As regular riders of the Blue Line know, it can be a grim experience. First of all, the journey is not “scenic” like the Green Line, which rumbles above rooftops. We’re basically stuck in a ditch. The view is boring and there can be unpleasant smells. Sometimes panhandlers parade down the aisle, including a man who claims every day that he hasn’t eaten in three days.
Impromptu preachers board the train to shout at us sinners. College students bump us with their backpacks. During my worst ride ever, the man in front of me repeated every recorded announcement, including “Doors Closing.”
To escape this annoying environment, most riders turn to earphones and electronic gadgets. I’m often surrounded by a whole section of passengers staring at their phones. I don’t judge them. They’re probably reading their favorite Shakespeare sonnets.
I also won’t join them because I have no idea how to use my smart phone. Just last week I pounded on my neighbor’s door in a panic because I couldn’t get my phone to stop playing U2 songs. So I’m one of those riders who stares straight ahead or out the window at the traffic going by. This isn’t very stimulating, but like most detectives, I’m experienced at killing time.
Recently, though, I read in a New York newspaper that we don’t have to endure boredom. The stranger sitting silently next to us is actually our “neighbor.” What a concept! I couldn’t wait to test it. I turned to my seatmate, who was staring into space like me. “I was reading in the newspaper that the person who sits next to you on the train is your neighbor.”
She responded in friendly over-the-fence fashion: “That’s true. We are neighbors for a short time.” This led to a stimulating discussion about her background and career. Without prying, I learned where she was from, where her husband was from, how they met and what she was studying to become — an M.D.
When I made my next attempt at neighborliness, I quickly learned my seatmate was a Jehovah’s Witness. We were poles apart theologically, but I admired the fact that this retiree wasn’t letting a blizzard stop her from evangelizing on a downtown sidewalk.
On my return trip, I was lucky to have another device-free seatmate. My opening line was, “Isn’t there a law that says we have to look down at our phones?” To my surprise, she said, “I hate those things.” She turned out to be a nursing student who will probably care for me in my old age.
Now astute readers, and my wife, will notice my neighborliness has so far been extended to strangers of the female persuasion. But I don’t just talk with strange women. When I was chatting with the student, a woman I did know sat down to talk with me. I introduced my old friend to my brand new friend and was encouraged by a sense of community I had rarely felt on the cold, cold “el.”
So if you’re a gadget-free commuter like me, try talking with your seatmate. It can turn a grim ride into a sweet one.
As for me, I’m going to try the neighborly approach where I meet strangers for only a minute.
That’s right, elevators.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.