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Ergo Sum

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For Observation

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Not long ago, I found myself en route from one site to another, as frequently happens in the life of any sort of consulting expert in any field. Rather than drive all about town all by myself in a vehicle designed for four, I prefer to avail myself of a highly flexible system of transport common to all bipeds in good health, in combination with whatever sort of mass-transit system I might find convenient. Being relieved of the burden of driving, I can work while I'm being transported if I like, or I can read. Sometimes, the simple acts of observation and reflection are the most rewarding.

Shortly after noon-thirty, a man in his forties boarded the bus. We were in a neighborhood of no particular note, between one part of town full of action and another. Perhaps seventy years old, the neighborhood was well-established, but it had seen better days. The people who live there today aren't rich, but neither are they poor—at least as most in the world think of poverty. They have jobs, even if they aren't on terribly stable financial footing. This is a neighborhood of people who manage the demands of work, family, and community, but as a general rule just don't seem to get ahead.

The man who boarded the bus was relatively tall, with blonde hair just starting to go gray. His physique was not impressive; he had the body of a couch potato. But he did stand out: he proudly wore a smile across his face. I don't mean a grin or a smirk; I mean a big look-at-my-stained-and-crooked-teeth smile. His manner of dress was simple: new blue jeans of no brand I'd ever seen and a button-down shirt under his jacket. He happily bounced along, sitting in the first seat available beyond those marked, “priority seating for the elderly and handicapped.”

Quite a few other riders were on the bus that day; they sat in the seats in front of him and on the seats behind him. They sat there expressionless, not really doing anything except looking at whatever action might be taking place around them. The nondescript riders were apparently interested in nothing, but the lot of them did, almost in unison, turn their attention to the man who just took his seat.

He quietly looked over his surroundings apparently careful not to stare at anyone. His demeanor showed a child-like sense of interest and perhaps wonder at almost everything around him. After having seen as much of the bus interior and his fellow riders as manners would permit, he started to turn his head to look out the window. One of the nondescript caught his eye as he moved to look out the window, her blank stare annihilating the smile, his happy expression being no match for her cold, expressionless cynicism.

In the instant he shifted his focus from his environment to what could be seen through the window, he adopted the blank stare of the cold nondescript who caught his eye. I watched the exchange from several rows back and found myself feeling agitated, annoyed at the dark-skinned girl and her cynical stare. She killed the smile for no reason but her own indifference.

The man with the smile stood out, something of a curiosity—perhaps only because he seemed curious. He didn't seem like a smart guy; he just looked like he was too child-like for a man of his years to be so well-developed intellectually. (I bet that he's simply a scaled-up model of what he was as a boy of eleven.) The unflattering assumptions were all formed in my head as he entered and looked for a seat; having witnessed the killing of the smile, I revisited my assumptions and felt a strong sense of displeasure with myself. I made a negative judgment against someone who hadn't done anything to me or anyone else. Though I did not express myself thus (he likely observed me with a slight grin), my thoughts were probably the same as the girl with the cynical stare. And she killed the smile.

A moment later, his eyes were focused on the scene passing by the window. The smile was back. I wondered at the man. Though he hadn't really been attacked, targeted, or subjected to any special maltreatment, he did enter into an environment that didn't exactly welcome him and he was affected by the reception his smile had. But he didn't maintain the same indifference as his environment; he didn't try to change anyone, but neither would he allow himself to be changed. He just went back to doing what he wanted, smiling as he took in the scenery around him.

My negative impression of his likely intelligence melted into a positive opinion of something far more important: his character. I don't know much about him but I do know that he's vulnerable—he can be affected, he's a human being with feelings—but that he would not adopt the indifference and coldness of his environment. He continued to stand out; rather than adopt a mask to hide, he kept letting us see that smile and his apparent contentment in observation. I found myself admiring him for not yielding to the herd of unaffected people who give no indication of being alive.

So the man who was briefly my fellow traveller is no athlete. He's unlikely an intellectual giant. Nor is he likely rich. But he had a lesson to teach anyone willing to observe him and to reflect on his actions, even of not being able to discern his motivations or anything else about him. On that bus ride, I was reading The American Scholar, a literary journal published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society and specifically an article by someone elected the biggest egotist of his graduating class. I enjoyed the amusing story and the well-constructed prose but it was no match for the lesson to be learned from the simple act of observation.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-02-06 08:30 AM

not so flexible

Posted by donetrawk at 2006-02-14 04:00 PM
"highly flexible" system of public transport? There is no such thing in my hometown.

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