“No Thanks; I’m Good.”

An image of people waiting on line for a bus

In the Fall of 1980 I was traveling home by bus from my first year as an undergrad, going for a long weekend visit. I was attending Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, partway between Montreal and Toronto, so I changed buses in Toronto to make it home, not far from Niagara Falls.

It was the first time I’d been in the Toronto bus terminal; built in 1931, it consisted of an interior waiting area, where you bought tickets and coffee from a machine, and, as per the above photo, a large outer area where buses pulled in and people lined up.

It was Thanksgiving and, as I recall, there was a throng of people, jostling either to get into lines or through them to yet other lines of their own, all waiting for their ride on a chilly Fall night. Before going away to university I’d lived in a small town — about 21,000 people back then — so being in the big city, on my own, in a crowded bus terminal late at night, was a new experience for me.

I clearly remember, as I stood there with my suitcase and backpack, that a guy came up to me, amidst all the idling engine noises and diesel fumes, and asked me something. In my memory he was around my age, his head was down, and he mumbled something to me; I couldn’t hear him so I said “What?” and I guessed that he repeated it but still not nearly loud enough for me to hear it over all the noise in that terminal. So, after going back and forth a couple times like this, I concluded that he was asking me a question about the buses, their schedules, or where to find something — so I said (and I remember the words verbatim):

I don’t know; its the first time I’ve ever been here.

To which he replied, repeating himself yet again but doing so clearly this time:

Do you wanna buy some pot?

I often think back on that moment — could I have marked myself any more clearly as the novice, the small town bumpkin, maybe even the rube? For I had mistook a query about a stealthy, illegal transaction as a request for where he might find the bus to Ottawa.

In a way, my answer was more appropriate than I realized at the time — experiencing sensory overload in that hectic terminal, more than likely a little freaked out with being on my own, all I could probably answer to any query would have been:

I don’t know; its the first time I’ve ever been here.

Thinking back on that episode, it nicely illustrates much of what our site has been about — despite what we might think in the moment, identification is always a collaborative act, between multiple agents, that takes place in settings that are not of our making and which come with conditions and rules of their own. For I read him as a projection of myself — a little lost and in need of some assistance — and, for whatever reason (How I was dressed? A demeanor signifying slight panic?), he read me as needing to get high.

As for that evening at the bus station? Well, I thanked him but declined his kind offer — likely saying something casual but, in fact, weirdly inappropriate, like, “No thanks; I’m good.” And, as I remember it, he went on his way, wading into the crowd and disappearing, in search of another customer, as I stood in line waiting for my bus ride home.

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