Friday, May 30, 2008

The LRT


Edmonton is one of my favourite cities. Since writing the essay below, I established contractual consulting relationships with three companies in the city, and I was (briefly!) a student at the U of A. I wrote "The LRT" after my second trip to Edmonton in 2000.


The LRT



“Dad, you have snow on your shoe,” my five-year-old son said last week.


I looked down and saw the sprinkling of off-white powder on my boot, and laughed. “That’s not snow, Jerome, it’s Celite.”


“What’s Celite?” he asked, puzzled by the word.


“Well, Celite is sometimes called ‘diatomaceous earth.’ It’s kind of like dirt,” I tried to explain.


“Dirt? What’s it for?”


“We use it for purifying things in the lab.” I realized this would only lead to further inquiry, since Jerome had probably never heard the word ‘purify.’ I attempted to phrase this in a way he would understand: “When we purify things, it’s kind of like cleaning them,” I said, confident now that he would have a basic understanding of my work.


“Cleaning?” he wondered aloud. “You use dirt to clean things?”


I laughed again. Sometimes things are not at all what they seem. Sometimes, try as we might, we simply cannot explain our own experience of life.


#


I thought about Jerome’s words as I made my way south along a sidestreet near the busy downtown of a large city. I had to walk several blocks south to get to Corona Station, one of the gateways to the LRT. I had to travel from Corona to University, then Haven St. , and finally to Canada Station. It was the first time in several years that I would be riding a subway. And a subway in a foreign land, no less.


My thoughts drifted to studies I completed long ago. In my youth I was a student of the Russian language. This was not easy in the mid-seventies, since the early Cold War emphasis on teaching Russian to high school students had long since passed. So I wrote an independent study course and traveled by bicycle once each week across town to a junior high school. There I received instruction from one of the few teachers remaining in the school system who knew the language.


Perhaps the most interesting piece of information I found during my high school studies did not concern the Russian language at all but the culture of the time. The Moscow subway system was a jewel of Soviet culture. The subway was beautiful, brightly lit, with marbled and tiled floors and walls, and even chandeliers. The most interesting fact about the Moscow subway, though, was the cleanliness. There was certainly no graffiti of any kind, but neither was there even a trace of any kind of trash anywhere. The floors were always sparkling clean.


I knew from personal experience about the subways in my own country. I had seen the dirt and trash rubbed and ground into concrete floors, the walls covered in graffiti. I had felt the fear of being alone in a noisy and ugly place among thousands of strangers.


Why was there such a difference between the two subways? As I began studies in college toward a bachelor’s degree in Russian, I was given an answer: The heavy hand of the Soviet military frightened the Russian people into submission. It was the unwholesome character of the totalitarian state that accidentally resulted in a clean and beautiful subway. Left to their own, given the same freedom that we enjoy in this country, the people would litter and strew graffiti just as Americans do.


I continued walking south along the sidestreet, and saw that I was approaching a very busy cross street, with no traffic lights. Edmonton, I already knew, was the largest city in North America, at least in terms of square kilometre area. But the city proper also had a population of 776,000, making it one of the biggest cities by population, also. I stopped at the corner, and waited for a break in traffic. As soon as I stopped, I saw that an oncoming city bus slowed and stopped on the other side of the intersection. No one came off the bus. I saw no bus-stop there. I looked to my right, and saw the blue and white bus-stop sign. Why was the bus stopped on the wrong side of the intersection? Seconds later, a car slowed and finally stopped in the lane next to the bus. Then I looked down: in front of me were the double white lines of a crosswalk. The cars were waiting for me to cross! This had never happened to me that I could remember. These drivers, on a very busy city street, were yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. What force of habit or quality of character had given them the presence of mind to think about pedestrians? This was indeed a foreign and strange land. I crossed and waved thanks to the waiting cars.


#


It was not until long after I left college that I recognized the underlying principle guiding discussions about the subway. The conclusion is that free people somehow infringe on each other’s well-being. Put another way, people are inherently selfish. This conclusion has been a source of consternation and resignation through the ages, until the mid-twentieth century. About 70 years ago, a woman named Ayn Rand began to focus her very analytical mind on the problem of selfishness. She concluded that there was no problem at all. In fact, self interest, or selfishness as Ms. Rand preferred to call it, was a virtue. “The Virtue of Selfishness,” one of her bestselling books, proclaimed in relentlessly logical fashion the argument for libertarianism in a series of short articles and speeches. Her fictional works, especially “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead” are masterpieces of prose and philosophy that should be read by every American.


We are selfish. But selfishness is the virtuous quality of our character that has allowed us as a race to achieve greatness. It is the very essence of freedom.


#


I thought on the nature of humanity as I continued my journey south along the sidestreet. I was now approaching Jasper Avenue, one of the busiest streets in Edmonton. And again, I was at an intersection without traffic lights. I saw that there was no crosswalk. I would definitely have to wait at this corner, I concluded. As I slowed my stride, I appreciated the crisp, clean air. I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and smiled. Canada was a strange land, indeed. But there was something very pleasant about just walking the streets of this city. I came to the corner, and stopped.


From the oncoming direction, a very old, somewhat crumpled grey Nissan approached the intersection. I could see the driver was a man with long, black hair, and he had a single passenger in the front seat. I waited for him to pass. His car slowed and came to a stop on the other side of the intersection. And two seconds later, a red Honda stopped next to the Nissan in the other lane. I do not believe this, I thought to myself. And I laughed loudly, joyous and hearty laughter, the laughter of many years and even decades, for all of Edmonton to hear. And I crossed the intersection, waving again to the drivers of cars on both sides of the street.


What quality of character had given them the presence of mind to think about pedestrians? It seemed that the drivers were traveling not to a destination, but through a place. The place had a meaning and substance of its own equal in value to the destination, and the people in this place, even a lowly pedestrian, had an importance equal to the drivers’. I wondered, does this not go against the very core of human nature?


Gingerly, I approached Corona Station. I opened the doors leading to the stairs descending deep underground. The air was fresh and crisp, like the air outside. Not one of the steps was soiled by dirt or trash. As I descended the very clean stairs, I saw finally the underground station itself. The dark brown tile on the walls was beautiful. As the escalator descended, I saw with glowing heart, small, simple, and yet elegant: a chandelier. Some students talked quietly but earnestly in groups. Men and women in business suits sat or stood patiently, some reading the Edmonton Journal, others reading the Globe and Mail. The calm was pervasive. The clean walls and floor were immaculate. There was no fear. Perhaps everyone except me was going to school or going to work. It was just another day in Edmonton, Alberta.


This just cannot be, I thought. There must be a catch somewhere! Almost frantically, I looked around. Somewhere there must be a sign: “Six million dollar fine for littering!” I searched in vain. There were no such signs. Police! Why yes! The heavy hand of the Canadian military must be at play here. Perhaps there were soldiers patrolling with Uzi’s, ready to explode into bloody hamburger anyone who so much as dropped a gum wrapper. No. I saw no military. In fact, I couldn’t recall even seeing any police on the streets above. There were no surveillance cameras, either. Just the calm beginning to another Edmonton day.


I boarded the train and sat next to a student, Karen, who was a graduate student in petroleum engineering. I told her my impressions. She couldn’t relate to my experience in U.S. subways. Her only other experience had been on the Calgary LRT, which was entirely above ground. It was installed at the insistence of the then mayor of Calgary (who was now Premier of Alberta), Ralph Klein. “In Calgary, LRT does not mean ‘Light Rail Transit’,” she said, “It means ‘Little Ralphie’s Train.’” This was possibly more than I wanted to know about Alberta politics, but I laughed at her joke. We passed University Station; the next stops were Haven and Canada. I was staying at a hotel just outside the Canada Station.


“Why was the Edmonton LRT built?” I asked. She didn’t know. She speculated that it was probably for the students. Alberta had been spending a lot of money to attract quality professors and students to the University. “They thought that if they put down the money for the LRT, they could attract the kind of people they wanted."


“If you build it, they will come?” I asked her. “Something like that,” she smiled. The train slowed down, but I couldn’t tell which stop this was.


“Is this Haven?” I asked Karen, as she was rising to get off the train.


“No, it’s Canada,” she replied.


“This is my stop,” I said, “I’m staying here.”


“Where are you from?” she asked. “Colorado,” I replied. “Well, then, welcome to Edmonton!” and she flashed a smile as she went off to her classes.


I climbed the long flights of stairs to the street, about 25 metres above, I guessed. The walls and the stairs were immaculate. The air was fresh and crisp. I came to the last few stairs before the glass doors leading to Canada Street. On the third step from the top, near the corner of the step, I saw a lone blue-on-white LRT ticket. I smiled: nothing is perfect, I thought. I pushed open the glass door and headed toward my hotel.


Rush Limbaugh, I knew, would find nothing at all desirable in this land of caring people. After all, taxes in Canada are very, very high. And there is so much that one must learn to endure here: large houses with more bedrooms than one could ever need, clean surroundings, friendly people. And no families having to live under bridges, abandoned warehouses, or garages.


I continued to walk to my hotel, but then I slowed, and finally stopped. I paused. I thought. And I turned around then, focusing on the glass door leading to the Canada Street Station. I opened the door, descended exactly three steps, and I picked up that single LRT ticket. There was a trash can at the top of the stairs. I folded the ticket, wadded it in my palm, and released the used ticket into the black plastic-lined trash container. I pushed open the glass door, and breathed in again the wonderful air.


#


It has been argued that humanity is akin to a smoldering, seething dungheap, and that any goodness we might have is an illusion, perhaps provided by a thin veneer of freshly fallen snow. Perhaps. But I believe that the greater, stronger, more enduring truth is that we are created good. We are created equal. We are inherently able to bring light, love, and goodness into this world. And in this great truth, I think there is something worth living and dying for. We stand on guard for this truth that is bigger and brighter and truer than any personal truth. It is the truth that makes us more completely human, more human than individualism and self interest. It is the truth that makes us strong and free, glorious and free.


William Shirer and the other well-known chroniclers of the Second World War told us that we must never forget the evils of the Nazi movement. The Nazis, Shirer told us, were not born of a particularly evil race. In fact, each one of us has the potential to bring about the same evil. We are selfish. We can become evil.


Yet, we can find a haven from this evil. The haven exists in our own hearts. We can make a choice to follow our true selves – the part of us that loves other human beings, or we can choose to follow the false self – the part of us that desires only the momentary pleasures that selfishness demands. I suppose in a way we are something like Celite. We are dust, and dust we will become. But we also carry within us the divine fire. We can choose to bring God’s light and God’s love into this world, because that light has been with us from the beginning. We can choose, if we wish, to be purified, and to help purify each other.


Canada exists wherever people believe in and act on their own inherent goodness, and seek to revere the inherent goodness of others. Canada exists when groups of people realize the truth that we can, truly, build a society based on the inviolate nature of human dignity.



Pearson Moore


+ Feast of St. Alphege
Holy Wednesday, A.D. 2000
April 19



NOTES:


Everything in this story is true, except of course, the existence of Haven Station and Canada Street Station. I simply found it too difficult to resist the Heaven/Iowa – Haven/Canada parallel to “Field of Dreams.” This also became a way of acknowledging the fact, in a humourous way, that perfection does not exist. Canada faces many deep problems, and my experiences are quite likely not in keeping with the daily experience of average Canadians. Nevertheless, the character of Canadian culture is very different from that found south of the border, and is indicative of a cultural choice that any of us can make. We all have the potential to become caring, loving, unified people. The choice is ours.



Oh, deepest apologies, also, to my friends in Calgary. I just couldn’t resist the “Little Ralphie’s Train” bit.



PM Boulder, Colorado

3 comments:

Luc2 said...

Hi Pearson,

I came to take a look (you thought you could escape me?), and I wanted to say i really enjoyed this article.

I'll be back, to check out your future posts.

Luc aka Lucan

Pearson said...

Hi Luc,

Thanks for visiting!

All the best,

Pearson

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