Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tales of Public Transportation

[UTA] I'm a big fan of TRAX; it gets me to and from work with very little muss or fuss. The daytime passengers tend to be suitably grimfaced and disinterested, so personal-space violations are less common than I expected at first. Occasionally I get a story out of it, too, with which to bore my co-workers, who have begun encouraging me instead to take it out on the Salt Blog.

The Greaser and the Wasp

One time a really interesting-looking 70-year-old guy got on at the 900 East platform. With his pompadour, leather jacket and harness boots, he looked like he'd been a greaser in the 1950s and had kept the faith ever since, never letting go even in the face of plastic, derivative revivals during the 1970s and '80s, surviving day by day until, now, he looked really cool again, and utterly authentic.

He sat down right in front of me, which I enjoyed because it meant I could admire his DA during the remainder of my trip. Suddenly, I noticed a wasp crawling on his jacket ... headed straight for the DA and the man's exposed neck! I didn't know what to do, so I said, "Pardon me, sir; there's a wasp on you." The man couldn't hear me because he was wearing earbuds (which many people find to be a good strategy for public transportation). I tapped him on the shoulder, tentatively so as not to anger the wasp, and repeated myself.

He looked at his watch and said, "It's 9:45."

"No, sir," I said, slowly and distinctly. "You. have. a. wasp. on. you!"

"Well, take it off me," he said, logically. I felt a bit foolish, reflecting that this did seem the most obvious course of action. Still, you don't want to be brushing wasps off strangers without permission, do you? It doesn't seem polite somehow, even though hardly anybody in their right mind wants a wasp on them.

(And how far can this rule of etiquette, if it is one, be carried? What if, instead of a wasp, it is a deadly brown recluse spider? Are you allowed to kill or otherwise disable it without asking first? I know from Indiana Jones-type movies that, any time you see a cobra preparing to strike some heedless victim, you can go right ahead and shoot it, no questions asked.)

But, now that I had alerted the man, and he said, "Well, take it off me," the wasp suddenly became my problem.

"Well, take it off me," he said, logically. I felt a bit foolish, reflecting that this did seem the most obvious course of action.

I tried flapping my hand at it, the way you do with bugs that are actually afraid of humans, like flies and mosquitos. This never works with wasps. It only alerts the wasp to the fact that you are challenging it, upon which it turns to face you, warily sizing you up, eyes narrowed, one eyebrow cocked.

A wasp doesn't consider you much of a challenge until you demonstrate that you're brave enough to touch it--which of course, most of us are loath to do. However, to avoid angering the wasp, you must also not seem like an attacker. Wasps can sense your thoughts and intentions, so you have to be sort of casual and offhand about it : "La la la--whoops! Oh, I see that, while flapping my hands about for an unrelated reason, I have just touched a wasp, even though I meant no harm by it. How do you like that?"

So, it's something of a delicate matter. In a wasp-on-a-guy's-jacket situation, you really have to sort of wrangle it off. You steel your nerves, brush that wasp off the guy's jacket and suddenly there's an intense, adrenaline-shot moment when you hear the wasp buzzing angrily and feel its wings beating against the tips of your ring- and middle fingers and wonder if you've miscalculated and will accidentally capture the wasp instead of dislodging it--or, gods forbid, crush it between your fingers--and if the next sensation you feel will be its sharp, venomous sting.

But the wasp flew away sulkily and the man with the DA seemed utterly oblivious to the whole thing. I'm not sure what I expected him to say--"Well, what a helpful stranger you are, brushing that wasp off me like that! And brave, too! There certainly aren't many people in the world as helpful and brave as you are! So, tell me: Do you like my DA?"--no, not that, but some offer of acknowledgment, surely.

But I wasn't disappointed, really. In a strange way, the omission was touching--his trust in me was so implicit that, as far as he was concerned, his involvement in the entire transaction ended once he said, "Well, take it off me."

(Brandon Burt)


  1. When I was in Russia, we were waiting in line for food, and a lady had a bug of some sort in her. She was on her phone when we noticed as well. That was difficult to let her know, as we had no idea how to tell her in Russian, plus we weren't sure how she would react to us being tourists as well.

  2. I wish you had killed that wasp. I ride a motorcycle and have been stung four times this far this summer, on the face!

    I smash yellow jackets at every opportunity. I'm a killer.

    Lauralee, everybody hates tourists. Tourists hate tourists. Don't worry about it.

  3. My favorite TRAX story was the woman who got on the train and started singing, "I Love To See The Temple" at the top of her lungs. My fellow trainmates and I all all looked around warily (as people on trains do) to determine the source of her odd behavior, a thing we were unable to find. Instead we looked warily into each others faces to find ourselves validated by the bemused/confused/annoyed feeling we were all sharing.


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