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The better way
The subway, Cathal Kelly writes, was all my fantasies about motion, dependability and power come to life

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Saturday, September 22, 2018 – Page O3

Cathal Kelly is The Globe and Mail's national sports columnist. He is the author of Boy Wonders.

Every friend of mine was obsessed with the idea of hitting sixteen and getting a car. But cars made me anxious.

Every time I got in one, it was Death Race with absurdly low stakes. My mother had never learned to drive. We couldn't have afforded a car in any case.

There wasn't any real need of one and I didn't feel its loss. I had the subway.

The subway gets a bad rap because it is seen as a conveyance of need rather than desire. But I thought of it rather the other way around. You went to certain designated spots and professionals - people who didn't want to crash their vehicles for the insurance money - were on hand to take you to your destination. A transit system is chauffeuring for the masses.

The subway is predictable. It comes by every few minutes. It goes to the same places in the same order every time. Even children can figure it out. It is consistent.

You could stand at the front of the train, look out the window and feel its speed. When it got hot in summer, the driver left his door open and you could watch him turn the big lever. The subway was all my fantasies about motion, dependability and power come to life.

When I was nine, my friend Aaron and I began going downtown on Saturdays to the Eaton Centre, a large, ugly mall. There was nothing in the Eaton Centre for us. We had no money, and no idea how to spend it if we had.

We went so that we could take the subway. Once there, we hung around until it made sense to go back.

On one occasion, a security guard stopped us while we were stealing coins from a fountain.

"Where are your parents?" "Home."

"Why aren't you with them?" "We wanted to take the train."

"Well, you can't be here."

Which was fine with us. All he was doing was telling us to get back on the subway. Which was the goal.

I went home and told my mother about it.

"I think he was worried that someone would kidnap us."

My mother nodded.

"Are you worried that someone would kidnap us?" "Why would someone kidnap you?" "For money, maybe?" "You see any money around here?" She had this way of turning things around until they made sense. Or, at least, made sense in a way you hadn't considered.

Sometimes Aaron and I would take the subway out to its final stop and sit in the station awhile.

No one lived out there (or so it seemed). It was quiet. We didn't talk a whole lot. We liked to sit there, assessing the distances we'd crossed. And then we'd get back on the train. It was a pointless way to spend the day, but I suppose we could've been up to much worse. We'd get there soon enough.

In high school, we used the subway as a twisted playground.

It was the place you went for that hour after school when nothing good happens. Each of us kept a collection of nickels that had been flattened by passing trains.

In retrospect, the only reason we did this was to enjoy the thrill of watching people lose their minds as we jumped down onto the tracks to place and retrieve the coins. The souvenirs produced were useless. One looked exactly like any other, all its nickelly features flattened into a silver disc half as thick and twice as wide. I had dozens of them.

We played a game of chicken that involved "riding" the trains out of the station. As the doors closed and after the conductor had stopped paying attention, we'd step from the platform into the indentation of the doorway and brace ourselves against the sides. The idea was to hang on to the exterior of the train for as long as possible without being crushed by the barrier at the end of the platform.

Obviously, this was an unbelievably stupid thing to do. Most of us - including me - couldn't make it more than a few feet without panicking. As we sprang from the doorway, we'd occasionally glance off a pillar or into a wall. The floors were slick marble and we'd end up taking a humiliating fall, hammering into a bench or garbage can on the way down. We all agreed it was great fun and then limped off home to moan in our rooms.

It was performative masochism. Whom exactly we were performing it for was never clear.

For a while there, jumping off things became a sort of mania for us - garages, fences, walls.

Anything we could get on top of.

We should have died many times over, but it never ended in anything worse than a turned ankle or chipped tooth.

I watched a guy leap out of a window in Grade 11 math class.

He'd been in an argument with the teacher and, in order to bring his point home with the proper dramatic flourish, he got up on the sill and announced that he was going to jump.

"So do it," the teacher said.

And he did.

It was at least two storeys down. Twenty-five feet minimum. I didn't see him land. I only saw the aftermath. He'd hit a wall splay-legged on the way down and shattered his tailbone.

He lay there on the grass shrieking while the teacher had what looked to my inexpert eye something like the opening stages of a nervous breakdown.

One afternoon, a friend named Peter took train riding further than any of us ever had.

He hopped onto the last car and rode it the full length of the platform. For a horrible moment, it seemed as if he might ride it right into the tunnel. The idea that anybody might be able to get by the barrier - a low steel gate - had not occurred to us. We were watching the clouds part and a miracle in the offing. My God, what a legend Peter would have been if he'd managed that.

Far too late, Peter thought better of the idea. With perhaps 40 or 50 feet of platform remaining and the train now moving close to full speed, he leaped from the doorway.

I understood inertia in theory, but the true awfulness of Newtonian physics did not become apparent to me until this moment. Peter came cartwheeling off the train, arms akimbo, legs flailing. We could only see his back, but we all felt his despair.

There was something sad and resigned in his spastic movements.

He broke into an exaggerated, involuntary sprint. He was Wile E. Coyote going over the cliff's edge. Then he hit the wall at the end of the platform face first and bounced off it like India rubber.

There was a lot of blood.

The rest of us waited to see if he was still twitching. When he began pathetically rising to his feet - nose broken, almost certainly concussed - everyone laughed. Hard. Even Peter.

Later, Peter robbed a drug store by kicking a hole in a long, vertical plate-glass window and crawling in underneath it. He wanted cigarettes. While he was on the way back out, what remained of the window dislodged and a shard of glass gouged a horrific hunk of skin and hair from his skull.

Rather than call it an evening, Peter went on to the house party we were all attending. When the cops broke it up, they couldn't help but notice the kid whose head was bleeding profusely through his hoodie. One of the brighter bulbs on the force then recalled the piece of scalp they'd recovered at a robbery earlier in the night.

Peter was arrested and housed temporarily in a juvenile unit. He was the sort of person who had a supernatural ability to get on your nerves, like a werewolf of irritation. He managed his trick again in the wrong place and one of the other pipsqueak convicts stabbed him right through the hand with a pencil. Peter returned incredibly proud of this numbskull stigmata. He'd show the hole to anybody who asked.

I could not tell you now very much about the lives of most of my work colleagues. Where do they live, who with and what do their parents do for a living? I have no idea. But in high school, I knew those things about dozens of classmates. I knew where they worked and who they were seeing and the model of car they drove.

The ones I kept closest track of were the achievers. They were doing things and going places.

My best friends were not achievers. They were cheerful nitwits and scholastic failures.

They didn't expect to get anywhere and we never spoke of the future. It did not interest us in the least. We were creatures entirely of the present. What could be done today? That was the focus.

Without achievements, we instead took our pride from endurance. We could get through things. Pain was a big part of that. Hurting ourselves for others to see. We liked to play another variant of chicken, with cigarettes.

Two guys press their forearms together, and then drop a lit cigarette in between. You don't feel much at first. You smell it before you feel it - hair burning, flesh melting. And then you really feel it. You lose by pulling your arm away, allowing the cigarette to fall to the ground.

I still have those scars. I can go up and down my body cataloguing all the other marks left by the recklessness of childhood - the time I accidentally hit myself with an axe, the groove left after John dropped a stereo speaker on me, the spot on my neck where a sliver of metal flecked off a bar as someone was hitting me in the head with it. There's a chance I'm slowly dying of lead poisoning as I write this.

I once woke up and found what I thought was a thick, black hair sticking out of my forehead.

Instead, it was stitching thread that had worked its way to the surface over time. I couldn't remember when I'd had it stitched.

There was a lot of stitching at the time.

Enduring was the key, and the subway was symbolic of that for me.

I did not expect that I would ever get the chance to go to interesting places or see new things. If you'd asked one of us about backpacking through Europe or whatever it is that people with money do when they are on the cusp of adulthood, we'd have laughed at you. Yeah, give us that money. We'll buy a hundred twofours and have the most epic summer in history without ever having to leave John's or Brian's or Ned's garage. Europe. Go fuck yourself with Europe.

What I hoped for my life was that it would stay essentially the same. I craved orderliness and stability. I had a dollar figure in mind - $40,000.

If I could find a job that paid me 40 grand, I could have all the things I wanted. I wouldn't fear disruption or disaster. I wanted to know that when I left in the morning, there would be something to come back to at night.

Forty thousand would settle that for me.

On that pay packet, I'd never be able to afford my own car. It didn't matter. I couldn't drive and felt no need to learn.

Eventually, my mother got her driver's licence and bought a car - a little VW. I noted that she waited until I was out of the house to do it. So, in revenge, I got my driver's permit as well and decided I would be borrowing it often.

On one of those first trips, I rear-ended someone. My mother then forbade me the car. So I went back to the subway.

I know every stop by heart. I know who lived within walking distance of what station - Brian just up from Keele, Ned a few blocks from High Park, Ronan ten stops on the Runnymede bus.

I still live in the city. I own a nice car. I bought it because it scoops - a 305-horsepower turbo-charged engine. If I'd owned it as a teenager, it would have been a very expensive coffin.

I rarely drive it, because I still prefer taking the subway. Unlike everything else about my life, and in particular my expectations, it has not changed.

Excerpted from Boy Wonders by Cathal Kelly. Copyright (c) 2018 Cathal Kelly. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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