On my short commute to and from work, my regular train makes a stop at Temple University. Temple is the alma mater of several prominent members of the local and national media, as well as many respected individuals who have contributed to the fields of literature, art and entertainment. Oh, and Bill Cosby.
Usually, I occupy my time on the train by reading, being one of only a handful of commuters reading from a book that has actual pages and a cover. However, when I am between books or if I had a particularly trying day at work, I doze - careful not to allow myself to fall into a deep slumber, as my trip home lasts a mere 25 minutes.
Yesterday was one of my "in between books" days, so once securing a seat after boarding at Suburban Station, I closed my eyes. I remained aware enough to count the four stops until we arrived at the station in my neighborhood. More passengers boarded at Market East Station and the train lumbered out of a tunnel towards Temple.
Without opening my eyes, I could tell when the train entered Temple Station. Considering that Temple is a renowned institute of higher learning, handing out countless undergraduate and graduate degrees, I would be hard pressed to find a single student — over the course of its 128 years of existence — to have earned credits in personal hygiene. I draw my conclusion from the unmistakable aroma that instantly fills the train car when the backpack and book-toting students file in. One does not need to raise an eyelid to know you've reached Temple, you need only to inhale the fermented mingling of sweat, tobacco and hormones wafting throughout the vehicle. As one young adult body pushes up against another as the train fills, the air is heavy with the stench of unwashed laundry and stale breath. It makes for a lovely and memorable ride home.
So, I'm already uncomfortable as I wedged the knuckles of my right hand under my nose in a futile effort to block my already violated nostrils. The doors slide shut and, as the train pulls away from the platform, a young couple take up temporary standing residence just inches from my seat. As they began to converse, I noticed something odd. They were in such close proximity, that I had no choice but to overhear their verbal exchange, but something was not right. I thought maybe a glob of earwax had dislodged and was preventing me from hearing clearly. I quickly and discreetly jiggled my pinky inside my ear canal. Nope. No help. The voice still sounded weird — flat and alien, with no discernible words.
Then I realized it wasn't me, it was actually the way the young lady was speaking. Her voice was a tone, not a voice at all. It was a single, unwavering monotone. She was just making noise. White noise — the echo-y sound a radio makes when it's not tuned correctly to a station. She sounded like the unseen adults in the old Charlie Brown holiday cartoons... that "wahwahwahwah" that made us laugh as children. I stared. I was dumbfounded. I could not believe my eyes... I mean my ears. She was forming no intelligible language, yet her traveling companion hung on to everything that came from her mouth, as though she were imparting the wisdom of the ages. Then again, he didn't look like he was in any great rush to split the atom.
How could she carry on a conversation? How could her professors understand her? How could she tell a story or ask for directions or be interviewed for a job or..... or.... or.......
The train pulled up at my stop. I got off and walked home.