Hey gang: This is a little essay that appeared in my local newspaper a few years ago. I wrote a number of these for the fun of it back in the day, so I thought I’d just repost a few. This one has been lightly edited to bring it up to date in some areas.
I can’t help but obsess about the PATH train, since I have now spent more time riding the PATH train than I’ve spent doing anything else over my entire lifetime. When I pass on, pantsless and forgotten behind some convenience store, a bottle of antifreeze my only comfort, I’ll probably see nothing but the interiors of PATH trains when my life flashes before my eyes. That might sound depressing, but it isn’t so bad; I’ve had plenty of high times and grand adventures during the half hour ride from Erie Lackawana to Penn Station. What I’ll mainly remember from the PATH rides, of course, are the humongous backpacks that people have battered me with on crowded trains.
I think from time to time we’ve all found ourselves jammed onto a train that seems to be holding more human bodies than the laws of physics would allow. Then again, my own understanding of physics is drawn mainly from old Twilight Zone reruns, and informs me that the universe is run by Oompah Loompahs, so perhaps my understanding of how many people can fit inside a train car is a little off. But we’ve all found ourselves pressed up against the car doors, closer to other human beings than we’ve ever wanted to be, unable to move. Invariably, there are a few people on the train who are wearing huge backpacks about twice as large as they are, and invariably they don’t take these backpacks off when they get on the train, and invariably they end up beating me about the face and neck with these backpacks.
The only conclusion you can draw is that most people have no idea how much space they take up, and that they’re largely unaware of how much they bludgeon the people around them. These are the same people who make walking through the streets of Hoboken and Manhattan a contact sport, and they’re probably the same people who walk around during rainstorms with umbrellas the size of hot air balloons. In short, morons.
Walking the city streets during a rainstorm is hard enough because everyone has an umbrella up and they knock into each other—basically, an umbrella increases the space you take up, and you have to compensate in order to keep civilization moving smoothly down the sidewalks. When someone shows up with one of those circus-ring umbrellas you could fit sixteen midget clowns under, presumably so that not a single drop of terrible rain falls on their tender persons, it clogs up the whole system and invades my personal space.
Why do some people feel that their royal status requires that no rain ever get close to them despite the fact that it interferes with the smooth operation of civilization itself? The same reason they get on crowded trains with comically outsized backpacks: They have absolutely no idea how their actions impact other people. And, of course, when I say “other people”, I mean me. Now, I’m not advocating that people should dispense with their umbrellas and get soaked, or get rid of their comically oversized backpacks—or, lord forbid, actually take the backpack from their backs and hold them, since that would interfere with their idle Ipod-fondling—which they apparently use to carry every single thing they own from place to place. I’m just advocating that we all pause for a moment and remember that we’re all part of a society, that there’s supposed to be some consideration for your fellow man. Without consideration for your fellow man—especially in crowded, damp train cars filled with humid humanity—things can quickly devolve into a Lord of the Flies situation. All because of your umbrella, large enough to catch an updraft and pluck you off the street like a stray leaf. Which would, now that I think about it, amuse me greatly.
Space is part of it, too, of course. As the tri-state area slowly begins to resemble Tokyo in its allotment of living space to individual citizens, you start to get a little jealous of your personal space. The urge to assert yourself via an umbrella that forces everyone to stay three feet away from you in every direction—creating, if you will, a stranger-free zone, a bubble of transient personal territory—might be irresistible, albeit still inexcusable. The final result of this line of thinking, of course, is obvious, at least to me: Everyone inside their own hard plastic bubble, serenely rolling down the sidewalks with three feet of personal space all around, guaranteed, even on sunny days. Granted, you’d have the new worries over being accidentally bank-shotted into traffic and killed, but there are so many ways to be accidentally killed in this world, what’s one more?
Of course, once that happens I’ll probably just start complaining about people who install themselves in huge bubbles that take up the whole sidewalk, knocking everyone else out of the way as they rampage through the city. Which actually might be fun, come to think of it—or at least more fun than an umbrella spoke in the eye.