May 7, 2008

All The Things You Are

Trying to figure out an appropriate conclusion for this blog, I find myself thinking back to a revelation that occurred to me during a bus ride this semester that seems to somehow be a fitting summation of the experience as a whole.

Throughout the year there was a young couple, probably in their late twenties, that got on the bus a few stops after me. As things worked out, they often ended up sitting in the seats directly across from me. The woman was quite pretty in a subtle and delicate way, and had a rather reserved and somehow mischievously quiet demeanor. The man was thin, dark haired and stylishly retro, but was not classically handsome, and he gave off a very writerly vibe; he had thick black framed glasses and emitted what I can only describe as a somewhat sarcastic, intellectual aura. Thinking back to it, I think he could have passed convincingly as a young Allen Ginsberg.

I found this couple particularly interesting because they seemed very distinct from the rest of the patrons on the bus. Unlike most of the people on the bus, who were either reading, sleeping, or not looking at anything in particular, this pair seemed very aware of their surroundings and they often seemed to glance observantly around the bus with curious, intelligent gazes. Additionally, they were the only obvious couple on the bus, and they seemed very into each other. Covertly keeping an eye on them, I noticed the man frequently leaning in with an amused twinkle in his eye and whispering in her ear, which would cause her cast her eyes downwards, look up at something, look back down, and giggle quietly.

I found this very interesting, and wondered what sort of sweet nothings he was whispering in her ear. They must have been very much in love, I thought to myself, to keep this up for so long. And it was slightly odd behavior; I always got the sense they were sharing some kind of tiny and very amusing secret with each other. I wondered what it was.

Several months later, while watching them glance around the bus and whisper secretively to each other out of the corner of my eye, it suddenly struck me: they were watching the other riders.

By extension, they were watching me. My mind was blown. The number of times one of them had glanced curiously at me and then looked away when I looked back took on a whole new meaning. Their entire strange set of behavior suddenly made sense, since it was exactly what I had been doing, only without the benefit of having some to immediately share with. They were taking advantage of the same, fertile people watching environment that I was. I began to consider all of the humbling things they had probably observed about me. In a moment, the watcher had become the watched.

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And with that, I wrap up a late night blog session and also On Transit as a whole. Thanks for reading, everybody. No, let’s be realistic – thanks for reading, Sara. I hope this was, if nothing else, entertaining for you.

I See Your Face Before Me

The number of people that get on the bus on any given morning is highly variable, and depends on a number of different things: class schedules, the day of the week, the weather outside, the alignment of the planets, and so forth. Some days, the bus is nearly deserted, and you can stretch out, put your bag on the seat next to you, and enjoy the ride. Most often, the bus is fairly well occupied, and by the last major “pick up? stop before it hits highway there are probably no more than a half dozen people standing. On one particular day, though, Jupiter and Neptune were in a dangerous position, and the bus became ridiculously crowded. Every seat was already taken, and people were already standing, when the bus pulled up to a particular stop and a massive crowd of people made their way on board.

I have no idea why there were so many people at that stop at that time on that day; it was certainly not matched at any time during the year . But for whatever reason, people began to pour into the already crowded bus, leading the bus driver to scream repeatedly for everyone to move back so that everyone could get on board. Encouraged by the bus driver’s shouted insistence, people shuffled and shuffled towards the back. Bodies compressed and became compacted, and every bit of available floor space was taken up by a pair of feet. It was at this time that I experienced an excruciatingly awkward situation.

It is probably apparent that I attract awkward situations to me in an almost magnetic manner, either in reality or in my mind, which is probably a reflection of some kind of horrible personality flaw of my part. Luckily, this particular situation did not involve myself, but was something I observed from my luckily obtained seat near the back. I seem to hone into awkwardness like a well trained pigeon, and I was thus instantly aware of the slow motion disaster taking place in front of me.

In an earlier post, I mentioned that bus seats were not designed with the United State’s current obesity epidemic in mind. Neither, it should be noted, were the aisles. On this particular day, one unusually large woman was part of the crowd inching backwards to make room for the newcomers, and soon enough every bit of space in back was occupied. People, already jammed together, could compress no further. Having gone as far as physically possible, the woman in turned around and faced towards the front of the bus in typical standing mode.

Unfortunately, the people in the first half of the bus were still being herded back to make room in front, and as it happened, and next person after the woman was an equally obese man. He was facing the back of the bus, as this was the direction he was headed, but he had not accounted for the tremendous pressure of the crowd behind him, which drove him further than he probably intended to go. Before either of them knew it, they were jammed into each other, belly to belly. The bus at this point had reached its maximum possible occupancy, and there was no room whatsoever for anyone to move an in either direction. To make matters worse, both the man and the woman were so large, and the aisle was so full, that neither of them could actually rotate in place away from the other, meaning that they were pressed with uncomfortable intimacy into each other, staring at each other face to face, and there wasn’t a single thing either of them could do about it.

This situation persisted for nearly the entire bus ride, until the 144 reached campus and people began to leave. It was horrible, but it was like a gruesome accident on the news – my attention was riveted on this small morning disaster. Looking horrified and embarrassed, both the man and the woman attempted to look anywhere else than the other’s face, but it was a situation that allowed for limited mobility, and there were not a lot of other options. I could barely contain my fascination and was helplessly fixated on the sublime awkwardness of the situation – probably the single most horrible and beautiful experience I encountered on the bus all year.

Characters #2

An intense looking boy in a brown flannel shirt on the bus in the morning, holding onto a large plastic Target bag bulging full of mysterious items. He has a very prominent brow, giving him an unusually determined and intense expression, but what is particularly notable are his sideburns, which are very, very abundant. He holds a small and well used Bible in his lap, and during the ride he quietly reads aloud to himself with an aura of utter concentration.

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A tall, smartly dressed and professional looking business woman with high heels and short blonde hair, who reminds me – and I am stunningly embarrassed to be able to make this comparison – of Caroline from The Apprentice, both in appearance and icy demeanor. She is the first person to get on the bus after the last of the seats has been taken, and a friendly looking Asian man who always listens to his iPod decides to play the gentleman and give up his seat for her. Without offering so much as a thank you, she promptly sits down. She does not look at him for the entire ride. I wonder to myself whether she has the impression that everyone should be expected to vacate their seat for her and this therefore deserves no thanks, or if, as a high powered, strong and successful woman who is perfectly capable of standing on her own, she is insulted to have a man give up his seat for her in the name of chivalry.

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A oddly weathered looking woman with long, curly hair and a somewhat wild aura about her who waits at my bus stop. She does not wear a hat even in the coldest winter months, and often leaves her coat unbuttoned on blustery days, which makes it billow out behind her. Occasionally, she clutches a cup of coffee. While waiting for the bus, she wanders down the sidewalk away from the stop, leaning into the wind and with her arms, coat and scarf blowing back behind her, until she sees the bus in the distance, at which point she meanders back in time to get on the bus. One day, she wanders so far off down the street that I lose sight of her, and she does not make it back for the arrival of the bus. I do not see her again that morning.

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A tall and slightly greasy looking man who turns up at the bus stop one morning. I do not pay him much attention until he clears his throat and addresses me with a friendly, “excuse me ma’am.? This comes as a considerable surprise to me, since my hair, though overgrown and unkept, is not that long and because I do not consider myself to have particularly feminine features. When I turn to look at him, he quickly realizes his mistake and begins to stammer. However, he skillfully recovers soon after with an, “uh, I mean, mister or whatever? and powers forward with a complicated story about how he used to live in Miami, lost his job, went out west, went through some hard times, and has somehow ended up here at this bus stop on this morning, the end point of which is to ask me whether this bus will get him to Minneapolis, since he needs to get to the suburbs of the city for some unclear reason. I tell him that yes, the bus will get him to Minneapolis, but suggest he ask the driver for specific directions. This appears to satisfy him for the moment, and I covertly try to inch away from him.

On the 144, he questions the driver at length and decides this is the right bus for him, and chooses one of the forward rows of seats. As the bus fills up, a girl sits next to him and begins to read the newspaper without a word. He sits up a little straighter and looks very interested, shooting little glances over at her and apparently hoping to catch her eye so he can start a conversation. These attempts prove to be unsuccessful. Finally, he makes his move, and says, “So…. how’s that sports section today?? The girl, who has not been reading the sports section, gives him a devastating look, replies curtly, “good,? and turns back to the newspaper. Their conversation ends there, and soon after, I reach my stop and get off.

In a Sentimental Mood

Driving a bus is one of those professions that I see as being extraordinarily useful to society, but I cannot understand who would possibly want to do it. There is no glamour involved, nothing intellectually stimulating about the task, and I don’t expect (although I don’t know for sure) that the pay is particularly good. You have to drive in circles all day, all the while cooped up in a noisy, smelly, bumpy bus; you have a rigid schedule to keep; and you must constantly deal with the stupidity of other drivers on the road.

I am sure that some bus drivers claim that they do it “because of the people they get to meet,? but I have trouble buying this explanation, mainly because the majority of people the bus driver interacts with on an average day are probably either a) grumpy, sleepy people staggering to work at ungodly hours of the morning, b) grumpy, tired people coming home after a long day at work who want nothing more than for the ride to be over, c) confused or crazy people demanding directions to ridiculous places, or d) people trying to weasel their way out of paying the fare. Given those options, I would probably prefer a solitary job.

To be fair, I understand that for many people, any job is a good job, and that for some a job in which you get paid for simply driving the same route around town might actually be pleasantly relaxing, stress-free, and even enjoyable. But even so, I still have trouble picturing anyone really, really coveting a bus driving job. Try as I might, I cannot imagine an eight year old, brimming with excitement at the possibilities of the world, proudly informing people that he wants to be a bus driver.

Most bus drivers tend to be middle aged or older, and vary widely by ethnicity and gender, but except for extreme and unusual cases, there are only two things that really distinguish them for the average rider: whether or not they call out the stops, and whether or they say anything to the people entering or exiting the bus. Within this second category, there plenty of room for variation. Some drivers monotonously repeat “have a good day? to every person leaving the bus in a voice which clearly indicates that they have no interest whatsoever in whether any of their riders have a good day or not, and I can’t really blame them in this. Some drivers switch up their routine, saying something to every third person exiting and alternating between “thank you? and “have a good day,? and this may or may not appear sincere. Some don’t say anything, and only grunt unintelligibly if someone thanks them for the ride.

However, there is a special group of drivers possessed of such natural charisma that they come off as completely authentic every time they say “hello? or tell you to “have a good day now.? I have great admiration for these people. One of them, a friendly African American woman, drives the bus that I often catch at 5:35. Despite my knowledge that she says the same thing to every passenger, I cannot help but feel thrilled every time I get on her bus; she makes me feel that she is personally delighted to have my patronage and that she wants nothing more than to make the ride as pleasant as possible for me.

I am amazed daily at the cheerfulness she brings to what I would consider to be a fairly depressing job. However, I am equally (if not more) appreciative of the breakneck speed at which she navigates the freeway, as well as the way she lays into the horn with all her weight when cars get too close to the edge of the road while she zooms along the shoulder during bad traffic. Though I always look forward to her welcoming smile when I get on the bus, that really warms my heart.

My Heart Stood Still

If one believes the regular news reports on the subject, an appalling majority of Americans do not read books for pleasure, a statistic that I find nearly as indicative of societal decay as I do the shocking numbers on gang violence, political corruption, childhood obesity and American voting rates. However, you would never be able to guess this fact from the clientele of the 144, of which every third rider has a book cracked open. This is likely because the 144, unlike many of the other bus lines, attracts a mostly well off, upper class segment of the population; most of the people riding the bus tend to be either college graduates with presumably comfortable jobs in downtown Minneapolis or current university students.

I find it rather cheering to see so many open books among so many strange people at once, but unfortunately, reading on my own in a moving vehicle has a habit of making my stomach turn and I am unable to join them. This means that I have nothing to do except stare out the window (sometimes) or covertly scope out other passengers (more often) and inevitably, my eyes are drawn to other people’s books. I try my hardest to mind my own business, but this is a powerful and uncontrollable compulsion. The English major takes over my brain. Unable to stop myself, I find myself trying to read titles out of the corner of my eye, trying to deduce author names from a couple of visible letters, or trying to contain my fascination/horror at middle aged men reading Star Wars paperbacks. The most I can do is to try my best not to be overt about these things.

It’s particularly bad when the person sitting next to me begins reading a book and my overwhelmingly curiosity to see what it is wages war in my head with every lesson of social etiquette reminding me that reading over people’s shoulders is shameful and intrusive. In these cases, I must keep my head facing straight forward while my eyes, ignoring my best intentions to be polite, roll to the side and try to bring the title into the periphery of my vision. This is dully painful, and the longer I resist it, the more eye strain I develop.

Generally, seeing what a person is reading is enough to me and satisfies my curiosity, and I quietly stash away the information with the other little tidbits I have noticed in the little mental profiles I can’t help but form of other regular passengers. On one particular occasion, however, I noticed that an attractive girl sitting across the aisle from me was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude – a great book and still one of my favorite novels. Seeing the familiar cover in such an unexpected place, my curiosity was instantly piqued. Trying my best to be as un-creepy as possible, I quickly glanced her face to see if she seemed to be enjoying it, but her expression was blank and I was unable to tell.

I felt an insane desire to express my appreciation of the novel and to ask her what she thought of it, an impulse restrained only by my terror of starting conversations with strange people. Thoughts and questions raged furiously in my mind. It wouldn’t be a big deal… or would it? What if she thought I was hitting on her? What if it was awkward? What if she thought I was some kind of horrible weirdo molesting her on the bus? Surely that wouldn’t be the case if she was the sort of person reading One Hundred Years of Solitude… but what it was assigned reading for a class she was taking to fulfill a literature requirement and she hated it? What would I say if she liked it too?

After twenty minutes of exhausting and unresolved internal debate, the girl’s stop arrived, and she packed the book into her messenger bag and left the bus, completely unaware of the agonizing mental anguish she had subjected me to. I did not see her again.

May 6, 2008

Days and Nights Waiting

Last semester, on a cold and soggy November day, a particularly disgusting mix of rain, snow and sleet began to fall insistently from the sky - too solid to be rain, too wet to be snow, and slushy enough to grind all traffic in the city to a standstill. Waiting for the bus home in front of Coffman Union, I noticed that the traffic in front of me was inching along at approximately 10 centimeters an hour, and it occurred to me that my bus would probably be late. I zipped up my jacket and resigned myself to waiting, feeling mildly inconvenienced but not particularly annoyed. After all, there were worse things in the world than standing in the sleet, and there was something almost beautiful about the rain/snow in the streetlights while the twilight deepened. It was cold, but not (yet) bone chillingly so. I was in no hurry and did not mind waiting.

More than an hour after it was supposed to arrive, a lone 144 pulled up to the curb, and a relieved crowd of stranded people surged towards it in a frenzied crush of bodies. Unfortunately, the bus was already approaching its maximum occupancy; through the steamed up windows I could see a mass of unhappy people crammed sardine-like into the aisle. The first few who got to the door managed to force their way in, but before long the crowd inside the bus was as compressed as it was going to get and there was no room for any more passengers.

Sitting grimly at the wheel, the bus driver made an executive decision. "No room!" she screamed at the crowd. "We're full! No room!" A collective, despairing moan went up among the crowd, but they began to reluctantly back away, with the exception of one skinny boy in a brown jacket who hurled himself at the door and began to plead his case. "Just let me on!" he shrieked. "I'm tiny! I take up very little space!" It was very pathetic, but the bus driver was a professional and pitiless woman and felt no remorse. Ignoring his protests, she closed the door, and the 144 inched away into the rapidly darkening night.

I had made no attempt to get on the bus, having decided that waiting in the cold for hours was far preferable to waiting for hours jam-packed on a crowded bus. That was only the first of the 144s, I figured. I was confident that there would be other, undoubtedly less crowded busses before too long. However, an hour later, still standing outside and starting to shiver, I began to question the accuracy of my assessment. There had not been another 144 in sight, and my limbs were starting to feel more solid than usual. The snow was no longer very beautiful. Hunger growled in my stomach, and I became gradually aware that I was losing feeling in my feet. A former classmate walking by stopped for a moment to say hello, which led to my discovery that my cheeks were so numb that I was unable to form coherent words.

I began to wonder if my toes would freeze and started wiggling them earnestly within my shoes, trying to suppress morbid visions of having to amputate solid black and blue chunks that had once, in better times, been the little piggies. I seriously considered the option of removing my oversized mittens and using them as a pair of thick, improvised socks, but ultimately decided against this; it was a more desperate measure that I was really willing to take, and moreover, I was unsure if I would actually be able to jam my mitten-clad feet into my shoes.

It had occurred to me that there were several other less direct routes by which I could find my way home, and in fact by then the rest of the other 144 regulars had given up waiting and hopped aboard these alternatives. However, bizarre and sinister forces had taken control of my mind. I was determined to wait for the 144. I figured that the bus was so impossibly late that the next one rounding the curve would surely, by sheer probability, be my salvation; I lived and died with every distant bus I spotted. And lurking deeper still was an even more perverse and inexplicable compulsion: having suffered enough already, I wanted make this horrible experience as bad as possible - to really break barriers of commute misery. In a warped and masochistic way, I was curious to see when or if the bus would finally arrive. I wanted to be as appalled as humanly possible at the total ineptness of the mass transit system. I wanted to prolong my stay in commute hell as long as possible. I wanted the maximum possible amount of sympathy when I related my sorrowful story in the future.

However, after I had been waiting for well over three hours, even this strange mindset had worn off, and I swore to myself that I would get on the next 16 that arrived. And without warning, a nearly empty 144 appeared like some impossible mirage. Not quite believing that it had finally arrived, I staggered aboard and collapsed onto a seat. Across from me, a woman had removed her shoes and was massaging her toes. A Chinese man was talking loudly on his cell phone, apparently confident that no one had any idea what he was saying. How wrong he was! Little did he know that I had intensely studied two years of Mandarin and was able to pick bits of words and phrases here and there from his conversation: chiefly, “very cold? and “need more clothes.?

April 27, 2008

Characters #1

A rather tired looking man who appears to be in his late 30s, dressed in a nice suit and carrying a beaten up leather briefcase. He seems to be somewhere off in his own world, staring blankly out the window and nervously tapping the seat with his cell phone. In the other hand, he clutches a bouquet of flowers. He strikes me as being nervous and pre-occupied, and the worry lines on his face make him look older than he probably is. The day is February 14th – Valentine’s Day.

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A cute Chinese girl at my bus stop. Her hair is curly in a way that does not occur naturally for Asian people, and she never once wears a hat, regardless of how cold the weather is. Every morning, she appears at the stop with a large cup of coffee, and though it is not immediately obvious, a look of silent resilience and complete exhaustion. On the bus, she finds a seat, leans back, and closes her eyes, serene and un-reactive to the bumps and jolts of the trip. She gives no sign of being aware of the people or environment around her, and I have never once seen her actually open her eyes during the ride*, but somehow, she never misses her stop.

* Admittedly, I have not kept as close an eye on her as would be required to know for sure, since that would, I think, be really creepy.

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A college aged boy slouched nonchalantly in the back of the bus with the hood of his sweatshirt still pulled over his head. He is handsome in a way that is somehow reminiscent of the look of the kids chosen to play the rebellious, vaguely dangerous delinquents in 80’s teen movies -- a little surly, a little greasy, and way too cool for school. I can easily imagine him being cast as John Bender’s character in The Breakfast Club. Unlike most of the riders on the bus, he does not avoid looking at people, but instead stares around the bus, examining the other riders with a challenging but bored gaze. In his hands he holds a deck of cards, which he repeatedly shuffles and reshuffles – a loud, obvious sound bizarrely out of place on a bus ride.

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A Hispanic teenager wearing huge, sagging jeans and a gray hoodie, skateboarding in the waiting area in front of Coffman Union. People waiting for their busses cannot help but stare as he careens along the sidewalk, and though he is surely aware of the attention, he ignores it with an air of nonchalant rebellion. He periodically tries to do tricks with the skateboard, such as skating on only one set of wheels or doing jumps and flips. He only occasionally succeeds.

When a bus pulls up, he skateboards up to the side of the bus and with his finger carefully draws what appears to be a picture of an enormous penis in the layer of dirt and grime on the window. This is done with great attention to detail and an look of concentration. Afterwards, he continues skating and waits for the next bus to arrive.

Eventually, he appears to become bored with the sidewalk and moves into the middle of the road, zooming down the street against the direction of the traffic and moving to the center divider when he spots a vehicle rounding the curve. He looks wobbly and uncontrolled as he does this, with his hands outstretched to help him maintain balance, and I am convinced that he is going to slip in the road and be run over by a bus. I think about what it will be like to be a witness to a gruesome and tragic accident, but my bus arrives and he, as far as I know, survives to skate another day.

April 26, 2008

If You Never Come To Me

Choosing a seat on the bus is a simple process which I manage to make extraordinarily complicated. When the bus is mostly empty and there are plenty of seats available, the solution is easy: pick a seat which is not next to another person, so as not to violate anyone's personal space and to ensure the greatest happiness and comfort for everyone involved. Similarly, when the bus is mostly full, the solution is also obvious: you have no choice but to choose one of the few available seats. The decision is mediated by circumstances beyond your control, and you thus have no need to feel guilty about your intrusion into the other's space.

It's when the bus is halfway full and there are no unoccupied pairs of seats (but still plenty of individual seats available) that the troubles start. In this situation, the choice is fully yours, but none of the choices are ideal. You cannot hide behind the excuse of taking the only seat available, and in effect, you are making a conscious choice as to which person you will decide to inconvenience for the ride.

Deciding which seat to take is a process of scoping out the other riders to identify the one who appears to be least likely to feel imposed upon or to object to your presence. For instance, friendly looking middle aged women are good. People reading books and magazines are good; they appear to be distracted and you can pretend that they are too absorbed in the material to notice your presence. People who are staring out the window and don’t make eye contact are good – eye contact is a direct recognition of a person’s existence, which would make your choice to sit next to them even more deliberate. College girls may or may not be good, depending on if they inexplicably interpret your choice of the seat next to them as some kind of attempt at a pick up move (a rare reaction, but obvious when it happens).

On the other side of the coin, haughty businessmen with expensive suits are bad. Some of them stake a claim to the entire pair of seats by placing their briefcase on the seat next to them, self-importantly flipping open a copy of the Wall Street Journal, and pointedly ignoring the bus crowding up around them. In the rare times in which someone directly asks one to move his things, this is done in such a manner to make it evident to everyone that the businessman’s high powered executive life is being disrupted, and you can see the contempt ooze across the seat line like a cloud of rancid smoke in the air.

The morbidly obese are immediately disqualified. Bus seats were not designed with the rapidly expanding waistline of the US population in mind, and so there is often a certain amount of overflow into adjacent seats. Trying to squeeze into this half spot requires an attempt at compression, and it is an awkward and embarrassing situation for both parties. People who aggressively spread their legs across the seat line and stare down every new passenger with a sullen glare are definitely not good. People talking loudly on cell phones are also bad, if only because you have to listen to the insipid details of their conversations, most of which involve calling their friends to inform them that they are, in fact, on the bus.

However, all that said, there are also bizarre counter forces at play. When someone comes onto the bus and elects to stand instead of taking one of the available seats, a twinge of resentment is elicited – a kind of “hey buddy, we’re all in this together, get with the program!? reaction, as if by choosing to stand (and subsequently block the isle for people entering and exiting the bus), they are showing that they would rather be stiff and miserable than sit with everyone else. Similarly, when an empty pair of seats becomes available and your riding companion takes the earliest opportunity to move away, you can’t help but feel a little offended, despite the fact that both of you now have more space: “what, was sitting next to me SO OBJECTIONABLE? Was it really SO BAD that you had to LEAVE ME??

Of course, these are strange and unjustified reactions, considering that in these cases, the people in question are most likely being thoughtful and considerate – but then again, none of this is particularly relevant, reasonable, or rational.

April 23, 2008

What's New?

People form social groups on the bus. Crammed in a tiny space at the same time with the same people every day, frequent patrons can’t help but feel some small sense of camaraderie with the other riders. I imagine this is due to the shared misery of the experience and the understanding the everyone is in it together, all forced to endure the crowded, smelly, tedium of the early morning commute. It’s a sort of communal bonding experience, a mildly grueling trial by fire to bring the team together and break down the social barriers between complete strangers.

Eventually, some critical threshold of familiarity is passed. Small talk is initiated, a friendly gesture is made, and the person who was formerly “the fat guy with the briefcase who gets on two stops after me? becomes Jerry, who works in human resources and has a dog and a teenage son and sometimes watches American Idol even though he really doesn’t care who wins. Jerry may in fact be rather unremarkable, and you may know nothing about him, but the nature of the daily bussing routine provides no end to scintillating possible conversation topics, including but not limited to the weather today, the weather yesterday, how the weather yesterday varied from what the weatherman predicted, what the weather will be like tomorrow (although you can never know because you can’t trust that damn weatherman!), how late the bus was, how the bus is always late, how late the bus was compared to yesterday, how bad the traffic is today, and how wet you got while waiting in the rain.

[Note that this should not be interpreted as a condemnation of small talk. I have nothing but respect for those who are skilled in the art of small talk. It is a skill that seems like it should be easy but continually eludes me, similar to dribbling a basketball or opening a sealed bag of potato chips without chips exploding everywhere. Small talk strikes me as an useful ability to have, and I have often wished for the natural talent for the effortless, meaningless conversation. Sadly, it is a mystery to me.]

It seems, though, that after some point, discussing the weather becomes unnecessary and the commuters begin to share the more intimate details of their lives – or, in the case of one cheerful, middle-aged woman who rides the 144, the more intimate details of her cat’s life. Through the course of two semesters of riding home every day, I have learned that her cat has many exacting standards about its food and personal care, that it has a close personal relationship with its owner that allows it to somehow communicate emotionally complex, nuanced ideas, and that it has learned how to turn on the hot water in the tub by itself. Moreover, it has its own Myspace page, through which it exchanges typo-ridden messages with its many adorable kitty and doggy friends, sends cat birthday greetings, and flirts with its cat girlfriend. There is evidently plenty of drama in the world of kitty Myspace, and gossip flies fast and furiously in the cat community.

These facts are all related by the cat’s owner to a large, serene looking man with an impressive moustache, who listens placidly and interjects the occasional “I see,? “uh-huh,? or if he is particularly engaged, an amazed chuckle and a “is that so?? He does not have a cat, but he is a ready listener and sympathizer to the many difficulties of the modern cat lifestyle.

I enjoy watching these exchanges, and for unexplainable some reason they make me happy on a basic, primal level. I like the fact that the back half of the bus can overhear every word spoken and the fact that this woman’s cat now has an audience. But I particularly like the fact that two strangers united only by the nine to five grind are sharing thoughts in what could be a disconnected and anonymous environment. Lasting relationships seem to stem from these interactions; in time, these groups of long-time riders, associated only by their daily commute, apparently plan events and dinners, forming friendships and keeping in touch with former riders. I do not claim to understand what synaptic leap occurs to make these people go from idly talking about cats on the daily 25 minute bus ride to planning off-the-bus get-togethers with other riders. In fact, the thought of personally attending one of these get-togethers fills me with horror; I do not imagine these are events for the small talk inhibited. However, I am appreciative of (if also mystified by) this effort taken by these people to form communities and connections in the most unlikely of places.

April 8, 2008

It Could Happen To You

When I discovered that my new daily routine would require me to stumble to the bus stop at 7 AM every morning and ride a crowded bus full of coughing, sneezing, runny nosed people to campus, I was able to console myself with the thought that I was at least lucky enough to be in a prime spot for some harmless people watching. I imagined myself keeping a notebook in which I stored little writerly notes of all the fascinating individuals I shared my morning commute with, and making many insightful ethnographic observations about the complicated social dynamics of mass transit. Instead, what I have mainly discovered is that riding the bus provides an exceptionally fertile breeding ground for my many neuroses.

There are many unspoken rules that must be taken in consideration when riding the bus, and while most are fairly obvious, some of them can only be learned through experience. For instance, when the 144 heads back to Saint Paul in the afternoon, the rule inexplicably shifts to a “pay when you leave? policy rather than the typical “pay when you enter? policy. Why? I haven’t a damn clue. I assume it has something to do with more efficiently facilitating people entering and exiting the bus, or perhaps with cutting valuable seconds off of the time that people must stand outside in the cold while people swipe their cards. Most patrons, long time 144 riders, are aware of this quirk, but on my first return trip home, I was not.

I was intent on showing no sign that I was an imposter on the bus. I planned on being a cool and levelheaded customer. I would show no hesitation. I would ask no questions. I would casually insert my card, as if this was something I did every day in my life, remove it, and I wouldn’t even look back. Memories of my mother, who had once managed to insert her bus pass in the dollar bill slot and had shrieked when it was promptly sucked forever into the machine, flitted in the back of my mind; I was determined not to make a similar scene. Sadly, this plan ran into a quick roadblock when the slot for the bus pas was covered by the large, beefy hand of the bus driver.

This was baffling. I was not sure why this hand was here, and in the slow seconds while I was attempted to make sense of the situation, I somehow managed to ignore the bus driver insisting with increasingly strained politeness, “pay when you leave, sir… pay when you leave!? Finally, it occurred to me that he was talking to me. “What?? I said stupidly. The driver glowered at me. “PLEASE… PAY… WHEN… YOU… EXIT… THE… BUS… SIR? he said, in the exaggeratedly loud, deliberate voice that one uses when talking to a partially deaf senior citizen or a misbehaving and rather slow child. I suddenly realized that I had made a terrible mistake.

I slunk to an empty seat in shame. I imagined hostile eyes evaluating me with scorn. I thought that I had surely engrained my image in their mental profiles of other riders as “that stupid kid who can’t figure out how to ride the bus.? However, if anyone had, no one cared. All I found were expressions of blank apathy and glazed looks out the window. In a bit, I joined them.