Bubble Time in the Big City

In which the Elegant Bastard finally understands his previously inexplicable love of bubble wrap.

At 6:15 in the morning, I am rarely at my best. If the sun remains in hiding, I am in the basement gym, swearing at my treadmill. If spring has started its brief Canadian appearance, I am puffing along city streets, swearing at the sun. The other constants include far too much sweat to be in any way photogenic, carelessly chosen track pants, a rude or worn out t-shirt and a pair of old Asics that deserve quick death in a sea of bleach. In short, the visuals are appalling and the sound effects are worse.

In my gym, all this remains unshared. The street, however, is a different jungle. Here there at least the possibility of prying eyes and muttered judgments. Yet those who cohabit with me in this city that I love accept my morning presence the same way I mark theirs – in silence. It is as if we are all ensconced in private bubbles, each of us rolling our own way forward to some determined destination. We do not touch or wave or mutter greetings. Our eyes might meet momentarily and our heads may nod – once – as if to at least admit a species affiliation.

Do not judge us urban folk too quickly. Crowd us into our morning coffee shops, be-suited and be-jewelled and beshowered , and we become almost verbose. “Waz ups” and “Howzits (going or hanging)” abound. The weather and the Maple Leafs will be unanimously praised or condemned. There will be banter with the barista. Then we return to the street and once again assume our bubbles.

Bubble time is precious in the urban landscape. Here amidst chaos and cacophony and using skills learned long ago, we actually achieve a private space. Within it we can doubt and debate and plan. We can sort out a nagging fear and turn it into a kind of hope. We can rehearse, re-write and rehearse again. Noise and smog are merely generic, nothing more than a backdrop. Some sort of seventh sense prevents collisions and the changing of a light or the impending bumper of a car is felt or smelled rather than seen. We are that good. And why would we ever question what is a most successful strategy? Who questions breathing?

Thus, on my first 6:15 a.m. in Comox, British Columbia, a village of 13,000 (that is legally a town) I donned the regular garb, assumed the normal bubble, and hit the streets (of which there seemed to be three.). That I was no longer in my version of Kansas became pretty apparent when I skidded through a patch of deer poop and more or less ran in to the responsible deer. We looked at each other, decided that peace was preferable to war – it had hooves, I had a loud iPhone – and went our separate ways. The next glimpse of truth came when I turned a corner and saw more mountains in one place than were frankly necessary. Still, they were a long way away and did not seem to be moving closer so I once again bowed into my running crouch and pumped my way along. Next came the smell of the sea. This is a peculiar odor, an acquired taste, a scent that says loudly, “I am bigger than you and fish do nasty things in me before they die.” If the sea happens to be the Mediterranean and there in front of you is a seafood restaurant with three Michelin stars, much can be forgiven. Here the sea was the Strait of Georgia and in front of me were three trees, two of them obese.

Still, bubble time is bubble time and grand issues needed solving. I set off down what looked like a lonely and less-travelled road, happily plodding and plotting, lost in my world of sweat and stratagems. So when the first “Good morning” whizzed by me on my left, I damn near did what the deer had done. I had just enough time to re-master the art of inhaling when another “Morning” exploded to my right. A minute later, three were fired down the hill that I was climbing. Soon they were everywhere. Greetings were being hurled like grenades while I dashed back and forth like some cartoon character in an animated minefield. My bubble lasted only moments before giving me its version of “Later, Dude” and disappearing.

I resumed my run, but only out of habit. Having none of the world’s problems or my own to solve anymore, I instead became a passive observer and I soon discerned a pattern. As people approached, their eyes would suddenly lock on me, as if involuntarily, and this seemed to be the trigger. Whether I immediately turned my eyes away, slouched, embraced a tree or attempted to impersonate something rabid did not matter in the least. We have contact! We have ignition. “Good morning!”

It is hard to describe how much I came to hate this and how it began to haunt me. I started to avoid curving roads and large bushes. If caught in an impossible to avoid impending encounter, I would mime elaborate “Forgot the something or other” gestures and reverse my direction. I had not solved a world crisis or created a new asparagus recipe in nearly a week, Still they kept coming; still they would launch their missiles. My anger grew.  Had I owned an air force, I would have called in bombing runs.

My morning run’s reward is the largest decaf Americano I can find. On my third day I had found a small cafe that performed this service admirably and so it was I came to be seated in the sun on a quiet Comox street corner. Suddenly, a large golden retriever appeared and started enthusiastically introducing itself to my crotch. Its owner, fortunately far more restrained, looked me in the eye and said – what else? – “Good morning.” While periodically diverting the dog’s attention with croissant crumbs – tossed farther and farther away – we managed a conversation that led inevitably to me explaining how uncomfortable I found the invasive greetings by one and all to all and sundry. My companion, a transplanted former Calgarian, shrugged, grimaced and said, “You get used to it.”

At that precise moment three elderly walkers strode by, delivering a rapid and perfectly synchronized “beautifuldayisn’tit” before disappearing. I cringed; I saw him shudder; I knew he had lied. We naturally ran together every day after that, each in his own bubble. The dog – sans bubble – ran with us, veering away periodically as it continued its search for the perfect crotch.

In our subsequent coffee-fueled musings, we would wonder aloud about the essential difference between bubble-folk and armies of “Good Morning”. I thought of the small towns I had known: Comox; Goose bay, Labrador; Trenton, Ontario and a few others. In each, a morning walk would take a traveller easily to the town’s limit. In some such places, the change from the presence to the absence of humankind is gradual; in others, it can be quite abrupt. Nor is the sight of a paved road leading off into what has suddenly become wilderness reassuring. In fact, it simply enhances the sense of isolation. Add to the scene a ragged range of peaks; green, grey and black walls of trees; a tide that withdraws unevenly beyond the horizon and then returns to the highway’s edge; the pervasive odours of rot and manure. The colour of the sky will not matter. Black, blue or grey, it is simply part of something not the least bit interested in our busyness. It moves in response to a design we cannot comprehend, or worse, it denies design entirely. It is either the embodiment or the absolute mockery of arrogance. It takes enormous strength to gaze a long time quietly at that. “Good morning!” in this context is an answer. It says, “I am here and so are We.”

Our great cities also have edges, but since most of us would not reach them in a day’s running, we are largely oblivious. Our lives here are reassuringly surrounded by our corner stores and our cathedrals, our stops and goes and cautions, our neon shouts, our places of endeavour and escape. I could, with effort, stare down even the busiest street to catch a fragmentary glimpse of the profound absence I sense elsewhere. I could even just sit here at my desk, eyes closed and ears stopped, and manage to walk out far. But that would make things more honest that I ever really want them to be. Ironies I create and play with can be wonderful; those I come across by accident tend to be less pleasant.

The “We” of the city reassures but it also crowds. It cries. It pushes, it pricks and it shoves. If we had to engage it at every encounter, we would never get anywhere. Our bubbles rescue us and bring us back to “I” for as long as we can manage and, hopefully, as long as we find necessary.

On my last day in Comox, the two of us ran past the edge of town to a point where the highway curved away and disappeared. As we turned to run back, we saw two more runners approaching. With minimal effort, I called out “Good Morning.” They answered in kind and followed the curve ahead. We chuckled our way back to the cafe.

The next day, in downtown Vancouver, I joined the flow of joggers along the waterfront and instantly got my bubble back.