Commuting experience reveals our individuality

Ami Tian

As time flies by I’m increasingly aware of the fact that my days here in London are numbered. Already I’m anticipating, upon my return to Walla Walla, feeling homesick for London. I have to confess, though, that it’s not mainly the UK I’ll miss, but being in a city.

There are many reasons to like living in a city. The cultural capital, for instance. I see a play as frequently as every week–often I see two plays a week. The museums are free and numerous. And if I wanted to I could go to the movies and see independent or foreign films, or I could head to the British Film Institute and view, free of charge, anything in the archive. Then there’s the food: Turkish kebabs, West African stews, Indian food on Brick Lane, Aero bars (candy counts as food, right?), potato wedges at McDonald’s (they don’t have them in the U.S.), fish and chips, sandwiches from The Banger Bros–alright, so I will miss the UK. Don’t let people tell you the food is terrible, that is a complete lie (that is, unless you’re into being, like, really healthy).

But one good, unique part of living in a city that I hadn’t really paid much attention to before is having public transportation, which I may miss most of all (although I do love those potato wedges). And it’s not so much that I like the ability to go places without having to drive, although that is nice; it’s the experience itself of sitting on the bus or the tube, or waiting at a platform or a bus stop.

It’s the experience of feeling simultaneously together and alone. Everyone is together in transit; most of the passengers are strangers to one another. It’s a unique situation: to be able to at once have time to yourself and to be surrounded by people, to be reminded that the world is large and strange and new. It’s realizing that the people around you inhabit entire personal universes that will most likely never intersect with yours; in the future they will love and hate and want things with profound intensity and you will be oblivious to it all, but right now you are sharing the same space. You are watching them scratch their noses and stare at their shoes and in the next five minutes they will walk away out of your life forever, and they will go on living lives of their own. This is a small fact, a known fact, but it feels significant.

The tube is the best place to spy on people: being able to stare at people’s faces, observe them surreptitiously, being able to study the brow, the nose, the lines around the mouth for a good three to five seconds before it’s considered staring–and even then you can continue to look using your peripheral vision. You know what I’m talking about, you’ve done it before.

And the diversity of strangers to watch is both staggering and refreshing. You see people who stay with you, in their abbreviated forms, for days afterward: the girl with the pink carnation in her hair, applying lipstick; the man crumpling up a paper bag of leftover French fries; the woman talking to her friend about her horses as though they were her children. (“My babies are all growing up,” she sighs.) You fall in love with a face on the platform and have your heart broken by them three times in the four stops between Holborn and Bethnal Green.

But it’s not even just the people-watching opportunities that make public transportation invaluable. While the visual stimuli for the curious person (or the budding stalker) are bountiful, it’s not the most valuable part of the commute: it’s just the part that makes it more interesting than say, commuting in Los Angeles, where you’re just in your car for a long time. Commuting gives you time to think. There is no other time set aside for doing absolutely nothing. Even with going to bed there’s the rush to get to sleep; racing thoughts act only as obstacles. Most of the time you’re thinking about inane things like what you’re going to have for dinner or errands you need to run.

But having the freedom and time to let your mind wander allows it to sometimes travel to interesting places. At the very least, you learn how to cope with hearing yourself think, which can be an embarrassing and harrowing experience. And it’s this solitude in the midst of civilization that is affirming of your humanity and your individuality. You possess awareness of your connection to and separation from other people. This is what commuting on public transport gives you: the experience of feeling grounded and alive, feeling like a real person living in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.