Yesterday, I took a train from New York City to Philadelphia, and ten minutes before we arrived at 30th street station in Philly, the train conductor decided to stop and help out another train that had experienced an engine failure. That means, we sat there for thirty minutes while the other train unloaded all of its passengers and squeezed them into the empty seats and aisles of our train. It was a little bit irritating, since I had woken up early and all I wanted to do was to get home and pass out on my bed, but it also got me thinking about something that has always intrigued me. That is, the fact that when placed in unusual/emergency situations, many people make friends with others around them who are in the same situation. Before we stopped to help the other train, the people on my train were all absorbed in their own ipods, their own books (or kindles/ipads), and their own telephone conversations.
However, as soon as our conductor decided to help out the other train, everyone put down what they were doing, and introduced themselves to the people around them. I was totally guilty of this too. I introduced myself to the man who was ushered into the seat next to me, who explained that he was headed to Washington D.C. to attend a meeting about wind turbines, and that he was relieved that he did not have a flight to catch, since if that were the case, the train’s broken engine would have wrecked his schedule. The people in the seats in front of us started laughing at the thought of what would happen if everyone was loaded off the defective train, and then that train started moving instead of ours. After that, we all concocted a plan to hop out the train’s doors and trek the rest of the way to 30th street on foot, since the off and on loading process was taking forever. However that plan was soon vetoed when it dawned on someone that it would involve walking through decrepit North Philly—not a very appetizing experience.
By the time we arrived at the station, almost everyone had at least one person to wish safe travels to: something that would not have been the case if we were all on a normal train ride. Because the second that the train stopped and the conductor warbled the situation over the loudspeaker, a sheet of common ground slid beneath all of us, and there was suddenly something to complain about.
So what does this say about people? Do we all secretly wish to connect with and help strangers, but not know how to begin? Is the opportunity to kvetch the miracle cure for traveler’s tunnel vision? Or is an emergency one of the only situations that can get strangers with unrelated backgrounds and ethnicities to acknowledge one another? The same (although much more intense) situation presented itself to the world around 9/11 and Katrina, among other events, but the speed at which connections are created between people during a surprise or emergency always interests me. Especially since in normal circumstances, even a “Hi” from a stranger receives a raised eyebrow or a turned heel.