The Elephant on the Train
February 3, 2012 § 11 Comments
Guest post by Anna Marie.
This past September, I moved to Chicago. Here, you learn to walk fast. Everyone is booking it, tunnel-visioned on their task ahead. This is a necessity to survive, to make the train, catch the bus, beat the oncoming cars, fit everything in, climb the proverbial ladder. You can’t stop. You can’t be slowed or distracted. After the initial impression of excitement at fast-paced living, the city can feel weighty — the routine, the anonymity, the feeling that you’re surrounded by people who are very grown up and know how to move about in that certain, correct way. For me, this Chicago sculpture captured these feelings beautifully:
It’s unfortunate, though, that most people are disappointed with adulthood. It’s lonely. It wasn’t what we dreamed of. We spend most of our time doing tasks just as upkeep for our lives. For many of us, we’re stuck. We’re afraid. We don’t know what we could have been or what we could be now. I get on the train to go downtown (The L, not the Metra), and I explore my peripheral vision, noticing facial expressions paired with certain types of sighs, and the way people choose to balance their weight over their legs and hips. I watch only those that I can see without turning my head, so that if they start to look toward me, I can quickly look away and not be seen. Some of us have a 20 or 30 minute ride, and we are tiny bubble worlds that don’t interact except to get out of each other’s way.
And it makes sense to proceed this way. I do it too, because there are social boundaries and we don’t know how to bridge them without being creepy (or getting creeped on). And everyone’s too busy to want to try. But it’s still a little bit sad to me that there is so much distance between people. I think the elephant in the room (in this case, the train car) is that people want to make contact. They secretly would love a chance for a serendipitous connection. People walk in and sit down like they own the place, cruise the web on their iphones like they are self-sufficient independents, listen through their earbuds and probably visualize themselves as the center of the universe (the way I do). But really most of them are lonely people, wishing for something joyful or exciting to happen, to be part of a community.
The best times on the train are when something weird happens, like I lose my footing and accidentally fall when it starts moving, bumping awkwardly into somebody. I apologize, but we just laugh and make comments about how ridiculous the train is, the way we pack in like sardines. Those times are a relief and a joy. To have made even a small connection with someone else. To have celebrated ridiculousness.
Here is a group I appreciate and admire: Improv Everywhere. They are improvisers, but have taken it stageless. They offer people surprise and a chance for something really weird to happen so we can all bust up. So we can have a minute of beauty – to make eye contact and smile with the people around us. It’s a chance to acknowledge, FINALLY, that we’re all there, want to have something to do with one another, and need each other to lighten our moods, because we know we have all rooted for Princess Leia and secretly still, like children, wish that we never had to wear pants.
Those connections we long for aren’t necessarily all about the laughs, though.
Big Massive Protest has a flavor similar to IE. The participants protest against things they can’t do anything about, such as aging and death.
“It started as a joke,” Paul says. In the midst of the laughs, it also turned into something more- “a certain catharsis,” communal relief. Finally, finally some people chose to vocalize what we were all thinking silently, afraid to talk about it.
IE has also taken a dip into darker material, something more along the lines of catharsis:
If you scroll down and read the commentary here, you’ll see that though it was started as a joke, they decided to play it completely straight. The characters were real. The actors created a back-story of their family life to encourage their commitment in the scene. The guy who played the police officer was hurt when onlookers were mocking the man on the ledge. There are a few faces in the crowd who responded the way I did; there is a moment when you stop laughing. You see not the set-up, but the core of what is going on, what could go on in the mind of anyone, even yourself: the moment when you decide whether life is worth it. After my initial laugh at how ridiculous the height looked, I was entirely drawn in to the scenario.
A nod to anyone with the brains and guts enough to organize things like this, and the courage to act bizarrely in public, taking the risk that people may or may not get it, knowing you could end up as a creep or something like a hero.