ON THE TRAIN
The train was only slightly crowded. Most people got off at the next stop. We shifted in our seats to assure a more comfortable ride. Two young men remained on the long bench across from us, one at each end. At the next stop an older man got on. He sat right next to the young man on the left. I mean, right next to. And, as he was sitting down, with some difficulty, he put his hand on the younger man’s knee to steady himself, and kept it there for a long moment. The young man didn’t even notice. My eyebrows raised. They sat there squished into a corner, while the rest of the bench was empty, except for the guy at the very end, who eventually got off, but only after several stops. Only at that point did the two men shift a little. And I mean a little. My eyebrows were still raised.
AT THE PHARMACY
It’s a very small shop, as are most. But a little “fancier” in that the shelves are orderly, relatively, the men all wear the same uniform shirt, and you receive a computerized receipt. Although each transaction also gets recorded by hand in a large ledger: date, receipt number, customer name (Jerri was enough), amount. There are eight men working in this tiny store, all talking simultaneously: on the phone, with customers, or amongst themselves.
We are three customers standing at the narrow counter, in various stages of completion… or not. I’m at the far left, near a wall lined with shelves. I pull out my wallet and am counting out my money. Quite suddenly, a large bare foot appears on the counter to my right. It belongs to one of the uniformed shirts. He simply walks across the counter, steps over my hands and wallet, makes one more step and then, with incredible agility, climbs the horizontal shelving to reach the top shelf. He is all arms and legs. After retrieving the desired item, he climbs back down, does a squeaky pirouette, walks back down the counter, stepping over each customers’ hands, and hops off. I failed to mention that the counter was also filled with various bottles, lip balms, creams, tubes, and other unidentified objects. None were disturbed by the invader. Nor was anyone else for that matter. I seemed to be the only one who noticed this peculiar dance. I was in such shock that all I could do was follow the bare feet in their careful choreography and do everything I could to stifle a snort and go into hysterics.
MAX TELLS THIS STORY
He was standing, waiting at a bus stop, on the outskirts of Mumbai. On this particular occasion, the area happened to be deserted a very rare occasion in India. Eventually, a man is seen coming over the horizon and arrives at the bus stop. He places himself right next to Max. I mean, right next. Max shifts slightly, to provide some personal space for himself. The man moves over as well. The dance is repeated. Max gives up.
ON A VERY, VERY CROWDED TRAIN
“Can of sardines.” A meaningless metaphor until you’ve experienced a very very crowded train in Kolkata. It didn’t seem like rush hour, 3:30 in the afternoon, but I suppose rush hour could be any time. I’ve never experienced such a crush. There’s no letting people off before getting on – it’s a mad push/pull. You simply push the person ahead of you as someone pushes you. Alan and I somehow managed to stay not only within sight of each other, but next to each other, our respective bags firmly in front of us, vigilant of pickpockets. The air was hot, although fans and an A/C were churning – made little difference as everyone was sweating. With difficulty I managed to pull my bandana out of my bag to wipe the sweat from my face. I hate the sticky salty feeling of sweat. It makes me itch and I start to squirm. No space to squirm, so I try to bear it as best as possible.
The train eases into the next stop. There’s hope. Instead, there’s a crushing exchange of bodies – a few out, others, more, in. Oy! I scream: “People, there’s no more room!” No one hears me. The words are all in my head. More sweat. I think, what if I can’t get out for hours. What if I get nauseous and need to throw up. What if I need to pee.
It’s at that moment that I get that uncomfortable fantasy that haunts me from time to time (fortunately, it’s now only occasional.) I imagine a cattle car, 1940’s Czechoslovakia, heading north into Germany, people standing, stacked like “a can of sardines.” They need to pee, they’re hungry, sweating. Some pass out, but don’t fall down because there’s no room. They just keep standing. Some die.
The sweat is intolerable. The train slows down. Alan turns his head, motioning it’s time to move out. A small young woman is crawling under my arm, pulled by her male partner. I let her squirm next to me. She’s wearing something that sparkles. The doors open. I put both hands squarely on Alan’s back & push hard. The young man pulls his small partner. Someone pushes me. We’re a unified mass of sweat, bulk and strength. Our opponents think they can outdo us, but we’re on a nobler mission. They simply want in, but secretly know that they need to let us out first. Us, we seek fresh air, personal space.
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