The Backs of Their Heads

17 December, 2009

The following was written to fulfill an assignment for Applications of Interactive Technology that asked us to ride the M5 bus its full length from Houston to Harlem.

M5 Fire Escape

I began the ride uptown in the early stages of sunset. As I waited at the corner of Houston and Laguardia, night settled in around the buildings, chilling the sky's pale blue hue. Across the street, a brick four story's fire escape made intricate cuts in what was left of the light.

The M5 arrived. Hydraulics cranked beneath its undercarriage as the bus settled itself into position at the stop. It unfurled a small metallic suspension bridge towards the sidewalk, tonguelike. Two elderly chinese ladies descended this, emptying the bus.

"Do you know where the Film Forum is?"

The slightly less wrinkly of the two had squared off in front of me, almost standing on my shoes. After extensive repeating of street names and some strategic pointing, I managed to get them headed west down Houston, the right compass rose point at least and the best of the sunset between the buildings down that direction.

When I got off the bus at the top of its uptown route, disoriented, motion sick, and half asphyxiated, this turned out to have been one of only two moments of human conversation in the entire course of the journey.

I boarded the bus.

After retrieving my metro card from the automated payment machine and nodding to the driver, I took the inner windowside seat of a row halfway down the bus's length.

M5 Bus Seat Back

I looked up at the seat back in front of me and was suddenly transported across six months and three thousand miles. With the seat back hardware filling my field of vision, every visual cue told me I was back on the 15 commuting from Belmont into downtown Portland, as I'd done every morning the previous winter. With its cylindrical protuberances, circular bolts, and molded plastic back, the M5 seat resembled Portland's Tri-Met's in every detail. Anxiety rose within me mixed with a surprising sentimentality. I saw visions of a brick storefront office with bearded faces peering out from behind computer monitors and yellow anoraks; I felt the preparatory cringe as my body resisted passing through the threshold to start one more day of meaningless work, waiting.

When I came out of my revery, I discovered six other passengers had boarded with me. Three of the four singles sat in solo seats along the right side of the aisle. The frontmost of these, a small gray-haired lady with scars in her deep black skin, had surrounded herself with a small fortress of crinkly plastic shopping bags.

Up front, in a double seat, a woman spoke Chinese to a small boy with thick glasses.

Bald man with glasses and ear buds

A bald black man sat directly in front of me. His ears were doubly surrounded by slim-rimmed glasses and round white earbuds. His jacket collar protruded over the seat back making small synthetic whooshing noises as the bus jostled, revealing a gold-zippered hood and epaulets on the shoulders.

It was getting darker and we were already in the 20s, heading north on Avenue of the Americas.

We stopped and stopped. Passengers got on, blinking as they entered the humid glow of the bus's interior. Others got off, swallowed up by the increasingly impenetrable darkness outside. The seats filled up and some new arrivals began to stand in the aisle. The windows darkened enough to reflect internal light, sealing us off from the street.

Woman with babushka and radio

A woman in the lead single seat fiddled with a cherry red cell phone, extending an old fashioned antenna nearly a foot from its top. Her face remained invisible behind a deep blue babushka with a printed metallic design. She focused intensely on the phone (was it a radio?) twiddling knobs and rhythmically leaning in close. The device's noise didn't carry across the growing crowd in the aisle.

Despite the fact that we were now alone — the group of us in this private glowing bubble gradually floating north — we were not, somehow, together. People acted as if they were in private, conducting intimate conversations loudly with neighboring friends in shared seats or distant ones invisible over the phone.

Near the front of the bus, a man with a white short-trimmed beard, a receding hairline and glasses held a varicolored New York street map with one hand while talking loudly into a phone cradled between his ear and shoulder: "You know when she was talking about that hotel the other day? When she was talking about that, she said, 'I'd live here.'"

We turned left on 59th to dodge around the park before continuing north on broadway. cap

A row behind me a gaunt effeminate teenager was complaining loudly to his female seat companion, one eye continuously on his cell: "Why did you take those things off your profile? I'm just asking. Am I still in your top friends? I'm just asking."

It was like an invisible gap had opened between us that both isolated and protected us from each other. People lost their fear of being overheard along with their ability to communicate.

I could stare at the backs of these people's heads intently enough to draw them and I could eavesdrop on their conversations clearly enough to transcribe them, but actually speaking to them or looking them directly in the eye would have violated the social contract of our little glowing cloistered world.

Just as this realization was settling over me, though, something happened.

We'd made our first stop on Riverside Drive, the inky blackness of the Hudson broken by gothic shadowy shapes of tree branches in the left bank of windows. I looked up from the sketch I'd been making of a beret-clad earbudded twenty something staring out into the dark to find that my seatmate had been watching me draw.

He jerked his eyes away when he saw I'd caught him, adjusting his posture towards the aisle. But then he turned back and looked up at me sheepishly. He was a middle aged black man in a Boston Red Sox windbreaker with the red knit cuffs rolled back to reveal a chunky silver watch. His hands were crossed over the newspaper in his lap.

Man with cap

"Great drawings there," he grinned. "Are you a student?"

"Thanks. Yeah. I'm heading up to Columbia to meet some friends." My cover story.

"Did you do one of me?"

"No. Not yet. I'm mostly doing the backs of peoples heads."

"I see. Ok. Well, good luck. This is me."

And he was gone up the aisle, squeezing his way between two asian girls giggling to each other, heads leaned in close, and off at the next stop into the dark.

I sat quietly for a few minutes as the river sped past outside the window. The bus made stops and gradually emptied out, leaving just a handful of passengers as we climbed north of 100th. The smell of exhaust started to fill the cabin and a swirling motion sickness took hold in my guts.

Man with Checked Hat

Despite this, I started to draw again: a Chinese man with a checkered fishing hat and gray tufts of hair at his temples. But this time something was different. The back of his head didn't feel like a barrier. The distance had closed. As I woozily filled in the geometric pattern covering his floppy hat, I started to imagine fragmented images from this man's life: hot afternoons on a glassy lake somewhere surrounded by smiling, round-faced grandchildren in overalls.

We rode further north, passing under an elevated train, beyond any part of Manhattan I'd ever seen. The smell of exhaust fumes worsened, my stomach swooned, and my head spun.

Man in wheelchair with cane

The bus stopped and stayed still for a long time, mechanical noises issuing from just outside, the hydraulic ramp again in action.

Finally, a wide motor-powered wheelchair made its way onto the bus. Its pilot wore a stocking over a baseball cap brim and most of his face, giving his head the appearance of a lumpy sock puppet. He wore a shapeless garment with wide vertical stripes that concealed his body's basic outline. There was a canvas bag slung over his wheelchair's head with the curved black grip of a cane poking out. Everything about his physical presence was armored and other.

With the driver's help, he maneuvered his wheelchair into position, taking the place of the side row of single seats that had been flipped up to make space. The bus pulled back out into traffic and I watched the back of his head for a few stops.

Around 160th, my wooziness overtook me and I desperately needed to be standing still in fresh air. I stumbled my way to the front of the bus, brushing past the man in the wheelchair — seeing a patch of dark skin and a flash of white eye through a hole in his ski mask — and then burst out into the street at the next stop, frantically filling my lungs.

I walked east down the first street I found, trying to clear my head and get my bearings. As the bus pulled away behind me, I was still trying to imagine it, the life beneath that mask.