Hello, everyone. My last article, Transit Trouble, featured the story of a young woman on a subway train whose attempt to remove herself from personal contact with others went wrong in the worst possible way. Upon further reflection, I now realize that her behavior is not a deviation from today’s norm, but an embodiment of it. Our society is now one where all others are shunned, and that sad fact is blatantly obvious on New York City’s mass transit systems.
In the years before the popularization of wearable technology, buses and subways were often impromptu forums where commuters often braved speaking briefly with one other. However, it is clear the rule of today for transit riders is now one of going to great lengths to avoid and ignore others. That is truly a pity as the city’s often maddening mass transit systems are actually great equalizers in our society.
There is no coach, no business class, and no first-class on mass transit, yet the majority of people here in New York City use it. That means on any given day and on any given vehicle, the rich may rub elbows with the poor, leftists may gather around the same poles as conservatives, and all races may grasp the same handrails while being jostled about. Transit for the masses temporarily gathers people, but it fails to unify them despite the common misery they often endure while traveling.
Every day, a rainbow of humanity is willingly (and often unwillingly) packed into the city’s mass transit and it becomes very much like the United Nations, only on wheels. However, unlike the UN, nobody talks to anyone else. With the exception of announcements, the occasional booming radio or headset, the rumble of the train or bus, and riders complaining about unwanted physical contact, rides on mass transit here in New York City are eerily silent, with no two riders speaking unless they know each other.
Where is the America that banded together after 9/11? Where is the unity we pray for in religious institutions? Where is the “united” in “United we stand”? Nowhere, it seems. Instead, we are a population intent on retreating from itself in many ways. We retreat through the use of noise-canceling headphones to shut out others. We retreat through the use and acceptance of automated attendants instead of talking human beings. We retreat through embracing robotic trains and cars instead of using manually crewed vehicles. We retreat through shopping remotely instead of traveling to stores and meeting others along the way and within our destinations. Oh, how we are perfect in our tragic mastery of retreating!
Our world is now a hermit’s dream. Then again, perhaps hermits are right. Why suffer the presence of others? Why hear what others have to say? Why ask questions that might be answered? Why offer answers when asked? Why engage in any kind of decent human interaction when self-isolation offers the rewards of peace and solitude? Come on, let’s just lock ourselves away in clapboard shacks deep in some lost mountainous expanse and forget the rest of the world exists! Are you with me?
I didn’t think so.
As a species, humanity advanced because it developed the concept of civilized societies wherein individuals can live, work, and play; and most importantly, interact. Every intentional advancement in the history of the human race is the result of satisfying a stated or implied need. In doing so, great nations eventually rose, and all of them began with just a few people trying to do something to effect changes that would meet the needs of others. Accordingly, human civilization would not exist without communication and a willingness to participate in the overall society.
Yet, we are still becoming hermits. We are driven apart by politics, musical tastes, race, ethnicity, religion, and a host of other factors even as we resist that which unites us: our human existence, our desire to live, and our hope to improve ourselves in some way. That last one, our hope to improve, is a powerful aspect of humanity, and I believe it’s something that transit riders fail to realize. They largely fail to consider that the person next to them, whoever they may be, likely has hopes for the future.
While I expect my fellow straphangers to continue using every tactic known to man in order to leave their fellow passengers unacknowledged, I believe the above is one key to fostering the return of communication-when-rolling. Perhaps all that’s needed is to remind everyone that all of us aspire to eventually become something greater.
Let us speak of hope, my friends, for many great conversations began with far lesser topics.
All the best,