Brand building through storytelling

Outsider at a gabfest for the deaf

On my way to buy yogurt and cold cuts at Metro, I happened on a celebration of the human urge to connect—several hundred deaf people of all ages, ethnicities and style sensibilities, engaged in a gabfest so consumingly joyous, I couldn’t quite suppress a stab of envy. They were investing not just flying fingers but all four limbs in the art of conversation. They punctuated anecdotes with a repertoire of expressions that captured every note on the emotional scale. Each one of these people seemed fully absorbed in the exchange at hand—no looking over a companion’s shoulder to check out more promising social options. So I felt free to amble among them and stare in an invisible, contemplative way that felt more respectful than rude.

I wonder what brought this crowd to the pedestrian mall at Front and Jarvis late last Thursday afternoon. My Google search of Toronto events for the deaf turned up a beauty pageant, a grand ball and a transgender conference, but no boisterous, free-form talk-in just around the corner from my home. Walking in my downtown neighbourhood, I’ve often noticed clusters of two or three deaf friends chatting their way down the block in a state of high excitement. But never before have I seen no many non-hearing folk in one place, upending my sense of what makes—and unmakes—a conversation.

I once heard a pretty young woman exclaim, with fawning eagerness, “I just love watching deaf people talk!” It was 1968, my first year in Toronto, and she and I were both waiting for our clothes to dry in a laundromat that doubled as a pickup spot for the footloose and feckless (read: students like me). That day’s main attraction was two lithe and expressive deaf brothers whose confab resembled a dance. In faded jeans and nothing else, they both embodied male beauty as that era defined it—tumble of shoulder-length curls and lean, hairless torso as soft as a puppy’s. My seat mate jumped up to crash this party of two. They tolerated her intrusion for all of 90 seconds before turning their backs. They didn’t need her halting gloss on what they could say with the flick of a finger. They constituted a world of two.


What still surprises me, after all these years of urban life, is how many hidden worlds a city can hold beneath the familiar buzzing surface. They’re places of connection around a bond of some kind. Then again, some worlds have a population of one. The other day in the subway I caught the attention of a youth whose gaze—by turns remote and eerily intent—suggested a profound mental illness. He told me I had the eyes of an angel. Since this was the nicest thing that anyone had told me in a while (if decidedly the strangest), I asked how his day was going.

Phasing in and out, he told me. In his own little world? I asked. Yes, isn’t everybody? And isn’t the quality of your day all about the state of that world?

He asked, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

“Being cruel to someone who was only trying to be kind,” I said (it was wanting to avoid a replay of that error that got me talking to this kid). “So what about you?”

“You don’t want to know.”

I didn’t have to push very hard. I had only to tell him that I’ve heard a lot of secrets people weren’t sure they felt like sharing until the truth slipped out. Abortions, addictions, estrangements, long-lost children from teenage liaisons…that kind of thing. My companion’s secret was a new one. A butcher knife plunged into another man’s gut—a man who apparently did not survive to ride the subway and strike up conversations with strangers. We were sitting on the platform, the train roaring in to drown out the first words that came to me, which don’t bear repeating. Just because your lips move doesn’t mean you have any idea what to say.

The young man had no blood on his T-shirt. He looked as if he lived with a mother who washed his clothes and made sure he took his meds. Maybe that’s why I stood beside him for one or two stops and wished him luck as he loped off the train. He called back to me, “That’s all I have.”

Yesterday I waited at home for a police officer to come and hear this story. I’ll have to wait again: the police had more urgent things to do than interview me about a murder that could have taken place five months ago, five years ago or maybe only in the young man’s delusions; and that might or might not have led to some kind of sentence.

I remember asking what happened after the stabbing. “Nothing happened,” the young man said. Perhaps not at the time. But something did happen just past 1 last Saturday afternoon, when I could have been here at my desk or taking a walk or any number of places besides the northbound subway, where his world collided with mine on the strained and swaying a bridge of our five-minute conversation.

Click here to read another post on the urban hurly-burly, “Life lessons from my local beggars.” 

Posted by Rona

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