Friday, May 18, 2007

Disconnected Sardines

I notice the behavior of complete strangers packed together in public places. The funny thing is that, with people encroaching on each others' personal space, there's so little interaction—so little human contact. I see this often on the morning commuter train.

The seats are uncomfortable and cramped. They are made of stainless steel and a thin pad of upholstery—more to give the appearance of two separate seats, than to provide comfort. My knees ache, pressed against the hard metal of the seat in front of me, and I try to keep my elbows tucked in front of me, since I'm jammed up against the wall to my left and someone else in the seat to my right. The woman seated next to me seems to be tired--after all, it is 6:17 AM. She is of African decent, and looks to be mid-40's, but I'm never good at judging ages. I don't stare at her, but notice that she's professionally dressed in a light tan overcoat and her hair is nicely styled in wide curls that cascade just below her shoulders. Her large black purse rests in her lap, the strap still over her shoulder.

The swaying of the train jostles us side to side and we can't help but bump elbows. Her voice cracks as if she hasn't spoken since waking. "Pardon me" she says politely, in a husky, contralto voice, though there is no fault to be pardoned.

The woman sitting in front of me has blond hair--it's not natural; I can see the dark regrowth beneath the yellow-blond twists of hair--done up in that modern fashion, randomly sticking out in different directions. From the back it's hard to assess her age, but I would guess she's younger than the woman sitting next to me. She's reading through a copy of Quick, a free newspaper. I can only make out a headline about American Idol. I try to read over her shoulder but the train is swaying too much at the moment, making it difficult. She turns the page, but the flimsy paper doesn't cooperate and folds and wrinkles in the wrong places, resulting in a battle of wills between the woman and the pages. After much crinkling and rustling, the fight is over, the page successfully turned. The people around her are unphased by the struggle.

I perceive the faint scent of shampoo or soap from the woman next to me. I try not to smell. Being this close to so many people with so many different hygiene habits (or lack thereof), I'm afraid of what might fill my nostrils. Thankfully it's pleasant this time, and I can, literally, breathe easier. I'd be more worried if I were sitting next to that guy sitting two rows up across the aisle. He's wearing workman's blue jeans--the kind that, even when they're clean they're stained with the residue of work--and a green T-shirt with a slightly faded company logo printed across the back. His dark, dark brown hair has grown long, like he hasn't had a haircut for a few too many weeks. Though I can't see his face, his body shows he's a relatively young, strong man—probably in his late 20's or early 30's. To be fair, he looks showered and shaven and ready for work, but later today, after a long day's labor in the Texas heat, whoever sits next to him will probably have their eyes watering from the stink of sweat.

The train slows. People shuffle positions, anticipating their stop at the nearing station. There is very little speaking; a few excuse me's. The doors at the front and the back of the train car give an angry hiss as they open. A few get off and more get on, filling up more of the scarcely available seats. Some decide taking a seat isn't worth the trouble and remain standing. The voice of the conductor squawks over the intercom, supposedly informing the passengers about the next stop and final destination, but it comes across as complete gibberish--more closely resembling the wa-waa-wa-waa speech of the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons.

"Ding-Ding" and the train accelerates. The humming engines increase in pitch and the rushing sound of the wheels on the rails gets just loud enough to make conversation difficult. “Hrrrnnn, hrrrnnnn,” the train whines its warning to cars stopped at railroad crossings.

“Hiya,” says a woman's voice somewhere behind me. I don't turn around to see who's there; I know she's not speaking to me. “Ah know—Ah paid that yesterday,” she drawls impatiently into her mobile phone. She lowers her voice and I can't make out the rest of the conversation, which ends shortly.

I watch the man standing at the front of the train. He's older, probably in his 50's, with gray, thinning hair and a neatly trimmed gray mustache. His black (or is that dark brown? I can't tell in the dim florescent light) briefcase is tucked between his feet. He holds on to a handrail to steady himself against the movement of the train. He is slim, dressed in light blue polo shirt tucked into tan khakis—the business-casual “uniform”. He, like me, is looking around at the people on the train. Staring for a moment, then glancing down at the floor, then looking around again. Our eyes meet, and a hint of a smile crosses his face before he shifts his eyes away to look at nobody. There was almost a connection, broken off before before it could become human interaction.

We all sit (or stand) together in each others' silence. A few resting their eyes, some reading, some just bored, waiting for their destination. All together, each in solitude. We are disconnected sardines, tightly packed into a steel can, but politely and deliberately ignoring each other.

This essay was written as part of a college English Composition course. This is an essay submitted to show "observation". I scored 98/100.

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