I find people fascinating, especially strangers. They are a complete unknown. They are not my friend. In fact, when I was a child, they were the enemy. “Don’t talk to strangers” is something we have all been told. It was rule numero uno, preceding, “look both ways before you cross the street.” Of course, when you grow up you realize that most strangers are not the enemy. Some become friends. The rest remain unknowns that you encounter in public places. We don’t know their story. We just know they have one. And that is what makes riding a subway train so interesting to me.
I was on the subway the other day. It was crowded, but quiet. Sure there were some conversations and people playing their music loud enough for the whole train to hear – how considerate – but for the most part, people were quiet. Of course they were. They were all strangers.
But what is their story? Who are they? When they aren’t sitting silently on a train, what are they doing? Where are they going? These are the unnecessary questions that probably only run through my mind when I’m on a train for forty minutes.
The way someone is dressed tells me a bit about them, but not everything. Their body language and facial expressions would tell me more, but everyone has a poker face on the subway.
So who the heck are these people that I’m sitting around?
Well, some were students. The stress in their eyes, the textbook in their hands, and the yawn they were holding in, were all obvious clues.
Then there were professionals going home from a long day at work. The moment they set foot on the train in their suits, fancy jackets, and salt-covered dress shoes, I instantly felt less important than them. I don’t know if it was their aura or the way they sat – with one leg crossed over the other and eyes fixated on their phone for the duration of the ride – that made me feel inferior. Maybe it was because I was dressed to go to a Toronto Raptors basketball game and these people had actually done something important that day. Who knows.
You know how some parents take babies for a car ride at night to tire them out and help them fall asleep? Well when you get older, train rides act as the sedative. Over the years, I have seen numerous people sleep on the train. I know you’ve seen them. Some of you have probably done it yourself.
Your eyes close and your head dips down to your stomach. Or your head goes straight back, as if you’re awaiting drops to be put in your eyes.
The other day I encountered a sleeper on the subway with a variation. An older gentleman was sitting next to me. He closed his eyes. Dipped his head down to his stomach. And then started to lean into me. Indeed, my arm was becoming his pillow. Fortunately, my stop was next and I left without the man trying to flip his pillow (my arm) over to get to the cold side.
Those who are unable to find a seat, stand. When the train is packed, it is like an impromptu mosh pit. If you’re claustrophobic, wait for the next train. If you smell, hope no one notices. If you don’t move out of the way when people are trying to get off, then you must be new here.
So far I’ve gone through the students, the professionals, the sleepers, and the standers. What about the talkers?
You know, the people that have a nice loud conversation with their friend and don’t care who hears them. In fact, they want people to hear them. Or at least, I assume they do. Why else would they talk so loud and make every story they tell sound like it was the greatest event in the history of mankind.
They are basically bragging to strangers. Strangers who pretend like they aren’t interested. Strangers who never look at the only people talking on the train because heaven forbid they make eye contact with them. They don’t want to be the one to give the dirty look to the people babbling on and on about their life. So they sit there in silence. Staring at nothing.
It’s fascinating. You know how someone points something out to you and says, “don’t turn around” or “don’t look, but…” that’s what this is like. You want to see the people who are disrupting your last minute study session, your relaxing ride home after a long day at work, or even your nap. You want to know the culprits. But whatever you do, don’t turn around and look at them.
Curiosity, we all have it.
Last but not least, there are the deep thinkers. I think that’s what they’re doing. They are the people on the subway that just stare into space. Poker face on. Possibly some ear buds in their ears. Regardless, they sit there like a deer in the headlights. What are they staring at? Sometimes the floor. Sometimes people. Sometimes nothing at all.
What in the world is going through their mind? No one knows, but them. You don’t know what kind of day they’ve had. You don’t know what their life is like. You essentially know nothing, except that they are on a train and show no signs of a pulse. Are they thinking about something? Are they thinking about what other people are thinking? I don’t know.
And that’s fine. That is perfectly fine.
The train is a great place to contemplate life because you are around people that you will probably never see again once you get off at your stop. It’s like an alternate world. One where you’re just there, rather than everyone focussing on you.
No one wants to know your life story. No one asks you questions about your life. No one bothers you. Nothing is demanded of you. You are just there. It’s like a timeout from life because unless you get off the train at a designated stop, you can’t go anywhere.
Great, now I just made it sound like jail.
But seriously, every person on that train had a story. They had a family, or maybe they didn’t. They all had their own friend group. They all had different life experiences. They had all been through something, or were going through something.
I did not know a single thing about anyone on that train. I could only make assumptions, and I was probably wrong about most of them.
All I knew for sure was that we were all on a train together. And when it stopped, we would all return to our own lives and go in different directions.
The world is much bigger, and far more complex than the bubble we live in with our family and friends. It’s a world of strangers. Strangers that see each other more often than friends do. And there is no greater reminder of this than sitting on a train and not knowing anything about the people on it.