hen I first moved to the big city, I’d never used public transit and was a little intimidated. I found one route to work and stuck to it for an extraordinarily long time: a bus to the El to a commuter train. When I finally found a shorter route, part of me still missed the long way because I’d observed so many interesting people. I’d filled notebooks with them. At the time, I thought about compiling them into a book of short stories: One Year on Public Transportation…or some equally gripping title. That book never quite materialized, and none of those people have turned into characters.
For a while, I was commuting by car and I really missed public transit. My suburban co-workers thought I was crazy. When I came back to the train, it was very different. By that time, I was older and used to the city and public transit. I guess I was less enchanted with everything or, perhaps, this new train line just had more boring people. Except for one fascinating person. I dubbed him Pompous Man. He always has a self-important air about him.
He’s nicely dressed, but doesn’t seem to care about his clothes at all. He’ll toss and twist them as he settles into his seat, not caring if they get wrinkled. He won’t just loosen his tie, he’ll yank it loose so that it hangs askew and off to the side. He sits with his legs splayed wide and his arms spread on the backs of as many other seats as possible.
When he walks, his chest is puffed out and there’s a jaunty dip to his swagger. Again, he takes up as much room as possible. His arms are out, swinging freely (and often with a plastic grocery/lunch bag pendulum).
He never seems concerned for anyone or anything around him; he’s self-absorbed; he’s in an oblivious bubble. I saw him at the grocery store once. He was with a woman who seemed exceedingly exasperated with him. He was staring at items on the shelf with wonder, as if he’d never been in a grocery store before. He abandon the cart in the middle of the aisle and the woman snapped at him as I tried to eek by. I could tell by the look on his face that, to him, she was an annoying gnat who was blithering about something unimportant.
Can you picture him? Have you formed an opinion on what he’s like? I certainly did.
And then, I noticed that we took the same route exiting the station. Every morning, the same homeless man stands at the end of the street bridge jangling his cup. This pompous man often stops to talk to him. I’ve passed when they’ve had a nudge, nudge, wink, wink conversation about a woman. I’ve seen pompous man carry a nice shirt on a hanger the whole commute, just to give it to this man. I’ve seen him empty container upon container of yogurt from his own lunch bag to the homeless man’s bag. Even when he has nothing to give, he’ll smile and say hi.
Surprised? Me too.
People are surprising (and judgmental). While none of my train observees have been fictionalized, I hope that I’ve learned a thing or two from them and infused my characters with the same humanity.