There is nothing like sitting on a relatively empty commuter train and watching people lost in thought. And there is nothing like watching people lost in thought and seeing their thoughts grow and grow like nice little bubbles around their heads until someone comes in to take the next seat or the ticket collector comes by to burst the bubble.
Such are the kinds of thoughts even long commutes will allow shaped by constraints of place and time.
That was the nature of my train ride this morning.
It was snowing terribly heavily today as anybody in New Jersey knows. The snow was falling thick and deep early in the morning, not drifting down slowly like in the romantic movies but like bushels of white sand an angry child was pouring down in frustration from the sky in the surly half-light of winter.
The snow necessitated morning commuters to walk swiftly, scurrying like nocturnal animals darting to their subterranean holes at the first light of dawn, heads buried low in the black coat collars, eyelashes as lowered as possible away from the cold snow, jumping over the slush towards the underground train tunnels.
I had to change trains at Newark Penn Station. Since this wasn’t my usual route, I didn’t know the right track or the correct place to buy tickets. I emerged from a tunnel with everyone else and asked some people thronging at a platform . A couple of people immediately answered helpfully. I was grateful for their help.
Yet, I noticed something about the way they answered me too. There was a suppressed energy about those people this morning, trapped in coats and hats and woolen leg warmers and their crouched frames that needed to be expended in speech. They weren’t just thronging here. They were waiting. Waiting out the next few moments for something to happen which was the focus of their lives right then.
Their energies were concentrated on one act alone. It was the arrival of the train. They were there to catch the first rumbling sound, the whooshing wind, the appearance of the great beast to carry them away. There was a necessity to be alert, to act on time, to stand close to the train ahead of the others if possible, to watch the gap between the platform and the train and step in fast.
That was the focus of their lives this morning today. The entire combined energy of the people said that was how they didn’t want to lose out on life. Those few minutes could bring an end to the agony of waiting in the snow on a cold platform and make or break an early meeting or a job interview.
Productive competition but not an atmosphere for contemplation.
Yet, once inside, it was mostly calm and warmth and silence. This was not the subway. Seats were high enough for people to settle down in privacy.
The scene outside had turned to a white Christmas postcard. The snow had covered all urban unseemliness in a white shroud. For some reason, people were not reading from their phones or e-readers today. Perhaps they simply wanted to enjoy the warmth.
It was perhaps the low light or the warmth or the protected space that had made people turn inward. Most were traveling solo at this time of the day. They stared ahead or at their laps or at their hands and said nothing.
A woman in a very heavy coat and very thick hat sat across the aisle silently. It didn’t seem as though she was going to office. I wondered what she was thinking. A man looked relieved to have found a seat. He was dressed in formal wear but looked quite uncomfortable in it. I wondered if he was contemplating the next few hours or the next few days or something on a much greater temporal scale as he stared at the back of the seat in front.
A young lady, clearly a student, had the name of her school across her sweatshirt. It looked as though she had spent the weekend in the city and was now loath to go back to her university in the suburbs. It so happened that classes were canceled at her school later that day so her trip was going to be in vain.
But for now, all were looking quietly into the seeds of time.
I wondered if there was some value in those reveries. Were those thoughts worthy enough to be written down at all? Was anything being lost if they weren’t?
If there was an omniscient narrator on this train, what would s/he do? For sure, such short bursts of contemplation wouldn’t be worthy of a whole story or article in scope or depth. Yet, I’m sure they weren’t so fleeting as to be worth nothing at all.
Handling surface and depth together, the ephemeral and the constant, if not eternal would have to be the strength of the writer and genre that would catch the morning commuters’ thoughts.
Could it perhaps be a blog?
I have found the perfect metaphor for surface and depth coexisting amongst the seasoned commuters on the subway trains. You’ll see them in deep sleep on their seat even under the most crowded of conditions, breathing heavily, seemingly without a thought in the world. They’d seem so peaceful you’d think they’d miss their stop in their sleep.
But come the station and pronto! They’re out of their seat like a shot.