I have been to the New Brunswick train station in New Jersey State, where I live, hundreds of times in the past four years. For the past three years, I have boarded the train from here to work and school at least twice a week. During this time, it never occurred to me to sit and observe the place, people and their activities while waiting for the train, although I am generally curious about things around me.
Today I went there and sat on a bench at a distance from people in the waiting room. I wanted to observe the waiting behaviors of the people. As I sat down and began to observe, I thought about my behavior, as to why I sat where I did— aloof and distanced. But soon I shifted my attention towards the people and the big room, which had seven benches— one of which was very long. It had two huge round pendant lights hanging from a high ceiling, six ventilators and eight windows— one of the windows was of giant size. The room had two doors exiting towards the station’s platform. It had a stairway for exiting the station.
Six people were waiting for the train when I entered the waiting room. Four of them were sitting at quite a distance from each other. The remaining two were sitting relatively close. Within a minute or two, the train arrived and the room emptied. Then within the next two to three minutes after the train left, more people began to come into the room. Again, they sat at a distance from each other. This time a cop also came in. He stood close to one of the corners in front of the bathroom.
As I was observing the room, I felt being observed by the cop. As a brown man with a thick black beard and a mix of Afghan, Arab and Iranian facial features (although I am ethnically Afghan/Pashtun), I feel seen with suspicion every time I face a white cop. Then another train arrived and people left the room. Again, more people arrived. This time, two more cops showed up with the crowd into the room. Usually, these cops wait in Dunkin Donuts on the floor below the waiting room. While waiting there, they chat, drink coffee and eat donuts. As many New Jersyians would agree, Dunkin Donuts is a favorite spot for cops in the State. They seem to spend more time in coffee shops than on duty outside.
To my left, a man and a woman, most probably a couple, were leaning against one of the windows. They were quiet and expressionless for the most part except when the man spoke over the phone for a few minutes. In the corner to my left, a black woman seemed lost in her thoughts as her gaze was fixated on the plain wall and at the same time engaged in nose-picking for about a minute. The rest of the people, the young and the aged, were busy on their phones— listening to music or surfing the Internet. At one point, eight people including two cops, out of fourteen people, were busy on their phones. Others were quiet. The only people talking were the three cops and the two aged white women sitting side by side.
As the number of people changed with the trains arriving and leaving, at one point, there were 27 people in the waiting room. About ten of them were white and the rest were people of color. To my right, a man in about his forties sat and began to read the book, Consciousness and the Absolute, as I spotted the name on the front cover. Out of curiosity later, I searched the book and found that it is written by Nisargadatta Maharaj. Nisargadatta “was a Hindu guru of nondualism, belonging to the Inchagiri Sampradaya, a lineage of teachers from the Navnath Sampradaya and Lingayat Shaivism.” The man with the book was the only one in the room, who was reading. Then the next train came. The room emptied again. The bookman left. And I left too.
While exiting the station and strolling the streets of the city, I thought the most remarkable and strange thing about my observation was that people rarely sat close to others and rarely did they talk to each other. They hardly acknowledged the presence of others, let alone looking at them and saying ‘hi’ to them. Most people kept to themselves. There was an aura of coldness and lack of human warmth. I feel behavior such as this generates certain cultural expectations of “appropriateness.” This socially constructed appropriateness, in turn, dictates the interactions of people in public spaces like waiting rooms.
P.S. This observation is part of an assignment I completed for an online Qualitative Methods course with the University of Amsterdam. The assignment was to find and describe a place where people are waiting (e.g. in queues at stores, at public transport stations etc.). I thought it would be nice to share my observation with readers here.