When you commute five days a week on public transportation you start to see the same people standing in the same places everyday. I’ve always marveled at how our clocks are in sync. Do each of these people get up at 5:30 a.m. like I do, eat breakfast while reading the paper, then go shower and dress for work, all at the same moment?
So it wasn’t surprising when I saw that tall man, in his late 50s, wearing his wide-brimmed leather hat and trench coat on the subway platform. He’s one of those people who not only gets on at my “home” Metro stop but also gets off at the same downtown destination I do. I see him in the morning and in the evening on our way home. Everyday. We live and work in close proximity. There are a few of us. But I’ve never talked to any of them (although I often make eye contact with a guy who brings his wife flowers every Thursday).
I’ve never engaged this man with the hat but I have been keenly aware of him from the beginning. He’s a nervous sort of guy. When the subway car stops he walks fast to the entrance and when the door opens he rushes in to get his special seat. Luckily, that special seat isn’t my special seat. In fact, I have worked hard not to rush in to get my special seat expressly because I don’t want to act like this man.
Now, you need to know a bit about human nature, specifically Washington, DC Metro commuting behavior. When a train arrives what we should do is move to the sides of the doors and let everyone out before entering. This is the civil and evolved way. But this doesn’t always happen. In fact, it rarely happens. There’s a pile up of bodies squeezing to get out and those simultaneously pushing to get on. I try hard to not succumb to this madness.
On this particular day as I waited for the jostling to begin I looked to the left and Mr. Man with the Hat was standing right next to me. I had never been this close to him before. When the doors opened as commuters started to exit the subway car he was already leaning forward in frenzied anticipation. So in play was he that it appeared he was pushing the person in front of him forward. I watched him, inches away, move in. And I could stand it no longer.
“Please stop pushing,” I said in my calmest commuter voice. “I wasn’t pushing,” he replied. “Yes you were,” I softly mumbled back. I didn’t want to cause an altercation but without thinking his statement demanded a reply, even if I was the only one to hear it. We got on –he went his way towards his pre-ordained seat and I went mine.
In order to justify my mumble I replayed our brief encounter as the train moved to the next stop. And during the playback I realized he indeed did not push the person in front of him. His body language and shuffling, like a nervous sprinter just before the gun sounds, made him appear to jostle the woman in front of him. But there was no actual contact. It was his extreme posturing that made me react.
But the deed had been done. I had revealed myself and my heretofore private evaluation of this man. I was no longer just an anonymous person he saw every day at the beginning and end of our mutual commutes. I was that man.
Sometimes it pays to keep your thoughts to yourself.