Notes by a trained observer


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Chris Stach

I had just boarded the 9:30 p.m. train going from Chicago to Brookfield recently, when, for lack of anything else to do, I began to take some notice of my fellow passengers. After a few minutes went by, I was inspired to take out my notebook. In it, I began to write down my random thoughts, even while the train was still standing motionless in Union Station.

The first words I wrote were: "I really should do a study of people on Burlington trains."

Then and there, I began to conduct just this sort of a mini-study, and wrote the notes that follow.

"There, three seats away, is a book reader with a remarkably short attention span, who looks up and around himself every few paragraphs, then out the window, then goes back to the book for another few paragraphs, and then repeats it all, several times."

I pegged him as a casual observer, and apparently not too interested in whatever he was reading.

"Then there are the eagles and vultures, who sit in the upper level seats, above us passengers below, and watch everything going on with hawk-like eyes. Is life a soap opera to them? What do they learn? Why do they do this? Do they know that I, below, am watching them?"

There was one woman who perched, bent over the upper balcony rail and never ceased her scanning of us. She truly reminded me of a vulture.

"And then there's the multitude of cellphone talkers, who have abandoned all pretense of privacy, broadcasting the generally boring details of their lives to the ears of their fellow commuters, who couldn't care less if the persons on the other end of the phones know that they are being called from inside a train.

"Sometimes these cellphone conversations are over quickly. Sometimes they go on for minutes and minutes. Other people's concentration is distracted by this banal chatter, but so what? Who are they to complain? The phone talkers' lives and needs are certainly more important than anyone else's, right?

"Then there are the sleepers, who doze until their heads slowly sink forwards. Then they catch themselves and straighten up. Somehow they magically awaken a stop or two before they have to get off. How do they do it? With a silent alarm clock, strapped to their wrists?

"As the conductor punches and examines each and every ticket, the eagles and vultures watch with a steadiness of concentration worthy of either CIA spies or children deciding their favorite flavors of ice cream at the Cock Robin or Grumpy's. Hey, maybe these people are writing newspaper columns of their own.

"Next we have the seat hogs, acting like kings and queens, who sit at the front of the passenger car and, singly, manage to spread themselves out over four seats.

"The seat hogs are related to the `Buy 1, Get 1 Free' sitters, who sit on the aisle, and leave the seat beside them empty, for their own personal use. This extra space they consider to be their own personal territory. Sometimes these people even pretend to be asleep, so that so commuters looking for seats just pass them by.

"Sometimes a commuter daringly asks a double-seat hog to move over and make room, and the seat hogs do, with a grumble, as if they had paid for both seats. It's like they're saying, `How dare you infringe on our self-proclaimed squatter's rights?'

"And what about the picnickers, who bring complete meals aboard the train, coming from McDonald's, say, and who proceed to create their own private dining rooms?

"The trick to watching any of these people is to slowly turn away, once they look at you. Sometimes it's fun, if you don't mind being noticed, to wiggle your eyebrows at them, so they are aware that you are aware. A knowing smile does just as well as the eyebrow dance, and is downright bold.

"If they speak to you, you can always throw them for a loop by speaking back to them in a foreign language. Gibberish, when done well, is always a favorite choice, although if you know a smattering of Eskimo, Swahili or Powhatan Indian, you're probably on pretty safe ground. You're in danger of being accidentally understood, otherwise. My favorite replying language is Swedish, which I can get by in, using decently foreign inflections."

So ended my notes for that Tuesday night, but on a Saturday morning shortly thereafter, on the 11:06 train to Chicago, I became aware of a fascinating phenomenon. Once I got aboard, I realized the entire population of the car, made up of approximately 90- to 95-percent women and children, were all talking at once.

It was so noisy that people couldn't even hear their cellphones ring. Next to me sat a woman who proceeded to open an electronics catalog and, half shouting, ordered a computer over her phone. A nice pair of white noise headphones would've been more appropriate.

Oh well, as any Eskimos might say to you on the train, "Ahsha oo tiddly!"?"have a nice day.

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