Can One Smile Make a Difference?


I go to work in one of the largest cities in the country. Sometimes, I think it’s one of the craziest decisions I’ve made. I remember how hard it was when I first moved here. How foreign … everything seemed. In my old way of life, I drove to work, singing songs or listening to audio books. And then one day after nearly 12 years of living in a small city, I decided to up and move to take a job as  a consultant in The Big City – where my commute entailed a slew of things I wasn’t used to. I chose to live in the burbs and commute via train. (It’s what seemingly everyone did.) And which I came to soon after learn, involved a series of coordinated steps – all dependent on a schedule I didn’t control.

  1. Plan which train to catch at which time. Take the train running closest to my house, with a large surface lot right next to the station and that was devoid of (I inopportunely discovered) a bathroom. Or the train a few minutes drive further west plus a four block walk (with a bathroom and a snack shop). Get up 15 minutes earlier to take an express – or have more leisurely mornings, but add 15 minutes to my commute?
  2. Get to the station and find parking.
  3. Pay for parking (or forget, and arrive home to a ticket for a $25 fine).
  4. Await the train (rain, heat wave, or blizzard). Most days the scheduled train arrives on time … and some days it doesn’t show up at all (due to mishaps such as “mechanical difficulties”) or runs as long as hours late due to (blessedly infrequent) occurrences such pedestrian accidents.
  5. Board the train and find a seat.
  6. Arrive downtown.
  7. Catch a shuttle … which would carry me to the front door of my client’s office.
  8. In the evenings, repeat – but in reverse.

What I remember most, is how my head hurt from taking in all of the “new”. New street names and a maze of buildings. The heavy pedestrian traffic. The street people, sometimes asking for money, sometimes attempting to trade for a street publication, and sometimes asking for nothing but attention (sometimes in obnoxious ways).

And the cultural customs woven into the fabric of the city society – things for which there were no explicit instructions. These left newcomers like me to extrapolate the expected actions by watching the patterned behaviors of everyone else. Take for example, when you board the train – there is no visual indicator describing how to pay or how much a train ride costs. It turned out that passengers pay with a pre-bought ticket or cash … no credit or checks accepted after boarding. And when you disembark, there is a whole order of how to move within the body mass of the collective foot traffic. Instead of polite pausing to negotiate individual paths (which was the way in my former small city), there is a pace set by the crowd – and once you’re a drop in the stream, you just flow. When you need to pull off in a mew direction, you check the vector of the bodies just ahead and watch for small signals of where each is about to go next (left, right, straight) and position yourself to most gracefully flow with those going your direction – or spot a good place where there’s a break where you can step out of the pack. It’s like being in a wildebeast herds on a nature show… but instead of hooved quadripeds overrunning a grassland, it’s a stampede of bipeds in pumps and loafers and commuter tennis shoes (except on days when rain is forecast – you can always tell, because the females of the species tread en masse in designer rain boots). They hulk bags over their shoulders, heads slightly bowed, in predominantly black and brown clothes (broken here and there by the occasional pretty, bright dress) and move nearly shoulder to shoulder. The thick stream leaving the track divides once inside; one stream maneuvers to one set of escalators for shuttles and taxis. Another traverses the the food court (with bodies some siphoning off to queue up for coffee and donuts) before spilling out into the street. The collective traffic clomps across bridges. Halts in packs at crosswalks, awaiting the white walker symbol in the directional, each perpendicular stream taking it’s turn, temporarily braiding together at corners. Then flowing again, like horses freed from their gates at the start of a race. It’s a awe-inspiring symphony of purposeful flock behavior.

I adjusted to these things in layers – all these dramatic changes from my former of way of life. For awhile, I would attempt to briefly study and recognize individual faces – something natural and easy to do in an environment with fewer humans. But I gave up after awhile in exhaustion – there were just too many faces to try to individually split them apart moment to moment. But my initial study did yield a pattern of what I can only describe as discontent and distraught expressions. Faces looking at nothing in particular, slightly downward, no one smiling. Foreheads often wrinkled in consternation (as though every morning is a Monday morning.)

(To Be Continued …)



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