The Physics professor takes his place at my side five minutes later than usual. If the rest of the crew at the metro stop notices Nathaniel Whippingposte’s tardiness you could never gauge it from their outward appearances. Acknowledgement would be crossing that delicate social boundary that keeps a morning commuter safe from commitment. In all honesty, I can’t be certain that the man next to me is a physics professor at all, nor even that his name is “Nathaniel Whippingposte,” because I’ve never actually spoken to him. It’s not to say that we live in a society of strangers. In fact, I call this motley collection of characters “the crew” because we’re that tight-knit. We’re the regulars. Sure, there are the travellers through, the one-time companions, the sight-seers, but the core group remains. More than that, we all tend to stand in exactly the same spots from morning to morning, scattered, and equidistant from one another. Physics professor might call that a stochastic diffusion.
The social burden of engagement is a real threat, and I’ve seen it destroy otherwise stable communities. This is how it has to be, because breaching the wall means an ever-lasting commitment to intimacy that no single member of our crew could hope to shoulder. Me, I’m a pocket fidgeter–a fidgeteer–which affords me some flexibility as far as observing my fellow crew mates. I while away the morning minutes by constructing intricate fantasies about them, notions based on the most frivolous of details, the most sweeping assumptions.
Take Mlinzi Majji-giza, a man whom I’ve never seen in anything but a colorful dashiki. He’s the haunted man who stands back by the wall nursing some foul tea concoction and muttering to himself at length, often to the point of self-argument. I’ve seen him miss the train on more than one occasion simply from being so lost in thought. Dierdre Scruggs, standing by the station map, is a reader of prurient romance tomes, their spines invariably broken by her little sausage fingers. She’s a whale of a woman, with frayed orange hair like old yarn, and she looks comfortable as an old sofa. Dierdre is the housekeeper for a dreadfully aged statesman who lies affixed to his bed like a barnacle, and is forgotten to the outside world, save for his bank account. Meanwhile, off to my right is Phineas Boyd, who stares at the concrete sound baffling of the tunnel wall, and doesn’t shift his stance until the flash of the train’s approach lights. But he does listen, I know that. I’ve seen the corners of his mouth twitch reflexively in response to the wails of a tantrum-racked tyke. In fact, he loathes children with such a passion that it’s caused him to be wary of women. As for Nathaniel Whippingposte, he has an unmistakable professorial air, and his hair… well if you saw him you would understand.
I’ve told you these things only so that I can tell you about Bartholomew–he looked to me like a Bartholomew, you understand–who assumed the position of a regular for nearly a year. I say “assumed” because he never managed to actually become a stable part of my metro stop. My old metro stop, that is, the one before this one. There was something about the man’s manner, a restlessness of disposition, a defiance of regularity. He exhibited a need to engage others when something noteworthy happened. It was an insatiable hunger for connection, as if he had no sense of private assessment. He was as communal as they come, and saw things only in terms of how they might be viewed by a shared audience. An old man tripping on the escalator, or a nun floating a bouquet of multicolored zeppelinettes was reason enough for Bartholomew to fall to compulsion: “Wow, did you see that?” And for that he was ostracized, not as you could gauge it from the crew’s outward appearances.
Winter forfeited to Spring reluctantly that year, and we were assailed by storms for a straight month. So it was that Bartholomew arrived at the metro stop in late March drenched and breathless, his lenses white with fog. If it was possible, he was more restless than usual that morning, the erratic element in a stable system, and the rest of the crew drew together–spiritually, you understand–to keep him out. A closed system will inherently resist change as a protective measure.
But it wasn’t enough, for in a moment Bartholomew was approaching me and asking for the time. “I left in such a rush this morning,” he explained, “that I left my watch sitting on the bureau.” The vulgar details fell upon my ears as if the man were detailing the results of his most recent colonoscopy. Why should I be subjected to this? How could a person be so ignorant of social mores?
“The time?” Bartholomew asked again, raising his eyebrows. “The wall clock is broken, see, and I left this morning-”
I couldn’t take it anymore. Bartholomew had caught me unprepared, so I held my left wrist out in front of him. “Oh,” he said, and tilted his head to the side as he leaned forward, lifting his glasses for a better look. Then he nodded once. “Thank you,” he said. “Very much.” How distasteful. He seemed crestfallen, but I felt like a traitor.
I knew it would happen. For the week following I took my usual spot on the tiles, standing as demonstrably silent as I could manage. Yet Bartholomew greeted me every morning–without exception–and I felt obliged to greet him in turn. He would greet me at the station coffee shop, always with that same, “Hey.” Even if I were standing next to another of the crew, he would greet only me. Why? Because we had broken bread. Or, more accurately, he had broken my bread. Once he saluted me as we passed each other on opposite escalators. Now he was tormenting me, this agent of change. It was a drawn-out violation committed over the course of several weeks. And that’s precisely the danger of forfeiting to politeness. It’s a gateway that leads inevitably to the expectation of social intercourse. Impulse leads to habit, which leads to expectation, which leads to tradition, which leads to a life of automation that I, for one, have no stomach for. I looked at my watch. The train was late.
I suppose it’s obvious by now, but I ended up abandoning that metro stop. The experience had become too tainted for me to continue, alas. I had little choice but to find a new stop if I was to maintain any freedom at all. The freedom of regularity–the freedom of stasis–should never be taken for granted. Here at the new station, my crew understands that… not as you could gauge it from outward appearances.