photo-1Shoulder to Shoulder Around the Fire by Rogue Valley

It’s a game to play – like sampling pickled fish and buttered breads at a smörgåsbord – this trying on the shoulders of fellow train riders to conjure up a sense of community. Walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand their plight, but sit in their posture to feel their soul, leastways their mood du jour. Train our shoulders – transform our perspectives.


Shoulders nudge, jostle, barge up the escalator as the train whistles its arrival. I stride onto the platform and through the train door, shoulders squared. Seated by the window, poised behind sunglasses, my eyes and imagination feel empowered to wander. The train lurches, and a stooped woman in a cardigan – burnt orange coming unraveled – stumbles in her treadless soles, nothing to stop her slide. Her hand grabs a pole just in time as she flops into a seat. The flop snaps her head down, and her eyes catch the tip of her big toe sticking out of her shoe. She wiggles it in time to the click clacking train as her body tries to sync, an ambiguous dance of the shoulders. The spastic movements wear her down, lulling her into a bowed trance. The train slows then lurches again and momentarily tugs her shoulders back, breathing a rush of fresh air into her deflated chest until the dull rhythm collapses her once again. It’s a tough start to the game – let alone life – thrown back on heels and bent in misery.

Across the aisle sits a grand dame of a woman. Her liver-spotted hands caress a hardback book with its paper jacket removed. Surreptitiously I study the pages – curious what she is reading – but she shifts the book away from my sight line as if I am a cheating schoolgirl trying to copy her paper. She reminds me of a past high school English teacher, and I find myself sneaking sideways glances at her severely-bunned hair that gives her a nice little facelift, the zebra reading glasses propped on her beakish nose, her gazellian neck perched on primly erect shoulders. I sit up straight and proper until she sends a scolding glance my way, sinking my posture like a prairie dog burrowing back into hiding. My opaque glasses suddenly feel transparent, eyes exposed like a note being passed in class, caught by the teacher.

Mercifully the train stops, and I aim my sheepish shades at an easier target: a hooded guy that drags onto the train and slouches into a deep corner seat. He pulls his hoodie over slunched head as sleep pushes his shoulders down, down, down until there is nothing more to see. My slumped reverie is suddenly rousted from the depths of my seat as three beanie boppin’ teens clamor through the sliding door from the car behind. Knit scarves adorn attitude shoulders while their janky chatter fills the train car, “…well I ain’t puttin’ up with his assclown pranks no more! He can just bounce his sorry ass back to the playground!” Raucous laughter yanks their heads back while middle-school bravado pulls their wings higher still – girl power in numbers.

I am riding tall on the arrogance of sass when an impeccably dressed man enters at the Civic Center station. Fine suit, dark glasses, supremely pinned-back shoulders, confidently out of place. Our concealed eyes meet and I hold my posture steady, no flinching but warily wondering why he is on this train. Incognito gangster, schmoozing politician, FBI agent hot on the trail, clandestine lover on his way to a rendezvous? My imagination has run away and I can look no more, even behind these worthless Chanel shades, willing my shoulders to settle on the neutral posture of a nearby tree hugger. The gray stubble of his beard blends with the plaid flannel of his shirt and the dust on his hiking shoes as his gaze focuses on nothing and everything in his realm, evoking a meditative trance that calms the air around. I pull my legs up onto my seat – pseudo lotus style – until the swarthy secret agent man looks askance, pinning me back once again.

The train car crowds up at the next stop, and passengers dangle from hanging loops that force shoulders back, creating a carful of swaying riders jockeying for position. A swaggering Giants-jerseyed teen takes the standing opportunity to grind up against his girlfriend’s backside – until the power of the prim English teacher’s gaze cuts him down, and he pretends that the train caught him off balance. With a wry smile for a fellow student in trouble, my shrouded eyes spy a lovely young lady with sad shoulders leaned against the railing. She smiles shyly back at me under her droop – seeming to see through my voyeuristic disguise. The mother in me wants to tell her, “Pin your shoulders back, honey. You’re so beautiful.” Is it a grieving heartbreak, a twisted parent, or simply a terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad day that afflicts her sweet shoulders? Her smile has lifted her posture ever so slightly, and now this mother wants to wrap my arms around her and press the place between her shoulder blades, easing the burden off her back.

At the Embarcadero station, the danglers dissipate while self-proclaimed Fat Boy and his entourage drift into the train car on a pungent weed waft. They cue up the music, and Fat Boy begins to dance for us, a skanky mesmerizing shoulder shrug of a dance, each shrug causing globulous fat blobs to ripple around his gyrating body – through left arm to chest to right arm and reverse, through back to bodacious booty, neck through bulging belly. Quite certain that my face is blushing, I try to hide behind my dark glasses but am hopelessly face-to-face with his gelatinous gut, impossibly riveted to the spectacle. My attempts to suppress a smile are futile with Fat Boy’s self-deprecating humor, his mocking come-hither look. My shaking shoulders betray me as his tidal waves of fat have turned my smile into ripples of silent giggles. He stops dancing and struts around to collect his tips, but none of the passengers – vigilant pinbacks nor comatose slouchers – throw a buck into Fat Boy’s foppish hat after his performance. Must not encourage those artistic smoke-induced shoulder shrugs on the train, and out puffs the entourage at the West Oakland station.

I wipe the smirk from my face and settle my gaze upon the innocence of twins clad in private-school plaid skirts, one bent over The Book Thief, the other bouncing in her seat, telling her father about her class science project, “…we’re studying the effects of electrolytes on the human body…” Watching her bobbing shoulders, I uneasily wonder if her body was part of today’s experiment. My darkened eyes roam to the passenger behind the twins, a sad sack traveling salesman – Willy Loman-esque – clad in a maroon corduroy sport coat and washed-out dockers. His scratched briefcase is plunked beside his scuffed brown shoes, and his forlorn shoulders hunch over a worn Jeffrey Archer paperback. The disappointment of his latest failed sales call hovers over him like a little gray rain cloud. My own slouchy shoulders want to hear his sorry pitch, perhaps buy a bottle of the miraculous cleaning fluid from his Mary Poppins carpet bag to add to the collection of potions under my kitchen sink that never seem to run out.

A dragon lady springs into view, red-tipped fingers tap tap tapping with a vengeance on her laptop – a scathing memo to her staff. Her shoulders are wound back much too tightly, poised to fly into action, to pounce upon her prey and spew her fire breath around the train car. My slouch has suddenly snapped to attention with the faint acrid scent of fire breath – burning rubber? Slowly but surely the smell of overtaxed brakes permeates the train car, and one by one shoulders perk up – all except the sleepy hooded man in the deep corner. At the 12th Street station, the sassy shouldered beanie bopper pops up and announces, “Girlfriends, I am getting the f**k off this stinky ass train!” Queen Beanie is right.  I’m getting the hell off too, and my shoulders follow her on high alert. The train car is flashing its yellow warning lights, and I realize that we are stranded in the middle of Oakland without even Fat Boy to entertain us. My boots clomp up and down alongside the track assessing the situation in my superpower sunglasses as riders begin to disembark from the smelly stalled train. My thrust-forward shoulders detect no imminent danger, so I clompity clomp to the front of the train and settle into a vacant seat, far away from the burning brake car. A miniature lady comes into focus, clutching her shiny orange pleather handbag that glints like a caution beacon beneath her threadbare coat, shoulders protecting it against snatchers, darting eyes ready to spot the nearest unattended bag or sharp-shouldered hooligan. Eventually the brakes cool, the yellow blinkers stop flashing, shoulders mobilize to load back on, and the train departs the station with the shiny orange purse still safely tucked in its wary owner’s little coat.

Scanning my new train car, I notice a nappy-headed boy sitting on a perfectly-coiffed blond lady’s lap – another trendy celebrity with her adopted son from Zimbabwe or Mozambique? The loquacious boy is talking to a pair of dapper old men in feathered fedoras sitting next to them. He wants to keep the conversation going, captivated by their dark wrinkled skin, their singsongy banter. Does he recognize a turn of phrase or perhaps a twinkle in the eye from somewhere long ago and faraway? They are laughing together and leaning forward, shoulders touching in simpatico. My shoulders lean in too, but I’m just an outsider eavesdropping behind these shades.

Across the way slumps a tired old couple melting into each other, shoulders curled into themselves – a perfect fit after all those years of spooning. Their arms are wrapped tightly around sacks of groceries, guarding their sustenance with their lives, conserving what precious little energy they have left in the day. In stark contrast, a jaunty young couple skips into the car with their backpacks and wheelies. They are from Germany, no maybe Switzerland or Sweden, and their effusive energy and indecipherable excitement about visiting California infects me with a contagious travel bug; I sling my yearning shoulders back, ready to hoist my imaginary knapsack and train around Europe like a carefree college coed.

My darkened eyes light upon a yoga teacher – or most likely a starry-eyed student – with a yoga mat flung over her mountain-posed shoulders, an air of serenity softly swirling ‘round her being. A cyclist wheels into the car and props his bike against the railing. He adjusts the bandana wrapped ‘round his head – no helmet – and the right leg of his pants tucked into a green striped sock and the earphone wires dangling over his shoulders. He nonchalantly sidles up to yoga girl, presumably to compare their nearly-matching sandalwood beaded bracelets. Instant karma connection at the Rockridge station. I don’t even need to lurk behind shades since they are oblivious to prying eyes, eyes only for each other at that moment in time. A bespectacled techie sits next to them with his shoulders tucked up tight under his ears yet crouched, hunkered down over his phone, thumbing his brainstorms or updating his neurotic status, engaged in the cyber world yet ignorant of the world beyond his own short sight.  I feel a headache coming on and quickly shift my gaze.

A wheelchaired young man rolls onto the train, shoulders pinned unnaturally back, smiling – the brightest in the car – glowing with the majesty of mobility. The mere motion of shoulder raising infuses a lightness of being and blitheness of spirit, and his wounded torso invokes a certain power of wisdom. I turn an invisible third eye on myself, feel the shift of my posture that has risen and fallen, taken on the persona of each rider, alternating hunched over, pinched back, hunched, pinched. I like the feeling of this immobile yet free man on wheels best of all. Infused with his unspoken goodwill, my shoulders pick me up and off the train, announcing “You have arrived your destination” – milk toasty safe and sound in my grateful stance.

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. millercathy
    Jan 17, 2014 @ 23:46:10

    Jana: Your writing is pure poetry. Such a gift. Hugs to you, my friend.Cathy Miller, Business Writer/ConsultantPhone: 858-344-9959Email:  Website/Business BlogHealth Care Blog   


  2. Roxy
    Jan 19, 2014 @ 04:05:16

    As I read your blog, Jana, it felt as though I was sitting next to you and experiencing all these shoulders first hand! Love your choice of body part to examine and define fellow passengers. I’ve only been on BART once (when I was in college sometime between the time dinosaurs and leisure suits became extinct) but I’m thinking I may have to climb aboard and experience all it has to offer. (Sunglasses required!)


    • janahaertl
      Feb 27, 2014 @ 00:08:12

      Roxy, I would love to cruise on BART with you the next time you visit the Bay Area! Sunglasses definitely required, and perhaps a disguise or a hat is also needed – as my friend points out in her comment!


  3. teri smyth
    Jan 20, 2014 @ 19:24:02

    Love your blog Jana. I relate to your writing and am impressed by your vocabulary and no nonsense style. I too like watching the characters on BART.

    Many years ago when I was in high school, I was coming home on BART from seeing Chorus Line in SF with a friend. As I walked off the train, a stranger handed me a piece of paper that he had been scribbling on. It turned out to be a rough drawing of a portrait of my face. You can imagine how freaked out I was that someone had been staring at me the whole ride home.

    Thanks again for the lovely post.


    • janahaertl
      Feb 27, 2014 @ 00:11:15

      Oh gosh Teri… yes, the sunglasses work both ways… we never know who is watching us either! But what a compliment that the artist found you so compelling, you beautiful lady!


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