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Starting to make connections

By Michael Knoll / September 14, 1981



It's the Ninth Avenue cross-town bus I'm riding this afternoon. It's hot -- the thermometer has just topped 100 degrees -- and I'm extremely tired, sandwiched here between the slumped shoulders of a woman, an immense bag of groceries, and the heated metal wall of the bus with its grimeopaqued window.

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It doesn't take long to discover that the window does not open and that the air conditioning is out of order. Reflecting on these facts, I decide that I will never again ride another bus. Never. I can't ever recall liking buses anyway. I ride them when forced by boredom, poverty, or my own reluctance to explore other forms of transportation. In the future (I resolve) I will walk, bum a ride from a friend, or simply stay at home. But no more buses.

Am I overreacting? I ask.

I don't think so. By now the bus is crowded to capacity, is moving very slowly when it's moving at all, and I'm not altogether certain where we are. And the passengers! Their faces seem to mirror, and to amplify, my own frustration, impatience, anxiety. A synthesis of emotion that circulates through the bus, becoming almost tangible in its intensity, simultaneously oppressive and depressing.

It's a sensation that can be seen as well as felt, though the faces around me reveal almost nothing. They're merely blank -- a forced or cultivated blankness designed to conceal any evidence of emotion, positive or negative. It's something you see in the faces of people brought together out of necessity rather than choice. Something seen in checkout lines at supermarkets, the waiting rooms of particular offices. A look achieved with a certain manipulation of the eyes and mouth, and one that projects, above all, a sense of impersonality, an emotional disconnection from other living beings. At the same time the person behind the face is distinctly, acutely aware of that connection, that relationship.

I'm considering the irony of all this, and the immense amount of psychic energy required to maintain that impersonality, to repress emotions that want to be articulated, sung, screamed, given away, given back. It's simply easier to remain silent, anonymous, safe; to keep one's eyes focused on one's shoes or the back of the person directly ahead. For a second I recall Thoreau and the "quiet desperation" he perceive d in the lives of the persons around him.

Quietly desperate.m The atmosphere of the bus has by now achieved this status. Or maybe I'm the only one who feels this way. What about the others? What about the lady next to me? Are you quietly desperate?m I imagine asking her. I want badly to say something. After giving the question a great deal of thought, I ask her, cautiously, what time it is.

"Three forty-five," she answers, looking at her watch but not at me. Nothing else follows. No desperation. No connection.

Another five minutes. Another 12 or 15 blocks.

"Do you ride this bus often?" I pose the question tentatively.

This time she turns, answering me around the loaf of wheat bread which protrudes from her shopping bag. "Once a week -- but just for grocery shopping. I don't much like shopping and I hate riding these buses."

You hate buses?m I want to hug her, to yell my agreement -- but I answer quietly. "I don't like them much either." No hug. No yelling. She's staring back though as if she wants me to continue; tell her something more. I can't think of anything, though, nothing that can be easily transformed into words, sentences, language. None of what I'd been thinking about for the previous 20 minutes. So I stop thinking and just begin to talk.

"I'm a student. . . . Go to the university. . . . What classes? . . . Well, right now an art survey class. Modern art. And a film and literature class. . . . Oh, what kindm of films? . . . This week it's comedy, the early classics. Silent films. Charlie Chaplin. Harold Lloyd. Ever seen a Harold Lloyd movie. . . ?"

She hasn't, but would like to know.

"Lloyd was the best, I think, after Chaplin. An incredible comedian. . . ." I continue by describing to her a scene from a classic Harold Lloyd film called Hot Water.m ". . . He's this average-looking guy riding a bus, only he has his arms, both of them, full of packages. Lots of packages. And a turkey . . . Yeah, it's a live turkey. He won at a raffle. . . . Well, he keeps dropping his packages -- and trying to keep the bird under control at the same time. The turkey is bouncing around, all feathers and wings, and everyone on the bus -- women, children, businessmen, the driver -- has begun to panic, yelling accusations at Lloyd, who's totally innocent. The scene is incredible -- and very funny. A kind of comic anarchy."

By this point in my narration the woman has begun to smile. i can see it spreading across her face: a landscape which the smile has entered and now dominates. As I continue my monologue I improvise by adding gestures and my own laughter. That laughter is reflected back at me from the woman, a sound that rise, beautiful and incongruous, against the heavy silence of the bus. She succeeds in startling most of those seated around us, pulling at least a dozen sets of eyes toward us. By the time I reach my destination, and the conclusion of the Lloyd film, the woman is still laughing. Three or four others have joined her, a harmony of emotion, something that swells and expands, following me down the aisle toward the door.

Moments later, I'm standing in the street as the bus flashes past. I can see the woman and several passengers with whom she appears to be talking. I imagine for a second that I can hear them laughing: a sound that's passed on from on person to another, a kind of music, one that connects each of them at the most basic human level, one that grows, that continues. . . .