.

 

Pulling back teeth

Notes on a big happy smile.

Chicago airport.

We smile more than you might think. Walking down the street you see thousands of smiles, small. They are a way of saying: I am not a threat. I am in your way but I don't mean any harm. I am bumping against you on the subway but I don't want to hurt you. We could be friends. It's a meaningless gesture. How is it that pulling back lips is peaceful, inviting? But there it is.

The other is not smiling at me; they are protecting themselves, sending a signal. Flesh and muscle move, chemicals are released the turnstile turns. I am on the escalator towards the subway station. I'm out in New York feeling kind of vague.

Humans are at their worst when in their cars. Culture falls away. Cars are bones that we can use to beat others. Any displeasure behind the windshield is transformed into burning rage. I've seen friends drive 200 uninterrupted miles at 65 miles an hour and then they come to traffic. After twenty minutes they go mad; they begin to scream and strike the steering wheel and sneer. The air conditioning is on, the iPod is patched through the stereo to provide even more choice, but the very fact that they are in this pile of moving bones but not able to move forward sends them into animal rage; they want to smash heads and suck out the brains.

At night if I leave the windows open people with expensive stereos drive by and their cars leak bass; the cars throb slowly down the block, slowly enough to make sure that everyone can hear. I remember driving with a friend when I was sixteen, going through the suburbs where he lived, and screaming as loudly as we could out the window--let them hear us moving, let them hear our dopplering voices as we moved down the street. It was urgent to be recognized.

This sense of people-as-animals is not always there. It fades and I go back to seeing people, minds piled high with culture. Smiles return to being smiles rather than significant grimaces. I smile back unafraid. Although when I am seeing people as animals I actually see them. Normally strangers are just silhouettes. Last week I sat on the train next to a coworker and said her name two or three times but she didn't see me. I was curious to see how long it would take her to notice me, so I did not wave my arms. Finally she got off the train at her stop and never realized I was three feet away. Other people are a sea of outlines, and it's a rare shape that rises out of the sea. The woman screaming at a man in a cab; the loudly begging panhandler; the drunk; the police car with sirens running; the extremely attractive well-dressed person. Not me: I am an observing silhouette emerging from an office doorway on my way somewhere else.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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