Observations on a Subway Car

(Originally posted on Blogger site.)

I like to see people. I recently started trying to really look at people around me when I had lengthy periods during which I could observe them. I ride the bus and the subway every day, to and from work, and so I often have these opportunities now. This is really nothing notable; it’s something that we all do all of the time. I’m just trying to be more aware of doing it. Today, I did this; I looked at someone.

I like, if possible, to sit on the seats that line the sides of the subway car, facing towards the middle. It enables me to look at the car with more ease, and to see the entire length by turning my head either way. If I can’t get one of the seats with that arrangement, I feel…disappointed. As though my ability to look around has been diminished, which I suppose it has.

She was a woman who was seated across from me. Unlike myself, she had chosen to sit in a seat that faced towards the rear of the train, looking southward, What first drew my attention was the pattern on her skirt; it was a beautiful, elaborate paisley pattern in purple and grey. The skirt was long, hanging almost to her ankles, and the larger, teardrop shapes in the paisley seemed to swim above a layer of pattern that was intricate and floral. I noticed that she had on shoes that were constructed in the style of mary-janes, but were also sneakers. These shoes were in the midst of some sort of evolution; maybe they were slowly adapting to a new environment somewhere else, away from the subway car. I feel they were sneakers originally, but were now metamorphosing into mary janes, advancing towards a new stage. At home, under her bed, were pale, dried husks in the shape of running shoes that had been cast off earlier. This probably says more about my fashion attitudes than it does about some obscure science of textile biology. But these were the shoes she was wearing.

What I noticed next was that her hijab matched her dress — and matched it really well. There was consideration that had gone into this, or perhaps they had been bought on the same day with the intention of creating an outfit. The edge of the hijab had a white tag on it; I could see writing in Arabic printed along it and, below that, a series of symbols. It took me a moment to realize that these glyphs were the standard symbols for laundering care — one of our few universal languages. With luck, many years ago, someone of vision added those to the plaque on the Voyager spacecraft before it was launched. The hijab was bisected into two halves, each with its own pattern, and the central line that divided the two lay along the meridian of her head. One side was a gradience of purples, drifting from a light, almost-white to a vivid shade of plum, creating diagonal waves of color, undulations of light and dark. The other side was a field of dark purple lined with narrow, parallel rows of white. As I looked, I noticed the lines were made to resemble cords of twined rope. Periodically, she would shake her head, almost imperceptibly, as if negating some thought.

Her shirt was long, and seemed to be of a material similar to her skirt. Something smooth and fluid without conforming much to the contours of the wearer as it draped. The bottom edge of the shirt sat along the middle of her thigh, her one leg crossed over the other. Here, there was a row of large droplet shapes, like those on the skirt, repeating along the edge. I that I had noticed them just then because she had begun paying attention to them, running her fingertips along the edge of the shirt, starting at the center of her leg and running each hand away from that point along the edge, adjusting and smoothing it. She centered one of the shapes on her leg and counted, silently, slowly, the number of shapes on either side of the center. With each count, she touched a fingertip to a shape, both hands mirroring each other, both moving down the line of shapes in opposite directions. She was ensuring that there were the same number of droplets on either side. When she had finished counting, she slid the shirt hem to the left, shifting one droplet over and centering the next. Again, there was that tiny “no” of her head, a slight movement.

I looked at her face and took note of some details there. Her bottom lip was fuller than her top lip. I could see a slight bit of her hair near her temple, but couldn’t tell if it was light brown, or brown mixed with grey. It could have been either, as her age wasn’t very distinct. She seemed as though she might have been somewhere in the range of middle-age, but it’s possible she was even older. I looked at her face for a few seconds longer, and felt that there was something it was expressing, but was having difficulty discerning what it was exactly. I felt she might be angry about something, displeased. Or anxious. Or perhaps she was someone who always seemed to have a stern look, whose face masked what feelings were underneath.

After she disembarked at a station, I was left thinking that my observations highlighted a certain difficulty that I’ve recently been facing with regards to my own writing. [I’ll be going into some more depth about recent issues I’ve been wrestling with in another post, but I’ll lightly touch on one here.] This blog post itself demonstrates the problem well, I think. I write at great length and in macroscopic detail about tactile information, describing space or objects or movements by someone in that space, and yet when I try to sound the depths of character, I’m left feeling completely uncertain. Out of my element. I can catalog every detail of the clothing the woman was wearing, but, when I try to discern what she was feeling, it becomes very tricky. Inner psychology of someone, of characters, is something that I feel is important, that I know someone reading fiction will probably want, and that I have to come to an understanding of to create a deeper and more meaningful narrative.

I realize I’m conflating the issue a bit, that it would be fairly difficult to read emotion from a stranger’s face without interacting with them. But I feel this related in some partial way to what I’m trying to sort out. There was something that I noticed, that I feel was an important reminder in that brief moment of observation on the subway: that when I took the time to pay attention to this stranger, I ultimately ended up being aware of her much more as a person, as a human being, than I had before. In some hard-to-define way, she was more three-dimensional in my mind than she was before she sat down in her seat. This seems important to remember as a person, as well as someone who is thinking about how to approach fictional characters more successfully.

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