On Hope, and the capacity of public transportation to evoke said delicate feeling

Public transportation calls forth the spirit of hope in even in the most unfazed, unimpressable, starchily dignified or crisply hip urbanite. I know this because every morning for nearly an hour I ride the Madrid metro system, and every morning I see physical evidence of man’s abiding need to believe in a brighter future.

The Nuñez de Balboa station at 8 a.m. is populated by a widely variant cross section of humanity. Bored looking middle aged women do their makeup in the reflective glass that protects the giant plans of the city; distracted mothers grip tight to the hands of restive toddlers; grandfathers in cardigans and ties with necks turtled down into their collars peruse the many news rags circulated in Madrid at daybreak while businessmen wearing sharp looking suits tote leather laptop cases along with their air of causal superiority. They are all walking, all wide-eyed, all glazed, all absent. Their minds still hover somewhere between goosedown pillows and the first cup of coffee. Together they drift towards the platforms that will bring them to a fast underground train poised to shoot them out into subterranean warrens of concrete and steel closest to their destinations. They are bored an inattentive; they are alive but barely aware.

But then something changes.

The moment it arrives within earshot of a metro, the lazy channel of humanity surges into life and any vestige of the former downtroddenness, boredom or disinterest is swiped away by a clean, bright swath of that which springs eternal: hope. Slick young men in tailored suits dash pell-mell down subterranean hallways, exposing white socks with black shoes and dropping pockets full of Pez; wizened women with canes accelerate to a focused and threatening ramming speed; mothers with tiny, tardy children swoop them up off the ground and sprint, child gripped to hip, down the stairs where they will all, hopefully, plunge through the doors of the next fast train to somewhere just before the shrill blast of a whistle signals the door sliding immitigably closed.

But here is something that each and every turtled grandfather, slick young businessmen, weary mother and stylish Spanish woman knows: if you are close enough to hear the metro thrusting through the tunnel and anywhere but embarking upon the second or third stair down, nine times out of ten, you will miss it. You will tear through the hallways and juggernaut down the stairs, push past the weaker, slower, or miraculously unhurried ones to arrive at the platform just as the doors have sealed shut or in perfect time to hear the accelerating “chug—-chug—chug–chug-chug.chug.chug.chug.chug” and watch through the windows as the oilpaint faces of the lucky ones who made the train whiz by in an ever quickening current of indistinct color.

The people who are too far away to hear the metro, my expectant companions in faith and suspension of disbelief, also know. These people cannot hear the train. They cannot feel the hallways or the stair rails atremble, heralding the metro’s imminent arrival. They are still at least 6 minutes’ rush away from their respective platforms–and yet!–and yet they run. They run for an imaginary good they hope, and blindly expect, will be there when their rush is over as a reward for their hard work at arriving as quickly as possible. Their effort is, when regarded logically and from a distance, nothing short of ludicrous. Nine times out of ten they will rush and the train will not be there. The definition of insanity is committing the exact same act and expecting a different result. Nine times out of ten the sprinting businessman, the pierced punk, the old woman, will miss the train to which they run. Nine times out of ten they will, despite so much care, be required to sit and sigh and wait.

Perhaps, clinically defined, their hope would qualify them as insane; but there is something delicate, something beautiful, something that bears testimony to the human spirit and ever-present hope for a brighter future in this psychotic, subterranean scuffle. And there is something almost religious in the unconditional, blind faith placed in the metro’s projected presence. There is something devout in the single-minded belief that earnest hard work in the form of fast walking and strategic weaving will ensure something closer to a fixed, definite heaven than the transient limbo they’re in now.

And so they run. And they pant. Fat men get sweaty and children scream as their parents drag them down the hallway toward a metro that may or may not be there to take them to their doctor’s appointment or school or grandma’s house or home. And this is unifying–especially when you spill onto the platform in the midst of a large, unfortunate, panting crowd to a platform in perfect time for nothing but to witness taillights receding into a dark tunnel. This is when you look around, exchange a weary, slightly embarrassed shrug with the people panting beside you, wipe your upper lip and resign yourself to leaning against the wall and waiting six minutes for the next metro to churn through. There is something unifying in what everyone knows is most likely a futile attempt at actualizing a dream, and something beautiful in failing together and knowing that, regardless of how many times this happens, you’ll do it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And you’re insane. And you’re hopeful. And you’re wonderfully, undignifiedly, undeniably human.


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