( flashing red letters, 10" high)

In the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system, sometimes a train that is heading out of system for maintenance will have to pass right through a station without stopping to pick up passengers. The choice of electronic signage that accompanies this event is mildly to moderately hilarious, depending on the audience.

So I'm walking down the stairs in the Ashby station tonight, and I hear muffled laughter beginning to break out into guffaws. Every 40 feet along the train platform the automated electronic signs hanging from the ceiling are flashing TRAIN WON'T STOP with what one could easily believe is a sense of urgency. It's a simple utilitarian fact being reported, really; best not to have riders believing that the train might stop when in fact it will not. But where hilarity ensues is in the reaction of the people on the platform.

It starts with a group of several young people who read the flashing mantra out loud and inflect their reading with several gratuitous exclamation points. Others, some distance down the platform, hear them and repeat the rendition, and jump up and down, pointing fingers excitedly in the direction of the train, which is obviously not slowing down in the least as it blazes into the station. Still others join the act. Pretty soon it's "Oh my God, the TRAIN won't STOP!!!" -- and practically everyone on the platform is either participating or cracking up. Meanwhile the mindless signs are still flashing as if in agreement.

I tend to interpret metropolitan life as a vast public stage, where spontaneous theatrics like this are always waiting just under the surface, ready to spring forth. Yet it is so rare for the veil to be drawn aside like this. Anything that gets a group of unrelated citizens laughing out loud together, though not at one or another's expense, is excellent medicine, and altogether much too infrequent. In particular, any situation that incites perfect strangers to share knowing grins and a common understanding of an identical thread of humor, without having to say a word about it to each other, is just fine by me.


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