Though incredibly brief, “Soundtrack” by Sally Ashton toys with the concept of separation between ourselves and Others. Ashton utilizes the brevity of the piece itself to parallel the situation; being stuck at a train station with a “street” man who is singing along to the song “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes, and being very uncomfortable about the situation. By using clips of the song, references to the train they’re waiting on, and physical descriptions of the man and his actions, the author is able to convey her idea that though we separate ourselves from those who seem to be infinitely different than we are, we are fundamentally connected through our mutual condition of waiting for time to pass, and waiting to see where life will take us.
Throughout the piece, Ashton continues to quote parts of the song that Street Man is listening to (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”) to characterize Street Man, the progression of the discomfort of the situation, and to show the connection between Street Man and the author. The piece begins with “Owner of a lonely heart…” followed by “he leans against the building across the train stop downtown.” From the very beginning we can see that Street Man is separated from the author and the others waiting at the train stop, because of his physical distance, and the description of his outburst: “It seems like the kind of outburst street people sometimes make.” The author is obviously uncomfortable with the situation, as well as the way he’s acting, by illustrating the situation in a relatable way; we’ve all experienced someone on the street who has an outburst, whether it’s yelling at someone who isn’t there or just acting suspiciously. It effectively connects us to the author’s situation. As the piece progresses, the lines of the song are used as a connective device between the actions of Street Man and author’s reaction to them; “We don’t really look at each other…Owner of a lonely heart I wonder if he knows how loud he is.” Like the aforementioned outburst, the author is depicting the man’s condition, showing who his is (loud and unruly, maybe not all there mentally), and describing the discomfort of herself and the other people that are waiting for the train. By the close of the piece the author uses “the next refrain” to allude to her message; we are all waiting for the same thing. The author connects the man to herself in this way, by connecting his condition of waiting on the train, on time, on the next refrain, on life, to herself.
In addition, the author uses descriptions of the man’s actions and physicality to separate him from, and connect to, herself. In the first few sentences the author describes the man as a “street person”; this is blatantly separating the man from normally-functioning society, giving him a separate culture to fall into–being one of the street people, not just a person. The author and readers’ discomfort seem to grow the more she reveals about him: “A heavy-set man, greasy gray hair parted down the middle almost shoulder length. Maybe 50-something?” and “It can’t help that he’s missing teeth.” All Street Man is to the author and the reader is a dirty man singing a song, unaware of how loud or disruptive he’s being; he has been set aside from the norm, made to be almost repulsive. Not only physically is he set aside, but the author calls his mental health into question:“He seems to stare right at me though who knows what he sees.” This even further discriminates Street Man from the rest of them, making him out to be an unstable, dirty, homeless guy above all else. Though we aren’t sure that this man is mentally unstable, the very speculation of his condition is enough to make the reader wary of the man and concerned for the author. We are actively invested in the story and the author’s well-being by being concerned about the situation, but simultaneously connect with the Street Man. The pitiful descriptions of his physical state, and the curious way in which he ignores all social standards makes the reader feel connected to him in an almost endearing way. The author connects Street Man to herself as well, saying (like before) that “the man, like me, [is] waiting for time to pass, waiting for the next refrain.”
Ashton utilizes the train they were waiting on in order to connect Street Man to herself and the human condition, as well as to further illustrate separation and discomfort. The author used many methods to create a disconnect between Street Man and everyone at the station, as well as the reader, but subtly weaves the physical object of the train and the train station/platform throughout the piece itself. The train manages to keep the passing of time and the perspective of the piece in the forefront of the reader’s mind as it progresses. The author uses the train stop to establish the setting in the first sentence, tying it in with the distance that Street Man places between himself and the platform, later saying that she gazes “down the tracks” in order to avoid having to look at the man. The author literally says that she’s on the platform, “the tracks between us,” to show a literal description of the distance between Street Man and herself, but calls this distance into question; are they really so separated? Ashton says the train is “moving slowly through the town just a few blocks away,” as though using it to describe how time is creeping up on both of them as they wait for “the next refrain.” Mentioning the song Street Man is singing is relative to life as a concept, and how humanity is always waiting to see where life will take us, much like a man and woman waiting for a train to pick them up and take them somewhere. The author connects this perpetual waiting to the man and herself, dissolving all other exclusive descriptions she had previously outlined.
From this piece we can learn about the incredibly effective function of length, primarily briefness. In order to easily get a message across, as Ashton has effectively done here, keeping a piece short and carefully weaving in key themes is a good way to structure a short nonfiction or an anecdote. In addition, speculation and employing a consistent metaphor/device, like the repeating of the song’s lyrics or continuing to mention the train, is a good way to keep the reader on track and the progression of events clear. By weaving these devices throughout the piece we can create the message of the piece subtly, without needing to drop the meaning on the head of the reader, and instead leave them feeling content and entertained.