“There is only one class of men, the privileged class.” Albert Camus, The Stranger
I used to take a lot of bus trips. Mostly in my twenties, heading on long weekends or for extended holidays to the polar opposites of New York State: East, to the “Hamptons”, the string of tony towns at the end of Long Island and the Atlantic Ocean, and West, to Rochester, where I grew up, bordering the Great Lake of Ontario.
If I was going to Long Island, my choice was the Hampton Jitney. In the summer months, their fleet of buses was (and still are) jam-packed. The funny thing is, or maybe it wasn’t that funny, that wherever I got on in Manhattan, there were always several passengers already seated inside who had placed a travel bag (or bags) on the accompanying seat (there was always room in bus’s hold or the overhead for luggage).
Now, these folks must have known from prior rides, and by the line of people always waiting outside to board, that they would have to relinquish the space. But they still acted — i.e. facial grimaces, pained sighs, mumbled epitaphs — as if I had requested them to give up their passport, social security number and credit card information, and not just to access a seat I paid the same price for. And once settled in, not that I had any great desire to talk, but I could tell from their general angry vibe that any utterance I made would be akin to an abusive attack. And so I almost always spent those trips as still as a stone, willing my body smaller so as not to jostle an elbow or knock a knee, all the time wondering if they knew we were heading to a happy, relaxing, most beautiful place.
Greyhound took me to Rochester. I would get the bus in the bowels of New York City’s Port Authority, breathing in toxic exhaust while I waited with a paucity of others, finally bordering and having a pick of seats for the six-hour or more journey. In contrast to the Jitney, the Greyhound passengers seemed to cultivate community.
Even if there were row upon row of empty seats, they would ask if it was okay to sit with me, wanting to talk, to pass the time discussing, say, family and work, sharing with me life’s up and downs, even sometimes whatever food and drink they brought on with them. Generally, they were friendly, even if at times it seemed too friendly.
It was, indeed, a tale of two cities, or buses, to be more exact.
Now I’m not making a case that economic station, or bus stations, to be glib, are connected to a person’s ability or desire to be friendly. But I might go out on a limb and say that people are more likely to adopt a stand-offish stance with a stranger if they think for some reason they are better than that stranger.
Or they want to believe they are better than the stranger.
It’s an age-old self-esteem raising technique with no lasting value and plenty of long-term negative impact: bringing someone down to make yourself feel higher. The practice is akin to abusing a habit-forming drug. It might feel good for as long as it lasts, but it never lasts, and when it’s over the crash is crushing and a need arises to do more and more and more to feel good again or just not sick.
Maybe I’m being overcritical. Or thinking too deeply Maybe those riders on the Jitney back then merely wanted more arm and legroom. Maybe they had placed their bag on the adjacent seat as an afterthought and without any agenda. Maybe the last thing they wanted to do was belittle or demean me or anyone else wanting to share a communal ride out to the beach, or create a caste system based on their being to a seat first.
All I know is what I felt, and still remember feeling, those many times I waited for a bag to be removed.