Anyone who rides public transportation to and from a daily job sees the same riders all the time. They stand next to you, sit across from you, frankly assess your appearance with a glance, and when necessary, acknowledge you. You may have shared hundreds of hours of travel and recirculated air with someone but positive contact is still normally limited to a smile or “Excuse me.”
Surprises happen: On a crowded Max train one morning a man standing nearby edged up to me and whispered,“Your fly is down.” (I swear nobody noticed me zip up.)
For the most part, the familiar strangers who dot my commute make about as much impact as the stuff in my spam folder. And in this era of smart phones, public transportation seems almost to breed introverts. My personal collection of TriMet introverts includes the following samples.
A man reads standing up, usually in the spot where the train car is hinged and the floor moves, so he has to constantly adjust his feet to stay upright. He never leans against the wall or uses a hand for support . In fact, his hands are full; there's a book in the left one and, in the right one, a pen for making notes in the book. The book is always covered in plain paper, hiding the title. Some days it's a big book and sometimes a small one, but the practice itself never varies.
A mountainous, fair-haired fellow sits on the side bench, holding a large, worn briefcase on his lap. He's worn, too, overrun by middle age, though he could probably still take me with one hand tied behind his back. He's not plugged in, never reads, never interacts, just glazes over and often nods off. His style is Rumpled Business Casual. Now and then he spruces up – a pressed shirt, a pristine pair of shoes – as if embarking on an upgrade. A few days later the shirt is wrinkled and the shoes scuffed.
A young man in a business suit, always impeccable, haircut fresh, shoes shined, listens to a music player. He keeps a stolid, unchanging face as he walks deliberately, falling behind the rest of us on the walk from the bus to the Max. His attention is wholly on the player and what's coming through it. He manipulates it constantly, as if sponging up every last bit of goodness from the same eight bars or the same affirmation and then doing it again. And then again. Or maybe just searching, searching without success for that one good tune. Whatever the sounds he's hearing, they stop somewhere deep inside of him..
Though he has the long, white hair of a retiree, he's on the same schedule I am. Every weekday, he gets on the car carrying a fold-up bike, which he takes to a seat. A tiny rearview mirror is attached to his glasses. Sometimes the helmet stays on; today he doffs it, revealing a thin, insulating cap. He sports an outfit of beige and browns consisting of a fuzzy, armless sweater from which poke the sleeves of a checked shirt. Shapeless dockers complete the look. The right pant leg is tied up, showing off a few inches of bald leg and an argyle sock. From a shoulder bag he pulls a laptop, followed by a pair of big headphones, and goes to work. I can see the screen, which in no time is packed with columns of numbers that he cuts and pastes for the rest of the ride.
Now you know as much as I do about these men and their individual routines for coping with the commute. They share an emotional remoteness. I can relate.
Next: The Women