Strangers I sort of know

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now about that horrible commuter train wreck near Los Angeles that left 25 dead and another 135 a wide range of injuries. They think the accident happened because the engineer was text messaging at the time and ran a stop signal. What interested me about this story were the reports from the survivors who talked about the relationships that had developed over the years between the passengers on this train.

We all have groups of people on the periphery of our lives that aren’t strangers, yet aren’t friends, yet are more than acquaintances. People you ride on public transit to and from work with every day is a prime example. People in your workplace perhaps that you don’t work with directly, but see every day in the hallways or elevators or cleaning the washrooms or manning the security desk. People who own or work at your regular shopping places. People at your gym. The parents at your kids’ school. Even the people in your blogworld.

We get to know these people in odd ways. We don’t know most of their names; or maybe just their first names. We get to know a few things about them through brief conversations or conversations overheard or through gossip with others. We don’t socialize with them; we rarely know anything but the most superficial details of their lives and yet we care about them. We miss them when they’re not where they normally are; we are moved to help them when there’s a crisis in their lives; and, we’re ever so curious about them, aren’t we? Some more than others.

Here are some people from my daily commute that set my brain awhirl with speculation, theory and conjecture:

  1. Cane Lady: A seemingly nice, cheerful woman who walks with a cane and a limp; struggling on and off the bus ever day. Her seat at the front of the bus is sacred. The other commuters ensure that this spot is always available for her. One day I saw her at the market, arms loaded with bags, walking as normally as anyone; no cane in sight.
  2. Smelly Christmas Tree Lady: She makes a point to include every colour known to man in her daily wardrobe and make-up application. She is bedecked with many kilos of dangling, jingling, jangling arm, neck and ear costume jewellery (emphasis on the “costume”… really, I think she shops at Ringling Brothers). She seemingly can never decide which of her collection of Avon perfumes she should wear each day, so she settles for a spritz or two or three of each. Then, just before boarding the bus she has a cigarette. She’s still exhaling smoke on her way to her seat which everyone is praying is not next to them.
  3. Tubby Grouch Guy: He’s round all over. He’s at my bus stop so I see him amble to the corner store every morning for a large coffee and several bags of sweets which he stuffs into his trouser pockets as he makes his way to the bus stop. His pockets bulge and crinkle as he walks. He never speaks. I say good-morning. He ignores me. Some of us chat about inane bus stop stuff. He never joins in. He never talks with anyone on the bus. He never says good-morning to the bus driver like everyone else does. He just sits and stares into space. I know he can hear because he has an iPod plugged into one ear, and I know he can speak because he once said, “yu” in response to a direct question.
  4. The Cute Little French Lesbians: They get on at the stop before mine so I can see them leave their house each morning, hand in hand. They’re small and trim and have identical haircuts. They often share each others’ clothes. They sometimes dress the same. One is much, much cuter than the other. They talk to each other non-stop, and are always, but always smiling at each other, which I think is odd for a couple. They find a lot of imaginary lint, threads, eyelashes and stuff to brush off each other throughout the ride. They adjust each others’ collars. They look at each others’ watches to check the time. They’re so adorable, I always feel like giving them a big group hug and pinching their cheeks before I get off the bus.
  5. Noisy Foreign Girl:  She looks Slavic or something. I’ve never heard her speak, so I can’t be sure that she really is foreign. She always wears the same too-long black pants and black t-shirt. I’ve checked for identifying smudges or flaws to see if they’re really the exact same or if she has a whole collection of identical pants and t-shirts. I’m pretty sure she just wears the same ones every day. She has well-muscled arms and walks with a peculiar fast, firm strut. She always carries 3 or 4 different bags (a couple of purse-like items, a sports bag, a book bag). She chews a big wad of gum every freakin’ morning, very, very noisily. Her iPod is so loud everyone on the bus can hear an actual tune from it (not just that annoying squawking).  She looks very pleased with herself.  
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33 responses to “Strangers I sort of know

  1. cane lady sounds just like someone in my building however this one had oneof those scooter things and gets everyone to move in the bus for her priority seating but then i see her take the long way around to the grocery store, walking, just fine.

  2. Hmmm…wat a good sense of observation! i personally like d lesbian pair and the ‘imaginary eyelashes’. A pity to waste away life dating men

  3. I love your bus buddies. When I used to ride the bus when I lived in Roanoke, VA my bus buddies were sullen black folks who looked at me like I was crazy for riding the bus with them.

  4. MissyM – Hmm.. it would have to be through some sort of unavoidable situation like being trapped on the bus together for hours/days. I’ll take the suggestion under advisement.

    Jobthingy – I’m thinking an innocent explanation in both cases might be that they don’t need the support for short excursions or maybe they’d just gotten a shot of cortisone or something. It just seems too elaborate just as a ruse to get a good bus seat…but who knows

    Ellie – Yes, the description of severed limbs flying around and people sliced in two — gruesome.

    Lost – They’re just so damn cute and affectionate and kind and happy together — you don’t see that much with couples. It always makes me smile.

    Lebowski – I don’t know what else I can tell you, cliched neanderthal man. They just appear to be an extraordinarily happy couple.

    Dr. Monkey – Ya, pretty much only the tubby, grouchy guy is sullen. The rest are chirpy morning people since they all would have had to be up around 5:30 to have had time for a shower and stuff before catching this bus

  5. When I took the bus in the morning, I had a bunch of people I had named too. I wonder if they named me back and wondered about my life like I did about theirs.

  6. sigh. is suspect i’m the one people wonder about every morning. more often than not i have to run to the waiting bus, get on board panting, then promptly fall asleep until i arrive at my destination. sadly, i’ve never *really* noticed the others on my bus.
    oh, except one woman who happens to be mentally challenged. she used to do the recycling duties when i worked at statsCan. people avoid sitting with her. i said hi to her one day and she remembered me – we sat together and had the best chat, she is so nice and enthusiastic about life. i hate that people won’t sit beside her because of her differences. i hate that i’m too freaking tired to make the effort to talk to her every day.

  7. Since I don’t get out much, I don’t have many of these. There’s the church lady that yells out “are you the last one?” almost every Wednesday. The annoying old guy that turns up at the bar on some Wednesdays to play loud Ozzie Osbourne music. One thing I’ve noticed is that whenever I get a new bartender at Italianni’s, I’ll say something like, “Oh! A new bartender!” and they usually say, “I used to be a waiter, you’ve been coming in here for years, right?” I guess they noticed me over there, but I never notice the waiters. Other than that, all of my “non-acquaintance” regulars are bartenders. There’s only one bartender that I’ve actually really talked to about stuff, but I don’t even know her last name. The only person I see on a very regular basis that I don’t know is the man across the street. I always imagine these people call me “the weird red-headed lady.” What do you think they call you?

  8. Jazz – I’m always amazed when people recognize me — almost known strangers like this, I mean — they’ll see me somewhere else and start talking to me like we’re old friends and for some reason I won’t recognize them because they’re out of context. I suppose others must wonder like we do.

    Meanie – Maybe you need to get to bed earlier or something. Just today we were discussing what a great morale booster it would be for the office if we installed a “nap room” where we could bring our little blankies and have a short snooze every afternoon. I understand some offices are actually doing this — not federal government offices, of course.

    Geewits – Exactly how much time DO you spend in bars? And ya, I sometimes wonder if they have a name for me, too. I’d be hard pressed to think what it might be, though. Maybe I’ll ask them one day — just stand up and announce that I have secret names for them all and I demand to know what their secret name for me is. Whatever happens, I’d have a secret name after that for sure!!

  9. I’m sure we all are these people to others as well. I’m sure many of us also fantasize of possible friendships, romances, steamy encounters and even violence with these daily figures. And then there are some people you see that just make your eyes roll.

    Like a guy I saw on a 97 one day desperate for people to notice him using his new i-phony. “Look at me I’m so cool because I bought this new gadget”… listen buddy, sure your gadget is cool but that doesn’t make you cool, it just makes you another yuppie hipster looking for another fakebook friend! As I sat there slightly annoyed yet slightly amused at this common and ridiculous behaviour I noticed that he noticed that people around him got off the bus so he made a call (or pretended to) left his nice private space and moved to another seat closer to other strangers. Transparently shallow, hilariously pathetic.

    Great post. Reminded me of a part of a movie but I can’t remember the name of if for the life of me.

  10. I love this! I had a cane lady like that on one of my old bus routes. She would use the lift to get on the bus and then walk off the bus. sometimes on extra frigid days another rider would argue with her about whether or not she really needed the lift.

    I have some bus buddies who I actually talk to, but mostly only on the bus. I know their first names but not their last names.

    There are plenty of bus “friends” who I do not chatter with though; I like to make up stories about their lives. Like there is one lady who always looks so angry first thing in the morning, sometimes I want to ask her why she is so angry, but then what if that is just the way her face is shaped!!!

    My thoughts are with all the people touched by that crash, so sad.

  11. The Urbane Lion and I have Sloth Man. I drop the Lion off at work every morning around the same time. There in front of the building is Sloth Man. He is standing right outside the door, off to the side a bit, one foot on a curb, just staring off into space. He isn’t smoking; he isn’t drinking coffee; he isn’t reading a newspaper. He is just staring. The Lion calls him Sloth Man because he’s just sort of slow moving and hanging about like a sloth. It is part of our morning ritual to say “Ah, there’s Sloth Man.”

  12. You must take the 2. 🙂

    There was a playright who wrote a play “A propos de la jeune dame qui pleurait.” (About the young girl who was crying.) I heard in an interview he’d seen her on the bus or metro.

    Great post.

  13. my bus has a lot of characters, including the following: Creepy old nose picker with the head wounds, obsessive-compulsive girl who rubs her head so much she’s balding, average lesbian with cute dog I want to steal and asshole neighbor who I want to punch in the face.

  14. To everyone who has commented on this post, I highly recommend the Mitch Albom book “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”.
    Even if, like me, you’re not religious, it’s an interesting read.

  15. Ruhh – If the 97 inspires fantasies of romance and steamy encounters, then obviously I need to switch buses. Don’t even get me started on the loud cell phone gadget talkers

    Missy – In the news story, the survivors were talking about their train-mates in the same terms — the lawyer with the laptop; the security guard who slept most of the way — people they talked to or at least exhanged greetings with every day…like a little anonymous family.

    UP – Maybe Slothman is the same guy as tubby grouchy guy — he always just stands around staring into space, too! Do his pockets look like they’re bulging with bags of candy?

    Nat – No, I don’t take the #2. Why? Are all these people on that bus, too? A parallel bus universe?? They did a whole TV show about one car of the Go Train once, remember? It was cleverly called “Train” and the theme song went…”nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah traaaaaiiiin (repeat)”

    Lebowski – He’s just a puppy!! People will start complaining when their children disappear.

    Linsey – They let dogs on your bus? They just had yet another vote here on that issue and decided it was too risky to allow animals on the bus. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Also, your bus sounds kind of sketchy. You’re very brave.

  16. Fred the Lebanese Chemist – If you’re ever in Atlanta, Georgia, at the corner of Roswell & Abernathy, stop at the Starbucks there around noon. You’ll find an old Lebanese guy sitting there, smoking cigars and drinking tea. His son works for Fedex [he always reminded us because our group worked at UPS Corporate]. The ladies from the Vietnamese nail salon next door are always coming out and yelling at him for smoking too close to their door. I like to fantasize that he made weapons of mass destruction when he was younger.

  17. This is such a great post and so true. When Mark commuted 1.5 hrs. to NYC he got to know a bunch of people on the train. They sat together every day for over a year – always the same car/same seats. He talked with them more than he did his own mother for a period of time, but then as soon as he changed jobs and hence commutes – never saw any of them again.

    I left you a little love over at my blog – come see when you have a moment.

  18. I also find the public bus a great mode of entertainment and interest: http://moderatelyentertaining.blogspot.com/2008/07/12-blocks-south.html

    It is always far more mentally stimulating than a car ride. I find it interesting that you could presume that every person that you feel half connected too also feels that way towards you. It’s an unsaid contract: If you weren’t there, they would most likely wonder what happened to you for at least a millisecond. And you would do the same for them.

    And I’m glad you say goodmorning to the bus driver, it’s such a personable and decent thing to make a habit of.

  19. Xup, I’m only in bars on Wednesdays and after doctor or dentist appointments and although I call them “bars,” with the exception of the place that I have 2 beers every Wednesday after MOW, the other “bars” are actually the bar area at restaurants. But I really do love to sit in bars and talk to strangers, I guess it was “pre-blogging.”

    If you do stand up and say that, I know what their new name for you will be: Crazy Bus Lady

  20. Brad – There you go – I’ve been looking for an excuse to go to Atlanta. Why is he called Fred the CHEMIST? Does he operate a pharmacy or something? Sell street drugs? And while I’m asking the questions, why are you listed on the Ottawa Blog Guide? http://ottawastart.com/blogs.php. I’m glad you are and everything since that’s how I found you, but you’re not exactly…you know…Ottawa???

    Kimberly – Sometimes these people come back into our lives from a whole different direction one day. And thank you so much for the love. (blush blush) I will attend to my love receiving duties later today.

    DP – And I’m sure they’re still wondering what ever happened to you. I know I would!

    Aziza – Oh ya – your bus reflections are so much more poetic than mine, but so true — the way the mind wanders into bizarre territories while you’re sitting there watching the streets go by. Oh, and the black background on your blog has temporarily blinded me — have you ever noticed that when you read a black blog like that and go back to normal life you can’t see properly for a while. I usually avoid black blogs for that very reason, but I think yours is worth a few moments of blindness now and again.

    Geewits – Ha ha – you didn’t have to explain that. It’s nice to have a neighbourhood pub/restaurant/bar place to hang out and watch the regulars or talk to strangers or meet your neighbours. I have a friendly neighbourhood pub/restaurant right across the street (it’s pretty much the only commercial establishment in the neighbouhood) It’s great to go over to meet people or when I don’t feel like cooking or when it’s hot out and nice and cool in there. And, it’s another place where you see people that you only seem to see there and no where else.

  21. So what if he’s just a puppy.
    He’s a carnivore and knows what he wants.
    That’s better then 99.9% of the people in the world at a similar age.

  22. I used to take the express bus in front of my building every day (double fare but so worth it, got me home in 1/2 hour) so I got to know the people on it. No names really but just chatting. I used to have hair down to the middle of my back, one day I got it cut short and a woman, when she saw me arrive at the bus stop said “oh you got your hair cut!” lol

    Then I started to take the GO Train and oh let me tell you, you want to see cliques? Get on the GO Train. They have their own pods where they all sit and well, if you happen to be there first and sit in there, you get “the look” hahaha You get to know which door you want to stand at so you can run to your car to exit the parking lot as quickly as possible, otherwise, it takes you forever to get out.

    I now walk to work, much more civilized 🙂

    Oh and I do know that cane lady, we have one as well. And no, they don’t get shots of cortizone on Friday nights. They do that so that they can get better service.

  23. @XUP – Fred has a PhD in chemistry. He’s an ex-professor or terrorist, I’m not sure which. I’m in that Ottawa blog directory for the same reason I’m in the Jamaica and India blog directories – I need the hits! When I first started writing, I hand submitted myself to every directory I could find, regardless of location or relevance.

  24. I love this post!! This post is an XUP specialty: Taking a current events news topic and finding the person meaning as it applies to our own lives. I get tingles!

    So many of us drive in SoCal (and drive right past the location of that accident 😦 ) that we don’t get to know the characters in our commute in quite the same way. Instead of, say, Smelly Christmas Tree lady there is, “Jagoff Silver Mercedes Asshat” who just cut me off. Or “Asleep At The Switch Toyota Highlander Homeslice” driving 20 miles under the speed limit IN MY WAY IN THE FAST LANE.

    You get the idea.

    I love MissyM’s comment about you writing a story connecting all these characters. I’d love to see that, too!

  25. Lesley – Glad to have tingled you, woman! I’m not sure if I’m interested enough in these people to give them THAT much thought — a blog post is one thing, but an entire story??? Who knows? There are enough far more interesting characters floating on the periphery of my life that demand stories first. I don’t know how you wacky car commuters do it. I would be insane before I ever got to work. So much stress before your day has even begun and then another dose to top it off at the end of the day??? A short bus ride, followed by a nice 20 minute walk is the way to go for me. Blows off the cobwebs in the morning and the work day in the afternoon.