On the bus or subway, the dramas are especially vivid, each one as fleeting as a 30-second ‘improv’ sketch as people get on and off at the various stops.
I think of the man the subway, peering into his daily planner, a panicked look on his face. Because I was squished up against him, I thought I knew why he was frowning: the words “Send flowers, Mom’s birthday!” appeared scrawled across the page devoted to today’s tasks.
“Did you forget?” I just had to ask. “Oh GOD!” he answered. “But I can still call, right?”
I think of the young woman swaying with the turns as she rode the bus in Cambridge Massachusetts. Over one shoulder she sported an M.I.T. backpack and just under its nylon strap, high on the round of her right deltoid, a vivid tattoo of the Infinity symbol, and how nice THAT was, to ride along with someone on such intimate terms with the boundless.
On the train things are different, since you have time to really notice things.
One thing I notice, after that initial rocking interlude when the train is pulling out of the station, is how fond people are of carving private space out of public space. Young people especially think nothing of travelling with bedroom accoutrements, meaning pillows and even stuffed animals. When they can, people of every age will stretch out across all three seats for a snooze.
And then we come to air travel, which feels different from the other two modes of moving.
With air travel folks get much more sociable: Last week I saw a little boy on the Jetway talking to his toy plane as we all waited to board.
“He turned four yesterday. This is his first time flying,” the child’s mother said to the stranger standing behind them.
“Really? Only four and you’re a pilot already?” the stranger said with a look of pretend astonishment.
The child looked up at him, looked away, then looked up again as if deciding he just had to say it:
“I’m not FLYING the plane. Look at me; I’m little!”
Meanwhile, an older guy with a big front porch told everyone he had just bought his ticket last night.
“Get out! What did you pay?” the woman beside him demanded.
“$200,” said the man.
She gasped. “I paid twice that!”
“I’m sorry darlin’!” he replied, all but taking her hand to express his regret over life’s unfairness.
Of course once you’re on a plane other dynamics manifest themselves.
Sometimes people not on the aisle try to get on the aisle by asking you to switch seats, if you have that lucky spot. My advice, if you wish to remain there? Pull out some paperwork and scowl importantly into it.
Sometimes you get next to a person who just can’t stop talking. That’s how I learned you’re not dying unless you have seen a vision of ’the pastoral scene with an angel.’ Who knew?
And sometimes two people who have never before met find themselves laughing their heads off and leaning in toward one another to say things you’re pretty sure have nothing to do with flight information.
In short, we all act very human on our public conveyances, and I love watching us do it. In fact I love it here on earth generally. Maybe I’ll get the recycling symbol inked on my arm so I can keep coming back forever like that four year-old pictures us all doing.