04 December 2014

talking to people on trains

I am on the train and thinking about talking to someone else on the train. (That sounds like the teasing beginning to a game of Twenty Questions: Guess who I am thinking of!)

I'm considering breaking the commuter code of silence because I heard a story on NPR this morning that public transit commuters who talk to other commuters are happier than those who sit in their safe, self-contained world, reading or looking at their smartphones. If NPR reported it, it must be true (and witty and intelligent), so like a good acolyte, I'm doing what they told me to.

(You can read this story for yourself here. My favorite part is where they say that "even for introverts, silence is leaving you sadder." I'm tempted to take that as a challenge: I will not be sadder by not having to talk to other people, just watch me.)

I've been riding the same train for a year-and-a-half—the same car, even. We are creatures of habit: Just as in school when we're allowed to choose our own seat every day and we, after only a few classes, gravitate toward the same seat with territorial fervor, commuters stick with the car and the seat that they know.

Why do we so easily and willingly—gratefully, almost—slip into routine in these small, quotidian ways? I think we are made to find order, and we take joy in ordering the same coffee from the same person. We like sitting down in "our" seat and seeing familiar faces around us. The world is unpredictable, but we make small choices every day to make it feel ever-so-slightly more predictable.

Part of the predictability of my commute is that no one talks. There's a man who works the crossword every day, and behind him is a guy who immediately falls asleep after settling in to his seat. How does he do this? I want to know how restful that sleep is and if he every considered going to bed earlier to avoid the need to sleep more in such a very public place. But it's hard to ask him questions, seeing as he's sleeping, so I'm stuck with my wonderings.

Usually there's an older couple sitting in front of me. They're in their 60s: the man gray-haired and bearded and the woman with a rich blonde that I'm sure is dyed but it looks so natural. Her hair is styled, every day, as if she were Hayley Mills in that show Good Morning, Miss Bliss. Do you know what I'm talking about? It was the precursor to Saved by the Bell, and if you're still a little bit lost (or would like a trip down memory lane), here's a picture of Miss Bliss:

Over the last year-and-a-half, I have invented an entire life for this couple. He's often typing away at what is clearly a scientific abstract, so I made him an epidemiologist at Northwestern, working determinedly in his lab to find the cure for everything. I imagine him travelling around the world to medical conferences to report his findings in PowerPoint talks that are standing room only. His work is that crucial, and his presentations are that engaging.

She's often reading—The New Yorker or a novel—and I believe she's a librarian and is known for her knack of recommending just the perfect book for someone, even if it's in a genre they wouldn't normally read. You can tell her one book you like, one movie you've seen recently, and how you feel about one current even she asks about, and before you're even done answering, you'll receive a book title on one of those little pieces of scrap paper the library has everywhere. A handpicked book: It's practically magical.

When this couple, several months back, spent their train rides looking at decorating websites and discussing in low tones how hardwood is a must because it's so classic and inviting (when there are plush rugs especially, she added), I invented for them a second home in Paris. Their pied a terre is their retirement dream, a goal they've both kept in mind through hours and hours in the lab and in the stacks.

And now it was finally coming true! I was so happy for them, even though I'd never technically spoken to them, but then, two weeks before Thanksgiving, my train friends disappeared.

At first I thought that perhaps they had taken an early Thanksgiving holiday. I'm sure they have children to visit in New York City (of course they enjoy the theatre and all the restaurants) or Napa Valley or Tuscany (apparently I think their children really like wine). But then they didn't come back after Thanksgiving, and now it's been almost a whole week after the rest of my silent commuter friends have returned.

Where are you? I ask their seat every day. I worry about my train friends I don't even know, and now I realize that if I were one of those happy commuters who talked—instead of consuming book after book—I would know, and I wouldn't be so sad as I look at their empty seat.

To console myself, I'm going to believe that they have escaped to that pied a terre in Paris. They're planning on spending the holidays in France because there's just something so right and charming about seeing the City of Lights in twinkle lights. When they come back in January, I'll be sure to ask them how it was.

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