June 30, 2005

A conscious effort to slow down and consider the behaviour of my fellow commuters can impress me by the regularity of our anthropological characteristics.

There are two trains that arrive, from opposite directions, on my "work" platform. This is the platform where we get off, so that we can go to work. This introductory detail is already anthropologically notable, but I am focusing on a slightly different one.

There is a relatively narrow staircase at either end of the platform. It's not really narrow; it's wide enough for three people to scale abreast comfortably, but it becomes relatively narrow when a train attempts to empty its contents into its well. When my train comes, a crowd forms at the head of the staircase as people wait for their turn to descend.

The people, since they encounter this situation every day, expect to meet a crowd at the head of the staircase. They thus make an effort to be among the first there, to avoid waiting.

The difficulty grows when both trains arrive at about the same time. This is when the behaviour of people becomes exciting. Races begin. If one has made the unfortunate error of boarding the middle of the train, the part farthest from either staircase, one must put on extra speed to attain the exit before one's fellow passengers.

This morning, my train arrived alone, and the staircase was empty at that moment. I started to walk towards it, straining to overcome my urge to hurry, as I strain every day. I strain in order to avoid overstraining myself, you see. I believe that a daily morning burst of speed, for no other reason than to beat my fellow commuters off the platform, is probably not physically healthy. A sustained walk is healthy; this stressed dash is unhealthy.

As I was thus walking with inner torture and outward calm towards the staircase, I heard the other train arrive behind me.

"This is it," I might have thought. Indeed it was. As soon as my fellow commuters, those who were already approaching the platform from my train, heard the second train, they picked up speed. I heard heels chopping the asphalt behind me, beside me, passing me. I watched the crowd start to run to beat the second crowd that was about to form behind them.

This is the hardest moment not to make a break for it. It is hard to let them catch up to you, pass you, clog up the exit behind you. But I think it is better for you. I won't go into the standard arguments about how much those precious extra seconds matter towards getting to your office--everyone knows they don't. But it's hard to resist the herd. Nevertheless, this small, hard thing is probably very much worth it. It's probably as much worth it as drinking soy milk, or doing yoga finger exercises that you saw in a lifestyle magazine.

Incidentally, there was that other time when I decided to wait out the entire crowd before descending the stairs. Two trains had arrived at once, and a jam formed. I decided, instead of waiting inside the crowd, shuffling an inch a second towards the stairs, why not just wait in the sun on the platform for them all to dissipate. I even thought I could read my book for the couple of minutes it would take. Unfortunately, before the last folks even had their chance to enter the stairwell, the next train arrived! I hadn't known that the trains came so often. Apparently, at certain times in the morning, that stairwell is never clear. So what could I do--I walked, very, very briskly, heart thumping competitively, to beat the newcomers.

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