Sunday, September 8, 2013

smiling at strangers

After six years of city living, I've developed a pretty serious case of "commuter face." You know it, right? It's based on expressing very little, with a distinct lack of eye contact.

I've also developed some pet peeves on public transit. The number one, far and away, is this:
It's a crowded morning rush hour commute, and you snag an outside seat. Inevitably, the person on the inside seat is departing exactly one stop after you sit down. This is usually made known by a verbal cue ("I'm getting off at the next stop") or a physical one (gathering belongings, pulling the cord, placing one's hand on the grab bar or railing and beginning to stand). This is all fine, but things get problematic when the person on the inside seat insists on getting up and exiting the seat before the bus has come to a stop. It's rush hour, the aisle of the bus is full, there's nowhere for anyone to go. But I, as the outside seat dweller, am forced to stand up while the bus is in motion, and attempt to move aside into the already crowded aisle to allow you to exit. The worst part is that practically no one uses the verbal cues. They just fidget to indicate that they are getting off soon, and shoot you a pointed glance to get out of the way. And if you don't move aside quickly you're left with a faceful of backpack.

So, clearly, I've given this some thought. I take the bus every day, and this drives me bonkers. It's not the only thing. I'm annoyed by able-bodied young people occupying the front seats while older passengers stand. I hate when riders are so caught up in their phones that they don't realize there's room to move back and they are blocking the aisle.

What I'm trying to say is that the bus ride isn't a very pleasant time. But does it have to be this way?

A few days ago I challenged myself to smile at strangers. I've always thought the bus ride would be more pleasant if we all used our words, communicated politely, and were a little forgiving towards each other.

Although I found few people met my gaze as I looked around the bus, I did have two (!) remarkable moments of actual friendly communication with fellow passengers! The first was a man seated right near the front of the bus. He apologized for the awkward placement of his feet, which was making it hard for me to keep my balance. Turns out his seatmate had a seeing-eye dug under the seat and this man was just making sure the pup's paws weren't impaled by some commuter's stilettos. I looked him in the eyes and smiled right at him.

The second instance came later in the ride. Having inched slowly toward the back of the bus, I took a seat - an outside seat. Of course I wasn't surprised that as we pulled away from the next stop my inside seatmate put away her book and started making the signs that she'd be exiting at the next stop. Instead of sighing heavily, I turned to her and smiled. "I'm the next stop" she said. I kept on smiling and began to stand. "Oh no, you can wait til the bus stops, there's no hurry!" I was grinning at this point. When the bus came to a stop I stood up, but the aisle was packed with others making the same maneuver. "Don't worry," she assured me, "I'm in no hurry, let them go first." As the aisle cleared out I stepped aside to allow her to pass. She thanked me and I enthusiastically wished her a good day. And I really meant it.

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