A bus with a view

Last word On his ride to work, Mansour Ajami takes in humanity: rushing, sleeping, phoning, listening humanity.

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On his ride to work, Mansour Ajami takes in humanity: rushing, sleeping, phoning, listening humanity.

More than 100 days a year, I ride the bus from the beginning of the line in Princeton, New Jersey to the end of the line in New York City. Change, though constant in life, seems to never board that bus. The route, of course, stays the same. And although the riders' sizes, shapes, ages and colours change, their uncannily principled conduct appears to be strictly choreographed. It is as though they had all attended a bus ridership seminar.

Everyone walks to a seat without glancing at the interior of the bus or at any other riders. The back of the bus could be on fire, or there could be a mugging or lovemaking in progress in the front seat, and still they would file in unconcerned. Almost everyone is a reader. Each boards the bus armed with an open book. Before sitting down, each switches on the light above his seat and reclines his seat back (merely because it can be done) with neat precision. Naturally, the readers know that they will never be able to finish their book on any particular trip.

One woman hurries to a seat near the front because she thinks she will arrive in the city before the rest. She methodically applies her make-up before settling down to peruse her TV guide. An elegant man dressed in a suit stands in the aisle obstructing others and slowly removes his jacket, folds it neatly, opens his laptop and finally sits down to work in utter silence. He is usually the last to leave the bus in New York, and he occasionally forgets his jacket. Several riders read newspapers with invariably provocative headlines before falling asleep. At some stage of the bus ride, my concerns are reduced to one: the size of the person who will share the double seat with me without crushing my right half. The majority of passengers are tall and embarrassingly overweight.

Other riders instantly produce their electronic listening and messaging devices and fill the bus with unwelcome visitors: usually voicemail first, then purposeless text messages. Many listen intently to their MP3s. The bus bulges with all the semi-silent communication, the podcasts, the music. It becomes overcrowded with buzz. The bus, its heat or air conditioning always at full blast, gradually settles into eerie silence broken only by a sonorous snore produced by one passenger. I myself read for a while before falling asleep. I keep the snorer company, albeit more softly. Oddly enough, the women on the bus do not snore. By choice or necessity, I defer the thinking and the writing of poetry to my trip back home at the end of the day, when everyone is exhausted. Then the silence becomes a cocoon; I am inspired by the idea of homecoming, and poetry comes easily. I love my cocoon so much that sometimes I take the trip to and from New York just to write in its embrace.

With the riders are ensconced in their separate tranquil worlds, the driver is abundantly free to tackle the road conditions, the weather, the traffic. His riders' interest in reaching their destination is far from his mind. He concentrates only on progress or the lack thereof. Very occasionally he takes an alternate route because of obstinately motionless traffic. He may speed up, slow down, reverse direction, end up in another congested town, or simply idle for long moments. The passengers pay little heed, make no noise, do not complain or demur. The driver does not offer them any information or explanation. He is part of the machinery of the bus; they are mere baggage, too timid, subdued, non-pioneering to inquire. They show no signs of hurry. If the bus can tarry or wait, so can they, at least until they disembark, and initiative again becomes theirs.

The bus finally approaches the end of the line and climbs into the belly of the vertical bus terminal, a world gracefully suspended from the city sky, almost always turbaned by grey clouds. As soon as it comes to a halt the passengers leap like leopards out of their sombre dormancy, still silent but almost panicked in their rush to leave. They jump from sleepy acquiescence as if from a raging fire, the epicentre of an earthquake, or imploding towers. Inside the terminal they dash down wide hospitable escalators, jumping down moving steps. It is not enough for the ground to walk for them. In a mad rush, they stream through the concourse of the terminal and vanish into the sea of humanity and vehicles at the congested heart of the city. As for me, I briefly visit the bathroom and leisurely saunter outside to board another bus, the crosstown.

A different load of humanity boards that crosstown bus, as closely packed as pomegranate seeds, although nowhere so sweet. This bus inches along in a seemingly endless stream of monstrous metal vehicles and fragile individuals. On this bus, humanity effortlessly churns out its polyglot sounds. Many riders spontaneously incorporate occasional English words into their streams of incomprehensible (to me) sounds; others needlessly call their places of work to complain about the traffic and to assure their managers that they will arrive quite soon. Delays, of course, are the only thing that can be counted on, yet riders call to apologise and to reassure. Silence exists nowhere on that crowded bus: the noises of anxious riders' raw nerves emanate from every inch, every cellphone, every earphone, every apology.

Outside the bus rushing bits of humanity, in its unfathomable diversity, bob like flotsam in the river of steel that is 42nd Street. People on the street do not walk; they sprint, convinced that they are faster than the vehicular traffic. Occasionally a well-dressed man can be seen shaving with a cordless electric razor while charging toward an enormous skyscraper. He too will surely arrive late. Cell phones, Bluetooths, MP3 players - all forms of listening devices, most resembling elongated ear muffs, seem to protect and warm the ears of almost every sprinter on the street. Some nonchalantly jaywalk while text messaging. After a few long and heavily congested blocks, the riders again pour out of the bus and catapult themselves on to bigger concerns and hardships. Their days cannot be pleasant or peaceful, although some of them might tell themselves otherwise. I too ungratefully abandon the disturbingly slow bus for another long day at the United Nations Headquarters building, where world both smaller and bigger is waiting for my open eyes and red pen.

Mansour Ajami is an Arabist reviser and translator at the United Nations and the author of The Book of Generations: A Reunion with Memory, a memoir.