Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Swing Low, Sweet...Ticketable Offense?

Ever wonder how those weird little laws that you read about with much ensuing hilarity get passed? You know, the ones saying things like “You can’t shoot any game from a moving vehicle unless it is a whale” in Tennessee? (fascinating in particular since Tennessee is a land-locked state with no ocean access) Well, I am beginning to think I know how those laws are passed, because a committee in Winnipeg has just approved a new bylaw making singing on aWinnipeg Transit bus a ticketable offense.

It seems silly laws get passed by committees, people.
When I first heard this story several things danced through my head. The concept of “first world problems” was among them, as anyone who has ridden public transit in some developing countries can tell you that singing on a bus is likely the least offensive thing that can occur on public transit. One friend told me about a trip in Central America where she ended up sharing a bench seat with a large, slobbery goat for several hours as the goat’s owner seemed quite concerned about the goat’s well-being and chose to stand while the goat remained seated. I am thinking someone singing would be rather preferable to the goat.

Also dancing through my head was how we can get so tied up in these microcosmic issues that we find ourselves in a bubble. I mean, what a travesty to have to listen to someone sing on a bus. What if they are really bad? I mean, what if they are really awful, it would be such a terrible injustice to be forced to listen to them…or maybe it would just be a brief inconvenience and not really such a travesty at all.
And what about the opportunities such a law would prevent? What if Ann Murray was on your bus and the Canadian songbird suddenly decided she had to burst into song? What if it was Bono of U2? What if it is some amazingly talented young adult or street busker?

I understand the spirit of the law, which is to prevent exhibitions of public drunkenness on a bus – but then perhaps you outlaw being drunk and disorderly on the bus instead, as even sober people occasionally like to sing and can do so in ways that are quite enjoyable for all concerned.
Many years ago when I lived in Toronto I rode the streetcar to work every day. I worked long hours, devoted to my job, arriving early and leaving late. The streetcar ride was long and dull, except for one man who was my very favourite driver.

I will admit that on some occasions I would let the first streetcar that stopped for me pass in the hopes that he would be behind the controls of the next one. If he was I would hop on, particularly if it was late at night, and curl up in a seat close behind him.
His skin was the colour of cocoa, he had a gleaming toothy white smile, and he called everyone ma’am and sir, even people like me who were several decades his junior. And as the streetcar rolled into the night he would gently swing into song, his deep and rich baritone covering a variety of gospel hymns.

He had an amazing rendition of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, and more than once I would catch his eye in the rear-view mirror and he would wink at me, just before launching into the song and knowing I would be asleep within minutes as we rolled through the night towards home. I was safe and secure on his streetcar, right in the centre of one of the largest cities in Canada, and several times I would be awoken by a gentle hand shaking my shoulder and saying “I think this is your stop, ma’am”, as we had reached the end of the line and my stop as well. He would wait patiently while I collected my thoughts and gathered my things, bade him good night, and watched from the darkness into the lit streetcar as he drove away, singing once more.
The thought that any bylaw could silence that voice makes me feel a bit tearful.

When have we become so afraid of the thought of others singing in public? Does the occasional bad singer on a bus really make it necessary to enact a law to keep everyone silent and inside their own heads, preventing those small and special moments from ever occurring?
I hate to say it but we seem to be becoming a very curmedgeonly society where we fear public displays of any sort, from affection to singing. We fear being subjected to a few moments of bad singing and institute a bylaw instead of opening ourselves to new experiences, allowing ourselves to explore both the moments of terrible singing and the moments when we are awestruck by an unexpected talent.

It seems Winnipeg might well be the city where music is going to die, at least music on transit buses. I have had some reservations about Winnipeg for years, I must admit, after an incident that saw this visitor to their city have the wheels stolen off her new car one night in a hotel parking lot, and when reporting it to Winnipeg police got to hear them laugh about the misfortune instead of expressing any sort of concern (never mind I was in their fine city with a relatively small baby and now had to find some way to get back home, and there for treatment of a medical problem – no, for the police it was an enormous joke, and yes, I still have some degree of bitterness over the entire incident).
I don’t know about anyone else but I would rather hear someone singing – even badly – than weeping. And I would even rather hear someone singing than silence, because far too often we are silent in our world, cocooned in our own thoughts and lives and wrapped up in our own problems. What a funny world we live in, where we make singing punishable and where we feel the need to legislate the behaviour of citizens right down to the minute details, like whether or not they can burst into song on a bus.

This new bylaw in Winnipeg? Well, you can expect to find it right up there with the one from Tennessee about whales, because it makes just about as much sense in my books.

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