There once was a man who worked for the Toronto Transit Commission, the esteemed mode of public transportation in the city of Toronto. Every day, people would line up outside the window of the man’s booth. They would see a man who looked like he could trace his ancestry back to some scowling pirates. It wasn’t because of the bald head, or the earring, or the hooked nose, or the thick moustache with pointy ends, although these attributes helped complete the image. No, it was because of the fierce glare he always wore. Some people thought the plexiglass window was the only thing saving them from a duel, or perhaps a walk on the plank.
This thick, duel-sparing window also had a small, inconveniently placed microphone. People would lean into the microphone and speak up, not sure they were getting through to the man. They would look at him with puzzled expressions, and wait for some kind of reaction--other than a glare. Sometimes this amused the man, but it usually irritated him. This was not one of the days when it amused him.
On this particular day, there were few subway patrons, and the man was in the booth with another of his co-workers, a man who could glare with the best of them, but who looked less like a pirate and more like a weasel with mottled fur. The two of them were drinking coffee. Some statistics claim that coffee can increase irritability, but, as Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” These men had never heard of Mark Twain, and anyway, this was not the sort of information you could share with an irritable pirate and weasel, even on the best of days. This was not the best of days, and when a young man showed up at the ticket window, the day did not get any better.
The young man looked carefree and nonchalant. He was carrying a knapsack filled with books. He was probably some kind of student. How odious. He didn’t look like a pirate or a weasel. The young man pulled out a $50 bill and held it up to the window.
“Hello,” he said. “Do you accept this?”
He was probably asking because several places in the city did not accept $50 bills since there were too many forgeries around. But the TTC accepted them. The young man should have known that, if he rode the “rocket” often enough. Clearly, he did not. The TTC employee decided to continue with his usual glare.
“Can I pay with a fifty?” the man asked again, this time leaning closer to the inconveniently placed microphone. His attitude was innocent, which is only a few letters removed from insolent, and the fare-collector was having none of it.
“For what?” he barked. Since it took longer than a second to get an answer, he tried once more, with feeling.
“For what?” he practically shouted this time.
“What do you want to pay for?” his coffee-drinking friend butted in, yelling as well. The young man’s eyebrows drew together. Was he frowning? Was he daring to judge them?
“One fare, please.” He said it like it was the most normal thing in the world to go up to a ticket window and expect to pay the fare for a subway ride.
“Hunh,” the pirate said, taking the bill.
“One fare,” the weasel said, as if that cleared everything.
The young man watched them through the glass until the change was pushed through a slot under the glass. They gave him two bills, and $10 in coins, most of it in quarters. He continued looking at the fare-collectors with a flat expression as he took his money back and paid his fare. Then he stood there for a moment, but he didn’t do anything. He just said “Thank you,” and walked away.
The bald man watched the fellow go through the turnstile. He could hear those pockets clinking with change. Something about that should have made him laugh. It was funny when they made people feel dumb. So how come it was different this time? The guy had looked… disappointed, like he expected better. Like he didn’t expect to be yelled at when all he wanted to do was pay for a fare.
“We got him good, didn’t we?” the weasel said.
“Yeah,” the pirate replied. “We sure showed him.”
Inside, he wasn’t so sure.