I enjoy riding the elevated train in Chicago, affectionately known as the el. Not in some Risky Business “I really like trains” way, but because on the el I am closer to people. Now mind you the routes I take are not unsafe, or on the lines that you tell tourists to stay off because, y’know, things could happen. Still, I am a people watcher, a habit born out of my curiosity, my Trans* danger-sense (a super power some people foolishly call paranoia), and a pathological need to emulate those cool deductions that Sherlock Holmes makes look so easy. Those deductions, by the way, never really work well for me. If you are wearing a name tag that says “Bob” I can usually nail down that there is a 50% that your name is Robert. I am sharp like that. I just love a good mystery.
A great majority of people sit on the train, heads down as if in supplication, staring into the safe anonymity of their smartphone’s tiny glowing screens. Most days I am no different but sometimes I manage to turn my phone off (or more likely its battery is dead, again) and I try to really see the people around me. Carefully mind you, no one likes a Starey-creeper.
I enjoy the spread of people, styles, and occupations packed into the silver boxes with me. I don’t think people often see each other outside of our personal needs or the requirements of employment like “How may I help you buy this thingy?” or “How long has your car been on fire?” I like being around other humans when I’m not experiencing them through some sort of routine script. While it makes me uncomfortable sometimes (ok most times) I do look forward to the rare random encounter with a perfect stranger because it affords me the chance to figure out if my assumptions about them are right, and if not, what I need to change about my outlook.
Mind you I also understand safety so I wouldn’t just stroll up and say “Howdy” to someone wielding a bloody machete and arguing loudly with his dog. Instead I put on my imaginary Sherlock hat and try to imagine how a person’s day is going by reading into posture, movement and facial features. But then I realize I can’t truly understand another person’s experience from noticing their new North Face jacket, tired facial expressions, or the battered plastic shopping bags huddled about their feet.
I look around the rolling train car and I just see some people with more money and some with less, some people with hard lives who love everyone anyway, some workers trying to get by, and some people with simple hatreds based on easy fear and then I see that all that is my own ideas projecting outward. I visualize an entire kaleidoscope of life formed and colored by a million moments pressing them toward their train stop and the rest of their night. Just like my life does.
Like I said, I would really love to be Sherlock. My assumptions would always be dead on and even if I thought something ill of someone it would be justified and without reproach because I could point to some obscure mustard stain on the perpetrator and say “Ah, Ha! Elementary and shit!” Sherlock would doesn’t need their communication because he knows the TRUTH. In all caps even. When he does actually ask questions they are often only there to catch the liar and prove a point. But I can’t do this because to truly learn or share with other people, they have to have their own voice, not mine speaking for them through the mustard on their pants, the hoody on their back, or the hairstyle on their head.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where everyone thinks they are Sherlock Holmes. We assume our deductions are dead on, and if revealed as incorrect, it was deception by the subject that lead to our false assumptions, not our own conceit. We grant these deductions more importance than reality. What Sherlock is portrayed doing is just a dramatic and highly magnified version of what we do every day when we encounter other people, but unlike Sherlock’s infallible assumptions, we build skewed and incomplete ideas based on stereotypes. I fight against the lazy stereotypes my brain tries to plug into everything but they are deeply rooted and very tenacious.
So I love riding the el, wondering about the people standing and crowding about the swaying train cars. I like imagining things and trying to figure out puzzles I create in my head. But then I try remember that no matter how much I imagine I can deduce or assume, what I really know about that older women over there, or that business person seated nearby, is minuscule compared to what I can find out if I actually end up talking to them. Which is Elementary and shit.