Metro: To Talk or Not to Talk?

I used to humor myself by judging the monotony of workplace elevator conversations—you know, the typical, “How’s it going?” met with a, “Well, the weekend was too short.”

Then one day, I got on an elevator with a man who asked the question, “How’s it going?” and I pulled one of the expected responses from my pocket—something along the lines of an exasperated, “Glad it’s Friday!” and I followed up with the automatic, “How are you?”

The man responded, “These are the best days of my life.”

I was speechless. His response snapped me right out of my own bubble in which I’d placed myself. I felt happy and connected to my space and as if these were also the best days of my life.

That happened well over a year ago now, but I still frequently find myself thinking about that line, and especially when I’m in transit.

A couple of years ago, I began a study of what I had deemed “Metro Face.” It is an interesting phenomenon where, upon 20150529_095823entering a metro car, most people lose their usual identity and instead embody their metro identity—or Metro Face. Metro Face is most often characterized by an expressionless, consistent gaze forward and down toward some absent object. It is surrounded by an ambiance of mild irritation and melancholic boredom. In my studies, I found that every few train rides you are able to find one of the “Others.” The Others, for whatever reason, betray the accepted norms of Metro Face patients. They do things such as smile, look around at those nearby them, say hello to strangers, and generally carry an aura of excitement and joy.

At a dinner party last month, a question related to the Others was raised and debated—should you talk to people on the metro, or just mind your own business? It seemed like the bulk of the dinner party’s opinion weighed toward the side of, “You leave me alone, I leave you alone, and we both get to where we’re going.”

Shortly after this dinner party, and during the October government shutdown, I was getting off the metro in Bethesda to go into the office. Work had been slow without my federal colleagues, and I was dragging my feet a bit over it. I took a look at the towering Bethesda escalator one has to take to exit the station, decided the escalator was for suckers, and walked over to board the elevator. Right before the doors closed, a disheveled, thirty-something, office man came hustling in. The doors closed and he fidgeted about with a guilty look on his face. Then, he made eye contact with me and said, “I was feeling too lazy today.”

I responded from a deep place of understanding, “The Bethesda escalator is a commitment. Really, your whole heart has to be in it.”

He nodded in agreement, and I relished in our moment of human connection that allowed us to enable each other’s less-than-heart-healthy morning decision. I thought about the conversation my friends and I had had at the dinner party, and I was convinced in this moment that everyone was wrong. We should be talking to each other.

High off of this interaction, a week or so later, I decided I wanted more. I sat on metro after work teeming with a desire to connect with people. So, on two occasions during this ride, and as a result of picking up on details of our shared environment, I opened my mouth to share my internal commentary with nearby fellow passengers. Unfortunately, both instances ended with me quickly swallowing my words upon seeing that each of them had in earbuds. I understood that my attempt to connect with them would merely end in me looking like a crazy lady talking to herself. I made my transfer at Metro Center feeling incomplete.

Everyone seemed to be plugged in to some digital device to escape their own loneliness or insecurity with what was right around them. However, I can’t help but think that people would feel less lonely, less insecure if they’d actually become fully aware of the bounty around them and dive right in. And, this is coming from a textbook introvert, so we don’t get to use shyness as an excuse.

The next day, determined to get my dose of humanity, I took the metro down to the National Mall with the sole purpose of finding strangers—and talking to them.

I started simply by saying, “hello,” to people I passed. It felt right—much less awkward an uncomfortable than the proliferated, Which way should I look and what should I pretend to be doing in order to ignore the fact that I’m crossing space with another person?

Now, if you’re wondering why I picked the National Mall as my destination to find strangers with whom to chat, it’s because the National Mall holds one of D.C.’s most misunderstood treasures—the out-of-towners, the I’m-not-from-the-city folks, the isn’t-this-such-a-magical-moment visitors—or, more simply, tourists. They’re not bogged down with work and routine, and they’re often hopelessly lost and confused, so they make for great conversation and shared human experience. Especially during the government shutdown, they were more bewildered than ever. It was fantastic.

I took a photo for a young, wide-eyed couple outside of the Capitol building. I spoke about the craziness of the week’s events with some folks near a sign declaring the National Mall closed. I cracked some furlough jokes with a lovely family from the Midwest. I walked around saying hello until the sun began to set, and then I headed back towards metro, satisfied and alive.

But the closer I got to metro, the more my city vibe pulled recklessly at my soul. I recognized a growing pattern of familiar post-workday thoughts. Sinking quickly into this bitter end-of-the-day abyss, I was about to pass a woman on the sidewalk. She was extravagantly dressed up with bleach-blonde hair and heavy make-up. It was far too easy to lump her into a negative stereotype in a misguided attempt to feel better about my own self. However, right when my muddled mind was ready to place her in this category of judgment, the unthinkable happened.

“Hey, how’s it going?” she said as we passed, and my eyes lightened in a joyous, “It’s a lovely night,” response.

This is precisely why human connection is so important. The physical act of acknowledging each other’s existence alters the chemistry of thought patterns, thus improving one’s overall attitude. It takes a, Dressed up bimbo, impression and instantly transforms it into a, Damn girl, looking good—work it!

Metro is a concentration of disconnection that we keep underground, but it’s spreading outside of the tunnels, and I worry that if we don’t do something about our subterranean world, it might just fully takeover the outside world too. I think we need to talk to each other on metro more.

Untitled (2)Luckily, I also think the Washington Area Metropolitan Authority (WMATA) is aware of this condition and working overtime to mitigate its effects. Fairly regularly, WMATA provides its riders with opportunities to connect over one of the things us humans are so great at bonding over—being irritated. Sometimes WMATA will make sure that on a hot summer day, one of its train cars isn’t air conditioned, or it will fiddle with the speakers in another car so that every time the conductor makes an announcement, there’s nothing but painful screeching and static. On other occasions, it has a “train malfunction” or a “signal error” occur during rush hour, causing all of the trains to have to share a single track, and resulting in delays that range from 30 minutes to an hour.

Within minutes of one of these events, you begin seeing people start fidgeting about. They start looking around at each other with grumpy expressions. They make their discontent known through tapping their feet, looking at their watches, and eventually releasing sulky sighs. A few minutes later, you’d think everyone knew each other. A wide conversation begins on how terrible WMATA is and how unhappy everyone is about the current situation. People unite over their temporary misery. And it’s a beautiful thing to observe. For this, I applaud WMATA as my partner in the expansion of human connection. WMATA, in my opinion, is nothing short of a modern-day hero, and I hope they keep up their good work for a long time.

In the end, I suppose the only concrete conclusion to my ramblings is that it’s clear I’m hopelessly obsessed with the facets of human connection and why this connection matters. Because it does matter. These are the best days of our lives.

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