One day I walked to my usual train on my usual platform with my obligatory cup of coffee. I stepped on the train and as the train doors ding — dinged and closed behind me, I had a severe and immediate urge to leave… fast. Why?
Because a full-sized tiger sat listlessly in the middle of the train car.
I ‘subway-yelped’ (read: silently, inward) and turned around to leave the closed train car knocking myself and my coffee into the train’s closed subway doors.
Split-second realization: That tiger is a full-sized stuffed animal.
The train was full—not crazy packed, but solidly we-are-all-going-to-work-full of New Yorkers with our earphones, subway-folded newspaper, iScreens, and silent pledges to not make eye contact.
I thought, “If you see something, say something.” I wondered, “Who’s tiger?” “Why tiger?” I looked for Charlie Todd and the Improv Everywhere agents. I concluded, “This was no experiment; this was real life.” I settled on the obvious: “Clearly, the tiger was the property of the guy in closest proximity.” That guy to the left leaning on the pole…this tiger was his. And by virtue of that relationship — that guy — ‘Tiger-Guy’ was clearly more than a little nutty.
For three subway stops — a total of seven minutes — I started imaging a life for the Tiger-Guy. How did it come to this—him carrying his tiger on the train—during rush hour? Breakup, lost job, kid in the hospital, zoo-employee, psych ward, psychology/sociology student, life-affirming experiment? Something else?
But at DeKalb Avenue, Tiger-Guy got off the train and left the tiger with us, “The Stoic Members of the Tiger-Inhabited Car of the Q Train in Denial That There is Anything Strange or Worth Mentioning About The Fact That A Full-Sized Tiger is In the Middle of Our Subway Car En Route to Manhattan.”
There was no Tiger-Guy. That tiger didn’t belong to anyone.
What happened next was interesting. Once we crossed the Manhattan Bridge and got to Canal Street, the platforms were busier. The subway doors would open, and the people on the platform would point and giggle and smile. Unabashedly. And the frivolity would tumble onto our train until “The Stoic Members of the… Q Train” would overpower our newest member’s joy and the new member would, like all of us, pretend nothing was amiss. However, they would also go way out of their way to not step on or touch the tiger. Not even a little. I’ve never seen this degree of courtesy on the train.
For example, while the train was moving and jerking, a guy with a stroller-with-kid put himself and his charge at risk as he picked up his MacLaren and gingerly maneuvered around the tiger’s tail.
My stop came. I was seconds from becoming a former member of “The Stoic Members of the… Q Train” and a new member of the “Holy Shit, There Was a Tiger on My Train” party of one.
The tiger was on my train maybe six months ago — the last time it was cold — and I still think of it often. Sometimes, I google stuff like this: “Tiger on the Q Train NYC” to find out if anyone else has talked about it. No one has.
Not to be whatever*, but I have a little point.
The stoic members of that Q Train are sometimes like us–as in the royal we: both individual people and organizations. The tigers are like the great stories we ignore and obfuscate in the name of habit and getting things done. We also ignore the best, juiciest, and most interesting, because that’s often where the stakes are highest. It’s the surprising stories just under the surface that create connection, surprise, delight.
If attention is scarce, which I think it is. And if you want to make an impact, which I bet you do, go. Find your tiger on the train. And then tell us.
A few posts ago, I said this: “Your biggest asset is also the easiest thing to lose: Your vision.” To that I would add, “Your most original material is also the easiest to forget: Your story.”
More on this is coming so follow along in the way that suits you: @boardofus, Facebook, RSS, or get on my very infrequent–yet substantive! email list. And if you didn’t hear my TedX talk–which is really my tiger on the train–at least one of ‘em, listen to my 18 minute TedX talk here.
*Bonus Points to Anyone Who Can Answer This: Where did this expression come from? “Not to be whatever?”