Saturday, September 13, 2008

"Sir, do you like baseball?"

I have lived in the US for a handful of years without ever owning a car, and have gotten by just fine by choosing my places of work and residence vis-a-vis the availability of public transit. Of course, it helps that the partner owns a car which allows me to occasionally access places that transit wont go and do things transit wont allow. Nevertheless, not owning a car is unusual enough for some people I know to view me as some kind of freak.

My preference for public transit over a car comes as much from the view that the personal automobile when used for urban commutes is a grossly inefficient thing (140 HP to move 80 kilograms?) as from the belief that the most insightful way to experience and understand a place is by sharing experiences of its inhabitants. Whether it be Mumbai or Sacramento, using public transit allows one to mingle with aspects of of society that are not normally available to you, no matter what class you belong to.

The experience of using public transit on a sustained basis entails not only the event of traveling in a rectangular box with a bunch of strangers, but a whole chain of associated social/physical phenomenon that go with it that are experientially distant compared to being behind a wheel. Walking from the transit station to your destination, looking like a stranger in a new place, sharing a laugh or a rant, borrowing a newspaper, helping a stranger board his luggage, and so on.

Friends who live in suburbs (the Brahmin parts of town, as I call them) and drive to work are so successful at filtering the everyday experiences they imbibe that some things in the transit world absolutely shock and disgust them. Events like noticing people urinating in public (yes, it happens everywhere), having an unwashed homeless individual as a companion, being asked for loose change/cigarettes/use of your mobile phone, and being solicited for sex (paid and unpaid, the latter by members of my own gender).

I can quote the last experience - being solicited for sex - without being dramatic because, firstly, I am male, and secondly, this being a relatively sexually liberated society, solicitations come in the form of direct verbal inquiries rather than through creepy or threatening innuendo. Which is why I was surprised when a couple weeks back, standing at a light rail stop in a city I was visiting, I was approached by a youngish man who asked me without showing his eyes from under the brim of his cap:
Sir, do you like baseball?

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