You know those really big moments in your life — the ones that act like vertexes on angles? You know: The shifts; the places where before this moment everything was one way, and afterwards, everything was another way. Common examples from literature, film, and lectures mothers give daughters are: the first night you sleep at someone else’s house; the day you get your first period; the first time you can’t eat off a children’s menu at a restaurant; your first kiss (and your first devastating break-up); when you go to college; the birth of your first child. For me, one of the most seminal moments like that came when I was finally allowed to ride the city bus by myself. This happened over the summer the year after eighth grade.
My mom let me ride the city bus (one dollar anywhere in the city for anyone under 18) because she got tired of having to drive me to the children’s theater so much. I was going to the children’s theater so much not because I was in a play, but because I had a crush on a boy who worked there. I felt that I had to be at the children’s theater every weekend day, because I wanted to sit outside the piano practice room and see if the boy would walk through the hallways so I could gaze at him. Gazing, I felt, would win this boy over.* My mom finally told me that if I was going to waste my Saturdays hopelessly gazing, I would have to do it on my own time; she was too busy for the drop-off. I took the number twelve to Pioneer Courthouse Square, and over the course of the fifteen minute ride, my mind was blown.
A few things about buses: They are higher up than regular cars, so if you can sit by a window the view is markedly superior to a view from a car; you can stand up on a bus if you want to (very exciting the first two times you do it); and, crucially, buses are full of people you would not otherwise see. This final point didn’t truly come into focus for me until the magic of the standing-up point had worn off. (When you’re thirteen and no one has ever let you stand up while moving at 45 miles per hour before, the immediate novelty of it knows no bounds.) Soon, though, I started to realize what incredible museums city buses are.
In high school, I took to sitting at the back of the bus and writing down as many details about the people I could see as possible before it was time to get off. On more than one Saturday I rode buses for the sole purpose of riding buses, and with no destination in mind; I took them to the end of the line and then took them back. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and I thought that this business of scrawling out details about strangers on buses business was incredibly deep of me. I am sure I thought that no one had ever done this before. I sat moodily in one of those back seats, taking on what I imagined to be the affect of a tortured anthropologist, scribbling wildly.
I filled at least a dozen notebooks this way — and that’s definitely a lowball estimate. They read like lists with items separated with line breaks and dashes, and always with a Walt Whitman-esque “the":
- The woman with red purse and sour expression looking at her shoes. She has brown hair and something big is in her left pocket.
- The child, restless at the front, with a blue cord coming out of his backpack so his mother will not lose him. He has on pale blue overalls and there is a bit of chocolate around his lips.
You get the picture. These are comparatively unoffensive examples. I also wrote a lot of impossible-to-know things as though they were facts like, “she is heartbroken”; or, “he is thinking about his mother.” I believed I was an incredibly thoughtful writer and I was taking myself to the next level with this unprecedented attention to detail.
These days, I live in a city where I get to ride the subway every day. Sometimes I ride during rush hour, and then I crush up against and between bodies, trying not to step on anyone’s shoes. Other times I ride at easy hours like 10:14 a.m., when the cars are relatively empty and you can count on getting one of those coveted corner seats. Either way, it’s one of the best parts of my day. This is still because of the people (the standing-up thing wore off a long time ago), but it’s no longer because I think they will make me a better writer.
In a wonderful essay Dean Spade wrote about polyamory, there’s a section about the subway I return to a lot: “Sometimes while I ride the subway I try to look at each person and imagine what they look like to someone who is totally in love with them […] It’s a wonderful thing, to look at someone to whom I would never be attracted ant think about what looking at them feels like to someone who is devouring every part of their imagine.” I am obsessed with this idea. It’s so obvious and at the same time so obscured that every person you encounter in a day made a decision about their outfit that morning; celebrated birthdays as children; probably had a first kiss or a painful goodbye. All of the people on this subway got on at some stop, after coming from some location, and they will all get off somewhere else. They are all the protagonists of their own life stories. I know that this is clearest, most self-evident thing in the world, to the extent that writing a paragraph about is openly if not offensively cliche. And yet, it is something I am constantly forgetting.
I forget about it, for example, pretty much any time I am on the Internet and I’m cruising down comment sections detached from faces, or scrolling through news stories about number of supporters for Candidate X, or number of bodies in the aftermath of Disaster Y. I forget about it when I find myself angry at entire groups of people; when I find myself thinking people are evil, heartless, stupid, or bad. I’m not saying that we need more Kumbaya and less meaningful protest; people do terrible, hateful things all the time and we live in an unjust world that continues to unfairly and often violently favor one skin color, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, body type, mental state, and/or ability level. I’m not saying that’s ok and that people should not be held accountable. I guess I’m just saying that to act in a way that is hateful, you have to be scared of losing something. And to be scared in that way, you have to be made of the same weird human material as I am.
This kind of compassion, I truly believe, helps me protest better. It makes it harder for me to sleep at night knowing that people — with favorite movies, memories about dogs, and accidental scars from kitchen knives — are needlessly suffering in this country every single day.
The subway presents a wonderful opportunity to be still (ok so you’re technically moving really fast, but you know what I mean) and to be around people you would never otherwise spend so much time with. What an incredible gift! And to think that there was a time that I thought about playing Candy Crush during my morning commute.
If you are lucky enough to ride on buses or trains, here is my advice: Look at someone’s hands. Notice if they’re wearing rings or if they have chipped nail polish or if there are hard creases along their palms. See if you can see something in their bag or in their pocket — sometimes people keep lone cigarettes ready, and sometimes they carry trail mix in a front pouch. Notice the most beautiful features of a person’s face. Imagine what they looked like as a child. Imagine what they looked like when they were the happiest they ever were. Wonder things. Like: wonder where this person is headed, and wonder how they feel about it. Wonder how long they spent in front of the mirror this morning; wonder when they were last kissed; wonder if their mother is still alive and where she might live if she is and how they feel about her on the whole.
If you are worried that this is arrogant or omniscient — if you’re reading this thinking, “this writer is trying to simplify everything and make everything easier than it is; she’s shoving people into boxes and asking me to do the same” — then you are absolutely right. It’s impossible to know the complexities of everyone’s story, that’s absolutely true. I think it is far worse to spend life forgetting that people have stories to begin with. It’s amazing — really amazing — how much of our lives we spend forgetting.
* I did not win the boy over AT ALL. He recently got married and did not invite me to his wedding. I looked on Facebook about it though and it seems like they ate lobster at it.