I’ve just returned from a trek to Boston. I departed Madison by bus, traveled from Chicago to Boston by train, and made use of the MBTA subway system while navigating my old stomping grounds in Beantown. This combination of public transit adventures afforded an unusual incidence of conversations with complete (and often quite strange) strangers. These brief meetings hardly merit the term “stories” as very little actually happened throughout their duration. Yet they were wonderful little gems of my Spring Break and so I share them with you here.
1 – The Industrious Lad
In every age, humans have found public artifacts around which to congregate. A dart board at the city bar, church pews, the proverbial water cooler. These days, it’s power outlets. Walk into any cafe or other public space that hosts the great human drama called “Waiting,” and you will see these tiny nuclei of incidental gathering. Thanks to iPads, iPods, laptops and tech gadgets of all shapes and sizes, we are all beholden to these resources and seek them out with the vigilance of a lioness on the hunt.
I am no exception. When I disembarked from my 4 hr bus ride from Madison, WI to Chicago’s Union Station, I was pert near of our charge and ravenous for a flow of electrons. I wandered for a good long while up and down the hallway of the Amtrak gates and all around the perimeter of the Great Hall (a beautiful architectural space) to no avail. There were a few cheeky outlets posing as functional access points to The Grid – but every time I plugged into one, my power cord registered no quenching charge and I was forced to move on.
Finally, I spotted a lone outlet just past a pair of sliding doors off the grand vestibule. Aha! I peered closer – surreptitiously, of course, so as not to alert other predators to my find. Nothing was plugged in to this sumptuous socket, but a young man was seated right next to it on the floor. Having a firm grounding in the ecological principles of territoriality and resource defense, I knew better than to assume this seemingly un-tapped resource was up for grabs. I approached slowly, making only fleeting eye contact as I greeted the seated gentleman. His response was amiable enough, and so I ventured a dulcet request for permission to join his patch of marble tile and make use of his electric treasure. Fortunately, he welcomed me in customary Midwestern style.
Unfortunately, of course, I then had to talk to him.
This will be a recurring theme throughout these vignettes. While I relish in the vital variety of human absurdity, it takes me a while to warm to the prospect of engaging with it. I am an introvert, after all. And in this particular case, what is the point of recharging your computer if you cannot simultaneously surf the internet, inspect every ancient document you ever thoughtlessly saved while drafting a paper you now no longer recall even being assigned to write, and changing your desktop image to photographs which are ever more apropos of your present state of mind? I ask you! Humph.
So I was forced to let my battery recharge in peace while I exchanged pleasantries with this youngin. He was probably about my age, maybe a touch younger. He was toting a couple overnight bags just as I was, but it turns out his travels that day put mine to shame. Here I was, griping about an hour and a half lay over between bus and train – he’d been training it for a day already and was in the middle of a half-day wait for the bus that would carry him another 8 hours to home. Yikes.
After expressing my hearty sympathies for his plight, we exchanged a few fragments of our histories – I’m on spring break, I’m a graduate student in Agroecology – it’s ok, no one does, it’s to do with sustainable agriculture – oh, you’re interested in engineering, that’s nice – yes, it does help to get a degree or some experience in that if you want to do it professionally. As we were talking, I plugged my computer in. I tried the socket nearest me first, but part of it was clogged with a bit of metal. Not giving it a second thought, I tried the second socket and I was in business.
We kept chatting about the virtues of visiting friends who live far away – especially when those kindhearted friends have serviceable couches – and then he decided he should really plus his machine in, too. Cue synchronous swells of guilt and victory in Julie’s soul. The other socket doesn’t work! But I was savvy and claimed the functional one first! Muahahaha! Oh, but I’m so sorry! Should I offer to unplug mine? Naaah, muuuuaahahahaha!
This inner neurotic festival of mine was cut short by the industrious mind of my companion.
“Huh, it looks like it’s got a bit of a broken off plus stuck in it.”
Julie, to herself: Darn tootin’! You’ve got to get up pretty early in the morning if you want to beat the fastest plug-in-er in the Midwest! Gosh I shouldn’t have taken the other outlet, you poor guy. SUCK IT, STRANGE MAN! I WIN THIS ROUND! I am so so sorry.
Julie, out loud: “Oh, yeah, it does.”
“I bet I can get it out.”
Not gonna lie, this floored me. I had taken the broken-ness of this outlet as a given. As if the jam had been installed with the plug itself. Get it out? Fix it? What? That was against the laws of physics. If this scene were a computer game, I’d already cruised my cursor over this wall without finding any sign of an interactive object, and here’s this new character who’s walked up to the same stretch of scenery and started finding knobs and levers and elevators inside it. It was just against all rationality and common sense.
Oh, my inflexible brain.
Sure enough, this young whippersnapper plucks a pair of tweezers from his duffle bag (apparently, he comes prepared for just such events as this) and proceeds to deftly grasp the obstruction and gently tug it out. As I cautioned him to, you know, not electrocute himself, he reminded me that he only had to avoid making a complete circuit between the two apertures of the socket – touching just one with his tweezers wouldn’t be cause for alarm. A second later I was staring at the extracted remains of a broken plug.
Maybe he was cut out for that engineering gig after all.
Then lo and behold, he plugged his computer right on into the wall and he was up and running.
I was pretty pleased with this bit of magic and basked in its occurrence for the next few minutes as we both sat, finally quietly engrossed in our own computers. I was reading a meta-analysis on the efficacy of using games as teaching tools – he was working on a dubious sounding “project” for a friend. When I asked about it, details were not forthcoming. One has to wonder – developing an illicit black market trade facilitation app for Andriod? porn compilation? rendering images of meticulous postmodern stamp collections? The possibilities are endless. I never did find out.
Now, what with the outlet stalking, outlet claiming, Midwest chit chat, outlet repair revelation, and mutual productivity, it wasn’t long until my own act in the cosmic Waiting drama was at an end. Turning off my computer, I collected my things.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, “I’m Julie, by the way.”
As he shook my hand, he replied, “Martin. And I was just going to say, ‘Goodbye, nameless stranger!'” I laughed, waved, and headed off for my train.
Really, it was a shame I introduced myself – what a wonderful way to part that would have been.