Archive for July 19th, 2007

I wish I could say that I take public transit for environmental reasons. Environmentalism is trendy, and I could earn cheap social points by being green. Unfortunately, I can’t claim so much credit. The truth is, I prefer public transit because it gives me a block of time to read. When I’m not reading, the bus or the Skytrain is a perfect place for both thinking and people-watching.

Somewhere on each trip, I almost always use the time on transit simply to think. While I’m on transit, I may be purposeful, but, unlike in a car, I’m not responsible for that purpose. I can sit back, and let my mind wander. without guilt. Moreover, I’m doing it in an unfamiliar environment, with other unfamiliar ones passing rapidly by me outside, and unfamiliar environments often lead to new thoughts. Ride a bus for half an hour, I sometimes think, and I can often find a solution to any problem that’s on my mind.

Flying is even better, because it’s stranger and longer, but transit has the advantage of being cheaper and more accessible. Once or twice, I’ve even ridden a block or two past my stop, just because I was in the middle of thinking through an especially knotty problem and didn’t want to interrupt the process.

If I have a laptop with me, I can input my thoughts, so long as I’ve kept the battery charged. However, closing down a laptop can make me miss my stop if I’m not careful, and caring an open computer through a crowd is a good way to break it.

More often, I simply carry a notebook. The only disadvantage is that my handwriting has degenerated through marking student papers until it looks like an obscure style of cuneiform written in the dark. Nor does the motion of the bus or Skytrain car help. Later, I often can’t transcribe what I’ve written except for a few words here and there. Most, I frankly have to guess at through context.

At other times, I unabashedly gawk at the human parade around me. Generally-speaking, the people who ride transit do not represent a random distribution of the population. As a sample, they’re skewed to the teenaged and the old, the poor and the ethnic (by which I mean, anyone from a culture that isn’t obsessed with the idea of a personal vehicle). These populations are apt to be more colorful than the average suburb or city dweller: the young because they are asserting themselves, the old because they don’t care about fashion, the poor because they can afford to care, and the ethnic because they have their own sense of style.

If you want to hear the latest concerns among teenagers, or get a sense of different speech patterns, all you have to do is ride and eavesdrop shamelessly. What I hear can be embarrassing, like the time I heard a man pleading with his lover not to break up with him via a cell-phone, but it will be a genuine slice of life of the kind that would make short story writers drool. From people discussing their plans for the weekend, giving Twitter-like updates on their cell phones to families swarming with young children and cyclists still dusty from their ride, you can find a bit of everything on transit.

And these are just the ordinary riders. If you could the genuine eccentrics, the bikers who have lost their driver’s licenses and the homeless who sometimes ride for free in the downtown core, then the people-watching never palls. The one drawback is that you don’t always see the end of the drama. I still wonder, sometimes, whether the shoplifter I saw wearing half a dozen shirts and carrying their clothes-hangers was ever noticed by the transit police, or how well the busker with his thirty-second balloon show did. Nor do I know just who the man strumming a guitar for the driver was the other night, although from the way people acted, he might be someone moderately famous.

People-watching never completely palls. If nothing else, it’s a basic precaution for riding. Without being paranoid, it only seems sensible to be aware of those around you on transit, especially at night. However, the one rule you need to remember is: “Don’t make eye contact.”
Not that is, if you want to avoid being dragged unwillingly into a conversation. The eccentrics on the bus are often lonely, and even meeting their eyes for a moment can encourage them to tell you their life story in real time or in repetitive, rambling detail.

Of course, transit isn’t always smooth riding. If I’m foolish enough to travel during rush hour, I can learn more about other people’s personal hygiene and smoking habits than I ever wanted to know. Mostly, though, riding transit is so rich in people and thoughts that being in a private car seems an impoverished experience by comparison.

Read Full Post »