For a span of about five stops, two different bus lines serve my neighborhood: the #35, and the #4. These are very different buses, in the same way that Antiques Road Show and Wipe Out are very different television shows.
I usually ride the #35, which I call The Library Bus. Not because everyone reads (though most people do), but because the general mood is quiet and sober, No one is audibly singing along to their headphone soundtrack, no one is complaining aloud with the expectation of an unsolicited sympathetic response. That’s not how the #35 rolls. There are quiet acknowledgements as regulars board, and occasional quiet conversations, but as a rule, it has an atmosphere similar to church in the few minutes before mass actually begins. It’s the daily norm, and the riders are content to maintain that. In fact, intent on maintaining that. I’m one of them – it’s early usually pre-coffee, and I prefer to focus on sorting out the day that lies ahead. If you want to chat, catch me on the ride home.
The #4 is a different ride completely. Whenever I board, I’m shocked by the vibrancy and volume – bold conversations, often across multiple rows of passengers, with random interjections from other riders as if the talkers are crowdsourcing answers for the day’s dilemmas. It’s a raucous and lively experience, and many riders seem happy to perpetuate that. I always feel like an interloper on the #4. A very quiet interloper.
So I sympathized with the woman who apparently boarded the wrong bus, bringing her #4-style personality into the quiet confines of the #35.
“I was looking in my purse when the bus pulled up,” she explained to no one in particular as she settled into her seat near the front and stowed her pass in her purse. “Once the bus is right in front of me, I just get on.” She looked up to see who she would be having her conversation with and saw nothing except a couple of courteous nods. Perhaps thinking that people simply hadn’t heard her, she continued, “I’m just on autopilot in the morning.” Again, a few obligatory smiles, a couple more nods, and the sound of wheels and traffic filling the bus.
As her eyes darted around, I could see that she was puzzled and a bit self-conscious about the silence. I imagined her thinking, “What, do I need a shower? Why won’t anyone talk to me?” What she didn’t seem to realize is that the #35 crowd isn’t rude or unfriendly, we’re just used to a certain status quo. A quiet status quo. And it’s not the job of the crowd to adapt to every rider, it’s every rider’s job to assimilate to the crowd. That’s life on the #35 – there are many folks who I would love to talk with, to learn more about, but I’m not going to do it on the morning bus. It’s just not the time or place for that.
And frankly, even in the afternoon, I talk to people because I want to learn something: What do you like about your job? How is that new food cart? What was it like to be in the armed forces? I don’t want to exchange frustrated transit kvetches, which are always redundant and usually based on rider-error, not TriMet failings. We’ve all had to run for the bus, we’ve all had drivers who lurch and surge, so even though I felt a little bad that no one was taking the bait for her conversation, I understood why no one was.
“I can get where I’m going on either one,” she persisted, “but the 4 is a little more direct, you know?” We regulars within earshot recognized that she wasn’t going to go quietly. (Literally or figuratively.) She continued to scan the bus benches for signs of a reply, and to break the growing awkwardness, I smiled and said the only thing I could think to say in response to her comments: “For me, nothing is closer via the #4.” Which is completely true, since the route for the #4 is impossibly long every time I ride it. I’ve gotten on that bus after a haircut and needed another trim when I got off. I saw a woman give birth on the #4 and she wasn’t pregnant when she boarded. It’s a long ride.
With my response, the regulars turned back to their gadgets and paperbacks – I had taken one for the team, the newbie was now officially talking to me, and everyone else was off the hook.
Except the newbie wasn’t talking to me. She looked at me like I had breached bus-riding etiquette, like my line was supposed to be “Amen on that!” with an emphatic offer of a high-five. She didn’t seem to know what to say now that I had diverged from the script. She looked at me for a silent moment while I wondered what would come next, but all she did is turn her attention back to her purse. She didn’t say another word for the rest of the trip.
And that was just fine with me. I had tried.
A little, anyway.