I hate crowded train rides.
This is probably because of a mixture reasons, like how they somehow remind me of all my insecurities, or my sometimes not-so-slight dislike of people. Or maybe because the Westbound Go train, in particular, reinforces just how much I don’t fit in, with its constant flood of Blue Jays patriots and loud-voiced occupants.
From the minute I step onto the train, I notice an old White man to my left conspicuously giving me a full inspection: observing my hair, peering at my clothing, and probably attempting to guess my background. I’ve become accustomed to these quizzical gazes on the public transit, and my response is simply to stare back with an equally puzzled face.
Finding no empty seats, I sit down diagonally across from a woman who is fiercely typing something on her phone. She barely notices I’m there. As I settle into my seat, I look back at the old White man and see that he now has dark black sunglasses on, so I can’t tell exactly where his eyes lay. I decide to distract myself with a crossword game.
For some reason I can’t figure out any of the missing words today. I put my phone away and let my mind roam free. The train makes its next stop and, to my horror, a younger gentleman takes a seat right across from me. He spreads his legs to avoid bumping knees with me, taking up space as men are taught to do.
My mind instantly goes into unrest: why did he choose this seat, of all places? How can I peacefully take a nap if there’s someone directly opposite me, watching? I sigh and try to dismiss these thoughts, but my brain quickly starts to put together an escape plan. At the next announced stop, I will stand up and search for another seat in a quieter area. It won’t be awkward because other passengers will assume I’ve just got on, and Mr young guy… well maybe he’ll assume I’ve gone to the bathroom.
Awaiting the next stop, I lightly observe him from the corner of my eye. He’s carrying a black murse (man purse) with a zipper, in which he keeps his hand buried, I assume, in anticipation for the next vibration on his phone. He frequently pulls out his phone, types in a few words, and puts it back in, tilting his head back before repeating this ritual again. The woman beside him is still rapidly typing on her screen, and I wonder what could have kept her so urgently busy for this long. She now pulls out a set of headphones from her bag. The old White man remains still, as I have, hands clasped together and occasionally gazing at the trees outside.
My mind, triggered by my co-passengers, floats back lucidly to an article I read about the detrimental effects of social media to the strong link community relationships previously common to humans. How transformational the times have been for our generation: seemingly unable to remain undistracted by some gadget or other; constantly having to fidget with a device and stay updated or entertained at all times. Never allowing the mind time to think on its own.
The announcement of the next stop prompts a fair-sized group of people to stand up and move towards the train doors, ready to exit; a good sign that my plan to find a private area will succeed. I stand up and walk up a few stairs to the next carriage and find a secluded spot next to the window, with no room for another passenger to sit opposite me. My insecurities and I breathe a sigh of relief.
The irony of my movement quickly dawns on me as I stare at the advertisements on the wall in front of me. Here I am, avoiding contact with other people as I type up my thoughts in the notes app on my phone. Sure, I’m not texting anyone or scrolling through social media, but to the onlooker, I don’t seem any different than the others.
We’re all engrossed in our own worlds, our own head spaces, too distracted by friends and followers behind the screen to pay attention to those physically surrounding us. Has the ease of blocking and deleting people with a quick movement of the finger translated to my steering clear of physical interactions with people around me in the real world? When did DMs with people halfway across the world become more fluid and easygoing than face-to-face conversations? And holding onto a cellphone become so much more comfortable than holding onto someone’s hand?
We are – I am – lacking endurance. The modern social life has weakened us in dealing with discomfort and self-consciousness and offered the elementary solution of a delete button.
At my train stop, I turn back to look at where I had previously sat to see if the lady and the young man and the old man are still there. I see only the woman, who has finally looked up from her phone and is watching people exit the train. Feeling a little ashamed, and even though I’m not even 100% sure she looked at me once when I sat across from her before, I try to avoid her gaze as I step out onto the platform to make my way home. I tell myself that next time, I’ll read a book. Or maybe I’ll challenge myself in a couple of weeks to strike up a genuine conversation with someone next to me. My next train ride will be different.