Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Art of Invisibilty

There are a lot of ways that you can feel invisible. I’ve felt invisible when trying to speak up in a room full of men, who did not seem to notice when I opened my mouth, but easily could hear one another. I’ve felt invisible when my depression reared its ugly head and, even when I tried to express what was happening out loud, no one seemed to acknowledge it; either because they were going through their own things or were too put off by an open declaration of not feeling okay. Now that I am in my 30’s, I am experiencing invisibility in a way that I have not felt since before I was 12 and an adult man commented on my “development” for the very first time. (Although, this new level of not being seen is a bit of a relief, I have spent more of my life being noticed in unwelcome ways than not.) Right now, I am thinking about that false sense of being invisible. The one we have when we’re out in public, whether it’s in crowds or sitting in our cars.

Maybe it’s a northeast thing, but it seems like everyone mutually puts their blinders up. “If I don’t see you, then you don’t see me” kind of thing. You could walk past hundreds of people and not make eye contact with anyone. Unless you run into someone with a petition or who is trying to sell you something, those people make it their business to put their face in yours to get your attention (as jarring as that may be). Barring those individuals who are out in public with an agenda, you can walk around largely unnoticed, not being seen and not seeing.

Image via Pixabay
We put our headphones in and our hoodies up, all to avoid interacting with potential strangers who break the rules and attempt to engage with us. I can still recall the day I was walking quickly through Penn Station, mentally already on the subway platform, when I felt a punch on my arm.  It completely pulled my attention into the room I was standing in, only to realize it was an old high school friend giving me a friendly tap as he hurried toward his own train home. The interaction left me stunned that I just didn’t see him and he was right in front of me. I was so absorbed in my daily ritual of weaving in and out of faceless commuters and tourists, that if he hadn’t got my attention I never would have realized he was even here.

I’m not sure why I do it, it could be defense against crowds or a dislike of interacting with strangers because it always feels like they want something from me. I can say for certain that it isn’t like this everywhere.  I have lived outside of the country in a (very small) place where people passing you on the street would look you in the eye, nod their head, and say “good morning/afternoon/evening” and ask how you are doing…even if they have never seen you before and may never see you again. To not reply would be considered incredibly rude. These brief exchanges would pepper every excursion I had outside of my apartment and it honestly took some getting used to. Even worse, they honk to say hello.  Complete strangers would honk their horns as they passed by and wave out of their car windows.  The Jersey in me would be like, “WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? I WASN’T GOING TO CROSS! I’M NOT AN IDIOT!”. Until a local explained to me that honking is not generally aggressive in that way. I had a lot to learn about being seen…by everyone…all the time.

When I returned to the U.S., I had to adjust all over again.  I was accidentally smiling at strangers on the street and probably freaking them the hell out. I would look over at other people in their cars to see what they were up to. Spoiler: lots of coffee drinking and nose picking. (Yes, contrary to popular belief, other people CAN still see you inside of your car).  I once saw someone shaving their head and I still have a lot of unanswered questions about their life choices.  Now that I had returned home, I was having trouble going back inside of my northeastern commuter cocoon.

Things leveled out to a sort of balance between the two mindsets, I feel much more aware of both sides now; the desire to be seen versus the desire to be invisible. A few months after my return, I encountered something new: watching one person pretend another is invisible, when the other is clearly acknowledging them. The Mister and I were in the beginning stages of our courtship (aka dating) and were riding on a very crowded train.  We wound up in a two-seater that was facing another two seater with a woman across from me.  My husband is a very tall man and roughly 80% leg, so I assumed no one would attempt to take the empty seat.  I was wrong.

So very wrong.
As the man slid into the seat with his bag in his hand, the Mister goes, “Wait. What? What is happening? Oh God, no.” and yet, the man proceeded to get into a position that I can only describe as “man-scissoring” and then refused to make eye contact with either of us.  I, of course, laugh hysterically and take a photo (for posterity’s sake) because I am a very supportive girlfriend; but the man never looked up or even acknowledged that anything funny/odd/weird was happening. The man had blinders that were so strong, so industrial-strength, that he actually possessed the ability to pretend that neither of us were there. It was greatest display of acting like you’re alone in public I had ever seen. He actually willed us both in non-existence. A few stops later, we were able to untangle ourselves and get to different seats.

#invisibility #NJTransit #awkward #humor #feelings


  1. I can totally relate to this post! I am guilty of not seeing and know that feeling of not being seen.

  2. I'm not sure if you meant it to be, but I found this to be hilarious - from the honking to the man scissoring LOL!

    I'm a Chicagoan, and I totally know what you mean with no one seeing anyone else. I sometimes joke with people that the name of the game in Chicago is to look at everyone else's kneecaps. That being said, usually if I try to strike up a conversation, people are pretty nice about it...on the other hand if someone suspicious tries to talk to me, I brace myself for the moment they ask me for money/bus ticket etc. What a weird little contradiction.

    Which do you prefer? The invisible city, or the "I see you" out of the country style?

    1. I think it depends on my mood, sometimes I feel more connected to the people around me and other times I just want to get where I'm going. I think being outside of the country has given me an awareness of my surroundings that is probably a good thing for a lot of reasons, but there are still days that I want to sit on the train and read a book with my headphones in and NOT have some guy tap me on the shoulder to ask me what I'm reading. And I would say that on NO day do I ever want to be scissored on the train like my husband was LOL


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