When Cathy Levy accidentally struck up a friendship with a stranger on the bus, it made her rethink the way she connects with the world – and everyone in it
We must stay human during the daily commute, says Cathy Levy
A MONTH AGO I FOUND MYSELF CONSUMED WITH RAGE when a commuter shoved me out of the way to race for the only seat. It was the same when, the month before, I’d been forced to endure another person’s fleshy body squashed against mine because they couldn’t bear to wait one more minute for the next tube. Or when someone is standing on the wrong side of the escalator/dawdling in the high street/blocking the milk aisle with their trolley and entire family. If you had held a mirror to my angered face in those moments, I’d have been thoroughly mortified.
Most of the time I’d say I’m a considerate, compassionate person. I rise above hysteria, turn the other cheek, never hold grudges (well, not for too long). And yet, on more than one occasion, I have felt an anger take hold. It’s the rage of the road, of the supermarket aisle, of the bus and the underground. It’s an intolerance that transforms otherwise reasonable humans into people who bear little resemblance to their ordinary selves. And yes, I’m ashamed to say, it has had me too.
But I’ve come to realise that this feeling is deeper than anger. It is cattle mentality: the mode we enter when we temporarily lose our humanity. And I know I’m not alone in this because I see it everywhere. I also know that it doesn’t have to be this way.
Why? Because I recently experienced another side to our enforced scuttling along together in such close quarters. Without sounding too dramatic, it has changed me – for the better. I now call it ‘a random and surprising connection with a fellow human who has retained their humanity while all around are losing theirs’.
It happened at my local bus stop, where an unwritten rule states that waiting passengers must form a line, one behind the other. Not beside each other (even if travelling together) or, dare you try it, strolling to the front.
So one day when a young girl – a little quirky-looking, swigging from a can of cider and clutching a dishevelled bunch of flowers – approached the line and made a comment about our strange queuing system, I smiled sympathetically. At this brief connection she announced to the line that “Oh yes!”, she was with me, and jumped in beside me. She asked me my name, told me hers and we began a conversation that had us sharing surprisingly personal details. I learnt that she had only one kidney and shouldn’t drink, but couldn’t help the occasional one; that she was visiting a friend, hence the flowers, and was meant to arrive for lunch (it was 7pm); that she was almost 21 (less than half my age) and for her birthday wanted to hire a hot air balloon but wondered how many it held – though she only had five friends, so that’s all that mattered; that she thought she couldn’t have children but her boyfriend said that’s okay, they could adopt.
We talked about what she really wanted to do (be a DJ) and what I really wanted to do (write novels), and we found ourselves encouraging each other to follow our dreams despite being afraid to. It was the sweetest interaction with a stranger I’ve ever had, and one that, on first glance, I’d have steered clear of. It reminded me that we humans all have hopes and dreams, flaws and vulnerabilities, that we are all deserving of space and patience and, yes, though I hate to sound all namby-pamby, that we all need kindness and love. That meeting transformed my cattle mentality. It showed me that I could care for a stranger, and stop fretting if someone queue barged or pushed their trolley in my way. In the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? If the tension rises now, I simply make eye contact, smile and say “Excuse me”, and, just like that, the situation is diffused. It doesn’t take a great effort to remember that we’re all someone’s friend or colleague or mother or daughter.
If we can remind ourselves of that, wherever we are, who knows what a difference we can all make?
“I HATE to sound all namby-pamby – we all need KINDNESS and love”