When I made my plans to return early to Portland this past summer, my housing arrangements required a not inconsiderable daily commute to and from campus from the Commune in NoPo. Thanks to Portland’s first rate public transportation option, even in my fairly remote location I had two options – a shorter bus ride with less frequency or a longer bus/light rail “MAX”) connection with more frequent arrivals and departures. As a consequence of either choice, I had lots and lots of time to muse, stare out the window, correct papers, make lists, or (the usual default), eavesdrop on a number of personal conversations, due to the ubiquitous nature of hand-held communication devices these days. Besides hearing more than I wanted to know about people’s arraignment dates or child care arrangements, their tense relationships with parents or partners, their polite requests for healthcare appointments or job interviews, I learned a very interesting thing during my eight-week sojourn as a frequent Yellow Line rider.
People lie all the time on their cell phones.
Now, lying is an interesting word these days. When I was young, there were two words for something in a horizontal position: lie (for oneself, the intransitive verb: I am lying down after lunch for a nap; lie/lay/lain) AND lay (for another thing; the transitive verb: I am laying the book on the table; lay/laid/laid). This distinction has for the most part disappeared in common parlance since “lying” now means telling an untruth and “laying” for all intents and purposes has picked up both meanings of some form of horizontal placement. So the “good” form of the word lying has disappeared to make room for its unconfusing use as the “bad” form of the word.
The opposite is true with the word “quean,” pronounced exactly the same as “queen” and which was a middle-English word that meant “an impudent woman,” “hussy,” or “prostitute.” An earlier version of word just meant “woman” and then the separation evolved into the two extremes. And since the Queen could most certainly not be a quean, the “bad” form of the word was forced to disappear in order to keep the “good” form in business for use by the monarchy.
Goodness or evil aside from a lexical point of view, lying on the MAX (Metropolitan Area Express) seems to be a frequent occurrence. “Oh, here comes the train,” said one middle-aged woman, sitting calmly on a bench waiting for the south-bound train as the north-bound train neared and the warning bells began to rang. “I have to go! Bye-bye, I’ll call you later!” She returned the phone to her purse and folded her arms calmly to wait. “Thanks so much,” one young man said from the seat in front of me. “I really appreciate that. Listen, can I catch you later? I have a ton of calls to make.” He rang off and tossed his phone in his bag, turning his attention to some brightly colored onscreen amusement. Finally, my personal favorite. A tall man with a booming voice was standing in the center of the car, carrying on a conversation with someone who was obviously exceedingly anxious about his arrival. “Relax, I’m on the MAX and will be there really soon.” he advised, soothingly. “I’m at Sixth and Alder, almost there.” “Sixth and Alder?” I said to myself. “Are you kidding? We’re at Overlook Park. That’s at least 10-12 minutes from here on a good day. Sixth and Alder my foot.”
And yet we all went on with what we were doing – checking email, staring out the window, listening to music, filing our nails, while this booming untruth sailed across the car. No one moved a muscle, no one even caught each other’s eye. Lying on the MAX. We probably do it all the time, because we all probably lie all the time, in little ways, face-saving ways, socially-acceptable-politeness kinds of ways. We probably do it all the time, but usually not so many strangers are forced to collude with us.