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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.