I was already five hours into my journey traveling across England – from Newcastle to Cardiff, for those of you in the British geography know – when I walked into the packed train carriage at my final connection in Birmingham.
A voice came over the loudspeaker. “This train is overcrowded. We deeply apologize. If your connection is coming up, please give your seat to someone going to Newport or Cardiff.”
Cardiff was two hours away. Nobody moved.
I opened my £6 copy of American Vogue, learned my arm against the wall, and tried to ignore the last dregs of my Halloweekend hangover as the train jolted to a start.
The rest of the carriage followed suit. Blonde Lorde, to my immediate right, was checking her Snapchat every five minutes. Sam Smith with glasses, across from me, had pulled out his iPad. A girl to my right was reading a book on her Kindle. The guy behind me was immersed in his music. Guy with dreads and his pal leaned against the wall. Soccer jersey boy with beautiful arms texted on his phone. Drunk middle-aged couple happily sipped on their forties.
Everyone was looking everywhere except at each other.
Two hours feels like a blink of an eye when you’re in the middle of an Orange is the New Black binge, but it drags like an old silent movie when you’re standing on a train. When I looked up from my finished Vogue I realized there was still an hour and a half to go.
My eyes wandered to Sam Smith with glasses, who was in deep concentration with a game on his iPad. Neon pink, green, blue, and purple jellyfish-like creatures danced on the screen as his fingers moved expertly around, connecting the similarly-colored fish to each other so that they would explode. I was captivated.
After about 10 minutes I looked around and realized something funny – I wasn’t the only one. Guy with dreads was as engrossed as I was. Soccer jersey boy had stopped staring into space and was looking straight down onto the screen, a smile on his face. Blonde Lorde had forgotten all about her Snapchat. The only sound except for the rumbling of the train was the various beeps from the game’s sound effects.
Finally, the drunk woman said what we were all thinking: “You do realize you now have the attention of everyone in this carriage.”
Everyone laughed, including Sam Smith with glasses, who shared that the game was called “Jelly.” And just like that, our carriage became full of chatter. The guys all started talking about the day’s football matches. Drunk lady became engrossed with Blonde Lorde, who she dubbed “diva baby.” Sam Smith and Blonde Lorde complained about heading back to school after their mid-term break, testing the weight of each other’s carry-ons.
We always hear about how our handheld devices isolate us from the people around us. That we’re losing our ability to be social because we can’t take our eyes off our own screens. And yet, here was a moment in which one single screen brought everyone on the train together. For the rest of the ride we either chatted or listened to the stories that were being told around us, even after Sam Smith put his iPad away. The positions everyone was standing in may have changed – as people leaned against walls, stretched out their legs, or began using their bags as chairs to fight the fatigue – but this new found sense of solidarity remained the same.
The carriage next door? Totally silent.
Maybe it’s because I travel so much, but I’ve always believed that technology helps bring (and keep) people together more than it tears them apart. My Facebook group sidebar is filled with little red solo cups representing the groups I’ve met in the places I’ve lived in the last couple of years – whether that be my study abroad friends (all the way back from 2011), to the interns I lived with in D.C. last year, to the fellow journalists I trained with in a tiny town in Yorkshire, England just a couple of weeks ago.
All my groups are active, one for over three years. And while the people in the groups have splintered off – to law schools in nearby cities, jobs across the country, or trips around the world – we continue to share song links, randomly reminisce about that one time that one person got kicked out of the club, and even plan reunions, no matter how far off they have to be. The posts may not come as regularly as when we had to plan trips to Ibiza or were coordinating times to meet at the local pub, but they’re still there, keeping me in communication with my friends all around the world – no matter where we’re moving and shaking.
As the train finally pulled up to Cardiff Central, already wet with Wales rainfall, everyone began slowly pulling out their devices. Nobody exchanged names, or numbers. After an hour and a half together, we all walked our separate ways.
After all, we were still only strangers on a train.