By Ryan Brennan
No one knew how long he’d been doing it, nor why he’d ever even started. They (the ones whose daily routes and routines happened to coincide with his) knew only that he followed his practice with the utmost precision and devotion, not once deviating from its course.
At dawn, he awoke in his solitary and sparsely furnished flat, brushed his teeth, showered, swept his brief strip of hair into place, dressed and descended a single flight of stairs into the street. He walked just two blocks to his regular cafe, where he sat every day at the same seat in the corner. There was nothing exceptional about this establishment--the staff were reliably neutral in their demeanor, the food was consistently mediocre and the location, on the small slope of a side-street running down towards the waterfront, was like any other modest, neighborhood cafe. Each day he ordered the same thing--a toasted cheese sandwich with a small side of tomatoes and cucumbers, and a plain cup of coffee into which he dropped a single cube of sugar, stirred and sipped slowly.
While drinking the final half of his coffee, he’d read one of the local newspapers. Most people, he noticed (at first only the teenagers, but then also their parents and eventually even those who seemed to be his peers), did not read anything or look out at the street. They never even just sat and let their minds wander. Almost all of them craned their necks to their lit devices, transfixed by a virtual world about which he knew not a thing. Pairs of people--friends, siblings, lovers and colleagues--would sit opposite one another at a table and mirror one another’s peculiar movements, sometimes laughing and showing each other whatever spontaneous spectacles they’d witnessed within their screens. He’d grown tired of watching them and preferred to observe the bodies and faces passing by outside or, even better, the occasional flock of pigeons, stray cat or dog.
As soon as his mug went dry, he’d leave his payment on the table (a single cash note which included a small tip) and would set off down to the seaside. He’d time everything meticulously so that he’d be in the front of the line for the day’s first ferryboat to cross the channel. The congregating crowd varied from day to day, but there were always the regulars with early schedules. They recognized him, of course, and sometimes spoke about him amongst themselves, speculating as to his past life and his current destination. The more practical of them believed that he was happily retired, albeit a bit lonely, and simply going to visit his relatives each day, while the more imaginative ones concocted all kinds of elaborate narratives, attributing to him far more intrigue than his modest appearance and demeanor deserved.
But there was, indeed, something different about him. While everyone else was merely in transit to their required end-point, there was a certain deliberateness to his motion and a glow, even, in his eye as he took his first step from land to vessel, which seemed to suggest he’d already reached his destination. While his dress and temperament remained steadfastly unassuming, it was this peculiar inwardness, if one were so-inclined to take notice, which was striking.
Upon boarding, he’d proceed directly to his place--up the staircase on the left, to the inside, corner window seat. Because of his obvious determination and assuredness (while others frantically sought out their ideal seating arrangement, he already knew his precise perch of choice), he was always guaranteed his spot. He’d settle in with a graceful turn and dip and, while most passengers tended to keep their coats on, he’d take his off, fold it carefully and place it just beside him. Behind him was a wooden wall, on the other side of which was the partially-enclosed deck area, to his left was the start of a long, glass window which spanned the side of the ferryboat, and to his right, diagonally across the aisle, was a small cafe which served tea, coffee and snacks.
His seat was in fact a booth which could, if squeezed, fit up to five people. Just across from him was an identical one, and on the other side of that were several more sets which ran all the way to the other deck. Between each booth was a table where passengers could rest their tea or their elbows. Often, especially during the early-morning and afternoon trips which fell outside of rush-hour, or in the warmer weather when most people preferred to be in the open-air, he’d have the entire section to himself. But during the busiest hours and sometimes on the weekends, it’d be nearly full-up and he’d have to take his coat onto his knee and lean into the window.
The trip, from one side of the straight to the other, took only 30 minutes. Most people would start to gather their belongings and zip up their coats as the dock approached, but he wouldn’t even stir. Perhaps, if they’d in some way interacted during the crossing, he’d smile at someone opposite him, or wave to a small child with whom he’d exchanged a few, funny expressions, but as they got up to leave, he’d sit right where he was. As all of the passengers eagerly cleared out of the boat, he stayed put, looking out the window to the water and the land.
There was of course a policy against such behavior (if one so desired to engage in it)--a passenger should exit and re-enter the boat, paying the fee for the return, as it was not a round-trip ticket. If someone wanted a tour, there was a separate company entirely for that, but even if they’d forgotten something at home and needed to immediately turn back, they’d have to pay the standard fare again. For him, however, the workers had unanimously determined to make an exception (inspired, perhaps, by his quiet and calm resolve and a sense that his persistent presence was a natural and maybe even beneficial part of the passage). The initial curiosity as to why he did it, with time receded. It was simply what he did, and if it didn’t bother anyone, why bother worrying about it?
And so he remained and observed the departure and arrival of the daily waves of shuffling souls. Just as a song seems to change each time you listen to it, so too was each crossing, for all of its regularity, a subtly unique experience. Sometimes, depending on the season, the weather, the day of the week, the hour and the collective temperament of the passengers, it would seem to him as though everyone were perfectly in sync with one another and in fact composed a unified, joyful organism. And yet other times, often depending on the slightest alterations of the very same factors, life appeared a kind of punishment and imprisonment, everyone confined to the unbearable weight and lonesomeness of selfhood. It was such a fickle thing, he thought, that a mere break in the clouds could shift the energy entirely.
He was transfixed by how this snapshot of a day, this microcosm of being, could reveal the deeper truths of existence. Some people watched films, listened to music or read books, went to the theater, the opera or a museum, but for him all such forms of art paled in comparison to the raw immediacy of life itself unfolding. He’d already lived and left the life that had been expected of him, and he’d done it all, as far as he was concerned, to get to his current state of relative freedom; the liberty to simply be and witness, in awareness. Of course some people tried to explain his eccentric behavior away in practical terms--he was visiting family, he was lonely, he’d worked on boats his whole life and preferred them to land, he was suffering from dementia--they just couldn’t fathom that someone would ride, day after relentless day, for the simple sake of wonder.
He’d never tire of the paradox that everything, though ordinary and monotonous, was at the very same time an awesome mystery. One moment, a swooping gull was a mere hungry bird on the hunt, while the next instant it was an urgent expression of the indiscriminate surge of the spirit. The only thing that ever changed, he came to understand, was his own perception of and relationship to reality; it was not about what he saw, but how he saw it. The sky and the sea were changing every second, as were the moods, styles and expressions of the passengers in commute, but the morph and turn of form didn’t much interest him; it was what remained, through all of the seeming change, that was truly intriguing.
As far as he could remember, in each of the traditional stages of his prior life, he’d always desired more uninhibited time and space to reflect upon what it all meant. Everyone, he’d always thought, was so preoccupied with doing all of the ‘practical’ things that were supposedly ‘required’ of them that no one ever truly experienced the original wonder of being anything at all. It was tragic, really, how much precious time was wasted worrying, plotting and regretting the day away. Sure, they were ‘connected’ and ‘shared’ their ‘stories’ with one another, but though they may have fooled their followers into believing their projected happiness, they knew, in the silent solitude of their true selves, that some essential thing was missing. Most people died without ever having lived.
Blind conformity, he thought, was in fact more absurd than having the courage to set off on your own, unorthodox way. He’d often fantasized of leaving behind all of his social ties and going to live alone in the wilderness, where he could strip down to and touch the bare core of existence. There was no pretense in this desire, no intention to be noticed for his eccentricity; the urge came wholly from within. It would have been easier, in many respects, to dutifully abide by the accepted, societal norms, but this itch just wouldn’t let him be.
Although he never did make it to his cabin retreat in the woods, when the moment presented itself he’d managed to find and embrace his own form of meditation. While it had become common for some of the ‘elite’ to exploit contemplative techniques for their own, ultimately self-centered ends, he had no ambition other than to witness and merge with the moment in which he dwelled. He was an artist, albeit of an unusual medium, utterly dedicated to his daily discipline. His studio was the vessel in which he made the crossing, and he himself, if one were open enough to witness it, was his own exhibit, simply sitting and, in wonder, watching the world as it was.
While everyone else used the ferryboat as a means to come and go, he planted himself firmly within it and chose to be aware. Most of the weary commuters were so busy lost in their jumbled worries, or trying furiously to scroll them away, that they hardly ever even looked up, let alone noticed the stoic sage in their midst. Although he’d in fact, in many respects, come to perfect his practice, the final stage required attention from his peers. A single, earnest glimpse of his eye could have reminded them of something they didn’t even realize they’d forgotten. They needed only to listen to and follow the itch at their own core. And so he sat, ultimately, not for himself alone, but for all of the yearning souls that surrounded him, as they were all bound by and called back to the same, vital source.
When the day’s last ferry coasted into the dock, finally he’d stand with the others, would put on his coat and descend the stairs amidst all of the tired, lurching bodies. He’d look up at the night sky and would retrace his steps, up the very same street he’d strolled down in the morning, and would eat a brief meal at the very same cafe where he’d taken his breakfast. He’d watch the people coming outside in the street, just as he’d watched them going. He’d leave his payment and his tip and would walk back to his flat, where he’d go up the very same flight of stairs he’d descended hours before. Everything in reverse, at the day’s winding down. And as he fell asleep upon his pillow, there wasn’t a single thought on his mind. Another inconceivable day had passed, and he’d been a part of it. This, anyway, was his routine.
Ryan made the mistake of studying philosophy. He has many questions and few answers. He once asked a seagull what it was passionate about. It squawked, snatched his lahmacun, and flew away.