Column, Features

A Letter of Recommendation: Travel Without Headphones

I turned around and gave my quaint room on Upper Campus one last look before I lugged my overpacked suitcase out the door and began my trek down to Conte Forum—the only place that buses were running from on the very last day of exams before winter break. Between my backpack, rolling luggage, books I couldn’t fit in my bag, and the extra jacket that I couldn’t bear to leave behind slung over my arm, I was positively struggling to make it down Beacon Street.

I grumbled every time my suitcase hit a crack in the sidewalk and bounced, causing me to stop and adjust its position on the ground. I watched with envy as cars flew past me. At my mother’s urging, I was taking the Boston College bus to the D-line, then to the Silver-line, before getting on an airplane shuttle to arrive at my terminal while avoiding the threat of a dangerous Uber driver.  

I love to go to new places, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve never enjoyed what you have to do to get there. On family vacations, my brother would forge ahead in crowded subways, leading the way and breathing in the excited rush of people running to catch their trains. I, on the other hand, dreamt of air-conditioned cars without strangers pressed against me, not feeling like I needed to guard my bag with my life.

Normally I would throw in my headphones, pull up my Spotify playlist, and pretend that I didn’t see anyone sitting on the very crowded T car around me. I’m content to disappear into my own little world, leaving everyone around me in theirs as we left the station together. Of course, finding myself in the frigid climate of beautiful Chestnut Hill, Mass., I couldn’t manage to hold my phone in my hand, never mind plug in the wire to my headphones while balancing a bag packed full with my entire existence. I felt fully exposed, unable to put up a tiny barrier to stop anyone from approaching me.  

The shuttle pulled up to the Reservoir stop, and I dragged my suitcase out the door behind me. I eyed the stairs with apprehension—my bag had not gotten easier to carry. I took a deep breath and started to walk toward the top, seeing visions of myself tumbling down to the bottom with my ridiculously heavy bag. The small woman standing next to me must have noticed, because she motioned to the side, where I saw a ramp that I had never noticed before leading right down to the tracks. I thanked her profusely, and marveled at my good luck that I was able to hear her helpful words.

At the bottom, I saw the woman again, greeting her with a smile to thank her for her suggestion. When the train pulled in, I lifted my bag, and made it to the first step up before I couldn’t lift it any higher. The conductor saw me and took pity, telling me to let go. I made some stubborn excuse, saying that I could get it in when I clearly could not.

“I know. I know,” the conductor said. “You’re strong and independent and everything.”

I laughed a little and took the first available seat, in view of the conductor if he pulled the curtain back.  

“So where are you headed to?” He looked at me expectantly.

“New York.”

He proceeded to ask me where in the state I was from. When I responded “Long Island” he laughed and asked if I had a silver spoon in my pocket. He went on to ask if I had a boyfriend (“you better not until you graduate!”), where I go to school, what my major is, and if I had a good GPA. When I responded, he followed up by informing me that being average is not good enough if I want to be successful. He said he hoped I had over a 3.6 so that employers would come running after me when I graduate. I forced a smile, desperately wishing that I was listening to something else, that I had chosen a different seat so that I didn’t have to make small talk with someone so interested in commenting on my life.

I looked across at the couple sitting with what looked like their grandson and shrugged. They gave me a half smile back and then diverted theirs eyes downward, unwilling to engage in the conversation we were having. I thought that after the first round of questioning we were done, but the conductor switched gears, and began giving advice.

I learned that Boston is a surprisingly small city, and what “they don’t tell anyone” is how important it is to have connections.

“People say ‘I know,’ they don’t say ‘I am,’” he said about people who name-drop to get ahead.

He told me to not give anyone anything to say about me. If they don’t know my name, I have nothing to worry about. He turned every once in a while and smiled at me while he spoke, his eyes twinkling as though he was letting me in on a secret that no one else knew.  

He asked me my name later, and I replied that I thought he told me not to tell anyone so I could avoid being the subject of gossip. He laughed, happy to see I was learning.  

He asked me about my parents, how long I would be home, and which train line I was going to take to transfer. He told me about his own wasted time at UMass Boston, and the regret he has for not taking advantage of his college years. Despite his personal questions, I started to feel grateful for his interest. Whether he was just passing the time because someone sat near him, or wanted to impart his hard-earned wisdom on somebody he thought could use it, he had shown an interest in my plans and my life—being a first semester freshman on my way home from a long four months, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. After being surrounded by the picturesque buildings of BC for so long, and the seemingly perfect people they housed, it was cool to talk to someone so far removed from its culture. Almost every person that I interact with is, in some way, affiliated with BC. My roommates, my friends, my professors, even the dining hall employees are all a part of, and thus influenced by, this unique college atmosphere. I rarely spoke to someone who wasn’t. The change in atmosphere was refreshing, to say the least.

When I got to the airport, I saw that everyone was talking on the phone, buried in their laptops, or plugged in, just as I had wished I was on the train. I wondered about the last time I had had a long conversation with a complete stranger, and realized that I couldn’t recall. Why is it that the more we’re connected, the less we really hear each other? We see people in the Quad and ask how they are, but barely pause long enough to hear their response before rushing off, phone in hand. People sit in class, surrounded by interesting students and brilliant professors, but barely hear the words being spoken because the text messages on their laptops are too hard to resist.

I’m not pretending to have seen the light—my life isn’t changed forever. I still listen to music on occasion while I’m out and about, and I don’t strike up a conversation with every person I pass on the street. I spent time over break traveling in my car instead of the train.

In fact, when I returned back from break, I decided to risk the Uber and avoid the long journey back on the T. When I got in, my driver asked how I was doing. I replied that I was good, and asked how his night was going. He seemed surprised, and thanked me several times for asking.

Maybe it’s not like our moms always said—maybe talking to strangers isn’t so bad after all.

Featured Image by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor

January 21, 2018

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