Sunday, November 16, 2008

Public Transportation: Adventures and Conversations

One of my sister's friends at grad school at the art institute has a blog for one of her classes. Here is a portion of the description:

"I decided to create this blog where people can share their experiences on the CTA, or/and at the bus/train stops. I hope to share few tips that I discovered to make the trips more bearable or even enjoyable, sometimes."

There are two things that I wanted to include in the entry I wrote below, but that didn't get mention.
One is that, as a theatre major, I will probably move to a city post-graduation. I consistently worry that the adventure and story-telling side of the transportation system will fade for me... as it is difficult to remain open and excited for adventure every day.

The other thing is something that Ryan, the pumpkin-carrying boy said to me on the train
Ryan: "You know, people can tell that you're not from around here as soon as you open your mouth. Do you know why that is?"
Me (wondering if my Northern Ohio accent is that strong): "Umm..."
Ryan: "No one else around here talks"


I don't actually live in Chicago, but my sister does so when I travel from my tiny Michigan town to "Chi-town," public transportation is part of the adventure, rather than a necessity of getting somewhere. In addition to this, I love making strangers not so estranged. These two things combined result in meeting some of the greatest people.

Here are four of my favorite ways I have met people:

1. Saying Hi:

My sister moved to Chicago (and closer to me) this August. I, along with numerous other family members, visited for her birthday. My sister, her boyfriend and I took the train across town to the hotel where the rest of my family was staying. There were just enough seats open on the train to make it silly for us not to sit down, but for the three of us to have to separate when we sat. My sister and her boyfriend moved to the back and I sat down next to a guy staring off into the distance who appeared relatively friendly. I sat for awhile, drumming silently on my lap when I finally said hello. He wasn't listening to music or doing anything that signaled 'don't talk to me' so I figured it was okay. Plus sometimes you just need to at least acknowledge each other (hello may be substituted for even the head-nod to get the ball rolling). He returned the greeting and before 2 stops had passed I learned he had raced at a cross country meet I had watched that morning. He was from Midland, MI and was the summer training partner of one of the freshman on my cross country team at college. It's a small, small world. My new friend and I spent the next six or so stops talking about cross country training and recovery methods while my sister and her boyfriend sat next to silent strangers.

2. Offering Candy:

I wouldn't recommend doing this to everyone you meet, but you can tell the candy eaters. Many people will not accept your offer, but immediately afterwards you can make the joke "Oh… is it because I'm a stranger? Hi, I'm (insert your name here)". It's not the best joke, but it is one of my favorites. And now your seat partner knows your name and the door is open for small talk—if he/she so desires.

When my grandma passed away a fall ago I did not have my car at school and had to take a bus from Michigan to Chicago and then all the way to Ohio (Cleveland area). Including the waiting, the trip ended up totaling around 12 hours. I met many people on this trip which helped it go much quicker. While waiting in the bus station in Chicago I met two nice middle-aged men as well as an older, free-spirited gentleman through this method. I had a long philosophical talk about whether or not time existed with the free-spirit heading to San Francisco and discussed making the right decisions while you're young with the two middle aged men, one returning to Houston after not finding a job in Chicago. Maybe not everyone cares about these topics, but I do and they are a great way to give meaning to time.

3. Giving compliments:

In general people enjoy compliments. I have found the best kinds to give are ones directed at something controlled by the individual. Does the scarf appear hand-knit? Remark on it. Do the buttons on their coat appear hand-sewn? Notice it verbally. People are flattered when someone likes something they have created. This includes commenting on how the whole ensemble "just fits together". Sometimes you receive a polite thank you. Occasionally you receive a whole story and a beaming compliment-receiver.

On the same trip I listed above I saw a boy with these amazing pants all made of patches. He was sitting three seats ahead of me, but once when he glanced back I stepped out on a limb and yelled up that his pants were awesome. The trip was a longer one, so a few stops later when the woman (rereading her favorite book, which she recommends (yes, it's okay to ask), on the way to visit her granddaughter) left, he moved back to tell me about them. My new friend told me how he'd spent the last few months traveling from music festival to music festival with his girlfriend who was now in South Carolina. She would make pants and sell them or trade them for food. He was wearing a pair she had made for him. All he owned were those pants, the rest of the clothes he was wearing, a change of underwear, a bookbag, a sleeping bag and a notebook. I had brought crayons and asked if he wanted to color as we waited for our stops. He did. When I left I gave him the bag of bagels I had brought with me. I hope Todd's doing well…

4. Bringing a pumpkin:

I have only done this once, but it brought much laughter, conversation and bulkiness while traveling.

I drove to Ogden Dunes and took the South Shore line into Chicago. On the way, the girl who I was sitting next to me remarked that a pumpkin (along with my two bags) made for an interesting seat partner. I laughed and told her I was taking it to carve it with my sister. She was on her way to take her engagement photos with her fiancée who attends Moody. We alternated between conversing and studying and it made for a wonderful start of my trip. We are now facebook friends. And in case you were wondering, yes her pictures turned out beautifully.

Upon arriving downtown I stood looking at a map to find the nearest brown line to take to my sister's house. A guy around my age stopped and asked me what I was trying to find. I told him and he was also taking the brown line so I followed him. As we shuffled down the busy streets, me dropping my bags and almost my pumpkin, he offered to carry my pumpkin. Usually I would have said I was fine, but I was slowing us down so I took him up on his offer. He carried my pumpkin and helped me as we got onto the train. We talked and shared stories of our past. Another man joined in our conversation and switched the topic to different sorts of pumpkin or squash pies. I didn't have much to say about them, but it was interesting to hear someone so passionate about them.
While making conversation I consistently attempted to not block people from exiting. At one point the train started to move again while I was moving out of a person's way and I nearly wiped out with my pumpkin in my arms. Then ten or so people behind me laughed with me as we imagined what might have happened had I not, at the last possible second, caught myself on one of those silver poles in the center. With the help of Ryan, the boy who originally carried my pumpkin, I got off the train at the right stop and was on my way. According to Ryan he's usually shy. I refuted this by stating that he had offered to help me. He laughed and replied saying that he couldn't help but stop to help "this poor girl with a pumpkin in her arms".

Of course, this does not help in defining privacy and some days everyone you see on the train wants to bury themselves in their books or i-pods, but on those days when there's a person or two "open," take advantage of them. Acknowledge that they exist and invite them to acknowledge you. You will often leave the train or bus feeling oddly renewed. After all, someone took the time to talk and to listen. These sorts of things are important.

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