I ride public transit. Every day. And at the risk of saying a deeply male-privileged thing, I enjoy it. Decrying the crumbling state of Metro is—like paying federal taxes while being denied voting representation in Congress—a part of life in Our Nation’s Capital, and it is indeed embarrassing that what is ostensibly the seat of power on Earth has such an easily stymied subway system, one that now shuts down at midnight even on weekends. But my commute is short, six stops, and the number of times I’ve missed having to sit in traffic every day since I moved to DC 11 years ago is exactly zero. Zero times.
I love people-watching on the subway and the bus. I especially like to peek at what they’re reading. This is becoming more difficult as Kindles and other tablets replace paper books, but if I see that someone has a book I feel compelled to angle for a glimpse of the cover.
Sometimes a specific person will catch my eye for no easily identifiable reason—and sometimes for the most obvious, lizard-brain reason.
Look, I’m not a creep. I never stare at anybody, or intentionally crowd them (though crowding is often unavoidable on trains or buses at peak travel hours), or try to persuade strangers to talk to me. I don’t talk on Metro, period. If I see someone I know and if we don’t mutually pretend not to have spotted one another—the default option—we’ll nod and smile and preserve the precious silence. In my utopia, every car is the Quiet Car. No one wants to talk on the subway or the bus, and no one but no one seeks conversation there with someone they’ve never met.
Even if I did get some bizarre signal that chitchat were welcome I would feel weird about the dozen or three dozen other people trapped in there with us to overhear our sparkling exchange. Because when I’m in the vicinity of two people who seem to be flirting, I always eavesdrop. Always! Even when I’d rather concentrate on my book, I can’t help but listen. (People who talk on the phone while riding public transit? An alien species, to me. I won’t even answer my phone on the bus, which spares me the shame of having to shout bons mot like, “I’m on the bus! Yes! Right now!”) But I love public transit, in principle and in practice. Sharing that love means behaving in a way that does no harm to any fellow passenger’s sense of safety or welcome.
Fairly often, a beautiful stranger will board the bus or the train. DC is, contrary to its deathless “Hollywood for Ugly People” tag, populated with interesting, attractive people in abundance. (I lived in L.A. for a few years in the early aughts, and while I would never assume my experience to be universal, for me, Dating in DC has been more fun than Dating in L.A. By a lot.)
Less often, but still sometimes—again, of course, without staring or bothering or doing anything even slightly invasive or rude—I’ll catch myself thinking, “I wonder what her name is. I wonder what sort of work she does. I wonder what she likes to do in her leisure time.”
Somewhat less often, but still occasionally, an alluring somebody will sit down right next to you. In a spot where whatever they’re reading will be directly in your eyeline. Even if you were to decide that just glancing at whatever book they’ve got would be a violation of their privacy, you would have to close your eyes to keep from noticing! And just maybe I’ll catch myself thinking, “I wonder what her marital status is. I wonder whom she thinks of as her Emergency Contact. I wonder whether she has any allergies or has ever suffered a serious illness or had major surgery.”
And maybe once in your life, just as are you are beginning to think your nosy, silent survey—“I wonder what her name is”— she will whip out a three-page medical intake form and start filling it out in (appropriately) clinical detail. A degree of detail of which you, as a journalist, strongly approve. Right there on the northbound S9 bus.
So I suppose the moral of this story is: Hey, Girl. Hey. Sorry about your gallbladder thing. I hope that gets resolved painlessly, and soon. I’m not saying I’m a hero or anything, but I when I got home I Googled “gallbladder attacks” instead of Googling your name.
Also: Think twice before you take out your sensitive personal documents on the bus.