13.10.13

The Union Cafeteria


Image by J

Bus interchanges are like airports for folks who don't fly for business.

Ok, the comparison doesn't always square, but like airports, it is a meeting place and a point of transit, a some time interchange for relationships and identities.

For example, when I transfer from the train to the feeder bus home at the bus interchange, I already start feeling that I am home in the queue - the work persona and everything associated with that public and professional space is shed.

The bus interchange at Toa Payoh has two eateries. One resembles a mini foodcourt, with a small seating area and contiguous stores manned by folks in uniforms. The other is a tiny cafeteria with 2 round tables in the middle and 2 small rectangular tables by the side. This cafeteria acts as the bus drivers' mess but is also open to the public. The cafeteria is run by the transport workers' union, or so it says on its sign. Like airport eateries, these eateries also serve as a meeting point, a time-filler, and a fuel stop.

In the mornings, the Transport workers' union cafeteria is a congregation of bus drivers, other working types, old men and old women, and the occasional homeless guy. The old men tend to sit with each other at one table, and the old women at another. That's just how it is. The bus drivers zip in and out, as with working folks - picking up their kopi, takeaway beehoon and snacks. Sometimes one of us working types would sit down at the tables with the old men or old women, according to our gender camps.

But we are strangers all. Our elbows may occasionally touch but we avoid eye contact. Once the drink or meal is consumed, most of us move off, swiftly, quietly. And if any of us should linger, killing time, the space seems to slow down with us too, and a single word spoken aloud may start to breed a conversation.

This morning I was feeling a little tired about missing my Saturday run for a work event. I knew I would need that Transport-Workers-Union breakfast - not just as fuel - but to help me shift into work-mode, kill a little time, and... to ground myself amidst this meeting place.

I found a spot at the old women's table - the old men colony was full and not looking too welcoming. Once seated, I realized that the old blind woman who sold tissue paper at the bus interchange was also having her morning coffee there. Sharing our table was a middle-aged woman in t-shirt, shorts and slippers.

Old woman: (loudly) Haiyah, I have already finished my coffee and he is still not here yet. (And getting no response...) Finished eating and my friend is still not here.
Middle-aged woman: (getting the hint) What friend?
OW: Ah, can you help me see if he is around. My friend is also blind.
MAW: (glances around) Your friend is not here yet.
OW: Haiyah, my coffee is finished already...... BOSS! (Getting no answer) Boss!
MAW: (turns around to look at the woman at the coffee counter) She is calling you.
Coffee Lady: I can hear. (Looks up, but only barely) Of course I can hear, but I am not the boss what.
OW: Oh. You are not the boss. Where is the boss?
CL: The boss is not here.
OW: Oh. One more kopi.
[Five minutes later...]
OW: (loudly) Haiyah, I am going to finish my second cup of coffee and my friend is still not here yet. (And getting no response...) It's so late already, my friend is not here yet, haiyah...

When I was done with my beehoon and kopi, I still had a little time to kill so I walked around the interchange looking out for her blind someone. But her friend was really not here yet.

This evening I shared the exchange with J over a tub of ice-cream. He promptly added, "you are here, but you are really not here yet."  I didn't confirm this with him, but maybe he meant this - that we are in transit, and this ain't the final destination.

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