Facial expressions are such an interesting thing. I spend the vast majority of my time on the light rail and subway with my nose buried in a book. I recently finished A Confederacy of Dunces and over the course of the last two days, I read Crazy Love, which I recommend. Despite my voracious appetite for verbiage, I often take a few moments to delight (or distress) in the faces of my fellow travelers.
I think of myself as socially aware, but the reality is that I grew up in Arnold, MD and went to Broadneck High School, which is moderately diverse (38.7% African American, 38.2% White, 18.1% Hispanic and 5% Asian), but the backgrounds of the attendees is not incredibly broad. We didn’t pull from the inner city or the extreme rural areas. I then went to Mary Washington College (currently 4% African American, 4% Asian, 3% Hispanic, 73% White). Another 15% declined to provide race, but I’m betting the lion’s share of them are middle class white kids like me and Becky. After college I worked for an employer whose “minorities” each had one WASP parent. The cultural upbringing of my coworkers was, in general terms, strikingly similar to my own.
All this means that when I look at people’s facial expressions, it is impossible for me to imagine the life that has led to the fixated looks they have on their way to or from the beautifully rotten Gotham that is Baltimore.
When you’re just resting, your face relaxes into it’s default position. I try to smile a lot because I don’t want my default position to be one of depression or anger. Julia Owens, Gabrielle Daubert, Jen Peterson, and my own wife have told me that I can be intimidating and Julia and Gabrielle specifically have told me that there have been times where they are not sure I like them. I assure you, I like you a lot! I am working on developing a more open expression. While waiting for the light rail, I spend time looking into the dust-covered windows of the abandoned Hutzler Brothers building on Howard St. practicing and relaxing my brow, which has a tendency to get knotted into a cro-magnon-like scowl.
Today, the lady sitting across from me stumbled onto the light rail after getting off the bus at Patapsco. Her cranberry, fake-Adidas track suit could barely contain her voluminous body. Had she been wearing red white and blue, she may have resembled a RE/MAX balloon with her thin-ish legs and not-even-somewhat thin torso. Her face was the most interesting thing though, and truly the inspiration for this blog. Her left cheek’s apex was just slightly higher than the right as if she had been winking and her cheek got stuck. Her mouth was also in a perpetual half-grin, which would normally support the “stuck-during-winking” theory, except the upturned portion was on the opposite side as the winking eye. It was odd, so when I got to work, I tried to replicate it in the bathroom mirror. Try it. I was unsuccessful. Also, I hope other people are nearby and see you trying this and ask themselves, “Is [Brett, Jess, Amy] having a stroke?” That’s my shout-out to some repeat readers.
I have no idea what activity would lead to this expression. I don’t think it was medical (like a stroke) because her face didn’t retain any odd shape as she discussed in gloriously graphic detail how she managed to remove hair from areas I’d rather not discuss on this blog. I tried very, VERY hard not to listen, but the oddity of her expression drew from me dozens of sideways glances. My digestive muscles fought down the acidic residue of my morning coffee and my ears struggled to find any other sound to fixate on, but my eyes were incredulous at this interesting face. To quote her, “Oh, Hon, you don’t even know!”
Most of the other expressions are easy to interpret. There are dozens of beat-down worn out faces. Faces tired of getting the shaft but also resigned to it. There are angry, young faces. There are the slit-eyed, slack-jawed distant chemical induced expressions. What there aren’t many of are happy expressions. Judging by where people get off the train, it’s easy to assume many of their lives aren’t easy. Even my white, middle-class experiences have informed me enough to know my life is unfairly easy compared to a lot of others’.
Anyway, I’ll be practicing my look in the window. I try to smile in a non-creepy way at anyone I make eye-contact with, and while I may never have a Magnum moment like Derek Zoolander, I’m hoping my joy brightens even a small patch of someone’s day.