Humor, Humiliation, and Honesty: “Public Transportation”

Emily Tornquist ’18 read the following short story at the final Creative Writing Forum of the semester, and she had the entire room crying with laughter. Read the hilarious and insightful narrative below.

Public Transportation


There’s something beautiful about the anonymity of public transportation. No one knows who you are, where you’ve been, or where you’re going. They may know where you’re going, but they’ll only really know because you pull the cord and tell the driver that you need to get off because your stop is coming up. Unless you’re reading a book or you’re on your phone and realize that you’ve missed your stop. Then you have two options: fight or flight.

You can pull the cord and get off a little past your stop and walk back to wherever you were going. Or you could do what I normally do, which is sit and seethe in social anxiety and pray to the public transportation Gods that someone pulls the cord soon so you can make your sweet escape unscathed without admitting that you forgot to pull the cord because you already missed your stop.

So I don’t take busses often, because of the overwhelming duty of pulling that cord. I much prefer trains, where there’s no cord or obligation involved at all.

See, on trains, there’s still that sense of anonymity. Minus the cords, which you’ll remember, I don’t prefer. You get to know people on a train, as much as they want you to know them. You get to know them from their issue of the bourgeoisie magazine The New Yorker in their hands with their Starbucks coffee, a light roast, with extra room at the top for cream and sugar and an inflated sense of self. You get to know them especially if the train is kind of empty because it’s a holiday weekend and there are only a few people on the train and they might deserve a pretentious coffee and a magazine.

Or, if you’re lucky, you get to know someone on a really crowded train. You have no choice but to get to know someone when they’re pushed up against you so hard that you feel its necessary to apologize for this mass platonic public transportation orgy that you’ve now found yourself in the middle of, even though there’s nothing anyone can do about it and it’s not worth apologizing for. But you have to acknowledge when you’re pressed up against a stranger so hard that you can feel his heartbeat and you start to laugh because it’s strange to be that close to someone, and if you’re that close to someone and you’re laughing, you have to explain that you’re laughing at the situation and not anything they’ve done.

But if you’re really lucky, you get to know someone for just a fleeting moment when you think you’re on a train by yourself. You could be sitting in the front of one of the cars, reading a book that you’ve selected just for the train because you can’t read what you really want to read, you have to read something that you find mildly interesting that makes you look wildly interesting to other people that notice you reading a book on a train, even if you think you’re alone.

So you’re reading your book, presumably alone, when the door slides open. The rickety door starts to slide open and you look up from your book, dramatically, because you have a certain persona to keep up when you’re alone on a train reading a book during a winter afternoon. The evergreen trees have that frosted look to them, like an overzealous child at a fair with a container of powdered sugar who just poured that entire container of powdered sugar on their food, despite the horrified look of his mother and the person selling whatever item the powdered sugar was intended for.

So you’re looking out the window, at the trees and the snow, pondering the meaning of life, as one does when riding a train alone and looking dramatically out the window. The door continues to slide open, and you see a man. He’s of average height, one of those not-conventionally-attractive type of people, but still the kind of guy that could clean up real nice… enough to take him to Thanksgiving and not have your overly political and potentially racist older family members not scrutinize him until you’re secretly drunk in the kitchen and wait out the clock until the night is over.

You’re staring at this man, on the train, with the rickety door that has now slid all the way open. He turns, so you see a bit more of his face. He makes eye contact with you. Across the train car on the wintery day, he makes eye contact with you and you feel like you know him. But just as he wants to be known. The anonymity of the train let’s you know all about the people you’ve never met.

You study his face, working your gaze down to his beard, his sweater. The sweater that he left at the beach that one time after he had his heart broken, the sweater that he bought for a dollar at the thrift store on a nice day in October, the sweater that he picks little pills of fabric off of when he’s trying to look busy when his boss goes on and on about subsidies and fiscal years, making him thankful for the times he gets to be anonymous on public modes of transportation.

So while you’re making eye contact with this man, this stranger, you forget about the world for a second. You forget that you’re reading a semi pretentious book to advance your own social standing, you forget about the snowy evergreen trees passing by, you forget that the rickety door that is sliding open is not the door to this man’s soul, but is in fact the door to this train car’s bathroom.

And you’re so caught up with this wistful embrace, this passionate eye contact, that all you see are this man’s hopes and dreams and future and past and you see his hands, capable of holding and mending and breaking. You don’t see his hands holding his flaccid dick as he pees into the toilet of the moving train because the door to the bathroom was rickety and slid open.

So now you’ve had your time for introspection, and you’ve had your time to be dramatic and make up this grand poetic story about strangers and the meaning of love and life, and all that’s well and good. But it runs out. And suddenly, you realize that you’re not F. Scott Fitzgerald and that you’re actually just staring at a man in a sweater while he pees. And the peeing man isn’t sure what to do, and you’re not really sure what to do, so you sort of just stare at each other.

You get hot all over, and you get real panicked, but there’s nothing you can really do but stare at him, and then back down at his dick, and then back up to him with this expression of horror on your face because not only are you staring at this man’s genitalia, but you’ve been doing it for a really long time, because any amount of time staring at a stranger’s genitalia is kind of a really long time.

The man eventually realizes that his anonymity is gone, and was gone the second the door to the train car bathroom slid open, unbeknownst to him while he tried to take a peaceful pee on a cold winter day on a public mode of transportation. So he slides the door closed, slowly, because the sense of shame is so overwhelming that his arms forget how to function a little bit but he closes is and the light changes from vacant to occupied.

And you sort of just stare at the light for a bit, because you’re not really sure what to do either. That man, the one whom you just watched pee for a little bit too long, has to now exit the bathroom. And the best part about public transportation is that exciting feeling of anonymity as you pass people you don’t know, never to see them again. An entire human life, an entire existence, a person with favorite instruments and favorite subjects and favorite books that you’ll never know.

So you take out your book, probably something like Crime and Punishment, not because you really love Dostoyevsky, but because you want to look like the kind of person who reads Dostoyevsky on a train in the middle of winter when the trees are covered with snow like an overzealous child at a fair with a container of powdered sugar. And when the peeing man walks by, you don’t make eye contact again. Because he wants you to know him as he wants to be known, and you probably already know enough.

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