Transit City: “What is to be done?”

This is the latest in my “subway people” series of posts. We don’t tend to learn the stories of people we run into during our day-to-day lives; but fiction writers usually give chance encounters big import. Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could know which of these small encounters will affect our lives, as if we had the omniscient hind- and foresight of a novelist?

He kept looking at me. The guy sitting across from me on the subway car. Every time I’d glance up from the book I was reading his intense blue eyes would be watching me, unwavering.

To tell you the truth, it was starting to make me uncomfortable. I would try to look everywhere but at him – out the window, at the advertisements overhead, at the half-filled pop bottle volleying in between two seats, rolling first this way, then that, careering crazily across the floor with every jerk of the train.

When I slipped up and my eyes accidentally met his, he leaped at the opportunity.

“Good book?” he asked.

I nodded. “Yes.”

“What is it?”

It felt rude to ignore such a direct question.

“Joyce. Dubliners.” He nodded slowly, as if trying to figure out what my choice of reading material said about me.

“Are you studying English?” he asked. I nodded. We’d both boarded the train from the bus that went to the university. It was obvious we were both students.

He waited, watching.

“And you?” I asked. My best judgment told me not to ask, but I couldn’t help myself. My natural politeness took over and suddenly I was caught in a conversation I didn’t want to be in.

He was a post-grad, he told me. In the Fine Arts faculty, studying film. Making a film.

It was about seeing somebody fleetingly, just like us on the subway. “Making eye contact,” he said, with a sidelong smile.

“You wonder: what would happen if I say “hello”?,” he said.  “Would they speak to me? Look away? What are you missing if you just let them walk out of your life?”

Why not ask, I thought in response: what if you were disturbing them? What if they feel threatened by the overture? Or simply don’t want to engage?

“It’s called “What Is To Be Done”. He looked at me meaningfully.

It’s a title that has resonance in the Russian Revolution, I later discovered. Lenin wrote a tract called “What Is To Be Done,” about what’s needed for a revolution. Another Russian, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, wrote a novel of the same name, where a group of intellectuals go back to the land, and ease the life of the peasantry.

I wish, now, in this retelling, that I could find some wonderful resonance in that coincidence of titles.

But there isn’t any.

And at the time, he wasn’t so eager to find out about me, really; he simply wanted to test out his theory: what happens if you say hello. At least that’s the way I read it.

I walked away.



  1. Pretty unusual that – most people want and respect personal space, even if jammed tight together 🙂 I hope he wasn’t a real revolutionary!

  2. Thanks as always for reading, Roy. He seemed to be one of those intense types who try to ascribe deep meaning to everything – it’s funny he actually missed out on the meaning his title implied!

  3. […] more Transit City stories: The lady with the gold ring; What is to be done?; A reason to take public […]

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