Looking Up On The Subway

It becomes so apparent when I’m traveling: we live alongside each other.

We occupy the same space, take the same bus, wait in the same room, stand on the same curb, but we’re a million miles away from one another. We don’t know our neighbors. We rarely break bread with strangers.

This awareness of our isolation burns me from the inside out. It makes me pull out my headphones, put my phone in my pocket, look up. And when I do this, it really gets awkward.

Try sitting in a cafe or on the subway with no laptop, no earbuds, no book, no counterpart, and then keep your head up. You’ll find yourself navigating the room with your eyes, trying not to look at anyone. You’ll read everything on the walls. You’ll search for a safe space to gaze and try to get lost in your mind.

Our glares are powerful. People can feel your eyes on their heads. You’ve seen it happen: the look-up-and-around-but-pretend-to-not-be-looking-back-at-you visual sweep. And then back to the book/phone/laptop.

Out of respect for our undisputed American values of Privacy and Safety, people have become obstacles. Eye contact amongst strangers, first and foremost, is a threat, an intrusive laser beam that blinds and bores.

A smile can’t even save us. In fact, a smile with eye contact can really sound the alarm in a silent conversation.

Hi.

Hi.

I love you.

WTF!

Sorry.

Leave me alone.

I wonder how many people in a crowded room wish the same wish: to be in community, to get to know the weirdo looking around at signs, to be bold enough to let their love out.

When out in the world, we’re always on the way somewhere else, trying to get ahead, and drowning everything else out. I do it too, when I’m walking, when I’m riding the bus, when I’m waiting for the light to turn.

For us, transit is the time between two points, an empty space that needs something jammed into it.

So, we fill it.

I don’t know if we do this out of fear, self-interest, or indifference, but we all do it – millions of us – and when there is consistency of an action at such great scale, an erosion takes place, as if our eye-lasers, useless on the outside, turn inward, and cast searing hot light into our skulls, down our necks, and into our bodies. The heat, the burn, hollowing us out layer by layer, our most powerful tool backfiring and leaving us as empty as the growing spaces between us.

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