The other day, just as the door was about to close on a crowded elevator, a couple elbowed their way in. No one spoke but them. They were apparently trying to rent an apartment and the woman told the man what had happened that day. She said a landlord had asked $650 and she countered with $400. Then the door opened and they got out.
The rest of us got out too. We didn't talk to one another, but we all knew what we were thinking. So what happened? Did the landlord come down in his price? Did they rent the apartment? The nerve of them letting us in for a bit of the story and not the end. They had some sort of obligation to tell us what happened.
I thought that little episode was emblematic of so much that happens in life -- my life, at least. I want to know something more about the people who css my path, the fragments of conversation I pick up. Who are the people in the elevators, especially the people I see almost daily at work? What do they do? Where do they live? What are their lives like?
Take, for instance, the people I see jogging. I see them almost daily. We nod to one another as we go by, sometimes saying "hi," never anything more. But who is that guy who always runs in a sweatsuit and knit cap even in the hot weather? What's his story? Why does he dress that way? And who is the old man who runs ever so slowly? Has he always been a runner? Is he running to stay in shape or to get into shape -- chasing the fountain of youth?
How about the woman who runs every day with a package under her arm? What's in it?
The same thing happens to me on the subway. I see the same people day after day and I wonder about them. Who is the heavily made-up woman who looks like she just danced out of a Carmen Miranda film? What does she do? Where is she going? How about the man I think I know from somewhere? Do I really know him from somewhere or do I know him from just seeing him on the train?
Who is the guy who walks around my neighborhood in shorts and a Sony Walkman picking up trash? Is he nuts, or is he just civic-minded? What about the guy who always says hello to me when we meet in the garage across the street from where I work? Do I know him? Does he think he knows me? What's the story?
I wish sometimes people wore name tags with something about them on it. Maybe someone in the elevator would have a tag saying, "Marcia Smith, Sixth Floor, Accountant." I mean, we all stand in the elevators, thinking our thoughts which are very often about one another, and we say nothing. Say, Marcia Smith, what's your life like? Are you happy? Is your kid worrying you to death? Is your husband playing around and have you forgotten to call your mother? Are your troubles like my troubles?
Sometimes I go to the window and look at the office building across the street. I see people sitting at their desks. Sometimes they are reading, sometimes they are talking on the phone. Occasionally they are with someone else. I wonder what they do and how they do it.
If you tour a factory, you can see what people are doing. If you pass a construction site, you can see what jobs are being done. If you look into an office building, though, you can't tell anything. What's the job? What's the product? Come on, guys, let me in.
I know, of course, all this inquiry is futile. Even when people say "How are you?" in the elevator, it's not a question, but a Pavlovian response to another person. I am tempted sometimes to say, "Lousy. I'm glad you asked. My work's been tough. My writing's not sharp. Let's talk about it." I don't do that, though, because I don't want it done to me. I don't have the time, sometimes the interest, to listen.
Still, give me a little -- connect a bit. We run together. We commute together. We take the same elevators. We're not strangers, not really. We share some of the same experiences. Who are you? What do you do?
And did you get the apartment?