#928: Comparing and the Train

May 16th, 2018

I hauled some boxes from storage this week and made the mistake of looking at my past.

Letters, birthday cards, photos of people I had forgotten about and of people I won’t ever be able to. Trinkets and trophies hard-won but now more a matter of storage space than personal pride.

I’ve googled some people from that shared past, disparate present. Of course their photos are lovely and their web presence curated. Of course no one posts the moments of whimsy and maudlin and floating, aimless sad. No one of this crowd but me was dumb enough to put anything but happy things online.

So I went to my happy place — the Chicago public transit system.

I like the train because it’s the best place to be alone in the city. Our shared social contract to avert eyes and pretend the others don’t exist gives makes the crowd our most-private spot. Wordlessly, we enter a covenant to be wordless. Together, we playact loneliness.

The privacy and shared delusion we aren’t heaped in a 2.7-million-strong anthill has increased with technology. Wires in the ears and eyes on the screen have outpaced books and the view from the trains that sail above trees as distraction. I partake, of course, texting and communicating with the people I love, but when I truly want to feel alone, I watch the crowd.

There’s always one or two of me on the train, people who out of curiosity or motion sickness can’t bear to bury themselves in books, magazines, folded but increasingly small newspapers or phones. There’s no rhyme or reason, no type of people watcher.

Sometimes I see a party girl cliché scan the room with a poet’s eye, or a heaping hulk of muscles, gang tats and fear sneak out a peaceful eye-smile that would fit a bodhisattva. Disturbed old men and little children can be fascinated by a leaf outside the window or the shirt of a person in the corner, while people whose garb was assembled to scream “ARTIST” bury themselves in whatever the newest version is of Angry Birds, Candy Crush or 2048.

I cast no aspersion on the people who use technology to reach their loves, or escape the minotaur of boredom stalking the transit map. My stranger-watching is no deeper, no less deep. Their pixels are as much a part of this world as they are, and it makes no matter who chooses to gaze on what, whom or which and when I think that, I feel better about the old photos from the dusty box.

The lines I read and reread in college — for enlightenment and to woo nerdy women, two concepts nondual at the time — floated into my mind.

“All this is full, all that is full. From fullness, fullness comes. When fullness is taken from fullness, fullness still remains.”

It doesn’t matter that my life pointed one way and a long-gone stranger’s has pointed another any more than it matters that this woman’s phone screen is turned to this and this woman’s to that. All this is full. All this is life, and the train rocks me to a nod-off sleep as I head toward the work I chose.

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