How many times have we heard the contemporary complaint about how “people” on trains and buses just stare awkwardly into space not looking at each other, not engaging. But seriously, what do YOU do on a train, what do you do on a bus—if you even take one? Me personally, I normally wear headphones and lose myself in some interview podcast or some news program. Sometimes absorbed in the music I have been making that day, maybe my latest favorite song.
This isn’t a rant about people who do or do not connect. This isn’t an act of nostalgia, or talking about where or when it was better. It seems that we complain no matter what—either that people stare too much, or that people ask us constantly for something, get up in our face, or, that they doing neither of those things. That they are too distant, detached. We complain that people on trains in Germany, for example, are too quiet, that it’s like a library in there. We are nostalgic for the friendliness and boisterousness of a train in New York, but then, we hate being bothered. In earnest perhaps we prefer to observe its loudness through the guise of our headphones than actually engaging with it. Preferential to watching that guy talk to those guys that don’t know him rather than talk to him ourselves. We are discontent, constantly ill at ease, unhappy with the way that things are as they are, yet wouldn’t be happy if it were different. And nevertheless, contributing to its reality.
[One could say the same about “gentrification” which is a term for wealthier or upwardly mobile people coming to a place and opening up businesses … but could mean in general any number of different types of people coming to a town and basically changing it. Weserstrasse in Kreuzberg is full of bars and restaurants, and its urban bare walls say, “go home yuppies!” But—they are full, these bars and cafes and restaurants. And the streets are spilling with people. And those doing the complaining? Us. Or—perhaps all this complaining is rather just the stuff of articles and journalism. The topic must be a complaint, the commentary must be a social one.]
Ten years back it seemed trendy to point out our contemporary “lack of connectedness,” “lack of realness.” We complained about how people would just look distantly on trains, avoiding eye contact. This seemed a component of our modern condition worth noting. Then we figured that out that people were connecting—just not with us—they were beginning to speak to other people on mobile phones. But always, too loudly. Too loud for us. We wanted “connection,” but we apparently wanted “quiet connection.” We even wanted to witness connection—but only at certain volumes with people who were both there next to us physically in the flesh.
Now the complaint is that everyone is plugged in, on Smartphones, ears between two headphones. Again connecting—even to colleagues and friends on the other side of the earth—but not with us. We have learned mobile phone etiquette. In fact, there is less reason to talk, when we can email. Have our trains growing quieter? Have we not, in a sense, wanted them that way, all this time? Have we ourselves not contributed to a culture of self policing and rule making regarding ourselves on trains? In San Francisco, there are signs directing where the train will stop, where people should stand who are getting on trains and where people should exit. People even line up to get onto trains. While it might seem like a good idea, a good plan for better time efficiency, the result of signs and rules is that we have even less reason to interact with each other, to talk to each other or look at each other to see who is next to get on, to negotiate personal space.
When I was living in Haiti in 1998 I waited for four hours for the one bus that would come to take me back to Port au Prince. I was somewhere in the middle of the jungle, nearly three hours away from the city, especially given the poor state of the dirt roads. I was carrying a walkman that took 4 AA batteries. It had one mix tape inside it. The batteries were dead. I couldn’t be sure that the bus was going to come, but then, there was no way to check, either, so there was really nothing to do but wait. It grew dark, and I waited. I felt that I was all alone in the world, just 19 years old. I waited. There were nothing else to do. There were no phones to call and no contacts. And when the bus came it was full of dark black men and dark black women with full sacks of grain and lambs and chickens and the darkness lay all around us, so dark we couldn’t see anything. Just stars. Could hear the cries of the animals and the slight murmur of people telling me to get in, climb and find a little bit of space in the back of the truck next to these other bodies. Bodies like mine but very different from mine too.
We had many hours to go and many miles to ride over bumpy unpaved roads. We had strangers and animals to share the space with. We could smell the lambs and the chickens—they appeared to be sleeping as they were held upside down by the feet. We could smell the grain and the sweat of each other’s bodies. We were touching. And what did we do? We sang. We sang together, for hours, singing, songs I didn’t know so I had to just hum the tune once I’d learned a bit of its arc.
When I think about our modern state of transportation in the Western World, and the United States especially, I think—neither with regret, nor sadness, nor nostalgia nor critique, nor anything but commentary—wow, we’re so far away from this experience of togetherness and communion. Even to suggest taking a bus to many people is like an affront to their lifestyle, let alone speaking to the people we are riding with. To suggest that actually tons of people in, for example, Los Angeles DO take public transportation because they have to comes to some as a shock.
Every time we commute together, if we do, is an opportunity for a kind of closeness that we could establish together. When we say that we “could” speak to strangers on public transportation, or that we could “put away our phones”—this is merely a commentary of relativism. We could sing together (imagine it! On the NY subway!) It WOULD be possible, and yet it appears that the Western World would rather exoticize such acts as an aspect of, perhaps, tribalism, rather than take it in as possibility. Would rather pay money to see it as a performance than to establish it as practice. But is this a “loss?”
Trains and buses are not like all other trains and buses. The BART train with free WIFI between San Francisco and Oakland is not like a bus running through San Jose, is not like a bus running the outskirts of Mexico City, not like a train in Rio. In each of these spaces we negotiate relative standards of communication, body contact, understanding of rules. We in fact ARE all communicating in relative ways – with our neighbors or with our iphones with people thousands of miles away. Perhaps some of us are even still singing together.
Have you (I) lost something? Should you (I) lament?