Is This Normal?

I saw the woman scanning the seats on the #75 as she boarded. It was 6:35pm on a weekday, the bus crowded with commuters and high schoolers, so if she was seeking an empty row, all she found was disappointment. As she settled into the seat next to mine, I said, “Good afternoon.”

This seemed to amuse her. She looked around at the darkness surrounding the bus and said, “I think it might be evening.”

It seemed an unnecessary clarification among strangers on the bus, so I shrugged. “I guess I’m trying to draw out the day.”

As she sorted through a few items in her purse, she said, “I’m glad to be sitting next to someone normal.” She paused, then added, “at least you look normal.”

Riding the bus is like playing the lottery, which is why you see so many books and headphones – some people prefer not to play. I understand that. But it was unusual to hear someone celebrating that they’d won that lottery.

Moreover, if I were to make a list of adjectives to describe myself, normal wouldn’t be on the list. Not that I consider myself abnormal, but the word is meaningless. What’s normal at a library isn’t normal at a strip club (“I’m happy we located your book, but if you stuff another dollar into my pants, I’m calling security”) and what’s normal at a grocery store isn’t normal at a funeral. (“Ma’am, can I ask what you have planned for the shopping cart?”) It’s a subjective descriptor, and the subtext generally means that the person fits a specific definition of acceptable.

I had a suspicion what she meant – she was glad I wasn’t a weirdo. But her comment made me think of photo that had recently made the rounds on social media. It featured a woman in a burka and a drag queen sitting on a commuter train with the caption, “This is the future that liberals want.” The caption became a popular meme (appearing on photos of superheroes on the train or cats riding dogs) but my favorite comment pointed out that only offense these two people had committed was to look “different”. I suspect that when both of the people in that photo got to their destination, they looked perfectly normal.

So what made me normal? Was it my fashion blandness that she found reassuring? My generic middle-aged buzz cut? I can say without self-deprecation that a more accurate adjective to describe me is ordinary – a casting agent could find my stunt double on nearly any rush-hour bus. I look norm-core, but I’d be exactly the same person if I was wearing mascara, or a turban, or dyed my hair pink. Yet those cosmetic differences would likely disqualify me from someone else’s normal.

I probably should have called her out, asked what she meant, maybe confronted her narrow definition of the word. But the fact was, I didn’t know what she meant, and just as I try not to judge the person in the burka or the drag queen, I didn’t want to judge her. I don’t know her life, or what she experiences every day, and frankly, she hadn’t say anything bad about anyone. To her, normal might mean willing to have a conversation. I’m prone to giving people the benefit of the doubt, and I wanted to extend that courtesy to her, so I simply smiled and said, “As long as you have a broad definition of normal, you’re right.”

She smiled back, but we sat in silence for the rest of the ride.

About Bill Reagan

Bill Reagan enjoys how public transit juxtaposes neighbors and strangers in a way no other microcosm of our community can. He likes eavesdropping, striking up random conversations, and watching how people act when they think no one is looking. He can be found online at WilliamReagan.com and @WilliamReagan on Twitter.
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