Watching how people behave when boarding and offloading from a bus set off the spark of an idea in my mind today. It is a mundane moment, and it repeats every moment around the world on trains, planes, buses, trolleys, boats, and nearly any other mass transportation system invented thus far. That sort of moment is very popular, creatively. Filmmakers use it to highlight transitions, authors use it to portrary a fluid, chaotic situation for characters to disappear into – the imagery of seas and schools of fish, herds and flocks seems to lurk verbally around the corner, if not leaping before your eyes as a reader or critic.
What struck me, tonight, looking at the people as they milled about towards their various destinations, was how much you can learn about a person at such a moment. Perhaps it is not something that others find noteworthy – I tend to get hung up on details that should pass withouth much comment. The part that was most intriguing was the way that some people stayed in a clump of friends, even if they did not board all together at the start; others were coupled with the person they shared a seat with, planned or unplanned; most others zipped off like extras on the set of a movie that called for extra-busy pedestrians with no particular destination.
I think that part of the reason why the motif of a milling crowd is so powerful is, at least on some level, the fact that it represents people who were previously “aligned.” In the case of bus riders or those on a train, they are literally lined up in one direction, or bands of a particular direction, as though they were human representations of magnetic forces all being pulled in the same direction. This is as true for prehistoric processions and caravans of people as it is for riders on a sleek bullet train. At the moment of embarkation, though, those same people were individuals, chaotic, moving around with the potential to be any sort of crowd or to remain an aggregate of individuals and small groups. Upon disembarkation, that orderly line of people and their things returns to a state of near infinite potential.
Out of those moments of potential can come a dramatic reunion, a chance encounter, a fateful meeting. A crowd can flee a disaster, or become unwitting pawns of viral marketers. Few other circumstances besides transportation and mass, synchronized movements can offer quite that same opportunity for a writer, filmmaker, or anyone who finds themselves desiring of orchestrating human interactions. Maybe on the next time that you are able to take a moment getting in or on, out or off of a line of people in transit, look at the hundreds of stories all unfolding about you and enjoy the complexity of our lives.