The 7:29 train is always 3 to 7 minutes late. By the time it reaches Manayunk, it’s about half full. Most of us getting on are under the age of 30 and almost all of us are caffeinated.
A couple weeks ago, I swapped my student ID for a transpass, thus beginning my daily routine on the train. I can’t really complain; my commute is about 20 minutes and I spend it listening to music or people watching.
I do a lot of the latter. I blame my qualitative research professor for instilling this fascination with observation in me. In her class, we completed a semester long project where we picked a setting to essentially people watch for over 20 hours. I picked Starbucks, of course, and although the setting was basic, my research conclusions were fascinating. I wrote my term paper on the notion of “familiar strangers,” the concept that complete strangers can become part of an informal community, just by routinely showing up.
I think I found my familiar strangers.
The 7:29 train has its own cast of characters, just as the Starbucks in Bryn Mawr did.
First there’s the delicate smoker. She always stands at the entrance of the stairway, smoking a cigarette and glancing at her watch. She wears light sweaters–exclusively in pastel hues–that compliment her lithe frame. Sometimes a black cursive black tattoo peaks out, right underneath her collar bone. Every day, I wonder what it says.
Then there’s the Bucknell wrestling coach. He usually gets on the train right ahead of me. His wardrobe consists of different Bucknell polos and khakis, and he carries a briefcase. He’s athletically built, as a wrestling coach should be I guess, and I mentally named him “Chad.” He’s probably named something less stereotypical. I should probably stop thinking in cliches.
I like to sit by the door, as does a blonde woman who loves to read her Kindle. Her Louis Vuitton bag has a handmade string bracelet attached to it and she gets off at the same station as me. Every day, without fail, she digs out her wallet and selects a number of bills and a specific amount of change before our stop. Once she gets off the train, she goes to Dunkin’ Donuts, presumably to get her regular order. I bet she’s a latte kind of gal.
The serious ticket master always comes around after the third stop and makes it a point to tell everyone that tickets are cheaper to buy at the station. Two business girls from Penn State usually have the best clothes and gossip in hushed tones all the way into Philly. Sometimes there’s a little boy, whose sneakered feet don’t touch the ground, and his mom lets him hold a metal Starwars lunchbox that holds a variety of action figures.
These are my familiar strangers. They’re part of my routine and I notice when they’re gone.
Sometimes I wonder what they think about me. Maybe they notice the brunette girl who rather wear flip-flops than flats, new to the working world but a Starbucks enthusiast, the newbie to the train who’s just trying to fit in. Or maybe they don’t notice me at all, because I am after all, a stranger.
To everyone else in the world–and maybe to one another–the riders of the 7:29 train are just passerby’s in the commotion of commuting. But to me, they’re part of my daily routine and now part of my story. I may never meet them, but they mean something to me just because they show up.