It's a unique experience; full of surprises. For one, the movies are wrong: bus riders do NOT sing "The Wheels On The Bus" or "Hail To The Bus Driver" as they merrily commute. No, instead they just sit there with sad little looks on their faces. Most of them hide their eyes behind sunglasses, even when it's cloudy, or bury their noses in books, or block out attempts at conversation by sticking earbuds in their ears. And judging from the bass rhythm which seeps out, they're not listening to "The Wheels On The Bus."
I, too, am guilty of plugging my ears with the tunes I've placed on my newly purchased iPod Shuffle. But I've made a concerted effort to remove my sunglasses when I'm not facing the sun.
For those of you who don't take the bus, there is an unwritten seating protocol once you board. If there is one other passenger on the bus and he's in a 2 person bench, it's very bad form (unless you know the person) to sit in the other seat on that bench. Instead, you are expected to uphold a certain symmetry by sitting on the opposite side of the bus an approximately equidistant (fig. 1) measurement from the back of the bus as the other passenger is from the front of the bus, or vice versa.
When the bus is more full but some benches are still empty, you should always leave an empty bench in between you and the next person in front of you (fig.2). This is because your comfort zone, or personal body space, is based on what you see in front of you. Additionally, this sends a message to the other passengers, "I don't want to be here any more than you do, so let's just agree to leave each other alone and hope this ends soon." It is irrelevant that your choice of seat intrudes upon the same personal body space of the person behind you; at this point as a bus gains passengers, there is no alternative. Body space will be intruded upon; it is only a matter of time now.
Now, we start to reach the area of most concern: the seats are mostly full, and strangers have to start to double up. You can see it on the faces of people as they board a near-capacity bus: "Who's not going to talk to me? Who's safe? Who looks too intimidating or is likely to smell funny?" They scan the other passengers and make a decision.
Once you've made a decision, it's unacceptable to change your mind, unless one of the following conditions is met:
- You see somebody you know, seated alone, and move to sit with that person
- An entire 2-person bench opens up
I must emit some kind of uninviting aura, and I'm not sure how to feel about it. For inevitably, the new passengers on the bus will sit with anybody else before they resign to the only available seat left and sit with me (fig.3).
Buses are great places to find masters of body language. If somebody seated in a window seat wishes to disembark but is blocked by his seat buddy, all he has to do is put his book away, fold up his newspaper, cap his beverage, adjust his coat, or some other subtle sign indicating, "I'm ready to end the charade of community and take my leave from this dismal conveyance." The supreme masters can do it with a slight tilt of the head; the occasional-riders have to the pull the 'stop request' cord, even if it's already been pulled. You know a total newbie when he turns to you, takes his earbuds out, and uses words to the effect of, "Excuse me please, this is my stop."
Whatever the method, once you've indicated that you need to leave, you are usually on a bus so crowded that people are standing in the aisles (fig.4). The horde responds quite adeptly to a passenger making his way to an exit; it's a grand demonstration of a collective, although silent, sigh of relief: "Thank goodness! One less person to tolerate."
Yes, taking the bus is a real adventure in sociology and psychology.
Plus, I can listen to a whole lot of music.