* * *
As an informal student of Ethnology, I was excited to start a three-month contract at a work place which was 30 miles away from home and that I will have to get there via our city Metro everyday. Just imagine what it would do for my blog.
So between home and work and back, my time is filled and my thoughts inundated with a surge of understanding the human behavior. The crowd is at its best in the evenings, noisy and full of life. Why the coworkers or friends only meet while on their way back home and not in the mornings is incredulous. It is also ironic that I write about the value of human touch, voices and expressions, when people around me are text messaging, watching videos and mostly listening only through their ear phones.
Today, as I enter into the train at 4:04 pm, an African American guy (wearing crocs), gets up and offers his seat. I am grateful for two things, there wouldn’t be any smell of urine inside the train, and because, just like me, he is trying hard to break the fetters of stereotypes. “Sir, are you sure you don’t want to sit?”, I ask him as I sit down and give him a thank you gesture, “No, no problem!”, he says, “Well, I might want to sit, because it is just a coincidence that I had knee surgery last week”, “Hmmm, well that’s too bad, I just want to sit and you get to stand up for the next one hour for offering up your seat!”. We both chuckle, much like it was some kind of an inside joke. Then, almost instantly, we both slip into a state of indifference, which is commonly associated with coma-inducing high-tech gadgets.
“We both murderers; coz we kill time.” Lil Wayne hip hops loudly into my ears through my co-passenger’s ear phones. I appreciate good soulful literature, but because the girl is reading “Tried by War” by James M. McPherson, I have to assume she does too.
I survey the train car, and turn on Spotify and look out the window as I hear my favorite song. Looking out helps me quell my curiosity and not peasant stare at people at what they are up to. And in the downtown area the Metro runs under ground, so my ears are just not filled with music all the time. This small detail is significant, I assure you.
The train is about to move away from the station, and I see a gentleman mouthing words as he misses getting in through the closing doors. Would he have saved those few seconds at the ticketing gate if he hadn’t slowed down for the guy to pass in front of him?
Another mother had arrived with her teenage son and as she sat diagonally across to me, her eyes wandered. Two minutes later, she picked up her bags, pointed him to a different seat and land there. Less than a minute later, they are already targeting their next move. What is the best seat on the Metro anyway, the driver’s? How are the Metro commuters in Japan or India dealing with their discomfort of being surrounded by so many people, that their lungs can barely expand?At the Arts Center, a Hispanic woman enters into our train car with three children. She had to be coming back from work, maybe utilized the government subsidized day care for the babies. They all looked lovely, just thankful to see one another at the end of a long working day.. I peep into my handbag, and after a good 15 minutes of thinking about etiquette, cultural interpretations and so many other random stuff, I offer the mom 2 lollipops, which she grabs politely. The older gets one for himself and the two little ones share the second one. Wow, that was simple, there was no problem to begin with. Especially because moms make miracles happen.
At a distance, in one of the seats, I see this beautiful girl. I had to compose myself and not stare at her risking an embarrassment to both of us. But I must have had a good look at her, because I wanted to know where such a woman can possibly be working, what skills I had to learn to be able to work with her, if she also had self-image issues like me, or whether she considered herself beautiful in the mirror. Her hair, her nail paint, her dress, her laptop bag, her shoes. Until… She gave out a big yawn that made me jump out of my reverie and figure out that she was just a simple girl on her way to work.
And just when I felt my day wasn’t going to get any better, a familiar smell permeates my nostrils. I look around and see a 7-year-old Chinese boy with crayons and papers in hand. His tiny scribbles seem to make a lot of sense to his parents, but I know where the boy and I connect. The childhood, the crayons, their discernible smell, just make me curl up and cry wondering where those days of my unaccountable life went away.
After a few minutes of getting lost in my thoughts, I realize I haven’t seen the well dressed lady whom I share a seat most evenings as we approach our stop at Doraville. She wears the brightest of lipsticks and some of the best outfits of anyone on our train. I had always wondered where she worked, until that time we had walked out of the train and as I walked towards the parking lot to my car, I found her drawing a cart full of janitorial supplies from a closet underneath the Metro stairs. More than anything without even a single word she conveyed a life’s lesson to me that evening. A lesson on how dignity of labor is a mindset only the best workers adopt. If its a duty, you do it diligently and you do it like you’ve got a choice.
The flight attendant had been standing for a while, he now sits down next to me where the hip hop girl was before. He is courteous to return my smile, asks me how the weather has been, all the while checking his reflection on the window. He pops a gum in his mouth, and offers me one. We talk about his travel, how good he feels to be back home, his condominium which was not selling and a lot more things. At Midtown (station), he gets down after wishing me a great life. The two Architecture students who have been listening on us giggle and high-five each other. And sneer at him as he passes by our window to get to the escalator. I felt pity for those guys. I want to explain to them that I have had my issues with a preconceived notions before I became a parent. That I too held beliefs that all male hair dressers and flight attendants must be gay. But, after you become a parent, something changed inside me. I still see myself as the same person, just more fragile, tolerant and forgiving (of norms and my own presumptions).
As I feel the underlying emotions of pity and sadness overcome me, my eyes land on this guy at the back of the compartment. I see him every day like its some kind of a ritual. I’m sure he knows me and so many of our other companions on the evening train, even though he refuses to make any form of eye contact with me or anyone else. These kind, I like to call, are the “I don’t want to get into any trouble” kind of people.
This Metro stint is coming to an end depending on when my office moves in the next couple of weeks, but through this “journey” I have overheard a lot of different conversations. A daughter comforting her mother telling her that a soft copy should be available with her doctor’s office and she doesn’t have to worry about her lost medical (paper) records. The cordial discussion between a Vietnamese entrepreneur and a Vietnam War Veteran. The soft banter of a dozen Korean students in English. A middle-aged man feverishly working his phone and a 20 something guy with a real news ‘paper’.
And then some people just have a profound influence on you. Even if the interaction with them is not direct or even if it is minimal, they just make a mark. Like the lady who gets off at Brookhaven. Wasn’t she the one who wiped off a water puddle on the seat next to her, to make place for a guy who was looking for a place to sit?
A couple come and get seated in the place of the two men who were talking about the flight attendant dude. At the first go, I get a feeling that they are mutually courting each other, with sly smiles and remarks. I am happy my radio has no signal, so I listen to the conversation, because my sad-being was in need of an evening scandal. They chat, and then there is momentary silence. She says, after drawing a deep breath. “It is going to be 25 bucks an hour.” He pauses sliding his fingers up and down her hand and landing them on her shoulder. “Really?”. She goes, “Yah, coz you are young!”.
I freeze, gulp a big ball of air, arch my eyebrows, and look down into my lap to see if I was invisible by any chance. Nope. And as if to reassure my existence, my radio comes back alive. The train stops, and outside my window a man passes by in his battery operated wheel chair, while I lie there motionless.
Eventually my station arrives, I get down, and in many ways, I move on while still struggling to keep my morbid compulsions of judgment towards my fellow Earth dwellers at bay.
People and Relationships are complicated, if life were a journey in a metro, people get on and get off, you switch on and switch off their thoughts. The meaning of a relationship still lies on how it withers the passage of time and the storms of trust and prejudice.