On our way to Niagara this week, we stopped at an ONroute service centre. These are places on the 401 between Montreal and Toronto where you can relieve yourself, eat and fuel up.
Complexes like this which pepper the highways of the world are designed to efficiently and profitably direct large numbers of visitors in and out. They work. As we converged on the entrance we became one of the crowd. Once you’ve been in one you know them all. They’re identical. You could be anywhere. You could be anyone.
Signage was clear. The bathrooms appeared within seconds. Each concession, automat and service was perfectly positioned to be at hand before you even knew you wanted it.
I realized what I hate most about consumer culture. I felt like cattle—part of something larger than me, and not in a good way.
Each visitor is stripped of her or his individuality simply by virtue of being there. Everyone follows the same pattern. We all have the same road-weary look. We all obey the signs. These are awful places.
I mentioned it to Caroline.
She nodded. “And yet,” she remarked, “Every one has a story. We’re all individuals. We all suffer and try not to. Everyone’s wants to be happy.”
Happiness? What’s that? Half the visitors came out clutching oversize soft drinks, munching on fast food wrapped in artificially colored containers.
“Wow,” I said.
“Wow,” said Caroline.
Feeling ashamed, I heard Shylock’s voice. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” Yes we’re all the same, but a part of that sameness is the need to express our uniqueness. Here, I don’t feel anything like that.
“Let’s get out of here.” We said it together.
Later that day in Niagara we were met by Caroline’s cousin Peter and his husband Luc. They’d invited us and two friends for dinner, and it was a perfect match. There was no small talk. The conversation was personal, confessional and deep. We each expressed our uniqueness, and then some. I love people who are honest about themselves and know how to share.
Two days later we headed home. After a couple of hours we needed a bathroom. This time we ignored the convenience of ONroute and exited the highway. We found an old gas station. The bathroom was grubby. Toilet paper was strewn on the floor and the porcelain was stained. Without thinking I said, “Eew, gross.”
But I smiled. Although there’s something definitely revolting about a dirty public washroom, it’s nothing compared to the horror of being a herd.