One of my favorite things about freelancing is that I don’t have to commute. I always feel that beginning my day with the rush of making myself presentable, finding everything I’m going to need for the day, getting out the door and to the bus stop on time to spend 45 minutes in traffic uses up most of my energy for the day.
Once each week, I do work in an office downtown, and that once-weekly commuting day reminds me how much I love freelancing. Last week, it also reminded me of an experience I had forgotten in the haze of travel exhaustion and jet lag when I got home from Iceland in July.
First, what happened on my commute last week? I left work, walked to the bus stop, and only had to wait a few minutes for the bus. I boarded, found a seat, and popped in my earbuds, tuning out the rapidly filling bus in anticipation of a quiet half hour to fully absorb the new Russian Circles album.
Two stops later I was jolted out of my reverie by someone screaming, “Fuck you!” At the same time, a suitcase bumped my seat. I looked up, startled. It wasn’t obvious who had shouted, or whom they were shouting at. My mind started to race, doing split-second calculations in an attempt to gauge the risk – was the screamer in front or behind me? Was there about to be a fight? Was anyone holding a gun?
That was when I remembered.
In July, I went to the Eistnaflug heavy metal festival in Iceland. Four days surrounded by pierced and tattooed strangers in studded leather and corpse paint. Stages were decorated with bones and sheep heads. Quite a few people wore hunting knives on their belts inside the venue – security only checked for outside beverages. I limited my libations to watery Icelandic beer and the occasional overpriced shot of Jack Daniels, but there was plenty of evidence that others around me had shown no such restraint.
But I never saw a fistfight. In fact, I saw more hugs than at a family reunion, but never once heard angry shouting. When someone passed out, random strangers checked that they were breathing and left water bottles for them to find when they woke up. When I was tired of carrying around my camera, I left it in my tent without even a hint of worry that it would be gone when I returned. There were jars of free earplugs at the venue doors. There wasn’t enough parking at the festival, which was only barely served by public transportation, so hitchhiking was a common strategy. We did our part and picked up two hitchhikers ourselves.
After the festival, we took a couple days to drive back to Reykjavik, spent one day in the city, and flew home that evening. It was still evening when we arrived in Seattle nearly eight hours later. Fortunately, customs, immigration, and baggage claim went smoothly and we soon found ourselves dragging our gear onto the light rail train from the airport to downtown. We had only gone a couple stops and begun talking about how much faster the way home seemed to be going than the trip out had taken when we were interrupted by shouting in the car behind us.
“You fucking crazy, ni—er! Don’t you ever say that shit to me! I’ll kick your ass!”
Everyone on the train froze. It wasn’t like in the movies because there was no piano player to pause mid-song. Instead the computerized voice, unperturbed, intoned right on schedule, “Next stop, Othello.”
We hoped the screamer would get off, but he kept right on shouting at his unheard victim. The train doors closed, and the shouting continued.
Mental calculations ensued. I couldn’t see what was going on in the next car from where we were sitting, and I didn’t want to rubberneck and get noticed. Was he shouting at his girlfriend? A friend he was riding the train with? A random passenger? The voices in his head?
Was he armed? The nearest exit was toward the screamer – how far away was the next one? Would the barriers that kept him from view serve as cover for me if he pulled a gun?
Within an hour of arriving in the United States I was worried about getting shot. Like a refrigerator that starts running when you hadn’t noticed it stopped, the white noise of American gun violence re-entered my life.