A woman offered me some gum on the trolley yesterday.
The encounter stayed with me for reasons I can't exactly elucidate. It wasn’t awkward; it panned out exactly the way it should have happened. Whether or not I took the gum was of no consequence, nor was how long she stayed on the trolley, nor was the shade of her lipstick.
I don’t believe I have ever spoken to anyone else on a SEPTA trolley before. Through rush hour, through days when there was only one other passenger besides myself, through rain or wind or intense heat, nobody else spoke to me—and I, therefore, did not speak to them.
Strangers aren’t strange. They are people as similar to us as we will ever encounter. They’re never overanalyzed or well–enough understood that we begin to nitpick differences out from personality or mannerism. At the moment when the woman offered me a stick of gum, we were practically the same being, shuffled between one space and another, crammed into two hard seats, and thinking about how to survive another trolley ride, and, for me at least, how to deflect attention. For a minute we were connected, and a thread of a phrase hung between our empty grins. Then her eyes slid out the window to the darkness and mine to the trodden trolley floor, and we were again separated.
There is a familiarity in circumstance; there is an intimacy in the unknown. In the monotony of a trolley ride, strangers are as omnipresent as flies and even less inconsequential. Public transport is a meat grinder of the mind—the world is narrower, more metallic, and less likely to encourage communication or imagination. Your mind is muted until a woman with curly hair and a pineapple on her t–shirt offers you a stick of gum.