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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Strangers on a Train

When I first moved to the city, I used to really love taking the train to work. The whole idea of not having to sit in traffic, worry about parking, look for gas stations when the tank's on empty--all of those normal little anxieties instantly evaporated. (Actually, I still am really grateful for not having to deal with those things anymore.)

I used to tell people that I loved Muni when I first moved here, and they looked at me like I had carrots growing out of my ears. Now I realize that that was a pretty greenhorn thing to say because the SF public transportation system has some major problems. But taking the train still beats driving (at least here in the city where people drive like nuts--be warned). Now I just get embarrased for us in theory, picturing what imaginary Parisians taking our trains must think because our meager subway system is such a sad little joke when compared to the Paris metro.

You just have to learn the unspoken rules on how to ride on the train. Like where to stand on the platform to get on the least crowded train or who gets dibs on a newly vacated seat. The other thing you are supposed to learn about the train is how not to look at people. (There's an interesting concept about the familiar stranger that ties in with this, and of course the Walker Evans photo above says a lot.)

When I don't get a seat (which means I can't read my book--I'm not one of those talented, multi-tasking riders who can grip a pole with one hand and a book in the other), I have my little train games. I still do enjoy looking at people (it's my train cabaceo). Once in a while I can get a person to smile back at me. I like to wink at the occasional little kid, but many of them are unresponsive. My other game is to decide if which rider I would pick to kiss if it was my last kiss on earth. Sometimes I don't have very good choices with that game. Or if a person resembled an animal, which one they would be.

I like to see what other people are reading. One Thousand Years of Solitude has been a very popular book on trains I ride. Also The Kite Runner and Absurdistan. Lately, I've noticed a few Atonements (myself being a recent McEwan fan, too, but not because of the film) and some Jane Austen--Northanger Abbey and Emma. Lots of people read The Economist and The New York Times. It makes me happy to see that people on the N-Judah have pretty good taste in their reading material. Once in a while, I'll see someone reading a book that I've never heard of before but looks really interesting and I put it on my mental reading list.

Once in a very great while, you actually strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller. One night, I was on my way home and just finishing the last few pages of Fahrenheit 451. A scruffy young guy--not homeless but definitely wandering--sat next to me, noticed what I was reading, and his face lit up. He said to me, Wow, I remember when I read that book when I was a kid. I really liked it a lot.

I told him the book is still as good as he remembered it (I read it in the 7th grade and again several times years later) and asked him what he likes to read now. He told me that he really didn't buy books anymore (I could have guessed that), but once in a while he goes to the library. I gave him my book and said it's one of those great books that's worth re-reading, but that he had to promise to give it to someone else when he was done with it, because that's the whole point of Fahrenheit 451: Read books and pass 'em on.

He was so happy. It was really cool. That's a little train game I'd like to play again some day.

Even though it doesn't get the hype that Rear Window, Vertigo or North By Northwest gets, I think Strangers on a Train is one of Alfred Hitchock's great movies. Check it out if you haven't seen it. Robert Walker is really, really creepy in it.


Psyche February 1, 2008 at 11:59 AM  

I love the 'fight for the empty seat' game - also the 'who gets on the train first' game - because they're a lot like tango. In the sense that they're all about physical communication. It fascinates me the way tiny little changes in the angle of your shoulders or the placement of your foot can make the difference between getting a seat or not. You're trying to position yourself in such a way that the other person can't move where they want to without being rude, yet without being rude yourself. It's a bit like an interpersonal body-based version of Connect-4. It really shows how complex our codes about where you can and can't place yourself in relation to other people are. Because of course different parts of the body demand different distances - for example you can acceptably move closer to someone's foot than to someone's face. Anyway. The unspoken system of understanding which governs where a follower will move in response to a leader's movement are equally complex and subtle, and love figuring out how that works, too.

The rules are different, here in Buenos Aires, and that's interesting too. I ride the buses a lot. People are prepared to place themselves far close to each other here than they are in London, and think nothing of bumping into you with their bum, or leaning right next to your face in order to whisper in their friend's ear. There's a whole new system to learn here.

Greg February 1, 2008 at 12:18 PM  

what a wonderful post...I found it on my Google News Alerts....thanks for writing this, I'll highlight it when I start our new link feature on the N Judah Chronicles...


tangobaby February 1, 2008 at 12:40 PM  

Hola Psyche,

Que pasa? How is BA treating you? (I guess I'll just have to check your blog and find out.) I have to say that I much more enjoy the physical tumult of a crowded dance floor than a crowded train, but learning to be observant in either realm comes in very handy when learning "the rules." And I don't know why but it is also comforting just to be surrounded by people. You don't ever feel lonely.

I love your Connect-4 analogy. How perfect. When it is played by both parties. Some people on trains are very oblivious, though.

I tend not to fight for empty seats--I will assert myself if it's mine--but I have learned to stare daggers at someone for a few seconds if they have stolen my seat and they know it!

It does not surprise me that the rules for public transit are completely different in a Latin country. I have to admit that I took taxis everywhere and the one time I was on the subte, I did not feel comfortable. I found that I loved the underground in London. The physical environment of it. Mind the Gap and all of that.

Hi Greg,

Thank you for stopping by! I cannot believe I have not read the N-Judah Chronicles (but of course I will now, and happily link to your blog). I also just found your other political blog. Now I have lots of reading to catch up on.

I wonder if you are one of the people I have tried to get to smile? Or one of the guys reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Next time, wear a white carnation or something so I will know who to wink at.

See online, or on the N!


Psyche February 2, 2008 at 6:42 AM  

Hi Baby! (Noone puts you in a corner.)

I must update my blog. I have about ten half written posts that I need to make time to finish. Maybe tomorrow. Superbowl day!

I love the Tube, but in small doses. If you have to use it regularly it just becomes exhausting. The key difference between tango and public transport - in this context, I mean, for there are many differences! - is that in tango you're aiming to connect with people, while on the Tube you're working really hard not to connect with anyone even a little bit. It's interesting that, as challenging as tango is, the latter is far more tiring than the former.

If people here play the free seat game or the getting on the bus game then they do it very differently from our way at home! To me it seems entirely shameless the way people will run for a seat regardless of how close they are to it. But then there's a lot more queue jumping here too, and general non-conformist behaviour with rules of any kind, so I think perhaps they follow the law of 'You snooze, you lose' more than we do!

tangocherie February 2, 2008 at 11:29 AM  

What cracks me up here in BsAs is how everyone waits in line for the bus, but when it comes, the men stand aside for the women to get on--and then once inside the bus, all hell breaks loose with everyone shoving for a seat!

tangocherie February 2, 2008 at 11:30 AM  

P.S. I think the "Strangers on a Train" are probably married.

tangobaby February 4, 2008 at 12:47 PM  

Hi Psyche and Cherie,

Do you notice even with all of the pushing and shoving to get seats, that people do give up a seat for an elderly person? I do have to say that the folks in SF are very good about that.


Do you really think they're married?! Oh, that's so tragic. :-(

tangocherie February 4, 2008 at 7:30 PM  

Yes, TB, if you're pregnant, have a small child, are handicapped, or are an old lady, people in the front of the bus do give up their seats --if not, the driver yells at them. But it's more difficult if you are an old man. The macho thing, you know.

That old couple in the photo? Well maybe they are a couple, or maybe not. After 60 years for many people, there's nothing more to communicate to each other. But that doesn't mean that they don't still love one another.

tangobaby February 6, 2008 at 9:44 AM  

Hi Cherie,

I'm glad to know that the drivers take care of the passengers. I can't speak for the buses in SF, but in the trains, you're definitely on your own.

I hope that if I still have a companion after 60 years, that we'll still have something to say to each other. But I know what you mean.


Phyllis Hunt McGowan February 11, 2008 at 8:54 AM  

This is an excellent post. I love how you gave your book away to a stranger. Simply wonderful.

tangobaby February 11, 2008 at 7:21 PM  

Dear TheElementary,

Welcome, and thank you for reading my blog and for your comment. I liked giving away my book, but even more than that, I liked very much that it was that particular book. I felt Kurt Vonnegut smiling down on me a little bit.

I will be looking forward to checking out your blog very soon.