So I was reading an update from a new friend on Facebook about something that they witnessed on the London tube, and it reminded me of something that happened to me many years ago.
I was working at Teradyne in Boston, and at this point I would weave my way back out of town by picking up the T at the Orange line across the street at New England Medical, then switch to the Red Line at Downtown Crossing on my way to my car at which was parked at normally parked at Alewife. However, on this day, I was going to meet my wife at Porter Square to have dinner with her and the kids at the Uno’s there, and we were going to do some shopping.
Anyway, from a technical timeline, this was around the time of early Palm Pilots and the various web page syncing apps you could use to have something to read offline. Wifi add-ons were just starting to come out, but this was a Palm III without that from what I remember. I had it sync up the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, ABC news, CNN, and on the little 3.5 in. screen I’d occupy myself and ignore the rest of the folks on the train, whether sitting or standing.
So on this particular day, I got on at Downtown Crossing and there was nowhere to sit. I found one of the vertical poles at the center of the long row of seats, held on with my left hand on the cross-bar above. If you got close to one of those vertical bars, it was good because you had a choice of how to brace yourself while standing. I pulled out my Palm Pilot, and using my thumb I picked the AvantGo app and started reading the updates from the WSJ. I really didn’t notice who was sitting on the chair in front of me, and at park street a ton of people got on, and now my right upper arm was pressed against the vertical bar. And then I heard a voice.
“What are you doing?”
I came out of my zone and looked down at an older gentleman, in a ski cap and field coat, with a long gray and light brown beard and mustache.
“I’m reading Wall Street Journal articles.”
I turned the device around so he could see.
“You download those off a PC?”
“Yeah. It’s convenient. It’s a free service and it gives me something to read on the train.”
“I have a PC at home. It’s a 486. I use it to read the news and get stock quotes. But I don’t agree with all this technology.”
I tipped my head slightly. “Why’s that?”
“It is part of a conspiracy to gather data about us.”
Okay, this wasn’t going to go well. “I just use it to entertain myself. It’s convenient, but I can see your point.”
We reached MGH at this point. More people got on and it is even more crowded, so I can’t move away. He continues, “What we need is more subsistence farming. People are working for more and more technology and creating chaos.”
Now I am starting to get worried, but because I’m stuck and my hubris is that I think that I could charm anyone if I ask more questions than give my opinion. “Why subsistence farming?”
“The Dutch farms in New York and New Hampshire are the best places to live. They understand how to live and it is a simpler life.”
“I agree. But what would happen to the cities?”
He looks at me with a stern and shocked look. “Thomas Jefferson had it right. Cities are a denizen of all our problems and we should all return to subsistence farming. It’s a better life.” He prattled on a bit about how subsistence farming was the pinnacle of a safe and moral culture.
“So are you against large farms?”
Another shocked look. “No, farms are not a problem. But these people keep selling off their land and then developers come in and fill it with people.”
At this point I noticed that the other people in the row to his left are watching me and listening. One of them was a BC student, and just next to him was a middle-aged professional woman. At this point we had reached Harvard Station. The train emptied somewhat but there wasn’t a convenient place to go. So I as I asked my next question I scanned my eyes across my audience. “So you’re against cities and selling off farmland for homes.”
“Yes, absolutely. It’s just a better way of living.”
The logic train here just didn’t make sense. But I couldn’t help myself. I had to ask, but I did it in a really soft way, almost a whisper. “So…is it all development you are against or all money-making ventures?”
He got really mad at my question. “I believe that too much development creates a class of dependency and people who don’t know how to survive. Subsistence farming teaches you to avoid that.”
Still scanning the other people who were seated to his left (on my right), I just needed to figure out what he was getting at. So I blurted, “So how do you explain ski resorts in New Hampshire?”
He was again upset with my question, but he answered very quickly, as if it was really obvious, “Well, a guy’s gotta make money.” He stared back at me in challenge.
At this point the student was looking at his shoes and smiled, the professional woman snorted. I made eye contact with her for a second, and then I looked up and it was Porter Square, my destination.
“Nice to meet you, I’m at my stop. Good Luck with yourself!” And I ran off the train.