I know my role, and the others know theirs. We shuffle on stage and we are, if not comfortable, at least expert in our characterizations. We are consistent in our performances, and we never disappoint. All of us, we are naturals. We are on this stage so frequently, we know each other’s moves implicitly, and act accordingly. At once actors and audience, we provide the expected but also honor the illusion of the first time. Since we are an ensemble it is never clear if or when we are being observed individually: Are all eyes on me now, or on one of my fellows, or is the gaze of interest alternately shifting among us? We are equals, but occasionally one of us can be a star, if only for this specific show, or a specific set of moments in the show. It is, even so, a fleeting stardom, for when we leave the stage we are pretty much forgotten. It is something like “Grand Hotel” that we are putting on: People come and go, nothing ever happens. But, of course, it does.
I am about to board the bus, the one I take to work most days of the week, traveling from my home in the northwest sector of the city into the heart of town. A mere public conveyance, yes; but, even more, a moving theater, with all the men and women merely players. There is, really, no more placeless place than an empty municipal bus – featureless seats, bare metal bars, transparent walls, undistinguished materials, so typical and mundane as to be unnoticed – a people-moving tube. But, in another way, it is like any performing venue between shows, ghost light illuminating the emptiness, which comes alive when the actors arrive, move in their rehearsed ways and become the characters we will come to know them as.
Enter, me. The action is already begun. I have my role: I take an empty seat, if possible, or wordlessly show, through body language and facial expression, my unhappiness at having to share a two-seater with a stranger of dubious pedigree and quite apparent outsized bulk. In other words, he/she (and, sometimes, it is literally he/she) has two-thirds of the bench, I have the remaining third and my legs in the aisle. In this instance, my part is The Uncomfortable Guy, every part of me clenched. But, if I am lucky, or I am taking an earlier or later bus, or there is a school- and city-government-closing holiday, I can get a seat to myself: one indentation for me, the other for my tote, and I keep the sharers at bay, like sandbags holding back a flood. And I pursue my favored role: Observing Guy. With book or writing pad in hand, or just seeming to gaze out the window, I take note of the drama around me: sometimes Pinter, sometimes Mamet, occasionally Becket, rarely Neil Simon; Shakespeare is not in the repertoire. I like to think I am invisible, but of course I am not – I am a character in my play, and also one in everybody else’s, these overlapping life-plays where the dialogue is the same but the subtexts vary with each viewer. I am seated, positioned to observe – and under the cold, fluorescent white and blue lights, in line-of-sight of the mounted surveillance cameras, on this mobile thrust stage, the Play of Me begins.
Two rows ahead: Is that Sleeping Like the Dead Guy, or, given the crumpled nature of his body and the way his head bangs against the window with every bus bump, simply Dead Guy? But, several stops later, in a miraculous bit of Lazarus rising – his subconscious brain somehow aware of his whereabouts, like a somnolent GPS system – his arm lurches up, pulls the signal cord just in time, the bus halts, on cue he rockets from his seat and arrives at the back door just as it opens … and he is out and gone, sucked into the void like an air passenger through a depressurized hatch … a memorable exit. And, then, forgotten.
Spotlight hits and follows other action and players: the two Geek Girls, standing in the front, looking, it seems, to become good or better friends, trading and agreeing on opinions and biases, finding common ground, heartbreakingly sweet and innocent, as they stumble towards some sort of rapprochement leading to a form of intimacy; the Glaring Guy, who always goes to the very back of the bus, to the farthest corner, and hates; the fast-moving and -talking Twin Women, who look alike, speaking alike, come on the bus together but sit apart; Makeup Lady, who uses her time on the long nonstop express part of the journey to gaze into her compact mirror, work a brush through a palette of pink and “skin tone” cosmetic paints, and redo her face, making herself look gaudy and available, for someone; Drunk Guys, lots of them, fidgety and trying so hard to appear sober that they seem spastic and paranoid; Sightless Guy, a middle-age man who always takes the first seat behind the driver, flips open his cellphone and spends the ride shouting into the receiver, as if the person on the other end is deaf, or that, though he is the sightless one, by speaking loudly he can be seen; in smaller roles, the Day-Laborer Duo, the Dreadlocks Dude, the Father with Precocious Child, the Off-Duty Bus Driver Bumming a Ride. At night, when every ear is blocked by mobile phones or earbuds or giant headsets, and every face is illuminated by personal screens, the lot of us is tired, and those who aren’t are suspect, but none more so than Al Qaeda Guy, who has a cellphone in one hand, a suspicious bag in the other, he seems on edge and makes all the rest of us edgy, too – all of us victims in a post-9/11 world.
Every now and then, our traveling troupe arrives at a major intersection, or a transfer station, where other buses or trains intersect with our path … and, at those points, so many of our cast, featured performers and bit players and chorus, flow out into the wings of the world, and the next bundle of cast members – so many of them looking like stand-ins for those who just left – take their places, and, if they have lines, say them.
As we leave the highway for the inner parts of downtown, there is a strange switch, and it is we who become theatergoers as we look out the big bus windows at the people walking along the streets; they are oblivious to our stares, and so unguarded, in graceful or gangly motion, strutting or stumbling, moving in swirls or keeping their distances, all on missions – are they in the fishbowl, or are we?
And then it is my turn to leave my company of players and join those on the sidewalk. Observing Guy, who may, to others, be Observed Guy, puts away his implements of notation or distraction, rings for his stop, and, whether being watched or being ignored for the better performance of someone else, disembarks. And, from the curb, watches, with a certain sadness, a certain relief, as his placeless-made-placeness playhouse, and its current cast, rumble off, and Observer Guy becomes Just Another Guy on his way to work, and another role and performance, on another stage, until it is time to go home, and another curtain.