Degrees of Similarity

Where will I sit?

I lurch down the bus aisle, hoping to find a place to park my butt before I land on it. Where will I sit?

A glance shows me there are no empty rows, so that’s out. Now I have a new question: Who will I sit with?

I scan my options.

There’s the middle-aged white woman with frizzy hair and shopping bags, who look as if she wants to talk. Maybe not.

There’s the 20-something bleached blonde with nose ring, Goth eye make-up, short shorts, and a tattoo on her thigh: Though she be small, she is fierce.  I think not.

There’s the old Asian guy, talking to himself or, maybe, to the mother ship. Definitely not.

There’s the dark-eyed, dark-haired, dark-skinned, 30-ish loner guy, brooding over unnamed crimes. Pretty sure I’d be an imposition. Pretty sure anyone would be.

There are the young lovers, entangled on the mid-bus sideways seats. There’s room to sneak in there, but there’s no emotional space left on that bench.

There’s the old Chinese woman in an old-fashioned head scarf, staring impassively, nay, grimly, straight ahead. Next.

There are the three skinny black teens, one each in each of the next three rows, long legs sticking out into the aisle. Are they together? I can’t tell. Lost in their smartphone screens, refusing to make eye contact, their body language is clear enough: “Don’t come in here, lady.” I hear ya.

There’s the guy with close-cropped hair, now going seriously grey, who smiles at every approaching female. Is he a friendly person, a guy on the make, or an off-duty axe-murderer?  Yikes.

And there’s the vaguely Middle Eastern woman in a designer-scarf hijab, skin-tight blue jeans, bling sandals with heels, and expensive sunny-day glasses, staring resolutely out the window. Not welcoming, but not overtly hostile.

I will sit here.

As I settle in, carefully avoiding any thigh-to-thigh contact with this stranger, I think about my selection criteria.  After several such trips in the last several weeks, several such decisions, I think I now know what I’m looking for, even though the decision process is too quick to be entirely conscious: I’m looking for someone like me.

Someone my gender. Or my age. Or my ethnic group. Or in my style of dress. Or of my white-collar occupation. Or with my level of hygiene. Or with my superficial degree of mental health (I may talk to myself, but I notice when I do). Or with my general world view (I’m not all saintly acceptance, but I’m not pissed off all the time, either).

I note that, given the choice, I choose a woman, not a man: not wanting to be seen as inviting anything. That’s a rule going back to my teen years.  (Of course, at my age, the emphasis has shifted a bit: Now I don’t want to be seen as thinking I’m inviting. Sigh.)

But there’s more. Given the choice, I choose a woman close to my own age, not a kid. A reasonably happy looking woman, but one who also looks as if she’s happy not to talk.  A white woman, not a woman of colour. A woman of colour with her hair showing, not a woman of colour in a hijab.

Such, it seems, is my subconscious calculation of the degrees of similarity. I’m not saying it’s good, I’m just noting what it is. I feel a little bad.

Then I consider again. Over the last several weeks, I have observed others boarding the bus, seeming to pose and answer the same question: Who will I sit with? Eyes darting, they seem to be looking for something, too.

Folks with sleeve tattoos blow right past little old me and choose a seatmate with multi-coloured hair. Black and brown people somehow end up in the same row. Chatty middle-aged white women sit side by each.

Age. Colour. Gender. Lifestyle. The basis of the choice, the order of the factors, must vary by person, of course, but I don’t think I’m imagining the calculation: “Who is most like me?”

But as the bus fills up, as the options narrow, a seat — any seat — is at a premium. Now the calculations change: restricted choice makes everyone freer, oddly enough. Now the choice of seat implies no invitation, of any sort. Now it says nothing about perceived or assumed similarities.

And so Goths sit silently next to mah-jong fanatics.  Spiked hair sits beside sweater sets. Men and women, strangers to each other, share seats almost unselfconsciously. Square white female seniors (ahem) and cool black male students sit together, staring impassively — yet not quite grimly — straight ahead.

We may not be the same, we may not even be as similar as we could sometimes want, but when we’re on the bus, at least we’re all in the same boat.


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6 Responses to Degrees of Similarity

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Very interesting analysis, Isabel. In spite of our desire to be otherwise, we still prefer someone of our own “tribe,” however it is we define tribe at that given moment.

    Reminds me of a flight we took last December. For reasons of weather we were late leaving the airport in Toronto. Finally we boarded. In due course, an airline hostess came to the person in the aisle seat four rows ahead and asked to see his boarding pass. She remarked, “Well, you’re obviously not Mohammed…” I didn’t catch the last name. She then went to the microphone and said, “Would passenger Mohammed…please identify himself.” No takers.

    Next thing I see the baggage all being taken from the plane. Further delay.

    Had she said, “Would passenger John Jones please identify himself,” I would have thought nothing of it, but the name Mohammed coupled with no one identifying himself, and baggage being unloaded…well, you get the drift.

    I didn’t like the unsettled feelings I had but I did have them.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Tribe runs deep in our psyches, I think (maybe linked to survival rewards?), but it isn’t necessarily nice to find it in me. On the other hand, I find it interesting and hope-inspiring that my definition of that tribe is fluid, at least to some extent. And in terms of bringing my actions and reactions under the control of my better self, the first step is being aware of what any of my selves are doing.

      • Here’s your/my problem on the bus. My sister, after she’d been here almost two weeks and met our friends, said, “You have such lovely friends — no riffraff.” A big tribe on the bus per that definition.

        Years ago, for many years, there was a lovely woman, a “real lady”, almost regal, well dressed, coiffed, and very beautiful even at her advanced age (70++) who often rode the same bus I did on Friday going home from my downtown day off. She always sat on a sideways seat; her beautiful profile available to me. To get one of her smiles was to have a life.

        Every time I saw her I wanted to talk to her, and finally did. She was so the opposite of riffraff…educated, well-spoken, kind, pleasant, funny, Isabellish, actually.

        Then, I never saw her again.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – There are certainly some raffish folks on the bus, but there are many, many more who are just not me. I find that I talk to more kinds of people on the street or in an elevator or store than I will choose to sit beside, which seems kinda odd. As I wiggled my way off the (packed) bus on Friday, a woman right behind me laughed and said, “Escaped!” or somesuch. We had a nice conversation until our paths home diverged. She was young, brown, and wore a hijab. Maybe there’s room for an annual “Sit beside somebody strange to you” week on the bus. Who knows where it might lead? P.S. Thanks for the Isabellish!

          • Yes — good idea — as fear of the “other” increases exponentially it seems.
            I actually make a point of talking to my young seat companions (on the bus or while waiting for it) who, are more often than not, very good/interesting company… once they put down their phones.

          • Isabel Gibson says:

            Barbara – We’ll need calling cards to hand out . . .

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