Seeking normalcy along tram tracks

He walks with an air of confidence, of experience, and I feel those traits have been hard-learned by time living on the streets, and going through whatever it is that landed him there. I’ve never spoken to him, and I don’t know his name, but he’s a semi-regular character during my morning commute.

Mixed in with the well-dressed bankers, the manic and overly security-conscious tourists, and the occasional red-headed journalist, is this character sporting a long gray beard to his belt line, and long gray hair down his back; he saunters up and down the light-rail tracks with his eyes scanning the ground with a burning intensity. He’s well-equipped: a bulging day-pack looms from his shoulders, hiking boots, and outdoor clothing complete the look.  His image is like ZZ Top mixed with Bear Grylls, but with a life-hardened veneer.

If you were just to see him in passing, you probably wouldn’t know what he is doing.  Maybe you would think he is just another neurotic traveler pacing the tram platform.  But after a while of watching this man it is clear he is purposefully pacing, and searching intently for something.  And it isn’t for what you might first guess.

At least my first guess would have been money, but after 2.5 years in Switzerland I can report that finding wayward coins on the ground is a rare occurrence.  Perhaps it is the frugality of the natives that keeps spare change off the ground, or that the population is so dense I don’t have time to get to it first.  At any rate, this bearded man would know this reality.

He bends down and picks something up from between the tram tracks.  It is small and white.  I have seen him do this before.  He takes a few more paces, and picks something else from the ground and casually walks away.  He is gathering cigarette butts from the ground, hoping to find some not completely spent.  I presume he will take these to his safe place later, and try to get enough enjoyment out of them to feel as if he had his own pack and is just taking a drag like anyone else.

It’s amazing the habits you can notice while waiting for public transport long enough.  I tend to stand back away from crowds; my back is always to a wall or barrier so I can notice someone coming my way.  Smokers often conceal their cigarette in their hands down by their thighs.  The tobacco burns while cupped in the smoker’s hand, just as the hand is formed while lighting a smoke on a windy day.  Sometimes a tram will come just after the cigarette is lit, and the smoker just flicks the still-burning paper and ash onto the sidewalk, or in between the tram tracks.  It doesn’t seem to matter that cigarettes are incredibly taxed and expensive–one must hurry along.

This man surely knows this, as well.  This man paces along after hurried smokers board the tram, having discarded perfectly good tobacco.  This man knows there is nothing wrong with the cigarettes, and he can just pick them up and take a drag.  He can inhale and not have to be judged or demeaned as he might be if he walked up to that same smoker and asked for a Zigarette, or if someone could spare Feuer (literally ‘fire,’ but applies to a match or lighter).

On this particular morning the man lucked out:  just off the curb he found 3/4 of a full cigarette barely still lit in the October cold.  He didn’t look up, he just continued walking.  He put the cigarette to his mouth and puffed deeply–nothing.  He puffed again, still no sign it was lit.  If I had a lighter I would offer to relight the cigarette.  I wouldn’t tell him, nor would he know, that I know where he got that cigarette, and I have seen him searching for butts.  I wished I had a lighter so I could make that cigarette all that much easier to enjoy for him.

I’m not a smoker, but I know the solace some smokers take in puffing away.  Sometimes smoking is a social device, like in Egypt when a cab driver offered me a smoke to make amends for not finding my destination right away.

This man puffed hard, and slowly smoke began to rise from its end, and his head turned higher and even more confident.  His posture changed, as he walked upright between the other smokers.  He seems to relish this.  For a few moments he held himself like a different person: not a scavenger, but just a man waiting for a tram.  There is a poetry in that.

This may not have been a homeless man, and maybe I have misread his actions through my observations during my commute.  But in reporting on asylum seekers, the undesired members of society, and the homeless, I can recognize when someone feels more empowered simply by participating in “normal,” and not being relegated to “abnormal.”  Perhaps for this man, 3/4 of a cigarette was enough for him to feel empowered, at least for a few moments.

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