Public transportation, a space to encounter humanity

Photo Credit: Howard Wang // The Phoenix

Sometimes, the impression of one moment can outweigh all the experiences that we have gone through in one month. I claim this because it is the authentic realization I came to over my winter trip. When I took a seat on the train leaving for Arizona, tired from having waited overnight, I heard a voice from the seat in front of me.

“My phone keeps popping out notifications. Can you help me fix it?” a middle-aged African-American man asked.

I did know how to turn the notifications off in the phone’s settings but eventually managed to help him do so. He thanked me profusely for fixing his phone.

“Where are you heading to?” I asked him, just as a random conversation starter.

“To St. Louis. What about you?”

“To Kansas City, for traveling.”

“When you arrive in Kansas City, stay in the city center, where all the restaurants are. It’s not safe further beyond that.” 

He offered me this friendly advice, which I accepted with a nod, taking it as standard politeness. But what he said next was way beyond anything I could have expected.

“My son was murdered … ” 

And the man was traveling to St. Louis, for the first time, to visit the city where his son had once lived and would now be buried. 

I do not remember any further details he had used to describe this catastrophe, as my heart would not keep calm. For what reason and with what feelings did he say all these things to me? I did not know what to say to comfort him: no matter how much compassion I had, I wasn’t able to understand his feelings about something that had never happened to me. I considered that perhaps he had comforted himself already but still needed somebody to talk to. 

During the rest of my time on the train, we only talked once in a while, but the more we spoke, the clearer the meaning of his advice became. I was only six or seven years younger than his son, and he did not want a similar tragedy to happen to me. Any help that I offered was negligible to me, but for him, had been worth his sincere kindness. He was truly worried about my safety and even asked to exchange names and phone numbers so that if I ever needed help in Kansas City, I could contact him.

I kept his phone number, and he would occasionally ask me how I was doing after the train trip. This is one way that I will be reminded of this story forever. Indeed, this experience has become unforgettable because of the unexpected kindness I’d received from, and given to, a stranger.

I had encountered this on public transportation: a long-distance train running across the Great Plains. It was something I might have missed if I had taken a private vehicle or remained indifferent to the man. In many of my trips, I have chosen methods of traveling considered harsher, including long-distance, overnight buses or trains, and have often been asked why I torture myself so. The answer lies in the fact that I want to see and experience people’s virtues. 

Public transportation creates a space that brings strangers from different perspectives of society closer in terms of physical distance. Then, with a bit of deliberate observation, we could see how humanistic virtues shine from within various people from different parts of society. We do not need stories like the one I had, but merely some kindness being shared between strangers. This can be as small as offering a helping hand or receiving a friendly greeting from a crew member. Sometimes we can get too absorbed within our electronic devices, seeking amusement in the virtual world but neglecting the kindness, though trivial, that may sometimes warm a desperate soul.

We came to college for a variety of different purposes, but mainly to get a deeper advanced knowledge of our world. Yet, something that we rarely learn is how society around us looks like in practice. Public transportation can serve as an easily accessible intersection between us and the rest of society during the recesses of the academic year. Public transportation brings us closer to a more authentic daily life. If we pay attention to the identity and actions of the strangers around us, we would know more about how other people are currently living, which would then give us more ideas of how we should apply the knowledge that we have. 

We do not have to wait for special events to engage with the surrounding community. Instead, we can simply offer help to people we meet in everyday situations, such as on public transportation. Although college life is mostly self-sufficient, we must eventually blend into society, so knowing other social perspectives in advance is essential for future assimilation. Public transportation is like a societal microcosm, where we see people of different classes doing different jobs, sharing different feelings, and adopting different lifestyles. They may have novel experiences and ideas for us that we cannot acquire elsewhere.

I would suggest for travelers, especially solo travelers, to engage in conversation with people on public transportation because it is one of the easiest places to do so. This might be difficult and uncomfortable, but a few friendly expressions will work to overcome any awkwardness. From my previous experiences, people often have stories that they would like to share and unique wisdom. It seems that the hustle and bustle of modern life is pushing people apart from one another, which may be an inevitable phenomenon, but talking to someone on public transportation may help retain the conventional human connection established by spatial closeness. It can set up a temporary relationship between strangers, one which we may benefit from without the effort of maintenance.

I have been asking myself the meaning of traveling: the more places I visited, the more similar they seemed to be. Thus, I seek to discover differences through people, who always vary. Based on this reasoning, I turned my focus to public transportation, and came to enjoy the journey more than the destination. While I do not encourage everyone to take public transportation or engage with strangers, as people have different preferences and priorities, it is a valuable and enjoyable way to learn about the world. I hope that this insight may be as useful to someone with similar ideas as it has been to me.

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