I tried to write about public transportation. I tried to word-vomit my way into the urban hustle and bustle. Morning El rides with Dunkin’ Donuts blueberry coffee (it’s better than bad, I swear), nighttime El rides nodding off to the train car lullaby: I thought I would capture my love for this movement. Instead, I was grasping at straws to chronicle my here to there.
Look down. Eyes on the other passengers’ shoes. You can tell so much about a person by the shoes they wear to commute! How their day went, where their evening’s headed…
And then I stopped writing. I hadn’t thought beyond that because I hadn’t thought much on public transportation. I’d honed in on worn-in sneakers, salt-stained boots and countless pairs of Converse, but shoes aren’t the people that wear them. A love for movement did not compel me, but rather a comfort in passing.
Tall, tall palm trees line the Heroinas Avenue median as I walk to work. Detailed murals – dark, dark purple and yellow and white; the eyes of the pictured man, pursed lips and searing stare); a baby that bears a striking resemblance to either John McCain or Benjamin Netanyahu, depending on the hour and the shadows – cover walls that line median-punctured streets. I love this, my commute in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I can’t get over the colors (¡Los colores! I tell my Bolivian family. Chicago is a concrete jungle, windy and wild but nowhere near as colorful. They don’t believe me.) I pass these tall, tall trees and these dark, dark graffiti contours five days a week for eight weeks.
When I return to Chicago, and then to Evanston, the things I pass change. They look different (urban, urbane, familiar). They sound different. No longer lost in translation, I return to thinking in English.
I’m no longer walking to work. I’m just walking – always with purpose and destination, mind you – and I find myself uncomfortable in my comfort zone.
“Heyyy, pretty lady. You know, you have some beautiful green eyes. A little help, pretty lady. If I could just ask you…”
I walk into CVS as the man’s voice fades away from where he sits on the Evanston street. I buy him a turkey sub. Call it an impulse buy. I figure, why not? I won’t even miss the $4.59 it costs (though it will mean sacrificing a coconut chai latte, almond milk, of course). Tingling with good karma, I walk outside and hand him the sandwich. He moves his shoulders up and down, somewhere in between a shake of laughter and shrug of disappointment. I stand in front of him, awkward and confused.
“If you would have let me finish,” he says, “If you’d have listened … Miss, I’ve been having a terrible bladder problem, and I was gonna see if you could pick me up a roll of toilet paper.”
“Oh…” is all I offer in response as I take a half step away from him. Oh: I didn’t listen. Oh: I, the college student on heavy financial aid, still have a luxury of access beyond Evanston’s homeless, sick and hungry. Oh: people are more than hungry, and who I am I to say with certainty if this man is even homeless? Oh: he called me out. He sees me. Oh: I didn’t listen, I assumed, I detached. Mumbling and fumbling a “Sorry,” I head home in disbelief at my failed attempt to help another. Bad Samaritan, good intentions?
Today is November 17, 2013. At the moment, The New York Times homepage reads “Philippine City Ponders Grim Road Ahead,” “Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Crisis” and “An Addiction Treatment With a Dark Side.” The furnace on the second floor of my house stopped working last week, and it’s getting very, very cold, and all of this pales in comparison when I realize I’ve seen the same bladder-plagued man outside of CVS for over a year and continue to avoid eye contact.
Perhaps I was told the eyes are the window to one’s soul at too early or too awkward an age, but I can’t help feeling completely vulnerable when I look someone in the eye. Beauty is in the eye, and lo and behold, it renders me defenseless. This vulnerability looks inside: while I can escape the elements that this street-side man endures, I am subject to his gaze. And now, when I walk down Sherman Avenue to CVS, the tables turn. He wants me to look back. His call remains the same: Heyyy, pretty lady, you have some beautiful eyes. It works differently, though. His I notice you becomes Notice me. He says I see you, what you can do and what you choose not to do. We see detachment without looking one another in the eye. I hear an unspoken Do not pass Go.
Yet practical – some psychologists go so far as to say productive – people believe that detachment trumps passion. “Passion can make you too close to something,” says consultant Ann Michael in an issue of Psychology Today. “We all need to be able to step back and disconnect. In order to see flaws in the plan, respect the input of others and maintain an open mind, a little indifference can go a long way.” Right?
Not quite. There’s both power and danger here: passivity warrants exploration because it gets us places (work, the convenience store, the train, anywhere, away). But here’s the flaw: indifferent, we keep ourselves from being people who engage and listen with enough genuine interest to buy toilet paper instead of a less-than-gourmet turkey sub.
But for now and as always, life is a constant stream of difficult things. Old habits die hard and people are easy to pass…
…Or so I believe. Isn’t it just like me to pass on by? But who’s really to blame? Who – which one of an us I fail to define – has that indefinable yet enduring it, that thing to spare? Am I being too overt? Should I let the questions pass?
Answer, messy and muddled: We both have things to spare. $4.59 for a turkey sub and the time it takes to listen from me, and the time it takes to start that “Heyyy” and endless passerby to call to. Yet I look down or at my reflection in store windows and he looks out towards the next person walking towards him. It’s “I’m sorry, not today” for and from us both.
Where are the pretty things to pass – the tall, tall palms and the dark, dark paint?
Do not pass Go. In fact, take a few steps back.
It’s the morning commute in Cochabamba, Bolivia, and I pass the trees and murals and hail a northbound taxi. We drive from Heroinas Avenue to streets without lanes, let alone medians. The taxi stops, a woman walks towards the window and moves her hand towards my seat. I stare straight ahead, refusing eye contact, worrying that other passengers will blame the gringa for any disruption. It’s both a recognition and a risk: I don’t want to draw attention to myself, the blonde, the americana, la griiiiinga, names as rhythmic as music blasting from the cab. This woman will only bring attention. Trouble. She wears the most vibrant scarf striped with green, purple and blue and it stretches across her back to carry her baby. She touches her scarf, then her child and then my arm. Looking at me as I look away, she groans a groan that’s guttural, raw, real.
Surprisingly (to me), other passengers seem uninterested in what I realize is the morning commute’s standard peddling routine. I should have noticed: we just reached a main bridge between the north and south of the city that connects, if only physically, the elite and impoverished of Cochabamba, the Chicken Kingdoms of Avenue America (comida rápida, lo mejor) and the live chickens (and cows and unvaccinated dogs) of La Zona Sur, the city’s south side. At the bridge, the light turns green and the taxi begins to move, the woman’s groan grows louder, and I allow myself a quick glimpse at her face – wrinkled cheeks, hopeful eyes and much anticipated acceptance of nothing, neither help nor cash donation. For the rest of my ride, her colorful scarf sticks in my mind, doing own sort of peddling, as if to say, look at me. Vibrant, visual and still struggling. Look at me.
Don’t look at me, I want to say. Let me pass by, easy and detached. Don’t look at me, I want to say, because the difference between us is both clear and unbearable, and it scares me. That’s what it is: Fear. Fear of a normal I have only just met. Fear of the things we carry and what I will not hold (eye contact, to start). This is her normal, the passing, passing, passing of passengers who will always give off a No me mires.
I see this woman once more on my way to work, and again, she sees me too. It jars me. This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen, I think. If I ignore you, the connection should break.
I’m no longer visible.
You move on to the next one, the next taxi, the next glaringly-obvious outsider sitting front seat.
That doesn’t happen. She doesn’t give me control of visibility – she grabs my arm, and again, she moans. With her begging, she owns the moment. You can detach, but you can’t hide. And again, the light turns green and the taxi speeds over the bridge, music blaring. We pass.
Sane people make it through day-in-day-out difficulty via detachment. Call it justification. Some, like myself, go to extremes: we self-pity, we pity society, we write, we fall into silence (and call it Writer’s Block), we won’t look you in the eye. When feeling unusually compelled to take action, we might buy a turkey sub. We – I – speak of struggles in abstractions because the truth embarrasses me, you, us. It’s specific. It’s easy. It’s impossibly difficult. It’s privilege that you cannot overcome, cannot disown, cannot share or ration, yet you live with it. And so we detach in hopes of creating a gap where it’s no one’s fault when things or people fall through the cracks in the sidewalk or the bridge.
Collect myself, then pass go.