it grew with each blink of the neglected bulbs until she couldn’t even trust the refrigerator. She felt terribly and so she took that big unspeakable and stuck it in the empty cardboard breakfast box and, for a moment, believed in its apartness from the other breathing, moving man-made’s peeking and swallowing.

Cereal boxes had consumed the whole apartment. We were walking on boxes glued to the floor, we were walking into boxes dangling from strings and, behind each curtain, each window, was a series of cartoon characters consuming sugary snacks.

“I really appreciate your decor, Aurora,” laughed Shawn. She peaked from behind her box-clad bathroom door, “Oh yeah, it’s been a rough week.”

As we were about to leave, Shawn had to speak, “Are you going to take that with you?” There was always one thing she felt very close to and couldn’t leave behind. “Yeah, what’s it to you?” Today she was carrying around the Fred Flintstone box, “Well,” said Shawn, “everyone will think you’re cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” – this was an ongoing problem. Aurora was very sensitive, before the boxes she’d collected stray pets, and before that she’d collected photos of people she didn’t know. With Aurora everything had a weight, and Shawn saw people as if they were on the other side of a brick wall. Their conversations always ended in Shawn punching something, Aurora crying into her knees and myself mediating from the middle.

“You have yours too, you just don’t know it yet,” she responded. As we closed the door and walked down her stairs I heard Shawn grumble “Aurora ‘TLC special’ Bronson,” because having the last word was always very important to him.

The bus arrived, conveniently enough, as soon as our feet hit sidewalk. As we stepped aboard our breath puffed out mist that circled behind our heads. We sat in the same spots as before, at the back, amidst a sombre girl quietly listening to her headphones. There was also a middle-aged lady with a small buggy full of groceries reading the latest edition of The Gazette, and a skinny hipster chick with half-shaved/half-rainbow hair, repeatedly yanking her sinking leg warmers up past her knees.

It took a moment, and a potent elbow jab from Shawn, but I was eventually alerted to the familiar scowl in the back left corner. There he was, the misanthropic deviant, the spurned teenager – still spitting into the seat beside him, still shooting death stares toward strangers.

The most surreal people ride the 80, especially at night. There were certain regulars, the William H. Macy look-alike, the actor who danced with his shoulders the entire trip, a crew of similarly wigged Hasidic women with their multiplicity of offspring, cooing and crying. I had never seen the spitting boy before, and yet he’d punctuated the night. “Was he just riding the bus over and over again,” I wondered, and “why the spitting?”

I thought of his head as a cereal box and I thought of the little sugar pellets having been infested with maggots and moths and other grotesque critters. I thought of how a mind could be rotten, even the minds of the living, and I stared into his malicious slits for eyes; he stared back and spit with intent. A few people were laughing at the absurdity of it all, and it was a political sort of laughter. We all felt self-conscious for him.

I touched Shawn’s arm and could feel it tense. He was biting his lip. He was violating his bodily desire to tear the kid a new one, trying not to cause a scene. His scenes always upset Aurora, who was making a scene herself, snuggling that fruity pebble box.

The bus slowed to a halt at Parc and St. Viateur.  A man and his five animated young daughters entered, chatting loudly and in unison about an assortment of topics. So distracted by one daughter’s concern over her empty belly and another’s aggravation at her Barbie’s newly amputated limb, the earnest and overwhelmed father did not notice the youngest, a toddler, wobble away from him, crawl up the stairs, and launch herself head first into the seat beside the angry teenager.

There must have been a pop, or a flash, or something because it was as if the whole bus awoke in organized chaos. Shawn jerked to his feet. The movement of the wheels beneath us caused him to sway to the other side of his aisle and his pointed finger, meant for the teenager, tottered between the windows.

“Did you really just let a baby put its face in your spit? You’re goddamn crazy, you know that? What else ya gonna do? Ya gonna leave a razor blade in a park? Ya gonna piss in the public pool? Ya think your problems are fucking big, buddy?” He made sure to fully stress the consonants in “buddy.” Aurora had put her hand in mine and I could feel each tremble of her nervous twitch. “I’ll tell ya, people got problems, I got problems, man. I got problems like war. I got problems like religion, like consumer culture, like god damn deforestation.” He was counting all of the world’s problems, which he saw as solely his problems, on his fingers, the way one might tally teaspoons of vanilla. The baby lifted its bulbous cheeks, strings of slime still connecting her to the chair. Shawn hammered on.

The middle-aged woman picked up the nameless infant and sat her on her lap. She pulled a bottle of hand sanitizer from her jacket pocket and massaged goop around its immature scalp and bloated face, mindful of the eyes, mouth, ears, and nose. The baby, too dumb for the polemics of Shawn’s lecture, gave a big-eyed and wondrous grin at the woman to show its gratitude for the impromptu bath. The whole place reeked of disinfectant.

At Laurier, the boy pushed passed Shawn, exited, and walked onto the street where I could see him waiting for the next bus. “You’re an animal,” shouted Shawn through an open window. The woman handed the child to the clueless father who thanked her but did not know for what. She too left and disappeared behind a Presse Café.

There was a silence that followed, it was a look-around silence where everyone takes note of the changes in their surroundings. With all the shouting finished we could now see that the girl with the headphones was quietly crying. Tears curled around her freckles. I wondered if she had known the spitting boy, I wondered if she had mental problems.

Aurora could taste tears without them touching her tongue. This girl’s tears were so thick that they were in all of our faces. What do you even say to a stranger crying on the bus? It was so radical, and so Aurora’s reaction was equally profound. We didn’t say a thing, Aurora didn’t say a thing, but she reached into that conspicuous cereal box and pulled out a macaroni necklace. Without soliciting permissions, she hung it around the sobbing girl’s throat and laid a palm atop her head. The garish and chipped blues, greens, and reds of the painted pasta glowed against the brown of the girl’s sweater. Shawn and I had never seen the contents of any of Aurora’s boxes, and we knew better than to ask what it all meant. I don’t even think Aurora knew what it meant. Instead we accepted it as a sacrament unquestioned. The girl smiled and said “thank you,” then exited at Mont Royal, still toting the uncooked noodles around her neck like a rosary.

“I wonder what she was listening to, I wonder what song was making her cry that way,” said the hipster girl to us. “I thought maybe she knew that boy who was spitting, like maybe he was her boyfriend or something,” I responded. The hipster girl shook her rainbow head, “no, I think it was a song. Art has a powerful effect on people.” We were nearing our destination, it had been a long bus ride full of secrets, yet this strange girl was insisting upon imparting her own, “I love crying. I love crying in public. I find it all so cathartic. It’s my favourite thing to do. There is this video on YouTube, they call it ‘The Most Beautifully Tragic Things In The History Of The World.’ My friends and I have these crying parties. We get together once a month and watch the video – it has starving children, and abused puppies, and the aftermaths of natural disasters, and all sorts of crimes against humanity – and so we get together, and watch it, and just sob together, in each other’s arms, it’s honestly so beautiful. I love crying. I really do.”

We exited the bus at Avenue des Pins. I felt grateful the girl hadn’t invited us to one of her crying parties. It would have been met with the sort of awkward refusal that causes everyone to feel badly.

On the outskirts of Parc du Mont Royal, a crowd of a dozen had gathered to awe at a strange sphere obscuring the sky. “What is that?” asked Aurora. A man in a blue pinstriped suit replied, “That is the super-moon, it is the largest possible moon.” A well-dressed young woman with long fingernails admitted, “I don’t get it. It’s not that great. It’s just the moon.” Shawn sighed and said to himself with a mind for other’s hearing, “we’re so cynical, we’ve even wrecked the moon.”

We left the group to walk further east to The Laundromat. There we would have filtered down drinks and not talk about the things we wanted to talk about. Three girls wore the same three dresses. A barmaid washed her hands every hour on the hour. A drunkard spit into the streets outside. We had pockets full of stories but our patience was worn thin, and our minds shook with all of the nonsensical ringing of public sounds.


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