The awkward intimacy of commuting
There’s a man on my bus with a fake leg.
I know this because we get off at the same stop every morning, and one day he lifted up his trouser leg to fix his shoe and I saw a glint of metal.
“Well, that’s interesting,” I thought. I see this man every day. He gets on the bus one stop after me and my daughter, always wearing black orthopedic shoes and carrying a laptop bag. I assume he’s on his way to work, but I have no idea where. We’ve never spoken, and yet I know this one very specific thing about him – and now I’m desperate to know more.
It’s a weird thing, commuting. If, like me, you take the same route to work every day, you tend to see the same people. You watch each other, day in and day out, probably without every speaking. It’s weird to be so close to people and not talk, yet somehow it would be weirder if you said anything.
My bus runs infrequently on a limited route, so not that many people take it. The cast of characters rarely changes. The kind-looking elderly woman. The man who always wears a black parka, even in the summer. The woman with the pink and blue streaks in her hair whose partner drops her off at the bus stop each morning. The guy with the unfortunate mustache. The woman who sits in front of me whose hair looks a lot like mine, only frizzier. I spend a lot of time staring at the back of her head, wondering if I should give her hair product recommendations.
The leader of our awkward crew is the bus driver, Alan – a friendly bald man who everyone greets by name and who drops us off right near our houses instead of at the bus stop. We miss him when he’s not there.
“Where is Alan today?” one woman wondered out loud one day, after being greeted by a gruff, not-Alan when she boarded. “Is he on holiday?”
“He’s on a training course today,” another woman said, and we all breathed a little sigh of relief, knowing that we would see him tomorrow.
At thee-years-old, my daughter is already an experienced commuter. Either me or my husband has always taken her to nursery on our way to work, so she’s used to being the only small child on a bus or train full of tired business people. She sits all the way in the back of the bus, where the drunks normally sit when it’s not 8am, and sings to herself or points out thing she spots out the window.
“IT’S THE PLAYGROUND!” she’ll shout. “LOOK, MUMMY! THERE ARE NO KIDS ON IT!”
“That’s because it’s too early,” I say. It’s too early for shouting too, but try explaining that to a small, excited child. Anyway, I’m glad that she’s excited – it’s better than the alternative.
Nursery drop-offs are less fraught than they used to be, but there are still some tears sometimes. I hate that moment when her eyes fill with tears, and I start to question everything that I believe in – that it’s okay for mothers of young children to work if they need or want to, and that I shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting a career. She clings to me and I want to cling back, but instead I hand her off to one of her teachers, then continue the rest of my commute alone. A walk, a subway, another walk. I’m only carrying one bag now that I’ve dropped her backpack off with her at nursery, but I feel heavier, somehow.
My husband usually picks her up in the afternoon, but if he’s away, I’ll come get her. Alan greets us as we get on the bus and we sit in the back, just like we do in the morning. By now the playground is full of kids and my daughter is full of beans. Having not seen me all day, she talks at me non-stop. I look around for the man with one leg, but he’s never there. Maybe he gets an earlier bus home, or maybe he takes the train in the afternoon.
One of these days I’m going to find out what happened to his leg.